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John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): My constituent Sarah McKerlie told me just a few days ago that the sale of her property has fallen through three times because of the ambiguous risk. The current uncertainty is leading to irrational behaviour that does not necessarily relate to insurability. This uncertainty needs to end, so that people can sell their properties. It is a real blight and is causing major distress to many people.

Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have a number of constituents in the same boat who bring the same concerns to me.

Given that the statement of principles comes to an end in June, the future looks very uncertain for many of my constituents and those of Members throughout the House, so I welcome the motion today. I want to focus on a village in my constituency situated to the south of York, on the banks of the River Ouse. Large parts of Naburn are at a significant risk of flooding. Late last year, I was contacted by a Naburn resident who informed me that, over the past 37 years, his property has been badly flooded on four separate occasions. In the six months since last autumn’s terrible wet weather, some homes in Naburn have been flooded numerous times. Thankfully, the people of Naburn have a strong sense of community spirit. They are Yorkshire folk, after all, and they are starting to pull together to do all they can to reduce their collective flood risk.

Following a public meeting in the village in November, the parish council and a group of interested residents set up a working group to investigate inexpensive and cost-effective measures that they can swiftly enact to help them deal with flooding before it affects their properties.

Nicola Blackwood: I suspect that my hon. Friend is about to describe a flood group like the Oxford Flood Alliance, which he and I are familiar with. It plays a huge role in reducing flood risk in Oxford by coming up with flood plans, mitigating flood risk in communities and developing flood resilience. Does he agree that this is a really important thing to encourage, and that any future flood insurance scheme must encourage such developments?

Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Local flood groups are very important for our communities. I am sure that, like my community flood group, my hon. Friend’s is working hard with the Environment Agency, the local authority and the local water and drainage boards to improve flood resistance capabilities.

Some ideas that have been considered include allowing local residents to have control over mobile pumping units and sandbag storage and delivery and to use their local knowledge to protect the most vulnerable people. We must not forget that there are some severely vulnerable people in flood-risk areas, and we must make sure that they do not become isolated by flooding. Independently, many people are considering making flood resilience improvements to their own homes.

The hard work, positive action and sense of resolve that I have witnessed in Naburn is extraordinary, and the community should be commended for its collective approach to the problems that it faces. I am well aware that, as has been pointed out, there are similar stories

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across the country of communities coming together to battle the difficulties of flooding, and they should all be commended.

Mr Andrew Smith: I, too, praise the Oxford Flood Alliance. Insurance is one aspect being pursued there. The alliance has found that just because one person in one property gets a quote from an insurance company their neighbour may not be able to get anything like a similar quote from the same company, because the companies limit their exposure in these areas. That is driving up premiums and giving people intolerable uncertainty.

Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I have been told of similar circumstances in relation to the accessibility of local flood insurance.

What my constituents fear, as I do, is that their efforts, which I have just explained, could all be in vain if the statement of principles ends without a new agreement in place. Home insurance premiums would sky-rocket for all residents in communities such as Naburn, regardless of whether or not a property is susceptible to flooding. Some people would lose flood insurance altogether, and, as has been said, mortgage agreements could be at risk as a result. I understand the need for negotiations between the Government and the ABI to be private and confidential, but the lack of any specific details emerging from the negotiations is fuelling my constituents’ concerns about how they will cope in the future.

My constituents are prepared to come together to work as a community to face up to the flooding threat on their doorstep. They therefore need the same commitment from the Government and the insurance industry to do all that they can to protect people from the worst excesses of flooding and deliver an agreement that improves the availability and affordability of flooding insurance where flood resilience measures fail. It is time for action.

3.57 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): First, I ask the House to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family of Susan Norman, who suffered a tragic fatal accident during a landslip caused by heavy rainfall in Looe in my constituency on Friday. May I pay a special tribute to all the people from the emergency services who attended the scene and worked tirelessly throughout the day? I also wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing today’s important debate.

My constituency has been one of the places worst hit by flooding over the past couple of years. The BBC acknowledged that places such as Looe, Polperro and my own village of Millbrook were some of the worst affected in Britain by flooding in November and December 2012. The heavy rainfall resulted in a lot of damage to highways, infrastructure and homes across my constituency. Cornwall council has estimated the cost of repairing the damage across Cornwall to be about £2.5 million.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for visiting my constituency to see for himself the devastating effects of the floods. It meant a

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lot to my constituents and it also meant that he was also able to see for himself the damage and destruction caused by surface water run-off in both east and west Looe.

The most recent fatal landslip occurred just yards away from one that took place last December. So will the Minister join me in calling for the immediate publication of all road surveys and reports that have been undertaken over the past four years on the roads in the town of Looe and in the wider area of Cornwall? That would allow insurance companies and residents to be reassured, given the obvious and understandable concern that there is at the moment.

The House should be aware that the residents raised the possibility of the landslip that took place last week when they wrote to the council on 15 January. They asked:

“Is there a risk of subsidence or landslide on to the back of or even engulfing our properties?”

They also asked whether they and their homes would be safe. The council’s response was:

“The site has been inspected on a number of occasions and all areas giving rise to concern are included within the current works programme.”

That works programme was due to be completed and the road to be reopened at the end of this week.

The residents wrote again and presented a 60-page dossier to the chief executive of the council in February; they are waiting for a reply. I last wrote to the local councillor for an update in February, but again I am still waiting for a reply. A Looe town councillor, Councillor Brian Galipeau, formally proposed that the town council should take on the job of securing reassurance about the stability of Hannafore road and lane and sought a contingency plan in case of road failure to reassure the residents, and I am disappointed that the request has been met with what I understand to be accusations of scaremongering.

I am sure the Minister will agree that securing reassurance about road stability deserves to be treated in a responsible manner, because it can affect the availability of insurance for those residents. I hope that he will join me in calling for the immediate funding he announced yesterday to be used for physical flood prevention measures and not to employ yet another council officer.

Let me finish by highlighting the situation for two of my constituents. The first was being charged £200 to £300 for her flood insurance last year. Her home was flooded and in January, she was informed that it would cost £530 to renew her policy. The huge increase in her costs caused her to look elsewhere, but the majority of companies refuse to take her on at the moment. Another constituent has had major issues obtaining insurance since her property was flooded. She was informed by her insurance company that it needed a report from the Environment Agency, which has not given the necessary guarantees. I hope we will get some answers from the Minister today.

4.2 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I join my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in expressing condolences to the family and friends of her constituent, who was so tragically killed. It shows the importance of this debate and the

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need, as all Members have said, for the Government to get on with the job and provide a solution for what will happen at the end of the statement of principles.

There has been tremendous unanimity across the Chamber. I agreed with every word of what the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) said and with most of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) said, although perhaps not the tone in which she said it. I recognise that the Government have worked hard behind the scenes with the Association of British Insurers to reach a solution, but the clock is ticking.

It gives me no pleasure to be standing in the Chamber talking about flooding again, as I think that this is the fourth or fifth time that I have raised the issue in the House. The key point is the continued availability and affordability of insurance. A second issue, which I shall touch on briefly, is the operation of the Bellwin scheme—that is, shall we say, the insurance policy for local authorities that are hit by the cost of cleaning up floods. Before I do that, I want to join hon. Members from all parties who have paid tribute to the volunteers in their constituencies who are helping to build community resilience. Whether they are in Mevagissey, St Austell, Pentewan or Polmassick—or, perhaps most notably, in St Blazey—I see a huge amount of voluntary work in my constituency, with people coming forward and developing strategies and contingency plans.

As we all know, flooding can be devastating, even when there is no loss of life. It can have a devastating impact on businesses and individuals as possessions and memories are washed away. In the clear-up, people need to know that insurance companies will pay out in a timely way and that they will be able to get insurance again for the future. Sadly, there remains a considerable danger that this simple aspiration for business and home owners will not be guaranteed and that affordable flood insurance will become unavailable in our country.

The scale of the challenge is getting worse, not better: one in every six homes are at risk of flooding; 2.4 million properties are at risk from the sea and rivers; 2.8 million homes are at risk from surface flooding; and 5 million people live or work in flood-risk areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said, with the extent and nature of the threat we face changing, surely our response as a society should change, too. We are in an era of climate change and we all face unpredictable flooding risks and the potential for great costs. Therefore, I encourage the Government to recognise that this is not a problem that can be contained to specific areas; it is a national problem that requires a national response.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall made clear, Cornwall has suffered hugely with the costs of repairing flood damage over recent years. The latest estimate I have from Cornwall council is that the cost in November and December for last year’s floods alone is £7.4 million in revenue and capital expenditure. The Government have rightly activated the Bellwin scheme, the insurance policy for local authorities hit by flooding.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that under the Bellwin scheme’s rules the fact that Cornwall was changed to a unitary authority from six districts and one county council has disadvantaged Cornwall considerably?

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Stephen Gilbert: My hon. Friend pre-empts the point I was about to make, and which I have made before. We need to review the Bellwin scheme in order to take account of different types of local authority structure, whether single-tier, such as Cornwall’s unitary council, which I believe gives Cornwall a stronger voice overall, or two-tier, such as Devon, with its district council and county council, which has a lower threshold for activating Government support. In Cornwall’s case, the threshold is £1.4 million of expenditure, which needs to be defrayed before the Bellwin scheme provides any central Government support. If that threshold is not met, the whole bill must be picked up by the local authority. Even if it is met, the local authority will still have to pick up 15% of the additional total.

There are very strange rules relating to different types of expenditure. Although the immediate response to incidents—the £181,000 for the fire and rescue service and the cost of advice to residents and of housing support, for example—might fall within the Bellwin scheme if the threshold is crossed, the repairs to highways and other capital expenditure to put right what the flood damage put wrong are not covered. I say to the Minister that as well as ensuring that flood insurance for homes and businesses remains affordable and available, and recognising that we are all in it together, local authorities need to know that the Government stand behind them, too. With climate change happening, it is clear that flooding will continue, but we must not leave people, businesses and councils hung out to dry when the waters recede.

4.8 pm

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my chairmanship of the all-party group on insurance and financial services. It is in that context that I think it is helpful to share with the House some of the observations that have been made by the insurance press about the discussions with the Government over recent years, which Post magazine has described as “negotiations to nowhere”.

It is astounding that it was in 2008 that the insurance industry made it clear that it would be withdrawing from the statement of principles. May I make it absolutely clear that it is important that it should do so, because many of the individual cases that Members have drawn attention to here are not covered by the statement of principles? They are not in this jeopardy because of the expiry of the statement of principles; the statement of principles does not have an “all circumstances” provision. That is why it is necessary to address the matter.

In 2008 I was in the European Parliament, and I was surprised to see that no progress had been made by the time I came here in 2010. I am astounded, frankly, that here we are in 2013, barely weeks away from the statement of principles ending, and still there is no progress to announce. It is not as though we have not dealt with these issues before. The insurer of last resort is, in fact, the Government. They took on that role in relation to “Pool Re”, when we needed to create terrorism insurance, and it was done in a matter of weeks. The Lloyds-Equitas debacle, which I had ministerial responsibility for resolving, was resolved within 12 months. Following 9/11, no insurance was available to the aviation industry in this country, and that matter was

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resolved by Government within a matter of days. Yet here we are, years and years later, with no progress to announce.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing this debate and for his speech. He has called for good faith on the part of the insurance industry and for a Government contribution. That has also been said by other Members and in The Times leader to which reference has been made.

On good faith in the insurance industry, the all-party group on insurance and financial services has held three meetings since the election specifically on these issues. People have attended from the Association of British Insurers, on every occasion, from the British Insurance Brokers Association, on every occasion, and from the National Flood Forum. People from Aon, from Guy Carpenter and from Marsh have outlined the range of proposals that they have been making to Government. In an all-party group meeting on 12 October, Aon raised for the first time a variation on the “Flood Re” proposal, but we do not know what the Government’s response has been. In November, there was a bit of a spat when the ABI thought that the Government were not going to make any contribution. In response, it was claimed that it was nonsense to say that there was an impasse. Yet here we are, approaching the Easter break, and we still seem to have an impasse.

I do not blame the Minister. He attended a flood summit back in 2010, and he absolutely understands all the issues. However, I wonder to what extent his hands are tied elsewhere, perhaps not so much by the change in Secretary of State but by the involvement of the Cabinet Office in some aspects of these discussions. It is said that the Government may have been spooked by the original discussions, which had been going constructively, when they looked at the overall cost of flooding. However, that is not good enough. We have heard it suggested that there could be an extension of the statement of principles, but that is a voluntary agreement with the industry, and it is not going to happen; we can rule it out. The reality is that we will either see a return to the free market or the Government will have to get their act together, and soon.

4.12 pm

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the chance to speak, because many of my constituents, especially in Paulsgrove, Cosham, Drayton and Farlington, have been affected by these issues.

We have good sea defences in Portsmouth, but we have a very dilapidated sewerage and drainage system that has caused many of the problems on and around the Portsdown Hill area. A programme of works is now in place to rectify those problems, and so far we have been able to protect local people from the increases in their insurance premiums as they have had to submit repeated claims for repeated flooding and sewerage leaks.

I agree with many of the points that have been made, and I will not go over them again. I wish to touch on two additional issues that add insult to injury. The first of these is planning. Planning applications are approved even when the new build is on a serious floodplain.

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An applicant for a dementia care home in my constituency attempted to placate the planning committee by saying—I kid you not—that because the building was high-rise, if there were a flood the residents would be able to get to high ground. The application was approved. The advice of local planning committees and the Environment Agency is often ignored, or their decisions overturned.

I hope that there could be an incentive for a slightly more responsible stance on these issues. There is a gap in the market for an “Environment Agency Says No” website, so that whether it is a house or a care home place being purchased, the consumer would be able to check whether the agency has given the site and the development the thumbs up.

Nicola Blackwood: My hon. Friend is making some excellent points about Environment Agency approval of floodplains. She began by talking about dilapidated sewerage systems. Does she agree that we need to include Thames Water more in decisions about planning, because a lot of our drainage systems are causing problems with surface water flooding?

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend is right. The Environment Agency has told me that it would like to be more involved with such planning decisions and there are many other organisations that we should take advice from.

The transparency that I have described would not deal with current cases, but it would head off future grief by providing an incentive for developers to behave more responsibly.

The final issue that I will touch on is compensation for deliberate flooding. There have been cases in my county, although not in my constituency, of landowners having their land flooded deliberately by the local authority to prevent greater damage elsewhere. That is quite understandable, but in such cases the landowner should be able to access some form of compensation. I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on that.

Finally, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton and all Members who have made possible this timely debate on an important issue.

4.15 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for holding it.

Flooding has been a particular problem in the past year throughout my constituency. Tiverton, Cullompton, Seaton, Axminster and Uplyme have all been affected by flooding and Feniton has been flooded several times. We need to ensure that my constituents and people across the country get flood insurance that they can afford.

I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), but he speaks, naturally enough, on behalf of the insurance industry. It is a wonderful industry, but it is not terribly charitable. It is there to make a profit. There is nothing

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wrong with profit, but we must not set up a system that puts a levy on all insurance payers in order to pay for those in flood-risk areas.

Jonathan Evans: I do not want my hon. Friend to miss the fact that the “Flood Re” scheme, about which everybody has spoken, is a not-for-profit scheme. It is important that everybody recognises that.

Neil Parish: I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me about that being a not-for-profit scheme, but that was not the point I was making.

My point is that when we levy all insurance payers to build up a fund that takes the risk of properties in high-risk areas away from the insurance companies, we should not be too generous because insurance companies are all about taking risk. That is what they are in business for. They should therefore be able to take their fair share of risk. I want to ensure that the insurance companies step up to the plate, but also that the Government help those who, in their areas, cannot get flood insurance under a private scheme on the free market. That is the balance that must be struck.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a precedent for the Government’s participating in the way that we are all advocating in the “Pool Re” arrangements that provide terrorism insurance cover?

Neil Parish: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Government can step up to the plate and be the insurer of last resort. However, the point I am making is that the Government must be the insurer of last resort, not the insurer of first resort.

Because there has been so much flooding in the past year, the insurance companies have naturally been putting the maximum possible pressure on the Government. They are in business, so it is right for them to do so. However, given that everybody who pays insurance across the piece will pay for the scheme, the Government must ensure that everybody is dealt with fairly.

It is essential that people who genuinely cannot get insurance—those who have been flooded two or three times, such as my constituents in Feniton—can get insurance in the future. The current statement of principles does not cover them. I am therefore looking forward to the Government putting in place a much better system so that people can access insurance irrespective of whether they have been flooded several times. It is not their fault that they live in a property that is flooding; in many respects, it is planning decisions that generate floods.

In the village of Feniton, there have been appeal decisions allowing more houses to be built where the appeal inspector has actually recognised in his brief that the village will flood and might flood further as a result of the development, but has allowed the houses anyway because the district council has not got its five-year housing plan up to speed. That means that the poor people down the bottom of Feniton will get flooded even more. What is the logic of that? This must be not only about flood insurance but about a planning policy that says we do not build on floodplains or on hills above villages so that the water runs off and floods the people at the bottom end of the village even more.

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This is something I get quite excited about, because the people who get flooded should not have to put up with it.

Other hon. Members have talked about ensuring that the money for the Bellwin scheme is available when, for example, roads are washed away by floods. Very often, the Government claim that Bellwin is available to local authorities, but when the latter claim it, the Government and the bureaucracy decide that many of the proposed schemes to cover flood damage are not eligible. That has to be dealt with.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bellwin scheme is only for immediate and emergency repairs, which it is often not possible for local authorities to carry out?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a road or bridge is washed away, the local authority might not be able to put it right immediately, but it will still have an effect on local people and local authority spend.

I am keen for the Government to negotiate a system that gives people access to affordable flood insurance in high-risk areas; otherwise, we will end up putting a levy on all insurance payers, only to find that people cannot get genuinely affordable insurance. That is key. I will want to see in the proposal what the word “affordable” means, because what is affordable to one person is not affordable to another. I do not want the insurance companies gobbling up a great deal of money and then not offering affordable assurance to my constituents in villages and towns that have been flooded.

4.23 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. It has been a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on giving it the importance it deserves.

We have heard several fantastic speeches and many comments that were true for Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made a strong argument about the link between flood defences and flood insurance, while the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) raised concerns on behalf of the 1,627 of her constituents who will be particularly affected if flood insurance is not available. To her point about drainage, I would add that there are six provisions in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 that have not yet been enacted and which I invite the Government to implement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who is a dogged campaigner for her constituents, has made endless attempts to establish the true state of the negotiations and made a powerful argument, while the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) talked about the devastating effects of flooding in his community and made a strong point about how the increasing unpredictability of recent flood events are causing us to ask fundamental questions about the nature of risk.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful speech about his constituency and his constituents in Morpeth, where nearly 1,000 properties were devastated in those terrible scenes. The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned the village of Leyburn and the problems faced by residents there. He rightly asked a question that I will go on to ask: would it not be terrible if those constituents came together to manage their flood risk but were let down by the Government and the insurance industry in getting a deal?

Hon. Members across the House will, I am sure, agree with comments made by the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) about the tragic event in Looe last week, and our condolences go out to the families of those concerned. There are other issues elsewhere in Cornwall, and the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) spoke about the inevitable unwinding of the cross-subsidy in the system, should we move to a free market position.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) made a powerful speech about the lack of urgency and care from this Government, and he put it best when he said that they must get their act together, and soon—a point I will go on to make. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) drew on matters relating to planning and deliberate flooding, reminding us that we must view this issue in the round. Finally, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—a constituency that has seen more water than most in the past 12 months—drew on the key issue of affordability and reminded the House that we are discussing a not-for-profit scheme.

Ninety-six days are all that stand between today’s near-universal coverage for flood damage and an unfettered free market that will leave tens of thousands of people with homes that are uninsurable, unmortgageable and unsellable—96 days, and the clock is ticking.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Government Policy, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), is unable to be with us today as it is clear that he is leading on negotiations. I am sure that his services as a Government troubleshooter are needed elsewhere, but whatever measure of success the Government apply, so far the process leading to whatever deal we will get has been a failure—a failure of competence, ambition and ideology, and a failure of the Prime Minister.

Hon. Members might remember the Prime Minister’s comments during the extensive flooding of November last year:

“I’m sure we will do a deal…We are in negotiations at the moment…We need to take a tough approach frankly and it’s important insurance companies do what they are meant to, which is provide insurance to households and we are going to make sure that happens.”

Just to make it perfectly clear, he said: “I am personally involved.” That was last year, yet 200,000 high-risk homes could find themselves without insurance in 96 days.

In government we negotiated a wide-ranging agreement to ensure near universal access to flooding insurance. The limitations to that scheme have been made clear, which is why in 2008 we agreed, alongside the insurance industry, that a successor deal would be needed. This Government, however, have had three years but they have squandered them. They had an insurance industry willing to negotiate to find a solution, and I made it

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clear that the Opposition will take a responsible approach and support any deal to ensure affordable and available insurance. The Government had the resources of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office, and even of No. 10 Downing street, yet with 96 days to go there is still no deal.

The consequences of that are stark. Nick Starling from the Association of British Insurers warned that the only alternative to a deal with the Government

“is a free market, meaning up to 200,000 people will find insurance unavailable or unaffordable.”.

Ian Crowder of AA Insurance has stated:

“We are concerned insurance premiums will spiral out of control if no agreement is reached between the ABI and the Government.”,

and Paul Broadhead of the Building Societies Association warned chillingly:

“Failure to reach agreement could also have an effect on mortgage lending in high risk areas”.

The National Flood Forum stated:

“Government needs to accept its responsibilities of protecting its citizens by making a decision. Failure to make a proposal will put thousands of people at risk”.

In short, if the Government fail to get a deal, nearly 200,000 households could find themselves without insurance, unable to sell, and with their properties revalued sharply downwards. That could place them in negative equity and create tranches of property blight across the constituencies we represent. In other words, the stakes could not be higher.

Given those consequences, it is even more worrying that the Government seem unable to admit that they are struggling. In a letter to me of 19 April 2012, the Minister stated:

“I cannot comment on the timing of any future announcements on this issue but have committed to providing a further update this spring”

For the sake of clarity, that was spring 2012. No response. In response to my written question of 18 June 2012, the Minister said that the Government were

“at an advanced stage in intensive negotiations with the industry on alternative arrangements for when the Statement of Principles expires.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 738W.]

In her written ministerial statement of 11 July 2012, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), said:

“Intensive discussions with the insurance industry are continuing and we will announce further details in due course.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 30WS.]

Last November, Lord De Mauley said in the other place:

“We are in intense but constructive negotiations with the industry and further announcements will be made in due course”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 2012; Vol. 740, c. 644.]

When asked a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in January, the Minister said:

“We want to protect those on low incomes in flood-risk areas, and we think we have a method of doing that. We are at an advanced stage in negotiations; I will come to the House shortly, I hope, with details.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 445.]

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Come the next set of DEFRA questions in March, the Minister responded to another question asked by my hon. Friend by saying:

“Constructive negotiations continue with the insurance industry, at the highest levels of Government, on a range of approaches that could succeed the current statement of principles.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2013; Vol. 1109, c. 559.]

This situation would be comical if it were not so serious. This is the mañana Department of a mañana Government—always tomorrow and no help for today.

Even if an agreement could be reached, it would require primary legislation. The Minister should admit what we now know to be true—that this will not be in place for 30 June. The 570,000 properties to which this motion applies and the 570,000 families that could find their homes uninsurable, unmortgageable and unsellable are calling for certainty, but there is none.

What is the plan? To deny the risk and the social responsibility that any Government bear would deny one of the most basic laws of political gravity, which is that catastrophic risk resides with us all. When catastrophic floods devastate streets, towns and communities, we rightly expect the Government to be there to help us pick up the pieces. That is what is so short-sighted about the Government’s response to getting a deal done on flood insurance.

As the Minister has previously made clear, there is only one deal on the table. The alternative is a free market that will allow insurers to leave the market for high-risk properties and that will unwind a long-standing settlement that flood insurance should be available as part of every policy.

Climate change is making flooding more prevalent and less predictable, and the UK climate change risk assessment cites it as the No. 1 threat that we need to adapt to. I have made it clear that the Opposition seek to be helpful and constructive in securing a deal that protects home owners, businesses and communities vulnerable to the risk of flooding. Despite our constructive approach, Ministers have refused to brief this House or involve the Opposition in the discussions. As each week passes, it is becoming harder to defend a situation in which Ministers appear to be drifting without giving any indication of when a deal will be concluded.

This Government must get a grip. They have 96 days and the clock is ticking.

4.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I echo the plaudits given by Members on both sides of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing this debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.

I say from the start that, yes, the Government are in arduous and urgent negotiations with the insurance industry. We recognise that the Government’s first and primary role is to tackle risk by building flood defences. We are doing that, and I will talk about it later. We must get a good deal for the taxpayer and policyholders and, frankly, a better deal than the statement of principles. Therefore, insurance must be available and affordable, without adding to bills. We are not yet in a position to

26 Mar 2013 : Column 1543

make an announcement that we have a value for money, deliverable solution and one that is legal within the constraints of state aid, but I can assure hon. Members that we are working extremely hard to achieve that.

Mr Gibb: The Minister has been assiduous on this issue, and we are looking forward to seeing him in Pagham in my constituency in late April. Will he be able to make an announcement on this issue before 30 June?

Richard Benyon: I hope that we will be able to do so, and I will give more details on that later. I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend’s constituents and to understanding the daily threats that they live with.

Let us be clear: the availability and affordability of home insurance in flood-risk areas beyond the expiry of the statement of principles on 30 June are vital for hon. Members and the Government, and I firmly support the motion.

Flooding has a significant and long-lasting impact on local communities, which I have seen first hand in my constituency. The availability of home insurance in flood-risk areas provides important financial protection and peace of mind to such communities. The Government remain committed to ongoing negotiations with the insurance industry and others on what replaces the statement of principles agreement. We want to find a solution that ensures the availability and affordability of flood insurance and will endeavour to continue working with the industry towards that goal.

Naomi Long rose

Ian Lavery rose—

Richard Benyon: I am really short of time, but I will respond to the point that I believe the hon. Gentleman wants to make. If I have time to give way at the end, I will do so.

As Ministers have repeatedly made clear, the main aim of our work has always been to reach an agreement whereby insurance bills remain affordable, without placing unacceptable and unsustainable costs on wider policyholders. The Government have been doing a lot to support the continued availability of affordable insurance. Reducing flood risk will always be the best and most sustainable solution. Despite difficult times, we are on track to spend more than £2.3 billion to deliver better protection from flooding and coastal erosion to more than 165,000 homes over the four years to 2015. Our new system of partnership funding has brought in an additional £148 million on top of that from external partners. Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), have benefited from that in their constituencies. I give full praise to him and his constituents for the leadership that they have shown.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked why there was nothing in the Budget, but £120 million of investment was announced in the autumn statement. Many of those schemes are shovel-ready and proceeding, and they are a great comfort to constituents.

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Despite last year being the second wettest on record, more than 200,000 homes were protected from flooding because of defences already in place. The Environment Agency’s flood warning service provided additional support; evidence is emerging that many houses avoid flooding because of the better flood warning system. We have estimated that, for every property that suffered flooding last year and in January, more than 25 homes were protected because of flood defences and maintenance work and because of the work of the Environment Agency, local authorities and other front-line responders. More than 200,000 householders are therefore benefiting from the Government’s continued investment in managing flood risk.

Many hon. Members are impatient for information on the Government’s discussions. I am impatient to share the details, but it would be quite wrong to go into too much detail.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in offering commiserations to her constituent and her family for their loss. I entirely agree with her that all available information must be made publicly available, so that we can get to the bottom of what precisely happened.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Richard Benyon: If I can, I will try to give way in a moment.

We have recently announced a flood resilience community pathfinder scheme for Cornwall and a number of other parts of the country. In my hon. Friend’s case, £476,000 will be spent in Cornwall.

The hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) said that the statement of principles was universal insurance.

Gavin Shuker indicated dissent.

Richard Benyon: Perhaps that is not what the hon. Gentleman said. The statement of principles is not universal —not by a long chalk—which is part of the problem. Everything he said in his quote from the Prime Minister is absolutely right, and I thank him for pointing it out.

When Conservatives were in opposition in 2008, it was agreed that a successor to the statement of principles would be required. The previous Government agreed that a market could emerge after the end of the agreement. The statement of principles says that there will be no need for specific agreements after June 2013. All hon. Members disagree with that and believe that we need a follow-up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, to whom I want to give time to make a winding-up speech, asked about the Government’s view of a flood mutual, which is an important question. We are looking very closely at the proposal, which is a possible alternative to “Flood Re”. We are working closely with those who are making that proposal.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Richard Benyon: The right hon. Gentleman will have to be very brief.

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Mr Smith: The Minister said earlier that he was impatient to share information with the House. Can he tell us what the Government’s sticking point—their fundamental problem—is with the “Flood Re” proposal?

Richard Benyon: I will come on to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) talked about flood insurance in the context of terrorism, but those are entirely different types of insurance. The pool model does work for some of them, but the “Flood Re” model would not work in this case, because it does not provide support for the cost of that cover. He made the point that “Flood Re” is a not-for-profit solution. Well, yes and no, in that the Government would pay through a levy—so householders are paying for it with an element of underwriting—but taking away risk from the most at risk is an advantage to the industry. So we must be very careful. The Minister’s job is to look after the taxpayer and householder. Yes, we need a solution, but not at any price. Whoever was standing at the Dispatch Box, they would not want to bring before the House a deal that was unworkable or that would cause the wrong sort of increases for some of the most at risk and hard up of our constituents. We need to get this right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made a point about farmland and the wider risk. When farmland is flooded as part of a formal flood alleviation scheme, the landowner is compensated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton introduced the debate with a powerful speech. He made a point about the governance of any arrangements. He was right to do so, and it is important that we take forward his concerns and make those arrangements clear in the announcement. I can assure him that the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working closely.

I was concerned that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) talked about shambolic local flood administration in her constituency. We have implemented the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which arose from Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations after 2007. I note that she said that that is not happening in her constituency, and I am happy to take that up.

Many hon. Members made good points, which I could probably summarise as, “We want a decision and an announcement soon, because our constituents are worried.” I can understand that. We are doing other things to help those who might be struggling to find affordable insurance. We have published a guide to obtaining flood insurance in high flood risk areas in collaboration with the National Flood Forum, Which? and insurance industry representatives. The guide helps people navigate through the insurance market and acts as a signpost to actions that individuals can take to reduce their flood risk.

Insurance can be found for reasonable prices if people talk to their insurer about their specific circumstances. The Environment Agency can provide supporting evidence on the local flood risk, for free, which people can use in discussions, and I want to hear from hon. Members if

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that is not happening. Different companies take different approaches to flood risk and it almost always pays to shop around.

I recognise the great concern on both sides of the House on this matter. I want to give hon. Members and their constituents the assurance that they want, but I will not do it at any price. Yes, it has taken longer than any of us would have wished, but I hope that the deal we bring to the House will be better than what we have now, especially for those of our constituents who are on low incomes.

4.43 pm

Mr Raab: I thank the Backbench Committee for this debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed for their excellent speeches. Some of them talked about the local dimension and some mentioned the national implications of these issues. Given the lack of time, I will not go into detail on all of the contributions, but the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) talked about the lack of a joined-up approach locally. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) talked about the human dimension to local flood damage and the importance of planning in the mitigation of flood risk.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about the local aspects of flood insurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made an important point about what local community initiatives can do to reduce flood risk, and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) highlighted the human toll across Cornwall. I am sure the whole House joins her in expressing our condolences to the bereaved family of her constituent.

There were other powerful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) made a powerful speech on his work with the all-party group. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) talked about the problem of planning approvals in the floodplain. Other hon. Members were unable to attend the debate—for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—but have expressed support for the motion, and I welcome that.

The shadow Minister gave an important speech. He tracked the recent negotiations with a fine-toothed comb, if, at points, rather selectively. He had rather less to say on the previous Government’s progress, but none the less made some important points.

The Minister described the arduous and urgent negotiations with the ABI and the importance of delivering a legal, workable deal that delivers value for money. I am sure the whole House joins him in wanting to achieve that result. We do not expect him to negotiate in public, but we do need urgently to deliver a new deal on flood insurance. We need to strengthen flood defences, address the planning failures of the past and ensure that UK environmental policies place a greater emphasis on resilience and adaptation in the future. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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That this House notes the Environment Agency’s estimate that 570,000 properties in England and Wales are at significant risk of flooding; recognises the efforts of the insurance industry and past and present governments to reach agreement to ensure flood insurance will be made available to all homes and small businesses beyond June 2013; calls on the insurance industry to negotiate in good faith to conclude those arrangements; and further calls on the Government to acknowledge the need to provide some support for those arrangements and ensure that resilience and adaptation to flood risks and other natural hazards are amongst its highest environmental priorities.

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Easter Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.—(Mr Amess.)

Department for Communities and Local Government

4.46 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to ventilate the important issue of housing. A number of my colleagues applied, successfully, to speak on this subject as it is of intense importance to us. Although I and many of my colleagues are London MPs, we do not claim for a second that the housing crisis is unique to our capital city. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has a housing waiting list of nearly 3,000 in his idyllic constituency. This problem affects all of us.

The housing situation in London has gone beyond inconvenience, awkwardness or even embarrassment to something that it is now in a profound state of crisis. In Ealing, the borough in which I have spent virtually all my life, we have 23,416 people on the housing waiting list and there is no chance whatever of them finally finding accommodation. One reason for that is that in London the average house price is £421,395, and the average London income is £26,962. Even in dear, dear Ealing, the average house price is £374,707, whereas median earnings are £25,392.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend think that the Government’s recent proposals in the Budget to provide cheap mortgages to anyone will help the situation?

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. In doing so she has rather stolen my thunder, but I forgive her in that as I do in all things. The Government may well have a policy, but it is retrogressive. The idea that the solution to the housing problem in London is to sell off the last few remaining properties at vast, eye-watering discounts and somehow assume that, in extremis, property can be sold as cheaply as £10,000, and that that money will then go forth, multiply and create a new property, is absolutely absurd. The other strand of that—somehow to blame the whole housing crisis in London on the immigrant community—proves once and for all that it is a lot easier to find a scapegoat than to find a solution. The scapegoat is being identified; the solution is not.

Boroughs such as mine in Ealing are having to take incredibly exhaustive steps to build houses. We have a commitment to 500 new build houses over the next five years, but we also have an estate regeneration programme. We are using existing land to increase the estates that already exist, so that with hard work—exhaustive work—and a great deal of extremely fine officer time, we can create 5,044 units from a total of 3,653. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Hitesh Tailor in the London borough of Ealing, who has somehow managed to square the circle in the case of Copley close, an absolutely typical old Greater London council estate. Allegedly—I have never heard anyone disprove this, but I am told it is true—the architect who designed the estate never set

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foot in the borough of Ealing, let alone on Copley close. She took the scheme down from a shelf somewhere, ran it along the side of the railway line at Castle Bar Halt and left the people to get on with it. That is the scale of the problem we face.

What is the solution? On the figures I gave earlier for median house prices, the solution is not to unleash some great entrepreneurial surge or for everyone somehow to manage to do 15 jobs and buy their own property. One of the solutions is to do as my children, aged 24 and 22, have done and start sending away for loft extension catalogues anonymously. They pour through the door at an extraordinary rate—and I have finally accepted the hint. However, one thing we really can do—I want the Minister to give particular attention to this—is to consider raising the housing revenue account cap, which was discussed in the other place on 12 March in a debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Three amendments were tabled by three distinguished Members of the upper House, all with considerable local authority experience.

The idea at present is that there are streams against which local authorities can borrow, and not just the traditional ones, such as the Public Works Loan Board or the general fund. Some people have rather imaginatively —and in a way that is almost suggestive of Robert Maxwell in his prime—talked about borrowing against pension funds. That slightly worries me, but the housing revenue account, which has traditionally been massively in surplus, despite what some would have us believe, is a good thing to borrow against. The recent relaxations in this area are to the Government’s credit. Let us be honest: the Government have done the right thing on that. However, the present cap limits local authorities massively. They include not just boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith and Fulham, which have a property portfolio worth well over £2 billion, but even small, modest boroughs such as Ealing, which could borrow more and build more.

Ultimately, let us never lose sight of first principles. A person who has no home has no hope, no job, usually no family and certainly no future. If someone loses their home, they lose everything. A person can lose their job and get another job; they can lose their health and get healthy again. Without a home, a person has nothing. Every single one of us in this House has a bounden duty to try to provide that simple, most basic of needs: accommodation. Raising the HRA cap to a more realistic level would give local authorities the power to do much, much more.

4.53 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal or lead to permanent health damage. Carbon monoxide is tasteless, odourless and colourless. It is very much a silent killer. It makes no distinction among its victims—however, the young and the elderly are more vulnerable, as in many other cases—and it creates risks for pregnant women and their unborn children. The symptoms include headaches, tiredness, dizziness and nausea. These are common symptoms, often associated with other things; therefore, carbon monoxide poisoning can go unnoticed for many years.

The recent “Carbon Monoxide Incident Report”, published by the Gas Safety Trust, shows a welcome reduction in the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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However, the report deals only with the gas industry and gas-related incidents. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not solely a gas appliance issue. Carbon monoxide can emanate from many sources. It is caused when carbon fuels do not burn properly, so although there is a perception that the problem is restricted to gas fires in the home, it can go much wider than that. Any fuel-burning appliance that is not properly maintained has the potential to be a source of carbon monoxide. Cookers, AGAs and hot water heaters can all emit carbon monoxide.

At this stage I would like to refer to my constituents Dave and Mary Jane Worswick. Their daughter Mary Ann was 15 years old. She was in her last year of school and dreamt of going on to study law. Owing to bad weather, she was studying at her friend’s house, in which there was a boiler that subsequently proved to be faulty. This fault was to cost Mary Ann and her friend their lives. I do not want to dwell on the subsequent legal processes that followed Mary Ann’s death, but I do want to pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Worswick who, having tragically lost their daughter, have continued their fight to raise the awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. As the Worswicks say to me, everyone is aware of the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, but awareness of carbon monoxide remains low and way behind. The opportunity to raise the matter today will, I hope, help raise the awareness of this killer among us.

I want to highlight a further particular area where carbon monoxide can be fatal. My High Peak constituency is under about 12 feet of snow at the moment; it may seem odd, but I would like to raise the issue of camping, caravanning and barbecues. In a short while when the snow goes, I hope people will turn their thoughts to the summertime pursuits I have listed. As we sit outside a tent, caravan or motor home watching the sun go down in the summer, there is naturally a feeling of contentment, and possibly a barbecue shimmering in front of us, but we should be aware that this smouldering barbecue could be putting out carbon monoxide. Portable barbecues and portable heaters can and have been responsible for tragic deaths in campervans, caravans and mobile homes across the country. In Cornwall, Shropshire and other areas, tragedies have resulted from carbon monoxide emissions from this sort of appliance.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is widely thought of as an issue caused by appliances in the home and in the winter. That is not true, as it has claimed victims in the summer months, too. As summer approaches, I want to highlight the dangers of this gas—not just in the home, not just in the winter, but all year round and seemingly in some innocuous conditions.

Returning to the issue of carbon monoxide in the home, the Minister may well ask me what he can do. Over the years, numerous measures such as the removal of open-flued heaters from bathrooms and bedrooms and some landlord legislation have reduced the risks. The number of incidents is falling, but that is no reason for complacency.

We heard last week that the Chancellor has announced some excellent measures to help people to buy new build homes. The Minister himself has advocated the building of more homes that are needed across the country. May I ask him today to consider making mandatory the inclusion of carbon monoxide detectors in all new build homes? I understand that there are concerns about increasing burdens on house builders in these difficult

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times, but I am sure that at a cost of a little over £10, carbon monoxide detectors could easily be fitted in conjunction with smoke detectors into new homes. This small step would ensure the safety of many people and spare many families the heartache suffered by my constituents, the Worswicks.

4.57 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I rise to speak about the Government’s proposal to free up planning to allow offices not in use to be converted into homes. I want to talk about the overall policy, its impact on my constituency and, if there is time, the more general issues of housing need.

In short, the Government believe that if all empty office space in the UK were converted into residential property, it would create 250,000 new homes, saving nearly £140 million in planning system costs. The Government tell us that, following the recession, between 7% and 9% of commercial space in the UK is empty, but that many developers have been put off converting buildings into homes because of the costs and time required to secure planning approval. That may be true in some parts of the world, but in my Hackney South constituency and particularly in Shoreditch, many developers have land banked old offices and warehouses to cash in on rising housing prices as housing demand increases. They have been sitting on this for investment reasons rather than because they have been put off by the conversion costs. The conversion costs could soon be recouped, but every day that the developers sit and wait, the price of housing goes up.

In Hackney, the legislation will have a major impact on our business and creative communities and on the local economy. We sit right on the edge or fringe of the City. In fact, Broadgate used to be in Hackney until a boundary change some years ago, and many of our business locations will be adversely affected by this policy. The area is coveted as a residential location, but not for local people. It has fancy loft apartments for those with very deep pockets. This will put business at risk, potentially leading to forced relocation and loss of jobs for local people in an area where unemployment is already high. Of course, all of us speaking in this debate are keen to see more homes built, but this policy will encourage landlords and freeholders to dash for the short-term gain of changing offices to residential homes, at a big long-term cost to our area and to one of the engine rooms of our current economy.

Hackney South and Shoreditch, as business development hot spots, have often been visited by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I cannot seriously believe that No. 10 Downing street is enthusiastic about the policy as it applies to Shoreditch. Business growth is under threat from the proposal. Without an exemption, existing businesses will be under threat, too, so I strongly support full exemption for Hackney, which Hackney council has bid for. I urge the Minister to give us some comfort today to ensure that the area remains a thriving business location making an important contribution to the economic prosperity of London and the UK.

To date, more than 1,000 businesses locally have signed a petition supporting exclusion. None of the active housing campaigners—whether they live in digs,

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are Hackney Homes tenants or members of tenants associations—have objected to the council’s stance on the policy because they see that the sort of housing we need is very different.

Even the British Property Federation does not necessarily support the policy. Ian Fletcher, its policy director, talked about the acute shortage of houses but, in welcoming the step, said it

“won’t work for all buildings, or in every area”.

I say to the Minister that it will not work in Shoreditch and it should be stopped now.

On general issues to do with housing, what we need in Hackney is not more high-price right-to-buy sales but more affordable family-sized homes. About a quarter of my constituents are under 16. We have families who need housing who cannot find it. Instead many of those families are being hit by this invidious—

Stephen Pound: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the great flagships of Government policy, the spare room tax, will not have anything like the effect that they anticipate because most of the people with extra rooms are pensioners, who are exempt from the bedroom tax anyway? Does she share my despair that that is the mast to which the Government are nailing the flag of housing hope?

Meg Hillier: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. This invidious little tax is having a disastrous impact on many of my constituents. For example, if a family who occupy a three-bedroom property have two children of the same gender between the ages of 10 and 16, or two children of opposite gender under 10, they will be counted as under-occupying and be forced either to find the extra money to pay for the bedroom, until their children reach the age at which they qualify for the extra bedroom, or to give up their home and try to find, magically out of nowhere, a two-bedroom property. There is heavy demand for all types of social housing, while pensioners remain exempt.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): When it comes to the under-occupancy subsidy, is the hon. Lady not also concerned about the 250,000 people who are living in overcrowded housing and the 2 million people on the housing waiting list who are desperate to get into some of the 1 million excess rooms held in the social housing sector?

Meg Hillier: Of course, and as I mentioned earlier, this is a big issue, but that is to do mostly with the supply of housing and there are other ways to incentivise people to move out of their homes, rather than taxing them. Over the years, there have been schemes to provide money to help, for example, pensioner households with their removal costs and the costs of new furnishings for their new home to encourage them to move at a small price to free up the larger properties that are desperately needed. In my constituency, where about a quarter of residents are under 16, we need affordable family homes to be supplied. We also need reform of the private rented sector, which in this short speech I do not have time to go into, but the Government abolished the register of private landlords and are doing nothing to tackle the issue. “Generation rent” in my constituency is among the biggest in the country.

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The bedroom tax is an invidious policy. It will not free up rooms in the way the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) expects. Up and down the country, people are being forced to move from their larger homes, although smaller homes are not available in their area, and they are being penalised if they cannot move. It is illogical. The policy provides a good cheap headline for the Government, but it will not deliver and it is having a negative impact on families’ lives. There are better ways to tackle the housing issue. Cross-party, we should look at supporting an increase in supply and ensuring that there are no loopholes in any schemes. In the Budget, the Chancellor talked about the mortgage guarantee, which will enable people to buy second homes. The Government have still not come up with a comprehensive rejection of that approach, so we can only take that as an assurance that people can buy a second home with a mortgage guarantee from the Government, while many of my constituents will continue to struggle to get on the housing ladder, or into a form of tenure that provides them and their families with security and the strong base in the community that we all want to see.

5.5 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I begin by making my usual declaration of indirect interests.

I am raising an issue brought to me by a constituent who has serious concerns about the way in which gas safety certificates are dispensed. She recently bought a bungalow, and was supplied by the previous owner with building regulation compliance certificates, including gas and electricity safety check certificates. Having got those certificates, she trusted, as anyone would, that all the work and inspections had been carried out to the required standard, as did her conveyancing solicitor and surveyor.

It later emerged that all the traders and engineers who had issued those certificates were personal friends of the previous owner, and it appears that the certificates were issued without them either checking that the work had been carried out or that it was up to the correct standard. Electrical and gas appliance installations such as the underfloor heating, boiler and heating system had been blindly certified by Gas Safe and ELECSA-registered engineers as a favour to a mate. There have been some consequences, such as de-registering the ELECSA trader, but the main concerns remain. The Electrical Contractors Association has accepted that its engineer was very wrong to issue a certificate for work he had neither carried out nor inspected for safety. However, it appears Gas Safe has been reluctant to take the same approach.

I by no means pretend to be an expert in the field of building regulations and appliance safety, but I do find it incredibly odd that although gas and electrical engineers can be struck off the register if they negligently leave an appliance unsafe, the same does not apply to those who issue certificates without doing or inspecting the work. There really does appear to be not simply a loophole but a gap in the legislation that endangers lives. My constituent sustained an injury as a result of the faulty appliances, and informed me that it was pure luck that the later inspecting engineer, who condemned the appliance, was not electrocuted.

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Clause 57(1) of the Building Act 1984 states:

“If a person…recklessly gives a notice or certificate that…purports to comply with those requirements, and contains a statement that is false or misleading in a material particular, he is guilty of an offence.”

Should the same rules not apply to those issuing gas and electricity safety certificates? My constituent has had to re-check one appliance after another after they failed to operate. The inspecting engineer found that the consumer unit was faulty and the sockets were not earthed. The boiler had parts missing, such as the mini-expansion vessel and the pressure-reducing valve. The underfloor heating system had parts missing: the pump, balancing valves and the heat-reducing valve. Also, the boiler was not earthed and the isolation switch had not been wired in. It appears that another blind certificate was issued, falsely to certify the safety of the boiler.

These are not just small mishaps or omissions, but fundamental issues that could have had very serious consequences. There is an urgent need for both Government and the industry to take this matter very seriously indeed. There has also been a considerable financial cost for my constituent. We need to establish who has the power of enforcement in such cases. Trading standards said that my constituent had misunderstood the issue, and she was repeatedly told that the engineer was certified to carry out the work. He might have been, but he still did not do the job properly. Trading standards also apparently said to my constituent that these things happen all the time—all the time!—but there is very little scope for pursuing the issue owing to the lack of relevant legislation.

It is my understanding that Gas Safe decided to investigate the engineer after persistent communication from my constituent. At present, the engineer is still on the register, even though the appliance certified by him failed to meet even the most basic safety checks. Yet Gas Safe, while seemingly not acting in this instance, took space in my local paper in January advising DIY-ers not to take risks with gas.

Legally, my constituent is also in a tricky situation: as she does not have a direct contract with the engineers in question, she cannot bring a case against either of them. Her conveyancing solicitor advised her that it was a matter of “buyer beware”. My constituent is frustrated because she was aware—she had done everything by the book and had accepted, as had her surveyor, that the certificates were valid and had been issued by a “trusted” professional. This practice of false or blind certification has to stop. Plymouth’s director for place has said that

“in essence the fact of the matter is that we are used to the presence of consumer protection legislation when we buy goods from a high street trader but those protections are considerably lacking when we buy our largest purchase, a house”.

What can the Minister do, through his Department, to liaise with those involved in consumer protection to put an end to this deceit?

Meg Hillier: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I regret that when I spoke earlier I neglected to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I seek to rectify that now.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That has now been noted and rectified.

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5.10 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), I wish to discuss the housing crisis in London, although five minutes is a very short time in which to try to describe a truly appalling situation. Some 360,000 families are on the housing waiting list in London—that excludes the large number of single people who usually cannot even get on the waiting list—and 750,000 Londoners are living in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The housing solutions for them are non-existent, and will be unless there is an enormous change in Government policy and in the policy of the Mayor of London towards this crisis.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is an inner-London MP for an area that has a particularly severe overcrowding problem, but does he agree that this issue affects the outer-London suburbs as much as inner London? Does he acknowledge that a huge number of people in Harrow in my constituency are also waiting, without a great deal of hope, for a new home?

Jeremy Corbyn: This is indeed a time for inner and outer London solidarity, and I am happy to declare that act of solidarity with my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North, for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and with many other outer-London boroughs. To be homeless in London is to be homeless in London, to be overcrowded is to be overcrowded, and to be on the waiting list is clearly to be on the waiting list.

The solutions to this situation have to be sought. Sadly, what was offered in the Budget is not a solution; I suspect that it will result in those with deep pockets being able to buy yet more properties, which they will then keep empty, as part of the disgrace of private sector land banking that is going on in London. I will discuss the other solutions concerning owner-occupation, social rented housing and private rented housing in a moment. First, I wish to deal with the issue of the large number of empty properties, often at the high end of the market, deliberately kept empty by people who have large amounts of money that comes from dubious sources. They have bought these properties in order to make a great deal of money out of them at a later date when their value increases. Given the current housing crisis, we should be giving powers to local authorities to take over properties that are deliberately kept empty, so that the people in desperate housing need can get somewhere to live in London.

Alison Seabeck: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the spare homes subsidy could be misused by exactly the people he is talking about, and that Government and taxpayers’ money could be misused?

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. There is no clear definition of how this subsidy being offered by the Chancellor will be used, so it seems to be an opportunity for those with deep pockets to make a great deal of money for themselves. The people in desperate housing need, such as those represented by

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me or by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West or for Ealing North, will not have that same opportunity.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jeremy Corbyn: I will not give way any more, because I would lose my time.

The second area I wish to discuss is the social rented sector in London—council housing. The problems of housing in London are not new; they were acute in the 19th century and in the early 20th century. It was the inspiration and idealism of the Labour-controlled London county council in the inter-war years that did a great deal to build decent homes for people who were living in appalling slums. Indeed, in my constituency and others one can see the products of the inspirational work done by Herbert Morrison and others. The post-second world war council house building did an incredible amount to give people decent places to live.

I had the great honour of being a member of Haringey borough council from 1974 to 1983 and I remember complaining in 1979 that we had built only 1,000 council houses that year. I was complaining that we could have done more, but 1,000 is more than have been built in the whole of London in most of the past few years. I am critical of my party in government and of the current Government for not doing enough to build new council housing.

The Government’s solution is to suggest to local authorities that they should raise rents to 80% of the market rent to raise some funds to develop new housing. In my borough and those of most colleagues in London, council house rents would more than double. Islington borough council, to its credit, has refused to do that and has managed to develop a substantial building programme on its own land from its own resources. But obviously, there are limits to that programme, imaginative though it is.

We need central Government involvement in the building of new council homes as a matter of enormous urgency. The Mayor of London does not seem fully to grasp all that. In fact, there are quite a lot of things the Mayor of London does not fully grasp, but one of them is the essential need for the building of new council houses. The number of social rented properties—that is, council or housing association properties—built under his watch and by his means has reduced from 11,000 in 2010-11 to only 983 in the current year. Goodness knows how much lower than that the numbers will go in future years. We must kindly ask central Government to get a grip of the situation and do their best to intervene with the Mayor and with borough councils to ensure that there is a rapid increase in the supply of council housing in London. That is the best and most efficient way of solving the housing crisis. It provides jobs, provides homes and helps people to have a secure place to live.

The final area I want to mention was covered in a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced and it is the private rented sector. In London, 800,000 families live in that sector—it is the fastest growing housing sector by a long way. In my constituency, a third of all households are in the private rented sector and that number is rising fast. Generally speaking, people who live in the private rented sector pay the most to live in the least efficient,

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worst repaired and worst maintained properties and in the least regulated sector. Not all landlords are bad—some are very good—but the lack of regulation means that those who are bad can get away with it. We need regulation of the letting agencies, registration and regulation of all private rented accommodation and, in my view, rent controls.

The housing benefit cap is acting as an agent for the social cleansing of the poorest people on housing benefit all over central London. They are being driven out of their areas and driven out of London. For that reason, we need not just to control housing benefit expenditure but to control it by controlling the rent levels instead, rather than forcing tenants out of their homes—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I call John McDonnell.

5.18 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to speak about the protection of the green belt in Hillingdon. I have lived in my constituency and represented it in various guises for nearly 40 years. From the earliest days I shared a dream that we would surround our largely industrial and urban area, which is encircled with factory sites, offices, major motorways and airports to north and south, with country parks and open spaces. Decades on, we have succeeded, with new country parks to the south, west and east and the regeneration of our traditional parks and green-belt open spaces. That has been a tremendous community achievement. I have set up friends groups for each park and worked with organisations such as the London wildlife trust, A Rocha and Hillingdon natural history society to improve and open up our open spaces.

One of our greatest achievements is the creation of the award-winning Lake Farm country park. That land next to Hayes town centre was owned by EMI, which in the early 1990s sought to dig gravel from it and turn it into a rubbish tip. I set up a friends group, mobilised the local community and persuaded the council on a cross-party basis not only to reject the planning application but to buy the land to create a country park.

Ironically, it is the council that is now planning to build on our country park. It proposes to build a three- form entry primary school on the park, putting at risk the natural habitats of the skylarks and other abundant birdlife and wildlife on the site as well as taking away a considerable portion of the park from public enjoyment. That has caused uproar in our community.

The council argues that although the development is contrary to local and national policies, and those of the Mayor of London, on protecting the green belt, there are exceptional circumstances because of the need for additional school places and because there is no other site for the new school in the area. The planning process by which Hillingdon council reached that decision has plumbed the depths of disgraceful, mendacious and, at times, farcical local government incompetence.

Stephen Pound: I urge my hon. Friend to resist this even more strongly that he is already inclined to. Were he to enter London along the broad, majestic A40, he would see the three mounds of Northarla fields, which were achieved by Ealing council and the Northolt and Greenford countryside park, influenced by, in admiration of and in tribute to the work of his borough of Hillingdon.

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John McDonnell: If this goes ahead, all green-belt open space in west London will be vulnerable to attack.

On the demand for pupil places, it is only three years since the council proposed closing and selling off a local school because it was surplus to requirement. Then, 12 months ago, we were told that the projections for pupil numbers had rocketed and new schools were desperately needed. In particular, a three-form entry school had to be built.

Bizarrely, the council has failed properly to take into account a new four-form entry school being built, with the enthusiastic support of the Secretary of State for Education, at Guru Nanak college, which is in the same ward. The overwhelming number of pupils applying for places at the college have come from the local area, thus freeing up places in local schools. The council has also refused to take into account the request by a new two-form entry school in the same wards to expand to at least three, if not four, forms of entry. That would obviate the need to build on our local park.

The council failed to search adequately for alternative sites for the new school. Initially, it refused to release its search site report to the general public, or to me, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. When the report was finally released, we discovered that the council was rushing to sell off the most obvious alternative site to a developer for housing. The council’s planning meeting, where the council gave itself planning permission, descended into farce, as petitioners were ignored, new figures were presented to councillors on the night and it was revealed by a Labour councillor and committee representatives that the land in question is subject to a section 106 agreement from the 1990s, which the planning chair and the officer seemed oblivious to.

Nevertheless, the planning application was sent off to the Mayor, who we hope will adhere to his election pledges to protect the green belt. I know that he has stated his concern about school places being used as an excuse to make incursions into the green belt in London.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am afraid that my hon. Friend is telling a familiar story. My local Conservative-led council is in the process of selling off a third of a public park in the most deprived part of my constituency to a private owner, who will then charge £90 an hour for people to play football there.

John McDonnell: I hope that the Minister and the Department will monitor this in London. The Mayor has raised his concerns. A pattern is emerging of excuses relating to the number of pupil places needed. Alternative sites that have been discussed, particularly brownfield sites, are not being examined properly, and then the issue is used as an excuse for incursions into the green belt, sometimes for profiteering, as my hon. Friend suggests.

My concern is that if the council gets permission for a primary school, it will then roll out to a secondary school, and then it will argue for housing on the site. We will then lose the whole park, which is award-winning, and which we achieved on a cross-party basis. The planning application has gone to the Mayor, who we hope will reject it or refer it back. However, this morning I discovered that the council has withdrawn the application

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from the Mayor and rushed off to a barrister for counsel’s opinion on how to get over the section 106 problem, to which it has now clearly been alerted.

Hillingdon council—I raised this point before Christmas —is in chaos. That is not a party political point, because I would say the same whoever was in control. I was in local government for nearly 30 years. I think that the council is degenerating into incompetent farce. At the moment, planning is left in the hands of consultants, who have no knowledge of the area or its planning history. Indeed, they often ask for directions to sites during visits because they are unaware of the sites’ existence. Councillors have too much interest in development or housing, and many of them have associations with developers and as landlords.

Before Christmas, I appealed to the Secretary of State to intervene on Hillingdon council, and, if necessary, to take the drastic action of sending commissioners in, because I was worried about how contracts were being awarded. I understand that there is now an internal investigation into a number of those contracts. However, I have had enough. This planning issue has now gone beyond anything that is acceptable. I appeal again to the Secretary of State, and I am willing to see him take direct control over Hillingdon council and restore some semblance of good governance within the area.

5.25 pm

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate following my Select Committee meeting and in advance of the planning Minister’s response.

Earlier this month, Natural England declared Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill in my constituency to be a site of special scientific interest. In numerous plans over 18 years, the site has been clearly designated for 5,000 homes and for employment opportunities for 5,000 people. A total of £35.5 million has been spent to get to the point of planning consent being granted. After all this time and money, the council is concerned, to put it mildly, to be thwarted at the last hurdle by Natural England, which does not consider the economic impacts. The council leader, Rodney Chambers, responded as follows:

“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England. As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on government owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.

The government is constantly telling us that we should be going for growth, kick starting the economy and fighting the recession and yet here we are with a shovel ready project that would deliver 5,000 much needed homes being delayed by a government agency.”

The reason for this, we are told by Natural England, is that a study of some description has discovered that 84 nightingales might use the site. The comparison to be drawn is between those 84 nightingales and homes for 12,000 people and jobs for a further 5,000 people. We are told by the Prime Minister that we are in a global race, but it is not clear that that message has yet filtered through to bodies such as Natural England.

There have been similar instances locally. On the Isle of Grain, a proposal for the generation of 6,000 jobs on a site owned by the National Grid Company has been

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delayed for some three years because it is possibly the habitat of a certain type of bug. Near Medway, in the Swanscombe area, a proposal that would deliver 27,000 jobs has been delayed because of concerns about a breed of spider. At Dungeness, there are concerns about vegetated shingle that has to be considered in the context of the development of power generation.

It is not surprising that council leaders in the area say that we need to end the absurd situation of a non-elected Government agency dictating to national and local government on how to run things. Medway is an example of a council that is pro-development, that wants to support the Minister and that wants to show that it is open for business. Will the Minister assure me that our local council will be able to decide where it is best for development to go, not Ministers or their inspectors, and still less these quangos? We have heard of the bonfire of the quangos; in the case of Natural England, it appears to have fizzled out.

I understand that the executive board of the body has taken this decision, that it is going to be reviewed and that there is, as ever, some consultation process, but I am not sure whether that is a mere formality or a genuine process. We are told that in July the decision will be reviewed by the full board of Natural England, but we do not know if that will be anything more than a rubber-stamping exercise. I would appreciate the Minister’s views on whether it will be a genuine exercise and whether the board will really consider the wider representations or the Government’s policy. If it is not able to consider Government policy, how can democratic Ministers have their way when competing in what they call the global race? When councils such as Medway have planned to develop land for many years and have spent millions of pounds, will they be able to make the decisions that are required?

5.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): Having heard the range and quality of the contributions from Members from all around the House, I feel like an unwitting contestant on “Just a Minute”. I fear that after I address the subjects that have been raised, on which I am so profoundly inexpert, Members may conclude that I am actually a contestant on “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”.

First, I will address the hon. Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituencies in London on a range of issues. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) spoke about the cap on borrowing against the housing revenue account. I am glad that he welcomed the flexibility that the Government have provided to authorities to undertake prudential borrowing. I reassure him that within the cap for the 29 stock-holding authorities in London, there is £1.4 billion of borrowing headroom. I would encourage local authorities to take advantage of that. He will be aware, although his party often professes not to be, that unfortunately we have to maintain strict controls on the deficit and to limit increases in our national debt. That is why the Government are not considering relief of the cap.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made an eloquent argument for the exemption application against the new permitted development right

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for change of use from commercial to residential. She will be aware that we are considering a great number of exemption applications from authorities across the country and will understand that we need to apply the criteria that have been set out fairly and objectively to all authorities. I therefore hope that she will understand that I cannot give her any specific reassurances about the result of the application from her local authority. I can reassure her that the process is happening as quickly and fairly as possible, with outside expert help to assess whether the criteria apply.

The hon. Lady also raised the removal of the spare room subsidy from people in her constituency who are in receipt of housing benefit. I remind her, as she will have heard many times from this Dispatch Box from people who are much more senior than I am, that the housing benefit bill has doubled to £22 billion a year. The removal of the spare room subsidy will save half a billion pounds a year. When she or her colleagues come up with another way to save that money, the Government will be delighted to hear it.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised similar issues about the housing crisis in London and spoke of the need to build new council housing. He will be aware that councils can build new council housing. Many councils of all stripes are seeking to do so. I disagree with his idea that rent control would be nirvana for his constituents and for those who have to manage the housing benefit bill. The last time that we had rent control, there was a collapse in the private rented sector because investors were unwilling to invest in it. Our approach is very different. We are investing in the private rented sector through a generous scheme of guarantees that has been over-subscribed and to which the Chancellor committed more money in his Budget last week.

Jeremy Corbyn: What would the Minister say to my constituents who are faced with a gap, in some cases of more than £100 a week, between their housing benefit and their new private rent and who will be forced out of the community where their children go to school and their families live, leading to community disruption? What would he say to them when they are sitting across the table in an advice bureau?

Nick Boles: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have spoken to a number of people in my constituency who face the same situation and not a great deal more housing is available. I accept that it will be very difficult for certain people, and I, as I am sure that he is, am doing everything that I can to work with councils on their local housing solutions and with Citizens Advice to put people in touch with alternative options and to encourage them to explore the possibility where appropriate—often, with families, it will not be, but for single people, it might be—of renting out spare rooms to offset the reduction. We have to save money from the housing benefit bill, however, and we have not yet heard any better or fairer suggestions from the Opposition on how to do that. When we have heard that, perhaps we will be able to discuss it.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised a different but important issue about protecting the green belt and how that is assessed against the importance of providing new school places. He will

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understand that because he has asked that the proposal about which he is concerned be called in by the Secretary of State, I cannot comment on it. I can reassure him, however, that the national planning policy framework is clear about the protections for the green belt: there can only be development on the green belt in very special circumstances, so planning authorities would have to meet quite a tough test in law, if they wished to approve such a proposal. That has to be balanced, however, against the equally explicit commitment that great weight be given to the need to create and expand schools. I cannot prejudge how that will be arrived at in that case, but he has made an eloquent and passionate argument. Officials in my Department and I, as planning Minister, have heard it and will take it into account when we consider the proposal.

I think that I can now move away from London to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who spoke movingly and effectively on behalf of the constituents of his who faced the unbearable tragedy of losing their daughter, Mary Ann. He will be aware that the Government constantly consider ways to raise awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide, and I can tell him that there will now be a label on barbecues to warn people of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. He will also be aware that building regulations require a carbon monoxide alarm when a solid fuel appliance is installed in a home. It is not currently proposed to make it mandatory to install those alarms in new homes, as he suggests doing, but he has made a strong argument, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), will be keen to listen to his concerns and consider them as he reviews building regulations.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) told a tale of woe on behalf of her constituents about what appeared to be the fraudulent issuance of a safety certificate. I cannot comment in detail, because it is not my area of expertise; I can only reassure her that we will write to the Health and Safety Executive and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, who oversee the HSE, to ensure that she receives an adequate answer on how her constituents’ interests can be properly protected.

I turn, finally I think—no doubt, someone will holler if I have missed them out—to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). I can well understand the dismay of Medway council, which is seeking to do what all hon. Members across the House understand is necessary: to make provision to build more houses. I can well understand their dismay that such a major scheme should be put at risk by a declaration that the site is to be viewed as a site of special scientific interest. I cannot comment on the merits of the decision or the scheme, but I can reassure him of two things. First, notification of a site as an SSSI does not necessarily mean that it cannot be developed, but it does mean that the developer must make advanced efforts to mitigate, or, if they cannot do that entirely, to compensate for any impact on the site. Only last week, I met the chairman of Natural England, and I would be happy to explore with him the status of such a notification, how it came about and whether it can be managed to ensure that the houses needed for people in my hon. Friend’s constituency are built. I hope that has answered all the questions raised by hon. Members.

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Thank you for keeping your remarks short so that we can have as many speakers as possible in the next general debate. If everybody turns up, there are 28 Members who would like to contribute to the David Amess debate—[Laughter.] I mean the general debate. We will start with a five-minute limit on speeches, but if we need to we will reduce it to four minutes so that everybody can at least get in and get something on the record before the Easter recess.

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General Matters

5.41 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am rather tired of all the mitherers and doom-mongers. We know the types: those quick to criticise, quick to talk down, and quick to jump on any passing hashtag bandwagon. However, as Lord Mandelson said recently, those without a plan of their own should not be criticising those with plans. Many knowledgeable business folk have told me that the only thing holding back big levels of growth in our country is confidence, and we can get that only by recognising and celebrating success. Therefore, in the next few minutes as we head into the Easter recess I want to celebrate some of the many wonderful things going on in my Colne Valley constituency.

In Colne Valley, 1,220 apprenticeships started in the last academic year, and another 360 in first quarter of this academic year—a 74% increase on the last year of the previous Labour Government. Right at the forefront of that increase in apprenticeships is Kirklees college, under the leadership of the inspirational Peter McCann. A couple of weeks ago during national apprenticeship week, I went to meet one local apprentice who has a dream job. Helen is working up at Holmfirth vineyard—what a great place to work!—which not only hosted thousands of wine tours last year, but also offers quality homemade food and drink. Ironically, it is in Holme valley, which hosted many visitors on the back of the famous long-running BBC TV series “Last of the Summer Wine”. It is therefore fitting that a vineyard is now proving to be the big, new honey pot for tourism in my part of the world.

As we know, apprentices need full-time jobs to go to, and I am particularly proud that manufacturing is going great guns in my part of Yorkshire. I am proudly wearing a lapel badge that says “Huddersfield—the Place to Make It”, which is a manufacturing campaign in my part of the world. Even in London I see great examples of that manufacturing. The glass pods on the London Eye are made in my constituency at Novaglaze in Lockwood, and the textiles for the suit that David Beckham wore at the royal wedding a couple of years ago were manufactured in my constituency. On the way home tonight, those who go on a London bus should look at the flecked upholstery, which has probably been manufactured by Camira Fabrics in Meltham—we are very proud of that.

Down the road from Meltham is a wonderful engineering company, CNC Mill Turn Solutions, which is taking on apprenticeships and winning new contracts. Many of those are defence contracts, including for the new Ocelot Snatch Land Rover. Those are companies that I have visited recently, and the facts back up my remarks. Statistics from an independent consultancy firm show that 1,187 new companies started in Huddersfield and Colne Valley last year—an 8% increase year on year, and a record for any year.

On food and drink, I have already mentioned the vineyard, while local breweries on my patch—including the Linfit, Mallinsons, Magic Rock, Empire, Golcar, Milltown, Nook Brewhouse and Riverhead micro-breweries —were very pleased with the Chancellor’s news that he was cancelling the beer duty escalator. They are pleased

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with some of the Government’s moves. Pure North Cider also makes cider in my constituency, so it is not just wine and beer that we make.

We are very lucky with regard to education. Huddersfield university will welcome 5,000 new students this year. On the sporting front, Huddersfield Town are holding their own in the championship and have a big game against Hull City at the weekend, and the Huddersfield Giants rugby league club are currently proudly top of the super league. On Sunday 6 July 2014 the Tour de France will come to Huddersfield and the Holme valley, and even to my village in Honley.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I am pleased that the Tour de France will go through my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am sure he realises that that will only be the warm-up for when it goes through my High Peak constituency and the hills the cyclists will encounter.

Jason McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but the cyclists will be very tired by the time they get to his constituency because they will have taken the long climb up Holme Moss to the top of the Pennines, where it is very picturesque.

I will leave Members with all those positive things going on in my constituency. It is really important, given all the doom-mongers, to celebrate things and back business, enterprise and entrepreneurs. Let us also back apprentices and Yorkshire.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): We all now know what we will be doing on 6 July 2014.

5.46 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), who did not say whether he was made in Colne Valley. I apologise to Members and the Official Reporters for the speed at which I am going to speak, but it is because this Back-Bench day has been hijacked by various other issues.

I want to raise two issues, one local and the other national. The first relates to a constituent of mine, Mrs Brenda Pressdee, a senior citizen who faces the prospect of having the home she has lived in for 38 years sold, but she cannot remember why. It is important to highlight this case because it could happen to any one of us, our family or our constituents.

It is unclear how Mrs Pressdee came into contact with Dream Money Ltd. It brokered an agreement and she had to pay £3,000 in fees because she signed a loan agreement for a second charge on her property of £36,000. Once the brokerage fee and all the fees for lawyers, solicitors and title insurance had been paid, the total charges and interest came to £32,995, which is 99.9% of the £33,000 Mrs Pressdee had initially requested. By December 2012, with interest and charges and charges associated with arrears, Mrs Pressdee’s total debt was £51,713.74. She is unable to keep up her payments and now has to sell her home under the mortgage rescue scheme while living there and renting it out. As a result, Blemain Finance will receive a £55,000 redemption from the sale of her home.

The situation is heartbreaking. Mrs Pressdee signed a piece of paper saying:

“I can confirm that I intend to repay my loan at the end of the term by the sale of my property.”

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The note is dated 19 December 2007 and she clearly did not understand what was going on. I do not think that she received legal advice on the loan agreement.

Who can protect Mrs Pressdee? The Office of Fair Trading’s guidance on irresponsible lending only came into force in March 2010, so she was not covered with regard to the finance company’s actions. I do not think that she had the capacity to enter into the agreement. She was continually charged for every letter written. On two separate occasions she was charged £230 in legal costs, so the bills went up.

The OFT cannot help Mrs Pressdee, but what about the Consumer Credit Act 1974? Section 140A centres on the unfair relationships between creditors and debtors. Thanks to the Library, we have managed to find two cases against the company concerned. Under section 140A, Peter Bentley challenged the right to repossession of his property. The High Court judge in Cardiff asked both parties to rewrite the loan agreement, and they have done so.

In the second case Blemain Finance took repossession proceedings against Mrs Thomas from Penzance. Three loan agreements had to be rewritten. The judge held that they were unenforceable, because the amount of credit on them was incorrectly stated, so those repossession proceedings were dismissed.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who passed it on the Office of Fair Trading. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), wrote to me yesterday to say that she had nothing further to add, but the Department can do something—it can consider winding the company up in the public interest. The Minister could also meet me and the Pressdee family to see what we can do to help Mrs Pressdee, a vulnerable pensioner who has been driven out of her home. We should be protecting her.

I raised the issue of marine conservation zones with the Leader of the House, who suggested I should have an Adjournment debate, and here we are. What is the problem? Some £8.8 million has been spent on a consultation. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance states that the lack of scientific certainty should not postpone the decision. For two and a half years, we have had a steering committee of 44 industry representatives and 12 conservation non-governmental organisations, and the announcement of the 21 designated zones, and 28 species of mammals and fish are under threat. I am a member of the National Trust. It is important to protect not only the seas, but the coastline, because it is a finely balanced eco-system.

I therefore have some questions for the Minister. What is the timetable? Can he state whether there will be a re-consultation on redefining the guidance on an ecological coherence network? Parliament needs to know before any more public money is wasted on a further consultation. If not now, when?

5.51 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I should like to talk about the Maldives. People often ask why the Member of Parliament for Salisbury is so concerned about the smallest Asian country. I am concerned because the ousted President of the Maldives has a strong association with my constituency. He was educated just outside it

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and has spent a lot of time in exile there. Since I came to the House, I have taken a great interest in the Maldives. The situation there is dire and appalling, and it deeply concerns me. I am also very worried by the reaction of the international community.

After many years fighting for free elections, in 2008 Anni Nasheed was elected as President of that small country. Last year, a few weeks after I went out there to help his party prepare for the upcoming elections, he was ousted in an appalling coup. The country is now in a critical state. The free and fair elections that should happen later this year are in the balance. It is difficult to get clarity from the international community, and even from the British Government, on how assertive it is prepared to be to deal with the country.

There is systematic corruption among the judiciary, and almost every week new stories of human rights violations reach the press. Although the ousted Nasheed is expected to run in the forthcoming elections, it is difficult to say that he will have a clear pathway to the elections, given the legal machinations put up against him almost every week.

As I have mentioned, there are the most vile human rights abuses in the Maldives. A 15-year-old girl has been sentenced to 100 lashes in public when she turns 18, and to eight months of house arrest. It is appalling that the international community can apparently do nothing about the situation. I stand today to generate some publicity, I hope, so that people are aware of the direness of the situation in the country.

The prosecutor-general stated that the 15-year-old was charged with the crime of pre-marital sex, which emerged from a police investigation. That followed a completely ludicrous allegation. It was alleged that the 15-year-old had given birth and that her step-father had murdered the baby and buried her. The step-father was accused of molesting the 15-year-old, and the victim’s mother has been accused of concealing a crime and failing to report the molestation. We will only get changes in the Maldives if there is public awareness of what is going on. Similar things are happening in many countries across the globe, but I am not prepared to just stand back and let these things happen.

The Maldives need free elections later this year, so that Anni Nasheed, that honourable and decent man, who was educated in this country, can stand as a candidate, unimpeded. The illegitimate president must ensure that those elections take place. Recently, Anni Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic party organised a mass rally with 7,000 or 8,000 people participating, but when the rally reached Dr Waheed’s residence—that is the person who grabbed control last year—riot police aggressively charged the crowd. Many people reported that the police used excessive force in breaking up the rally, and many injured women remain in hospital. Video footage shows the police attempting to arrest bystanders and using excessive force.

I urge the British Government to acknowledge what is really happening and to stand firm later this year.

5.56 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I rise to bring to the House’s attention the resolution passed in the European Parliament on January 2009 to commemorate

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the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. My interest in Bosnia and Yugoslavia arises from having worked for the United Nations mission in Kosovo between 2000 and 2002.

The background to the massacre began after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s which led to conflict within Bosnia. That war sparked numerous atrocities, including the “mass rape” of women, as defined by the United Nations war crimes tribunal. Studies estimate that as many as 20,000 to 50,000 Bosniak Muslim women were raped by Serb forces and many were abused for months.

One of the most prominent and gravest incidents took place in July 1995. The Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was, at the time, an isolated enclave stated to be a protected zone by a United Nations Security Council resolution of 16 April 1993, fell into the hands of the Serbian militias. During several days of carnage, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, who had sought safety in this area under the protection of the United Nations forces, were executed by Serb forces which had entered Bosnian territory from Serbia. Nearly 25,000 women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, making this event the biggest war crime to take place in Europe since the end of the second world war.

This tragedy was declared an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In January 2009, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to proclaim 11 July a day of commemoration of Srebrenica throughout the European Union. It is a day on which we should express condolence and solidarity with the families of the victims, many of whom are living without final confirmation of the fate of their relatives and a day on which our thoughts should be with those who were killed and those who lost loved ones.

The European Parliament resolution called the Srebrenica genocide

“the biggest war crime in Europe since the end of WWII.”

The Assembly called it

“a symbol of the international community’s impotence to intervene and protect civilians.”

I call on the Government to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica act of genocide by supporting the European Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. I also urge the Government to make further efforts to bring the many remaining fugitives to justice. We should be doing more to support the valuable work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Finally, I cannot stress enough the importance of reconciliation in the European integration process, particularly with regard to the role of religious communities, the media and education, so that people of all ethnicities can overcome the tensions of the past, move forward, and begin a peaceful and sincere co-existence in the interests of enduring peace, stability and economic growth. In working to move forward, we must not forget the lessons of the past. It is therefore vital that this genocide, which has been described by the United Nations and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as the worst since the end of the second world war, is appropriately commemorated in the United Kingdom and in all European countries.

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6 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). They have shown that Backbench Business Adjournment debates can provide a real insight into different issues, and they have put them on the record. Both hon. Members were sombre in their tone, but I was pleased to note that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I have something in common: we have both been members of Haringey council. I was slightly surprised to find out—because I know him reasonably well—that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) describes himself as an optimist.

The policy of incineration is being pursued across the country. Specifically, an incinerator is planned in St Dennis in my constituency. Since before I was a parliamentary candidate, I have said consistently that Cornwall should not go down the route of incinerating its municipal waste. I have said consistently that St Dennis is the wrong place for an incinerator and that incineration is the wrong solution and technology. I have argued for several years that cheaper, cleaner and greener alternatives are available to local authorities, yet in Cornwall and in other local authorities across the country we see a determination to continue to pursue this one-size-fits-all solution and off-the-shelf easy win to deal with municipal waste when alternatives are available. Yes, they might require a little extra effort, but in the long run they can deliver huge savings in carbon emissions and money. Road movements would be reduced as less waste is ferried around, and that would be better for our country and our planet.

I was delighted that the respected environmental waste management consultancy, Eunomia, which has previously advised Cornwall council, looked recently at the council’s plans and decided that savings could be made. Those savings are not insignificant. It suggests that potentially £320 million of savings can be delivered to taxpayers in Cornwall if the council revisits its waste strategy. It makes the point that the contract is outdated and not fit for purpose, that it no longer fits the overall policy context of either the UK Government or our European counterparts, that the PFI credits are poor value for money, and that with some simple changes Cornwall can find a different solution that better meets its needs.

Cornwall currently recycles just 37% of its waste and has no real plans to improve that rate. Recycling rates cannot be improved while trying to feed an incinerator that is ever-hungry for material to burn. The best local authorities now recycle more than 60%, and recycling alone could deliver £12 million-worth of savings a year to the council. Indeed, if we went as far as Surrey county council, which is hitting a 70% target, there is potential for still more significant savings. Eunomia reports that the PFI contract that Cornwall council agreed with the previous Government is outdated and not fit for purpose, and that savings can be made there too.

None of this comes at a time of plenty. We know only too well in this House that local authorities face a difficult financial environment. We know from the representations that we all receive from our constituents that the money that could be saved—the £320 million

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that Cornwall council is throwing away—could be better used to help to meet people’s needs in their day-to-day existence.

Perhaps I can put it best by leaving it to the director of Eunomia, who said:

“Cornwall used to lead the recycling league, but now languishes in the bottom 25% of local authorities. In the 15 years since the PFI plan was hatched, the world of waste has moved on and far better alternatives now exist. Our analysis shows that the PFI contract is a very expensive way to ensure that Cornwall continues its poor environmental performance on waste for decades to come.”

I urge the Minister to get our right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to look at this issue on a value-for-money basis. We are in the last-chance saloon, but it is not too late.

6.5 pm

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to raise two very different issues.

First, Marlborough and Vaughan schools—both excellent schools in my constituency—are in urgent need of rebuilding. They were built in the 1960s as temporary schools. They have problems with asbestos and other serious defects. Given Harrow’s growing population of young families, both schools also need to expand to become three-form entry schools. The council wrote to the chief executive of the Education Funding Agency last July to propose a financial agreement involving funding provided through the priority school building programme and Harrow’s share of the basic needs allocation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will use his influence, at the very least to speed up a response to Harrow council’s letter to the EFA—one containing, I trust, positive news.

Secondly, I hope that the Competition Commission will investigate the funding of premiership rugby teams. Together with the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby is the body that distributes funding to England’s top rugby clubs. It does so on an uneven and unfair basis. I understand that London Welsh rugby club received some £1.4 million from Premiership Rugby to help to fund players’ salaries, while other premiership clubs—notably the so-called founder clubs, such as Sale, Bath, Leicester and Gloucester—receive some £3.5 million a season. Indeed, figures I have seen for January suggest that Worcester, London Irish and Sale all received about three times the funding that London Welsh received. Given that they are London Welsh’s rivals for the relegation place, this hardly suggests that a fair contest is being played out. Indeed, bizarrely, recently relegated Newcastle also appears to have received three times more funding in January than London Welsh, while Bristol and Leeds, which were relegated some time ago, received almost double the funding that London Welsh received in January.

In short, there is a clear bias in how funding is distributed against teams promoted to the premiership. The funding arrangements have all the appearance of a cartel. They make it extremely difficult for newly promoted teams to survive or thrive. To their credit, Exeter and Worcester have done so, but the vast majority of promoted clubs struggle to survive beyond a season or two. I have therefore written to the Office of Fair Trading today asking it to request an investigation by the Competition Commission into the funding of rugby clubs. I hope

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that the Deputy Leader of the House will speak to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and encourage them to use their influence to support such an investigation.

There is, too, the fiasco of the five points deducted for messing up the registration paperwork of the London Welsh scrum half, Tyson Keats, even though no one disputes his entitlement to seek employment in the UK, his eligibility to seek work as a professional rugby player or indeed—should the call come—his eligibility to play for England. I very much regret today’s decision to turn down London Welsh’s appeal against this grim five-point deduction. Quite why the crime is so severe that it should merit such a huge penalty, when other clubs making similar mistakes have not been hit so hard, is frankly difficult to fathom. Exeter fielded an extra overseas player in one of its matches last season and was hit with only a two-point fine. Leicester fielded Manu Tuilagi some seasons ago, despite his effectively being an illegal immigrant. The club was not penalised any points at all. One would think there would be some expectation by the RFU that Leicester would have checked his status; instead, the RFU rallied round to help him to get his status resolved.

The premiership should surely be a genuine competition in which clubs battle it out on a level playing field. At the moment, sadly, a newly promoted team first has to climb a mountain to get to the playing field and is then expected to play with one hand tied behind its back. It is time that the funding of premiership rugby clubs became much more transparent and that newly promoted teams received appropriate funding.

6.10 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Following last week’s Budget debate, I welcome today’s opportunity to highlight some key business-related issues affecting my constituency and my constituents.

The House will be well aware that Essex is a county of entrepreneurs, as there are many successful small businesses. That is why the first item on my list is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which continues to act as a barrier to businesses and many small firms in my constituency. To put this into some kind of context, HMRC has spent over 10 years relentlessly pursuing and seeking to punish my constituent, Mr Philip Wright. His case relates to a complex issue surrounding tax paid in the construction industry. Despite Mr Wright losing his business, being unwell and being of very limited means and having previously won an initial court hearing, HMRC continues to drag this case on, persecuting my constituent. HMRC has made many errors, yet it seems to be determined to secure a precedent-setting victory over Mr Wright at a further court hearing later this year.

This case shows how HMRC has targeted its efforts on the defenceless and on easy targets, while letting larger firms off the hook. It also shows once again how inept HMRC has been. My constituent had built up his own business and spent years doing the right thing. It is about time that HMRC did the right thing. I urge the Government, and particularly the Treasury Minister responsible for HMRC, to leave Mr Wright in peace.

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Today is quite a significant day, as we have to ask ourselves whether the official who presided over so many failures at the UK Border Agency is the right person to fix HMRC, with all its backlog of cases and problems.

The next business example from my constituency highlights problems with the Valuation Office Agency. The VOA, as it is fondly known, is an executive agency of HMRC, and it has spent the past three years sitting on a firm’s business rate re-evaluation appeal. In June 2010, the business requested a reduction on the basis that the rateable value applied was