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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 July 2013

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Localism in Planning

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)

9.30 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Good morning, Mr Hollobone. I will try to keep my remarks reasonably brief, to allow my hon. Friends the opportunity to participate in this debate, but the number who wish to do so is evidence of the growing concern in our constituencies about planning matters and the need to ensure that we strike the right balance between providing housing and ensuring that the countryside can be protected and that we keep the promises that we made to local people. I am therefore grateful for securing this debate.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I apologise to my right hon. Friend for intervening so early, but I am also serving on a Joint Committee, to which I need to return. I just want to say how much I welcome his securing this debate and the fact that so many colleagues wish to take part. I have made it clear to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House that the national policy planning framework is not working to protect the green belt. There is greenfield development in the green belt designated for my constituency at the behest of a planning inspector, rather than local people, which is evidence that our system is not working. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is raising these issues today.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. Eleven Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I am absolutely determined to do my best to ensure that those 11 people speak. It would greatly help the chances of those who want to speak if they do not intervene beforehand; otherwise we simply will not be able to get everybody in.

Nick Herbert: I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt). Protected landscapes, including the green belt, are specifically singled out in the national framework to ensure that they are not subject to these pressures. My concern is for the wider countryside, which does not have such designation, yet he points out that there is concern in those protected areas, too. That is another reason why we need to reconsider the matter.

We agree that we need more housing. Houses have never been less affordable. The gap between incomes and house prices is very wide, and there is clearly a problem. There is clearly a need for more houses, given the rising population, changing lifestyles and so on. That much is not in dispute.

The new Government agreed to approach those issues by moving away from the top-down approach of setting housing targets, so the coalition agreement was explicit:

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“We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils… In the longer term, we will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live”.

The regional spatial strategies have been abolished. The top-down target has nominally gone in the south-east, but a number of problems have arisen, despite what the coalition agreement promised.

First, district councils in my constituency, and I believe elsewhere, do not believe that the targets have really disappeared. There is considerable danger that because of the way the process has been set up—with a requirement to conduct a strategic housing market assessment that may not properly take into account the downturn that we have had—and other pressures, which I will address, what those councils are really being told is that they have little choice but to reimpose the target that we said we were taking away. That damages confidence and removes the freedom that local authorities should have to deliver housing.

The whole theory of the localist approach is that, if we move to a system of incentives and encourage responsibility from councils, they will plan for additional houses in a way that does not set up conflict. Indeed, in my own area, whereas 51,000 houses were allocated to the four district councils that cover my constituency under the south-east plan, the current proposed plans of the four councils suggest that they will build nearly 40,000 houses, which is well over three quarters of the target originally set by the previous Government.

We must reject the false dichotomy that there is either a highest housing number or zero houses, with my constituents or councils rejecting the prospect of any house building. The councils are not doing that; they are actually planning for a very responsible level of housing, but it is important that they do that by consent and can carry their communities with them, which is the principle that we set out. If the emerging plans that they published are overturned by the Planning Inspectorate, or if the councils set a higher number than they want to build because they fear that some plans will be overturned by the inspectorate, that freedom has effectively been taken away. So my first key point is that we must not chase the target that we said we would abolish. If we chase that target, we will undermine confidence in the system that we said we would set up.

Secondly, although planning authorities are required to assess housing needs in their area—it is right that they should be able to do so—it is important that they also weigh up the availability of infrastructure to support those housing needs. We have a serious infrastructure deficit in West Sussex. We have an inadequacy of water and real pressure on unprotected countryside, which is important for agricultural use. We have pressure on school places and rural roads. The system will be failing if district councils are not able to adjust their figure to reflect that and say, “This is what is realistically deliverable in our area.” Again, district councils feel under huge pressure to adhere to the original high housing target with little regard to such infrastructure considerations, which should be material and allow councils to set a reasonable level of housing.

Thirdly—this is the real point that I wish to make—there is now a growing risk that we will return to the bad old days of planning by appeal, under which the plans put

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together by local authorities are effectively overturned by the inspectorate. More to the point, before plans are fully in place, the inspectorate might be allowed to uphold appeals from speculative developers that are charging into my constituency—I understand that they are all over the countryside—and putting in applications in the hope that, in the climate that has now been set, the inspectorate will uphold them. I believe that those developers are responding to a signal that has been sent to them.

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): My right hon. Friend probably knows the district of Uttlesford as well as he knows his own constituency. Does he not think it is particularly iniquitous if the Planning Inspectorate makes the kind of decisions to which he has just referred when the district plan is not in place, not because of the planning authority’s idleness or unwillingness, but because it is being held up by waiting for confirmation from the highways authority or the Highways Agency?

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree. My right hon. Friend makes his point very well.

The dangers of returning to planning by appeal are multiple. First, such a return is founded on the mistaken belief that the way to get house building moving is to send some kind of signal through the system and the Planning Inspectorate that such speculative applications are to be rewarded. That is not the way to get house building moving. We need a correct analysis of the real reason for the slow rate of housing starts, which is the economic downturn. In so far as the rate is increasing again, that is due to the upturn in the economy.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I apologise to my right hon. Friend for not being able to stay for all this debate, as I warned him. The process that he describes is exactly what is happening in Gloucestershire. There is evidence that developers are trying to submit applications under the wire before the democratically approved joint core strategy can be implemented—again, not due to any laziness in local councils. Local politicians are trying to distinguish between real housing need and demand, whereas the inspectorate appears just to be backing demand, and in areas such as his and mine, demand is virtually insatiable.

Nick Herbert: I agree with every word my hon. Friend says; he describes the problem precisely.

The first mistake is to believe that sending a signal and using the inspectorate in that way to reward speculative applications will contribute to getting construction going. It will not, because what is happening frequently is that developers are simply land banking permissions. They are not necessarily building. When they choose to build, it will be when they think that they can make a return and when there is demand for the houses that they wish to sell. What they are doing at the moment in many cases, in my constituency and elsewhere, is taking an opportunity to obtain a permission where they have absolutely no intention to build immediately.

The system is rewarding those developers by having insufficient regard to permissions that have already been granted. That is the second key concern. Given

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how the rules are set up in relation to the five-year land supply, the calculations that local authorities are required to undertake mean that they cannot include swathes of existing permissions that they have allocated, which places completely unrealistic targets on them.

In one district council in my constituency—Horsham—a rate of house building is now being required that has never been achieved in the area, even in the boom years. It is good news for the developers, who will not be developing for years but will secure planning permissions on greenfield sites. By setting up a formula that fails to give weight to unbuilt planning permissions, many of which are on brownfield sites, we are effectively moving not to the brownfield-first site policy that we should have but to a greenfield-first policy. That is an environmental disaster.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): One problem on the Isle of Wight—and, I have no doubt, elsewhere—is that local people cannot afford housing because people from overseas come to the island.

Nick Herbert: More affordable housing is clearly needed, and there is strong support in local areas for that housing to be provided, to maintain the character of villages and ensure that communities remain strong. No one disagrees that more housing is needed, particularly more affordable housing, but as the policy is constructed with a five-year land supply requirement that pays insufficient attention to unbuilt planning permission and is effectively a greenfield-first policy, it will not deliver the affordable housing needed; it will simply enable developers to build their balance sheets.

There is disagreement about the number of unbuilt planning permissions nationally; the Minister has had an exchange about it. It would be helpful to have some up-to-date, reliable national figures. According to the four district councils covering my constituency and beyond, the total number of unbuilt planning permissions granted is well over 16,000 and the number of houses proposed to be built is 39,000. The number of unbuilt planning permissions granted is getting on for half the number of houses wanted, yet the councils are being told that those unbuilt permissions cannot really be taken into account when they set the number. That is the problem.

The practical effect of the policy is damaging to a principle that I know that the Minister adheres to strongly, as do I—neighbourhood planning underlying the publication of local plans. That was the most potent feature of the Localism Act 2011: neighbourhoods would be given the responsibility and incentives to plan for their own futures. In my constituency, some parish councils have stuck their necks out to prepare responsible neighbourhood plans, saying what amount of housing they can take. Some are taking an amount that they would not have dreamed of, and are now feeling considerably undermined. I cannot overstate how seriously I take that.

In my constituency, the parish councillors—good people—are all volunteers who have taken a considerable amount of local effort and, in some cases, risk to promote the plans, while speculative applications are coming in that are being granted either because the district council wants to grant them or, in many cases, because it fears that they will be upheld by the inspectorate.

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Such speculative applications are often completely contrary to what is wanted in the parishes under the neighbourhood plan. The consequence is that faith in the neighbourhood planning process, which could be so powerful and will deliver the local and affordable housing that we need, is in danger of draining away.

I have just forwarded to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, copying the Minister, a letter from three chairs of parish councils in my constituency. They specifically asked me to draw the letter to Ministers’ attention. It says:

“Neighbourhood planning should encourage partnership working between parishes and districts. In truth, it is damaging the very fabric of these important tiers of local government. We also run the risk of damaging the trust of local people who have been allowed by government, and encouraged by parish councils, to engage in the neighbourhood planning process. To have their contribution disregarded will be damaging at resident, parish and district levels.”

Those are not party political elected councillors; they are volunteers of no party who are committed to the neighbourhood planning process, and they feel that it is being chucked back at them by the actions of the planning inspector.

I will conclude by suggesting some remedies, so that I do not simply criticise what is happening and because I believe that the current situation is retrievable. It is not so radical a suggestion to abolish the Planning Inspectorate entirely. The Conservatives used to believe that we would not hand decisions to quangos—indeed, that we would get rid of quangos. I note that the Conservative party manifesto at the election, entitled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”—an invitation that I have now declined—says:

“To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans”.

There it is. We set it out in those terms. I accept that that did not find its way into the coalition agreement, but that is the promise that this party made to local people, yet we are now effectively allowing the inspectorate to do exactly that.

We could also extend the moratorium on speculative applications as plans emerge. That approach is not necessarily the right way to go, as it would mean that there would be no way to incentivise areas that are not planning responsibly to continue.

I have three suggestions that I believe the Minister could follow, even if we are to continue reneging on our manifesto promise. First, we must give proper weight to emerging plans, not just pay lip service to them or produce written answers and say publicly that weight is being given to them. In particular, where applications are not supported by parish and district councils, the inspectorate should be required to take notice of that, yet it is doing exactly the opposite at the moment. That could be done by executive decision, and a signal could be sent from the centre.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): An appeal decision on a wind farm has just come through, following the new guidance and a big policy change, but one of the points made by the Planning Inspectorate was:

“National policy has not been changed by the recent Ministerial Statements”.

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Surely, therefore, we must go slightly further than my right hon. Friend’s first point might suggest.

Nick Herbert: I saw the response that my hon. Friend refers to, and I am sure that it will have raised the eyebrows of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who was clear about the signal he intended to send. Further clarification is now necessary. We need an unambiguous and published signal to be sent about the weight to be given to the emerging plans.

Secondly, we need a brownfield-first policy, not a greenfield-first policy, which means clarifying the issue of deliverability set out in the national policy framework. Unused permissions should not be discounted simply because developers say, “Oh, well, we can’t build there”. That should not be the definition of deliverability, entirely to suit the developers. Of course they will say that, because that is how they can secure planning permission for their greenfield sites. We must have a more intelligent approach.

Thirdly, we need to take proper regard of infrastructure, and guidance due to be published by the Government provides the opportunity to do so. The Minister kindly suggested that I should go to see Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who has been responsible for drawing up the guidance, after I tabled an amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill and made my points about the inadequacy of infrastructure. I accept that there is no impropriety and that Lord Taylor has properly registered his interests with the authorities, but I am concerned that not only is he producing the guidance on infrastructure, but he is a director of a company that is seeking to build a new town in my constituency. In doing so, that company is trying to overturn the local plan, which has just been produced by Mid Sussex district council. If we believe in localism, and having said that local authorities were to have the ability to set their own housing numbers and be in charge, we cannot allow people simultaneously to try to overturn those plans and be involved in the publication of guidance that is meant to reinforce localism. The system is making a serious mistake if it is permitting that.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his proposals would provide an opportunity for people who are able to purchase only a house of a certain cost, in other words affordable housing? Does he feel that a portion of land should be set aside within a development, so that some land is processed for development now and some land is banked? We have that in Northern Ireland, and I want to see what he thinks.

Nick Herbert: That is an interesting suggestion. So far as further policy development is concerned, we should look at what measures can be taken to prevent land banking and at more radical reform of the planning system, which is undoubtedly constraining supply in a way that drives up prices. In the meantime, we need to make the system of localism that we promised work.

In my constituency, one chief executive of a district council, whom I will not name, told a group of parish councillors who were discussing with him their proposed neighbourhood plan, “Localism is dead.” That is the message that people on the ground are beginning to

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receive. When we explicitly promised localism not only in the Conservative manifesto but in the coalition agreement, when we have just passed a Localism Act, when we have told people that they will be in charge in their local communities and when we have put on them the responsibility for planning sensibly, we must uphold their ability to do so. Allowing a quango, through the back door, to reimpose the top-down housing targets that we said we would abolish is damaging to the process of localism, to public trust and, if we persist, to the Government themselves.

I am a passionate believer in localism. I want to be able to go out and defend the policy. It could be made to work, but that first requires acceptance that it is going wrong.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, John Mann, I thank Nick Herbert for his contribution. Owing to the level of interest in the debate, the Chairman of Ways and Means has given me permission to impose a three-minute time limit. I know that that is short, but it will mean that everyone gets in if there are no interventions. The running order that I propose is as follows: John Mann, Nicholas Soames, Annette Brooke, Caroline Nokes, Stuart Andrew, Bob Neill, Penny Mordaunt, Andrew Bingham, Zac Goldsmith, Chris White, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and John Howell. All should be able to get in. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has kindly agreed to limit her remarks to 10 minutes, which will give the Minister slightly longer—perhaps with interventions at that stage—to respond to any residual concerns. I hope that that is acceptable to everyone.

9.55 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I have cut my speech accordingly. It is safe to say, and let it ring from every single rooftop tonight, “Localism is dead!”, and the Conservative party admits it. We have heard an excellent speech, demonstrating the absolute betrayal of the Conservative party manifesto and of local communities, and a shift to the centre by the Government, the Minister and, in particular, his predecessor, who is now the chairman of the Conservative party. That is in spite of the warnings of people such as myself about the national planning guidelines.

I have a few questions for the Minister—he will need his pen—which I am sure he will want to answer. Will he endorse my early-day motion 428, tabled today, on UK Coal? UK Coal is the largest landowner of brownfield sites throughout the country. I would be happy to have 10,000 houses on the site of Harworth colliery—destroyed by the regional spatial strategy and the inability to have flexibility. Will he endorse that approach?

Is it possible, where the regional spatial strategy has imposed housing targets on a local district council’s core strategy, for a local council now to reduce those targets? Is it possible for a local district council with targets set—even if it kept them—to redistribute those targets between different communities, in order to shift more to the brownfield sites and away from the greenfield and green belt sites?

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A wind farm application was defeated unanimously in recent months in the local council, because it was opposed by all local residents—I declare a vested interest, I am one of those residents—but it was resubmitted this week. What will happen when the council turns it down again? Will the developer win on appeal, after a second unanimous decision by a local authority backing its local population?

The community infrastructure levy is a tax on development—will the Minister remove this tax on self-build housing and on tiny developments to allow economic regeneration at the micro-level by small builders, family builders and young couples? The affordable housing levy means a tax in Hertfordshire of £186,000 per property for new properties. Will the Minister remove this new taxation for single developments and, I suggest, small developments of perhaps three to five? The tax was brought in by the national planning guidance and did not exist before—

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order.

9.58 am

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I am pleased to support my parliamentary neighbour and close working friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), on his passionately argued speech this morning. In view of the time constraints, I say for the record that he did not make a single point that I am not profoundly in agreement with and wholly support. I was in the Chamber when you had your debate on such matters, Mr Hollobone, and many of the same issues have been raised today.

My hon. Friend the Minister has been extremely helpful and encouraging to Mid Sussex district council, taking the trouble to come down to see and talk to it. Will he acknowledge in detail the real quandary that district councils now find themselves in? In good faith, taking part in and using the values and ethos of the localism system, they find themselves constantly being hung out to dry. Frankly, it will shortly amount to a credibility question throughout the country.

Will the Minister accept that West Sussex county council’s proposed announcement today or tomorrow of its support for a second runway at Gatwick will put further pressure on mid-Sussex district with an almost unsupportable torrent of applications? Will he see what he can do to give guidance to the Planning Inspectorate so that full weight is placed on the views of local authorities who have a clearly emerging plan when applications are brought to its attention?

I want to raise one more point with my hon. Friend. The process is susceptible to well-funded lobbyists and developers promoting pet projects that local people believe are out of all proportion to what they want in their community. An example of that in mid-Sussex is the wholly unsuitable Mayfield new town scheme on a greenfield site, despite the proposal having been reviewed and rejected when preparing the district plan and despite overwhelming public criticism.

Will the Minister take very seriously the points made by my right hon. Friend—in his usual way, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also made a powerful point—about the credibility of the scheme to which we gave our name? We campaigned vigorously and local

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people signed up to it. They supported our party on the basis that it would be a scheme that we would undertake. I am afraid that we are falling woefully short of that target and ambition. I urge the Minister to support the views of my right hon. Friend.

10.2 am

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I agree with much of what he said. We are looking at aims that should be complementary, but are contradictory at the moment: protecting the countryside and green spaces, and providing much-needed housing through local decision making. Given the time constraints, I will give a brief report.

The good points that have scored highly for the coalition Government include scrapping the regional top-down spatial strategies, listening on the national planning policy framework, introducing brownfield-first, having three pillars of sustainability, and in theory not letting economic growth trump protection for the green belt, landscapes and urban green spaces. I am also keen on neighbourhood plans, which score high marks. However, the downside is that the numbers from the regional spatial strategies are retained. Core strategies are out of kilter timewise with neighbourhood plans. Local people should be able to say, “We don’t want the houses there. We know we need them. We want them here.” But there is not time. Inspectors are overturning.

It is important to know when we will get planning guidance and whether there will be consultation. Five-year plans must put brownfield sites first and include undeveloped sites with planning permission, and windfall developments. We want to address the need, not demand. Areas for improvement include more social housing. More publicly owned land should be released and we should work proactively to bring more brownfield land forward and to stop interference with local democracy. Result: can do better.

10.3 am

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on a fantastic opening speech. I cannot disagree with a single word of it. I served for 12 years on Test Valley borough council and I commend anyone to serve an apprenticeship on a local planning authority, which can show how vexed the world of planning and politics can be.

I want to make some basic points as briefly as I can. The first is about a brownfield-first policy. In Romsey, we have waited since 1983 for the brewery site, the only major brownfield site in the town, to be developed. At last, there is some real progress, but it has taken 30 years. There must be a far more robust mechanism than the local authority considering compulsory purchase time and again to try to bring it forward, at which point the developer simply suggests more enthusiastically that he was going to build something. It has taken 30 years to get the site developed while greenfield sites on the edge of the town and in surrounding parts of the borough come under immense pressure.

The five-year land supply is incredibly important. In Test Valley borough, developers have competed against one another at appeal to prove that for some reason or

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other their site will be developable but their competitor’s site will not. At the moment, we have the spectacle of a developer competing against himself to prove that site No. 1, for which planning permission was granted on appeal, needless to say, is not developable so he is bringing forward another one. There is no guarantee that either site will be built on until prices are right and the developer believes he will maximise his profit, so there is an ever-growing land bank. My right hon. Friend may have mentioned that planning permission has been granted for 1 million houses throughout the country, but they are not being built. We must find ways to encourage developers to build on sites with existing planning permission.

The problem is not restricted to rural areas. In Bassett in Southampton, there is no town or parish council, but just a city council and residents’ associations, which work hard to introduce neighbourhood planning. My constituent, Jean Wawman, recently wrote to me saying that developers constantly have the upper hand, and that article 4 directions to control houses in multiple occupation are clunky, cumbersome, time-consuming, and prevent local people from having real control over the character of their neighbourhoods.

Finally—I have only 30 seconds—there is no green belt in Hampshire, save for a small corner in the south-west, which is preventing the spread of the Bournemouth conurbation, which is not even in the same county. In my constituency, greenfield sites without the additional protection of being green belt invariably come under pressure for development, particularly for Traveller sites. That is a huge concern in villages such as Timsbury.

I urge the Minister to think again. There is no such thing in the Test valley as ordinary countryside. It is all extraordinary and deserves protection.

10.7 am

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Over the past 10 or 20 years, every part of my constituency has been affected by overdevelopment. The old mills and industrial sites have been replaced with massive new housing, which has put huge pressure and strain on the local infrastructure. Our roads are congested and our schools are bursting. We now have a massive issue in the Guiseley area, where the council is desperately trying to find places for schoolchildren for the coming year.

Local anger and frustration with the local planning system cannot be overstated. Too many people believe that planning is something that happens to them, and when localism came in there was a feeling of hope that they would be able to have some input. Local communities’ ability to develop neighbourhood plans is welcome, and I am fortunate that in my constituency rafts of people have come together to try to face the challenges head on and to take advantage of the opportunities to shape the future of their towns and villages. In Aireborough, Jennifer Kirby is leading a group that has provided workshops and involved children in the future that they want for their town. Parish councils in Horsforth and Rawdon are engaging actively with residents and their views.

The feedback I am receiving is united. People complain that despite their work, the local authority’s five-year land supply supersedes everything they are doing. It has sent applications for thousands of new houses to the

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inspector for approval. If that plan did not have to be approved by the inspector, I wonder what the real figure would be. I suggest that it would probably be far more realistic.

The people I speak to are anxious about the green belt in our area. An urban constituency such as mine values its green belt, which helps us to identify our separate towns and villages. We are in danger of creating urban sprawl. We have heard from other hon. Members that developers are going to the inspector, and that is happening in my constituency. Developers have taken applications for some of our precious green areas to the inspector, and I hope that they will be turned down so that local people have time to determine where houses should be.

One parish councillor said to me that he is worried that nothing decided at parish level can change the decision made by those at unitary level, who themselves are hidebound by central Government housing targets. We need to address the problem urgently, because local people are rightly getting angry. Let us give local people the real power that we promised. Let us stop the developers thinking that they can do what they like, and let us seriously look at abolishing the inspectorate, so that we can even the playing field and tip planning towards having far more localism.

10.10 am

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate? In relation to our history, he and I accepted an invitation at the same time, and my little role in the invitation was to be a part-author in the national planning policy framework. I pay tribute to the preliminary work that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) did on that.

I understand the strength of feeling on the issue. After my 24 years or so in local government before I came into this place, I am very conscious that ever since 1947, planning has been about striking a balance. We are absolutely right to cherish and protect valued landscape. Equally, for a party and Government who believe in aspiration, one of the most significant aspirations is to enable young people and future generations in this country to have homes that they can afford. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs that those things can be reconciled, and we need to see how best we can do that.

It is worth pointing out that from the dirigiste and centralised situation that we inherited, much progress has been made. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about the significant advances that I am proud we were able to make with the national planning policy framework. We also need to bear it in mind that other issues are already taken on board, including the question of materiality and the views of district councils. They are significant, and I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is worth saying, of course, that it has been long-established planning law that decisions are taken according to all material considerations, and emerging plans can and should be a material consideration. What we may need

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to do—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is working on this—is ensure greater consistency in the application of the policy by the Planning Inspectorate. I pay tribute to his work on strengthening the quality control in that regard. It is an important point that we need to deal with.

I wish to make another short point relating to the protection of green land and to brownfield-first. I note that the core planning principles in the NPPF refer specifically to using

“land of lesser environmental value”

and encouraging the use of brownfield land. On the question of housing supply and the figures relating to the five-year deliverable supplies, it is worth pointing out that footnote 11 to paragraph 47 of the NPPF specifically states:

“Sites with planning permission should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that schemes will not be implemented within five years”.

Perhaps my error was not to have that put in bold rather than in a footnote—I will own up to that—but we need to ensure that it is fully taken on board by decision makers. However, the provision is there for that to be achieved. We need consistency of approach, and finally, we must deal with the issue of delay by statutory consultees, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). He is not unique in considering that, and I know that the Minister is already working on that case.

10.13 am

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this timely debate. I want briefly to give an example, make a request of the Minister, and put forward a suggestion.

The example I want to give is of a dementia care home, which was a high-rise building due to be built in my constituency on an undeveloped beach and unsurprisingly, also on a floodplain. It was an awful design, and in fact, the developer had to put in a subsequent application, because it had not realised that dementia patients might need nursing care and there was no provision for any nurses. The application reassured us that we could be relaxed about the flooding issue because—I am not making this up—it was a high-rise building, and therefore, in case of flooding, residents would be able to reach higher ground. The application was dismissed locally but overturned by the inspectorate. I give that example not only because it shows how the local voice has not been listened to, but to illustrate that this is about both the quality of services in our communities and the quality of the built environment.

The request I make of the Minister is that in his summing up, he emphasise how we can strengthen the local voice and give communities ownership of the quality of life that they want for their communities. In particular, that should happen through local plans, especially in communities such as mine, which do not have a great deal of capacity to develop such plans.

Finally, I suggest that where we have third parties, such as the Environment Agency, which is forming a view on such schemes and dismissing them as reckless and bonkers, we give some publicity to those decisions—

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there is definitely a gap in the market for “www.EAsaysno.com”. We should consider other ways in which we can provide the potential buyers of homes or care home places with information about what they are taking on; for example, whether they are built on floodplains. The more we can influence developers to be much more responsible and raise the quality of what they are proposing for our communities, the better. Transparency with regard to the Environment Agency and other organisations would go a long way towards doing that.

10.15 am

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), I spent 12 years on the local council. For some of that time I sat on the planning committee, so I have some knowledge of the way in which the planning system has worked, and I, too, am concerned about recent events. In the three minutes available to me, I shall try to crash through a few of the points that I wish to make.

In the High Peak in recent weeks, we have seen significant applications for development on greenfield sites. They have been refused by the local development control committee on High Peak borough council. Those decisions have been met with great approval and, in some cases, relief by local residents. However, they have then been overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I want to be clear: neither I nor my residents in the High Peak are nimbys. We are aware that there is some need for housing, and nobody would dispute that, but seeing such decisions being made by local councils and then overturned by the Planning Inspectorate is not what the process should be about. It completely devalues the faith that people have in the planning system.

I want to highlight a particular area called Harpur Hill on the outskirts of Buxton. Harpur Hill has approximately 900 to 1,000 houses, and applications are swirling around to more or less double the size of that small area. The residents association, which is headed up by a couple of my constituents, Ken Greenway and Pam Reddy, is really concerned. It sees the applications being refused, and then granted by the Planning Inspectorate, and it is wondering how some sense of proportion can be introduced. It is not saying “No houses”, it just wants a proportionate number of houses in the area, because the infrastructure cannot cope with those huge numbers.

What can we do about the issue? My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made some excellent suggestions, and I would agree with all of them, but we have a gap, which is not being helped with in the High Peak. I grant that the local council has delayed the introduction of its local plan—wrongly, in my view—and a window of opportunity has been created. Developers are jumping through that window with great enthusiasm. They are putting in speculative applications for greenfield sites that are being granted by the inspectorate. That is creating what many people see as a free-for-all in the High Peak. The residents association in Harpur Hill has seen that going on, and it is concerned that the problem will come knocking on its door.

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I am asking for a sense of proportion, which is what a local plan should bring, using local people and local councillors. However, it is not there in the High Peak, and developers are making the best of that. Giving parish councils more say is an excellent idea. In Chapel-en-le-Frith, the parish council has now said that it will object to all applications because it is the only voice it has, even though it is not being listened to. I would like the Minister to give me some assurance that I can go back to my residents and say, “Yes, we are listening, we do understand this.” The way it is at the moment, it is just not working. The High Peak is a fantastically beautiful area and I can understand that people want to live there, but at the moment it seems to be open season on development on greenfield sites, which I do not think is right.

10.18 am

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I agree with everything that he said in his excellent speech, and I want to take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to concerns raised by many colleagues about proposals to reform the laws on permitted development. It would have been absolutely wrong for the Government to remove people’s right to object to plans that would have an impact on their homes, and I am very pleased that he managed to find an alternative that would both encourage non-contentious extensions and preserve the all-important right to object. I wanted to put that on the record.

I join the debate today because I fear that we are losing sight of the huge emphasis that many of us in Parliament placed on localism before the election. Local authorities have been stripped of authority over such a long time and to such an extent that more often than not, even on absolutely local issues, they are simply overruled by the centre. I recognise that there has been some rowing back on that since the election. As has been said, there is great potential in neighbourhood plans, for instance. However, we cannot say with any real conviction that our planning system is genuinely local, despite the noises that we all made to our constituents before the election.

I know that the Minister will make the point that there is a real and urgent need for new homes, and that is obviously right—I do not think that anyone will argue with that—but before we give up for ever our precious green spaces, I would simply encourage him to acknowledge that the reason why we are not seeing new homes is not the planning system. Vast tracts of land are available for development but lying idle. There are 250,000 plots in the south-east alone. That is in addition to 31,000 acres of brownfield land. All could be developed now. It is worth pointing out also that roughly 90% of applications are successful; they go through. The problem is not a lack of permissions. It is more likely to be, as we have heard, a lack of access to finance. Therefore, even if we were simply to rip up the planning system, we probably would not see a net increase in development. We would simply see more development in the wrong places—in the most unneighbourly places.

As a rule, it must make sense to have a strong brownfield-first approach, and that should be crystal clear in planning law. We might even want to look at the

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US, where there is a tax bias in favour of developing brownfield sites and against developing greenfield sites. That is the case in a country that is far less compressed than our own.

It is also worth looking at empty homes. We do not know how many empty homes there are in this country—the figures are so unreliable—but some people put the figure at about 1 million. Clearly, that is an area where we should be making more inroads.

I want to finish by commenting on the national Planning Inspectorate and echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs. If I were asked to design a body with the specific goal of alienating and enraging communities, I do not think I could do better. It is a remote, virtually invisible, unelected body that simply tramples over local wishes and opinion. Even where local people are absolutely united and backed up by their councillors, they are still routinely overruled. I am about to run out of time. I will simply say that if there is to be any point at all in being a local authority councillor, we have to do away with that organisation.

10.21 am

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, not least because I intended only to intervene and you very kindly put me down to speak.

I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, not least about abolition of the Planning Inspectorate, which seems to be one of the biggest excuses that I have come across in my term as a Member. Currently, Warwick district council is consulting on a proposed local plan, which has met with widespread disapproval from local residents, and for valid reasons—whether pollution, gridlock or infrastructure—that need to be taken into account. I appreciate that planning is difficult, but we need to engage more with our local residents on planning and collaborate with them and local parishes and town councils to ensure that they feel ownership of a plan in the end.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has just mentioned the real and urgent need for new homes, but very few people in my constituency consider that there is a real and urgent need for so many homes. If we are not careful, words such as “localism” will be viewed with very little confidence indeed. We need to change things significantly and soon; otherwise the system will not have the confidence certainly of my constituents.

10.23 am

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am very grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to speak, especially as I, too, had only hoped to intervene. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments that the emerging local plans should be given more weight by the inspectorate.

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I have a particularly difficult constituency in terms of planning: 80% of it is an area of outstanding natural beauty; I have 10 historic market towns that are absolute gems—if there were a listed town status, all 10 would qualify—and I have the highest number of listed houses as a proportion of the housing stock of anywhere outside London. I therefore want to make three specific points to my hon. Friend the Minister.

First, I did praise the national planning policy framework when it came out, but I had one specific reservation, which has come back to bite our communities. As the Minister knows, one case in my constituency is now to be reviewed in the courts. It concerns the 20% historical under-provision. This is grossly unfair. It is quite reasonable to have a five-year land bank, but my council has a very good record of bringing forward developments. It has a very good new homes bonus rate. To impose an additional 20%, on top of the five-year land supply, is completely unreasonable and unsustainable. If we are not careful, we will lose those 10 historic market towns—we will lose those little gems that we have in this country.

Secondly, we must have a mechanism by which infrastructure is provided before large-scale developments are built. There is a lot of sewage flooding in my constituency. Thames Water’s performance in my constituency is woeful. We had a case in which sewage flooded an existing community, and because the system could not put sufficient weight on Thames Water’s representations, another 150 houses were given permission right next to where there was already sewage flooding.

My third point relates to solar farms. We have been assailed in the Cotswolds by applications for solar farms recently. I do not object to that necessarily, although there is no guidance to say what the impact should be on an area of outstanding natural beauty. Suffice it to say that there is no mechanism in the planning system for the community to benefit from these solar farms. They would be classed as large developments if they were housing developments. They are between 20 and 50 acres and involve many millions of pounds for the developer. If it were a residential development, the local community would get considerable benefit through the infrastructure levy, yet there is no such mechanism in relation to solar farms.

I therefore say this to the Minister. Let localism work. Let the local councils decide where to put these houses. In the Cotswolds, the number of permissions granted is now three times the historical 10-year rate. That is unacceptable and will lead to the loss of those historic communities in the Cotswolds.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Last but certainly not least—John Howell.

10.26 am

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow, if somewhat distantly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). There was much in his speech with which I agree.

I have in my constituency the town of Thame, which has recently completed a neighbourhood plan. During completion of that neighbourhood plan, which took a year and a bit to come to fruition, the council’s district plan was the subject of an examination in public under

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the old rules, under which the inspector could have interfered in where the housing went in Thame, but he did not. He said that he would interfere in where the housing went in Wallingford, which had no neighbourhood plan, but because Thame had an embryonic neighbourhood plan—an emerging plan—he would not determine where the housing would go; he would leave that to the people of Thame to determine during the production of their plan.

I think that that is a clear model for how the inspectorate should take into account emerging plans. It has set a very good precedent and one that I urge the Minister to get the inspectorate to follow. I remember from my days as a mere Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department that we frequently had to call in the Planning Inspectorate to stress the point of consistency in how it approached taking plans into account.

There is no excuse for a district council not having a local plan. It is a great shame that we could not have abolished the regional spatial strategies on day one of coming into office. We could not do that for a number of legal reasons: the challenges that it would have involved. It has taken quite a long time to get, on a rolling basis, the abolition of those regional plans. Nevertheless, councils that have looked at this have taken into account where the thing is going and have gone back, where they have had time, to look at the housing numbers. In many cases, they have found that the housing numbers now exceed those that were originally in the regional spatial strategy, but that is for them to decide.

The one thing that we have skirted around in this debate is not the housing targets, but the need for a robust five-year land supply. If we are going to say, “We have this number of houses to provide,” we need to show the mechanism by which we are going to provide it. By insisting on a robust five-year land supply, we should be able to do that. Neighbourhood plans have to be in general conformity with the district council’s plan, and that includes the five-year land supply, so there should be no difference at all between the two. There should be a great overlap between the two forms—

Mr Andrew Turner: I am rather concerned about this five-year provision in a country in which we are cutting migration. That means a significant reduction—a significant lowering—in demand.

John Howell: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but in some ways it is irrelevant. That is an issue for district councils to take into account.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Thank you all. Everyone has been exceptionally well behaved, and as a result, we can relax the no-interventions rule. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has agreed to keep her remarks to 10 minutes, so there will be plenty of time for the Minister to make his remarks and for hon. Members to come back, if they wish.

10.30 am

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone.

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I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). He serves a beautiful constituency and he spoke passionately and in an informed way on behalf of his constituents. I agree with much of what he said, and I do not know whether that is a greater worry for him or for me—we shall see. I almost feel guilty for intruding on the Minister’s misery, because his own side appears to be doing a very effective job in opposing his policies. Nevertheless, I want to share with him my concerns about the move away from localism and echo some of the points made eloquently by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Everyone spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.

As we heard from hon. Members, localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, and that was apparent in the early months of the coalition Government. When the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government introduced the Localism Bill in 2010, he claimed to be

“getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs”

in order to

“restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth—and build a stronger, fairer Britain.”

Nowhere was the commitment to localism more fervent than in planning policy. The Conservative pre-election green paper, “Open Source Planning”, exemplified the localist approach, but three years, on a gigantic U-turn has taken place. The NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system. Almost a year and a half on from the introduction of the NPPF, the full consequences of the Government’s approach are starting to become clear.

In March, a Local Government Information Unit research paper concluded that, far from putting people at the centre of planning, the NPPF is at

“risk of undermining localism in planning”.

The latest planning application statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, show barely any change in the number of approvals or the speed of decision making since the implementation of the NPPF.

Robert Neill: May I remind the hon. Lady that when the NPPF was introduced, her party criticised it and she advocated the retention of regional spatial strategies and targets? Is that still Opposition policy?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We did not oppose the NPPF and I certainly did not argue for the retention of the regional spatial strategies. I must put that on the record.

In many places, planning criteria have worsened.

Annette Brooke: If there had not been a change in Government, a new town, which was not supported by any democratically elected person in any council, would be on its way by now in a beautiful village in Dorset. We have moved on from those top-down regional spatial strategies.

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Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because, as she will hear in a moment, the Opposition are demonstrating a strong commitment to localism, which I am sure that she would want to applaud. Popular planning policies, such as brownfield-first, have been undermined by the NPPF—a point we heard hon. Members make today. Six months on from the introduction of the NPPF, any remaining claim the Secretary of State had to being a localist Secretary of State was exposed by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, in which he mentions himself no fewer than 158 times. The 2013 Act, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England states

“marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”,

includes powers that allow the Secretary of State, from October, to designate a local planning authority as failing and to strip it of its planning powers, bypassing the local community in deciding planning applications. The Conservative-led Local Government Association said that that

“represents a blow to local democracy, by taking authority away from democratically accountable and locally elected councillors and placing it instead with the Planning Inspectorate”—

a body that has been the object of ridicule for hon. Members today. The LGA goes on to say that the legislation could prove

“counterproductive in terms of stimulating growth, since the removal of local decision making risks seriously denting trust at the local level. This could mean some communities are likely to be increasingly reluctant to accept new development in their areas.”

The Planning Minister, however, was not done. In case anyone, anywhere, still thought that the Government’s localist promise held any meaning, he turned his attention to stripping local people of their right to have a say on the high streets at the heart of their communities.

The Government’s most recent move—brought in by the back door without any parliamentary debate whatsoever—temporarily allows shops to be converted into payday lenders, bookmakers or fast food shops, without any say for the local community. That is the exact opposite of what the vast majority of the public want. Polling shows that 76% of people would support the Government giving new powers to local councils to help them shape the high street in line with the wishes of the community. Can the Minister explain how his policy, which is the opposite of that, does not remove powers from local people?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am interested in and intrigued by the hon. Lady’s new-found localism. When her party was in power—for 13 years—it had planning at the remotest regional level. Having found localism, if she, unfortunately, came into Government, what would her party do specifically to ensure that local authorities had greater powers than they have now?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I will come on to specific things that a Labour Government would do in a moment. We are arguing very strongly that local people now have little say in what happens to their high streets. Is the Minister still arguing that local authorities should use article 4 directions to get round his new policy?

I shall now answer the question of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about what a Labour Government would do specifically to give

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powers to local communities.In May this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) pledged that a future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers to stop the proliferation of certain types of unwanted shops or premises on their high streets, thereby showing that Labour is the party of true localism. That is the opposite of what we are now seeing under this Government, who are taking powers away from local communities, and the same is happening with neighbourhood planning. We want to build on neighbourhood planning, integrating it more clearly into the planning system and building on the success of places such as Thame in Oxfordshire, where 775 new homes have been planned for. We would like to see such success mirrored elsewhere. If we are to deliver the number of houses that we so desperately need, it is important that we work strongly with communities to gain their consent.

Our approach is a strongly localist one. We want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development, and the Minister could do worse than listen to his colleagues this morning.

10.40 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate. He, as everyone here would attest, is one of the most effective campaigners in modern politics. There is probably no one to whom we owe more gratitude for the fact that we still have sterling rather than the euro, and no one who has more responsibility for the introduction of directly elected and locally accountable police commissioners. Furthermore, the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through Parliament just last night owes as much to him as to any other Member.

You can probably understand, Mr Hollobone, why it makes me a little nervous, therefore, that my right hon. Friend is now turning his sights on me and my portfolio, which is planning. If I were asked to rate my chances against him, I am not sure whether I would fancy my odds, but I will try to persuade him that he need not turn his sights on me or on our planning reforms, because although the reforms are clearly a work in progress and it is only a short time since the Localism Act 2011 was enacted and the national planning policy framework was brought into force, early signs are positive and it is worth being a little patient before rushing to conclusions.

I want to engage with all the points raised as best I can in the time available, but I will start with what I think is the big argument: what does localism mean? I want briefly to take everyone away from the question of meeting housing need, which seems to be the particularly vexed issue that taxes us today, to the other needs that we all recognise human beings and families have, and which in many cases local authorities have a responsibility to provide. There is the need for schooling. There is the need for environmental management for waste collection. There is the need for care for vulnerable children and

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adults. We all accept, respect and welcome the fact that local authorities have responsibility for deciding how to meet those needs, and in none of those cases do we think they should have the ability not to meet them. Localism means control over how the fundamental needs of the people who elect the authorities and reside in their communities are met; it is not about deciding whether the needs will be met.

We all must be clear about our corporate, collective failure, as a society, over not five or 15 years, or over the lifetime of the previous Government, but over several decades. We have failed to meet the legitimate housing needs of our population.

Mr Andrew Turner: Does the Minister believe that homes for local people are more important than homes for people from afar?

Nick Boles: I certainly think that in every local community we want, first and foremost, to provide housing for local people. However, in response to my hon. Friend’s question and to the points he raised in his previous interventions, it is not the case that our housing need chiefly derives from the levels of immigration over the past decade, of which I am as critical as he. Immigration explains only about 40% of the formation of new households; the remainder is explained by the fact that we are all getting older and not dying as quickly as we used to. I come from a family that has four generations in it, as do many right hon. and hon. Members, but that was not common 30 years ago. Now, people in their 80s and 90s are much more common to all of us than they were when we were growing up, and they all need houses.

We have failed as a society and as a country to meet the need, and the Localism Act and the national planning policy framework make it clear that every local authority has a duty, first and foremost, to meet objectively assessed housing need. We do not allow local authorities to determine whether they will provide primary and secondary school places, or social care for vulnerable adults and children. We expect them, as branches of Government, to meet the responsibilities passed to them, and meeting housing need is among those responsibilities.

Martin Horwood: Does the Minister accept that in some areas it is difficult to meet endless need and demand? Certainly in a constrained urban borough such as Cheltenham, almost all the unprotected green space has already been built on or is right now under attack from developers. The problem is that in the end we will lose other things for which people have a need. Green space is good for local food production, physical and mental health, and for people’s access to recreation, including free access to recreation for poor communities, which reduces health inequalities. Those are needs as well, and we cannot be totally single-minded and blinkered.

Nick Boles: I certainly hope I am not being single-minded and blinkered; perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks I am. I of course accept that almost every urban area finds it very difficult to meet its needs within its boundaries, and that is entirely accepted within all our policies. The regional strategies of the previous Government effectively completely removed any flexibility from local authorities, and that is why in the national planning policy framework we have the duty to co-operate.

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I am happy to say that I have met with an authority that is a neighbour to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and that authority is engaged in co-operation with his local authority to see how it can meet needs, not least those of the hon. Gentleman’s town. As he says, his town cannot meet the needs within its own borders without threatening its precious green spaces. Such spaces are, if anything, even more valuable in relatively built-up towns than in the countryside, and there needs to be co-operation within broader areas to meet the needs of all our citizens.

Robert Neill: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s analysis. He makes a powerful and sophisticated case. Does he agree that the duty to co-operate is significant not only because it is the first time we have sought to have such a duty on a voluntary and localist basis—by agreement rather than imposition—but because of its link to incentives such as the new homes bonus and the reforms to local government finance with business rate retention, so that we can persuade communities that growth in the right place—I stress “right place”—is not a threat but potentially an opportunity that we can realise if we collaborate, sometimes across local authority boundaries?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is exactly right, and puts the argument much better than I could. The Localism Act and the national planning policy framework attempt to achieve just that, replacing the previous approach of entirely denying local flexibility in how and where housing need was met.

It is right, briefly, Mr Hollobone, to give appropriately short shrift to the rank hypocrisy displayed by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). She was a Member and a supporter of a Government who introduced regional strategies that tried to impose eco-towns on constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and who introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which had no democratic accountability at all. For her suddenly to pretend that she is now a localist rings pretty hollow.

I will move on to trying to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends—I seek not to persuade the hon. Lady—that localism is not dead but in gestation. At the heart of the Localism Act is the idea that control is gained from having a plan. A plan that fulfils the criteria of the national planning policy framework puts those with the plan in charge, and their decisions will not be overturned. Decisions might be challenged, but no challenge will be supported by the Planning Inspectorate. It all rests on having a plan, and the difficulty faced by many hon. Members and their communities is where no plan is in place. That is why so much of the discussion has focused on the question of what weight can be attached to emerging plans.

I want to share with my right hon. and hon. Friends the difficulty of the position that some of them want the Government to take, which is the suggestion that an emerging plan should immediately be given substantial weight in any decision on a planning application. That could simply create the problem that every community in the country that wanted to oppose a development might start the process of working up a neighbourhood or local plan and then take their own sweet time about

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it. That would immediately create an opportunity for communities to block all development by simply saying that they were engaged in a plan-making process.

That is why there must be a sense that a plan has reached a relatively advanced stage before it can be given substantial weight. Such a position has not been established by policy or Government, but over many years in the courts, as has been pointed out. I know that many people here think that an easy solution would be simply to abolish the inspectorate, but I say to them that all such decisions would then be taken by judges in courts. Developers will not stop challenging local decisions that they think do not accord with local or national policies. They will simply challenge them in the courts, at much greater cost to the taxpayer and, I suspect, to the not much greater contentment of residents.

The critical thing is to engage in plan making. The reason why I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to give up on the process is the good news that plan making is happening at a speed and intensity that has never happened before: three quarters of all local authorities in the country have now published a plan, and half of them have submitted a local plan to the Secretary of State. Some 800 communities in this country are now engaged in some stage of neighbourhood planning, and several hundred of them have already had their plan areas registered. The first three neighbourhood plans submitted to an examiner and passed as sound have passed their referendums, which is the first time that a Government have said to local people, “You get a vote on whether and how you develop in your local area.”

The referendums passed not just by resounding margins, but on a greater turnout than for the county council elections taking place on the same day. In Thame in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), people turned out to the polls to vote on the neighbourhood plan and did not vote for a county councillor. Why? Because the plan matters to people. As has been pointed out, the plan contained proposals to build 775 new houses in one of the most beautiful market towns in one of the most high-pressured areas in the country.

Nicholas Soames: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and nobody doubts his commitment to seeing this right, but does he not understand that it is precisely the backing and energy that he expresses that renders it so deeply unsatisfying for councils that go to all this great effort when their plans are overturned by spiv developers trying to take advantage of a very difficult position?

Nick Boles: I entirely understand that. I might well wish that we were in a world where we could say to everybody, “You’ve got a year. Make as much progress as you can in a year, and nothing will happen in that year.” My right hon. Friend will understand that, given the level of housing need and the appalling record of housing delivery even during the boom—when, frankly, money, developer finance and mortgages were not a problem—it is simply impossible for us to impose that kind of moratorium. However, I can tell him that in a matter of days, we will introduce the planning guidance that we have long promised and that will address the issue of the weight given to emerging plans. We will

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make it clear that once a plan has reached the point that, first, it has become specific and, secondly, it has gone through a fairly substantial level of public consultation, it will become something of real materiality—to use the lawyers’ phrase—as a consideration in decision making.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend and I agree about housing need and the value of plans when they are formed—it is good to hear that weight will be given to emerging plans in the new guidance—but my concern is that he seems to be giving the impression that everything is going swimmingly; it is not. The very neighbourhood plans that it is so important for people to embrace—he believes in that as much as I do—are being undermined, because people will walk away if they think that the inspectorate will overturn those plans. It is therefore a mistake entirely to dismiss the idea of giving stronger guidance. Unless people have confidence that they can take such judgments without their being overturned, they will not engage in the process. That is the damage that is being done. Commitments on giving weight to emerging plans have been given before. They were given during the passage of the Localism Bill. So far, those commitments have not counted for anything.

Nick Boles: Perhaps this is the core of our disagreement: my right hon. Friend argues that I am too sanguine, and I say that he is in too much of a panic. Even on neighbourhood planning, the fact is that the figures for April, June and July show that the number of communities engaged in it has gone from 650 to 710 to 750, that the number of plans designated has gone from 300 to 360 to 408, and that the number of plans published pre-submission has gone from 24 to 28 to 35, so progress is being made. I understand that people are concerned, which partly prompts them and gives them the incentive to get the move on that we all want in trying to avoid unwelcome developments.

Sir Alan Haselhurst Will the Minister give way?

Nick Boles: I will not give way to my right hon. Friend, because I have only three and a quarter minutes, and I want to address the many points made in speeches.

The guidance that will be produced at the end of July will be in draft. It will all go on what is an explicitly beta website. In truth, what applies now is the inherited guidance on prematurity from the last Government—it still applies in all decisions made in courts and elsewhere by decision makers—but the new guidance will be in draft form later in the summer and will be available for everybody to comment on. I absolutely encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to comment if they do not believe that the guidance goes far enough in attaching weight to the emerging plans. I reiterate, however, that the best possible thing is for them to look up from the here and now and to think about their community in 10 years’ time—

Andrew Bingham Will the Minister give way?

Nick Boles: I am sorry, but I will not give way again as I have many points to cover.

My right hon. and hon. Friends may miss one development that their communities do not like and that they would have opposed, and which would have

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been backed up by the inspectorate if their plan was in place. Perhaps they will, but they will be able to control and decide 10 years-worth of developments if they put in place a plan that meets their objectively assessed needs. That has been done in Thame, which will now determine its own future. There have been developments in Thame that the town did not like: it did not just say, “Right, we’re giving up,” but, “That makes it even more important to put even more energy into the process of producing a neighbourhood and local plan.”

I therefore urge communities not to lose heart. Childbirth is a painful process and gestation is not without its pains and difficulties, but the process resulting in local communities having local plans and neighbourhoods having neighbourhood plans will—I promise—be one in which everyone feels that they are in control of development in their area in a way that was never true under Labour or previous Conservative Governments. We are involved in a revolution. Revolutions are not quick or painless, but this revolution is gathering pace and beginning to work.

I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to continue to write to me and to invite me to their constituencies to submit me to absolutely proper pressure, but not to give up hope. Every Government Member will be able to campaign with pride on the Localism Act at the next election in 2015, because by 2015 it will have delivered.

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International Commission on Missing Persons

11 am

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the important issue of UK policy on the International Commission on Missing Persons. The debate is particularly timely as last week we commemorated the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in what was declared to be the worst crime on European soil since the second world war. At the memorial service of that anniversary, 409 newly identified bodies were buried, giving families some closure on the grief that they have been living with for almost two decades.

Last year, I travelled to Bosnia on Project Maja with Baroness Warsi and, while in Sarajevo, I visited the International Commission on Missing Persons. I was struck by that unique and highly effective organisation, which has revolutionised the international community’s approach to addressing the issue of missing persons. In doing so, it has made a genuine contribution to justice and peace building in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world. Since that visit, I have wondered what the UK Government can do to support its vital work, and I am grateful for this opportunity to put some questions to the Minister directly today.

By way of background, it may be helpful if I first offer Members a brief introduction to the organisation. President Clinton founded the ICMP in 1996 as an organisation to clarify the fate of missing persons following the Balkans war. Confronting the scale of the problem, the ICMP developed state-of-the-art DNA identification technology and has helped to resolve 70% of missing persons cases from the 1990s conflict, including 7,000 of the 8,100 missing from Srebrenica. Such unparalleled results provide the means to end the desperate uncertainty that families have endured. The ICMP has also provided irrefutable evidence to the domestic and international courts that heard war crimes cases, including those of Karadzic and Mladic. For the first time in history, DNA evidence is being used to convict the architects of genocide.

The distinctive expertise that the ICMP brings to this field is reflected in the growing contribution that it is making beyond the Balkans. This year, having just opened up offices in Libya, the ICMP received funds from the UK, which were announced by the Prime Minister during his visit to Tripoli. The organisation has already started DNA testing, and within just one month it identified 100 victims of Gaddafi’s forces.

The ICMP has also been working in Iraq for several years. Sadly, it is clear that, in the future, Syria will also require similar assistance. Indeed, as the conflict in Syria continues to rage on, it should be noted that according to information received by the ICMP, at least 28,000 people are thought to be missing. As we look to the future and hope for a peace settlement, I would like to ensure that the issue of missing persons is addressed in the context of any future peace agreement, just as it was in the Dayton peace accords that ended the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, it is important that action is taken now to work with the thousands of families who are displaced in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq because of the conflict and who have missing relatives, so that when the conflict ends, measures will

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already have been taken to address an issue that will figure prominently in rebuilding Syria and restoring peace to the region.

In addition to its post-conflict work, the ICMP has assisted Chile, Colombia and South Africa with addressing missing persons cases following human rights violations, and it has also assisted in the aftermath of natural disasters in Thailand and the Philippines and Hurricane Katrina in the United States. In total, the ICMP has identified the remains of more than 19,000 individuals in the past decade.

Having learned about the widespread and vital work of this organisation, I now come to the crux of the matter, which is that the future of this important organisation is in jeopardy. I believe that the UK Government can do more to support its future. However, this is a matter not of funding but of diplomatic support. Having achieved what it was established to do in the western Balkans, the ICMP is gradually winding down its assistance in that region. Yet all of its programmes worldwide rely, with varied effectiveness, on a legal status recognised in a few states in the Balkans and a headquarters in Sarajevo. That is not a sustainable basis for its future.

The ICMP is not incorporated under the domestic law of any one country, and it is not a non-governmental organisation. Its lack of formal international legal status hampers its ability to carry out its work and, as a result, it was forced to close its office in Colombia and its efforts in Libya and Iraq are being put at unnecessary risk. A draft legal framework was negotiated by the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark in 2004, within which ICMP could operate, but the document was never concluded, leaving the ICMP without a permanent, internationally recognised status.

So what can the UK do? I was initially keen for the UK to take the lead on supporting the ICMP and for the organisation to be based in the UK, but I have been persuaded that the logical place for it to have a sustainable headquarters would be in The Hague, which is keen to provide the ICMP with a home. As the seat of many international justice institutions, including the International Criminal Court, The Hague would be an ideal permanent base for the ICMP. However, the Dutch condition is that the ICMP’s legal status be put on a more sustainable footing, allowing it to operate in the Netherlands, and in the often dangerous countries in which it works, with the immunities it needs to protect its database of genetic information, some of which is voluntarily provided by family members of the missing.

The Dutch Foreign Minister is prepared to lead a process aimed at securing that status, but only if he has reassurance that the other partner countries will support his efforts. This is where the UK Government could do more. To assure the future of the ICMP and to secure its work, it is vital that the UK give a clear signal of support for the Dutch initiative. I therefore urge the Minister to make the UK’s support clear, thereby making a decisive contribution to securing the organisation’s future for the benefit of all.

The Foreign Secretary visited the ICMP last October, which was an excellent signal of support, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been actively working with the Netherlands ever since to resolve questions

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over the ICMP’s future status. As a matter of principle, I am no advocate of tying the UK to permanent financial commitments with international organisations, but the fact that ICMP has not had the luxury of permanent funding, and that it has innovated and managed costs effectively at every stage in its history, underscores another critical reason for me to support the organisation. Furthermore, having developed a broad range of programmes and the world’s largest human identification laboratory, the ICMP has a budget of a mere £5 million, which means that its endeavours to alleviate suffering around the world are very cost-effective. It does not seek any permanent funding commitments. Instead, a permanent legal status will enable it to build on an exceptional track record of success in raising voluntary contributions.

It is clear that an effective response to the tragedy of missing persons caused by conflict is, and will remain, a fundamental element of successful conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution. The UK has a direct interest in ensuring that present and future international peace-building strategies include missing persons as an integral element. To assure the ICMP’s future, it is now time for the UK to take a leadership role in encouraging other states to support the Dutch initiative to give the ICMP a permanent status. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response both to the idea of giving the ICMP a permanent legal status and on what the FCO can specifically do to give the ICMP the support it duly deserves.

Finally, I wish to thank a number of individuals for their insights: first and foremost, Adam Boys and his team at the ICMP for the tremendous work that they do; Baroness Warsi, for introducing me to Bosnia through Project Maja; my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for sharing their experiences in the Balkans; Lady Nott, for taking me to meet the mothers of Srebrenica; my researcher, Lara Nelson, for helping me to put together this speech and indeed for all her work for me during the past three years; and finally everyone at the Foreign Office, especially Arminka Helic, for their input and encouragement in helping me better to understand the work of the ICMP.

11.11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): May I begin by saying how delighted I am to serve under your guidance this morning, Mr Hollobone?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) on securing this important debate on the International Commission on Missing Persons. I know that it is an issue in which he takes a very keen interest, and with my colleague Baroness Warsi he has visited Sarajevo to see the ICMP’s incredible operation at first hand. I also congratulate him on the articulate and knowledgeable way in which he introduced this important debate.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that often when conflict and violence end, our attention is drawn away too quickly to another crisis and other parts of the world. However, for many people a conflict cannot truly end until they know the fate of their missing loved ones. Those loved ones are parents, wives, husbands or

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children, who are often civilians and not combatants and who were separated from their families by the chaos of war, who disappeared while in detention or who simply did not return home one day.

As the House may be aware, this week saw the burials of another 409 newly identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre. This year alone, more than 6,000 victims of that massacre have been identified and 6,000 families—after 18 years of uncertainty, anguish and longing—at last have a chance to mourn their dead and to give them the dignity of a decent burial, as well as an opportunity for acceptance and closure.

However, as my hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out, those events, while solemn, could not have taken place without the ceaseless and vital work of the ICMP. As he also rightly said, the ICMP has identified approximately 16,000 people from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, including 85% of those reported missing after the fall of Srebrenica. The ICMP has also responded to requests for documentation and expert testimony from international and domestic courts on matters relating to serious international crimes. Without the ICMP, many families in the former Yugoslavia would have been unable to gain any form of closure, and without that vital closure the feelings of injustice and resentment would continue to build, fuelling ethnic tensions and making reconciliation all but impossible, particularly for future generations.

That is why the Government have played an active role in championing the ICMP’s work, alongside our broader conflict prevention, peace-building and international justice policies. We are firmly committed to the ICMP, just as we are committed to challenging impunity and ensuring accountability for the most serious international crimes. We are clear that where there is no accountability, there is no justice, and that where there is no justice, there will not be lasting peace, reconciliation or stability. That is why we also welcome the excellent work that the ICMP has done, including sharing its pioneering expertise, particularly in the use of DNA, in other conflict zones.

Although it is of course saddening that the ICMP’s work continues to be relevant and needed, we recognise the important role that it has played, and will continue to play, in identifying many missing people in places such as Iraq, Kosovo, Libya and—my hon. Friend made this point forcefully—in Syria. It is clear that in the aftermath of the terrible conflict that is raging in Syria, Syria will face many challenges to achieving peaceful transition, recovery and reconstruction. The UK will continue to support the Geneva II process to deliver a transitional governing body with full executive authority. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that it is for the Syrian people to agree the make-up of a transitional Government who can win the consent of all Syrians, and to decide how transition will take place, including—importantly—the future role of the ICMP in Syria. However, we believe that the ICMP’s expertise will be relevant, and we continue to work closely with the United Nations to ensure that the international community is ready to support a future Syrian authority to rebuild stability and democracy.

Of course, the ICMP makes a vital contribution not only in conflict zones but in its work to identify the victims of natural and other disasters, such as those that have happened in Thailand and the Maldives, and following Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

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It is in recognition of its work that the Government have provided consistent political and financial support to the ICMP for a number of years; again, that was accurately pointed out by my hon. Friend. In addition to contributions made through the European Union, the UK Government have directly provided more than £3 million in funding towards the work of the ICMP since 2000. Recent UK programmes have included funding of almost £400,000 to assist the ICMP with identification of missing persons in Libya.

Mr Newmark: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for everything that he is saying. However, it is not only a financial commitment that the ICMP seeks, because frankly I could go round to a bunch of my friends and raise £5 million to keep the ICMP going. The ICMP’s frustration is at the lack of political will by the major countries—including even the United States, which originally formed the ICMP—to give it permanent legal status. That is what the ICMP needs, and I wonder what the Government will do to assist it in giving it the permanent legal status it needs, because that is what its future depends on. The clock is ticking, the ICMP’s centre will close down this year and if the ICMP does not gain permanent legal status we will not be able to help families, for example in Syria, who will have missing persons and who will need the support that the ICMP provides.

Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for that intervention by my hon. Friend; he is not only visionary but prescient, because I am about to address exactly the point that he has just raised. He is absolutely right that it is important to fund the future work of the ICMP through projects, but the ICMP does not just need financial support. The ICMP is keen to secure a legal status and move its headquarters. Despite the success of its projects, we also understand—again, this was a point that he correctly made—that ICMP programmes have been thwarted because of its current legal status. That is why it is all the more important that the ICMP be afforded a status that allows it to operate with Governments and countries across the globe.

The Government support the ICMP’s efforts to establish a legal status that will afford its staff, records and equipment the protection required to allow it to operate in potentially hostile political environments, and to have a global reach and an international profile that befits the importance of its role. It is vital for the families of the missing, and for the processes of reconciliation and international justice, that the ICMP be able to continue its work unimpeded and that the expertise that has been developed is not lost. I agree with my hon. Friend about that.

The city authority of The Hague has offered the ICMP the opportunity to relocate its headquarters there, and the Dutch Government have offered assistance in dealing with questions of policy and legality, such as securing legal status for the ICMP. We readily support the Dutch Government’s initiative in offering the ICMP a new home in The Hague, alongside other international institutions. Officials from the British embassy in The Hague took part in an initial working group held in May, specifically to discuss the issues that my hon. Friend outlined, and we will participate in further discussions as we move the process further.

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For my hon. Friend’s information, we will participate in the next ICMP event in The Hague at the end of October, at which it will share its ambitions and plans for the long-term future. In parallel, we will also consider who should fill the significant role of the UK’s international commissioner to the ICMP.

As my hon. Friend will know, last week we marked the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. It needs to be said that, although significant work has been done, there is still a significant amount more to do. Sadly, some of those responsible for the appalling atrocities that took place are still at large and many victims’ remains have not yet been identified. The difficult, painstaking work must continue, not just in the former Yugoslavia but in some of the other places that we have discussed this morning.

In conclusion, the Government will continue to support strongly both the ICMP’s work and efforts to formalise its status. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend. I reiterate that the UK Government are committed to the ICMP and will continue to press other Governments to do likewise to ensure that it is as effective a body as possible, so that reconciliation, peace and stability can be brought into being and maintained in some of the places around the world that have suffered terrible conflict and atrocities.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) for his well crafted and well delivered speech and the Minister for his succinct, detailed response.

11.22 am

Sitting suspended.

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Money Transfer Accounts

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. Colleagues who want to take their jackets off are free to do so.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the provision of money transfer account services by banks and their impact on Britain’s ethnic minority communities in particular. Remittance plays a vital and complementary role in helping to lift millions of people out of poverty across the world, and it plays a vital role in ensuring that, as well as our commitment to aid, we engage the public in giving to their loved ones, who are often on the verge of poverty and would not qualify for development aid. This is a vital debate because we need to consider how we support individuals to give to family members across the world.

Remittance helps to save lives through direct support by providing for loved ones in remote areas of the world. It helps save lives in the Indian subcontinent, for instance in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in many other places, especially during times of crisis such as Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh a few years ago and the earthquake and floods in Pakistan. Many of our constituents from various African and Latin American countries send money through remittance.

I will focus on the recent decision that has propelled us into calling for this debate. Barclays made the decision to withdraw banking facilities from small and medium-sized community-based money transfer agencies, which provide low-cost, legitimate routes for sending money to remote places across the world. In some of those places, it is very difficult for mainstream money exchange and money transfer companies that do not have networks, agents or structures to get assistance to family members. Taking the example of disasters, those are the times when people need to get assistance to their families immediately, which is certainly what happened in countries such as Pakistan and the many others that I mentioned.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in this debate. One area she has not mentioned is Poland. I have a large Polish community in my constituency that is facing the loss of One Money Mail, which has become a tried and trusted service for many people in the Polish community when sending remittances back to Poland. Those people are extremely concerned that they may have to lose the service, which they have grown to trust and which they use frequently; it will be a great loss to the community.

Rushanara Ali: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She has added an important perspective to the debate, which is that the issue also affects countries that people might not have thought about.

I commend parliamentarians, because some 46 Labour MPs have already signed a letter to Barclays, and I know that the all-party group on Somaliland and Somalia has also made representations to the Government. MPs and

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parliamentarians from both sides of the House, and many other people, have raised the alarm bell with the Government. That highlights our deep concern about how decisions that have been made in the past, not just by Barclays but by other banks such as HSBC, to remove banking facilities that are affordable for hard-pressed families who are trying to get support to other parts of the world, have been supported rather than punished. We should encourage people to give, and I hope that the Government will consider the issue closely.

According to the Financial Times, more than 250 money transfer companies are now facing closure following the decision by Barclays to withdraw the service. Other banks have already withdrawn it, so the suggestion that those small and medium-sized companies could go elsewhere is nonsense. We need to ensure that the decision of those banks does not send a signal to other banks that there is something wrong with such businesses and that other banks should not do business with them, which is essentially what has happened. That is the insidious conclusion that is being drawn at the moment. Allegations are being made that those businesses, many of which are in our constituencies, are engaged in activity that is not legal.

Barclays has said to me that it is concerned about only the 1% of companies that represent 46% of the problem. The Government and regulatory authorities should consider how to assist Barclays and other companies that need to clean up operations where there are problems. If that 1% is a problem, assistance should be provided to address that problem rather than involving the 99%, in the case of Barclays, that do not pose a problem. If that logic were applied to the banking sector, for instance, we would not have a banking sector left. I ask the banking sector to have some empathy and to think about what the consequences would have been for it if, during the financial crisis, all companies in the sector had had to be shut down just because there were certain bad apples.

I hope the Minister will consider the issue and answer the question about how we can focus and zoom in on the areas where there are cowboy operators, which none of us want. The diaspora and ethnic minority communities in this country and across the world do not want to see cowboy operators; they want legitimate, well regulated mechanisms for sending money to loved ones.

As I said, 45 other MPs and I supported the letter to Barclays bank that the Minister has seen, and I look forward to hearing what he, his Department and the regulatory authorities will do to try to help with this important matter. We are asking for some breathing space. We are asking Barclays—I do not believe this is an unreasonable request—to extend the date from August by another six months to give the Government, the regulatory authorities and the Minister the breathing space to bring people together, including the British Bankers Association, the banks and interested parties such as the money transfer agencies and the communities that use their facilities, wherever possible, to arrive at a solution that does not lead to the industry’s closure.

More than $3.2 billion of remittance a year is sent from the UK, and remittance amounts to some $530 billion worldwide, which is more than the total global international development budget. We must act internationally in concert with our American partners. The decision to apply fines to Standard Chartered and HSBC has led to

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the decision by UK banks such as Barclays to stop remittance facilities. Frankly, the companies have nothing to do with what has happened in the US with the breaching of sanctions, or with the other cases in which banks have been involved, but they are being punished.

If we do not find a way to address the problem, the risk is enormous, because there will be no legitimate ways for people to send money to remote parts of the world. Of course, there is virtually no way for people to get assistance to countries such as Somalia through a legitimate route. We need a constructive way forward, and I hope the Minister can explain how his Department and officials will work with the banking sector to develop an industry-wide solution so that we can ensure that the remittance and money transfer industries are strengthened in light of the crisis, rather than destroyed.

I also hope that the Minister will consider that if banking facilities to money transfer agencies end, what is likely to happen is what used to happen before a regulated mechanism was in place. On the whole, people who are not wealthy want cheap and affordable means to get assistance to their loved ones, particularly in times of desperation and crisis, such as when a family member has died and money needs to be sent quickly for burials and associated costs, or when there is an urgent health care emergency, likely or actual conflict or a humanitarian emergency, as was the case in Somalia and the rest of east Africa in 2011 and as is likely to happen in future. If there is no legitimate route to send money, there is a major risk that the industry will be driven underground and that clandestine mechanisms will be used to get money to family members. If that happens in the billions of pounds, we will not be providing remitters with the back-up, support and legal mechanisms to send money safely to their loved ones. It will also mean that some countries are unlikely to be able to monitor the amount of money flowing into their economy, leading to inflationary pressures.

Furthermore, there are security issues. People worry, rightly, that their money might end up in the wrong hands, and potentially in the hands of extremists. In countries such as Somalia and Somaliland, there are grave concerns about that risk.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She mentioned that more than £2 billion in remittances is sent abroad. It is important to emphasise that although that is a large amount, people often send small amounts— £50 or £100—to their family. Small businesses are therefore incredibly important to people without a lot of means who send small amounts of money.

Rushanara Ali: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The amounts of money are often small. People work hard to make a living and provide a bit of support. I know that because many of my constituents tell me stories about how they are supporting the education of distant relatives or immediate family members by sending them money every month. During Ramadan, which we are in right now, people have a duty to give charity, or zakat. They want to give it to people they know who are poorer, and not through charitable organisations, where administration costs are high compared with direct giving. There are many occasions on which people give small amounts of money. For example, the Muslim

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community in Britain contributes £100 million in charitable giving during the month of Ramadan alone.

A local activist in my constituency recently said:

“There is simply no other legal way of sending money to Somalia. If these firms are closed, it just means people will have to carry large amounts of money from airport to airport, and all that’s achieved is that everyone will end up a criminal.”

We cannot risk criminalising people who are simply trying to support their families.

Another major opportunity is at risk. Ethnic minority communities have insights and connections in their countries of origin. I see that in my constituency, as I know other right hon. and hon. Members do. They have insights into how to trade with their countries of origin, and affordable remittance facilities are critical to doing so. We are closing off opportunities for small businesses to operate and develop. It is also costing more than 3,000 jobs here in the UK and jobs in those countries.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has explained the security issues created by driving remittances underground. Is it not also true that it could drive the business into the hands of the big American globals, wiping out our domestic small and medium-sized enterprises in the market? That is a dangerous step, which the Government should do all they can to avoid.

Rushanara Ali: Absolutely. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has had any representations from such companies. I understand that some lobbying has been done, certainly in America. It would be useful to know whether he has had representations from bigger agencies, including MoneyGram and Western Union. One concern is that the underlying agenda is to shut down small operators because they do not charge as much and banks do not get as much revenue, and that this is about profit as much as anything else. We need clarity on the criteria that Barclays and other banks have used to stop providing banking facilities.

It is depressing that, unfortunately, the banking sector seems to have learned nothing from the past few years. Small community-based businesses are being hurt while they are trying to run decent businesses and support people. They should come together to consider how to address some of the underlying problems. We understand that there are grave concerns in the banking system about being fined by the US authorities. It is right that we should support the banking sector in ensuring that their due diligence processes are done, but that cannot be an excuse to shut down smaller companies just because they provide competition.

I will press on quickly to a few final points so that others can speak. Somalia presents a unique problem: it does not have a banking sector. That means not only that Somalia will be affected when remittance flows stop, but that humanitarian aid organisations such as Oxfam will lose the ability to send money to the region. Some 40% of people in Somalia who depend on remittance would be affected by that decision. Last year, the Somali

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authorities said that about $2 billion, or one third of the country’s GDP, is channelled to Somalia through small money transfer agencies.

The country has come out of a conflict that went on for a long time and cost many lives. It relies on the Somali diaspora around the world, who are working hard to rebuild Somalia and Somaliland. This decision would cripple the country. We cannot afford to let that happen, not least because it is in our interest to have a stable, prosperous and effective state in Somalia and Somaliland. That is what my constituents, many of whom are from Somaliland, want. I hope that the Minister will see the connection between this decision and its effect on undermining our aid and peace-building efforts in countries such as Somalia.

Although it could be said, and the Minister may have been told, that this is not as much of a problem for other countries that have a banking sector, the reality is—as he will know from his experience and background, as I do—that in remote places such as the Indian subcontinent, where we have our origins, during floods and in areas where there is no proper infrastructure and no proper roads, getting money to people is difficult. The banking sector is not localised enough. Banks such as HSBC might call themselves the world’s local bank, but they are not local enough. Our response must address the fact that it is impossible to get money to people, in particular at times of crisis, in countries throughout Africa, where there are still major infrastructure problems, and in many Asian countries, so that the banking sector—Barclays in particular—does not fob the Government off by saying, “Well, there are plenty of other operators available,” or, “The Government own a couple of banks, why don’t they to do it?” We need an industry-wide solution that is constructive and that safeguards the remittance industry and companies providing remittance services at low cost.

I have a few final points. On competition, I hope that the Government and the regulatory authorities will look closely at what is really going on. To what extent is this about trying to respond to the fact that these organisations are giving—to use a metaphor—the larger money transfer agencies a run for their money? To what extent is this about the regulatory pressures? I believe that to some extent it is. Where the regulatory concerns are legitimate and genuine, what can the Government and the regulatory authorities do so that we have a set of criteria for those companies to fulfil? Barclays and the regulators certainly have not provided any criteria or explained why banking facilities are being withdrawn. That is the least that these businesses should expect when they employ more than 3,500 people here in the UK and provide desperately needed assistance, not to mention trading opportunities between our country and developing countries.

I hope that the Minister will be able to look broadly at those interconnected issues. I have been told by his fellow Minister in the House of Lords that Barclays is merely making a commercial decision, but we have a responsibility to developing countries, where remittances support millions of people, taking pressure off our international aid budget. We also have a responsibility, if the sector is pretty much eliminated through those decisions, to ensure that money transfers and flows are not driven underground. How do the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for International Development

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intend to address this? Will he work with our American allies on an international solution, because we recognise that they are calling the shots on fines? Will he make representation to Barclays to provide six months of breathing room to allow the industry, working with the Government, to come up with a framework that can protect this vital industry?

As we speak, thousands of people are signing petitions; the diaspora community, in particular, and the aid agencies in the different sectors believe that people’s lives will be devastated. I hope that the Minister will work with the regulatory authorities on a solution—my colleagues and I are also happy to work with him—because we do not want to return to a debate in years to come and hear that, because of the decision today, many of the agencies stopped operating and people ended up being exploited. In some cases, money might be stolen—we have seen past examples of that—because the sector is not regulated at all, and in some cases remittances might end up in the hands of the wrong people, such as terrorists, and that would be a dereliction of duty on our part. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that people can get money safely and securely, and at an affordable rate, to their loved ones around the world.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I intend to start the wind-ups at 3.40 pm, which leaves us about 45 minutes. With six people wanting to speak, that works out at about seven and a half minutes each.

2.54 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I also place on record my appreciation of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), not only for securing the debate, but for championing the cause—raising awareness, expressing concern and bringing MPs of all political parties together to ensure that the issue reaches a far wider audience. I genuinely appreciate that. She said much about this banking policy and how it will affect people in Somalia and other countries, and I want to concentrate my comments on the impact in my constituency and similar towns in the United Kingdom.

As long ago as November last year, I wrote to HSBC about one of my constituents, Mr Shamshad Ali—I have the letter with me. He has a money service business called Sterling Currency Exchange Ltd and is the general secretary of the remittance association of the United Kingdom. HSBC decided unilaterally to close his bank account, because it no longer wished to operate in the sector. I worked with Shamshad to get the bank to change its mind, but to no avail. He and I then worked together to find an account with another bank, again to no avail. As Shamshad pointed out, we tried the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, both funded through the public purse and in receipt of much public money, but they too refused him. He now has to operate his business in conjunction with another business, which still has an account with Barclays—but time is running out, and that might well end as well.

The Government need to know about the serious consequences, which include the closure of good businesses, as my hon. Friend pointed out, at the cost of many thousands of jobs throughout the United Kingdom and certainly of a number of jobs in Rochdale. There is

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also a direct impact on people in my community. Migrant workers, many of them professionals, many on whom the Rochdale economy relies, depend on those independent businesses to be able to send money back to their country of origin. Those workers are being turned off working in towns such as Rochdale, which concerns me.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for securing the debate and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for giving way. I, too, have many people from Somalia and other parts of the world living in my constituency. The important thing, which we often learn, is that the family back home rely on the money being sent to them to survive. If they are not allowed to survive in that way, they go underground and are driven to other means. The sooner the Minister takes the matter up and talks to the banks in this country, the better, because not only are people in Somalia affected, but Somalians and other people who have businesses in this country, through transactions and jobs.

Simon Danczuk: That is exactly the point that I am leading on to. People in my community send money back to their families—in this instance, in my constituency, to Pakistan, Kashmir and Bangladesh. At this important time of Ramadan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow pointed out, people rely on the businesses that we are discussing to help them send charitable contributions to the countries from which they originate. We should not underestimate that. Friends and families out in other countries may be exceptionally poor and reliant on such charitable donations, in particular at this important time of year of Ramadan, to help them to celebrate Eid and to buy new clothes, so that they can have a reasonable time at a key point in the Islamic calendar. As a result of the changes, my constituents, instead of being able to use a good, local and independent firm, which complies with all the regulations, will have to use one of the banks, Western Union or MoneyGram.

Yasmin Qureshi: On the point about small businesses following regulations, may I share with my hon. Friend my experience of sending money abroad? In my constituency, the regulations are followed with passport copies, addresses and so on. Does he agree that it is disingenuous of the banks to use that as an excuse for not carrying out transactions for those companies?

Simon Danczuk: Absolutely. That does seem to be an excuse, and is the crux of where we are.

Another point that has been made clear to me is that without the small independent firms in towns such as Rochdale, my constituents, instead of paying a flat fee of £5 and receiving a good exchange rate, will have to use Western Union or MoneyGram, pay a flat fee of £20 and receive a less competitive exchange rate. They will have to use a less local and less personalised service and pay more for it. That is the consequence, which can only be described as outrageous.

I have some points for the Minister to consider. First, why is Barclays closing these accounts after it made businesses spend thousands of pounds on compliance? Secondly, why are Western Union and MoneyGram not

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affected? I believe that Western Union in registered in southern Ireland, not the UK, for tax purposes and perhaps that is an issue in its own right. Thirdly, will the banks benefit and start to do the sort of business that they are denying small independent firms from doing? The changes will push such businesses underground, which could feed the criminal fraternity. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to remedy the situation.

3.1 pm

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) on securing this important debate and on all her work on the matter. I declare an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a non-executive director of a global consultancy, Developing Markets Associates, which is an expert on this subject.

During my time as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Africa and the Caribbean, I received many briefings on the importance of remittances and the role that they play. As the hon. Lady pointed out, they complement the aid and development programme of many countries, including Britain, France and America. Very often, those remittances get through to areas such as small businesses, self-employed people and small non-governmental organisations and charities that aid money can never get to. Furthermore, they bypass any infrastructure of bureaucracy or middlemen and go direct to communities, where they can make a real difference.

I think that everyone agrees that those remittances are vital not just to the communities that receive the money in developing countries, but to the developed countries from where the money comes. As the hon. Lady said with her intimate knowledge of her own community, which was reinforced by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), communities here that we welcome as part of this country often feel a moral responsibility to help family members back in the countries where they came from. The agenda is incredibly important.

I know, from having visited Somalia on a couple of occasions, the importance of that country, which is coming out of conflict. It has been through the most appalling time. At long last, there is stability in Somaliland, and there has been for some time. There is now a Government in Mogadishu who can control much more of the country, and certainly the big cities of Kismayo, Beledweyne, Berbera are now under the Government’s control. It seems that normality is resuming in some of those areas, but there is still a long way to go before a normal banking system can be set up to support businesses and communities in the way that banks do, or should do. The more recently that a country has come out of conflict, the more crucial that is to its economy.

I want to touch briefly on one or two points concerning recipient countries and then on the current crisis that has been caused by the action of some banks. In recipient countries, the danger in the past has been that a lot of remittance money has simply gone under the bed. Many people have not had enough of an incentive to use money responsibly through a bank account or to invest

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in a business. The tendency has been to put money under the bed for a rainy day and to use it on an ad hoc basis.

Perhaps our own Department for International Development and aid departments in other countries should explore how money can be made available for investment in small businesses, self-employed projects and other areas. At the moment, there is certainly a considerable lack of understanding of how that money is spent. It reaches the communities in different ways and often the charges when transferring it and sometimes when receiving it can be excessive.

What work can the Treasury and the Department for International Development do to understand better what is happening in some of those countries, how that remittance money can be better harnessed for the benefit of the communities and whether there is a role for telephone banking, which is taking off in many developing countries? I understand that the UK has signed up to the five times five commitment to halve remittance prices by 2014. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made on that commitment.

As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow pointed out, the UK has 60% of the total number of authorised payments institutions and single payment institutions in Europe. That is a huge figure, so any action taken by the banks in the UK in closing accounts of money transfer agents will have a disproportionate effect on the UK. We are facing a serious problem. I do not want to underline too heavily any criticism of Barclays and HSBC. It has not been said so far that Barclays was fined $300 million in the United States earlier this year and HSBC was fined a larger amount for allegations of money laundering that were not proved in court but were settled out of court. Our high street retail banks are wary of any dealings with America, but their action is precipitate.

Will the Minister have urgent discussions with the US Treasury Department and the US State Department because US regulators are setting the agenda, which is having the damaging impact that hon. Members have referred to and that will lead to job losses and many people being put out on a limb? They will have to take whatever action they can and may have to look at illegal routes. More money will go to cash couriers and there will be huge disruption, so I urge the Minister to have urgent discussions with his US counterparts, having listened carefully to what has been said in this debate.

Perhaps the Minister could also have discussions with the Financial Conduct Authority, because we are talking about a regulated sector. The irony is that it is regulated, but it is respected, does a good job and fills an incredibly important niche. It employs a significant number of people, but it could be forced underground and people would have to pay much higher rates. Furthermore, consolidation may be sensible in some industries, but we would see many small businesses put out of business with higher charges and a worse service. I urge the Minister to take this agenda seriously.

It would be helpful if the Minister told us what discussions he has had with the Department for International Development on this important matter and whether the Treasury and DFID will work together on what is happening not just here in the UK, but in receiving countries, which badly need help, involvement and engagement.

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Hugh Bayley(in the Chair): A colleague whom I was expecting to speak has left the Chamber, which leaves us with three speakers and 10 minutes each.

3.9 pm

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and I know you take a great personal interest in these issues. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate other Members on the excellent contributions that we have heard so far.

I declare a number of interests. Like many other Members, I have a significant number of constituents from Somaliland, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sudan. Those communities have a long and proud history in my constituency, and they all remit funds to those locations. I also declare an interest as the secretary of the all-party group on Somaliland and Somalia.

Some weeks ago, these issues were brought starkly to my attention by a number of the money transfer organisations involved in remitting to Somaliland and Somalia. A month ago, we had urgent discussions with the new ambassador to Mogadishu and with senior Foreign Office officials, so people have been aware of this challenge for some time, and I will return to that at the end of my remarks.

I want to underline how important remittances are and how crucial it is that we find a solution and get things right. Members have spoken of the value of remittances to individual families, who are often in difficult circumstances. Oxfam provided a helpful briefing, which said:

“in most cases, money received is used to cover basic household expenses including food, school fees and medical costs.”

It notes that, in a recent survey,

“one third of respondents said that they would not be able to meet these basic needs if remittances were stopped.”

That is in addition to the concerns Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations have about their ability to provide services if money transfer services are stopped.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the security and stability implications, particularly in the case of Somaliland and Somalia. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) eloquently noted that the changes could be a step back for the country, which is coming out of conflict and instability. That is certainly not what the UK Government want, particularly after the recent Somalia conference and the many other steps that friends of Somaliland and Somalia have taken to see the two countries progress.

Remittances are also a complement to aid. There are two crucial issues. This is not only about my constituents; it is also very much in the UK national interest to find a solution to this problem. Remittances play a crucial role alongside our aid moneys. In the end, we want to graduate countries out of aid and ensure that they can stand on their own two feet, so pulling the rug out from under a number of them in this way will be particularly problematic.

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We have heard many of the figures already, but I want to reflect on a few of them. I have tabled questions to the Treasury, and the answers show that the UK remits upwards of $23 billion a year to third countries. Remittance flows globally are estimated at upwards of $500 billion. Those are huge sums and often dwarf aid flows to countries.

An answer from the Minister of State at DFID said that the Department estimated that Somaliland received upwards of £500 million annually, while 50% of Somalia’s gross national income came from remittances, which ultimately supported 3.8 million people. Those are huge numbers, so this is not a small problem—it is fundamental to the ability of these countries to be successful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, Somaliland and Somalia face particular problems, which need to be addressed. They do not have the services that are available in some other countries, and with 70% of money transfer services potentially affected by the changes, we really have a very large problem.

I do not think that anyone would disagree that we want safe and secure transfer methods for senders and recipients. There are also legitimate concerns about money laundering, terrorist financing and other issues, although only a small amount of remittances are affected by such activities, and the vast majority end up in the destinations where they belong. However, we really could be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. We could increase the security risk and end up with channels for transferring money that are not policed or regulated in the same way as existing channels. Individual constituents could be ripped off, as they are forced to use more expensive or less secure methods of sending remittances —indeed, there is the possibility of theft increasing and money going missing—rather than the reputable organisations that already operate in this field. With 70% of money transfer services potentially at risk from the changes, we have a huge problem.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I met Foreign Office officials and the new ambassador to Mogadishu some weeks ago. Since then, I have had discussions with the Minister and with other officials. I have also had discussions with Barclays itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and I secured a meeting with it the other week, and we had a constructive conversation, notwithstanding the criticisms and concerns that have been raised, a number of which Barclays must answer further questions on. To be fair, however, Barclays was constructive, and it did not just want to shrug its shoulders and turn away from the issue; it wanted to work with the Government and diaspora communities to find solutions.

I was therefore concerned when Barclays told us that it had written to the Treasury two weeks ago. I have the letter here, and it is dated 3 July. Indeed, Barclays has had other correspondence with the Treasury. I very much hope that the Treasury has responded by now. Barclays offered to sit down and have constructive discussions with the Treasury, the Foreign Office, DFID, the Home Office and all the other interested Departments to try to find solutions. This is really one of those cases where the Government have to step in.