20 Jan 2014 : Column 1

House of Commons

Monday 20 January 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Housing (Damp)

1. Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the incidence of damp in social housing. [902029]

7. Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the incidence of damp in social housing. [902035]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): The latest data that we have from the English housing survey, from 2011-12, indicate that 6.9% of local authority homes and 3.7% of housing association homes had some problem with damp in that year. As a consequence of the 2011-15 spending review, the coalition is investing £2.1 billion to bring social homes up to the decent homes standard.

Alison Seabeck: I draw the House’s attention to my interests as usual.

It is slightly disappointing that the Minister did not refer to a recent survey which indicated that social housing providers—along with Members of Parliament, incidentally—are receiving more and more complaints from people who have damp in their properties because they cannot afford to heat them. As the Minister will know, condensation and damp are a real health problem. What is he doing to ensure that his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change understand the implications for those families, and do something about them by dealing proactively with energy prices?

Stephen Williams: Presumably the hon. Lady is referring to a survey of 30 social landlords conducted by the Direct Works Forum, which represents those who carry out repair work of this kind. Given that there are 336 local housing authorities, and many hundreds more housing associations, we shall have to wait and see whether that survey is representative.

Throughout the Government, we understand that fuel poverty is an issue. Both my Department and the Department of Energy and Climate Change are doing their best to drive down household energy costs, and we recently announced that we would reduce energy costs by £50 per household.

Mr Sutcliffe: Is not one of the problems the bedroom tax, which has meant that people are in arrears and have to choose between paying their rent and paying their energy bills? In Bradford, 2,100 families are suffering because the tax means that they cannot pay their energy bills.

Stephen Williams: People may have damp in their homes for a great many reasons, but one of the reasons that have been brought to my attention is the amount that has been spent on bringing homes up to a decent standard. The last Government spent a lot of money on that, and the present Government have spent £2.1 billion on it. Paradoxically, the fact that homes are so well insulated can contribute to a dampness problem. Obviously some households also have income problems, but the Government are doing their best to reduce the cost of

20 Jan 2014 : Column 3

living per household by lowering council tax and energy bills, and by putting more money into people’s pockets through income tax changes.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): When the Government came to office, 70% of the council housing in my constituency was not up to the decent homes standard. Thanks to £21 million-worth of investment from this Government, by 2015 all of it will be. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Labour Government cut the decent homes programme by £150 million in July 2009? [Interruption.]

Stephen Williams: I hear an Opposition Member shout “We introduced the decent homes standard”, and that is perfectly true. We often hear from Opposition Members that when it came to expenditure their priority was decent homes rather than the building of new homes, and that is why we had a problem with social housing stock. This coalition Government are bringing houses up to a decent standard, but also have the largest house building programme in the social sector that we have seen for decades.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): My hon. Friend is right. One of the main causes of damp in property is condensation. That can be easily be solved by improving ventilation, which is often as simple as opening a window. Some housing authorities give their tenants very good advice. What advice would the Minister give others to ensure that that information gets out there?

Stephen Williams: I do not think that it is for Ministers to give advice to individual households—therein trouble often lies—but I will say that it is up to local authorities and housing associations to help their tenants with their budgeting as much as possible, in order to deal with welfare reform and other cost pressures.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Condensation, damp and mould in social housing are now at a level that has not been reported by social housing experts for many years. Does the Minister not appreciate that what has changed the situation is the bedroom tax, along with other cuts in the income of people who live in those properties?

Stephen Williams: Plenty of things have changed since 2010, but this Government are still giving huge priority to bringing homes up to a decent standard. In the next spending review, we are allocating money for that purpose until 2017. By that stage, 99% of houses owned by housing associations, and almost as many local authority houses, will be up to the decent homes standard.

Wind Turbines (Lincolnshire)

2. Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): What representations he has received on the cumulative visual impact of proposed wind turbines in Lincolnshire. [902030]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): We have received a number of representations about matters relating to

20 Jan 2014 : Column 4

wind turbine proposals in Lincolnshire, including their visual impact. We are very clear about the need for councils to consider cumulative impacts, and our new planning guidance underlines the fact that they require particular attention.

Stephen Phillips: In Lincolnshire there has been a large number of planning applications for wind turbines, many of which are in close proximity to one another. When I and other Lincolnshire Members meet local residents, they often tell us of their concern that planning authorities do not take into account the accumulation of turbines when deciding individual applications, so what further steps is the Department taking to enable local authorities to look at the bigger picture?

Kris Hopkins: This Government have been robust in laying out guidelines relating to landscape, heritage and local amenities, and in ensuring that the Secretary of State can recover those applications to ensure the guidelines have been adhered to. I reassure my hon. and learned Friend that since the proposals were brought in, the proportion of successful applications has dropped from 52% to 36%.

Permitted Development Rights

3. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect of his Department’s proposed change to permitted development rights on the number of (a) betting shops and (b) fixed-odds betting terminals on high streets. [902031]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): I think there may be some misunderstanding because there are no current proposals to make any change to permitted development rights in regard to betting shops. We have consulted on a permitted development right to change the use from a shop to a bank or building society, but that would not apply to betting shops.

Alex Cunningham: There is no confusion over the fact that there is one fixed odds betting terminal for every 701 adults in my Stockton North constituency, one of the country’s most deprived, and one for every 18,267 people in the affluent Broadland constituency. What will the Minister do specifically on planning rules to stop the betting industry going wherever it likes and targeting areas of high deprivation?

Nick Boles: Of course it was the last Government who made it easier to bring in fixed odds betting terminals, and I am sure that is why the hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic in attacking their record. If he attended the debate on the matter, he will have noted that there are now fewer fixed odds betting terminals than there were when the last Government left office.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the Minister share my dismay that, despite the concerns expressed by my constituents in Southgate and Palmers Green about the proliferation of betting shops, Enfield council has not as yet applied for an article 4 direction? In the meantime, will he support my constituents drawing up neighbourhood plans to promote the high street, which is the lifeblood of my communities?

20 Jan 2014 : Column 5

Nick Boles: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I find myself in the curious position of having to hail the work of the London borough of Southwark and of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham in using article 4 powers in exactly the way the Government intended. I can only hope that the London borough of Enfield will follow my hon. Friend’s advice and do the same.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): A friend and constituent of mine, despite being self-excluded from his local Ladbrokes, recently walked into that shop and using his partner’s debit card promptly lost £2,000 on a fixed odds gaming machine. How can the Minister justify, to people like my friend, his policies, which are making it easier for more betting shops to open and harder for gamblers to fight their addiction?

Nick Boles: This Government share the concerns the hon. Lady has expressed about the way in which some people can fall prey to these machines. The Government and the Prime Minister made clear that we will look at the evidence, that we are conducting a review with the Responsible Gambling Trust and that we will then come forward with proposals, but I hope she will admit that it was the Government she supported who brought in the relaxation in the first place.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that this will be a local decision in accordance with article 4, but that we should recognise that betting shops do employ local people and make a contribution to the local economy?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Betting shops are significant local employers and can make a significant contribution to the local economy, but it is also right that local authorities can look at local conditions and apply an article 4 direction where they feel that local impacts merit it.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): The Minister says that the number of such properties has fallen, but the fall is only marginal and the figure is about the same. However, the issue, which he has not addressed, is that turnover and profits have increased dramatically. The precautionary principle was applied at the beginning of this month when the Minister said that splash screens would be put in to control the amount that players play. Is the Government’s policy not a complete shambles?

Nick Boles: This is from the party that presented gambling as the chief source of regeneration for inner cities in the north, and that wanted to introduce super-casinos to turn around central Manchester and Liverpool. It is humbug. [Interruption.]

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association said recently:

“High streets across the UK have suffered a cardiac arrest and it is now time to let local authorities step in and deliver the necessary life support.”

Will the Minister tell us how successful his policy of deregulating use classes and taking powers away from local councils and communities has been in regenerating our high streets?

20 Jan 2014 : Column 6

Mr Speaker: Order. May I just say that the noun that appears to have occasioned offence following the last question from the Opposition Back Bench was I think applied to a collective, rather than to any individual? The concerns about disorder expressed by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) are therefore, on this occasion, misplaced.

Nick Boles: I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) that I would never dare to apply any such epithet to him personally—just to what he said.

Turning to the question raised by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), I find it extraordinary that she wants to talk down the high streets just when the number of empty shops is falling. The fact is that high streets are facing a secular change because of the growth of internet shopping and the change in lifestyles. The way to re-form high streets is not to place restrictions on the way in which people can make use of properties, but to encourage people to come forward with new uses for them that will revive our town centres.

Mr Speaker: The Minister’s ship was sailing in the right direction; there was no need to go quite so close to the wind. But there you go.

Major Developments (New Schools)

4. Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What requirement is placed on local authorities to ensure that legal agreements within the planning consent for major developments include provision of funding for new schools. [902032]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): I will try to be more prudent with my answer this time. The national planning policy framework is clear that where development generates the need for investment in more school places, plans should be brought up to secure that investment. Of course local authorities will also want to ensure that those plans can be funded.

Sir Bob Russell: The Minister might be aware of the lack of funding provision under the section 106 agreement for the new development in the north of Colchester. Will he meet me and representatives of Myland community council and Essex county council to see how we can retrieve the situation?

Nick Boles: Of course I would be delighted to meet my recently knighted hon. Friend, along with whomsoever he wants to bring to see me. I must point out that the funding of those investment plans is not strictly a planning matter, but I would be delighted to meet him.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister acknowledge that we are in a pretty parlous state, with local authorities having less and less power to influence an integrated, holistic education policy across their communities? At the same time, companies such as Tesco can use bribery—I use the term advisedly—on local communities to get planning permission by giving a little bit of money to a local school.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 7

Nick Boles: I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I totally disagree with everything he has just said. Contributions to create community benefit are exactly what we should be trying to get more of, so that it is not just the owners of new developments who benefit but the entire community, whether through new facilities or through a financial contribution to make their lives easier. We should be supporting this, not describing it as bribery.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): But how can we ensure that, when new funding is made available for new schools and other developments, it is not simply provided by the local county council, for example, as the local education authority? How can we ensure that academies and other education providers also have a chance to come forward with sensible proposals?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that the Secretary of State for Education has made it clear that it must be open for a free school to be the promoter of any new school that is set up.

Holocaust Survivors

5. Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to facilitate holocaust survivors in sharing their testimony in communities throughout the UK. [902033]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Hearing survivors’ stories is one of the best ways for communities to remember the obscenity of the holocaust. That is why we have given over £1.8 million to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, so that those stories can be preserved and shared more widely.

Richard Harrington: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I hope he will join me in commending the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, of which I am a trustee. We must commend its work in enabling holocaust survivors to share their stories with more than 70,000 young people every year. Does my right hon. Friend also accept that there will be a big challenge ahead in regard to passing on what happened during the holocaust when there are no more survivors around to communicate that message?

Mr Pickles: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the trust is doing a series of films, and organising events, where the children of holocaust survivors are taking up witness. One of the most effective things I have ever seen was a film where the daughter of a holocaust survivor took up her father’s testimony. When he was a child, his mother had said, as her final parting to him, “I have lived a long life. You’ve barely started. Do what you need to survive.” It occurred to me that not only was the voice of the father being heard; we were also hearing the voice of a grandmother whom the daughter had never met. That is the final victory over Hitler and over the obscenity of Nazism.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) has just said about the Holocaust Educational Trust. Will the Secretary of State continue

20 Jan 2014 : Column 8

a close working relationship with the trust and with Karen Pollock in the future, because for many decades they have done exactly the sort of work mentioned in the question on the Order Paper?

Mr Pickles: I am happy to give that assurance. Karen Pollock has done a remarkable job in casting fresh light on not only the holocaust that took place in Europe, but on Cambodia and Rwanda. One of the key focuses of the Prime Minister’s holocaust commission will be to ensure that what happened in the holocaust is not forgotten when survivors are no longer able to give personal testimony.

Private Rents

6. Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of recent trends in the level of private rents. [902034]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): The Office for National Statistics’ latest figures show that rents are falling in real terms; in England they have risen by just 1.1%, which is well below the rate of inflation.

Mike Gapes: I do not know whether the Minister has got some figures for London, but I can tell him that private rents are going up here. They are rising consistently, particularly in outer London, as a result of Government policy. It has also been revealed that 36% of properties sold under the right to buy in London are now in the hands of private landlords, who are charging extortionate private rents. What more are the Government going to do about it, instead of using complacent weasel words such as we just heard?

Kris Hopkins: I do have the figures for London actually. The ONS clearly states that rents in London have risen by 1.9%, which is still below inflation. Those are the figures on actual rents paid, as opposed to advertised rates—they are what often fill our newspapers. This Government are absolutely committed to right to buy. We want to encourage as many people as possible to own their own house, and that is the right thing to do.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Families in private rented accommodation have as much right to a decent home as anybody else, so will the Minister bring forward a new deal which will ensure that families in private rented homes can look forward to more predictable rents, longer-term tenancies and better standards?

Kris Hopkins: This Government are absolutely committed to increasing the number of rented properties, challenging the behaviour of the rented sector—the management of those properties—and making sure that the quality of those houses is put in place. Our approach includes the redress scheme which is currently in the House of Lords, and I look forward to it coming to this House so that we can support tenants and the management of those houses.

20. [902051] Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial

20 Jan 2014 : Column 9

Interests. Private rents in my constituency are now so high that constituents are coming to my surgery afraid to take on private tenancies for fear that on an average wage they are unable to afford them, which they certainly are. When will the Minister wake up, smell the coffee and get a house building programme in place? Does he not agree that that would reduce private rents?

Kris Hopkins: The Mayor of London is absolutely committed to building an affordable base, which is why this Government have supported his strategy to build more affordable housing with a £1.1 billion grant, which will deliver some 32,000 houses. Before the hon. Lady chucks stones, she should be aware that the number of affordable houses dropped by 427,000 from the start of Labour’s term in government to when it finished. Labour let down the people of this great city, not this Government.

Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Alongside a tenants charter, which has been referred to, the key to rents and indeed the private rented sector must surely be institutional investment for the long term. What progress is being made with the Build to Rent fund, to which the Minister alluded? How many schemes will it unlock, and let us contrast that with the paucity of action that we saw under the previous Government?

Kris Hopkins: I applaud the work that my hon. Friend did during his time in this position. The Build to Rent programme has been oversubscribed. The first round is some £200 million. Those houses are now beginning to come out of the ground. There are projects in Southampton and Manchester. As a northern MP, I know that the area will appreciate the development of some 100 new properties. Bids have now been received for phase 2. Applications worth more than £2 billion have been made. We are looking forward to announcing the results of that round in the spring. I am talking not about promises to deliver more housing, but about real tangible housing coming out of the ground as a consequence of this Government’s intervention.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): The Minister seems to be in complete denial about the levels of unaffordable rents in London and elsewhere. In London, for example, an average family spends more than half its income on rent. The truth is that the Government are presiding over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s and they have cut the affordable homes budget by 60%. Furthermore, the number of working families receiving housing benefit has doubled. What will the Government do to boost supply and to ensure that rents are affordable?

Kris Hopkins: The reality is that it was the Labour Government who delivered the lowest number of houses built in their last term of office. Despite presiding over a period of boom, they still never achieved the ambitious figures that they are talking about now. At the peak, only 176,000 houses were delivered. It is this Government who are using both public and private money to deliver a very ambitious project of affordable housing. Of the 170,000 houses that are planned, 99,000 have already been delivered. We are more than halfway through. With the money that we have given to the Mayor, another 32,000 houses will be delivered. It is this Government who are committed to building houses.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 10

Tidal Surges (East Anglia)

8. Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet local authorities in East Anglia to discuss the problems caused by the tidal surges of 5 to 6 December 2013. [902036]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I am at the moment inviting local council leaders from across the country whose areas have been affected by flooding to meet me, beyond those I have already spoken to. In fact, I plan to meet East Anglian authorities on 27 January.

Mr Bellingham: Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the Environment Agency and all the other emergency services that worked so tirelessly on the night of the tidal surges, many of which, along the Norfolk coast, were the highest ever on record? Does he agree that the repair work has also been absolutely fantastic? The repairs are now nearly all finished, as I saw for myself when I visited the shingle embankment between Snettisham and Hunstanton last Friday. Will he tell the House what more he will do to talk to local authorities?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the excellent work done by local authorities and emergency services. I must stress that voluntary groups and schools also worked through the night. Particular credit must go to local organisations, such as the Norfolk Community Foundation and our great Eastern Daily Press, which have campaigned on behalf of local communities. I will invite those groups to talk to us about the lessons they have learned and what more we can do to ensure that the recovery goes smoothly.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Repairs to sea defences were badly damaged in the storm surge on 5 December. They are not automatically covered by the Bellwin scheme. Will the Minister confirm that in his meetings with local authorities he will work with them to ensure that the repair works are carried out as quickly as possible so that coastal communities in Suffolk and Norfolk can get back on their feet?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bellwin scheme is only one part of the funding available for various issues from which areas affected by flooding will suffer. I am pleased to say that the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs will be addressing the matter of sea defences in a report to Parliament in the next few weeks, as the Environment Agency’s programme moves forward.

Vulnerable Communities

9. Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effect of the local government finance settlement on the most vulnerable communities. [902037]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): The provisional local government finance settlement for 2014-15 includes protections for the most grant-dependent authorities.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 11

Councils facing the highest demand for services continue to receive substantially more funding. No council will see a reduction of more than 6.9% in overall spending power next year.

Mr Bailey: The elderly, infirm and immobile are often unseen, unheard and most dependent on local authority social care. My own local authority of Sandwell has been forced to cut £75 million from its budget by 2015 and now faces a further £25 million cut by 2017. The Government’s better care fund is totally inadequate to compensate. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Stephen Williams: The spending power in Sandwell is still significantly above that in many other local authorities. The spending power per head in Sandwell, where the hon. Gentleman’s West Bromwich West constituency lies, is £2,481, £900 more than in many districts in the south of England.

21. [902052] Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Local authorities now also receive funding through the public health allocation. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Department of Health about cities such as Birmingham that have a disproportionately high young population, as they are disadvantaged by the fact that the funding formula has a higher weighting for those aged over 60 and 65? Are the Departments talking to each other to ensure that the young cities are not doubly hit?

Stephen Williams: I take the hon. Lady’s point, but the transfer of public health from the NHS to local government is a welcome reform by this Government that builds on what was done on public health in her own city by Joe Chamberlain back in the 19th century. It is a major opportunity for local government to address health inequalities, including in cities such as hers.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Both the National Audit Office and the Local Government Association have expressed concerns that unless there is a change of policy, some councils are simply not going to be able to make ends meet over the next two or three years. The Government have powers under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003 to help councils in that situation, but Ministers have also pointed out that there is potential to use a referendum to increase council tax. Who would vote for an increase in council tax in such circumstances unless the Government make it absolutely clear in advance the criteria under which they will use section 31 powers? Can the Minister tell us what they will be?

Stephen Williams: The Government will make the referendum criteria clear shortly, but council tax bills are a major part of every household’s budget—often far more significant than utility bills—and it is right that, rather than mandating local authorities or imposing caps as previous Governments did, this Government should give those in local government the discretion to raise council tax if they wish while expecting them to go to the people to get endorsement of that decision.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): Of the 30 areas in England with the highest black and minority ethnic populations, 29 face cuts above the national average

20 Jan 2014 : Column 12

and eight are dealing with cuts that are double that average. Will the Minister explain why BME communities are being hit so hard and will he agree to look at that?

Stephen Williams: I am the Minister responsible for race equality and I take the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises seriously. Perhaps we can have a separate discussion about it. Local authority settlements are not predicated on that basis, as a whole basket of factors goes into them. The Government are still putting substantial amounts of money into our integration budget to ensure that communities cohere, through measures such as specific funding for English language.

Firefighters’ Pensions

10. Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): What recent progress his Department has made on negotiations regarding firefighters’ pensions. [902038]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): The Government have offered a generous pension scheme to firefighters and proposed steps and protections to help with their concerns about fitness and capability. We hope that the Fire Brigades Union will accept the offer rather than continuing with an unnecessary dispute. I also continue to meet the union, having last done so on 6 January, and I will meet it again next week.

Mr Watts: I thank the Minister for his response. Given the Government’s praise for the actions of the fire service during the recent floods, does he believe it is right that if our brave firefighters cannot carry out their full range of duties, they should be faced with no job and no pension? Should he not be ashamed of himself?

Brandon Lewis: The hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of the facts is inaccurate, as that is not how the system works. That is why we are consulting on a set of principles, which give even more protection than the principles being consulted on in Scotland, to deal with any concerns that firefighters have. His facts on this matter are not correct.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): To achieve a settlement on firefighters’ pensions, firefighters need to believe that the fitness test that will apply to them in their late 50s will in practice enable them to continue in service until they reach the age of 60. Will the Minister update the House on what discussions he has had about the specifics of the fitness test that will be applied in the future?

Brandon Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. One of the reasons that the issue does not exist in the way that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) suggests is that there is no national fitness standard for firefighters. It is a matter for local services to look at their local needs and for the chief fire officer and the fire authority to decide on their local needs. What should be in place, and what we propose to put in place in the national framework, is a process and a set of procedures that are both fair to the service and to firefighters and which give them the right protection to ensure that they get the support from their service that they need to attain the relevant fitness required by their local fire service.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 13

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): The Minister offers some reassurance. However, the Government’s survey says that between 29% and 92% of firefighters will not be operationally fit to continue until they are 60. He says that he is meeting the Fire Brigades Union. Will he seriously discuss with it the reassurance that he is offering and tell it how that will be achieved?

Brandon Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to clarify the issue. It is one of the conversations that we had on 6 January and which will be continuing, I hope, next week. I do not entirely agree with his interpretation of Dr Williams’s report, which makes it clear that, with proper fitness work going on—one of the things that we expect the service to do as part of the principles that we are consulting on—firefighters can retain fitness until 60. That is very achievable, and we want to make sure that the protections are in place. Beyond the Scottish agreement, we have suggested an independent review to ensure that the service is putting these protections in place.

Waste Disposal

11. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What guidance his Department has issued to local authorities on the duty of co-operation arising from the Localism Act 2011 in respect of waste disposal. [902039]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): We issued draft guidance on the duty to co-operate on 28 August and expect to finalise this shortly. The Localism Act has given local councils more power over planning for waste management.

David Mowat: I thank the Minister for that answer. He may be aware of the Arpley landfill site, which is located right in the middle of Warrington and causes severe disruption to more than 5,000 residents. All Warrington’s councillors want it closed. Both Warrington’s MPs want it closed. As of next year, no Warrington waste will go to it. Does the Minister agree that it would be a triumph for localism if the current 20-year planning application was rejected and that those local authorities that still use the site found somewhere else to put their rubbish?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on an application that is yet to be determined, but I hope he is aware that, if he thinks that an application raises issues of particular concern and national significance, he can write to the Secretary of State and ask for that application to be recovered for ministerial decision.

Housing Benefit Claimants

12. John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that claimants of housing benefit are able to access accommodation in the private rented sector. [902040]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): The key to making the private rented sector accessible to all is to build more homes for rent. That is why we are investing in the

20 Jan 2014 : Column 14

private rented sector through the £1 billion Build to Rent fund and giving £3.5 billion in guarantees to get builders building—and we will deliver 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015 through this process.

John Healey: I came across the case of Christina last week. She is a homeless young woman, helped by Centrepoint, the charity. She wants to finish her college course, she wants to get a job, and she wants to move on with her life, but she cannot because no private landlord will take her while she is on housing benefit. Will the Minister now admit that the housing benefit changes are locking people on low incomes, including those who are in work, out of private housing altogether?

Kris Hopkins: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about the specific individual concerned, I will attempt to address that case, but I reassure the House that we take seriously the need to deliver affordable housing. That is why the Government have clearly laid out that our principal priority in house building is supporting the affordable sector. Indeed, 170,000 new houses will be delivered by 2015, and we will soon announce a prospectus that will deliver 160,000 new homes by 2018. That is our commitment to people such as the one he mentioned.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): The Minister and his colleagues have frequently told those who are in receipt of housing benefit and subject to the bedroom tax that they should downsize, yet for many people that means moving into the private sector, which either will not take them or, if it does, charges more rent, so costing the public purse more. Is it not time that the Government abandoned this totally ill-conceived policy?

Kris Hopkins: There are more than 1 million one-bedroom flats on the market at the moment, and the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that there are more houses out there. Every single penny that we are spending on housing is intended specifically to address that need, to ensure that vulnerable individuals are supported, with £470 million for the homeless and £445 million for transition through welfare reform. We have had to make those difficult decisions because the previous Labour Government failed to do so.

Troubled Families Unit

13. Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the troubled families unit since its creation. [902041]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Thanks to the help of local government and the personal commitment of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, we are on track. In November, 18 months into our three-year programme, I announced that over half of the 120,000 families were being worked with and that over 22,000 had been turned around. I hope shortly to be able to give an update, which I think will show even more spectacular figures.

Mike Thornton: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am sure he will be pleased to know that the initiative has been actively and successfully

20 Jan 2014 : Column 15

embraced in Eastleigh, with Eastleigh borough council and Hampshire county council working together to transform people’s lives. However, I have heard that some councils are using it as a box-ticking exercise. How can the Department ensure that local councils are genuinely changing lives, not just filling in the appropriate forms?

Mr Pickles: There is a robust system in place for verification and checking. Both councils’ internal audits and my Department carry out spot checks, but the hard truth is that there is no reason to do this, because it offers no advantage to a council. In fact, doing it will effectively cost councils more money. In the long term it will save them money, but it means that they have to give an extra commitment. I think it is the commitment we have seen from local authorities that we should be celebrating.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State clarify whether a family can be considered “turned around” if they are still committing crimes or engaging in antisocial behaviour?

Mr Pickles: The short answer is no. We went about it in a very straightforward way and so have some very straightforward criteria. Basically, the kids must be in school, and for three terms, which is why there is a bit of a lag, and somebody must be on the road to work, in the same way that they will be within a programme, and the incidence of antisocial behaviour on the estate must have been reduced measurably.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Although most of the families on the estate that I grew up on were hard-working and decent people, the odd one or two troubled families caused problems for the rest of the estate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this initiative, which helps to get children back into school and parents into work, is helping not only the family concerned, but the wider community?

Mr Pickles: Sure, and the important thing is that we have one social worker dealing with one family as a whole, not a series of social workers dealing with different members of the family. That has been very impressive. I have toured the country and seen a number of the schemes in action, and I have been very pleased with the level of co-operation.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I fear that the Secretary of State is in denial, because his programme actually causes a reduction, not a cessation, in the problems for which the families have been put on the programme. Is it not the truth that many of the families that he says have been turned around are still truanting and engaging in antisocial behaviour? How on earth does he justify the fact that many local authorities are failing to monitor those families after they come off the programme? Is it not the truth that he is scared of real scrutiny of the claims he makes?

Mr Pickles: I invite the hon. Lady to come to my office and talk with Louise Casey. I do not think there is a scintilla of truth in anything the hon. Lady said, and I greatly regret the breach in bipartisanship towards the

20 Jan 2014 : Column 16

programme. Our books are open, so she should come in to see them. I have to tell her, in the nicest possible way, that she should put up or shut up.

Larger Social Homes

14. Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): What assessment he has made of changes in demand for larger social homes since April 2013. [902043]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): We do not undertake a national assessment of need as we believe that such assessments are better made at a local level. In the new affordable homes programme we will encourage the building of homes to match local needs, including smaller properties in areas with a shortage, and funding for larger homes where that is appropriate.

Graeme Morrice: There is much evidence to suggest that the Government’s bedroom tax is responsible not only for an increase in the number of empty larger properties but for escalating rent arrears and significant extra costs to social landlords. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) said, why is the Minister defending this iniquitous and failing policy that is resulting in abject misery for thousands of families up and down the country?

Kris Hopkins: There is no evidence that removing the spare room subsidy has had that impact. There will be an assessment in the spring, when we will look at that. I would imagine that any of the 1.69 million people who are currently on waiting lists in a council area with an empty house would be outraged that they are still on a waiting list and are not being accommodated by the local council. There should be no empty homes out there when such a significant number of people are demanding a house.

Social Housing

15. Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): What guidance he has issued to local authorities on prioritising (a) members of the armed forces and (b) local residents for social housing. [902044]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): I am incredibly proud that this Government have published guidance strongly encouraging councils to prioritise armed forces members and their families for social housing. Last month we issued guidance ensuring that local homes go to local people.

Caroline Dinenage: My constituency has a very proud history of serving the armed forces and was an early adopter of the armed forces covenant. Although I warmly welcome the Government’s efforts to encourage local authorities to prioritise local people when allocating social housing, what is the Minister doing to encourage local councils to make sure that forces families are not disadvantaged by this measure?

Kris Hopkins: As a former squaddie, I think this Government can be very proud of what we have done, whether it is the Help to Buy scheme, the covenant, or

20 Jan 2014 : Column 17

making sure that members of our armed forces who have been away from home still have a high priority on waiting lists. That message has gone out to local councils, and they need to adhere to the policy to support members of the armed forces who live in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in many others.

Bed-and-Breakfast Accommodation

16. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of families with children who were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation for longer than the statutory maximum six-week period since 2010. [902046]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): Keeping families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks is unacceptable and unlawful. We challenged local authorities to grip the problem and gave them an extra £2 million to help in that process.

Diana Johnson: Today, BBC Radio Humberside reports increasing numbers of families being evicted in Hull. Soaring homelessness under this coalition has seen an 800% increase in families staying in bed-and-breakfast accommodation beyond the six-week statutory limit. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Kris Hopkins: I am sure that everybody in this House wants to address homelessness, and this Government have committed some £470 million to doing so. Some 53,000 people are currently rated homeless compared with 133,000 people at the high point under the Labour Government. According to the most recent figures that I have, no household with children has been in a B and B for more than six weeks in Kingston upon Hull.

Topical Questions

T2. [902019] Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab):

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I would like to make a very brief statement about a recent development regarding my Department and officials at the European Union. The previous Labour Government signed up to a petty EU regulation that forced my Department and other Departments to fly the European flag outside our buildings. I can announce today that we have renegotiated this, and the burdensome law on flying the EU flag has now gone. This small step shows that our nation can and should claim powers back from Brussels. I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for not flying the flag of Buckingham yesterday to celebrate your birthday. I hope you had a good day.

Mr Speaker: The Secretary of State is forgiven.

Andy McDonald: Remembering how British troops fought for the world’s freedom in the first world war is a very good thing. However, why did a Minister in the Secretary of State’s Department give £120,000 to a company run by a friend of hers, who also happens to be a Tory candidate, to organise just 50 school visits? There was no tender and no competition. If the Secretary of State has nothing to hide, will he publish all the documents and civil service advice about this work?

20 Jan 2014 : Column 18

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is very good at smearing. This was properly conducted and, frankly, what a member of a company does in their spare time is not a matter of concern. I regularly deal with Labour councillors on a commercial basis and, frankly, I regard his attempt at smearing as pathetic.

T3. [902020] Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that Enfield council’s proposal to use its public health budget for enhanced gritting is a gross misuse of public funds—the more so because in Enfield borough there is a 12-year life expectancy difference within less than 1 mile?

Mr Pickles: I am very surprised to hear that. I know my hon. Friend takes a great interest as a co-chair of the all-party group on primary care and public health. That issue goes to the very heart of whether we trust local government. A number of us have wanted the removal of ring-fencing, but using on gritting what should be used on public health is frankly ridiculous, and it brings local government into disrepute.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): Last year, the Prime Minister was reported to have abandoned his support for new towns and garden cities. Last week, however, the Housing Minister said he was not aware of any report which was supposed to have been published, while the Deputy Prime Minister revealed that there is a prospectus and said that the Government should be honest about their plans to build new garden cities. Yesterday, the Secretary of State confirmed that there is a report, but that it seems to have nothing to do with his Department. Given that he is supposed to be in charge of housing and planning, why has he not asked to see a copy?

Mr Pickles: Of course there are reports. A report commissioned by the previous Government wanted to impose five garden cities, and when that failed, there was a report for 10 garden cities, but the truth is that Labour failed to build. We have been very straightforward about it: through local development growth, we will do our best to help those communities that want to have a garden city or volunteer for a garden city. Within my Department, there are certainly no plans to build on the floodplain or to increase London sprawl.

Hilary Benn: This is what the Secretary of State said yesterday. He said that

“I am told by my department that this report”—

confirming its existence—

“does not come from my department.”

He should clear it up by publishing the prospectus now.

Since the Secretary of State and I agree that identifying sites for new garden cities must be locally led, will he tell the House whether Yalding in Kent, Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire or any council in Oxfordshire has come forward to express interest in providing such a site? If not, will he confirm to the House that his officials are not currently looking at any of those areas as potential sites?

Mr Pickles: The only person who I think is looking at those as potential sites is Michael Lyons, who is working for the Labour party on these matters. Just to be absolutely

20 Jan 2014 : Column 19

clear, I cannot rule out some ambitious civil servant re-heating and re-badging an old Labour scheme to bring it to us. I want to be absolutely clear: no one is going to be forced to have a garden city against their will. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is a little confused. He seems to be mixing up a prospectus with this report, whether it exists or not, but the prospectus with regard to the local growth fund—an extra £1 billion has been put in—will of course be published in the spring.

T4. [902021] Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): The Minister will be aware of last week’s article in TheDaily Telegraph alleging a major relaxation of planning laws. This has caused some concern in my constituency, where substantial housing growth is already planned. What reassurance can he give my constituents that we will not have some planning free-for-all?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): The Daily Telegraph is no doubt one of your favourite newspapers, Mr Speaker, as it is of mine, but it is in the business of selling copies, so it sometimes needs to entertain and provoke as well as inform. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are not proposing any further major planning reforms, but simply a few minor tweaks to the administrative process of discharging planning conditions.

T5. [902022] Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): Under the Bellwin scheme, the Government give emergency financial assistance to local authorities that are hit by natural disasters. In June and July last year, the Government provided 100% of emergency expenditure, but they are providing only 85% for the more recent floods. Will the Minister explain how the damage caused and the costs incurred more recently are different from what they were then?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): So far, 37 authorities have indicated that they plan to make a claim through the Bellwin fund. As I said earlier, all the local authorities that have been affected are coming in to talk to us about the recovery process. I am sure that they will want to raise the issue of funding. The Bellwin fund is well tested, it works and local authorities know how it works. We will obviously work with any authority that needs specific help.

T6. [902023] Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend reassure me that planning inspectors will recognise the constraints that are on councils as they draw up their local plans, and that they will get the balance right between holding those councils to account and not subjecting them to undue delay?

Nick Boles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I have been encouraging planning inspectors to recognise that perfection is not something that we mere mortals can ever hope to achieve, and that they should be pragmatic in recognising the way in which national policies can apply to local circumstances.

T7. [902024] Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On 8 January, I was told by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and

20 Jan 2014 : Column 20

Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in a written answer that he does not know

“the net change in central Government support to individual local authorities”

since May 2010.—[

Official Report

, 8 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 257W.] If he does not know by how much he has decided to cut the funding for particular local authorities, how can he possibly assess whether it is beneficial or detrimental?

Brandon Lewis: The entire system of local government funding has been changed under this Government so that it is based on incentives rather than the begging bowl. Authorities that build houses will get more money and authorities that deliver economic growth will benefit from business rate retention. That is the way forward for local government—it is in control of its own destiny.

T8. [902025] Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): I am working hard to promote right to buy in Stevenage, with some success. Sadly, Stevenage borough council does not support hard-working families in buying their own council homes. Will the Secretary of State consider making Stevenage a pilot area and contacting directly all tenants who are eligible to take up right to buy?

Mr Pickles: I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that idea. I am shocked to hear that Stevenage is not playing its full part. Under right to buy, we will ensure that there are replacements on a one-for-one basis. Essentially, what Stevenage is doing is shooting itself in the foot.

T10. [902027] Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): A disabled constituent of mine lives with her husband in a two-bedroom property. The second bedroom is used as a lockable safe room because her husband’s mental health condition leads him to become violent. She manages thanks to the discretionary housing payment, which is by definition discretionary and temporary. Why is she not exempt from the hideous bedroom tax, given her circumstances?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): The hon. Lady is right that councils have the discretion to remove those demands from people in those particular medical circumstances. If she would like to write to me about the circumstances of that case, I will take it up with my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions.

T9. [902026] Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): The Stanmore estate in Winchester was one of the first council estates in the country and was built in the post-great war building boom. Thanks to the changes to housing finance, Winchester city council is investing £60 million over the next 10 years to build 400 new council homes. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is very good for my constituents and that it is a genuinely affordable housing scheme?

Mr Pickles: I congratulate my hon. Friend and the local authority. There is a certain irony in the fact that the two Administrations of the past 40 years who have built the greatest number of council homes are Margaret

20 Jan 2014 : Column 21

Thatcher’s Administration and this Administration. In the past few years, we have built more council houses than the Labour party built in 13 years.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): The Government give private landlords £9.5 billion every year through housing benefit, and yet they spend only £1.1 billion on building affordable homes. If they spent all that money on affordable homes, they could build 600,000 homes every year. Why does not the Minister stop picking on and vilifying low-income tenants, and call time on profiteering landlords by capping rents and using the savings in housing benefit to build more council houses?

Kris Hopkins: This Government have invested some £4.1 million into tackling rogue landlords. We have received a number of thank you letters from people on the Labour side, which is not in line with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Government are ensuring that tenants have decent homes. We support tenants and are not afraid of taking on rogue landlords.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cherwell district council is willing to discuss with him the possibility of Bicester becoming a new garden city? Work has started on the eco town and the redundant Ministry of Defence land. It is probably one of the largest house building areas in south-east England, and we are certainly willing to enter into constructive dialogue about a new garden city with the Secretary of State.

Mr Pickles: Once I have been spared from my duties in the Chamber, I intend to go to the Tea Room where I shall expect an orderly queue of hon. Members lining up to volunteer.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): In a recent debate the Secretary of State told me that in England landlords did not refuse housing to people on housing benefit, yet a big landlord was reported in the press as saying that he was moving completely out of letting to housing benefit tenants. Will the Secretary of State now carry out a proper inquiry so that he can give a clear answer to the point I raised in that debate?

Mr Pickles: With all respect to the hon. Lady, she was making exactly the same point about an article that had been in the Daily Mail that very weekend. I pointed out, with enormous respect, that there are a lot more private landlords than just that particular gentleman, and I do not think he represents anything that speaks of the sector as a whole. The short answer is no.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 22

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Lack of planning enforcement by local authorities causes disproportionate distress and aggravation to my constituents. Does the Minister agree that councils should have the ability to delay granting planning permission for new applications until all outstanding conditions on previous applications by the same developer have been complied with?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and I would be happy to look into the specific case. Perhaps I can generally reassure her that, through the Localism Act 2011, she, I, and the rest of us have improved the enforcement powers of local authorities, and removed the restrictions that the previous Government had placed on the use of temporary stop orders in enforcing against abuse.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): In 2015 Ministers will take on responsibility from the Department for Work and Pensions for hardship funding delivered by local councils. What discussions have taken place with Ministers at the DWP so that the vulnerable are not hit the hardest once again when the change takes effect?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): The Department for Work and Pensions has transferred £175 million for the current year to meet those obligations, and £172 million for next year. The expectation for subsequent years is that local authorities will find those funds from within their own budgets. Of course, with the recovering economy, we hope there will be less demand.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Did the Secretary of State see last week’s report that showed that local authorities have lost £51 million over three years in overpayments to staff, with £16.7 million still to be recovered? Does he agree that local authorities need to raise their game in that area?

Mr Pickles: I am sure that is right. The amount available through preventing fraud, overpayment and mistakes is something we expect local authorities to tackle, just as we expect them to tackle their growing balance problem.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. This Secretary of State’s Question Time is always a box office occasion, and I dare say colleagues will just have to wait until next time to renew the flame of their interest.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 23

UN Syrian Refugees Programme

3.33 pm

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the UN settlement programme for vulnerable Syrian refugees.

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): More than half the Syrian population of 9.3 million is in need of humanitarian assistance, and 2.3 million people have been displaced from Syria to neighbouring countries. This is a crisis of international proportions and needs a commensurate response from the international community. The Government are proud to be playing their part in that response, and share the view of the UN Secretary-General that the priorities must be to

“assist the Syrian parties in ending the violence and achieving a comprehensive agreement for a political settlement”,

and ending the suffering of the Syrian people. No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead, but we are determined to strive for a peaceful settlement through the Geneva II process, which starts later this week and is working towards the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria.

The Government continue to believe that the best way to address the suffering of the Syrian people should be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people, in partnership with neighbouring countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Before last week, the Government had provided £500 million for the Syrian relief effort, of which more than £480 million had been allocated to partners in Syria and the region. That has helped more than 1 million people. Almost 320,000 people are being provided with food assistance each month in Syria and neighbouring countries, and more than 244,000 people in Syria have been offered medical help. The Government continually press for better access and protection for humanitarian convoys inside Syria so that aid can get to the millions in need inside the country. That represents the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.

We are leading the way in helping the Syrians suffering from the humanitarian crisis as the second largest donor, behind the US, helping refugees, and through consideration of Syrian asylum claims under our normal rules. In the year to last September, we had already recognised more than 1,100 Syrian nationals as refugees.

We are very aware that some, including the UNHCR, would like to see a more proactive programme of resettlement of refugees who are currently hosted by countries neighbouring Syria. We have considered those options very carefully and respect the views of those countries who favour a resettlement programme, but we think that our priority should continue to be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people in the region, in partnership with neighbouring countries, the UNHCR and other UN and non-governmental partners. Most of those who are displaced want to return home as soon as it is safe to do so, and protection in the region affords them that hope.

Beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, our priority must be to help neighbouring countries to provide sustainable protection in the region. That should be our focus, rather than resettlement or providing humanitarian

20 Jan 2014 : Column 24

admission to Syrians—initiatives that can provide only very limited relief and have only a token impact on the huge numbers of refugees.

The UK can be proud of its contribution but there is still more to do. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development pledged a further £100 million in aid at the pledging conference in Kuwait, taking our contribution to £600 million.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive issue and one that continues to require real action through high levels of international co-operation, both in the region and more widely. The UK has a proud tradition of providing protection to those in need, and this Government are committed to continuing to playing our full part in the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Our response to date is one of which we can be proud.

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry the Home Secretary has not come to the House for this question.

When the House opposed military intervention in Syria, both sides were adamant that we had an even greater moral obligation to provide humanitarian support in that dreadful conflict. The position is now desperate. Two million refugees have fled their country, more than half of whom are children.

Most of the support is rightly being provided in the region, particularly by Syria’s neighbours. Britain has led the way, through Government aid and the generosity of the British people, in providing outside help, but we have also been asked by the UN to join its programme for the most vulnerable refugees. I spoke to the UN this morning. The programme is for those whom the UN believes will find it hardest to survive in the camps in the region, such as abandoned children who have no other protection or support; torture victims, who may be suffering immense physical and mental distress; those who need urgent medical help; mothers of young children who have lost their husbands and relatives and are vulnerable; and those who have been abused in the camps. They are not asylum seekers. They cannot travel here or elsewhere to apply for asylum. They are already UN-certified refugees.

Other countries—France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, even Luxemburg and Moldova, and Australia, Canada and the USA—have agreed to help. Those countries have offered places, taking the UN well on its way towards its target. Britain is being asked to provide only limited help as part of the wider programme, but the Government have refused. The Minister described such help as “token”, but it is not token for a child who is given a home. He dismissed the UN programme in favour of regional support, but it is not an either/or question. As every other major western country understands, some vulnerable refugees need a different kind of help. This is not about border control or immigration policy, but about our long tradition of sanctuary. How can we ask Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to keep their borders open or to keep helping millions of people if Britain will not do its bit for a few hundred of the most vulnerable, or if we will not even take in those with British relatives who are desperate to help? Charities like Oxfam and Save the Children are urging us to join this programme. It would be shameful for Britain to refuse.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 25

Will the Minister tell the Home Secretary not to turn her back on vulnerable refugees? Will he tell her to look urgently at how many places Britain can provide? The Prime Minister said:

“We should encourage other countries to step up to the plate”

and that we must

“fulfil our moral obligations to those people who will suffer.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 744.]

He is exactly right. This is a moral obligation. How can we encourage others if we do not act?

Mr Harper: Listening to the shadow Secretary of State’s response, I do not think that she could have listened to a word that I said. On the scale of help and support the United Kingdom is giving to the region, our level of aid support dwarfs that of most other European countries. Some countries are willing to take very small numbers—sometimes just two figures, by which I mean 10 or 20—and they are not providing financial support. We are the second largest donor: we are helping not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of people in the region by providing water, food and medical supplies. That has to be the right way. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been one of the leading players working with UNICEF on a programme to help about 15,000 vulnerable children in Syria and the neighbouring countries. That has to be the right solution, rather than offering to take token numbers of people compared with the millions of people in need and the hundreds of thousands of people we are helping in the region.

We are stepping up and doing our part, not just on aid but in the work we are doing on the diplomatic front to help to bring the Geneva II talks, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been leading, to a successful conclusion. That has to be the long-term solution. It has to be in the region, making sure that those people can return home when the country is safe for them to do so. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) did not acknowledge the work that we are doing, with our European partners, to lead that approach.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): There is no dispute that the Government have led the way in the provision of financial aid; nor is there any dispute that the Government have helped to lead the way in relation to a political settlement, but the children of Syria have suffered grievously. Are we really saying that we cannot take a few hundred of those who have suffered most, or are we now so intimidated by UKIP that we have abandoned our humanity?

Mr Harper: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that children are among those most at risk. One example of what we are doing for children in particular is our work with UNICEF in Syria and the region to provide help not to a few hundred children, but to 15,000. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been leading this initiative with UNICEF. In terms of the numbers we can help, it is better to help tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people in the region than the frankly relatively small numbers that some European countries are talking about. They are taking very small

20 Jan 2014 : Column 26

numbers of people and they are not providing aid. This country is playing a leading role and we can be proud of that.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): May I declare an interest? I visited the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan in November, where I saw facilities for the protection of children, because of some issues that arise in huge refugee camps. Will the Minister explain why he believes his Government should have a policy that is to the right of UKIP?

Mr Harper: I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s obsession with other political parties. We are taking this view because we think it is the right way to get the maximum help to the largest number of people. The £600 million we are spending—not everyone agrees with our significant international aid commitments, but we have met our 0.7% aid target and are proud of the help we can give to those most vulnerable—is helping hundreds of thousands, not hundreds, of people in the region with food, water and medical attention. That is the right priority.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Government can indeed be extremely proud of what they have done in financial terms, and the tens and hundreds of thousands of people the Minister mentions of course have a great deal to thank us for, but does he not accept that what the UNHCR has asked for—that a small number of extremely vulnerable children be helped by coming to this country—we could do at a very limited cost to ourselves, and not as an alternative to the things he is talking about, but as well as?

Mr Harper: We have taken the view that the best way to help people is in the region. Most of the Syrian refugees do not want to come to another country; they want to return to Syria when it is safe, and by supporting them in the region, we enable them to do so. That is the right way to help significant numbers of people. Our support is helping not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of people, which is the right thing to do.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): While in no way setting aside the overall disaster of the refugee situation caused by the Syrian conflict, I ask the Government to pay specific attention to the plight of the Palestinian refugees in the al-Yarmouk camp, who are being slaughtered and dealt terrible blows as a result of this conflict, which is not their conflict. The Minister says that of course one of our objectives is that the refugees should be able to go home, but the Palestinian refugees have no home to go to, and their plight must be given special attention in the overall tragedy. Will he give that specific commitment to the House?

Mr Harper: I am pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman that actually we are helping. UK funding is supporting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in its work with Palestinian refugees, providing support for more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I am pleased to give him the reassurance he asks for.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): France has been mentioned. Just how many refugees is it taking? Are we not spending 15 times more than France on humanitarian aid? Our Parliament refused to bomb

20 Jan 2014 : Column 27

Syria; France wanted to bomb it. Which approach is more likely to produce peace and light—our approach or the French approach?

Mr Harper: In my initial response, I deliberately did not set out details of our European partners, but my hon. Friend has specifically asked me to. Yes, France has offered to take a few hundred refugees, but it is only prepared to put in £25 million—a significantly smaller amount than us and several other smaller European countries. We are stepping up and doing what is necessary. I think that some other European countries need to reflect on their contribution—if they did, they might look to do a little more.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): Everyone agrees that Britain’s international aid effort is significant, but the Minister is missing the point about refugees. If Britain does not step up, other countries already threatening to shut their borders will see no reason to continue. The population of Lebanon, which I recently visited with World Vision, has grown by a third because of the refugee flows. We need to lead by example, and that is essentially the point of today’s question, which I hope he will take seriously, instead of referring to this as tokenistic. It is too important for that. We need to step up.

Mr Harper: If I may say so, I think the hon. Lady is missing the point. Neighbouring countries have significant numbers of refugees because they are neighbouring countries, and of course there are family connections. Ultimately, the refugees want to return home. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was in Lebanon only last week. Part of the point of our huge financial effort is to support Lebanon and Jordan to help them deal with the refugees. That is the whole purpose of our funding. We are not leaving those countries to give the support themselves; we are putting our shoulder to the wheel and assisting them in providing it in the region.

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Given that the cost of resettlement is a significant amount of money per person, surely that money is better spent on the ground, where it can immediately save lives. Given that other countries have not lived up to their donor responsibilities, what more can be done to persuade them to do so?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point. Looking at how best to deploy our financial resources to help the largest number of people, we need to recognise that there is a difference between taking in refugees in the United Kingdom, as some are calling for us to do, and what we are doing through providing funding for the region. I think that helping hundreds of thousands of people in the region is the right priority, one of which we can be proud.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Will the Minister think again? Many of us welcome the amount of money the British Government have provided to assist refugees—we have no problem with that and fully understand the need. Syria as a whole, however, has

20 Jan 2014 : Column 28

hosted a very large number of refugees in the past, particularly Palestinians coming from Iraq, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) pointed out, they are being bombed in al-Yarmouk refugee camp. Will the Minister think again and join in a UN programme to give safety to the most vulnerable refugees who, should they remain in place, will be killed for political or social purposes?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman talks about refugees who previously lived in Syria. Of course, the help we are providing is not just to the neighbouring countries; a lot of it is for people who are internally displaced in Syria. We are working very hard with our diplomatic partners to secure humanitarian access in Syria, as well as supporting neighbouring countries. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that too.

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): Before Christmas, I visited Jordan and the Zaatari refugee camp, as well as a number of organisations providing help for refugees living in host communities. I was particularly concerned about the plight of disabled children and children who have managed to travel on their own. The Minister is of course correct to say that most refugees just want to go back to Syria and do not want to come to Britain, but we are not asking for most refugees to come to Britain; we are asking only for those in exceptional need whom we could help to come to Britain. We should continue to make the arguments for Jordan and Lebanon to keep their borders open; otherwise, we really will have a catastrophe.

Mr Harper: As I think I said in response to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), we are working closely with UNICEF in Syria and the region on providing support services and protection for 15,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian children and their carers, as well as for refugee children in neighbouring countries. We are providing that support, and we are able to help a significantly larger number of people than the numbers the hon. Lady talks about.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Is this not about trying to create a false set of alternatives? These strategies are not mutually exclusive. We recognise, welcome and acknowledge—this has been made clear by Opposition Members—the Government’s good record on total aid programmes and specifically their excellent record so far on providing aid to Syria. However, the Minister is belittling and undermining that effort by his stubborn and incomprehensible refusal to take part in a United Nations-backed programme targeted on those in most urgent need in Syria—primarily children—for no good reason that we Opposition Members can understand. Will he not reconsider?

Mr Harper: I could turn it around and say to the hon. Gentleman that we are providing support for those people in the region. We are helping hundreds of thousands by providing food, water and medical aid—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says that it is the sixth time I have said that, but that is because it is true. It is the right policy, and I do not mind repeating it as many times as necessary. If I look at what some of our European neighbours are providing, I find that they are taking very small numbers of people and not providing

20 Jan 2014 : Column 29

any support. We are helping hundreds of thousands more people than most other European countries, and I think we can be very proud of that response.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): There is no doubt that all colleagues mean well, but the enormity of this humanitarian crisis means it is imperative for the Government to continue to help as many people as possible—and help the many rather than the few in this case rather than using helping the few as an excuse. Other agencies are helping, like the Lady Fatemah Trust in my constituency—a small charitable organisation that takes no administrative fees whatever—so what can the Government do to help support those charities? This one has already distributed 103 tonnes of food to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Mr Harper: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to the work of that excellent organisation in her constituency. We are working with various organisations, including partner organisations, but the Secretary of State for International Development is present and will have heard the details about this charity. I am sure that she will discuss with my right hon. Friend whether we can do more to support its work in helping people in the region.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Like most people in Scotland, I am appalled that this Government, unlike Governments in other small European nations, will not take refugee children. I know that they are terrified of UKIP, but even Nigel Farage recognises that there is a difference between a refugee and an immigrant. Why can the Minister not recognise that as well?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman seems to be obsessed in a way that we are not. [Laughter.] I have made very clear what our policy is when it comes to assisting the largest possible number of people in the region, and I think that that is the right approach. It enables us to help hundreds of thousands of people by providing water, medical resources and food. We are supporting the neighbouring countries and helping them to do the right thing, and I think that we can be very proud of that support.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am proud of the fact that our Government is the largest donor to Syria. Of course we need a permanent and a political solution, and of course we cannot take every refugee. However, with the greatest respect, I disagree with the Minister. Surely there is room for more children in this country, particularly vulnerable children such as orphans and those who have been most severely disabled as a result of the conflict. We are not talking about taking everyone, but surely we can take some more, as well as helping on the ground.

Mr Harper: As I said in my statement, we granted refugee status to 1,100 Syrians in the year to last September, and we will continue to grant such status if we receive asylum applications. We should consider how we can help the largest possible number of people, including those who are vulnerable. As I said in answer to questions from Liberal Democrat Members, one of the programmes that we have been supporting is the UNICEF programme,

20 Jan 2014 : Column 30

which has been championed by my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and which has helped 15,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian children, and I think that that is the right thing to do.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): This is rapidly becoming one of the largest humanitarian crises of the last 50 years, and it is producing a phenomenal problem politically in that very complex country, Lebanon. Surely the answer in every country must be “both…and”, not “either…or”. Would we not have much more moral authority if we argued to the French that we are doing “both…and”, not “either…or”, and would it not therefore be a good idea for us to start taking more of these children?

Mr Harper: There are 2.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries, and about 6.5 million displaced people in Syria. Arguing about helping a few hundred people misses the point. [Interruption.] We have put £600 million into the region—the hon. Gentleman is right: this is the biggest humanitarian crisis, which is why our response is the biggest humanitarian response that this country has ever mounted—in order to help hundreds of thousands of people there. That is the right thing to do, and we are helping an enormously larger number of people than any of our European partners.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I congratulate the Government on all that they have done for refugees outside the country. I recently visited the Nizip refugee camp, which is on the Syrian border in Turkey. The Turks do a tremendous job in delivering support, and it is far more cost-effective for the Government to provide for those refugees—particularly the most vulnerable—in situ, in a refugee camp or nearby. Does my hon. Friend not agree, however, that it is the tragedy within Syria that is greatest, and would he support an initiative at Geneva II to ensure that there are safe corridors inside the country so that we can maximise the safety of the majority of Syrians?

Mr Harper: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and the fact that it is informed by his recent visit to the region where he was able to see practically what our colleagues in Turkey—one of the neighbouring countries—are doing to help on the ground. In answer to his specific question, he is right: we have been pushing for better access within Syria and we need to continue to do so, so that we and the aid agencies can get access to the 6.5 million internally displaced people and provide the help they need, as well as providing help to those in the neighbouring countries.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Minister is absolutely right to praise the Department for International Development for the work it has done, but it is his Department that has been called to the Dispatch Box today, not DFID, and he has undermined his own argument. He said that what is being asked of the Government is simply nugatory—that it is insignificant, that it is a token. If it is so small, why do the Government not do it? Is it because it will contribute to the Minister’s net migration figures? Is that what he is afraid of?

Mr Harper: First, Ministers speak at this Dispatch Box for the Government and set out the Government’s policy. We do not have different policies in different Departments. The hon. Gentleman ought to go away

20 Jan 2014 : Column 31

and have a look at that, because we have a collectively agreed policy and I am setting out the Government’s response to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). The reason why I do not want to agree to the proposition the hon. Gentleman puts is that the Government do not think it is the right solution. We think that the solution we have set out, which is to provide the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis, will be more effective in helping in the region, and I think that is the right thing to do.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to have some policy coherence here? It is not coherent policy to call for the United Kingdom to admit refugees from Syria if one is not also simultaneously going to be calling for the UK to admit refugees from Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic and other jurisdictions. One cannot pray in aid just one country and say that the UK should admit refugees from that country. That simply is not a coherent position.

Mr Harper: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Our usual asylum rules are in place, and as I have said we have already granted asylum, in the year to last September, to 1,100 Syrian refugees and will continue granting asylum where someone has a claim that meets the rules on providing international protection. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the various crises around the world where we apply our normal asylum rules. In this case, I think we have more than stepped up to the plate. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said this was an enormous humanitarian crisis: it is, and that is why we have delivered our biggest ever humanitarian response.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): A few months ago the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and suggested that Britain was leading the world in the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis. Why does that leadership not extend to doing the most human thing of all: giving a home to vulnerable children who have suffered horrendous atrocities at the hands of President Assad?

Mr Harper: I do not think anybody can say that this Government are not playing our full role on the diplomatic front. The Foreign Secretary has been leading efforts in trying to get a diplomatic solution and I am very pleased that those Geneva II talks will take place and start this week. They are, of course, a process, not a single point in time. I think we are leading. We are the second largest donor in the world and the largest donor in the European Union. Until very recently when the Germans stepped up, we had donated more money than the rest of the EU combined.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Going back to the question of Lebanon, does my hon. Friend agree that that frail state desperately needs two things: first, the splendid programme of aid we have, and, secondly, much greater assistance for the very brave, but very small and poorly equipped, Lebanese army, which is trying to hold the border and the ring within the country?

20 Jan 2014 : Column 32

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is right. As well as the support we are providing in Lebanon to the Syrian refugees, we are of course making sure that we are providing support to it in order to promote stability. We are also providing help to make sure it can deliver the support it is having to deliver because of its location as a neighbour of Syria. I therefore think we are both helping refugees in Syria and providing the necessary support to Lebanon so that it can step up and do what it is required to do in the region.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman, whose views I respect, acknowledge that operating a blanket ban and excluding the most vulnerable few from admission to the UK is undermining the authority with which he speaks from the Front Bench? Will he listen to the mood of the House, which is clear for all to hear, and go away and change this policy?

Mr Harper: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; we do not operate a ban. As I have said, 1,100 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in the United Kingdom under our normal rules in which people make a case for international protection. That is more than most European countries have done, and we are providing the largest ever humanitarian response—more than all our European partners combined. I think that is a record of which we can be proud.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Seventy-five years ago, through the Kindertransport, this country saved some 10,000 children from what was happening in Europe. That was not the complete answer to the problems of the holocaust and its terrors, but it made a difference and saved many thousands of lives. The Government are right to be proud of the money they are now putting in, but in much the same way, they could now take further action and save the lives of thousands of children. With Holocaust memorial day coming up, will the Minister reflect on this matter and talk to the Home Secretary to see whether some progress can be made?

Mr Harper: It is sometimes a mistake just to talk about the money we are providing, which is why I have tried to set out some of the help that that money is providing in region. It is helping hundreds of thousands of people there, including tens of thousands of children and some of the most vulnerable people. That is enormously more valuable than what I am being asked to do by the Opposition.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Often when we discuss foreign or defence policy, we rightly talk about the need to uphold Britain’s standing in the world. Surely that applies to this situation too. Aid and sanctuary are not opposing policies, and the Minister can clearly hear the will of the House on this matter. Many countries are doing both; why cannot we do the same?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman says that many countries are doing more, but I do not know who he could mean. We are providing more support to the neighbouring countries in the region than any other country except the United States of America. Of the 28 member states of the European Union, we were until

20 Jan 2014 : Column 33

very recently providing more financial support than the rest of the EU combined. That is a record of which we can be proud, and on which we lead.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I totally support the Government in the amount of humanitarian aid that they are providing, but let us be quite clear that the key to sorting this problem out is to stop the war. That will happen when one side or the other wins, but there is now a stalemate within Syria. Probably the only way ahead will be through a United Nations Security Council resolution. How are we going to get such a resolution, which would be the first step towards stopping what is happening in that very sad country?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman’s question was extremely interesting, but it was a tad distant from the question of refugees. Perhaps with a degree of licence, however, and knowing the dexterity of the Minister, we can hear his response.

Mr Harper: You can be assured, Mr Speaker, that I shall not go much wider than what I have already said. My hon. Friend will know the challenges involved in getting a United Nations Security Council resolution. We have welcomed the announcement of the Geneva II process, which starts this week, as well as the positive news at the weekend that the national coalition has taken the difficult decision to involve itself in the process. That will be the best—and probably the only—solution to getting a sensible, peaceful settlement in Syria, so that those refugees can do as they want to do and return home to rebuild their country.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: [Interruption.]—I call Mr Huw Irranca-Davies.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that I normally have to take a deep breath before I hear him speak. I am delighted to hear what he has to say, even though I do not yet know what it is. I am sure that he does, however; or at least, I hope so.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I do not blame you for taking a deep breath before I speak, Mr Speaker. The purpose of these urgent questions is for the Minister, first, to outline what work the Government are doing and, secondly, to listen to the will of the House. May I urge him, once again, to listen to the voices in all parts of this House that are saying that it is not a binary choice between the excellent humanitarian aid the UK Government and UK people are currently gifting to the region, and receiving here in this country a few of the most vulnerable children? We should be doing both, and the Minister should listen to the voices from these Houses of Parliament.

Mr Harper: I am sure that your intake of breath was because you were spoilt for choice by the excellent number of colleagues on both sides of the House who are waiting to ask a question. Let me respond directly to the hon. Gentleman. The question for the Government is: with the resources at our disposal, how can we help

20 Jan 2014 : Column 34

the largest number and deliver the best support we can? Our judgment is that we can deliver that help and support best in the region, by providing the support we have—we are the second largest donor in the world. We are helping not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of people. We think that is the right solution, but we have also already accepted, under our normal terms, more than 1,000 refugees from Syria in the year to last September.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I very much welcome the Minister’s statement. On resettlement in the region, have further discussions taken place with countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates? Those three countries are the ones pushing for change in Syria by supporting the opposition, so are they taking their fair share of refugees?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will of course know that we continue to talk to our partners in the Gulf on this issue, as on many others, and they and we keep this matter under review. I know that they are providing help and support where they can as well.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): We know that al-Qaeda and the Syrian Government have been targeting medical personnel, including British medical personnel who have gone to provide assistance. Given that there are problems with accessing medical aid in Syria and in the neighbouring countries that are providing asylum to refugees, is it not right that the UK offers humanitarian admission—not refugee status—to this country for those needing medical aid, including children, disabled children and those who have been tortured? Is it not our moral responsibility to act in that way?

Mr Harper: What the hon. Lady says about medical support for people who require it—critically injured or sick people—is very important, which is why the work we are doing with the World Health Organisation has supported, across Syria and in neighbouring countries, nearly a quarter of a million people. That is a significant number, and it is far more than anyone is talking about providing for in the United Kingdom.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): We can indeed be rightly proud of the humanitarian assistance that this country has provided, which is second only to that provided by the United States. However, I urge the Minister to consider how much more we should be doing, despite the lack of action on the part of some neighbouring European Union countries. We are now being asked by the UN to take on some special cases, and that would not necessarily be a tokenistic response if we could combine that with the sheer number of special cases that other countries might be prepared to take. Will he at least not rule out our participation in such a programme in the future?

Mr Harper: We always keep these matters under review, but we judge that helping the largest number of people is best achieved in the region. As I said, we have accepted more than 1,000 asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, but we think that the help we are providing—not only food and water, but medical support, including to the most vulnerable and to children—is best provided in the region, working with our partners.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 35

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): The House has made it clear that this is not seen as a question of, “Either aid or refugees.” The Minister has belittled the number of refugees taken by some other countries in Europe. Does he not accept that if we took a number even proportional to the number Moldova has taken, we would be making a significant difference to the lives of hundreds of the most vulnerable children?

Mr Harper: When the hon. Gentleman talks about making a difference to the lives of hundreds of children, he should understand—I have set it out many times—that we are helping not hundreds of children but hundreds of thousands of children in Syria and the neighbouring countries, and that is the best way of helping. We are helping enormous numbers of people in incredibly important ways, such as by providing food, water, medical attention and shelter. We are also supporting the neighbouring countries that are doing so much to help. That is the right thing to do and something of which we can be proud.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister talked earlier about how poor some countries have been at pledging in this crisis. Does he think that Britain can be proud of its Ministers and the work that they have done to get other countries to pledge, culminating last week in the Kuwait conference where $2.4 billion was pledged, $1 billion more than last year?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have been leading on that approach. We have carried weight because of our own very significant donations. He rightly draws attention to the pledging conference. As I have said, up until last week, we had pledged £500 million, most of which has already been distributed, and is providing help to the region. Last week, the Secretary of State was able to increase that by a further £100 million, demonstrating that we put our money where our mouth is.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): This debate has been typified by whether we should be doing either/or. In many ways, I congratulate the Government on doing both. By that I mean accepting the 1,100 refugees and also focusing on the other 2.3 million. On reflection, it is the right thing to spend the money in the camps, but could we have a differentiated response for that 2.3 million? We should look at helping categories of individuals, such as children, and use UK expertise effectively and efficiently in-country to help the maximum number. Rather than taking out just one or two—or 500 in this case—and bringing them back to the United Kingdom, we could help far more of them in their own country.

Mr Harper: I think my hon. Friend is right. Some of the work we are doing with UNICEF in Syria and in the region includes providing support services and child protection for 15,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian children and their carers, as well as for refugee children in neighbouring countries. That is a significant amount of help to many, many thousands of children.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 36

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): I, too, have recently visited Turkey and the Nizip refugee camp, which is receiving support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. I have seen first hand the scale of the human tragedy that is unfolding there. It is hard not to be moved by the plight of the 2.4 million Syrians who have been displaced. However, on talking to them, it is obvious that their desire is not to come to the UK but to go home. The Government are doing the right thing in providing support on the ground to the most vulnerable people in the camps and in the communities, and we have to work tirelessly to allow all those people to go back to their own home country.

Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which was informed by his recent personal experience. He answered rather better than I did the earlier question about the support the Gulf countries are providing to Turkey. He is exactly right. We are providing diplomatic support to the Geneva II process, which is the best solution to a settlement in Syria, and we are providing help to the 2.4 million refugees and the 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria, and that is the right thing to do.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Having visited Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, I find it staggering that this country should be accused of being uncaring towards Syrian children. We are the first country in the world to pledge 0.7% of our economy every year in international aid. As the second biggest donor to the Syrian refugee crisis, will the Minister confirm that we are helping the second largest number of Syrian children?

Mr Harper: I thank my hon. Friend for that question as he draws attention not only to the help that we are providing in Syria but to the help that we are able to provide across the world with our international development spending, which, although not universally popular, makes sense from both a humanitarian and a security perspective. He has put his finger on the help we are providing. By being the second largest global donor, it follows that we are almost certainly helping the second largest number of people after the United States of America.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): The sizeable Syrian community in Greater Manchester makes a valuable contribution to that city and the wider area, so places such as Manchester are therefore best equipped to support Syrian children who have faced unmentionable suffering. Surely the Minister needs to think again.

Mr Harper: As I said, we are providing help and support to tens of thousands of Syrian children, including some of the most vulnerable, working with our international partners. The work we are doing in the region is more effective than some of the solutions proposed by hon. Members. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not agree, but I think that the Government’s policy is the right one and it is one that we will stick to.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 37

Points of Order

4.20 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House last Monday on chemical weapons from Syria. It now transpires that they are to be destroyed at the plant in Ellesmere Port in my constituency and that the Government and the company involved knew at the time. That has understandably raised a number of legitimate concerns and questions that need to be answered. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office approached you, Mr Speaker, to add to what was said last week?

Mr Speaker: The short answer is no, I have not been approached by a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous parliamentarian of more than 20 years’ standing and I feel confident that he will be well aware of the parliamentary timetable for the week, which includes questions to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs tomorrow. I confidently predict that he will be in his seat and that he will leap up from it in a bid to catch my eye.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Republic of Ireland, Mr Eamon Gilmore, made a statement at the weekend that he intends to get involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland with regard to protests, flags and parades. Have you, Mr Speaker, learned from the Northern Ireland Secretary whether she intends to make a statement about that intrusive intervention by the Foreign Minister for the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Speaker: I have heard no such thing thus far, but the hon. Gentleman has put his concern on the record and it will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. I feel sure that news of his concern will wing its way to the Secretary of State in a matter of moments.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 38

Intellectual Property Bill [Lords]

Second Reading

4.22 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am delighted to bring the Intellectual Property Bill from the other place to this House. The Government believe in business, large and small, and in removing obstacles that prevent growth. That is why we have pledged to invest a further £4 billion in the industries of the future and why legislative changes, such as those before us today, are so important.

In 2010 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commissioned Professor Ian Hargreaves to carry out a comprehensive review of intellectual property. The Bill represents one important element of the Government’s response to his recommendations. The Hargreaves review confirmed that intellectual property is important to the UK and to a wide range of industry sectors. This year, the UK has been rated number one in Taylor Wessing’s global IP index in obtaining, exploiting and enforcing the main types of IP rights. Total annual investment in intellectual property rights represents 4.3% of our GDP.

The Bill proposes changes to help businesses better to understand what is protected under the law, to reduce the need for costly litigation and to provide greater certainty for investors in new designs and technologies. It aims to simplify and improve design and patent protection to help businesses to clarify the legal framework for intellectual property and to ensure that they are appropriately supported by the international IP system. These reforms are vital in cutting red tape to help British businesses to succeed.

UK business invested more than £15 billion in design in 2009, and the Bill seeks to protect and develop this important industry. It will make important changes to design law by strengthening and clarifying the framework that supports the design industry and aligning the UK and EU frameworks where sensible. We particularly aim to help small and medium-sized enterprises, which raised concerns about protecting their designs in the consultation process.

The design sector, which accounts for about 2% of UK export earnings, is made up almost exclusively of SMEs. The Hargreaves review identified the importance of design law and asked for more evidence concerning IP and the design industry. We addressed this challenge through a consultation in 2012. Industry informed us that 350,000 people are employed in the UK’s design sector and that 87% of companies in the design sector have fewer than 10 employees and 60% have fewer than four employees.

These small businesses have made clear to the Government the difficulty that they have in protecting their designs from copying. For example, Anti-Copying In Design—ACID—responded:

“We believe that the currently available ‘punishment’ does not go far enough in fitting the crime of blatant and consistent design infringement and that those who make it their business to follow this unlawful way of doing business should be dealt a criminal record.”

I pay tribute to ACID for its activities in working with us on this negotiation.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 39

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My constituents at Dyson, which is one of the few very large companies that employ, I think, several thousand designers and engineers in Malmesbury in my constituency, of course welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. None the less, they are concerned about the fact that clause 13, to which my right hon. Friend refers, would criminalise people who might inadvertently copy someone else’s design. Will he not clarify that by inserting the word “intentionally” into clause 13, to deal with the concern of people such as those who work at Dyson?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend speaks very well on behalf of Dyson in his constituency. I recently met representatives of Dyson. They have a very important concern, which I hope we will be able to address in Committee.

I was paying tribute to ACID’s efforts. Following consideration and consultation, one of the central proposals in the Bill is to introduce a criminal sanction for those who set out intentionally to copy a design in the course of business. That will give design the same protection, in broad terms, as trade marks and copyright. One partner of a leading intellectual property law firm recently described the sanction as “evolution not revolution”, and the proposed changes as “sensible and pragmatic”.

I recently met one SME from Sheffield—I think it is located in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), whom I do not see in his place—and the representative of Burgon and Ball told me that it had to cope with 20 civil disputes over alleged design infringements in a period of two years. This problem will have been raised with Members on both sides of the House by SMEs active in the design sector. The problems caused by such design infringements impose an unmanageable financial burden on some of our most innovative small companies. We believe that other means of redress should be available, and the introduction of criminal sanctions will, for the first time, enable small design companies to bring the issue of copying to the relevant enforcement agency.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Minister accurately sums up the view of Anti-Copying in Design when it comes to registered design rights, but he will have seen its concern about the need for the Bill to cover unregistered design rights, given that the vast majority of designs are unregistered. Will he consider that as the Bill is debated in Committee?

Mr Willetts: I will, of course, consider all these issues as the Bill is debated in Committee. I think we have got the balance broadly correct on that issue, but I am happy to consider it further in Committee.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As many IP infringements occur in goods manufactured outside the United Kingdom, how will criminal prosecutions take place within the United Kingdom to protect rights?

Mr Willetts: We will be able to apply the provision to any companies active within the UK. If the goods are manufactured abroad, there will nevertheless be some distribution or other entity within the UK.

20 Jan 2014 : Column 40

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I am pleased to see the Bill before the House, but the Minister will recognise that large sections of the Hargreaves review, and indeed of the previous Government’s copyright review, are not in it. Will he say something about what is not contained in the Bill, for those concerned about copyright infringement, and on the context in which young people need the freedom to create?

Mr Willetts: I do not know to what extent you, Mr Speaker, would permit the debate to range across the entire Hargreaves agenda. We have introduced a small but perfectly formed Bill that delivers part of that agenda, but it is an important part that will help the design industry, in particular. I will try to focus my remarks on what is actually in the Bill. The Government, as a whole, have already implemented some of Hargreaves and there is more to come. However, given that this is the Second Reading of an important Bill, particularly for the design industry, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I will try to focus on that.

The crucial change set out in the Bill—the introduction for the first time of criminal sanctions for infringement of design rights—is not intended to have a chilling effect on innovation or legitimate and competitive risk taking in business. The offence has been carefully drafted to ensure that innocent infringement is not caught. In addition, it will be measured to the high criminal standard of proof of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

That measure sparked much debate in the other place, and our colleagues there made a number of changes to the clause to improve and tighten the sanction. The Government proposed an amendment to ensure that incidental use of a copied design would not be criminalised. Following discussions with industry, an additional amendment was made to provide a defence for those having a reasonable belief of non-infringement. That additional defence was welcomed by the Opposition and industry representatives. We have continued to talk with businesses big and small. Some still have concerns about the scope and clarity of the new offence. We are continuing our discussions with them—this relates to the earlier intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)—and I hope to say more about it in Committee.

Our colleagues in the other place have sent us a much improved Bill. We have continued to improve it since it left the other place as other concerns have arisen. The intellectual property Minister, his officials and I have continued to engage with a number of interested parties, such as representatives of the pharmaceutical, aerospace and IT industries, on their concerns. That included discussions on the detailed wording of the qualification criteria for unregistered design rights. We have listened carefully, and I am pleased to announce that I will be tabling an amendment to the clause in Committee in the light of businesses’ concerns that it is unduly broad. It will ensure that the principle of reciprocity between countries is maintained. I am grateful to the IP Federation for raising the issue so effectively.

The Bill also makes a number of small but important changes to the definitions and legal framework protecting UK designs. They all recognise the need, identified by Hargreaves, to simplify and clarify the designs system. The measures include changing the standard position

20 Jan 2014 : Column 41

for ownership to make the designer the default owner of a design, rather than the commissioner. Such changes bring UK and EU design laws into harmony and provide a more logical and simplified system for designers and design users.

In addition, the Bill provides protections from infringement for businesses and individuals using designs in specific circumstances. For example, allowing use of an unregistered design for teaching purposes, such as carpentry in a school, is a sensible measure. So too is the provision of a defence for third parties when, in good faith and without copying, they have made preparations to use a design before a similar design is registered. This and other measures in the first half of the Bill provide more certainty for business and are aimed at modernising and improving the design framework.

The Government’s consultation on designs sought views on the introduction of a non-binding opinions service along the same lines as that currently available for patents, and the majority of respondents supported that. As well as this, the Bill will therefore extend the patent opinions service. That means that the Intellectual Property Office will provide a wider range of expert, but non-binding, opinions on IP in disputes. The existing opinions service provides a low cost means of resolving such disputes, in many cases without a need to seek redress in the courts. Almost 70% of respondents to an IPO review who had used the service considered that it should be extended to other areas of IP. Over 65% wished to see it extended to registered designs and 40% wished to see it extended to the UK unregistered design right. Many of these users are small and medium-sized enterprises that could not afford the high costs of civil litigation. We are therefore pleased that the Bill is going to extend the non-binding opinions service.

The Bill also makes important changes to the patents framework. In particular, innovative businesses in the UK have been waiting for over 40 years for a single European patent system. Creating a business-friendly patent regime for Europe is an important element of the Government’s growth strategy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was instrumental in the negotiations on the unitary patent and the unified patent court. I am therefore very pleased that the Bill gives us the power to implement the pan-European court structure that will underpin the long-awaited unitary European patent system. [Interruption.] I was overcome with emotion at the triumph of the Prime Minister’s negotiating skills on this. The unitary patent could save UK businesses up to £20,000 per patent in translation costs alone—a saving of enormous benefit. Former Supreme Court justice Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe described the unitary patent as

“a remarkably bold step forward, on which successive Governments are to be congratulated, because it has been a very long haul indeed.”

Establishment of the court will further enhance the UK’s reputation as a centre of excellence for commercial dispute resolution, especially in the field of life science patent litigation.

The Hargreaves review stressed the importance of intellectual property for innovation and growth. It argued, however, that policy development in this area had not always been sufficiently directed towards those objectives because of an incomplete evidence base and strong lobbying activity. Innovative businesses grow twice as

20 Jan 2014 : Column 42

fast in jobs and in sales as businesses that fail to innovate. The Government therefore want to ensure that the IPO has a sharpened focus on innovation and growth. The Bill requires a report to be submitted to Parliament on how the activities of the IPO contribute to this goal. The report will also increase transparency and allow a wider range of interested parties to scrutinise the work of the IPO.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): Will the report that the IPO will provide to Parliament each year include sections to do with the problems that companies and individuals face with intellectual property rights? I recognise the point about showing how the system is working and impacting on growing the economy, but will areas of dispute or problem areas be covered as well?

Mr Willetts: Yes, I certainly envisage the report covering issues where further work may be needed. It will be a report on the IPO’s overall activities.

I now turn to the set of provisions in part 3. I am pleased to be introducing a change that has been called for by the Justice Committee and by the UK’s higher education sector—an exemption to the general right to information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to protect pre-publication research. The lack of a dedicated exemption has, for example, left academics worried about whether a freedom of information request might be made for their lab notes before they publish an article in Science or Nature.

The lack of such an exemption has increasingly led businesses to demand contractual guarantees that their data will be secure, which is not only costly in time and resource but has inhibited research collaboration between universities and businesses. For example, the Russell Group has informed the Government that significant university resources were needed to negotiate funding for a studentship with a large multinational company that was unhappy with the perception that its sensitive data might be released. An exceptional compromise agreement was required to resolve that situation, because the university and business were unable to sign off the contract.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The Minister is absolutely right to highlight the importance of clause 20, which is very welcome. He will be aware that the Wellcome Trust and others, especially those in the bioscience sector, are concerned about the lack of clarity on when protection starts in relation to people preparing a piece of research, which is often the creative element. The Wellcome Trust has proposed two sets of two extra words that could be added to provide clarification. Will he make clear his position and say whether he is prepared to update the Bill?