People come to my surgeries, as they do to all Members’ surgeries, but when their opening gambit is, “You are my last hope,” my heart sinks, because I know the system is

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failing them and that they have been referred to me, as their Member of Parliament, by others who are trying to help them or that they feel they have nowhere else to go.

One chap I met—I will call him Mr A because I do not want to put his name into the public domain—is 62 years old. He has been a labourer all his life. One look at him told me that his days of being a labourer were over. He is on ESA. He is certainly not capable of manual work any more, but he is to be churned through a range of schemes to train him for jobs that I do not think he will ever be able to do. I went to visit Ingeus, and I do not take as harsh a view of the Work programme as my colleagues. I thought that much of what Ingeus was doing, as one of the Government’s contractors, was sensible and well founded; but I was struck by how different the labour market that it was dealing with was from the broader labour market in the north-east of England. The spectrum of all the jobs across the north-east of England is not there for people on ESA. A much narrower range of overwhelmingly service-sector jobs is open to them. I do not think that it will work for the chap who came to see me.

The same will be true for another constituent, who was referred to me by the Newcastle Society for Blind People, which was trying to help her. She is 60 years old and epileptic. Her eyeballs were removed in childhood, so she is absolutely blind. She has a carer; he cares for her, but cannot read or write. She has been transferred from incapacity benefit to ESA; therefore, the system will find her a job. She cannot write or see, but can read Braille. She uses a thumbprint for her signature. I have asked the DWP to write to her in Braille. After a lot of haggling between the Department and me, it has agreed to note my request. Perhaps I may gently put it to the Minister that there are a number of ways for MPs to deal with issues of this kind: the first might be for me to ask her politely to get the Department to do a bit more than just note my request.

Given my constituent’s age and circumstances, and the obvious hardship that she has endured throughout her life, it is not fair to her to kid her on that somehow she will now find a job she can do without overcoming every one of the hardships that confront her. It seems just wrong—almost inhuman—to put her through the sort of exercises that the Department is putting her through. It is harsh and unreasonable. I once did the Minister’s job. I was the first Minister for Work when the Department was created under the previous Labour Government. In my time as a Minister I did not come up against a case of this kind, referred to me by a Member of Parliament from either side of the House. Had I done so, I would have intervened straight away to help the victim of what I would regard as oppressive treatment.

Another constituent of mine, a 62-year-old, was sanctioned for a year for not complying with JSA. As his sanction—it actually went on for a year and a month—came to an end, he was told that he would be sanctioned for another 13 weeks, but not given a reason. He was then told that he had to fill in a JSA10 form at a jobcentre. He went there and was told that the form did not exist any more, and that he had to ring the benefit delivery centre. The centre staff told him that he had to go to Felling to fill in a declaration, and he walked from Newcastle to Felling. Hon. Members might ask why he

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walked, when we have some very good integrated transport arrangements in Tyne and Wear. The walk is not a direct one, because there is a river in the way, and it means going to the centre of Newcastle—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central—over the bridge and along the south bank. My constituent walked because he does not have any money to pay for his travel.

When he got to Felling the official gave him a telephone number that he had to ring. It would have been possible either to give him that without requiring him to undertake the journey, or to ensure that he had the money to make the journey on public transport, rather than having to walk. My constituent then got another phone call from the Department—which was being proactive, for once—telling him that he faced further sanctions because he had missed an appointment with his work provider. He had not missed any actual work, the House will understand —just a meeting with the provider. He missed the appointment because, as he had informed the Department, his residency at the Salvation Army on City road was closing down, and his mail was not being satisfactorily redirected. That is an issue that will apply to other people who have lived in that facility, which was quite well known on Tyneside. He spent 45 minutes on the telephone begging for a hardship payment, because he had no money at all to live on. He eventually got an £86-per-fortnight payment—just think of living on £86 a fortnight—and was then told that he stood to be sanctioned again and that his national insurance contributions would be withheld as well.

My office intervened. MPs always get the credit for dealing with these cases and it is actually our staff who do it. This is probably an appropriate time to thank our staff, who work very hard, not least on wading through pretty intransigent responses from the Minister’s Department. It is certainly not how we originally envisaged Jobcentre Plus operating when it was rolled out more than a decade ago. My assistant’s intervention meant that the matter was finally resolved in a satisfactory way; but we should not be putting people through such turmoil. The system should be on their side. It is meant to be run by the state for the citizens of the country—and it just is not. It should not be necessary for us to have to take such matters up with the Minister directly. I hope that she will take from the debate the fact that things are going wrong with case work, and that there is a need to intervene directly to turn around the culture in the Department that allows that to happen.

3.16 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship so early in the new year, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this important debate. I am conscious of the time and the fact that several of my hon. Friends want to speak, so I want to make several quick points, based on the experience of constituents who have contacted me.

The first point is about the rise in the use of sanctions in the past couple of years. Most people would accept the principle that if people flagrantly and persistently fail to adhere to mutually accepted requirements, they should face consequences. I have a constituent who failed to attend 22 out of 26 appointments, without any

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real explanation, and it is difficult to argue against some sanction in that case. However, like my hon. Friends, I have noticed a large increase in the number of sanctions imposed, often for a first or light transgression, and often with no regard to the context. Life is not so black and white. If it were, everyone who went over their parking meter allocation by a minute would be fined automatically, and I think there would be outrage at that.

A constituent contacted me about his experience of realising, on the date of his appointment, that he had missed the time. He phoned up the same day to apologise and make another appointment, which was offered for the following day. He turned up and went through the interview, and was then sanctioned by post. The staff did not even have the respect to do it face to face. He was left with no income—no means of feeding himself or heating his home—for an entire month, on the basis of one missed appointment.

There have recently been roadworks at the junction of Raby road and Middleton road in the centre of Hartlepool, which have caused chaos. All road users have been affected, including bus passengers. A constituent of mine was late for her appointment because her bus could not navigate Raby road and was delayed on the first day of the roadworks. That was not her fault. She had no way of knowing it would happen; but she was sanctioned and left without money for a month.

One of my constituents was told that her appointment for a work capability assessment was cancelled; she was then sanctioned for failing to attend the cancelled appointment. If it were not so serious it would be ludicrous. Another constituent was sanctioned for a month, and left with no means of feeding herself or heating her home, because she missed an appointment once. The reason she missed it was that on the day of the appointment she was burying her grandfather, having been at his deathbed for the previous week. In all those cases, and in others, I have been able to get the sanctions overturned; but that itself raises some issues. Is it an efficient use of taxpayer resources to apply a sanction, only for staff time to be employed in overturning it? How robust, efficient and effective is the process if that continues to be the case?

My second point is about jobcentre culture. Front-line staff do not have any flexibility to determine whether a benefit claimant has failed to comply with a requirement. They have to see things in black and white and they cannot provide personalised support. The system is geared not to help individuals, but merely to process them.

Claimants can suffer appallingly as a result of their treatment. Jobcentre Plus is not seen as a place that assesses people’s skills and training needs and helps them get back into work, but as a negative place where any contact results in the delay or stopping of benefits. It is seen as somewhere where claimants are punished and belittled, rather than helped. I have constituents who have independently told me that Jobcentre Plus staff have said to them, “But you sit on your backside all day watching ‘Jeremy Kyle’, don’t you?” That cannot be acceptable. What is the Minister doing about that top-down, politically driven culture? It is demoralising for staff and claimants, and something needs to be done.

My third point relates to personalised support. Hartlepool, like other parts of the north-east, has a large number of men—it is largely men—who worked

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in manual occupations for most of their working lives. Many reach their late 50s and find that, because of their personal circumstances, the fact that they are becoming ill or changes to the economy, those occupations are no longer available to them. The jobcentre is simply not interested in helping them secure a new job. Through its indifference and latent hostility, it is consigning my constituents and those of other hon. Members to the scrap heap long before their time.

A constituent came to see me who had worked in factories for 35 years and had been made redundant. He was a hard worker and a proud working man. He had never been on the dole in his life, but he said that the jobcentre was treating him like a leper because he had asked for assistance. He was told to apply for benefits online, and was not given an answer or any support when he said that he did not have a computer, had never used one and did not even know where to begin. There are many people like my constituent in Hartlepool and the north-east. The digital divide is creating social exclusion that is affecting the most vulnerable people. What will the Minister do to address that?

My final point is a technical one. Will the Minister take action to ensure that jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance sanctions result in the suspension, rather than the closure, of claims? The different public agencies are not talking to one another. Will the Minister also ensure that her Department distinguishes between claims that are closed because the claimant has gained employment, and claimants who are sanctioned and are entitled to housing benefit on the grounds of low income? If the Department provides local authorities with that additional information, it will ensure that those claimants’ entitlement to housing benefit continues and that they do not lose their houses as a result of that culture and their treatment.

My constituents deserve better, as do many others in the north-east and elsewhere. They are treated shabbily and with contempt. They are proud people who want to work. The Minister should be trying harder.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order. I will call the Front Benchers at about 3.30 pm, so I ask the two remaining speakers to limit their speeches to a maximum of five minutes each.

3.23 pm

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate and on her touching personal and factual speech.

My office, like those of my hon. Friend and other Members here today, receives many enquiries from constituents who have problems with their benefits and are at the end of their tether. My excellent staff always do their best to resolve their problems. In some instances, as has been said, constituents turn out to be swinging the lead, but when they have a genuine case we see the unnecessary distress that can be caused, and we do our best to help them.

Anybody here who has experienced unemployment—I know that some colleagues have—know how miserable it is to go through the process of signing on at the jobcentre,

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and they know the feeling of rejection when job application after job application does not even receive a response. When somebody gets an interview and it is unsuccessful, it adds to the feeling of deflation and their confidence goes down even further. That is why people’s experience at the jobcentre is so important.

The Work and Pensions Secretary said that in return for claiming unemployment benefits, jobseekers have a responsibility to do everything they can to get back into work, and that sanction should be a last resort. However, the examples we have heard today show that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and that sanctions are far from being used as a last resort.

I have two examples of people at different stages of their working lives that illustrate how my constituents have been short-changed in the jobseeker’s allowance process. The first concerns a single mother who works as a dinner supervisor for less than 16 hours per week. She is entitled to a top-up of JSA, and she dutifully always sends the necessary wage slips every month. She was shocked when her benefits were stopped because her wage slips had not been received. My office got in touch with the MP hotline. We got further copies of her wage slips and sent them in again, only to find that those had disappeared too. The issue was sorted out in the end, but in the meantime her benefits were stopped and she fell into rent arrears, all through no fault of her own.

A single, older constituent who had paid her taxes and national insurance for more than 40 years was referred to the Work programme. She attended appointments with Ingeus three times a week, and her job adviser was satisfied that she met the job search requirements. She was pleased when she managed to find a part-time job, but when she went to the jobcentre to tell them about the new job, the adviser wanted to see her jobseekers’ diary. She had shown it to the Ingeus adviser, and thought she would not need it at the jobcentre. She was told that she had not demonstrated that she had performed an adequate job search, and her case was referred to a decision maker. She was left without any money for more than a week, which caused her a great deal of hardship as she started her new job. Fortunately, she won her appeal, but that was no consolation for the poor treatment she received.

I worked in the former Department of Social Security back in the 1980s, so I know that staff take pride in their work and want to help people. I cannot help thinking that the Government cuts to the public sector are putting more pressure on staff in our jobcentres and that consequently, claimants in the north-east and across the country do not receive a fair and proper service. Evidence shows that advisers interpret the guidelines for sanctions inconsistently, which means that claimants in similar circumstances can receive completely different decisions. That should never happen.

I watched some of the first session of the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into benefit sanctions this morning, and I was surprised to hear that the sanctions process is not monitored. How can the Government possibly measure its success? North Tyneside citizens advice bureau told me that, according to the monitoring of a similar scheme in Canada, sanctions have little or no effect on claimants’ behaviour. I have written to the Secretary of State about the examples I have outlined.

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I hope the Minister can give my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and our constituents some positive answers, and that in the future jobseekers receive the fair treatment they deserve.

3.27 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this debate. She spoke with great passion, authority and personal conviction, and we should listen to her.

At the start of the day in the Main Chamber, the Speaker’s Chaplain leads the main prayer in which we undertake to

“seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.

That sentiment is hardly likely to chime with my constituents who have had recourse to the benefits system or who have suffered sanctions.

The creation of the welfare state by the great post-war Labour Government ranks among our nation’s greatest achievements. It was created with the conviction that in a wealthy nation such as ours, nobody should fall into the depths of deprivation and extreme poverty. British citizens fund vital public services with their taxes, with the understanding that when people lose their jobs or fall on hard times there will be a safety net and a network of support to assist them and help them back to employment. We expect anybody who uses those services to be treated with dignity and respect.

There is a consensus among the public that the existence of such a system is right and civilised. However, under the Government, we have witnessed policies that seek to redefine the role of the welfare state and the status of those who depend upon it. Our society includes those who, through luck, hard work or talent, are unlikely to ever need to depend upon the state. Those people are often entrepreneurs or committed and hard-working individuals who work in businesses and create wealth and jobs. It includes those who have the potential to make great contributions to our society, but require support to achieve what they are capable of, and it includes a small minority who need more than just a gentle nudge to engage with employment and contribute towards society. It also includes vulnerable people who live at the margins of our society, and who have not been as fortunate as others and are in need of our support, compassion and love. The Government, however, have lumped together all those who have to use benefits. The notion that has permeated this Government’s welfare reforms has been that joblessness is the personal and moral failure of the unemployed to which there is an “all stick and no carrot” solution, plunging them into destitution. It is almost a case of, “If we make people’s lives more difficult and more unbearable, somehow there will be a positive outcome.”

Since the existing regime was introduced, 1.4 million jobseeker’s allowance sanctions have been imposed. My constituents are sanctioned more than any others in the north-east, with more than 1,000 sanctions applied against JSA claimants in Middlesbrough between April and June last year, 300 more than in any other constituency. Ministers would have us believe that each of those sanctions was a just act that punished workshy people for failing to demonstrate that they were looking for

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employment. Every hon. Member present knows, however, that that is often not the case. We are inundated with stories from our constituents who describe a punitive regime that punishes benefit claimants for things beyond their control. The human cost is unacceptable.

One case is that of a single mum who works part-time as a lunch-time supervisor at a primary school while undertaking training to become a classroom assistant. She is in receipt of in-work benefits. Despite her asking for the interviews to be arranged outside her working hours, they were constantly arranged during them, meaning that she faced sanctions. She failed to attend one interview that was due to take place on the day that her father died. In the distress of the moment, she forgot the appointment, but when she rang the jobcentre the next day to apologise and explain that her dad had died, it was not accepted as a valid reason for missing her appointment. She was sanctioned for a month.

Another case is that of a 19-year-old homeless boy with no family, a baby and no support network, who has little in the way of formal education and limitations in his ability to communicate. He failed to complete a particular form correctly, which was beyond his capacity. He was duly sanctioned and left destitute. He then stole food from a supermarket in the hope and desire that he would be sent to prison, so that he would have something to eat and somewhere to sleep.

The number of such cases is shaming and a damning indictment of the Government and their policies. The Government refuse to explain the increase, but numerous sources have reported that it is being driven by unofficial targets imposed on jobcentres by the DWP. That is unacceptable. Introducing targets or expectations for jobcentres on sanctioning benefit claimants is a perversion of the values of the welfare state. People’s benefit entitlements ought to be decided on the basis of need, not on an arbitrary target set in Whitehall.

Ian Lavery: One important issue that has not been discussed in the debate is the coalition decision to withdraw the independent living fund, which hundreds if not thousands of disabled people in our area, the north-east, depend on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that decision should be reviewed? The independent living fund is there to help disabled people. If it is withdrawn, disabled people will end up in abject poverty.

Andy McDonald: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. That the circumstances of people dependent on such a vital source of income should be reduced—we saw on the television last night the people protesting outside this place—is an absolute horror and brings shame upon us all.

In conclusion, with the vulnerable being penalised along with hard-working people who do all that we expect of them, either the Government must concede that, on their watch, the safety net that marks us as a civilised society has become no longer fit for purpose, or they must admit to their audacious abandonment of the principles of the welfare state.

3.33 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Riordan.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). She has done everyone a great service in securing this extremely important debate. I am also immensely pleased that so many Labour MPs from the north-east have spoken this afternoon: my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). They all took part and have spoken with compassion and forensic attention to detail, which it would be nice to see from those on the Government Benches as well.

To understand the problem, we need to think more about the reasons why people in the north-east claim benefits. The north-east is the area of the country with the highest unemployment. At the moment, unemployment is 9%, compared with a 6% national average. An issue with sanctions is that we suspect them of forming part of an attempt to massage down the level of unemployment figures, in particular in our region. It is absolutely clear, however, that there is a serious problem for people in finding work, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East pointed out. The ratio of vacancies to claimants, when that number was last collected in 2012—again, the Government are hiding more recent numbers from us—was 4:1 in the south-east, but 9:1 in the north-east.

High unemployment in the north-east is caused by economic restructuring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool pointed out. When people move from, say, being an administrator in the local magistrates court, they are not immediately able to go and work for a biotech company. They are bound to be unemployed for a certain time. We need a safety net to support them during that period. The Government have been boasting about the level of public spending cuts in the north-east, because they believe that we were over-dependent on public service jobs, but it behoves the Government to take a more positive attitude to the people most affected by their chosen policies.

The second problem, also mentioned by my colleagues, is the overhang of heavy industry, which means that we have higher levels of industrial injuries, disabilities and chronic illnesses. Therefore, any problems in the benefit system that relate to JSA, PIP, disability living allowance, ESA, IB or industrial injuries benefit—all areas that the Department has managed to mismanage over the past five years—weigh particularly heavily in our region. In Redcar, for example—it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who is a Liberal Democrat, has not bothered to turn up today—16% of the working-age population is on out-of-work benefits. That is not a lifestyle choice by the people who live in Redcar; it is because they face serious problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about the problem of people with chronic conditions and disabilities who have wrongly been turned down for benefits. That continues to be a problem and I still have such problems in my constituency. It is incredibly unpleasant for people, creates misery, worsens their health and is a prime example of Tory

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welfare waste. The level of appeals has been as high as a third; the level of decisions overturned has also been a third—the Minister is looking puzzled, but I am quoting from what the Select Committee said about the ESA system in 2012. The cost to the public purse therefore has been £70 million per year. In the north-east, we are used to working with the Japanese and they have a “right first time” approach; we would like to see more of that in the benefits system.

The second set of problems involves the immense delays that we see over and over again. The situation is pitiable and particularly problematic at this time for people making PIP applications. Since April 2013, 670,000 people have made claims; as of last October, 287,000 people were still waiting for decisions. That is appalling; that is almost half. I know the problem is a continuing one, because my constituency office is looking at 35 such cases. At the moment, 900,000 people in this country are stuck in that waiting period. What is the Government response to the report by Mr Paul Gray? It would be helpful to hear something from the Minister. Again, however, we have the problem of the Government avoiding addressing the issue by delaying the publication of the statistics on waiting periods for some further months.

The final and most discussed set of problems is to do with sanctions. Everyone knows that we need some sanctions in the benefits system. Indeed, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, I was a Minister in the DWP during the previous Parliament, and the last thing I did in that role was take a statutory instrument through the House in March 2010 to tighten up the sanctions regime.

Under this Government, however, we have seen an absolute explosion in and abuse of the use of sanctions. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) had an Adjournment debate on this issue in the main Chamber just before Christmas, to which the Minister responded. My right hon. Friend has discovered that, across the nation as a whole, the number of people sanctioned has doubled during this Parliament, that sanctions are longer and that a quarter of JSA claimants will now be sanctioned at some time during their claim. In the north-east, it is even worse. The number of ESA claimants sanctioned has increased at least fourfold and the number of JSA claimants sanctioned has doubled, meaning that in any year, 30,000 people are being sanctioned at any moment in time in our region.

Mrs Hodgson: It is obvious to the Opposition that that is what is feeding—I use that word deliberately—the rise in people accessing food banks. When I visited a food bank in Washington in December, the people there said that when they analyse the reasons why people are coming through their doors, benefit sanctions are by far the top reason given.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sanctions problem is extremely alarming. For example, a constituent of mine, Mr A, rearranged an appointment he had missed—he had got confused because a close family member had died. When my office got in touch with the jobcentre, the sanction for that was overturned. Mr B was sanctioned for missing an appointment because he was collecting his ill daughter from school. The jobcentre falsely accused him of having a fictional child. The sanction was overturned on appeal, but in the meantime

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he was sanctioned for 13 weeks. In another case, Ms D was sanctioned because she refused to do a job at the weekend, when there was no child care.

There is a pattern to the sanctions cases that we are receiving, taking up and seeing overturned. I had a look at the Department’s guidelines on what constitutes a good reason for someone not being sanctioned if they miss an appointment. Good reasons include: domestic violence; health conditions; harassment or bullying at work; homelessness; travel time; domestic situations, such as bereavement or child care issues; learning difficulties; and legal constraints. We have heard examples of cases involving almost all of those reasons today.

Will the Minister deny this afternoon that there are any targets for jobcentres on sanctions? Will she tell us how many sanctions have been overturned on appeal? Will she also tell us how many of those overturned fall into those categories—how many people have been wrongly sanctioned because a bereavement, a child care problem or ill health have not been properly taken into account?

From what we are hearing it is clear that decision makers and people working in jobcentres are not clear about what is in the guidelines. When the Minister gets back to her office in half an hour’s time, will she write a letter to all the jobcentres across the land to tell them that those categories are there for good reasons and that she expects decision makers and people who work in jobcentres to take proper account of the guidelines that her Department has promulgated? We cannot have a set of guidelines in the left hand and a piece of behaviour in the right hand, and no connection made between the two.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, however, it should not be necessary for us to come to the Minister to tell her about these problems. She should know what they are. She should have tackled them and done something about this situation. I want to know why she has not. Why has she not sorted out the sanctioning problem? I very much hope that she will be able to tell us, in detail, what she is doing about it. She must understand that she is responsible for the misery caused to thousands of people up and down this country. Of course, it is possible that Ministers in her Department do not care about the misery they are creating, in which case, as no good reasons for what is going on have been given to us, one might say that they are the ones who should be sanctioned.

The upshot of the situation is that we have seen appalling maladministration and cases of people living in a half light that make the Kafkaesque seem totally straightforward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the number of people in the north-east accessing food banks has gone up, and in the six months between April and September last year it reached 40,000.

The whole situation is the result of Tory welfare waste. It is a waste of public money, a waste of official time—things get done and then redone, and redone again—a waste of the efforts of people in the voluntary sector, who would much prefer to be doing creative projects, and it is certainly a waste of the lives of the people who are on the receiving end.

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3.46 pm

The Minister for Employment (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing the debate, as it allows me to clarify and explain some of the points that have been raised. First off, I want to speak on behalf of the 34,000 jobcentre staff who work in over 740 jobcentres across the country and see about 400,000 people a month. The attacks I have heard on them are completely misplaced.

Chi Onwurah Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I will continue, because I have heard specific quotes today. I have to defend those people, because I believe they work incredibly hard.

Chi Onwurah: They were about you!

Esther McVey: No, they were specific quotes used by Members about what advisers had said. Those people in the past year alone have helped record numbers of people into work, and work consistently hard every day, to the best of their abilities, so I want to speak on their behalf.

I will also say that nobody, whoever they are, should be treated shoddily, badly or rudely—I think those were the words used—or as a lesser person in some way because they are on benefits. That is not allowed and should not happen. If it is proved that anybody has done that, they are answerable to me. I will not have people doing that anonymously.

Ian Lavery: Is the Minister saying that she is unaware of the fact that people are being treated shoddily and poorly in jobcentres? By the way, nobody here has had a go at anybody other than the people in jobcentres who were treating people like that.

Esther McVey: I am trying to follow the logic. Apparently we were not talking about the staff, but there are people who are treating people shoddily, badly and so on; the hon. Gentleman therefore is talking about people who work in jobcentres—[Interruption.] I would like to finish my sentence.

Chi Onwurah: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: Not at this moment, no. When people have been spoken to or treated like that, the people who have done that will be brought to account. I am saying that it is not acceptable that anybody is spoken to in such a manner, irrespective of who they are. I will defend the right of anybody to be spoken to properly and courteously. That is only right, and it is the way I would expect everybody to speak to others.

Chi Onwurah rose

Mrs Hodgson rose

Esther McVey: I will give way first to the hon. Lady who secured the debate.

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Chi Onwurah: I thank the Minister for giving way, but I have to say that I have rarely heard such a cowardly defence of a position—attacking the people for whom she, as Minister, is responsible. All of us here made it very clear that this is about the culture. She shakes her head, but I hope that she has some experience of the responsibility associated with management and will therefore take responsibility for the culture that she and her Government have created, and for how people behave in that culture. If she will not do that, she is even less in touch with reality in this country than I thought.

Esther McVey: As I said, I take full responsibility, because I would not accept anyone speaking to anyone else, irrespective of who they are, in a discourteous way. Obviously, hon. Members would like to know that, actually, claimant satisfaction has increased under this Government. It has increased in the north-east, and at the moment it stands at 81%. That is only right. We constantly monitor how people are treated and what happens.

I meet with staff, claimants and businesses daily to ensure that we are doing the best for all of them. When we talk about different people—where they have come from, their backgrounds and the various paths that they have trodden—I have always said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That is something that I would totally live by, and which I think is only right. Anyone may be only one pay packet away from being unemployed, whether owing to redundancy, to falling on hard times or to a family matter. I live by that completely, because all of us here may know family members or members of other people’s families who have fallen on tough times and come to the state for support. It is only right that we support those people as best we can.

Mrs Hodgson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She said that she will not stand by anyone in the work force if such cases are proven. Therefore, if any Member can bring evidence to her, will she commit today to looking into those cases? There are probably just a few bad apples among the work force, with the rest of them doing a sterling job.

Esther McVey: Absolutely. If anyone comes forward to point out what has happened, the people involved should be brought to task. I would like to think that these are instances of bad apples, because I do not believe that that reflects the 34,000 people who are doing a sterling job, and who have helped so many people into employment—that is their job. They come into the profession because they want to help other people, and it is only right that they do that. As for feeding stories to the media—words such as “workshy” and “scroungers” were used today—I can honestly say that I have never put forward a story like that, and I never will. That serves nobody’s purpose.

We have talked a lot about sanctions. Sanctions have existed since benefits were created. The Oakley review described them as

“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”

Benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers. That is correct, and I think I heard Members from both sides of the House agree with that. [Interruption.]

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Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order. The Minister must be heard. I know that emotions are running high, but the Minister is replying and it is entirely up to her whether she chooses to give way.

Esther McVey: On what happened pre-2010, that was so significantly different from what is happening now. There was widespread inconsistency in decision making, with similar cases treated differently in different jobcentres.

Helen Goodman: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I will not; I will proceed a little further. We had to ensure that we did not have different approaches and inconsistencies. We had to ensure that everyone was treated the same and fairly across the country. In 2010, 1.4 million people had spent most of the previous decade trapped on out-of-work benefits, so our mission was to renew the incentives to work and to remove barriers in people’s way and, in so doing that, transform the benefit system for those who were locked out of work but who wanted to work, so that, going forward, we could give them the best help to get them into work.

The latest employment figures nationally and in the north-east show that employment has increased by 1.75 million since the election, and by nearly 600,000 in the past year. In the north-east, it has increased by 32,000. There are a record 30.8 million people in work in the UK and 1.18 million in the north-east. Employment for women in the UK is at a record number of 14.4 million and rate of 68.1%. That has increased by 300,000 in the past year in the UK and in the north-east by 18,000.

Private sector employment has increased by nearly 640,000 in the past year—nearly 2.2 million since the election—and 60,000 in the north-east. We have done that as part of our transformation of the UK as a whole to get it back to working. There are various sources of extra support, such as the £310 million in the north-east for the regional growth fund. There are new and other companies expanding there, such as Siemens and Quorn. There is offshore development, and £20 million for research to create jobs and innovation. That shows that considerable infrastructure investment is going into the north-east.

Helen Goodman: Will the Minister please address the issues that we raised about why people are being sanctioned, and say what she will do about it?

Esther McVey: Part of the picture—perhaps Opposition Members do not want to hear this—is about why welfare has been changing and what has been happening. How many people are sanctioned? We know that, per month for JSA, the figure is between 5% and 6%, and that for ESA the figure is less than 1%. In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased. The number of adverse decisions overturned on reconsideration is 12%, and the figure on appeal is 3%.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the Minister for giving way. I repeat that we specifically asked her not to repeat the statistics that she used in previous debates, but to address the issues that we were raising. In these last two minutes, will she say what she will do to ensure both that our constituents are not treated in the ways shown in the examples we have given and that the sanctioning regime is fair? That is not how it is now.

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Esther McVey: I have been answering those points. Today’s statistics were specifically for the north-east. They show the help and support that we have given to individuals who would have been locked out of the workplace but who were given support to get into work. We have reduced the figures for worklessness and for children living in workless households; all of that is key.

On digital separation, the extra support needed there and how difficult that is for people, one of the key things is to help people who are digitally excluded to be able to use IT, because they will need that not only to claim benefits, but to get a job and a cheaper standard of living. We are providing extra support to enable people to claim benefits, and to benefit them later in life, once they have got a job.

We have provided more support than ever before with training, extra help, work experience and sector-based academies. With that comes a greater commitment from the individual. We have ensured that that is totally personalised: when each person walks through the door, they will get an intense interview with their adviser on making a claim and giving a commitment. Everything that they want to do—their hopes, dreams, ambitions and where they would like to go—is written down and formulated, so that, between the two of them, they have a claimant commitment that they can work from. They get the best out of their time, and we understand what they need so that we can help them. It is a deal between two: those who need a job and those who are giving them the support. That is key: how do we best help that individual to get a job? How do we bring about a culture that is all about support to get people into a job?

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Short Let Deregulation (London)

4 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity at the 11th hour to explain to the Minister the concerns that I am picking up from constituents, residents, community associations and local authorities about the impact, particularly in inner London, of the proposals to deregulate further the rules on short-term lettings.

Residents in my local communities that are particularly affected—in areas where there is already a substantial proportion of private rented accommodation that is very much at the front of this kind of problem—are already under a number of pressures; I will develop that point later on in my speech. They are very anxious about how much that will be extended with further deregulation. I believe that measures can still be taken that can offset those problems for my local residents.

The Government’s logic in extending deregulation is that home owners should be free to take decisions about what they do with their own homes, within some continuing limitations. Of course, no one wants to put in place petty, bureaucratic restrictions. If a home owner wants, for example, to do a home swap when they go on holiday for two or three weeks, or to take advantage of their absence to let their home out for a week or two, they should not be subject to severe restrictions and enforcement action. However, what local authorities will say—particularly the central London authorities—is that they do not seek to enforce against that kind of casual and holiday use, but they do seek to use the existing law to enforce against the significant and growing problem of abuse of short-term lets. What seems reasonable when viewed as cutting red tape for the individual can feel very different when it is scaled up and applied to the residential economy of central London neighbourhoods. That is certainly the conclusion of the residents and amenity societies in Westminster.

Even before the deregulation, those neighbourhoods have been facing this pressure, and local authorities have been feeling the cost of enforcement, as residential neighbourhoods increasingly resemble an extension of the hospitality industry. That can be confirmed by spending a minute or two on home-letting websites such as Airbnb. The simple fact is that there is a strong economic incentive for inner London property owners in particular to turn over their properties to commercial use. Data collected by Westminster council a few months ago demonstrated that hospitality rents are far higher than those that apply to longer-term residential properties. It found that a one-bedroom flat would earn almost £800 a week in the short-term let industry, compared with £440 on average for a longer tenancy—and prices are rising proportionally.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. She mentioned Airbnb, one of the more aggressive marketers. Not a day goes by without constituents writing to me having been asked by this organisation to give their flat or house over. They are worried because they feel that residential areas are effectively turning into hotels, and as a consequence, there are fewer properties in an area where there is already great pressure, and there is also a lot of disruption to their lives.

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Ms Buck: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that is exactly the substance of my comments, and I agree with him totally. As I said, a one-bedroom flat could generate £800 a week in the short-term let industry. For a two-bedroom flat, Westminster council estimates that £1,372 a week could be earned, compared with £600 in a residential let. For a three-bedroom flat, £2,660 could be generated, compared with £950 for a longer-term rental, and for a four-bedroom flat, £3,367 could be earned, compared with £1,158. That economic incentive not only reduces the attractiveness of longer-term residential letting, but distorts rents elsewhere and reduces affordability still further.

Central London, and particularly Westminster, has traditionally been the largest private rental market in the country, meeting a growing need for rental homes offering accommodation to different groups of people. That includes people who want to move to London for employment, sometimes on short-term contracts; students and young people who are starting out in life and saving for a home; and people in housing need who are unable to access a declining stock of social housing. We need a healthy private rented sector. Even if that sector is less secure than owner-occupation or social renting, and in many cases, less attractive, it is none the less an important element of the residential mix in central London.

The growth of the unplanned and deregulated hospitality economy is already eroding the ability to provide homes. Indeed, the purpose behind the original legislation that the Government are seeking to change was

“to protect London’s existing housing supply, for the benefit of permanent residents, by giving London boroughs greater and easier means of planning control to prevent the conversion of family homes into short-term lets.”

Around 3,000 properties are estimated to be in use as short-term accommodation in Westminster alone. That figure is almost half as much again as the total number of Westminster’s homeless households who are in temporary accommodation, who are of course in many cases increasingly being forced out of the borough in which they live. In some cases, they have lived in the borough for decades, even their whole lives. I am not suggesting that there is a neat match between the two kinds of accommodation, but the figures are striking.

Westminster council’s estimates show a loss of housing stock equivalent to seven years’ worth of housing supply. That figure is simply extrapolated from the 7,300 enforcement actions taken with regard to the alleged unauthorised use of property for short lets since the millennium. Further deregulation can only add to the loss of homes to commercial use, as it becomes easier and less risky to change to commercial use, and harder for the local council to detect abuse. It cannot be a coincidence that Camden council found 923 flats being offered on Airbnb in October last year. That figure is up 37% on the previous three months, so over the months that followed the Government’s introduction of that clause in the Deregulation Bill, the amount of property advertised as lets of this kind has soared.

What an irony it is that at the very moment when the Government are seeking further deregulation, other cities such as Paris are looking into tightening regulation to protect their city. We are going in the opposite direction. The Parisian authorities are so worried about the drain on residential property that they are enacting measures to bring the situation under further control.

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It is not only the loss of accommodation in the longer-term residential sector that is a concern; even without short-term lets, the private rental market has a downside, which is the massive turnover of population, with a one-in-three churn in the electoral register in Westminster annually. A short-term-lets economy exacerbates that trend dramatically. As Westminster council has said, there is a

“proven negative impact…arising from short-term letting, as longer-term...residents are forced out, the consequences of which include an increase in anti-social behaviour, reduced security and a higher fear of crime for permanent residents in the vicinity of properties used for short-term let purposes.”

The 18 Westminster amenity societies, in a joint representation, added:

“Short-term letting is causing a major problem for some permanent residents in a number of these amenity societies, particularly in cases where short-term lets are regularly made. There can be real problems of anti-social behaviour (and even intimidation), noise, refuse collection problems and similar issues. The Council’s dedicated ward budget, which reflects the wishes of a particular ward community, has in three cases set aside funds to tackle the problem.”

To that can be added further concerns, including inconsistent standards within the hospitality sector, potentially leading to undercutting on health and safety standards; the lack of security checks on guests; and the potential for fraud, including housing benefit fraud.

The findings of the London Councils survey of local authorities are therefore unsurprising: 92% of responding boroughs said that short-term lets caused problems with noise and nuisance; 92% said that the issue led to a loss of permanent accommodation; 75% said that it caused a loss of community identity; 58% said that it caused a heightened fear of crime; and 25% said that it increased crime and fire safety risks. All the findings were confirmed by local residents replying to a survey that I undertook in selected blocks of flats in high-risk areas. With only a few exceptions—there were some people who felt strongly that home owners should be able to do as they wished with their property—residents reported concerns. One Lancaster Gate resident described her experience in a mansion block of flats:

“People are turning up and buzzing the doorbells for keys to various flats”

all the time. She said that there are three, four, five or six people to a flat and they stay for only three or four days. She said:

“I think I am now living in a hotel because of the groups of people coming in and out the whole time...It is harder for us to know our neighbours and there is no community cohesion.”

A Maida Vale resident, also from a block of mansion flats, talked of the

“constant stream of strangers in my block, leading to an increased risk of burglary, noise and more.”

Another lady from Lancaster Gate described all-night parties and

“damaged communal areas with walls scratched and rubbish left everywhere”,

and a resident of Queensway said:

“Long-term leaseholders in blocks of flats find that short-term residents do not respect the communal areas of the building”


“the majority of flats are needs constant vigilance to keep civilised standards in a block I have lived in for forty years.”

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Mr Slaughter: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again; she is very generous. She has identified clearly the problem. It is with mansion flat blocks, and her constituency has even more of those than mine does. Many long-term residents, a lot of whom are now elderly, simply want the quiet enjoyment of their own home, but find themselves living in a highly disruptive atmosphere, often with groups of young people who do not take care of the property because they are there for days or weeks at a time and who are making their lives a misery.

Ms Buck: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a common theme. This often, but not exclusively, affects older residents, who describe their experience as one of being completely stranded in what used to be a neighbourly block, where they knew people, felt a sense of security and had the quiet enjoyment of their homes. Now, they find the constant movement of people in and out very bewildering and alienating, and find that it causes or is linked to a number of practical problems.

Another resident wrote to me to say that

“this will increase problems related to noise and nuisance for Westminster residents from the short-let tenants. It’s already happening within my own apartment block, and I’ve had to complain to Westminster Council 24-hour noise hotline due to loud parties and excessive noise every week from short-let tenants in my block. This is making me want to sell my home and move to a safer, quieter neighbourhood outside of Westminster.”

Of course, none of this means that all visitors cause problems or that all landlords, whether professional or casual, are careless of the consequences of their letting. That is far from the case. It is the cumulative impact and the nature of the high turnover in the visitor and tourist economy that is often the problem; it is not the behaviour of any single person or group of people. These blocks of flats—the properties are largely flats—were not designed to be part of the hospitality economy; they were designed to be part of a residential community, and they have changed.

In addition to the impact on residents and neighbours, Westminster council—I am sure that this is also true of other local authorities—is investigating some 1,600 properties for violations of the short-term-let rules with a staff of four, at a time of massive reductions in funding and staffing. Some councillors are having to use ward budgets for this purpose—I do not think that is what ward budgets were intended for—as complaints have risen. There have been 360 complaints in the last 12 months.

If resources were going on enforcement action against the home owners renting out their home for a few weeks while they are away—against the very people whom the Government claim the deregulation is aimed at helping and relieving the pressure on—money could be saved, but of course that is not the case. Enforcement action is aimed at the de facto commercial landlord, and the new deregulated environment will make that harder and costlier to pursue, with a requirement to meet a higher burden of proof. The reality is that a bigger burden will fall on councils that are increasingly ill equipped to deal with it.

The Government seem to accept the need to limit the extent to which professional landlords can take advantage of the opportunities offered by higher incomes from inner-London lettings; otherwise, presumably, they would

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abandon all restrictions, rather than simply change the limit to permit 90-day letting under the Deregulation Bill. Unfortunately, that is likely to work better in theory than in practice. As the Covent Garden Community Association explained to me:

“Some amateur landlords are causing just as many problems. Not only will it be very difficult to prove who is a genuine resident but short lets even by genuine residents can be very disruptive and insecure...we are hearing complaints about this sort of thing all the time now, with an estimated 200 flats in Covent Garden alone available to rent by the night on Airbnb at any one time.”

I say to the Minister that there is still an opportunity to use the Deregulation Bill to meet the legitimate and indeed cross-party concerns raised by civic and amenity societies and local authorities in central London. By amending it to give individual London boroughs the right to override any relaxation of planning requirements for short lets that the Secretary of State might introduce, and by making it clear that local authorities could restrict lettings in respect of residential properties that were not the sole or main residence of the lessor, many of the risks could be offset. The Minister should take that opportunity.

We think that it would also be useful to consider the findings of the review of property conditions in the private rented sector before proceeding. It would be useful if the Minister could provide further information on that. Finally, we expect regulations to be tabled, and they offer greater scope for local flexibility in response to what are obviously varying pressures.

However, local authorities and the communities that make up their areas need to be listened to. In the spirit of localism, to which we all pay tribute, the Government need to understand that it is local authorities that understand their communities, and this is a particularly excellent example of where decisions need to be taken closer to the ground, balancing a wish to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy against the pressing need to sustain healthy, safe and vibrant neighbourhoods, even and perhaps especially when these are on the fringes of the hospitality heart of the world’s greatest city.

4.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): The Government, through the legislation we are considering, are taking forward proposals that will tackle out-of-date legislation from the 1970s. Section 25 of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1973 makes it illegal for London residents to rent out their homes to visitors on a short-term basis. Londoners who want to rent out their homes for less than three months are required to apply for planning permission from the council. That burden does not apply anywhere else in the country. We want just to update that legislation, to give London residents the freedom to let their homes on a short-term, temporary basis without the unnecessary cost and bureaucracy of applying for planning permission. We also want to ensure that we maintain the important provisions for the protection of London’s housing supply and residential amenity. That goes directly to the point raised by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), and I will come back to that in a few moments.

Section 25 provides that the use of a

“building, or any part of a building”

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for “temporary sleeping accommodation” for less than 90 consecutive nights is a change of use, for which planning permission is required. London local authorities can take enforcement action against an unauthorised change of use. As a result, London residents failing to secure planning permission face a possible fine of up to £20,000 for each offence.

Clause 33 of the Deregulation Bill grants a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations in respect of short-term letting. Our intention is that regulations will set out the circumstances in which temporary sleeping accommodation in London would not require planning permission. It will also allow for the exclusion of particular residential premises, and residential premises in particular areas, from any relaxation of section 25.

We all know that the internet is creating a new world in which to live and do business. It has made it much easier for people to rent out their property; references have been made to Airbnb, for example. It allows residents to supplement their incomes and offer new experiences for consumers. Last summer, nearly 5 million overseas visitors came to the capital. Some of those visitors, as well as British residents, want to experience London as a local. That means staying with Londoners who live in London permanently, or in their homes while the resident is away on holiday. We know that thousands of London properties and rooms are currently advertised on such websites. However, each of them is potentially in breach of section 25 as it stands. There is uncertainty for householders as to whether their local authority will take planning enforcement action against them for unauthorised short-term letting.

Ms Buck: Does the Minister have evidence of local authorities taking enforcement action and fining home owners who simply let out their home for two weeks here and there, perhaps for a home swap or something similar?

Brandon Lewis: That is the point I was making. There is an uncertainty for residents if they do not know whether any given local authority would take action. If the local authority is not using that power, however, it will not miss it after the change in the legislation.

Planning legislation for the capital needs to catch up with our 21st-century way of living. Every year, thousands of visitors enjoy their holidays in Londoners’ homes. Such short-term letting already supports major events, such as tennis at Wimbledon. Our proposals will not only benefit London’s strong tourism industry by expanding the competitively priced accommodation offer; it will allow families to earn some extra income by making their home or spare room available to visitors. It offers an alternative to hotels and guest houses, so it can support the wider tourism industry. In addition, such accommodation helps those who are temporarily working in the capital or searching for a place to live by expanding the pool of competitively priced accommodation.

Residential homes provide a type of accommodation that is different from the average hotel or guest house. Renting a room in a person’s home, or renting their home while they are away, provides an opportunity to travel and live like a local, and it caters for a different type of client. Websites advertising householders’ rooms

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and homes indicate that a wide variety of accommodation is available in different locations, many of which are outside the central hotel zones.

Mr Slaughter: I do not think anybody objects to people renting out rooms in their homes. In any event, such people will not be caught at the moment. I do not think anybody objects to people renting out their property for Wimbledon or when they are away on holiday. The problem is the commercial, organised letting of large numbers of flats in single blocks, which effectively turns residential blocks into hotels or “aparthotels”. That is what we want local discretion to prevent.

Brandon Lewis: I suspect, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to support the Government’s proposals. If he looks back at my opening remarks, I think that that will deal with some of his concerns. I will go a bit further in a second.

London is a great city, as the hon. Member for Westminster North has outlined. Our proposed step forward gives Londoners the opportunity to be part of a huge industry and supplement their income. We want to be leaders, not followers, and we want to open up our great global city even further. Where other cities and countries may wish to shut down, we want to move forward.

I want to make it clear that through our reforms we want only to give London residents the freedom that is enjoyed in the rest of the country: to let out their homes on a short-term, temporary basis without the unnecessary cost and bureaucracy of applying for planning permission. We do not seek to provide new opportunities for short-term letting on a permanent or commercial basis. We fully recognise that London’s homes should not be lost to investors who will use them exclusively for short-term lets, and our reforms will not enable that. Through regulations, we want to provide certainty and consistency for residents in all London local authority areas. We want them to know when householders will be permitted temporarily to short-term let their property without the need for planning permission. The regulations we will introduce will clarify for London residents what is permissible, so they can be confident they are within the law. We will look to strike an appropriate balance between allowing freedom for occasional short-term letting by residents, as well as—this goes directly to the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter)—maintaining the important provisions of the existing legislation to protect London’s housing stock.

I know there are concerns that our deregulation of section 25 could lead to a loss of permanent housing stock for Londoners at a time when London needs more new homes. However, as we seek only to allow residents to let out their homes while they are away, those properties will not be lost to the short-term rental market from London’s permanent housing stock. We will not be providing new opportunities for short-term letting on a permanent or commercial basis.

Ms Buck: This is the heart of the worry. If it is difficult now for local authorities to enforce against properties they believe are part of the short-term letting sector when one merely has to prove that that is the case, will it not be far more difficult to enforce when the local authority has to demonstrate that the property has not been let for more than 90 days?

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Brandon Lewis: Our proposals are designed to ensure that we bring things up to date, which is why I have said that we want to make sure that we get the regulations right. It is important that we move forward and allow people to have the right flexibility. We must not be scared away from doing the right thing because something has been done incorrectly in the past. We want to move this forward and get it right for the future. We must recognise the world in which we now live, rather than harking back to something from the past that did not work.

As at present, it will still be open to property owners to seek planning permission from their local authority if they want to change the use of their premises. It will also, therefore, remain for local planning authorities to determine whether an unauthorised change of use has taken place and whether they should take planning enforcement action in the public interest, so that protection remains.

It has been suggested that our proposals might lead to an increased loss of amenity for London residents as a result of people’s behaviour. Reference was made earlier to antisocial behaviour in neighbouring accommodation on a short-term basis. Our proposed reforms will do nothing to weaken the duty on a local authority to investigate such complaints of statutory nuisance from people who live in its area, or to take action against those responsible.

I know there are concerns that people who currently short-term let property through internet sites are somehow permitted to circumvent not only section 25 but other vital measures, such as health and safety regulations and fire orders. That is not the case. I can confirm that our proposed change to the legislation will not provide a short-cut to important protections, beyond allowing householders temporarily to short-term let their property without applying for planning permission. Clause 33 of the Deregulation Bill provides a regulation-making power. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative process for statutory instruments following Royal Assent, which will enable Parliament to scrutinise the detail of the proposed deregulation. We recognise that there is considerable interest in ensuring that we get the changes right. We will continue to work closely with the London local authorities to ensure that the measures brought forward meet householders’ aspirations of temporarily letting out their homes or spare rooms but that, importantly, they retain the key purpose of section 25, which is to keep London’s homes for those who live and work permanently in London.

4.26 pm

Sitting suspended.

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NHS Funding (York and North Yorkshire)

4.30 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I am delighted once again to have secured an opportunity to address the important issue of health care funding in York and North Yorkshire and, ultimately, the formula used to calculate the per patient funding from which clinical commissioning groups—and, before them, the primary care trusts—derive their money. Other North Yorkshire and York MPs and I have been campaigning on this issue since 2010, and I am delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) are here to support me this afternoon. I strongly believe that the nettle has to be grasped on what I accept is a difficult issue, albeit one that cannot continue to be ignored.

The quality of local health care is of the utmost importance to many, if not all, people because, ultimately, it is something upon which we all come to rely at some point in our life. Health care provision is a measure of the local community’s economic well-being and happiness, and it is in our moral and economic interest to ensure the widest availability of health services, the shortest waiting lists and that the most impressive health outcomes are available to all, which I stress. Ensuring such health care standards for all is truly one of the Government’s most essential roles. Indeed, I am sure that all hon. Members from North Yorkshire, both those who are here and those who are not, will agree that health-related concerns crop up frequently in our constituency mail. That is certainly the case in my constituency, as I am sure it is in yours, Mrs Riordan. As such, I welcome the £2 billion of health care spending promised by the Government for this financial year in the autumn statement. That injection of cash has led to every area’s budget increasing ahead of inflation in the recently released allocations. It is for such reasons that I believe the Government can stand proudly on their NHS funding record.

I have called this debate, however, to address the fair allocation of funding and the impact on health care delivery due to a funding formula that works to my CCG’s disadvantage. In a previous debate on this issue I outlined my concern that the now-abolished primary care trusts would pass on their historical debts to the new CCGs. Vale of York CCG inherited a deficit of some £7 million in April 2013 due to the current funding formula. NHS England has acknowledged that the previous York and North Yorkshire PCT received approximately £17 million less than the allocation should have provided for the local population demographic because the funding is phased in over time. Although I am pleased to say that Vale of York CCG has cleared the deficit it inherited, it is still struggling to offer many services that constituents have a right to expect. Allocations made for the newly formed CCG in 2013-14 were a straight uplift of the historical allocations, which resulted in a postcode lottery for certain health care services in my area.

Why does Vale of York CCG, in particular, receive such a poor allocation? The Government decide how much money should be allocated to each CCG. Officials begin by dividing the total budget by the number of

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people living in each respective area. Money is then added or taken away to account for local characteristics, including the proportion of people claiming benefits, the teenage pregnancy rate and the number of people who leave education early. That is where the problem lies. Of the 10 characteristics, nine reduce the amount of money allocated to our area. That disparity in the allocation is due to the funding formula failing to take account of both the rural nature of the region and, most importantly, age. Instead, the current formula provides a significant weighting that awards additional funds to areas with high levels of social deprivation. The allocations for 2015-16 have now been announced and, once again, Vale of York CCG has received, by a substantial margin, the lowest per capita funding of all the CCGs in the area. Although I recognise that health needs are generally greater in more deprived areas, the current formula provides far too much weighting for deprivation and insufficient weightings for age and rurality.

Age and rurality are even greater problems in my constituency and in other North Yorkshire constituencies because York and North Yorkshire have the highest proportion of over-85s in the north, but Vale of York still receives among the lowest funding per head of any northern CCG. The area also has a high number of people in care homes, with a typical GP practice informing me that up to 50% of home visits are taken up by care home residents, who account for only 2% of patients on the practice’s roll. The distribution of health care costs is strongly age dependent, and it is difficult to argue against that. On average, it costs approximately eight times more for the NHS to care for a patient over 85 than for a patient in their 40s, which, of course, is due to elderly people being more likely to have additional health problems. We are all living longer, which is obviously a good thing, but we are living longer with more complicated conditions. Age is increasingly becoming a defining factor in health care funding.

Alongside age, the formula does not account for the additional cost of providing health care services in sparsely populated rural areas. Those additional costs are reflected, among other things, in longer average journey times for ambulances and community health staff, such as health visitors. There is also a need to provide additional smaller hospitals in rural areas in order to retain accessible and essential services for those communities.

The distortion in the funding formula has led to certain areas being awash with money, which in the past has sadly led to well publicised vanity health care projects, whereas York and North Yorkshire have consistently struggled to balance the books, resulting in their continuing to take difficult decisions on health care provision. Those decisions have had a massive impact on the quality of life of many of my constituents, hampering their ability to work and affecting their careers.

To my mind, Vale of York CCG does not provide some procedures due to the funding formula. I have been contacted by many constituents over the past few years regarding their inability to receive pain-relief injections free on the NHS. I have been actively campaigning for the removal of those charges for all who require such injections. I am sorry to say that the charges are symptomatic of the postcode lottery due to the current funding formula. The CCG reviewed its position on

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pain-relief injections and concluded that the injections are not clinically beneficial, which is why it decided to retain the charge, but I would argue that the injections can dramatically improve people’s quality of life and should be offered free of charge. Pain-relief injections are offered free of charge by many other CCGs across the country and across our region.

Alongside pain-relief injections, another procedure that has not been available through the Vale of York CCG is IVF treatment. In fact, for a long time the Vale of York was the only health authority in the country not to offer any free IVF treatment. I know from many constituents who have contacted me about the issue that infertility has an awful effect on people’s lives, causing stress and depression, and with the potential to tear otherwise healthy relationships apart. It must be extremely frustrating for someone to know that treatments are available just a few miles away but are inaccessible to them; nevertheless, that has been the reality in many parts of my constituency for a number of years.

I was pleased to hear the CCG announce in late December that it will now offer at least one cycle of IVF. Although that falls well short of the three cycles recommended by NICE, it is a welcome step in the right direction.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the start of his speech and congratulate him on securing this debate. This may tempt him toward a conclusion, but does he agree that spending more on primary care in the Vale of York and other North Yorkshire CCGs would keep people out of hospital, which would obviously be to the greater good of the health service and those living in North Yorkshire?

Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Given the rurality of the whole of North Yorkshire, which I mentioned at the start of my speech, we know that providing health care services is difficult and expensive. That is part of the argument for why the funding formula must be adjusted. At the same time, it must be more cost-effective to deliver services in people’s homes and offer more accessibility. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend will know from the situation in her constituency, it is important that we also keep small hospitals open and accessible. I know that that is an important issue in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. This debate is all about ensuring that we have a fair formula so that we can deliver those services.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): On that point, when we are here in London it is difficult for people fully to comprehend the distances involved for both patients and their families in North Yorkshire. The local provision from the hospital in Ripon and Castleberg hospital in Settle in my constituency is valued really highly by families and patients alike.

Julian Sturdy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is fundamental to a fair health care system and to fair health care for all. Through this debate I want to show how important that is for our area. We need a fair funding system that can deliver health care across not only York and North Yorkshire but the whole country. We must ensure that areas such as York and North Yorkshire do not suffer while others benefit. That is why we must get the funding formula revised.

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Returning to IVF, the treatment now offered by Vale of York CCG does not help those who have been denied access to treatment, as have many people in my constituency over many years. They have either paid thousands of pounds privately or are now past the eligible age criteria for access to IVF. Despite that welcome news from the CCG, people living in our area had no access at all to IVF treatment for some time.

Alongside certain procedures that have been denied to many of my constituents, another area that has really felt the strain is A and E, which has hit the headlines in the past 24 hours. I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s £700 million increase to the NHS budget to deal with well-known winter pressures. That shows the Government’s foresight: they knew that the issue was looming and so put that money in. Nevertheless, altering the funding formula would also help areas that are constrained by their budgets, because A and E funding ultimately comes through CCGs.

Finally, I want to turn to the controversial issue of clinical exceptionality and the impact that it has had on several of my constituents. Where a treatment is not routinely commissioned by the local health authority, clinicians must submit individual funding requests on behalf of their patients, which are then decided by a special panel. In order to achieve funding, the GP is required to prove that their patient is clinically exceptional from the referenced population. Or, to put it more plainly, they must be suffering more than other sufferers of the same condition.

That is, just as it sounds, an extremely difficult task for already busy GPs. It also results in an extremely tragic situation wherein a small group of people who suffer with a rare condition slip through the net and do not receive the treatment that their doctors feel that they need. Their condition is too rare for the particular treatment to be routinely commissioned, but not rare enough to prove that they are clinically exceptional and therefore eligible for individual funding.

One young constituent of mine suffers with severe gastroparesis, as well as diabetes. His devastating condition effectively prohibits his stomach from doing the job that it is supposed to do. As a result, he feels almost permanently nauseous and vomits up to 30 times a day. His clinicians believe that the most effective treatment for him is to have a gastro-pacemaker fitted at a cost of £25,000. That may seem like a lot of money, but as my constituent is unable to work and his mother has had to leave work to care for him, the cost to the state is far greater each year. The alternative treatments that he currently receives, such as morphine, also come at great cost to his health and well-being.

I have been working for some time on behalf of my constituent and alongside his clinicians to try to obtain the necessary funding for the treatment he so badly needs. The most frustrating thing for him is to know that other patients under the same clinicians, who do not suffer as badly as he does, are being accepted for funding because they live in areas that do much better out of the existing formula than York. Sadly, I fear that the lack of funding in our area is causing the individual funding request panel to interpret the rules of clinical exceptionality much more rigidly than our neighbours in, for example, Leeds.

My nine-year-old constituent Ben Foy, of Strensall, has also been a victim of the deeply unsatisfactory situation. Ben suffers with narcolepsy and cataplexy

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after having the swine flu vaccine, and he is known to fall asleep suddenly up to 20 times a day. Along with Ben’s family and clinicians, I have tried numerous times to obtain funding for sodium oxybate to treat his condition, but we were repeatedly told that we had fallen short of proving his clinical exceptionality.

To sum up, as it stands the funding formula is clearly causing a disparity in how health care is delivered across Yorkshire, as well as across the country. It is imperative that we move toward a funding formula that gives much greater weight to age and that recognises rurality and its associated higher cost of health care provision, while scaling back on the amount given for deprivation. We cannot continue to have, as was previously the case with PCTs, CCGs in the deprived areas of Yorkshire and the Humber receiving substantially more per capita and consistently under-spending their allocation, at the expense of CCGs in areas such as mine. Time and again, we are seeing patients being refused or pushed away from treatment because of the funding formula.

Ultimately, I accept that it is a difficult decision for the Government, the Department of Health and the Secretary of State. Along with colleagues, I have met the Secretary of State and Ministers numerous times to discuss the issue. As I say, I know that it is a difficult decision, but I fundamentally feel that we have protected the NHS budget during the past five years and we have seen more money go into the NHS over that time, which is the right thing to have done, but now we must ensure that we have a funding formula that backs that investment up and can deliver a fair health care system for all.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate, with the support of our hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), and for Malton (Miss McIntosh), and I congratulate them all on their contributions to the debate. I am very aware of the personal interest of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer in health matters affecting his constituents, and of course his interest in NHS allocations, including this question of fairness for rural areas.

I will also take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the North Yorkshire MPs who have worked so hard together on this issue since 2010: my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), for Skipton and Ripon, for Thirsk and Malton, and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley), my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). I know they have had one meeting, if not more, with the Secretary of State for Health, and as a group they have been an effective and forceful lobby on this important issue, which we in the Department of Health all take seriously.

Of course, the whole House will agree that good-quality patient care is something we all expect, regardless of which part of the country, or indeed which county, we live in. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer

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has signalled, the question is how we work within the overall NHS budget—I welcome his acknowledgement of the Government’s increasing that budget—to determine how funding for each area should be assessed and decided. He made the key point: that it must be done in a way that is fair to all citizens and patients, wherever and whoever they are, and that where someone lives should not in any way unreasonably distort their access to health care. It is the NHS—the national health service—and those initials should mean something.

My hon. Friend will be aware that I, too, come from a very rural constituency—Mid Norfolk—where many of the issues he has identified chime, including ambulance response times and the extra time that clinical staff and patients take to travel around. Of course, there are other issues and problems, which he has highlighted: hidden deprivation, ageing and elderly populations, and isolation and loneliness compounding conditions such as dementia, making it harder to set up initiatives such as dementia cafés.

Health funding is an issue I have taken an interest in for a long time. Years ago, I did some work in County Durham to unpack the index of local conditions and the standard assessments in local government spending. When we unpack those formulae, we discover that those used to allocate funding for deprivation are all inner-city indicators: they are all about high-rise blocks, the percentage of black and minority ethnic people, and density. They are all urban indicators, as if only urban areas really experience deprivation. So my hon. Friend is raising an important point, which goes to the heart of much of the way that Whitehall allocates funding.

I will say something about how allocations within the NHS are made under the arrangements we have put in place. As my hon. Friend is aware, NHS England is the independent organisation responsible for managing the budget and the day-to-day workings of the NHS. It supports clinical commissioning groups—the local groups of GPs and other health professionals who commission NHS services on behalf of their patients. To make sure that the taxpayer has a say in how that money is spent, the Government provide direction and strategic ambitions for the NHS through a document called “the mandate”. The current 2014-15 mandate was reviewed and updated in December. There are eight key areas, which are about making general improvements; the Government deliberately leave the NHS free to make decisions about how these objectives should be met. They are: helping people to live well for longer; managing ongoing physical and mental health conditions; helping people to recover from episodes of ill health or injury; making sure that people experience better care, and integrated care; providing safer care, with a greater emphasis on patient safety; promoting NHS innovation; supporting the NHS to play a broader role in society; and making better use of our health resources.

NHS England has been given £98.7 billion this year, rising to £101 billion in 2015-16, to achieve the objectives in the mandate. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the extra £2 billion that the Secretary of State recently announced. NHS England has the responsibility to ensure that that money is well spent.

The first thing to say on the financial aspect of the mandate is that we have protected NHS funding in this Parliament, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. In 2014-15,

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all CCGs received a funding increase matching inflation. Furthermore, like all CCGs in England, North Yorkshire CCGs will benefit from the £2 billion of additional funding announced in the autumn statement. As I say, those CCG allocations and the formula used to decide what they should be are the responsibility of NHS England. NHS England itself commissions some services directly, including all primary care, as well as making allocations to individual CCGs. So these allocations to CCGs, although they are crucial, are only one part of a broader picture. In making those allocations, NHS England relies on advice from the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation. As my hon. Friend will be aware, ACRA provides advice on the share of available resources provided to each CCG, in order to support equal access for equal need, as specified in the mandate.

NHS England does not set income on an equal “cost per head” basis across the whole country. Instead, allocations follow an assessment of the expected need for health services in an area, and funds are distributed in line with that, which means that areas with a high health need, including rural areas, should receive more money per head. There have sometimes been suggestions that a single per capita payment should be made across all CCGs, but I am not sure that that would not in fact lead to further discrepancies. As my hon. Friend will be fully aware, the key question is what overall weighting should be given to a range of factors, including age, disability, rurality and disease prevalence. As he himself acknowledged, there is no simple answer that would please everyone; this process requires the making of difficult judgments.

Without knowing that background, it can sometimes be hard for people to understand what are misleadingly presented as huge anomalies in allocations to CCGs. In the Vale of York, the funding is £1,067 per head; in my constituency of Mid Norfolk, it is £1,050; and in central Manchester, an urban area with an urban CCG, it is £1,085. I appreciate that those small differences add up over large populations, but they are not huge variations. The objective is to ensure a consistent supply of health services across the country, with health funding following —as best the system can map it—health need. That is one of the reasons why the data steps that we are putting in place are so important to allow us to monitor disease and health need.

NHS England has reviewed the funding formula and made welcome changes that take into account three important factors in driving health care need: population growth, deprivation and the impact of an ageing population. That should go some way towards helping to address the points my hon. Friend made.

NHS England now believes, and tells us, that it has a funding formula that sets recurrent allocations to CCGs more accurately and fairly, which is what the formula is supposed to do. However, I welcome the scrutiny that my hon. Friend and other colleagues from North Yorkshire are rightly insisting that it be put under.

By reflecting changes in population around the country and better targeting of pockets of deprivation, the NHS should be able to offer the best services to patients where they need them. I know there is a perception in North Yorkshire that the area is relatively underfunded. However, the NHS in North Yorkshire has benefited from increased funding, and when the Vale of York CCG’s funding is compared to that of other CCGs

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across the country, it is evident that it is not a significant outlier in terms of either funding per head of population or the level of funding relative to the formula. I appreciate that those are average figures; my hon. Friend will know better than I do the specific details of his own constituency.

At a time of continued pressure on the public finances, the additional funding we have provided for the NHS underlines the priority that this Government place on it. It means that the NHS will continue to benefit from stable, real-terms increases in funding, which will allow us and NHS England to get those formulae more and more accurate. Next year, the recurrent allocations of all CCGs in North Yorkshire will grow by 1.94%, an increase of almost £17 million. I am delighted that these increases will ensure that CCGs, including those in North Yorkshire, can continue to meet ever-growing demands for services, while investing in new services.

As time is short, with my hon. Friend’s permission perhaps I could write to him on the specific points he raised about back pain and IVF.

Miss McIntosh: I have a very simple question. Obviously, we as Back Benchers scrutinise the Department of Health, but who scrutinises and monitors NHS England?

George Freeman: As Ministers, we are responsible and ultimately accountable to Parliament for that. However, I am conscious of the time, so perhaps I could pick that point up in a letter to my hon. Friend.

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As I said, I welcome the attention my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and other North Yorkshire MPs are bringing to this issue, and I hope I have signalled that I consider it a substantive concern. Citizens in this country, rural or urban, demand and expect a national health service—rightly so, because they have contributed to it—and they expect national access on a fair basis. The structure we have put in place is really about giving NHS England the clinical freedom to ensure that funding decisions are made on the right basis. No system will be perfect, but as Ministers we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the system we have is as accountable and transparent as possible, and to providing the security of funding to allow that process to be pursued.

I know from my own experience in County Durham and in my Norfolk constituency that these are important issues. It is about ensuring that our citizens in rural areas get equal access to health services. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and other colleagues are doing exactly the right thing in raising this issue. I will happily address in writing the points I have not had time to address this afternoon. I look forward to writing to colleagues with more detailed answers to the specific points they have raised.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.