4 Mar 2015 : Column 287WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 4 March 2015

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

Affordable Housing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

9.30 am

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

When the Government introduced the hated bedroom tax, the headline in the Nottingham Postwas, “Nowhere to go”. It was spot on, of course. Thanks to the Government’s dismal record on affordable housing, thousands of people are being forced out of their homes or into poverty by the cruel and ill conceived bedroom tax, and millions of people cannot buy the homes they want, or find decent-quality affordable or social homes at all. I do not claim that the shortage of high-quality affordable housing started in 2010, but the Government’s policies have made the situation worse, not better.

Let me begin by setting out how the Government got it so wrong. Their first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%, leading to a collapse in affordable house building, and they consistently watered down affordable housing requirements on developers. The Prime Minister rushed out the latest proposals this week in a desperate bid to appeal to first-time buyers, but as Gavin Smart, interim chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said, the Tory plan

“smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another.”

As usual with the Government, those on lower incomes are set to lose out, but that should not be a surprise. In London, where the housing crisis is at its most severe, the Mayor has, in his London plan, banned Labour councils from insisting on building genuine social homes through section 106 agreements, against the guidance of the planning inspector but with the approval of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Even developers have warned of the dangers of weakening the affordable homes requirements; the Westminster Property Association described the idea as “deeply flawed”.

My constituency was one of the first hit by the Government’s cuts, when a £200 million redevelopment of the Meadows, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, was scrapped. Nottingham city council had been working closely with local residents for three years to devise the plans to transform their estate by demolishing unsuitable and unpopular properties and replacing them with new homes to meet existing and future need, including extra care homes for elderly tenants. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), promised to visit the area to see for himself the issues left unaddressed, but that was just another broken promise.

If the Government are allowed to continue, we could sadly see the demise of genuinely affordable social housing. Their affordable rent model is anything but affordable to families on low incomes, and it is pushing

4 Mar 2015 : Column 288WH

up housing benefit bills in the long term. The number of affordable homes provided last year fell to its lowest level in nine years, and was 26% below the 2009-10 level. The number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest level for at least 20 years, and is falling.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is primarily driven not by finance but by ideology? Leaving social tenants in insecure properties, raising their rents, failing to invest in properties and failing to accommodate people on the basis of need—all that comes from policies, many of them dreamed up by the previous council in Hammersmith and Fulham. Is that not a deplorable way to treat people in housing need in the 21st century?

Lilian Greenwood: My hon. Friend is right. The Government seem to have no interest in the idea of social homes.

Crisis noted that in England last year, just 7,458 affordable and social rented homes were completed, compared with 9,026 in the previous year. Let us judge the Government by their own standards. In 2010, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, then Housing Minister, told the Communities and Local Government Committee that building more homes than Labour

“is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”

Given that the Government have presided over the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since the 1920s, I suggest that they will be found wanting. House building in every year under this Government has been lower than in any year under Labour. There were 118,000 home completions last year; we are building fewer than half the homes needed to keep pace with demand.

Affordable housing is not just an issue for tenants, although I will return to the issues faced by those renting their home later. Many of my constituents want to own their own home, but if they think that the Tory party will help them to achieve their dreams, they will be sorely disappointed. Home ownership is at its lowest level for 30 years, and there are now 205,000 fewer home owners than there were at the previous election. To put it another way, in 2009-10, 67.4% of households owned their own home, compared with 63.3% now. For the first time, home ownership in the UK is below the European Union average for the pre-accession 15 countries. The number of people with a mortgage has declined, and is now lower, for the first time in more than 30 years, than the number of households living mortgage-free. Rising house prices and the requirement for larger deposits, in combination with low wages and insecure employment, is pushing home ownership out of the reach of many people. The National Housing Federation’s report, “Broken Market, Broken Dreams”, shows that with the average house price in England having risen to more than £250,000, the average first-time buyer needs to find a deposit of £30,000—almost 10 times as much as was needed by those buying a house in the early 1980s, or when I bought my first house in Nottingham 21 years ago.

Two thirds of first-time buyers rely on financial help from their parents, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. It is easy to see the disproportionate impact

4 Mar 2015 : Column 289WH

on those from poorer families. In the past, they may have been able to get on the housing ladder; now, they could be locked out of home ownership for ever. For the sake of the next generation, we need to tackle the housing crisis, and the Government’s plans are simply not up to the task. Their schemes have not helped anywhere near the number they claimed they would. The Prime Minister claimed that New Buy would help 100,000 on to the property ladder, but it has actually helped less than 6% of that target.

It is questionable whether a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Local housing market conditions and local demographics are important factors, and there is huge variation between and within regions. In Nottingham, average house price are well below the national median, although so are wages, and we do not suffer the problems found in London and the south-east, where there are large numbers of buy-to-let, or buy-to-leave-empty, investors.

Help to Buy has not been taken up in large numbers because those on middle incomes have alternatives, so it is those on lower incomes who are still missing out. In contrast, right to buy has increased significantly since the higher discounts were introduced in April 2012. It benefits those who are able to participate, but makes life even more difficult for those struggling to find somewhere to live. Ministers promised at the time that the additional homes sold would be replaced one for one, but that simply has not happened.

Across the country, more than 26,000 social homes have been sold in the past three years, but according to the Department’s own figures, only 2,298 homes were started by councils between April 2012 and September 2014. This month’s Inside Housing reveals that the Department’s original claim of 4,795 had to be revised down after it was challenged by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Even the most recent figures from December take the number of starts only to a total of 2,712. A further 3,285 homes were sold between October and December, up 15% on the previous quarter. The problem is getting worse, not better.

With their route to home ownership blocked, more and more people are living with their parents into their 20s and 30s, and only 36% of 25 to 34-year-olds now own their own home. With the social housing stock being depleted, it is no surprise that the proportion of young people renting in the private sector has risen to 48%. Overall, a record 11 million people—one in five of the population—are now living in the private rented sector. That is an increase of 2.5 million since 2010, and it includes 1.5 million families with children.

Rents rose across England by an average of 8% last year, according to the English housing survey. That has not only had an impact on household incomes, although rising rents are undoubtedly contributing to the cost of living crisis for many families. It goes to the heart of the Government’s failure to reduce the housing benefit bill, as more people—particularly working people—are forced to rely on state support to rent in the private sector.

Although rents in Nottingham have not risen as rapidly as in other parts of the country, there has nevertheless been a dramatic increase in the cost of subsidising private sector rents. In 2009-10, local housing allowance payments totalled £22.5 million. By 2013-14,

4 Mar 2015 : Column 290WH

that figure had risen to £41.6 million—a staggering 85% rise. More people are using the private rented sector, and they need financial help to do so.

Of course, for many people in our city, the private rented sector is not a positive choice. With more than 10,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, the private rented sector is simply the only option available. Nottingham still has a larger-than-average social housing stock, and possibly as a consequence, a larger proportion of the population want to live in a council or housing association home. However, demand outstrips supply. The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the city, such as Clifton, where there is a high demand for social housing and a large number of social homes have been lost as a result of tenants exercising their right to buy.

For families with children, the lack of long-term certainty about their housing is a particular worry. For working parents who have settled their children into local schools, built up support networks and got child care arrangements in place, six-month tenancies and the possibility of significant rent rises do not offer the stability and certainty that they need.

The difficulties have been exacerbated by the bedroom tax, which affects more than 3,000 households living in Nottingham’s council-owned social housing and hundreds more in housing association homes. The policy penalises poorer households, who are forced to cut back on essential items to pay their rent, go into debt or build up arrears that put the future of their tenancy at risk. Some, who genuinely have rooms to spare, would be prepared to downsize to escape this iniquitous measure, but there simply are not the homes to move into, with an acute shortage of smaller properties in some areas, particularly two-bedroom houses.

As the Post predicted, some people are left with nowhere to go. According to “The homelessness monitor”—independent research commissioned by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—the combination of a lack of affordable homes, the recession and cuts to social security has led to substantial rises in homelessness in recent years. Department for Communities and Local Government statistics show that in 2014, over 111,000 people in England made an application to their council to state that they were homeless—an increase of 26% in four years—and “The homelessness monitor” found that the true figure was even higher than the statutory figures indicate. Rough sleeping has become noticeably worse, rising 55% in the last four years and by 79% in London.

Once people are homeless, the lack of affordable homes is keeping them trapped. It is increasingly difficult to access hostel accommodation, because there is a lack of affordable rented properties for current occupants to move into. Even for those tenants who choose to live in private rented housing—for many students in Nottingham, that is the case—there are real concerns about quality and suitability. Student unions at the university of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent university and New College Nottingham recently published their “Notts Student Manifesto 2015”. In it, they identified student housing among their top-four priorities,

“with rogue landlords and poor conditions a threat to wellbeing.”

4 Mar 2015 : Column 291WH

Problems highlighted range from a failure to meet basic safety standards to poor maintenance and issues relating to personal safety and security. International students reported particular concerns.

Of course, positive initiatives in the sector have been put in place since 1997; I particularly highlight action to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Statutory homelessness fell by 70% under Labour, from 135,000 in 2003-04 to 40,000 in 2009-10. We also took action to improve housing standards. Having inherited a £19 billion repairs backlog, we brought 1.5 million social homes up to a decent standard through the decent homes programme, including by fitting over 700,000 new kitchens, 525,000 new bathrooms and over 1 million new central heating systems at a cost of £33 billion.

Locally, Nottingham’s arm’s length management organisation, Nottingham City Homes, is celebrating its 10th year, and I am proud that tenants are more satisfied than ever with the quality of their home, value for money and the repairs and maintenance service. Over the last decade, the proportion of non-decent council homes in Nottingham has fallen from 44% to around 2.6%, and with work still being carried out to improve the stock—more than 26,000 homes—that figure could be close to zero within weeks.

I have spoken before in the House about the difference that the decent homes work has made to the lives of the people I represent, and I pay particular tribute to the tenants and leaseholders who, in 2010, took their campaign to the front door of Downing street to secure continued funding for that vital work, which has improved the health and well-being of thousands of families in our city.

Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham city council have also led the way in improving the energy efficiency of homes in our city. Again, I have spoken many times about the greener housing scheme; despite the Government’s energy policy changes, which threaten to wreck our plans, that scheme has already delivered solid-wall insulation to thousands of families in Nottingham across all tenures, cutting fuel bills, providing warm and comfortable homes for residents and improving the appearance of our estates.

I am delighted that Nottingham city council and Nottingham City Homes are building new homes and replacing some of the less popular and difficult-to-maintain stock, as the shadow Minister has seen for herself. Some 166 homes have already been completed, and there are plans for a further 327. Small disused sites, such as derelict garages, have provided opportunities for redevelopment, and some of these homes, including five on Eddleston drive in Clifton, were built using NCH’s own labour force, boosting local employment and providing apprenticeships. Housing associations, including Nottingham Community Housing Association, asra Housing Group and Derwent Living, have also built new houses, mainly on sites provided by the council, but we could do so much more if we had a Labour Government with a real plan to tackle the housing crisis. That is the choice that voters can make in 64 days’ time.

Labour has endorsed the comprehensive plan set out by Sir Michael Lyons’ housing review, the first of its kind in a generation. It sets out how we will meet our

4 Mar 2015 : Column 292WH

commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and sets a course for doubling the number of first-time buyers by 2025.

We will give local authorities the powers and resources to build the homes that their communities need, ensuring that all councils produce a plan for home building in their area and allocate sufficient land for development to meet the needs of local people. We will provide powers for groups of local authorities to collaborate and form Olympic-style new homes corporations to build on designated land at pace. We will implement measures to drive competition in the house building industry, increase capacity and expand the number of small firms. We will introduce a help-to-build scheme to underwrite loans to small builders to get them building again and fast-track planning on small sites. We will set out Treasury guarantees and financial incentives to unlock sustainable garden city development, and we will give local areas real powers to deliver garden cities through garden city development corporations, based on updated new towns legislation.

Labour councils are already building twice as many affordable homes as Tory-run authorities. A Labour Government will make housing a bigger priority for capital investment in the next Parliament.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware, through her connection with Nottinghamshire, that the Conservative-controlled Newark and Sherwood district council has built a number of properties in Ollerton and Edwinstowe. In fact, on Friday, I will cut the ribbon in Bilsthorpe on some new properties that have been developed through Newark and Sherwood Homes.

Lilian Greenwood: I welcome any new developments of that sort, but things could be so much better. We will make better use of existing resources through a move to single-pot funding, and by refocusing public expenditure on house building over time, going from benefits to bricks. We will make fuller use of provision for Government guarantees, including for social housing, and encourage more innovative use of public land. We will also introduce a stronger definition of affordable housing in the planning system and tougher rules for assessing the viability on housing developments. We will reverse the Government’s changes, which have watered down affordable homes obligations.

We will also introduce a fairer deal for private renters. We will give tenants in the private rented sector security and peace of mind by legislating for three-year tenancies, giving them a stable home and landlords the confidence to invest. We will end excessive rent increases and ban rip-off letting agent fees for tenants. We will drive up standards by introducing a national register of landlords, and make it easier for local authorities to introduce licensing schemes. We will bring an end to cold homes by setting a new target to upgrade the energy efficiency of properties in the private rented sector, and, of course, we will scrap the hated bedroom tax. With just 64 days to go, those vital changes to our broken housing market cannot come soon enough.

9.49 am

Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an adviser to Essential Living.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 293WH

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate. Ensuring that people can afford to live in a decent home is one of the top issues for many of our constituents, and rightly so. Despite the suggestion that all the evils in housing started in May 2010, the reality is that our housing markets have been dysfunctional for more than 25 years, so we have built far too few homes, rents and prices have risen, and thus we have this issue of affordability. That means that when the current Government came to power in 2010, they inherited a real mess. For my money, the classic illustration of that is the loss of some 420,000 affordable homes under the last Labour Administration.

Since 2010, good progress has been made, so during this Parliament we should see the fall in the number of affordable homes reversed and an increase of some 170,000. Just as importantly—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to refer to this—the Government are now seeking to accelerate the increase in the number of affordable homes so that in just a three-year period we should see 165,000 additional affordable homes being built. That would, I think, represent the fastest rate of building in this sector for 25 years.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is rightly focusing on the idea of affordability. Can he help us by giving his definition of affordability? Does he agree with the Mayor of London’s definition of affordability, which is that 80% of market rent is affordable, or does he agree with me that that is simply nonsense?

Mr Prisk: It actually relates to the ratio depending on where someone lives and what their wages are. One problem for our constituents is that we talk about affordable housing with a capital A—the Affordable Housing programme—but most of them think about it with a small a, in terms of mortgage costs or rents, so we need to be very careful not to get caught in artificial terminology.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about building thousands more homes, including this week’s announcements on starter homes. That builds on a programme that I was able to start, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which has helped some 77,000 people. However, much more can be done, and I would like to make three suggestions. I suspect that colleagues will want to consider issues such as section 106 and planning gain, which I think is an area ripe for improvement and reform, but let me touch now on three other things.

First, we will get a sustained increase in the number of affordable homes built only if we focus on delivering a long-term framework for investment. When I took on the role of Minister for Housing in 2012, housing associations rightly complained to me that the rental and capital policies of Governments of all political persuasions had always been short term. They might be for two years, or there might be an understanding of what the policy framework would be for three years, but housing associations argued that a long-term approach was needed if development was to increase and then be

4 Mar 2015 : Column 294WH

sustained. That is why I pushed for and, I am pleased to say, secured both a 10-year rental policy and long-term housing guarantees from the Treasury to underpin the investment. That means that rental policy is now set all the way through to 2025, and that gives the housing associations and their lenders the confidence to build more and for longer.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I completely agree with the point that he has just made, and wonder whether he could extend the same logic to councils. As a result of our self-financing initiative, councils can now start to look forward and build more homes. Does he agree that we need to give them long-term opportunities to borrow more money, perhaps by lifting some of the caps placed on them, so that they can plan well into the future for more council-built houses, too?

Mr Prisk: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which is that we need everyone, in both the public and the private sectors, to engage and that will mean that we need to consider greater flexibility for local authorities. I will come on to that later if I can.

With regard to housing associations, now that we have the long-term framework, we need to hold them to their commitment. Many are performing well, but some are not. I hope that I may encourage the Minister to challenge those housing associations that could and should be building many more homes. I will also encourage the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), should she cross the Chamber and take office in May—heaven forfend, from my point of point—not to tinker and meddle with that long-term rental programme, because the result of that would be inconsistency in policy. It would take everyone’s eye away from delivering actual homes for our constituents. As politicians, we have a habit of wanting to tinker and meddle, but consistency is important.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman support the suggested new policy of the Conservative party to open up the right to buy to housing association tenants?

Mr Prisk: What the party is rightly saying is that we want to ensure that as many people as possible and who can afford it are able to own their own home. I think that principle is entirely right.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): My hon. Friend has made a valid point about working with housing associations. Does he agree that councils need to work closely with housing associations to identify sites for affordable housing? The Together Housing Group, which includes Housing Pendle, has recently rescued an abandoned development of 21 homes on Knotts lane in Colne. That development was left partially built a number of years ago, when the previous developer went into liquidation. Now, that housing association, by working with the council, has been able to rescue the development and provide much-needed affordable family homes for the local community.

Mr Prisk: My hon. Friend is a brilliant campaigner on this issue in Pendle. When I was the Minister for Housing, I had the chance to go and see the work that

4 Mar 2015 : Column 295WH

he does. He is absolutely right: we need the collaborative approach, across the sectors and between the different agencies, if we are to get the building of these homes unlocked.

I have spoken about the need for a long-term rental policy for housing associations. My second point is that we need to match that with a long-term commitment to sustained supply for all housing tenures. I recently had the chance to co-chair—with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), who was himself a very capable construction Minister under the previous Administration—a housing commission sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group. That commission brought together an outstanding group of public and private sector experts, who were crystal clear about the key issue. The report states:

“We believe that only a long-term commitment, across the political parties, will deliver the additional homes needed over the next decade. A realistic target is to complete 2 million to 2.5 million homes by 2025. To achieve this there is no single solution, no silver bullet. Rather what is needed is a larger, more competitive and diverse market in the supply of homes.”

As the report rightly says, we must not only expand the house building and private rented sector, but encourage housing associations and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) pointed out, local authorities to contribute more. We need not only the larger contractors, which the hon. Member for Nottingham South mentioned, but more small builders and, indeed, self-building. In addition to more homes for sale, a new professional private rented sector needs to develop. We will need not only to regenerate urban areas but to establish completely new settlements as part of a long-term comprehensive approach.

On that note, I very much welcome the Minister’s statement to the House yesterday on Ebbsfleet. He is making excellent progress on that; I remember the tensions and challenges of dealing with it. That, together with the potential in Bicester and elsewhere, is really good progress. Together—not individually but together—all these different elements can give us a sustained increase in housing supply, an increase not for one year or two years, but over a decade or more.

That brings me to my third and last point, which was a key finding in the housing commission’s report. We need to turn idle public land into affordable family homes. Government, in all its forms, owns a lot of buildings and land that are either underused or, frankly, completely idle.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it would have behoved the Mayor of London to sell off for that very purpose the fire stations that he has been selling? My local one has been sold for £28 million to an as yet unannounced but no doubt private developer.

Mr Prisk: I am not an expert on the hon. Lady’s constituency, so it would be wiser for me not to wade into that particular parish, but the Mayor is very clear about raising the number of homes built and he has been crystal clear about ensuring that we get land brought into use. The Government have established an effective register within Whitehall, but it has always proved difficult to turn that register into actual homes. The prize is great, as we discover if we talk and listen to

4 Mar 2015 : Column 296WH

some of the people who have analysed this. Savills, for example, estimates that up to 2 million homes could be built on publicly owned land. I welcome the recent announcements by Ministers about engaging the Homes and Communities Agency to drive that forward, and I commend Ministers’ efforts in releasing land, which should result in the building of up to 100,000 homes over this Parliament.

I contend that more can be done, however, and I suggest that we need to overhaul Treasury rules that guide public asset sales in this field. The strict application of best value rules works against long-term development partnership, and it means that we fail to use public assets to provide homes that people can afford. Instead, we need to incentivise Government Departments, agencies, NHS trusts and local authorities to become long-term development partners and to use public assets to deliver homes that are affordable to many more people. There are some good signs, and I draw the Chamber’s attention to the fact that the Ministry of Defence, which is often criticised in that regard, has managed to secure a sensible long-term programme in Aldershot.

More can be done, however. I encourage the Minister, although I suspect that he does not need much encouragement, to be ambitious in this field and to encourage his colleagues across Whitehall to do likewise. Alongside that, I would like other long-term owners of land—such as our universities, which are substantial landowners, many of the large private landowners and many of our large pension funds—to be able to work in a new legal and tax framework that actively encourages them to develop communities for all and, more importantly, homes that most people can afford.

Of all the problems that will face the next Government after May, meeting our country’s housing needs will probably be one of the greatest challenges. Many of the concerns that will be raised in this debate and others are symptoms of the wider problem—dysfunctional housing markets, which have meant that for 25 years or more, we have been building roughly half the homes we need, year in, year out. To break that long-term cycle, we need a long-term commitment across the parties to create a larger, more diverse and more competitive market in the supply of homes. There are no quick answers and no easy solutions, but if we create a consistent, long-term policy framework, we can build the homes that our constituents need.

10.2 am

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate on a topic that is important not only for my constituents but for people in the rest of the country. May I also declare an interest? I still own my late mother’s flat, and we have been renting it out to the same tenant since she died.

Many people misunderstand my constituency. It is in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, and 40% of my constituents live in social housing. We have a great mixture of people. The very rich, the very poor and people from all over the world rub shoulders. I have the smallest amount of green space of any constituency in the country. We all live on top of one another, and we quite like it that way. However, the housing crisis is

4 Mar 2015 : Column 297WH

fundamentally changing the nature of my constituency. The average house price in the UK is an outrageous £188,000, which makes it impossibly difficult for the average person to buy these days, but the average price of a house in my constituency is £665,275. Tomorrow, I will see some 12-year-old children at one of my local schools. They were born and brought up in Islington, and they are ambitious and looking forward to life. How on earth will any of them still be able to live in Islington in 15 years’ time? Why are we allowing that to happen? Why are we not doing something about it? It is simply unfair.

These days, not only the children of the poorest but those of the richest will be unable to live in Islington when they grow up, because our house prices have got completely out of control. I do not want my constituency fundamentally to change, and neither do the residents of Islington. We can see no reason why it should, and we think that radical housing change is needed to regulate the market. Some people in this Chamber and in this building will think, “Oh, my goodness. What is this, some form of Stalinism? We can’t start controlling the housing market.” Excuse me, but yes, we can. Most world cities have some form of housing regulation that goes much further than the pusillanimous attempts that have been made in recent years to control the housing market in London. We must start taking strong action to ensure that London people can live in London.

I do not have any problem with people from outside London wanting to come and live here. There is a great tradition of people from all over the world coming to live in Islington. However, do you know what is happening now, Mr Gray? I went to see a woman a couple of months ago who is living in a completely overcrowded council flat. She is busting out at the seams. Her husband runs a local café, and has done for 25 years. They are a good local family, and the kids are doing well. She said to me, “I have no idea where my kids are going to live. They are all grown up now. Where are they going to go? How can I help them to live in Islington? We want them to stay here. We are absolutely overcrowded, and look at that,” and she pointed at the enormous tower block that is being built on the canal nearby. It is called Canaletto, or something equally ridiculous. It is covered in fancy stone, and it reaches up into the skies. We all know that when it has been sold, the lights will be off at night because no one is going to live there. People across the world are investing in our housing market, which is not properly regulated. If they have a choice between investing their money in a few gold bars and saying, “Let’s buy a flat in London,” they will buy a flat in London, because it is nice and secure. They will keep it empty, warm and secure, and they will rob the people of London of somewhere to live.

Mr Prisk: The hon. Lady has set out some of the problems, and I understand them. Do I take it from her remarks that she wants to see rent control?

Emily Thornberry: Personally, speaking as a Back Bencher, yes, I do. I want to see rent regulation. An individual should be able to enter a tenancy agreement with a landlord for a long period of time—three, four or

4 Mar 2015 : Column 298WH

five years—at a set rate, which should increase only in line with inflation. We should not be able to treat people as they are being treated.

I believe that the private sector has an important role to play in meeting our housing need; I am not one of those people who do not believe in the private rented sector. However, we now have an entire generation of youngsters—some of them are our own children and our researchers’ friends—who move into properties and are exploited. They are asked to pay ridiculous amounts of rent. They make a home, but after six months or a year, perhaps because they have complained about the fact that their windows are leaking, they will be chucked out and they have absolutely no rights. We have to strike the right balance, and we must not give tenants so many rights that landlords are frightened off, but we are talking about people who want to be able to make a home in a community. For them to be able to contribute properly, they need some form of security. We should not allow them to be pushed out of our cities and our metropolises because rents are continually being hiked up.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Lady is talking about striking a balance. Does she agree that the acute problems that affect her constituents are of a different magnitude to the problems in the rest of the country? Affordable housing is a difficulty in the rest of the country, but not on the scale that she has outlined.

Emily Thornberry: I completely understand and agree. That is why when the Government talk about localism, I say, “Hooray! Let us come up with some local solutions to local problems.” However, when my local authority starts to introduce innovative schemes to try to address our problems, we are either trampled on by the Department for Communities and Local Government continually changing the rules and tightening up on section 106 agreements, which we are using as imaginatively and laterally as we can to build as much affordable housing as possible—in Islington, that has to be social rented housing if it is to be properly affordable—or we are trampled on by the Mayor.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) talked about publicly owned land, and the Mount Pleasant site in my constituency is one such cause célèbre. It used to be a massive piece of publicly owned land, which was owned by Royal Mail. When Royal Mail was privatised, the large site at Mount Pleasant was deemed to be a “car park”, so it was sold for a song. The developers now say on behalf of Royal Mail that, because it is a development site, they should be able to get huge amounts of money back, so they cannot possibly afford to put affordable housing on the land. There is a battle royal going on in my constituency about the matter. My local authority and Camden local authority both say, “We are in desperate need of real affordable housing, and this is one of the largest development sites in the area. Please, please, let us build homes for local people. Please don’t stop us.” And what happened? The Mayor came in and said, “What we mean by ‘affordable housing’ is 80% of market rent.” Guess what? Nobody in Islington can afford that. This is nonsense.

Mr Spencer: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being generous with her time. May I take her back to her comments on property values in Islington?

4 Mar 2015 : Column 299WH

How would she seek to control the market? How would that work in reality? What steps would she like to see a Labour Government take to control the marketplace and control property values?

Emily Thornberry: No, I will not go back to that. I will carry on talking about Mount Pleasant for a minute, because it is a disgrace. The more we talk about it, the more we expose the difference in values between the Conservative party and local people and why the Mayor is trampling on local people’s wishes. The Mayor is the Tory party’s London representative, and he aspires to high places within the party. People should be warned about his agenda.

Some 681 new homes will be built on the Mount Pleasant site, and 163 of those homes will be affordable, at 80% of market rent, but the rest will carry the most ridiculous prices in which only people cashing in their gold bars in China could invest to be able to live there. We have 19,000 families on the housing waiting list in Islington who want to stay in Islington. If we could build 1,500 affordable social rented homes on that site, on the Canaletto site or on another such site, we could unplug our housing waiting list. People would then have a fighting chance of getting themselves a social rented home.

I will illustrate the sort of people on my housing waiting list. I never try to exaggerate. Whenever I make a speech, and I have made this speech many times over the past 10 years, I always talk about the very last person I met. In this case, the last person I met was a woman with three children. She has lived in so-called temporary accommodation for five years. She had polio, so her legs are in the most terrible state. She has 28 steps up to her front door, and she has fallen down twice and broken her leg. She now has to have a knee replacement. She has a child with special needs, and she is stuck in this accommodation. And guess what? She has also been hit by the benefits cap. She is in temporary accommodation, which costs £400 of the £500 a week that is available to her. She and her three children are living on £100 a week in entirely inappropriate accommodation. My local authority is doing its utmost to find alternative accommodation.

Frankly, if someone moves their car in Islington, we have built a flat there by the time they come back in the evening. We are building as much social rented accommodation as possible in the area, despite the Government having cut back the subsidy to local authorities and despite the Government making it so difficult for my local authority to stand up to developers and say, “We need social rented accommodation. That is what our local people say. We are the local representatives. Who are you? What is localism? Let us have our say.”

Emma Reynolds: Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential role of a progressive Labour Mayor would be to drive up the number of affordable homes on these big sites, rather than taking every opportunity to drive down the number of affordable homes, as the current Tory Mayor is doing?

Emily Thornberry: Absolutely, and I will give another example. Clerkenwell fire station is on the other side of the road from the notorious Royal Mail site, which was sold off for a song and out of which a huge profit is now

4 Mar 2015 : Column 300WH

being made. My local authority is attempting to constrain the Clerkenwell fire station site by saying that it must be used for affordable housing. We believe that best value does not just mean that a public body should squeeze as much money as possible out of a site by building as many luxury flats as possible. Best value for the community—this is a public asset in the middle of the community—ought to be what the public want and what will give best value to that community. Providing homes to my local community in Islington is best value as far as we are concerned, which we hope a Labour Mayor would understand. I will always give Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt, and I will be completely converted if he comes back with this, but I want him to say, “Emily, I understand that ‘best value’ means affordable homes on that site, which means a large proportion of social rented accommodation.” I hope against hope, but I am always an optimist. You never know, Mr Gray; you never know.

I appreciate that I have taken a bit of time, so I will wind up, although there is much more that I want to say, as I am sure people can tell. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that there is no silver bullet, but there is. The reason we do not have affordable housing, whether in Northern Ireland, in his constituency or in London, is that we do not have enough homes. We have not been building enough homes, and we did not build enough when we were in government. We did a great deal of good, and we did up all the country’s social housing. We made all social housing conform to the decent homes standard, which was a fantastic achievement that we do not shout about enough, but we did not build enough new homes. We needed to build more.

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to carp about that, but, frankly, his party should look at the plank in its own eye. How much has his party built during its five years in government? Very little indeed. That is why we are in this crisis, and one thing on which we can all agree is that we must build more homes. We need to be brave and allow local communities to decide on the sorts of places that they need. The solutions that are appropriate for my constituency might not be appropriate for Nottingham or York. Nevertheless, we must drive local authorities and local people, so that we are able to give our younger generation a chance. My youngsters might not be able to live in Islington, and Nottingham youngsters might not be able to live in Nottingham, because they cannot afford to move into the sort of accommodation in which their parents lived. This is all about intergenerational justice, and we, the older generation, either have secure social rented homes or are buying our own places, but our youngsters have no chance unless we grasp the nettle and say, “Yes, we owe it to the youngsters in this country to start building more homes.”

10.16 am

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate, because there is a huge affordable housing problem. Whether in the social rented sector or the private rented sector, people are struggling. She and the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) are

4 Mar 2015 : Column 301WH

right that the problem is not new; there has been a problem for a long time. The previous Government did not build enough houses, which leaves us where we are now, and the current Government have not fixed the problem, either.

My constituency of Cambridge has an acute problem, partly because we are a success story. We have a booming local economy and very low unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, but we have not had the housing or infrastructure that are needed to keep up. In fact, in previous decades, there was a deliberate policy of not building houses in Cambridge but only building in the surrounding villages, which increased the cost of housing and worsened traffic congestion. That has now changed, but it takes a long time to catch up, so private sector prices are getting ever higher, whatever the category. Rent for a one-bedroom flat in Cambridge is the highest in the entire east of England. The average house costs 11 times the median salary, which prices many people whom we desperately need—researchers, teachers and nurses—out of the housing market.

We have a shortage of social and council housing. As of September 2014, 2,500 people were on the housing needs register. Many people are waiting two years or longer to find a place. There is huge demand. In November, there were 90 bids for a one-bedroom flat, and there were 152 bids for another property in December. We have a shortage, which is not a new thing. The previous Government managed to reduce the number of social and council houses by 421,000 across the country, which is a big problem—a huge indictment.

What hit us perhaps even worse in Cambridge was the ridiculous negative subsidy scheme, in which council tenants’ money was taken from Cambridge to be spent elsewhere. In Cambridge, £1,300 had been taken from every tenant by the time we got rid of the scheme. Over the 13 years of the Labour Government, the sum taken from Cambridge city council was £120 million. In our surrounding district, South Cambridgeshire district council lost £118 million to the scheme. The money was taken directly from council tenants.

Just think what we could have done with that money if we were allowed to keep it. We could have spent £5,000 doing up every council house and still have had enough money to build about 1,000 more. I am delighted to say that the Government have scrapped the scheme, so the city council has been able to build and improve council housing. When we ran the council, we started a programme to invest £286 million, partly from those savings, to build 2,000 council homes over the next decades. Free from negative subsidy, we can make that a reality: we built 146 council homes before the elections last year.

We got through an ambitious local plan, now being inspected, calling for 14,000 new homes by 2031, 40% of which would be affordable, and the Greater Cambridge city deal with a total of £1 billion of investment in affordable housing and transport. I want to go further and faster. Although we lost control of the city council last May, just last week at the budget meeting we pressed the new Labour administration to invest the council’s own money in housing, rather that speculate on commercial property as it wanted, because we think that people in Cambridge need those houses. We therefore

4 Mar 2015 : Column 302WH

argued for £12 million to be put into 100 affordable homes, but sadly Labour decided to stick with its rather more risky approach. That housing was needed locally and would have generated revenues for the council as well.

We will keep pressing, but we also need to do that nationally. My party has the most ambitious plan among the three parties: to build 300,000 homes a year, because the calculations show that replacement needs 225,000 homes as there are more households. If we do anything less than 300,000, we will not be keeping pace and the pressure will continue, albeit perhaps at a slower rate.

Emma Reynolds: Given that the Liberal Democrats are part of a Government who have presided over the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s, what is the hon. Gentleman’s party’s plan for those 300,000 homes a year?

Dr Huppert: I am sure that the hon. Lady has heard the discussions. Garden cities would be a large part of that plan, because they are a sustainable way to go ahead. It is no secret that we have wanted to see much more of this, but coalition government is not the same as a single-party, Liberal Democrat Government—I look forward to seeing that at some point.

The other thing we would like to do that we have set out in plans is to give local authorities the ability to suspend the right to buy and the right to acquire. They have played a useful role in many places, but they are incredibly damaging in other areas. They are depleting social housing in places such as Cambridge. A localist agenda would allow councils to decide what is best and ensure that all proceeds are used to build more social housing.

Since we have the Minister here, I would like to pick up another issue quickly.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I will not, I am afraid, because other people wish to speak.

On 28 November, new guidance on housing developments and section 106 payments was issued for sites with small developments of fewer than 10 units. We need those section 106 payments. In Cambridge, a 10-unit site is substantial and incredibly valuable. That measure is already costing the city more than £200,000 and the figure is expected to reach £500,000 a year, and that is a mistake. That makes it harder for somewhere such as Cambridge to ensure that housing is available for people on low incomes and prevents the establishment of properly mixed communities, which are the most sustainable kind. I therefore urge the Minister to get rid of that proposal immediately because of the harm that it will do to Cambridge and elsewhere.

I also urge the Minister to look again at the vacant building credit, which is also causing problems, at least in its interpretation, because people can use it to avoid the contributions that they should make.

My last point is that the Treasury still places a tight cap on the amount that local councils can borrow from the housing revenue fund to build new houses. That was true under the previous Government, as well us under

4 Mar 2015 : Column 303WH

this one. Places such as Cambridge need to be able to keep pace, so we need those powers. I know that that is up to Treasury Ministers, not this Minister, but that cap should be got rid of, or at least lifted, so that councils can manage prudentially. For the council to borrow money to invest in housing in Cambridge would be a good investment financially and for the people of the city. Cambridge has been a success story and that has brought problems. We are growing and unemployment is down, but we therefore have more and more pressure on housing. We must deal with that urgently.

10.23 am

Sir Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I want to start by talking about the people who have come to my surgeries, desperate—usually as a last resort—looking for somewhere to live. They are people whom, more often than not, I fail: the rough sleepers—[Interruption.]

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) may not leave the Chamber immediately after making a speech. He must remain here and listen to the subsequent speech.

Sir Hugh Bayley: They are the rough sleepers, for example, whose numbers have increased by 55% under this Government; the homeless, whose numbers have increased by 26%; sofa surfers; adult children and grandchildren still living with their parents or grandparents; and families in grossly overcrowded conditions.

York has one of the strongest economies in the north of England. Under the Labour Government the number of jobs grew from 40,000 to 57,000, and that growth has continued, although slightly more slowly, since 2010. However, that has not been matched by housing growth, so a shortage of housing is driving up the cost of both renting and buying.

The problem is getting worse because the gap between top earners and low earners is increasing. Back in 1997, lower quartile housing prices were four times greater than lower quartile earnings, but now they are eight times lower quartile earnings. There are currently 717 homes for sale in York, with an average sale price of £290,000. Of course, that is less than in London, but wages are far less than in London, too. The average price for a one-bedroom, entry-level flat in York is £133,000. The annual income required to buy that is therefore £43,000. By comparison, elsewhere in the region, in Leeds the required income is £33,000, in Wakefield it is £26,000 and in Barnsley it is £20,000.

Who can afford to buy in Yorkshire? In York, a barrister, a GP or a mortgage adviser can afford a one-bedroom, entry-level flat on their wages, but a construction site manager or a police sergeant cannot. In Leeds, an estate agent or insurance broker can afford to buy, but a university lecturer cannot. In Wakefield, a police constable or a schoolteacher can afford to buy, but a paramedic cannot.

The thresholds for private renting are pretty much the same, although in York the construction site manager on £42,000 a year could rent, but the police sergeant on £37,000 could not. In Leeds, a class teacher could rent, but the police sergeant could not. Those are people whom every one of our communities needs: police officers, teachers, estate agents and lecturers.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 304WH

Lilian Greenwood: My hon. Friend talks about some of the sorts of people who cannot afford to buy, but is the position not so much worse for so many vital public sector workers, such as home care workers and many others, who are trapped on insecure contracts, and increasingly on zero-hours contracts, and do not have any certainty about their long-term income, despite doing vital jobs?

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, he might bear in mind that I hope to call one more speaker before the Front-Bench Members at 20 minutes to 11.

Sir Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend is right, although it is not only public sector workers who are on zero-hours contracts; such contracts affect a lot of people who provide essential services. Every time we go into a shop, we are buying something we need from a private sector worker.

During my time, York has never built enough affordable housing, and that is my biggest regret—I might say my biggest failure—during 23 years in this House. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who is here, that unless he and my successor, the new Member for York Central, increase the amount of housing we build in York, we will snuff out the economic growth that has been so important to the city in recent decades.

The number of affordable housing completions in York is falling. In 2010-11 we had 282, but in the following year we had 151, then 127 and, in 2013-14, just 50. Why are those numbers falling? The Government have introduced five measures that have reduced the amount of affordable housing built. First, they raised the affordable housing threshold for rural developments, so that affordable housing is not provided on developments of 10 homes or fewer. Since that change, only one rural housing scheme of more than 10 homes has been proposed in York. In the previous 18 months, 11 such schemes were proposed, all of which made contributions towards affordable housing, but that has stopped.

Secondly, the vacant building credit will mean that there is not an affordable housing component when vacant buildings are converted, or razed to the ground and rebuilt, to provide housing. A large part of the Nestlé factory site is available for redevelopment. The plan was to provide a couple of hundred homes, of which a substantial proportion would have been affordable. Now, because of the Minister’s change of policy—will he look up from his phone for a minute?—those affordable homes may no longer be provided.

Thirdly, there is the exemption from the right to convert offices to residential use. That also used to generate a proportion of affordable housing but no longer has to. The council in York estimates that since that change 77 affordable homes in York have been lost. Fourthly, York has a healthy housing revenue account, but the cap on the council’s ability to convert the resources it has into further building is reducing the amount of affordable housing that is made available. Fifthly, of course, the Government have also cut their grant for affordable housing to £23,000 on average per property, which is roughly half of what it was. All these five policies need to change. Of course, the lack of affordable housing is pushing people into the private

4 Mar 2015 : Column 305WH

rented sector, so what the Government are doing is reducing their capital contribution to building housing and instead spending the same amount of money, or more, on subsidising private landlords, which cannot be a good use of public money.

There is a very special problem in York with the broad rental market area, which is used to set the local housing allowance. It is a problem because rents in York are much higher than in areas some 20 miles away that are deemed to be part of the same local market for determining the BRMA rate. For example, the average private rent in York for a one-bedroom property is £564 a month. The BRMA local housing allowance is £430 a month, leaving families to find £134 a month from their own resources. However, in Selby, which is just 12 miles away, the average rent is £391, nearly £40 lower than the local housing allowance. People on the periphery are getting what they need—their full rent is covered—whereas people in York are getting substantially less. There are similar figures for two and three-bedroom properties, but I will not give them now. However, there is a gap of £220 between the local housing allowance and the average rent for a three-bedroom property.

This problem of a single BRMA covering a high-cost city and a much lower-cost rural periphery affects just four places in Britain. One is Cambridge, and I have written to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) about this; some months later, I am waiting for his reply, to find out whether we can do joint work on this issue. The other three are Oxford, York and, in Scotland, Edinburgh. If the Government do nothing else in those four cities, they should split those BRMAs, because then the BRMA would provide something closer to the real cost for people in the centre, and it would stop wasting public money by overpaying, if I might say so, on the periphery.

Dr Huppert: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not received my response. I definitely sent one; in fact, I was surprised that he had not replied to me. Nevertheless, he is absolutely right: the BRMA, as introduced by the last Government, has been a calamity for places such as Cambridge, and I hope that that issue can be resolved.

Sir Hugh Bayley: Right: I will work with the hon. Gentleman in the few weeks that I have left as an MP, and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).

One thing that the Government and local authorities must deliver is more land for housing. Critically, York needs to agree a local plan to designate where development will be permitted. That has not happened for decades under successive Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat-led councils in York. The current Labour council has submitted a plan; it was rejected by the Government and the council was told to redraft it. Now, there is an argument between the parties. Labour and the Green party argue that the council should plan to build 850 homes a year; the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are proposing something like 730 homes a year.

In York, 4,200 homes have been built in the last 10 years, which is 420 a year. That is 300 homes a year less than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are

4 Mar 2015 : Column 306WH

asking for, and 425 homes a year less than Labour and the Green party are asking for. I ask all those parties locally to stop shilly-shallying, to cut a deal and to get the plan approved, so that developers know where they can provide housing and where they cannot. If we do not do that, the housing that is so desperately needed simply will not be provided.

10.34 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you very much, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I endorse every comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in her excellent speech, and congratulate her on securing this debate.

Housing in my constituency is simply in crisis. In my constituency, more people rent privately—30% of my constituents—than own property, and 44% of my constituents rent social housing. Private rents in Hackney are now at 54% of income, and there is a huge lack of certainty about the length of private tenancies, and about rents, which often increase just because they can be increased.

I will give a couple of examples. I have routinely been sending out questionnaires to constituents, because I have so many people contacting me about these issues. Two adults and a child live in a one-bedroom property. One full-time income and one part-time income brings them in £2,100 a month after tax, and they also have child care costs on top of that. When we compare those figures with the weekly median rent in Hackney, which is £330 a week, it does not take much knowledge of maths to work out that their income does not go very far.

I will give another example. Somebody said that a combination of having to pay high fees every time they move, and the fact that they have to move every 12 months due to rent increases and the inability to obtain longer-term tenancies, has seriously hindered their ability to save as well as settle. This issue affects not only private tenants but the community as a whole, because of the churn that we get as a result.

House prices have gone up 124.9% since 2005, when I was first elected, and the average house price is slightly lower than in Islington, at £606,000. Of course, for new social housing, there is now the edict that most social housing should be 80% of local private rents. In Hackney, that is nonsense; the sums arrived at are not affordable. Tenants, often strangers to each other, are now sharing rooms out of necessity. Then, of course, we have the invidious bedroom tax. On Wenlock Barn estate alone, in Hoxton, 74 households are hit by that tax, and they live in fear about what will happen to them. It is not as if there is available housing of the right size for them, because there is such a squeeze on need; even if they were made to move, there is nowhere for them to move to.

I have some specific local concerns. One is about non-domiciled landlords. They do not let slum properties; we do not have that many very, very bad properties in Hackney. However, the appeal of rental yield is what many properties are sold on, off-plan, which means rents go up each year, because the letting agent is on a ticket to increase their profit and that of the overseas

4 Mar 2015 : Column 307WH

landlord, be they in Dubai or Hong Kong. Increasingly, huge swathes of properties are sold overnight off-plan, even when developers have promised the local planning committee that they will not do that. There is no legal constraint on the number of properties that can be sold to someone overseas. I hope that both Front-Bench teams consider looking at this issue.

There is a really shocking case that I have come across recently. A national property developer in the UK employs staff whose job is entirely about arguing with planning departments for additional units of housing and for fewer units of social housing. Those staff members are paid a bonus for every additional unit that they argue up, and for every social unit they argue down. In the process, they tie up days and days of council officers’ time. In one case, nearly a whole year—more than 300 days—of council officers’ time was taken up, because these staff keep coming back, as their income depends on it. I use the word advisedly, but that practice is an immoral way to earn a living, and it is shocking when I consider the impact on my constituents.

Recently, we had a battle over the New Era estate. I will not go into that again, but private landlords there are able to sell property on, forgetting that they are selling not just property but people’s homes, which affects their lives. In London, we see our Mayor caving in to private developers. He wants to maximise luxury flats, which are often sold to overseas buyers. The local fire station in my area has been sold for £28 million, which can only mean luxury flats. That is a scandal, especially with fire response times now more than six minutes in the area. In Bishopsgate in Shoreditch, an area that has not had a social housing unit built in 10 years, the Mayor is again on the drive for a 48-storey tower block with luxury flats.

Hackney is building; it is one of the top two councils nationally when it comes to building new homes. It could do more if the housing revenue cap were lifted, and if we could see a long-term solution to this problem, which is what is needed. Again, I appeal to both Front-Bench teams. We should look at the ballooning housing benefit bill, which is pouring money down the drain when it could be better spent on building new homes that are genuinely affordable. I have a few asks. I go further than my Front-Bench team, because I believe that Hackney’s problems today will ripple out; we are the canary—Islington probably is too, in some respects—showing what will happen in the rest of the country.

We need longer tenancies. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, which I met yesterday, says that that is possible; there is no big block in the system. So why is it not happening? I applaud our Front-Bench team for pushing for longer tenancies. There also needs to be greater certainty about rents; perhaps there could be a rent escalator model. We also need to stop retaliatory evictions. There should be a landlord register, with a quality kitemark, so that tenants know what they are buying, as they would in any other area of business.

We should disbar landlords who are not fit and proper. There should be mandatory installation of fire and carbon monoxide alarms. We should change the definition of “affordable”, to break this ridiculous link with market rents, which does not have any relation to the incomes of the people that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) referred to. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and

4 Mar 2015 : Column 308WH

Stortford (Mr Prisk) that the Treasury rules need to change, to allow the sale of public land for public benefit. St Leonard’s hospital has now gone to PropCo and the NHS, and the fire station is being sold off. All around us in my area, every possible bit of development land is being sold, not for affordable housing for local people, but for overseas buyers to live in luxury flats.

10.40 am

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate.

As a country, we face a severe housing crisis. We are not even building half the number of homes that we need to keep up with demand. As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), the former Housing Minister, said, certainly for more than 25 or 30 years, we simply have not been building anywhere near the number of homes that we need. It is regrettable that, under this Government, we have seen the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South has spelt out, people are being priced out of home ownership, and millions are on the waiting list for a social home. Home ownership is at its lowest for 30 years, and a record number of young people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are living at home with their parents, are suffering most from this. We had the lowest number of homes in 20 years built for social rent last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) pointed out, there has been an increase of 55% in those sleeping rough since 2010, and an increase of 26% in those who are statutorily homeless. As he also said, different people from public and private sector organisations are being priced out of home ownership. They may be cleaners, childminders, office workers, bus drivers or shop workers in some areas. In other areas, they could be teachers, police officers, or university lecturers. The list goes on.

The lack of affordable housing is not only bad for those who cannot afford to live in their communities. It is also bad, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for taxpayers and the wider economy. Worryingly, there has been an increase in the benefits bill because of people who are in work receiving housing benefit: an increase of two thirds since the Government came to power. It is a threat to our economic growth and competitiveness, with businesses in high-demand areas such as London—but not only London—worrying about where their staff will be able to afford to live. So it is clear that we need many more affordable homes, including council homes. I grew up in a council house, where I spent the early part of my childhood, so this is not just an abstract notion for me.

It is regrettable that the Government have taken every opportunity to undermine the building of genuinely affordable homes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South pointed out, it was an early signal of intent that, within weeks of taking office, the Government cut the affordable homes programme by an eye-watering 60%. They have redefined what affordable means. They changed what was meant by an affordable home when

4 Mar 2015 : Column 309WH

they introduced the 80% affordable rent model. As my hon. Friends the Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Hackney South and Shoreditch pointed out, the truth is that homes at 80% of market rent are very often unaffordable in high-demand areas. According to research carried out by Inside Housing, for a home to be affordable for those in Kensington and Chelsea, a combined income of £80,000 is needed, and for many other London boroughs people need an income of £40,000. That is not affordable for many of the key workers we need to live in our cities.

As though redefining “affordable” was not enough, the Government have watered down the requirement to provide affordable housing and removed the requirement for affordable housing contributions on sites of fewer than 10 units. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central pointed out, this is having a particularly devastating impact in rural areas. The Government have introduced what they call a vacant building credit, which is basically an excuse for developers not to fulfil their affordable housing requirement, and even the developers themselves think that that goes too far. The Westminster Property Association, which includes British Land, Land Securities, Berkeley Homes and the Grosvenor Group, said that the policy was deeply flawed and would lead to a further erosion of the ability of people from a wide range of backgrounds to live in the heart of the capital.

Mr Prisk: The hon. Lady said that 80% of market rents is unfair. What level would a Labour Government set?

Emma Reynolds: If I cross the Floor of the House, as the hon. Gentleman suggested earlier, we will obviously inherit the current affordable homes programme, but we will make our plans for the future clearer in the weeks to come.

Even Westminster city council’s deputy leader, Robert Davis, has said that the policy

“threatens our capability to deliver much-needed housing in central London.”

His director of planning went even further and called it insane. The Housing Minister claimed that the reforms would not have a significantly adverse effect on the affordable housing programme, even though his own Department admitted that it had not done a formal assessment of the policy’s impact.

Emily Thornberry: There has been a side debate about what is affordable. In relation to house prices in Islington, may I add that social rented accommodation in Islington is set at 40% of market rent?

Emma Reynolds: The City of London has estimated that this policy will reduce its housing budget by a massive £8 million. It is clear that the Tory Mayor, as hon. Members have already suggested, is keen on driving down the number of affordable homes, particularly on big developments. My hon. Friend mentioned the Mount Pleasant development, which used to be public land. It has not been used to provide the number of affordable homes that we need, precisely because Boris Johnson

4 Mar 2015 : Column 310WH

has taken it upon himself to call in that application and force down—not up—the number of affordable homes on that site.

The Government have failed to live up to their promise of replacing homes sold through right to buy one for one. Since 2012, for every 21 council houses sold under right to buy, only one has been built. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South underlined in her contribution, the Government’s bedroom tax is not only a complete failure of a policy that hits the most vulnerable the hardest, but it has led to a rise in rent arrears and, in some cases, homes being left empty.

One or two such changes would have been bad enough, but the cumulative impact of the changes that the Government have introduced has meant that people across the country are struggling to find a home to rent or buy. Tragically, the lack of affordable housing is having a real impact at the sharp end. I have already mentioned homelessness and rough sleeping, but it is worth mentioning again that the lack of affordable housing is, unfortunately and tragically, driving the numbers up.

Housing will be a day one priority for the next Labour Government. It is true that the market has not been delivering for quite some time. There is a huge and pressing need to increase the overall supply of new homes. We have made it clear that, under a Labour Government, housing will be a priority for capital investment. We will reverse the watering down of section 106 and ensure that tougher rules are in place to assess viability, so that developers cannot dodge the rules. We will scrap the Government’s affordable homes avoidance scheme. We will make sure that we use public land to drive the development of affordable housing, and we want to see councils return to their historic role of building council homes. Wolverhampton city council is building the first new council homes in our city in more than 30 years. I am proud that Labour councils are building twice as many affordable homes as Tory local authorities.

There is a crucial role for housing associations. I am always grateful for the wise advice of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford. He suggests that I make sure that they have great stability going forward. I say to him that some of the biggest changes to the way in which housing associations operate have occurred under his Government. There has been a huge cut in funding, and the welfare chaos that we have seen has provided unstable and uncertain conditions for them to operate in. Unfortunately, the story of this Parliament has been an ever-rising need for affordable homes, but we have had a Government seemingly determined to do everything that they can to undermine the building of new, affordable homes.

I know that the Minister will get up and aggregate the numbers over a five-year period, but if the Government are so serious about building affordable homes, why did they cut the affordable homes budget by 60%? Why did they water down the definition of affordable? Why have they watered down the requirements on developers? Why have they changed the way in which viability is assessed? All those measures have led to the number of affordable homes, particularly those for social rent, going down. Only a Labour Government would have a comprehensive plan to tackle the long-term housing

4 Mar 2015 : Column 311WH

crisis by making the market more competitive and making sure that councils have the powers and flexibilities to build and provide the housing that we need.

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) made some good points, as he always does, on how we built the foundations for the success we are seeing with house building. He should be proud. One point he touched on, which showed the Government’s ambition, was the public sector land that has been released, which is enough to build 100,000 houses. A few Members made that point, and I am pleased to announce that we have surpassed that target. When Members leave the Chamber, they will see that we have gone past 100,000 and set ourselves a higher target of 150,000 in the next Parliament.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) seems to lack real ambition. The Labour party generally seems to lack ambition compared with us on what can be achieved. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) made a fair point on the ambition of what we should be delivering. I have often commented that setting targets can lead to unintended consequences and fictitious outcomes. We should be driving for the right outcome, which is homes that people can afford. The Labour party’s lack of ambition in wanting to hit 200,000 homes by 2020 is clear and evidenced by the fact that this Government’s programme, as we outlined this week, will hit 200,000 homes by 2017.

I hope to work with Jane Hunt in a Conservative Government. I visited her in Nottingham South, where she is fighting hard to ensure that we get even stronger Conservative representation in this place. She wants to be part of a Conservative Government who would build 200,000 homes for first-time buyers. Not only will we offer first-time buyers a chance to benefit from Help to Buy, which has allowed tens of thousands of families to get on to the housing ladder with a reduced deposit following the economic farce and crash that we inherited, but we will go further by giving them a 20% discount, making the achievement of buying a first home more open to more people.

Emily Thornberry: Has the money for those 300,000 homes been explained to us, or does it come from the same pot at the end of the rainbow as the £7 billion of tax cuts that the Conservatives have promised the public?

Brandon Lewis: The hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and I have spent many times at the Dispatch Box in the past few months in full agreement, so it is probably a healthy return to normal that we disagree today, but I suggest they go away and read some of the documentation before they come to this place and make comments that are absolutely inaccurate. For example, it is worth having a read of the Hansardtranscript of the Communities and Local Government Committee sitting last week, where we made it clear that the right to buy programme is delivering on the replacement of homes in the way it was designed. There is an interesting contrast, because the replacement rate was 1:170 under

4 Mar 2015 : Column 312WH

Labour. Opposition Members should be very aware of that. It is important to understand that with the starter homes—it is clear in the documentation that the Government have put out—we are looking at making available land that has not been viable before. We are doing that without section 106 agreements and we are reducing regulation for developers so that they can offer those homes at a minimum discount of 20%.

Emma Reynolds rose

Meg Hillier rose

Brandon Lewis: I will finish the point I am making. The hon. Ladies have made a fair few interventions today and I want to respond to the points raised in the short time we have left. There is no direct cost to buying those homes at that discount. It makes home buying affordable to the very people that the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) mentioned. Some of those who have not been able, even with Help to Buy, to get on the ladder will be able to link Help to Buy with a starter home to make house buying accessible. From day one, fixing the housing market and the economy have been top priorities for us in government.

Meg Hillier: Will the Minister give way?

Brandon Lewis: Not at the moment, no. We have channelled new investment into every area of the housing market. We have cut the deficit to keep interest rates low for investors and home buyers. We have introduced a wide range of measures to get Britain building again, and that plan is working. More than 500,000 home have been built. There are 700,000 more homes in England, with house building at its highest level since 2007.

Sir Hugh Bayley rose—

Meg Hillier rose—

Brandon Lewis: I give way first to the hon. Member for York Central.

Sir Hugh Bayley: When I talk to developers in York, they say that there are two constraints: one is the lack of land and the other is the lack of building materials. There has been a shortage of bricks. What are the Government doing to ensure that the supply chain delivers enough technically qualified builders and enough building materials to build the number of houses they seek?

Brandon Lewis: I will give way to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch and then deal with her points and those of the hon. Gentleman together.

Meg Hillier: We see in London the effects of an untrammelled Tory Administration. Private developers have free reign. There is less affordable housing. Where it is affordable, it is 80% of private rents. That applies to a number of sites, as we have highlighted. Is that the Minister’s ambition if he is in power after the election?

Brandon Lewis: As I have outlined, the ambition is to ensure that we are building the houses that this country needs. Those 200,000 starter homes will give people

4 Mar 2015 : Column 313WH

opportunities that the Labour party simply cannot match. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford—my predecessor—outlined, we are at the start of a programme that is building affordable housing at the fastest rate the country has seen in more than 20 years.

The hon. Member for York Central made a good point. People often expect the challenge for the development industry over the past couple of years to have been land supply, but it is not, thanks to the changes that we made to the top-down rigours and structures in planning that stopped development under Labour. Through that, our driving of planning locally and because we have kept interest rates low, we are seeing benefits. Some 240,000 homes have been given planning permission in the past 12 months. Members touched on the changes the Government have made to finance for small building projects, which have made that finance available. We went further a couple of months ago. One area that developers consistently mention is the supply chain. I was delighted yesterday to reopen a brick factory that shut down in 2008 during Labour’s recession. It reopened on Monday and will deliver 2 million bricks a year to the industry.

The construction industry is working and hiring at the fastest rate since 1997, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that delivers the second challenge to the industry, which is skills. One thing we can all do—I hope that all parties agree on this—is encourage more people to come into the sector. It is a phenomenally rewarding career, with wide opportunities at home and, potentially, abroad. There are a wide range of careers in the industry. We need to change some of the perceptions of the construction industry to encourage more people into it. That is why I hosted a skills summit with the Minister for Skills and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) just before Christmas at the fantastic new Olympic park. Developers, apprentices and colleges discussed those issues to try to ensure that we are delivering the skills we need for the future. Construction is no doubt one of the opportunities we have to see more jobs coming to this country, beyond those we have already seen.

Andrew Stephenson: Will the Minister give way?

Brandon Lewis: One last time, and then I will conclude.

Andrew Stephenson: Does the Minister agree that for parts of the north of England, such as the area I represent, it is important that we focus not only on new build homes, but also on bringing long-term empty properties back into use? I thank him for the support he

4 Mar 2015 : Column 314WH

has provided to Pendle borough council. We have done fantastic work to reduce the number of empty homes in the borough from more than 2,000 to just 1,200.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know from when I visited his constituency that he makes that point passionately and has worked hard with the excellent leadership of Pendle borough council to develop that work. Earlier, Members talked about the work that is often unsung. The work to bring empty homes back into use under this Government has been phenomenal. Empty homes are at the lowest level pretty much since records began. That is a big step forward in replacing and moving forward from that loss of 420,000 socially rented homes under Labour, as Members have touched on.

Lilian Greenwood: Will the Minister give way?

Brandon Lewis: No, I will conclude, as there is only a short time left. Over the next Parliament, we will build more affordable housing at a faster rate than at any time in the past 20 years. Our first priority has been to ensure that we get the public finances back under control. We knew that public spending had to be constrained. We have to live within our means, and that is part of the problem we inherited with the Labour Government’s fiscal mess.

We have given housing associations the tools they need to build more homes. The changes we have made will from April give certainty and stability to social tenants and landlords alike. We have protected social tenants from large rent increases. Our strong economic record has allowed us to offer housing guarantees to housing associations, which mean that they are borrowing at the cheapest rate in the sector’s history. That has helped to provide more than £1 billion of support to affordable homes across the UK. All sectors need to be delivering, even social housing.

The hon. Member for Cambridge and others touched on the issue of building by councils. We have to be responsible with borrowing, and the borrowing that councils do has an impact on the public sector borrowing requirement, so there are no plans to lift that cap. As part of our long-term economic plan, however, we have incentivised councils to build. The power of competence has allowed them to move forward. We made more money available last summer for those who needed headroom and wanted to borrow more. Councils have more powers and greater freedoms to deliver the housing they need. We need to build more houses in this country. We have a fixed, strong, long-term economic plan that gives us a secure economy to deliver those houses and the jobs that are the benefit from that house building. We are delivering for those who want to buy a home of their own to give security for themselves and their families.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 315WH

Local Suicide Prevention Plans

11 am

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

This debate comes after a report by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, as well as the publication of the most recent suicide statistics two weeks ago. I want to start with a quote from someone who gave evidence to the all-party group. It was the most powerful statement that we received. Speaking on behalf of one of the London authorities, the person said:

“People don’t want to talk about sad subjects…I could get dozens of people in a room for mental health but not suicide…I had maybe four or five people in the room for a suicide meeting, out of an invitation list of dozens who had attended similar events on the subject of mental health.”

There is the problem. People do not want to talk about sad subjects. They do not want to look at suicide. It is too painful and too difficult. They avoid tackling a problem that blights the lives of far too many people in this country.

The all-party group requested information from all 152 local authorities in England. Eventually, after some poking with a sharp stick and freedom of information requests, all but two replied. The data revealed a shocking lack of understanding of the basic difference between suicide and mental health. Some people think that if someone is suicidal, surely they have a mental health problem, but it depends on the definition of mental health. They almost certainly will not have a classified mental illness. It is generally acknowledged that three quarters of people who take their own life have never been near mental health services. It would be wrong to assume a close working correlation—that if someone is working to prevent mental health problems, they are helping to prevent suicide.

The most worrying finding of all was that a third of local authorities in England had no suicide prevention action plan whatever. A third did not undertake suicide audit work, and 40% had no multi-agency suicide prevention group. That is totally unacceptable. Mr Gray, you and I have spent some time over the past couple of months looking at the importance of having a strategic plan and knowing what one is trying to achieve and the required outcomes. Across England, a third of local authorities have no strategy—nothing at all. They are doing nothing to prevent preventable deaths, and 40% have no multi-agency suicide prevention group.

This does not require big money. It is not about expensive drugs. It is about putting time and effort into looking at what the problem is locally and how it can be tackled, and then pulling together the agencies that can work together to deliver a plan. That does not seem too big an ask to prevent an avoidable death, yet for a third of local authorities in England it is too big an ask. That is shocking. I hope that the Minister will approach those local authorities and say, “Things need to be better”. All Members whose local authorities do not have such a plan and action group ought to be proactively telling them that they are wrong.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend and the all-party group for their work on this issue. She speaks with great authority about the data for England, but what is her understanding of the situation in Wales?

4 Mar 2015 : Column 316WH

Mrs Moon: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are both Welsh MPs, and we know how dire the situation is in Wales. The suicide rate in Wales is 15.6 deaths per 100,000—the highest in the UK. That is perhaps part of what drives me. I know that we have our own problems in Wales, but the matter is devolved to the Welsh Assembly. The all-party group’s work helps to highlight the problems here in England. After Wales, Scotland has the next highest rate, followed by Northern Ireland and the north-east of England. There is a serious problem in Wales that we must tackle as well.

People cannot be complacent if their area has a low level of suicide, because facts change, deaths change, and the figures change. At one point, the Isle of Wight had a very low suicide rate, but now it is higher, and it is considered to have an average rate. It has gone from low to average—that is a rise. We cannot assume that because the suicide rate is currently low it will remain that way.

The report highlighted particular concerns about London. It shows poor levels of suicide prevention planning, but also low levels of deaths. That does not make sense: not only the lack of action planning, but everything about the demographic profile of London and some of its regions would suggest that normally there would be a higher level of deaths in certain local authorities. Something must be done to examine what is happening, because either the data are wrong, and what is really happening is being hidden, or something very special is happening in London that provides some sort of insulation against suicide. We need to understand that. The age-standardised rate of death in London is 7.9 per 100,000, compared with Wales’s rate of 15.6. The gap is huge and must be addressed.

The most active local authorities and those with the highest rates of death from suicide in England are in the north-east, the south-west and the north-west, areas of social deprivation and high unemployment, and where the so-called economic recovery is not being felt. In those areas, the all-persons rates of death are 13.8, 12.5 and 12.3 respectively. On the whole, local authorities in those parts of the country are active, and the report commended their work. However, that raises new questions. We must look at what those active local authorities are actually doing and how they are spending their time and effort. The importance of local initiatives, local focus and local understanding in suicide prevention is recognised—we need to know the terrain, the population and where the pressure points are—but we must also examine the variation in what is being done across England without apparent consistent reasons for the strategic choices that are made.

For example, in some areas, funding is put into helplines, such as the Samaritans and the Campaign Against Living Miserably—CALM. In others, it is put into training, such as applied suicide intervention skills training—ASIST—and in some into better data collection, such as on self-harm, which the Minister and I have discussed often. Other activities will have gone unreported. With wide variability and without clear indication of the evidence on which the various initiatives are based, however, there are questions about which of those initiatives are more effective and why. We need to be able to understand how our suicide prevention work is working and the best way for local authorities to focus their attentions.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 317WH

The all-party group concluded that both Public Health England and the national suicide prevention strategy advisory group should examine ways in which local authorities can share information about suicide prevention initiatives that have worked, in order to develop best practice. In addition, central funding of research and evaluation studies into the methodologies used is necessary, so that we can drill down to what is effective and why. In that way we can realistically make a difference with any necessary changes even at a time of economic austerity.

The Minister and I have talked about the importance of suicide audits and of timely information, so that people are not waiting for retrospective information to see if a problem is developing locally. Some authorities have a complete lack of clarity about audit work and that needs to be tackled. Much can be dealt with through better co-ordination with coroners and the provision of timely information by them, but I appreciate that the Minister might have difficulties with that, because coroners fall within the purview of the Ministry of Justice, which is perhaps less focused on the timeliness of information from coroners to help suicide prevention work. That is something that I hope the all-party group will come back to in the next Parliament, because the situation cannot be allowed to continue.

The rate of suicide in this country has generally been on the rise since 2008. Last year the number of people taking their own life increased by 4%. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for men aged between 20 and 34. Last year, 6,233 people in England and Wales died by suicide, which you could describe as a small number—

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): indicated dissent.

Mrs Moon: You would not—I am glad to hear that, Mr Gray, thank you.

Each death by suicide is estimated to have an economic impact of around £l million. The reverberations across communities, families and workplaces are devastating. The suicide rate is a key indicator for the health and well-being of our country, our communities and our way of life. Suicide is not some niche issue that can be ignored by a local authority in its public health role because the numbers are too small. The issue is critical and indicates how healthy and how vibrant our communities and our society are.

The debate is probably the last about suicide in this Parliament, so I want to take the opportunity to make a few final remarks. The Minister and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), have been active in support of the all-party group and in suicide prevention work. I thank them for their support and acknowledge their work. Despite the failure of local authorities, active third-sector groups such as the Samaritans and individuals touched by suicide have offered support to those struggling to cope with life and to bereaved families. Sports figures and other celebrities have stepped forward to talk about their personal struggles and things that have changed their lives.

The police and other front-line workers are trying to save lives and responding to desperate people on a daily basis. During this Parliament, the role of the police in particular in tackling mental health problems, suicide, missing children and a whole range of other social

4 Mar 2015 : Column 318WH

problems outside their normal crime reduction role has shown their leadership and initiative. The work that the police are now undertaking to draw up a national process for responding to suicide is particularly welcome.

Suicide has not been illegal in this country since 1961, but it continues to carry a stigma, which we need to tackle. We also need to give support to bereaved families; to provide access to services that offer hope and a future for the suicidal; research in order to identify risks, best practice and awareness training that can prevent needless deaths; and local authorities to accept their responsibilities to support the dedicated individuals who already work across the four nations to prevent suicide. Without such individuals, the figures from two weeks ago would have been so much worse. It is time for us to take suicide seriously.

11.14 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate and, more importantly, on her leadership on the subject of suicide prevention. Nothing could be more important, and any conversation with those going through bereavement following the death of a loved one through suicide makes us realise just how important it is for us to do better. The impact on those people’s lives is massive—the reverberations that she talked about are enormous. We can talk about the cold economic facts and the cost of £1 million per suicide, but the reverberations and economic impact on the whole family and beyond are incalculable.

The hon. Lady also made a point about the suicide rate varying so much around the country, and said that in some areas it appears to be remarkably low. One of the issues that she and I have talked about is whether suicides are being accurately recorded in inquests. We have a completely shared view on the need, once and for all, to confront the issue of the burden of proof, which is an example of the continuing stigma on suicide. To secure a suicide verdict, it remains necessary to prove the suicide “beyond reasonable doubt”; the only other type of death in which that level of proof applies is unlawful killing. That harks back to when suicide was a criminal offence. It is high time that was changed. I have argued the case in government and will continue to do so—whether in or out of government—in the next Parliament, because the change has to happen.

I congratulate the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention on its work, and from the start I want to pick up on the role of the police. In my work on mental health, I have been impressed by some inspiring leadership in police forces across the country. In London, the Metropolitan police have worked brilliantly with mental health trusts. In many areas, police are taking the lead in ending the scandal of people being put into police cells in the middle of a mental health crisis. I applaud them.

Mrs Moon: The British Transport police have undertaken some particularly successful work in conjunction with the Samaritans on preventing deaths on the railway. That, too, should be recognised.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 319WH

Norman Lamb: I agree. Every person lost to suicide is a tragedy, for loved ones, the community and society as a whole. I was deeply concerned to read the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which showed a rise in the suicide rate. Back in 2012, when I launched the suicide prevention strategy for England, we knew that we could not afford to be complacent about suicide, and much remains to be done. The new challenges are now clear, and in the second annual report for the strategy, I called on services, communities and national agencies to be more ambitious than ever before with regard to suicide prevention.

Collectively, I want us to tackle the widespread assumption that suicides are inevitable for a certain proportion of people. That is absolutely not the case. I have had discussions with Professor Louis Appleby, who is the foremost thinker and academic on suicide, and he said that in his 25 years of experience he had never looked at the details of a suicide without seeing ways in which the death might have been prevented. That encapsulates the challenge for public services and, beyond, for society as a whole. Suicide is not inevitable for any individual. We need to get that point across.

In 2014, important steps were taken. In January of that year, we published the consensus statement on information sharing and suicide prevention, signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Psychological Society, the British Association of Social Workers, the College of Social Work, the Mental Health Network of the NHS Confederation and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. The statement aims to improve information and support for families—that is critical—who are concerned about a relative who may be at risk of suicide, and to support better those who have been bereaved as a result of suicide.

In January 2014, we also published “Closing the Gap: priorities for essential change in mental health”, which sets out 25 changes that we believe it is absolutely necessary for the NHS and the care system to make in the next few years to improve the lives of people suffering from mental ill health, and to reduce health inequalities. It highlights how we will change the way front-line health services respond to self-harm, an issue that the hon. Lady has pursued vigorously, and how we improve crisis care in mental health.

At the start of 2014, the National Suicide Prevention Alliance was launched, facilitated by Samaritans and supported by Department of Health grant funding of £120,000 over 2013-14 and 2014-15. In July, the Department awarded a grant of £556,000 over three years to a partnership between Samaritans and Cruse, the bereavement counselling organisation, to increase support for those bereaved by suicide. Samaritans and Cruse will offer that support, working with organisations locally.

I know, however, that we can still save far more lives. It is a moral imperative that we take this issue seriously. As the hon. Lady will be aware from our previous discussions, I share her concerns about better suicide prevention. There have been a number of recent worrying trends in suicide rates, such as the rise of new suicide methods, such as using helium. The Government are committed to improving mental health services as a whole and reducing the suicide rate.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 320WH

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Deputy Prime Minister also shares my concerns, which is why in January he announced our ambition for zero suicides. That ambition has already been adopted in some areas. I pay tribute to the brilliant leaders, including Adrian James, a psychiatrist in Devon, and Joe Rafferty, the chief executive of Mersey Care, who have got organisations in their areas to adopt the ambition and start developing plans to achieve a dramatic reduction in suicide, aiming for zero suicide. That is of course what we should aim for, but it cannot be dictated from Whitehall. It requires real leaders to grasp the opportunity and to be ambitious.

Together we need to create a culture in our country in which everyone can talk about their mental health problems without fear or embarrassment. For that ambition to be fulfilled, it is essential that every part of the NHS commits to it. As I have mentioned, pioneering work in Merseyside, the south-west and the east of England means that health workers are starting to rethink how they care for people with mental health conditions. The Deputy Prime Minister called on the health service to look at the work being done by those three pioneering areas. Adopting those kinds of approaches across the country, with serious commitment, could save thousands of lives. We need to raise our aspirations for mental health, although we need to be clear that zero suicide is not a target but an ambition for organisations to aspire to. Nor is it about blame—that would be unhelpful for staff, for people using services and for communities and families. It is about constant learning—Louis Appleby has described so many examples from over the course of his career—and, critically, applying that learning to improve the system.

We know that many who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services, a point that the hon. Lady frequently makes. That is why we need to apply the same ambition to primary care services and the wider community. The zero suicide initiative had its origins in Detroit, where a programme has successfully reduced the rate of suicides in in-patient care, with not a single suicide for a period of over two years. Although the study on the claim has not been peer-reviewed, the programme also claims to have reduced the suicide rate across the wider general population—that is the really exciting thing. That is why we need to be willing to learn constantly. We need to work together to challenge the stigma attached to mental ill health and change the way society as a whole thinks about it, starting in local communities.

I read with interest January’s report by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm. I know that the inquiry into local suicide plans concluded that there are significant gaps in the local implementation of the national suicide prevention strategy. I agree that that is a concern. As I have said in writing to the hon. Lady, I am confident that the APPG report will be of great value at local, regional and national levels. We know that it is at the local level that the most effective suicide prevention activity will take place. I am happy to write to those local authorities that have nothing in place, and to copy her into that correspondence.

Both the Department of Health and Public Health England agree that even the areas with comparatively low levels of suicide should aspire to do better. That is why we have challenged services, communities and national agencies to adopt the zero suicide ambition. I also agree

4 Mar 2015 : Column 321WH

with the APPG report that timely and reliable data are a valuable suicide prevention tool. Public Health England is working with police forces and local support agencies to pilot real-time surveillance of local suicides. The primary aim of the pilots is to provide prompt information to front-line local authority and NHS staff to enable them to respond to potential and real local clusters of suicides, and to provide timely support to people bereaved by suicide. Public Health England’s evaluation of the surveillance pilots will identify challenges to data collection at a local level and identify best practice to overcome them. The evaluation of the pilots will be available by the summer.

The national mental health intelligence network is developing a new profiling tool on suicide for release shortly, which will make available suicide rates and trends for the main age and gender groups at both local authority and clinical commissioning group level, so that there can be much more accountability. The tool will provide data on high-risk groups that can be used to inform priorities for local interventions.

I was pleased to see that the APPG welcomed Public Health England’s guidance for developing local suicide prevention action plans. The guidance will be updated later in the year and will incorporate best practice on data collection from the surveillance pilots. The hon. Lady will be aware that the guidance was published after the all-party group’s audit took place; Public Health England will contact all its centres over the coming months to discuss activity in their areas and track progress. Public Health England will publish further support for local authorities on identifying and responding to clusters and frequently used locations for suicides,

4 Mar 2015 : Column 322WH

and will also support local systems in developing and undertaking effective local suicide audits, a point that she raised.

We are also working with the National Suicide Prevention Alliance to help ensure that information is pulled together on its new website, which has been supported by grant funding from my Department. We know that sharing local case studies is important, which is why we included a number in the second annual report in the suicide prevention strategy.

The annual report was written for people working in local services, to pull together the key information that they need to implement the strategy locally. The second report on the strategy highlights the excellent work being done across sectors to prevent suicides, and sets out where efforts need to be concentrated for the next year. Local action, supported by national co-ordination, is essential to suicide prevention. The messages in the report are designed to help local areas focus on the most effective things that can be done to reduce suicides. The report also highlights the APPG’s findings and encourages local areas to use the detailed information from the inquiry in drafting their local suicide plans.

All our work on suicide prevention is part of our wider commitment to give mental health services parity of esteem and equality with physical health services. Investment and achievements in bettering mental health services inevitably have a positive impact on suicide prevention. If we make crisis response in mental health much better, so that people know how to get help at the moment when they need it, that will do so much to help those people get through a moment of crisis. I thank the hon. Lady for pursing this issue so vigorously.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 323WH


[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I welcome the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy to his place, and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing time for this vital debate.

This debate is about the management and delivery of broadband, which covers a multitude of sins that I hope we can examine today. Many right hon. and hon. Members have constituents who are not included in the existing broadband roll-out and businesses that are looking to relocate if they cannot get broadband. Therefore, this is a timely debate. I hope to use it to address some of our concerns about the national roll-out of broadband in the UK and the management of Broadband Delivery UK. I will make some civic remarks about the current broadband delivery programme in Devon and Somerset and the work of BT.

It has been more than 20 years since the UK Government published their first Command Paper that was available on the internet. Today, broadband is vital in accessing public services. Since July 2012, the Government have committed to becoming digital wherever possible. The Government Digital Service, which created the gov.uk website—the single point of entry to online services—has provided firm leadership in the digital age, and it even won the Design Museum’s “designs of the year” award in 2013. Putting public services online is not a cost-cutting exercise, but a vital part of streamlining Government services. It makes services easier for the public to use and more responsive to their needs. I commend the Government and the Minister on their work on leading the digital revolution.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this urgent and important debate. Will he deal in his speech with who is responsible for the fact that some areas are below others in getting superfast broadband? Huddersfield and three other Yorkshire towns and cities, which are centres of this country’s manufacturing economy, are among the worst 10 areas, while the top 10 are mainly, although not all, in the south of England. Who does the hon. Gentleman think is holding back some areas of the country? Will he pinpoint the barriers today?

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Naturally, I do not know his area well. Broadband is delivered partly through the Government and partly through companies. There are schemes in place in areas such as Devon and Somerset to connect rural broadband and rural users, and naturally I have had more experience of that. Certainly, the Government’s programme aims to ensure that the cities he mentions are also provided with broadband, but I suspect that he will be given an answer by the Minister.

Mr Sheerman: The Government and previous Governments have done very well on this issue, so, unusually for me, I am not berating the Government. People keep saying that BT is responsible. Is BT holding things back or not?

4 Mar 2015 : Column 324WH

Neil Parish: I am not going to get drawn into giving an exact answer to the hon. Gentleman. I shall come on to that issue later. BT is doing a good job in some areas, but it could do better in others; that is what we all want to see. However, we must recognise that, rightly or wrongly, BT is a major player in delivery, and delivering broadband to all our businesses and residents, wherever they are, is essential.

The Government have been ambitious in their plan to transform broadband in the UK, which has been co-ordinated by Broadband Delivery UK. The Government’s roll-out of superfast broadband has reached more than 1 million homes and businesses across the UK. The £1.7 billion nationwide roll-out is firmly on track to extend superfast broadband to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017. The rate at which fibre technology is being rolled out under the programme is rapidly accelerating, and up to 40,000 premises are gaining access every week. A key part of our long-term economic plan is to provide the digital tools that people and businesses need to thrive.

However—there is always a however—the move to online services is in serious danger of leaving thousands of people in digital darkness. The current target of 95% superfast broadband coverage by 2017 still leaves behind 5%. We must also ensure that we get to 95% by 2017. “The final 5%” is a misleading term, as it will not be evenly distributed across the country. Some communities—particularly those in rural areas—are disproportionately affected. More than 10% of the countryside is still without access to broadband in any form, and there are 12,000 premises with no digital footprint whatever.

As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I took part in the inquiry on rural broadband provision and digital-only services. As our report made clear, the difficult geographical nature of some communities must not be used as an excuse for a lack of broadband or poor broadband speeds. Those challenges should encourage investment and innovation in new types of technology.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is right to praise what the Government have done so far, but he is also right to talk about the growing digital divide. It is important that we get superfast broadband to the final percentage of rural communities. Does he agree that, to get to those rural communities, we need to embrace new wireless technology? Ultimately, fibre to the cabinet will not deliver to those communities.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our experience in Devon and Somerset is that new technologies have not been used quickly enough in the roll-out of broadband. BDUK is beginning to pick up and pilot some new technologies, but more should have been done more quickly. One of the purposes of this debate is to say to the Minister and to BDUK that we must deliver broadband faster and look at new technologies. A lot of the technologies are already out there. For example, smaller boxes can be put on to telegraph polls. I am not a technical man, but there are ways to deliver broadband more quickly. I imagine that the problems in Devon and Somerset are similar to those in Yorkshire, so we need to work on them.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 325WH

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. Does he agree that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) is of the essence and that we will not get to 100% without using the technologies that he spoke about? Crucially, those facts were not only predictable and predicted, but were fully known five years ago in 2010, during the discussion about what kind of contract should be let. It was known at the time that the introduction of alternative players is a prerequisite for getting full coverage. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) feel, as I do, rather let down by BT and, to some extent, the Government, given that they did not take account of those important facts five years ago when they contracted with BT?

Neil Parish: I thank my hon. Friend very much for his comments. He is right. What happened is that the contracts—certainly, the Devon and Somerset contract, which I know the most about—were far too secretive, so it was difficult for people to know exactly who was going to get broadband and who was not and for other companies to come in and provide it. We are doing better, and it is getting better—I am not here just to beat up BT—but we need firm and friendly criticism. We need to say, “Get on with it. You’ve got the contracts to deliver, so let’s have it done. If you are not going to be able to deliver it, let’s know about it, and if we can get in competition, all the better.”

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being most generous. I wonder whether he shares my concern that, from my latest meeting with BT, I understand that the universal commitment to a minimum of 2 megabits per second now no longer applies and that some local authorities are trading off more fibre for not having to meet that commitment.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Through some fibre optic systems, it is not possible to deliver the minimum 2 megabits, and we should have known about that sooner and action should have been taken sooner. However, I do not want to be too negative this afternoon; that is not in our interest as hon. Members or that of our residents, wherever they are in the country. We have to say to BT, “You have got behind. Now move forward much more quickly.” I think that it will, but its feet need to be held firmly to the fire, so that it feels pain in order to deliver. It is no good saying to someone that 95% of the country has broadband if they live in an area in which 95% of people do not have it. In some areas, the figures are nearly as low as that. In my constituency, the figure is 22% at the moment, and that is over the whole constituency.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Although the focus of this debate is primarily on rural broadband, does he agree that there is a specific issue with urban broadband black spots? BT and Openreach know where those black spots are, but they will not share them with constituency MPs. County councils often know, but will also not share them, and it would be useful if the Minister tackled that issue briefly later.

4 Mar 2015 : Column 326WH

Neil Parish: I entitled this debate in a broad fashion, so it is right for my hon. Friend to raise that point. The black spots are not just in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) also mentioned. I have a series of questions that I want the Minister to answer at the end of the debate, but I hope that he is taking note of that point; I know that he is working very hard on it. If someone is in an area where they cannot get broadband, they are very frustrated, and when they have heard that packages have been put together to deliver it, that infuriates them even more. We need to be very aware of that.

Mr Sheerman: Before the hon. Gentleman moves off black spots, may I just have one more bite at that? I understand the black spots and the rural dimension, but as this lovely graph shows, nine out of 10 of the top-performing broadband innovations are in the south of England. It is the reverse in the north of England, where the worst-performing areas are. This is not just little black spots in the countryside; they are in major towns and cities. That is why we are so angry.

Neil Parish: I repeat that I am sure the Minister is aware of that, and I hope that he can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. He is right to raise that issue. My constituency has many problems not only in the Blackdown hills and on parts of Exmoor, but on the edge of towns as well, so this is not just about rural broadband.

Anne Marie Morris: Does my hon. Friend share my further concern that many people in our very rural communities work from home and whether businesses are in the programme is very much in the lap of the gods? As I understand it, in some local authorities, business premises and industrial estates will be connected as part of the programme, and in others, they will not. If the economy and small businesses matter, surely that should not be an option.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Naturally, some areas may have the cables and cabinets, so it is much easier to deliver there. However, if there is a difficult spot to deliver broadband in, with lots of small businesses, we have to find a way to deliver it. This is not just about businesses, but about our residents. Broadband is very much part of our infrastructure, just as railways and roads are. We will be left behind if we are not connected, so that is the purpose of this debate. I thank her for that intervention.

During the inquiry, we heard from BT that it believes that the current target of 95% coverage by 2017 may slip. Given the resources and the free rein that it has been given, I hope that the Minister will impress upon BDUK the need to hold BT’s feet over the hot coals to get the job done. The target for superfast broadband has changed a number of times. The original date for completion was 2012. For our constituents to have confidence that their homes and businesses will get superfast broadband, it is important that the targets for broadband coverage are not changed again. If BT fails to achieve its targets, there should be a mechanism to hold it to account. That is very much what I want to see.

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): For my hon. Friend’s benefit, I tell him that we have never changed our targets. We got rid

4 Mar 2015 : Column 327WH

of an unambitious target of 2 megabits at the end of 2012. We had an ambition, which I hope we will reach, of superfast broadband coverage of 90% by the end of 2015, and because of the huge success of this programme, we have added a further target to get to 95% by the end of 2017.

Neil Parish: I have huge confidence in the Minister, but as he can imagine, if someone is living in a constituency such as mine, where about 70% or 80% of people are not getting broadband, those figures do not mean an awful lot. Therefore, I urge him to ensure—I know that he will because he is such a wonderful Minister—that they will immediately get their broadband tomorrow. I am being slightly facetious, but let me reiterate that the purpose of this debate is not just to criticise, but to see whether we can do better. I am not criticising the Government, but when there is a contract from BDUK that has Government money, council money, business money and, in fairness, money from BT, let us make sure that it delivers on its promises.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I briefly intervene to say that there is no such thing as Government money or council money; it is all taxpayers’ money and that is why those responsible have to be held to account.

Neil Parish: I stand corrected by the hon. Lady. It is indeed our money that is being spent and we expect this service to be delivered.

The National Farmers Union has warned that its members do not have the infrastructure connections to enable fast enough broadband to comply with online Government services, including complying with the new agriculture policy, because all the mapping now has to be done online. I can understand that because of the need to map all the hedgerows, but it is essential that we get broadband out to those businesses.

The Federation of Small Businesses conducted research in July 2014 that shows that 94% of small business owners consider a reliable internet connection as critical to the success of their businesses and that 14% of UK small firms view the lack of a reliable broadband connection as being their primary barrier to growth. That has been recognised by the Government, but this is again about delivery. As small firms become more reliant on a high-quality broadband connection to do business, that will become even more significant in future.

As the EFRA Committee’s report rightly noted,

“2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already an outdated figure, and 10 Mbps is increasingly recommended as a suitable USC for standard provision.”

The Government must reassess whether the current universal service commitment is still valid and right.

I would like to get a little more parochial. The Connecting Devon and Somerset programme that covers my constituency is on track to deliver superfast broadband to 90% of premises across Devon and Somerset by the end of 2016, up from 64% overall when the programme began. The programme is supported by a £32 million investment from BDUK.

I am pleased that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced on 25 February 2014 an additional £22.75 million for rural broadband in Devon and Somerset from the Government’s—from the taxpayer, from us all

4 Mar 2015 : Column 328WH

—£250 million broadband fund. However, my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton is ranked as the 611th worst constituency for broadband out of 650 constituencies. Only 33% of premises have high-speed broadband. A large number of communities in my constituency, such as Upottery, Stockland and Rousdon are being left in digital darkness. Some business owners in parts of Dunkeswell have told me that they may be forced to relocate because of the lack of reliable broadband. I have been working with local campaigners, Graham Long in Upottery and Rebecca Pow in Churchinford and Otterford.

CDS has now published its procurement tender for the next stage of the roll-out, to extend superfast broadband coverage as far as possible in Devon and Somerset, with the aim of getting to 100% coverage by 2020. I welcome the progress made in connecting more premises in Devon and Somerset, but I am deeply disappointed that we are not farther along this road. Communities in my constituency should not have to wait until 2020 for broadband delivery. I do not buy the argument constantly put to me by BDUK that, “It’s all too difficult, Mr Parish.” It is not too difficult, because a contract was given and money has been provided to deliver in those difficult areas. The contract is there to provide exactly what we want—broadband in our rural communities. Greater focus is needed on helping hard-to-reach areas and exploring innovative technologies.

Mr Bacon: While my hon. Friend is on the subject of Connecting Devon and Somerset, can he say why he thinks that CDS refused to consider compliant bids or would-be bids from bidders who were proposing to provide 100% coverage?

Neil Parish: I think that the argument has gone even as far as state aid rules and whether Brussels was involving itself in the letting of contracts and whether being able to extend the existing contract with BT and BDUK was the best way forward. Those types of argument have been used. I am not against BT or what BDUK is doing, but I do feel that not enough competition has been brought into the system to keep BT and BDUK up to the mark.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue in Devon and Somerset now is not so much the delivery of the original contract, which is carrying on at its own pace—we are impatient, but it is happening—but the large areas in our constituencies that will not be covered by that contract and that need to catch up with the rest of the counties? I think that that will not be done through big contracts. It will be done through small, individual contracts, with new technologies such as wi-fi, rather than this approach, which I think will fail many people in rural areas.

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He may well be right. One problem that we have with these large contracts—the situation is getting a little better—is that people do not actually know where the broadband will be delivered. If there is an alternative system—satellite, wireless or whatever—people do not necessarily know whether to put private funds into it, because they do not know whether BDUK will actually deliver it to their area. This is the frustrating

4 Mar 2015 : Column 329WH

part of what we are doing. We have all worked hard across the parties to get money. The MPs in Devon and Somerset all signed the letters to get the money and we delivered the money and have the contract, yet individual residents are not getting the broadband. Naturally, they do not like all these figures being bandied about for how much is being delivered if they do not have broadband themselves.

I understand that Connecting Devon and Somerset chose the route that it did because of the lack of bids and the concern over the state aid deadline, but I believe that more could have been done to open the market. At national level, there should have been more work to prevent one company from gaining such a monopoly on publically funded broadband roll-out as BT has achieved. Given the impact of flooding and sea damage on the west country’s transport infrastructure, the provision of high-quality rural broadband has never been more important to the resilience of the south-west and its communities and businesses.

I have a number of questions that I am sure the Minister will be keen to address. Does he believe that BT is providing value for money? I think that that is a very important question for the simple reason that I want to see everyone get broadband. I accept that some areas are very difficult to get to, but surely that is what these contracts are let for. We have to make absolutely sure that we are getting value for money.

Will the Government re-examine the universal service commitment of 2 megabits? What work is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that survey information is made publically available and that BT is not hamstringing local authorities with spurious confidentiality agreements? What work are the Government doing to pilot new technology to reach the hardest-to-reach areas? Finally, will the Minister examine ways of making BT much more accountable?

2.55 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. I want to give a different perspective on the issue of broadband coverage, coming as I do from one of the most concentrated urban areas in Scotland. At first sight, it might seem strange that someone from a constituency that has superfast broadband to a degree that colleagues would be envious of would complain about lack of coverage, but the fact is that even in my very urban constituency, many areas, covering thousands of homes and businesses, do not have superfast broadband at the moment and do not seem to have any prospect of getting it any time soon.

The projection is that, by 2017, 98% of people will have superfast broadband. That sounds very good and, if it happens, I will obviously be pleased about it, but many of my constituents who are currently affected are somewhat sceptical as to whether that figure will actually be reached and whether some of the current not spots in my constituency—they also exist in other urban areas—will have that level of provision.