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House of Commons

Monday 25 November 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rent Arrears (Social Housing)

1. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of trends in rent arrears in social housing. [901198]

12. Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of trends in rent arrears in social housing. [901209]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): Housing association arrears at the end of 2011-12 were 4.8% in England—an improvement on performance in the previous year, when they were 5.1 %.

Alex Cunningham: Tristar Homes, which serves people in my Stockton North constituency, has 1,725 tenants classed as under-occupying their current property. Two thirds of those tenants have accrued rent arrears, many for the first time, and 85% are seeing their debt grow. What is the Minister’s estimate of the total arrears nationally in the first year of the bedroom tax—in other words, the spare room subsidy—as a direct result of it and the assault on some of the poorest people in our community? How much does he believe the measure will save his Government?

Stephen Williams: My information about Tristar is that the figures the hon. Gentleman quotes are a significant reduction on earlier in the year—that is the information the Department has. On financial savings, it is far too early to say. The Department for Work and Pensions will undertake a review in the early part of next year.

Ian Mearns: In the north-east of England, 39,000 households are affected by the bedroom tax—or, as the Government would like to call it, the spare room subsidy. In Gateshead, more than 3,000 households in the local authority’s housing or the housing associations’ housing are affected. The local authority alone has accrued £152,000 of additional arrears. When will the Government realise that the policy is hurting but certainly not working?

Stephen Williams: The figures I gave in the earlier answer were for the year before the spare room subsidy withdrawal—they are the most recent comprehensive, across-England figures we have. Through the Homes and Communities Agency, the Department has surveyed all the large housing associations. They tell us that, at the moment, rent collection levels are in excess of 95% and well within their published business plans.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that, of the £68 million of discretionary housing payments made available to councils last year, £11 million went unspent?

Stephen Williams: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on discretionary housing payments for last year. Of course, last year those payments were in place to deal with differences in the private rental sector. I wish Opposition Members would remember that the Labour Government introduced tight controls on the funding

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of spare bedrooms in the private rental sector. Some 43% of people in my constituency rent in the private rental sector. I do not recall much protest from Labour Members at that time.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Following on from that answer, am I right in thinking that the rules on housing benefit for those in social housing are now broadly the same as the rules on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector, and that the latter rules were introduced by the previous Government? Is there any reason why those on housing benefit in social housing should have different rules from those on housing benefit in the private rented sector?

Stephen Williams: My hon. Friend has neatly followed the logic of what I said in my previous answer. There is a logic behind the reforms that this Government have introduced. Throughout the entire 13 years that the previous Government were in office, they had tight controls on the private rental sector and tightened them further. I do not recall a single Labour Member describing that as Labour’s bedroom tax on the majority of people, certainly in city centres like mine and that of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who rent in the private sector. The rules are now aligned.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Rehousing and eviction costs often dwarf the arrears built up as a result of the bedroom tax, so how surprised is the Minister that many councils in Wales—including my own in Carmarthenshire—refuse to operate a no-evictions policy for the most vulnerable?

Stephen Williams: As much as I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he of all hon. Members—he is a Plaid Cymru Member—will understand that I cannot answer for what the Welsh Government are doing in Wales.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): May I try to bring the Minister up to date and talk about this year, and give him another chance to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham)? According to the National Housing Federation, more than half of all tenants affected by the bedroom tax were in rent arrears within three months. Does the Minister believe that those families went into arrears because they could not afford the rent, or because they simply were not bothered?

Stephen Williams: There could be many explanations of why people fall into arrears—they are not a new feature under this Government. Rent arrears, whether in the council or housing association sector, were a feature under the previous Labour Government too. Behind each individual case, there will be a reason why people have fallen into arrears. Perhaps people think that some Labour councils are adopting a policy of hoping this policy will go away. I think perhaps they are misleading their tenants on that basis. They should be helping their tenants to adapt to the change in circumstances.

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Sustainable Development

2. Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): What definition his Department uses for sustainable development. [901199]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): The national planning policy framework, taken together, constitutes the Government’s view of what sustainable development means in planning.

Greg Mulholland: I thank the Minister for that brief answer. He visited north Leeds and Wharfedale—and we were pleased to have him—an area facing the prospect of hundreds of new homes at a time when there are already congested roads and not enough school places, doctors and dentists. What more will he and the Department do to ensure we have genuine sustainable development that includes all those things before houses are built?

Nick Boles: I understand that the local plan submitted by Leeds council is now under examination. That process will test whether the provisions for infrastructure are adequate to support the level of development the council has decided it needs. He and his constituents will have every opportunity to put their case as to why they need investment in more infrastructure to support proposed development.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I am sure the Minister will agree that one of the important principles for achieving sustainable development is the brownfield first policy contained in the core planning policies and principles of the NPPF. I think the Minister is also aware that developers are using paragraph 47 of the NPPF to claim that brownfield sites are not deliverable because they are not viable, which is causing authorities to look at more and more greenfield sites for their five-year housing supply. Does the Minister agree that that effectively undermines the brownfield first policy in the NPPF? What is he going to do about it?

Nick Boles: I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, who is knowledgeable about all these subjects, but I do not share his concern that the position is somehow being undermined. The NPPF is clear that brownfield land that is of low environmental quality should be preferred. That is a better policy than that of the Government he supported, which favoured all brownfield land, including back gardens, and led to garden grabbing on a scale we had never before seen.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given the Minister’s comments, does he agree that Telford and Wrekin council should not be building on greenfield sites in Wellington or Newport in my constituency, but should be building on the preferred brownfield sites in both those towns?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on particular proposals by a particular council, but I can say that every council will want to look at all brownfield land—

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Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman needs to face the House so we can all benefit from his eloquence.

Nick Boles: I apologise, Mr Speaker. I hope my hon. Friend will not mind having to look at the back of my head while I answer his question. His council will of course be looking at every brownfield site to identify those ready for development. It may be the case that in some circumstances some brownfield sites require huge investment in either infrastructure or decontamination and are therefore not appropriate for development, but the preference will always be to use brownfield sites.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I press the Minister on that? Do his criteria for sustainable development include building hundreds if not thousands of one-bedroom apartments for students, as is the case in my constituency, and none for elderly people? What kind of policy is it when students are looked after, but elderly people have nowhere to go?

Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is the responsibility of his council to assess all housing needs for students and other people, and to make adequate provision. That is what councils should be doing through their local plans. I am sure he is influencing his council strongly on its plan.

Neighbourhood Plans

3. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Whether parish councils are able to draw up a neighbourhood plan if they take a different view from their local planning authority on local planning issues. [901200]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): Neighbourhood plans are not simply a re-statement of a local authority’s local plan. Neighbourhood planning gives parish councils, town councils and other community groups a real say over development they want to see in their area. Many communities across England are already developing planning policies on issues that are important to them.

Mr Hollobone: I thank the Minister’s colleague the Planning Minister for his recent visit to Broughton in my constituency. The village of Cranford finds itself next to the site on which 5,500 houses are to be built in an area called Kettering East. How might the parish council best protect its village by adopting a neighbourhood plan?

Stephen Williams: Obviously, we cannot comment on particular planning developments, but while a neighbourhood plan may deal with the housing issues, it cannot countermand the aspirations of the authority’s local plan. It can differ, however, on how those housing policies can be met.

Parking Charges

4. Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): If he will take steps to reduce excessive parking charges and address aggressive parking enforcement. [901201]

7. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): If he will take steps to reduce excessive parking charges and address aggressive parking enforcement. [901204]

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The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Yes, councils should be treating motorists fairly and promoting their town centres, not treating car parking charges and fines as a way of raising revenue. We will consult on a range of proposals later this year.

Stephen McPartland: Stevenage borough council is ripping off local people by taking more than £3 million a year in car parking charges, which is preventing the regeneration of Stevenage town centre. To make matters worse, it uses more than £1 million of profits for unrelated services, which I believe the High Court considers to be illegal. What actions will the Secretary of State take to protect local people from Stevenage borough council?

Mr Pickles: I am sorry to hear of the state of affairs in Stevenage. We shall certainly be looking at the rules on charging and the parking review grace periods in which parking offences can be ruled unacceptable. We shall be consulting on how this might be done appropriately and soon be laying orders on the collection of fines from closed circuit television.

James Duddridge: Health care professionals such as midwives provide an invaluable service and allow people to stay safe and independent in their own home. As part of the consultation he mentioned, does the Secretary of State agree that we should consider allowing them to park in all residential areas without fear of a parking fine?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. Of course, a number of local authorities already consult and have a working arrangement with the local national health service. Clearly, district nurses and doctors want to go about their business without the fear of fines, and I also think it appropriate that ambulances should be able to attend without the fear of parking fines. I think this should be done, and I will certainly include it in the consultation.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In his consultation on parking fines, will the Secretary of State consider the work of Slough Labour council and its “free after three” parking plan, which I think is beginning to revive our high street?

Mr Pickles: I welcome that news from Slough council. It sounds very continental.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Hammersmith and Fulham has increased its take from moving vehicle penalty charge notices by 400% in four years. It raises £2.7 million from one box junction alone, and it says it does this to increase parking revenue, not to improve the movement of traffic. What will the Secretary of State do about Tory councils that rip off motorists?

Mr Pickles: I am shocked to hear this. Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplary council: not many councils in this country have consistently reduced council tax by 3% every year. I do not think, therefore, that its population is being ripped off, but I shall certainly take a most careful look at the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

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Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State should acknowledge that across the country Tory councils are charging more—[Interruption.] I know Conservative Members do not want to hear the information from councils themselves showing that the three highest in the country are Tory-run and that in London Tory councils take twice as much off residents for parking as Labour. May I invite him to join me in congratulating Labour councils on backing their town centres?

Mr Pickles: In his previous existence, the hon. Gentleman would not have had the temerity to cite that set of figures, which can be achieved only by counting off-street parking, which means the more off-street parking a council provides—the friendlier it makes it for motorists—the worse those figures appear, so frankly I regard them as bogus. They reflect the anti-car policies of the Labour party, which consistently cut the number of parking spaces and instructed local authorities to increase car parking charges.

Article 4 Directions

5. Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of local authorities’ use of article 4 directions to limit excessive occurrence of particular use types on high streets. [901202]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): Local authorities are required to notify my Department of article 4 directions before they are brought into force. In the year to 31 October 2013, 97 article 4 directions have been made by 43 local authorities.

Stephen Timms: Today the Treasury has finally moved on payday loans, which is welcome, so why is the Department making it easier for payday lenders, betting shops and fast-food takeaways to open up without planning permission? Does he recognise the concerns of the Local Government Association and others that article 4 directions are

“ineffective, inefficient and heavily bureaucratic”?

Brandon Lewis: I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has shown a consistent interest in this area. Article 4 directions apply to different parts of the sectors that he has outlined and local authorities can use licensing and a range of other powers to keep things under control. I would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman discuss the matter with his Front-Bench team, which seems happy to be entertained by the gambling industry rather than do something productive about it for the benefit of our high streets.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does the Minister agree with me that it should be the public’s demand for a particular product or service that determines the exact number of a particular type of outlet on the high street?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The high street will be driven by consumer use, but it is also quite right for local authorities to use the powers they have to make sure that their high street or town centre is vital and vibrant for the benefit of their communities.

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20. [901217] Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): There are 40,000 empty shops on UK high streets, and the Minister and his Department are doing the best they can to stack them with payday loan companies, loan sharks and betting shops. What single policy has his Department implemented that has helped to reverse this trend and get proper shops in our high streets? Is there one single policy?

Brandon Lewis: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to consider the fact that, unlike the previous Labour Government, we have trebled small business rate relief, as well as giving power to local authorities. I strongly suggest that authorities use the powers they have to discount business rates, as well as utilise the 333 town teams working hard for their communities around the country. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not want to give these people the credit for the hard work that they are putting in.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The Minister will no doubt be aware that the most recent issue of Planning magazine reported its survey results showing that a lack of resources in council planning departments was seriously holding up decision making. Why, then, is the Minister exacerbating the situation by forcing councils to bear the brunt of expensive article 4 directions time after time after time? Why will the Minister not give councils and local communities real powers to shape their town centres instead of burdening them with costly bureaucratic hoops to jump through?

Brandon Lewis: I would gently say to the hon. Lady that, as I said in response to the main question, 97 article 4 directions have gone through this year alone, while local authorities have their local plan as well as article 4. The clue is in the title: the planning should be plan-driven. There are also town teams, Portas pilots and, as I said, more than £900 million-worth of business rate relief for small businesses, as well as the power to discount more locally. I suggest the hon. Lady get behind the town teams that are working so hard instead of putting them down.

Wind Turbines

6. Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What planning guidelines he has issued on the minimum distance required between wind turbines and housing. [901203]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): We are not encouraging local councils to set fixed separation distances between turbines and housing. Distances play a part, but so does the local context, including factors such as topography.

Ian Swales: I thank the Minister for that answer. On Friday, Prince Charles visited the heritage village of Kirkleatham in my constituency, which, along with the lovely conservation villages of Wilton and Yearby, forms a triangle with sides between 700 metres and 1,400 metres. Does the Minister think it right that a London-based company wants to put two wind turbines bigger than

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the London Eye in the middle of this triangle? Will he give local communities power over such decisions, and will he issue guidelines similar to those in Scotland?

Kris Hopkins: I cannot comment on individual applications, but the national planning policy is clear that any application should be approved only if the impact is, or can be, made acceptable.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Do the Government intend to give local communities any new powers to block such developments if they consider them unwelcome?

Kris Hopkins: Regulations laid before the House this morning demand that developers have conversations with communities before applications are made. That is important, but having a strong local plan is also helpful.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): There is best practice throughout Europe in this regard. The Danes, for instance, have an exclusion zone for dwellings that measures 10 times the radius of the blades. Surely there is some way of introducing localism-related legislation to deal with the position here.

Kris Hopkins: As I said a moment ago to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), it is important to have a local plan. Determining where renewable energy supply facilities are to be established will give some protection to communities.

Local Government Finance Settlement

8. Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): When he expects to announce the provisional local government finance settlement for 2013-14. [901205]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We will announce the provisional local government finance settlement for 2014-15 and the consultation after the autumn statement and in line with our usual timetable.

Luciana Berger: Is the Minister aware of the devastating impact that his Department’s £329 million cuts are having on my local council in Liverpool? By 2016-17, there will be a £17 million shortfall in funds for services that the council is legally obliged to deliver, and zero spending on discretionary services. This is a crisis waiting to happen. Will the Minister please tell the House where Liverpool should find the money?

Brandon Lewis: I strongly suggest that the hon. Lady use her persuasive powers to make the council put its huge balances to good use. It receives one of the highest grants in the country and has a spending power of £2,700 per household, which is £500 per household more than the English average, and is even more than the metropolitan average. I suspect that the best thing that the hon. Lady can do is tell the council to be sensible about how it spends money, which means not increasing council tax to punish the hard-working people of Liverpool.

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Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Council tax benefit support grant is a key part of the money that central Government give to parish councils. This year, Labour-run Northumberland county council has said that it will not pass the grant on to the local town and parish councils. Does the Minister agree that that is specifically wrong?

Brandon Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. We made it clear this year that councils should pass the money down to parish councils, and my hon. Friend is right to put pressure on councils that do not do what they are supposed to do.

17. [901214] John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Ministers have been saying the same thing since 2010, but what this Minister has not said is that the decisions made by him and his colleagues have been hitting the poorest areas hardest with the biggest cuts in council funding. Why must five years of a Tory Secretary of State mean that the cuts in the budgets of councils in the south-east will be half the size of the cuts in inner London or in the three northern regions?

Brandon Lewis: Our banding floors protect the councils that are in the greatest need. For example, funds for the right hon. Gentleman’s own council, which still has a spending power of about £2,100 per household, are being reduced by just 1.5%, the English average being 1.3%. That is line with what the Government expect local authorities—which take up 25% of public spending—to do to clear up the mess of the deficit and debt left by the last Labour Government.

New Homes Bonus

9. Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): If he will review the operation of the new homes bonus. [901206]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): The new homes bonus is already being evaluated, and a report will be published in the spring of 2014.

Mr Lammy: Will the Minister say something about why the scheme that his Prime Minister set up has been such a disaster? Just 1,427 homes have been built under this scheme, although we need 800,000 homes in London, because there is a huge demand problem. The average London deposit now costs our young people £100,000.

Kris Hopkins: I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the scheme. It has delivered some £1.3 billion to local authorities, including about £5.5 million for his own authority.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I put it to my hon. Friend that although I think everyone understands that there is an acute shortage of housing in many parts of this country because of the lamentable failure of the previous Government to build sufficient houses and because of what most people regard as excessive immigration, in the charming market towns of Louth and Horncastle in my Lincolnshire constituency there is the deepest cross-party concern about developers’ proposals to put up about 1,000 new houses in and

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around those two market towns? What everybody is asking is where are the jobs, the school places, the ambulances, the hospital beds and the policemen to be found for such a project, which will in fact destroy these happy communities?

Kris Hopkins: With all respect to my right hon. Friend, I am afraid the new homes bonus is not about encouraging people to build homes. The way to address the issues he raises is to get a strong local plan, and I suggest that he takes the challenge that he has just given to the House to his local council.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): I am somewhat bewildered that the Housing Minister thinks the new homes bonus is not about incentivising councils to build new homes. In fact, contrary to that, his predecessor said at least 400,000 additional homes would be built as a direct result of the new homes bonus. The truth is there has been a 26% drop in the affordable homes supply and £1.3 billion has been spent by this Government under the new homes bonus to deliver fewer than 1,500 homes. Does the Minister think spending nearly £1 million per home is good value for taxpayers’ money?

Kris Hopkins: The bonus itself is not for building homes. This Government have built 400,000 houses. This Government are absolutely committed to building affordable houses and have already reached 50% of our affordable housing target—over 99,000 houses—and will deliver 170,000 by the end of this period.

Calderdale Council

10. Mrs Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effect of changes in the level of his Department’s grant on the operations of Calderdale council. [901207]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): Calderdale has had a reduction in spending power of 1.5% this year, which is only slightly above the England average. Like all councils, Calderdale can now benefit from increases in local growth through business rates retention and the new homes bonus.

Mrs Riordan: There are many areas in Calderdale that are suffering as a result of this Government’s cuts. Will the Minister meet me and a delegation from Calderdale council to listen to our concerns about the funding shortfalls and look at ways to address the problems, to the benefit of the people of Halifax?

Brandon Lewis: When we do the finance settlement statement we have a consultation, but I am very happy to meet at a time that suits both the hon. Lady and the council to discuss the situation, and hopefully we can

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touch on why it is putting up council tax by 2% and punishing hard-working people by raising their cost of living. This Government have worked hard to freeze council tax and we are proud of doing so.

Unauthorised Development

11. Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): What recent guidance he has given to local authorities on tackling unauthorised development. [R] [901208]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Councils should take swift enforcement action to tackle unauthorised development. Previously, some councils have been unclear about the powers available to deal with this issue. In August, we sent all councils a guide on the full range of power available to tackle unauthorised occupation on private and public land.

Nigel Adams: I am very grateful for that response. On the subject of authorised sites, local residents, including Travellers, in the village of Burn in Selby recently fought a successful campaign to prevent the expansion of an extremely large site in the village. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he would not recommend that any Traveller site should dominate in size any neighbouring community?

Mr Pickles: I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on a particular site. However, it is immensely important to ensure that where a Traveller site is placed next to a village, the numbers there should not dominate the area. The coalition Government have made a number of changes to policies, and we may be bringing forward further policies to make it easier for local communities to be able to live side by side.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): In May 2012, the Government allocated an additional £1.8 million to local councils to deal with the growing problem of beds in sheds. Can the Secretary of State outline how this relationship is working with the Home Office and how many beds in sheds have been discovered?

Mr Pickles: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the numbers, because they are constantly changing. As he is aware, this issue relates to four or five specific London boroughs, and in conjunction with the Home Office we have taken enforcement action. It is important to emphasise that the people occupying such places are often very vulnerable, are often being abused by employers and often have dubious immigration status. Part of the process is to offer some help and assistance to them. As I say, on the numbers, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him separately.

Help to Buy Scheme

13. Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): How many people in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency have been accepted to be considered in principle for a Help to Buy mortgage to date. [901210]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): Up to September, Help to Buy had already helped 44 households to complete their purchase of a new home in Plymouth. Across England, it has generated more than 18,000 reservations for new homes.

Oliver Colvile: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent reply. How does his Department propose to promote the Help to Buy initiative with those council and housing association tenants who qualify to buy their homes under Mrs Thatcher’s excellent right to buy scheme?

Kris Hopkins: We have increased the discount available to those exercising their right to buy, and I am delighted with the results. Since April 2012, almost 13,500 families have been helped to buy their own home through the scheme. The level of discount assists potential buyers outside the Help to Buy scheme, which is designed to help those with lower deposits.

Social Homes Supply

14. Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the supply of one-bedroom social homes; and if he will make a statement. [901211]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): There are more than 1 million one-bedroom social homes in England. In the last three years, this Government have delivered more than 150,000 new affordable homes. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that under the previous Administration, the supply of social homes shrank by 420,000.

Nic Dakin: I want to look forward, Mr Speaker. In north Lincolnshire, at the current rate of availability it will take six years to re-house everybody who is currently liable to the bedroom tax. Does the Minister agree that Conservative-controlled North Lincolnshire council should make sure that everybody who has indicated they want to move but cannot do so is eligible for a discretionary housing payment?

Stephen Williams: The key is in the title—it is a discretionary housing payment, so it will be up to each local authority to assess who should be eligible. This Government are on course to deliver 170,000 new social homes by the end of this Parliament, and this will be the first Administration in decades to leave more social housing in stock at the end of their first period in office.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): My understanding is that the discretionary housing payment expires next year. In addition to the lack of housing build over a number of years, there is a chronic shortage of one-bedroom and two-bedroom houses in rural areas. This issue needs to be addressed, and the recent “Rural Communities” report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asks for a stay and a continuation of the discretionary payment until such time as there is a housing supply in rural areas.

Stephen Williams: As is customary when a Select Committee makes a report, the Government consider it and respond. As that report is from the EFRA Committee

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and it involves policies that are partly under the remit of this Department, but also the Department for Work and Pensions, I am sure there will be a comprehensive reply to it in due course.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In advising local authorities on how they should bring forward plans for new housing, would the Minister advise them to follow the guidance in the national planning policy framework on meeting the identified needs of their area, whatever those needs might be, or would he advise them to give priority to one-bedroom housing because of the demand for it as a consequence of the bedroom tax?

Stephen Williams: I would expect every local plan, whether in Greenwich, Bristol or elsewhere, to take local needs into account. Yes, changes might well be needed in housing stock as a result of welfare reform changes, but we all know that there is a shortage of one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties as a result of our ageing society and of more people living on their own. That shortage needs to be met right across society.


16. Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): How many planning applications opposed by local authorities and local communities have been approved on appeal since the coming into force of the Localism Act 2011. [901213]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): In both of the past two years, 35% of planning appeals were allowed. Funnily enough, in 2009 under the last Labour Government, 34% of planning appeals were allowed.

Natascha Engel: I thank the Minister for that answer, but my question was specifically about the situation since the introduction of the Localism Act. Developers are putting in large-scale planning applications in rural areas such as mine, and the local residents campaign against them. The council then rejects an application but, on appeal, it is given the go-ahead. What account is taken of local people’s wishes when such appeals are heard?

Nick Boles: I am sorry if I have not made this clear. Since the Localism Act, 35% of all such appeals to the Planning Inspectorate have been allowed, compared with 34% under the Labour Government before the Act, so there has been no substantial change. It is a fact that, under the Act, local opinion is extremely important. There has been almost no change in the percentage of appeals that succeed, and only 1% of all planning applications are allowed on appeal, so there has been no substantial change in the role of local opinion in determining planning applications since the Localism Act.

24. [901221] Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): But does not the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) have a point? I spent Saturday morning with residents of the conservation village of Norton St Philip, who are feeling absolutely besieged by up to seven planning applications for

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large-scale developments in the village, all because Mendip district council has failed to secure a local plan. If those applications are rejected because Mendip summons the nerve to do so—particularly those on a site that includes the historic site of the battle of Philip’s Norton—will the appeals process back them or attack them?

Nick Boles: I shall try again to explain this, because I have clearly failed to do so. I apologise for not being clear. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority rejects a planning application and the decision is appealed, and if the authority does not have a local plan in place with a robust five-year land supply, the planning inspector will consider whether the application meets the requirements in the national planning policy framework. I reiterate that planning inspectors are backing local authority decisions just as often as they did before the Localism Act was passed.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Ind): The Minister will know the intensity of feeling among local people when an application is approved on appeal. Even more worrying is that some local authorities are now rolling over to some applications because they cannot afford the expensive appeal procedure. Will he therefore consider giving extra support to small local authorities that are inundated with planning applications?

Nick Boles: Local authorities should be making the decisions that they feel are right for their local communities and that meet their local policies and those in the national planning policy framework. An appeal might be lodged following their refusal of an application, but if they feel that their decision was right in the first place, they will be able to ask for costs against the developer that has submitted the appeal. They should not feel too worried about the cost of fighting an appeal if they are certain that their decision is good in law.

Private Rented Sector

18. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What steps he is taking to encourage the delivery of more private rented sector accommodation. [901215]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): This Government are committed to a bigger and better private rented sector which is why, following the Montague review, we have put in place the £1 billion build to rent fund and the £10 billion housing guarantee schemes, to deliver the rented sector that my hon. Friend supports.

Mark Pawsey: Many of my constituents enjoy the flexibility of living in the private rented sector, but if we are to keep the cost of renting down and ensure that those who want to rent a home can do so, action needs to be taken to increase supply. Does the Minister agree that initiatives from this Government, such as the Build to Rent fund and the Montague report, will ensure the provision of much-needed private rented homes?

Kris Hopkins: I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. It is important that we expand the rented housing sector, and we are doing so. The huge amount of money that we have put in—bearing in mind the limited resources

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that this Government have to spend—is bringing dividends. We have 14 applications at the moment, which will deliver 2,800 extra houses. I look forward to visiting his constituency in the near future, where I hope to see some of those new houses.

SME Business Rates

19. Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of levels of business rates for small and medium-sized businesses. [901216]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): Thanks to this Government’s tax cuts, small business rate relief has been trebled—it was worth about £900 million in the past year—and more than a third of a million small firms also now pay no business rates bill at all.

Tom Blenkinsop: That is interesting, as business rates have risen by an average of nearly £2,000 this Parliament. A future Labour Government would give small firms and businesses a rates cut and would then freeze rates the following year. Will the Minister inform the House how much business rates are set to rise by in 2014 under this Government’s plans?

Brandon Lewis: Let me give a slight correction, because obviously business rates have only moved with inflation; there has been no real-terms increase in business rates at all under this Government. We have also trebled small business rate relief, so helping small businesses in a way that the previous Government simply did not do. As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt realise, there will be a decision on the business rates for next year in the Chancellor’s autumn statement in December.

22. [901219] Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Labour Members welcome the fact that the Government followed our lead on payday loans, but will they follow us on another policy and give 1.5 million small businesses a cut in business rates?

Brandon Lewis: As I said, we have trebled small business rate relief, providing £900 million of help this year, with a third of a million businesses paying no business rates at all. That is an awful lot more than the previous Labour Government did.

Topical Questions

T1. [901238] Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I would like to bring the House up to date on the progress my Department has made on the issue of troubled families, and in doing so I recognise the support that this work has received from Members from right across the House. Our dedicated programme is on track and is working, with the lives of 22,000 families already turned around and councils continuing to work with 62,000 other families to reduce youth crime, tackle truancy and help to get jobless adults back to work. Those results show that these

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problems can be dealt with through a no-nonsense, common-sense approach, bringing down the cost to the taxpayer at the same time.

Diana Johnson: People buying homes in Kingswood in Hull under the coalition’s Help to Buy scheme, advertising for which is plastered all over the area, were shocked to hear the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister with responsibility for tackling flooding, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), confirm to me last week that the Government’s new flood insurance scheme excludes homes built after 2009 to discourage home building in flood-risk areas such as Hull. Does this Secretary of State think that it is advisable for my constituents to buy homes under the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, given that they will not be able to get affordable flood insurance?

Mr Pickles: In terms of building houses and the Help to Buy scheme, it has to be a viable proposition. I will certainly liaise with the hon. Lady, because I know Hull very well, and will look specifically into her worries about this matter and liaise with my colleagues in DEFRA.

T2. [901239] Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has visited Mid Suffolk district council and seen the huge efficiency savings it has generated by sharing services and cutting management by 50%. Will great performance on saving money be recognised in the coming financial settlement and will particular regard be paid to rural district councils in respect of that?

Mr Pickles: Having reduced my own Department’s spending by 60%, I regard 50% as a good start. The advantage of that is seen not just in the settlement but in the good running of the authority, so I commend my hon. Friend’s authority for its magnificent work.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): The Secretary of State has rightly talked about the importance of local authorities keeping down council tax in these tough times for many people—although he has imposed an increase on those on the very lowest incomes—but when it comes to business rates, which he set, he pursues a completely different policy. In the past two years, he has been quite happy to see struggling businesses hit by increases in business rates of 5.6% and 2.7%. What does the Minister say to owners of small businesses who feel that that is both damaging and unfair?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): The right hon. Gentleman’s question gives me a chance once again to re-establish the fact that the Government have made no real-terms increase in business rates; there has only been an inflationary change. Moreover, we have helped small businesses by trebling the small business rate relief from £300 million to £900 million a year.

Hilary Benn: That answer will not reassure the owners of small businesses. The Minister talks casually about an increase in line with inflation, but the takings of

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many of those businesses have not gone up in line with inflation because of the state of the economy. They will also not be reassured because, as things stand, next April will see a further rise of 3.2%. Since he has not been able to tell the House what further help he will give to small businesses, is it not time that the Government looked at our plan, which is a commitment to cut and then freeze business rates over a two-year period? That could help 1.5 million small businesses, which is many more than he is helping at the moment, and save them an average of £450.

Brandon Lewis: I appreciate the fact that the Opposition are talking about business rates, but they have not mentioned that they plan to put up corporation tax, which this Government have reduced to its lowest level to make us more competitive than at any time under Labour. The right hon. Gentleman also still misses the point. Small businesses benefit from small business rate relief, which we trebled from £300 million under Labour to £900 million. Furthermore, a third of a million businesses do not pay business rates under this Government and have not seen the increase that he outlined.

T3. [901240] Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. Will the Minister update the House on when the Cornish, with our own language and distinct identity, history and culture, can expect to be included within the framework?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): As a Welshman, I entirely sympathise with what my hon. Friend says about our Celtic cousins. We had a good meeting on the Cornish language and I have written to colleagues reminding them of the Government’s responsibilities in that area. As for the Council of Europe framework, the UK will make a submission in May 2014 and will invite Cornwall council and others to contribute to it.

T4. [901241] Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): A recent survey by Community Care has found that many local authorities are raising their thresholds for intervention in cases of child protection, and many social workers fear that they are not able to provide the appropriate level of support and intervention to children in need. Given that we are continually concerned about cases of child abuse, and that every Government have rightly said that they are committed to ensuring that such cases do not occur again, will the Government look seriously at providing extra funding to local authorities, which will have to make cuts next year and the year after, so that we do not see more child deaths?

Mr Pickles: Even in difficult times, the Government have managed to increase funding to vulnerable areas. If the hon. Lady has an authority specifically in mind—[Interruption.] I do not call £3.8 billion from the health budget to deal with vulnerable people a trivial sum. I am surprised that Labour Front Benchers mock that. I know that this is a reality, but if the hon. Lady has specific authorities in mind that are increasing the threshold,

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given the effect that that has had on a number of authorities where things have gone terribly wrong, I will look into it for her.

T7. [901244] Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What steps is the Minister taking to implement existing planning permissions, particularly on brownfield sites?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): I have good news for my hon. Friend. Of those units that already have planning permission, building has started on 49% of them. Now, 72% of the rest are moving towards making a start, up from 58% at the end of 2011. That means that only 23% are now on hold. We have made funds available through the Get Britain Building investment fund and the local infrastructure investment fund to help get stalled sites moving.

T6. [901243] Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Some moments ago, the Housing Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that the new homes bonus is not a payment for building new houses. Will he explain what it is for?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): One way it could be used it is to reduce council tax.

T8. [901245] David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): It has been widely reported in the press that Ministers have been instructed by a higher authority to get rid of the green nonsense, or words to that effect. Could that welcome advice be imparted to the local authority leaders who insist on employing an army of climate change and sustainable development advisers at great expense to council tax payers?

Mr Pickles: The Government do not keep a register of unusual posts in local authorities. Although we are committed to sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint, and although it is up to local authorities who they employ, I would expect them to be sensible about that in these difficult times.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Let me tell the Secretary of State that since April the arrears of those tenants in Wythenshawe in my constituency who are affected by the bedroom tax have increased by £500,000 and that more than 1,000 families have fallen behind with their rent for the very first time. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents for the hardship that policy has created?

Mr Pickles: Why did the right hon. Gentleman never raise that question when the problem affected private tenants in his constituency? Why was he so callous about their plight? We have put aside sums of money to deal with the hardship, but only a handful of local authorities have applied for it as they are more content to use the poor as a battering ram against this Government. He should be ashamed.

T9. [901246] Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Houses in multiple occupation can play a vital role in helping hard-working young people who are just starting out on their own. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to

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ensure that there is discretion so that council tax is levied on the entire houses that these young people live in rather than on the individual rooms they occupy?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend’s arguments are very persuasive. Indeed, he has spoken to me about this subject. I am prepared to consider the technicalities of it.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State expects all councils to secure the best return for asset sales. Will he therefore condemn Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council, which, in July, flogged off the listed North Reddish schools for a paltry £205,000 only for the new owners to have put the same buildings on the open market in recent weeks for £750,000?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman sounds like a shareholder in the Co-operative society.

T10. [901247] Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Given that large numbers of local authorities, such as Plymouth city council, have transferred their housing stock to housing associations, how does my hon. Friend the Minister propose to make those housing associations more accountable to their tenants rather than just being answerable to their board and to the Homes and Communities Agency?

Kris Hopkins: We have done it already. In the Localism Act 2011, we changed how housing associations were regulated, giving back power to tenants to hold their landlords to account.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend millions of pounds of much-needed funds on duplicating IT equipment because of the end user devices security guidance issued by CESG? Will he look into that and reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend that money?

Brandon Lewis: This is something that we are looking at, and I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman up to date with progress.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): My constituents are rightly concerned about opportunistic developers. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a local authority’s core strategy has passed its examination hearings and its site allocations process is out to consultation, at this advanced stage it would fly in the face of localism for a planning application to be approved at appeal?

Nick Boles: After a local plan in draft form has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, it is clear in planning guidance that the policies in it can carry weight in decisions on applications that come forward.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Earlier the Minister said that the bedroom tax was about aligning rules in the social and the private sector, and the Secretary of State indicated the same. Do they not understand that the demographics of the social and private sectors are very different, and that social housing

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houses some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, including the 400,000 disabled people affected by this? Does the Secretary of State not think the policy should be aligned with fairness by abolishing the tax?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady needs to look at the matter carefully. Exactly those kinds of people are housed in the private rented sector.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My right hon. Friend will know that there appears to be

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a growing desire on the part of developers to carpet rural Lincolnshire with wind turbines, most recently at Temple Hill in my constituency. What advice can he give those of my constituents who for very good reasons properly oppose the siting of these turbines in their local communities?

Kris Hopkins: Although I cannot comment on individual cases, we have put regulations before the House today which demand that developers speak to local communities. Also, as I have said before, communities should make sure that their local council has a robust local plan.

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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about our negotiations with Iran. Two weeks ago I reported to the House on the negotiations in Geneva between 8 and 10 November. I explained then that our aim was to produce an interim first-step agreement with Iran that could then create the confidence and time to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement addressing all concerns about its nuclear programme.

We have always been clear that because Iran’s programme is so extensive and crucial aspects of it have been concealed in the past, any agreement would have to be detailed and give assurance to the whole world that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran would be properly addressed. I said that we believed that such a deal was on the table, and that we would do our utmost to bridge the narrow gaps between the parties and conclude a strong agreement.

On Wednesday last week the E3 plus 3 and Iranian negotiators resumed their work in Geneva, and on Saturday morning I and the other E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers joined the talks. At 4 am yesterday we concluded the negotiations successfully, agreeing with Iran a thorough and detailed first-stage agreement that is a significant step towards enhancing the security of the middle east and preventing nuclear proliferation worldwide. In this statement I will cover the extensive commitments that Iran has made, the sanctions relief that it has been offered in return, and the steps we will now take to implement and build on what was agreed.

First, we have agreed a joint plan of action with Iran, with the end goal of a comprehensive settlement that ensures that its nuclear programme will be for exclusively peaceful purposes. The agreement has a duration of six months, renewable by mutual consent, and it sets out actions to be taken by both sides as a first step, as well as the elements to be negotiated in a final comprehensive settlement. I have placed a copy of the agreement in the Library of the House, but I wish now to highlight its most important aspects.

Iran has made a number of very significant commitments. Over the next six months Iran will cease enriching uranium above 5%, the level beyond which it becomes much easier to produce weapons-grade uranium. Furthermore, it has undertaken to eradicate its stockpile of the most concerning form of uranium enriched above 5%, by diluting half of it to a level of less than 5%, and converting the remaining half to oxide.

Iran will not install further centrifuges in its nuclear facilities or start operating installed centrifuges that have not yet been switched on. It will replace existing centrifuges only with centrifuges of the same type and produce centrifuges only to replace damaged existing machines, on a like-for-like basis. In other words, Iran will not install or bring into operation advanced centrifuges that could enable it to produce a dangerous level of enriched uranium more quickly. Iran will cap its stockpile of up to 5% enriched uranium in the highest-risk UF6 form by converting any newly enriched uranium into

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oxide, and it will not set up any new locations for enrichment or establish a reprocessing or reconversion facility.

Iran has agreed to enhanced monitoring of its nuclear programme, going beyond existing International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in Iran, including access to centrifuge assembly workshops and to uranium mines and mills. Iran will also provide the IAEA with additional information, including about its plans for nuclear facilities. At the heavy water research reactor at Arak, which offers Iran a potential route to a nuclear weapon through the production of plutonium rather than uranium, Iran will not commission the reactor, transfer fuel or heavy water to the reactor site, test additional fuel, produce more fuel for the reactor, or install any remaining components.

This agreement means that the elements of Iran’s nuclear programme that are thought to present the greatest risk cannot make progress during the period of the interim agreement. In other words, if Iran implements the deal in good faith, as it has undertaken to do, it cannot use those routes to move closer towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability. Moreover, some of the most dangerous elements of Iran’s programme are not only frozen, but actually rolled back. For instance, the agreement involves the eradication of around 200 kg of 20% enriched uranium that Iran has been stockpiling for several years.

Secondly, in return for those commitments Iran will receive proportionate and limited sanctions relief from the United States and the European Union. For its part, the US will pause efforts to reduce crude oil sales to Iran’s oil customers, repatriate to Iran some of its oil revenue held abroad, suspend sanctions on the Iranian auto industry, allow licensing of safety-related repairs and inspections for certain Iranian airlines and establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian and legitimate trade, including for payments to international organisations and Iranians studying abroad.

It is proposed that the EU and the US together will suspend sanctions on oil-related insurance and transport costs, which will allow the provision of such services to third states for the import of Iranian oil. We will also suspend the prohibition on the import, purchase or transport of Iranian petrochemical products and suspend sanctions on Iranian imports of gold and precious metals. But core sanctions on Iranian oil and gas will remain in place.

It is intended that the EU will also increase by an agreed amount the authorisation thresholds for financial transactions for humanitarian and non-sanctioned trade with Iran. The EU’s Council of Ministers will be asked to adopt legislation necessary to amend those sanctions and the new provisions would then apply to all EU member states. The total value of the sanctions relief is estimated at $7 billion over the six-month period. There will be no new nuclear-related sanctions adopted by the UN, EU and US during that period.

However, the bulk of international sanctions on Iran will remain in place. That includes the EU and US oil embargo, which restricts oil purchases from Iran globally, and sanctions on nuclear, military-related or ballistic missile-related goods and technology. It includes all frozen revenue and foreign exchange reserves held in accounts outside Iran and sanctions on many Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran, which means

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all Iranian assets in the US and EU remain frozen, apart from the limited repatriation of revenue agreed under this agreement. Iranian leaders and key individuals and entities will still have their assets in the EU and US frozen and be banned from travelling to the EU and US, and tough financial measures, including a ban on using financial messaging services and transactions with European and US banks, also remain in place. Those sanctions will not be lifted until a comprehensive settlement is reached, and we will enforce them robustly. That ensures that Iran still has a powerful incentive to reach a comprehensive solution, which is the third aspect of the agreement on which I wish to update the House today.

The agreement sets out the elements of a comprehensive solution, which we would aim to conclude within one year. These elements include Iran’s rights and obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and IAEA safeguards; the full resolution of concerns related to the heavy water research reactor at Arak; agreed transparency and monitoring, including the additional protocol; and co-operation on Iran’s civilian nuclear programme.

In return for the international community’s full confidence that Iran’s programme is solely peaceful, the plan of action envisages a mutually defined enrichment programme with agreed parameters and limits, but only as part of a comprehensive agreement where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This comprehensive solution, if and when agreed, would lead to the lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Reaching this interim agreement was a difficult and painstaking process, and there is a huge amount of work to be done to implement it. Implementation will begin following technical discussions with Iran and the IAEA, and EU preparations to suspend the relevant sanctions, which we hope will all be concluded by the end of January. A joint commission of the E3 plus 3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of these first-step measures, and it will work with the IAEA to resolve outstanding issues. The fact that we have achieved, for the first time in nearly a decade, an agreement that halts and rolls back Iran’s nuclear programme should give us heart that this work can be done and that a comprehensive agreement can be attained.

On an issue of such complexity, and given the fact that to make any diplomatic agreement worthwhile to both sides it has to involve compromises, such an agreement is bound to have its critics and opponents. However, we are right to test to the full Iran’s readiness to act in good faith, to work with the rest of the international community, and to enter into international agreements. If the Iranians do not abide by their commitments, they will bear a heavy responsibility, but if we did not take the opportunity to attempt such an agreement, then we ourselves would have been guilty of a grave error. It is true that if we did not have this agreement the pressure of sanctions on Iran would not be alleviated at all, but it is also true that there would be no restraint on advances to their programme—no check on their enrichment activity and stockpiles, no block on their addition of centrifuges, no barrier to prevent their bringing into operation their heavy water reactor at Arak, and no limitation on the many actions that could take them closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

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The bringing together of this agreement with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council united behind it sends a powerful signal in itself. While it is only a beginning, there is no doubt that this is an important, necessary and completely justified step, which through its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme gives us the time to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. I pay tribute to Baroness Ashton, to my Foreign Minister colleagues and to our Foreign Office staff who played an indispensable role. We will apply the same rigour and determination we have shown in these negotiations to the implementation of the agreement and to the search for a comprehensive settlement. At the same time, we will continue to be open to improvements in our bilateral relationship on a step-by-step and reciprocal basis, and our new chargé d’affaires will visit Iran shortly.

This agreement has shown that the combination of pressure expressed through sanctions coupled with a readiness to negotiate is the right policy. For a long time, that has been the united approach of this country, from the efforts of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to pursue negotiations a decade ago to the cross-party support in this House for the wide-ranging sanctions that we have adopted in recent years. We have been steadfast in pursuing that twin-track policy and seeking a peaceful solution. This agreement is true to that approach and to that sheer persistence in Britain and among our allies. This will remain our policy over the coming months as we build on and implement this first step on the long journey to making the middle east—and the whole world—safer from nuclear proliferation.

3.44 pm

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it? He was generous to end his remarks by recognising the reality of the bipartisan approach that has been characteristic of this House and, indeed, this country to these issues over recent years, including the approach of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) when he was Foreign Secretary. Let me echo that and add that all those involved in the Geneva negotiations, including the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office officials, deserve real credit for their role in helping secure this deal.

In particular, the work of the European Union High Representative, Baroness Cathy Ashton, has been fundamental. Indeed, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged in his statement—a little late, I would argue—she was “indispensable” to ensuring that agreement was finally reached. We on this side of the House feel a particular pride in the role that Baroness Ashton has played and the determination, skill and diplomatic perseverance she has shown, and we offer her our sincere congratulations.

The international community stands united in believing that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, that would make the world less safe, so the deal agreed in Geneva was a necessary and important first step. Iran has, of course, over recent years proceeded apace with its enrichment programme despite repeated calls by the international community for it to stop.

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This is not a perfect deal, nor is it guaranteed to lead to a comprehensive resolution, but, based on the Foreign Secretary’s statement, it appears to address a number of central concerns. First, it caps every aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme. Secondly, it includes strong verification mechanisms and measures. Thirdly, its text does not concede that Iran has an inalienable right to enrich. I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary about each of those three points.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the agreement does not call for the dismantlement of the Fordow plant, so will he set out what steps are envisaged to help ensure that that deeply buried facility will ultimately be decommissioned?

The Foreign Secretary referred to the heavy water research reactor at Arak. Although the deal specifies daily access for the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to Natanz and Fordow, it does not set out the frequency with which inspectors will have access to Arak, so will the Foreign Secretary give us further details of how they will gain access?

The Foreign Secretary did not mention Parchin in his statement, and neither did the final text of the agreement agreed yesterday, so will he now clarify whether the deal requires Iran to grant IAEA inspectors access to the Parchin military base, where Iran is suspected of carrying out tests related to the detonating of a nuclear weapon?

There has been much speculation over the past 24 hours about the absence from the final agreement of the phrase “right to enrich”. Will the Foreign Secretary set out the British Government’s understanding of whether that absence reflects a continuing point of difference between the P5 plus 1 and Iran, or whether the omission reflects a shared understanding on the issue?

Although an interim deal seeks to prevent Iran from developing its enrichment programme while talks are ongoing, it could also ease the pressure on Iran and, in fact, undermine the urgency with which a comprehensive resolution may be sought. Given that risk, will the Foreign Secretary set out how he intends to prevent that outcome and what steps he will take with others to continue negotiations on a comprehensive deal within the time frame that has been set out?

The announcement of $7 billion of sanctions relief, effective immediately, will be seen as a necessary step to secure the concessions agreed by Iran as part of the interim deal, but pressure must still be maintained. Will the Foreign Secretary offer the House assurances that the net effect of that sanctions relief will not exceed the projected amount?

As of yesterday, Iran’s so-called critical capability will be extended. That, of course, is welcomed by everyone in this House, but while the interim agreement sets Iran back, it does not prevent future progress. It would, of course, be far better to secure the end of all enrichment and to see the dismantling of all relevant facilities.

One key test of the interim agreement will be whether what has now been agreed in principle can be implemented in practice. That means keeping sanctions tight, verification intrusive and all options on the table. A second key test will be whether the interim agreement can, in the months

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ahead, be translated into a comprehensive agreement. That means building on this weekend’s agreement through urgent and sustained negotiations on a final resolution.

The interim agreement reached over the weekend will give us the time and flexibility to negotiate the much more difficult and complex final agreement to dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear programme. The Government can be assured that they will have our support in pursuit of that objective in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the shadow Foreign Secretary for his clear support. There has indeed been a bipartisan approach for a long time, and it is clearly continuing in relation to this agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say, as he did at the end of his remarks, that it is very important to keep sanctions tight and verification intrusive to maintain the confidence and the pressure needed to reach a comprehensive agreement. He is also right that no such agreement can be perfect—it is the product of negotiations and compromise—or guaranteed to lead to a comprehensive agreement, but in my judgment it is the only route to a comprehensive agreement.

Some have made the criticism that we should have concentrated on moving straight to a final and comprehensive agreement, but from everything that I have seen, I know that that would not have been possible, and while we negotiated such a comprehensive agreement, the progress of the Iranian programme, which has now been brought to a stop in many ways, would have continued. This is therefore a crucial step on the way to a comprehensive agreement and makes it possible to set about negotiating one.

The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. He asked about how the agreement relates to the plant at Fordow. The agreement specifically refers to that:

“Iran announces that it will not make any further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant…, Fordow…or the Arak reactor”.

Footnote 2 on the second page of the agreement states in relation to Fordow that there should be

“no further enrichment over 5% at 4 cascades now enriching uranium”,

and no feeding of uranium hexafluoride into the other 12 cascades and so on. There are therefore specific requirements on that plant. As for each of the plants, its longer-term future, including whether it operates at all, will be up to the final and comprehensive agreement and must be addressed at that stage.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about inspections at Parchin. That remains a point of difference between the IAEA and Iran, including in their latest talks, and it is another aspect of the Iranian programme that must be addressed as part of a comprehensive and final settlement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the urgency. On that, it is important to put the $7 billion of sanctions relief into perspective, because he referred to it as being effective immediately. The $7 billion of sanctions relief is actually available to Iran over the six-month period once that period has begun, which we hope will be by the end of January. A good deal of the $7 billion involves the unfreezing of assets, so those assets will be

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unfrozen in stages. Iran will not therefore receive $7 billion on the first day, and then decide whether to implement its side of the agreement.

It is also important to see that $7 billion in perspective. In January, Iran’s Oil Minister acknowledged that the fall in oil exports as a result of sanctions was costing Iran between $4 billion and $8 billion every month. Reports suggest that Iran currently has between $60 billion and $100 billion of assets frozen overseas that it cannot access. The $7 billion of relief is therefore a very small proportion of the total frozen assets and of the total effect of sanctions applied to Iran.

That is why I have said that how we apply sanctions relief leaves Iran with a huge incentive, since it wants wider relief from sanctions, to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement. That will help to maintain the urgency, but of course all our diplomatic activity—seeking to maintain the momentum behind the agreement, and to ensure that it is implemented and that we can go on to negotiate a comprehensive settlement—will also convey that urgency. The right hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will leave no stone unturned to try to bring that about.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): May I briefly add my tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)? It is fair to say that the initiative he took all those years ago was not met with universal approval throughout the House.

In the light of Mr Netanyahu’s public response to this agreement, what assessment has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made of the risk of Israel taking some unilateral action that might undermine the agreement, and what representations has he made to the Israeli Government against taking any such action?

Mr Hague: We are in constant touch with the Israeli Government. The Prime Minister discussed matters with Prime Minister Netanyahu during the negotiation of the agreement over the past few weeks. It is important to understand the concerns of those who are sceptical about any agreement on the grounds of Iran’s past deceptions. It is also important to ask those people what the alternative to the agreement would be. The alternatives would involve Iran getting to nuclear weapons threshold capability, Iran having a nuclear weapon, a conflict with Iran or all those things. We have to be clear that there are compelling arguments for the agreement. We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine the agreement. We will make that very clear to all concerned.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): May I thank the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) for their generous remarks? May I also, in turn, express my great appreciation and congratulations to the Foreign Secretary on the personal effort that he has put in to this negotiation? I recognise that the Iranians are among the toughest negotiators in the world and extract every last ounce from negotiations.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary accepts that it is crucial that the momentum is kept up. The agreements that we made between 2003 and 2006 were undermined not only by the difficulties in Tehran, but by a desperate Faustian pact that was developed between hard-liners

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in Tehran and hard-liners in Washington who fed off each other. That ended up with President Khatami being replaced by President Ahmadinejad. The United States helped to produce that situation.

Lastly, may I ask a question that follows on from the previous question? Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Americans that if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts at the United States Congress prevent President Obama from continuing with the negotiations, the UK, Germany, France and the EU will have to detach themselves from America and reach their own conclusions, along with other members of the P5?

Mr Hague: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks and I agree very much about the importance of maintaining momentum. It was possible to see that even over the past two weeks. The 10-day gap between the negotiations that took place two weeks ago and those this weekend brought forth a great deal of criticism in Iran, in the US Congress and elsewhere in the world that could easily have fatally complicated the efforts to reach agreement. Considering the months of work that need to go into the implementation of this agreement and into attaining a comprehensive and final agreement, it is vital to maintain the momentum all the way.

The agreements that the United States has made can all be implemented by Executive order. That does not mean that the debates in Congress are over. What happens in the US Congress is up to the United States. However, the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that the United States Administration are extremely strongly committed to this process. The leadership and persistence of Secretary Kerry were crucial in bringing about the agreement and the clarity of President Obama on the matter is clear. I do not think that we need, at this point, to start looking at the other scenarios that the right hon. Gentleman brought in of acting separately from the United States.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am afraid that we have got through only two questions in five minutes, which by normal standards would be very slow. We need to speed up. We will be led in that important exercise by an immediate past Minister of great experience and versatility.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): The wealth of detail that has been offered by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary indicates that this is no casual agreement, but one that has been carefully thought through. I pay tribute to his persistence and that of Cathy Ashton in holding the P5 plus 1 together. Does he agree that for Israel to be assured, every dot and comma of the interim agreement must be held to; that for the Arab world to be reassured, we must make serious progress on a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the middle east; and that for the world to be reassured, the Iranians must stop their murderous activities in Syria immediately and contribute to an end to that conflict as quickly as possible?

Mr Hague: Absolutely. On a day of tributes—we must not have too many tributes because I think there are many troubles ahead—I pay tribute to work done by my right hon. Friend on these issues in the Foreign Office over the past three and half years. He is right about all those things. This wealth of detail, as he put it,

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must be implemented in detail. It will also be helpful in the debates that take place in this country and the world over the next few days for that wealth of detail to be examined in detail by everybody who comments on it, and I hope they will take the trouble to do that. The extent to which the agreement means a change in any of Iran’s other policies, such as that on Syria, remains to be determined. Of course, we also encourage Iran to play a more responsible role more broadly in world affairs.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): The European Union, the Government and the United States are to be congratulated on this brave and bold step towards reducing tension in the middle east. Would it be right for the Government now to approach Israel and ask for a reciprocal gesture and for it to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection, in order to denuclearise the whole middle east?

Mr Hague: Politics is the art of the possible, as I think we all know in this House, and it has turned out that this agreement is possible. The hon. Gentleman is trying to lead me into something that it would probably not be possible for us to obtain.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a most welcome moment for a world that has grown weary of conflict to see the great achievements of diplomacy and engagement? Does he agree that a full and comprehensive agreement would not be possible without a proper interim agreement of this type, and that the key to confidence in the future will be verification and inspection?

Mr Hague: I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is vital to build trust and confidence in the habit of working together to get to a comprehensive agreement. It is also vital to have time to create that comprehensive agreement. Time was running short for any agreement, given what was happening in Iran’s nuclear programme, so for all those reasons, this is an essential step on the way to a comprehensive agreement. Anyone who fancies that, alternatively, we could have just jumped to a comprehensive agreement, needs to revise that judgment.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I warmly congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his role in this, but may I urge him to be a bit more effusive in his praise for Baroness Ashton for the simple reason that I think the agreement shows that where the European Union can combine, it can achieve far more than individual countries working on their own?

Mr Hague: I am never lacking in effusion for the role of Baroness Ashton. She has handled things brilliantly, particularly in creating confidence between the Iranian negotiators and the E3 plus 3 team. Over the past three and a half years I dare say that I have praised her and worked with her a great deal more than the hon. Gentleman has experience of doing.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): We have the very unusual scenario of Saudi Arabia and Israel agreeing with each other in publicly criticising the agreement. That is understandable: elements in both countries believe they have an existential fight on their hands that will

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only get tougher with a more confident Iran. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we have a duty of care to those allies, and that there is a long way to go in persuading them that the agreement is in their best interests?

Mr Hague: Yes, we do have a duty to understand those concerns. As I said, given past history on this matter we should never be surprised that some people are sceptical about the agreement, and we should understand those concerns. It is therefore incumbent on us to explain the detail and say how we will keep up this work, and to maintain the confidence of as many nations as possible in this work. That will include discussing the issue in detail and extensively with both countries mentioned by my right hon. Friend.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), Secretary Kerry, and all others involved on achieving this exceptionally important agreement. It must be hoped that not only will it lead to Iran re-entering the international community, but that it will ameliorate oppressive aspects of its internal policies. Will the right hon. Gentleman point out to the Prime Minister of Israel, who yesterday said that nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons in the world—he should know because he has a stockpile of several hundred nuclear warheads and the missiles with which to deliver them—and who in addition refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that any attempt to damage or attack the agreement in any way will be unacceptable and will be opposed?

Mr Hague: As I have said, we would strongly discourage any country from seeking to undermine the agreement, but I have not seen any sign that any country will do so in any practical way. Every country in the world understands how serious that would be. Some may disapprove of the agreement, but they know it has been made by, among others, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and that it must be given its chance. I believe it will be given its chance.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree with Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who has often backed what Israel has had to say about Iran, and who has concluded that:

“Seeking to undermine the deal would bring benefit to no party except those who prefer war”?

Mr Hague: Yes, I heard some of Mark Fitzpatrick’s comments yesterday in the media. I thought they were well informed and balanced in coming to the conclusion that it was a good deal. He did so on the basis of the analysis carried out in the IISS. Anyone who goes through the detailed examples I have given to the House and who sees the range of activities of the Iranian nuclear programme that are covered, how specifically they are covered, and the importance attached in the agreement to obtaining a comprehensive agreement, will be very reassured.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Those who mocked Lady Ashton’s appointment—they certainly do not include the Foreign Secretary—may wish to apologise accordingly.

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Is there not a kind of unholy alliance, certainly including Israel but also including Saudi Arabia and possibly elements within the Iranian regime, that would want to undermine or destroy the agreement? Should we not be very much on our guard against that?

Mr Hague: We will be on our guard against any attempt to undermine the agreement, but it has the backing of the US Government, Russia, China, France and Britain—the five permanent members of the Security Council—and it has clearly received widespread support around the world. Therefore, as I have said, we would discourage anyone from undermining it, but I believe the world will give the agreement the chance to succeed.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My right hon. Friend is right to be cautious if not sceptical. To persuade us of the genuineness of Iran’s intentions, would it not help if it were to end its involvement in terrorism in that region of the world, including in Syria, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has rightly said; and end its involvement in the repression of religious minorities, including Christians and Jewish people, in Iran? Would it also not help if Iran stopped the hate speech against Israel, a recent example of which came from the Supreme Leader, who just a few days ago referred to Israel as

“the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region”?

That seems to have escaped the attention of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

Mr Hague: I agree on the importance of those issues and of Iran changing its approach to them. Clearly, the negotiations were solely on the nuclear programme. It is right that they were, because in order to make progress, we must focus exclusively on that. However, in our wider discussions with Iran, which have become possible with the upgrading of our diplomatic relations that I have announced, we will want to address the full range of issues, including the sponsorship of terrorism in other countries and the hate speech to which my hon. Friend refers. We will go on to discuss those other issues with Iran.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and all those engaged in the negotiations, not least the Iranians, on this major step forward in international diplomacy, and indeed thank them for it. However, to reiterate the comments of the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is not now the time to urge Iran to do everything in her power to bring an end to the desperate civil war in Syria? There are millions of refugees, and we have learned today that 11,000 children have been deliberately killed in Syria, some at the hands of torturers.

Mr Hague: It is time to do that. It is too early to say whether the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme foreshadows any other changes in its foreign policy. We would of course like to see such changes, particularly in relation to Syria. We, with other countries, have worked hard to assemble the Geneva II peace conference and in the past two hours, the date of the conference has been announced: it will take place on 22 January. I urge Iran to play a constructive and helpful role in the peace process.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Following on from the excellent question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) on verification and inspection, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the IAEA will perhaps need more resources to ensure that the interim agreement is fulfilled?

Mr Hague: The IAEA will need to devote more resources to this from within its budget. On page two of the agreement, there is quite a long list of additional things it will be expected to do, including agreement on the safeguards approach from the reactor in Iraq, daily inspector access for various purposes, managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops and so on. The IAEA has applied itself extremely well in trying to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme in recent years, and it will be well up to those tasks.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the agreement, but given Iran’s history of concealment will the Foreign Secretary say a little more on the monitoring and verification process, and the oversight of that process by the international community?

Mr Hague: That is an important point, which links to the previous question. I was giving examples of some of the additional IAEA inspection work that will result from the agreement. In addition, a joint commission will be formed from the E3 plus 3 countries and Iran to work on implementing and monitoring the deal. That means that there will be constant discussion between the E3 plus 3 countries and Iran, which will require the Iranians to respond to any concerns we have about inspection and verification. This is a big step forward in inspection, including intrusive inspection and verification, and we must keep up our determination to do that.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Over the years, several thousand Iranian students have studied in the UK, with many paying full fees, renting properties and spending very large sums of money while resident here. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify what consideration he has given to lifting the sanctions that prevent their families and sponsors from transferring money to the UK during their stay? Will he at least consider nominating a single bank in the UK as a conduit for student support, much as the United States has done during the whole period of its sanctions against Iran?

Mr Hague: I will look at those points as part of the step-by-step upgrading of our bilateral relations. It is possible that in some cases students could benefit from the new authorisation rules in the European Union that I mentioned. While Iran cannot operate the embassy with Iranian staff, we are considering it being able to increase the number of locally engaged staff who can help with such issues. There may be things that help people in that situation, but I will look at the issue in more detail.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and draw his attention to what he said about momentum in the process in the region. I obviously hope that a detailed agreement is reached within six months. Will he now turn his attention to the need for a nuclear weapons-free middle east, and the importance of reconstituting the conference, which

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Finland was supposed to have held, involving all countries in the region? Without an agreement on a nuclear-free middle east, somebody will develop nuclear weapons or Israel will go on being unchallenged as the only nuclear weapons state in the region. This is urgent.

Mr Hague: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are keeping our focus on that. I pay tribute to him for keeping his focus—relentlessly—in his questions in Parliament, but we are also keeping our focus and continuing our work to bring the conference together. If we can carry our success on this agreement through to the success of a comprehensive and final settlement, it will be a big advance towards what he has been campaigning for and remove more of the excuses of other nations against such discussions. I think, therefore, that he can view this as a step forward in that regard.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Many people regard Iran as the Soviet Union of the middle east, because it practises repression at home, it exports terrorism abroad and it says it wants to wipe Israel off the map. How will my right hon. Friend judge whether this is genuine perestroika and glasnost or whether it is deception by Iran, and what steps can he take to ensure that over the six months it not only stops work on nuclear enrichment, but stops supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and the Assad regime?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend raises a wide range of wholly legitimate issues. We have many differences with Iran, including on many of those issues and on its appalling human rights record. This agreement does not make any of those differences go away. I do not want to mislead the House. The agreement does not mean there is necessarily a change in its other policies, but it must be judged on its own merits and on whether it is operated in good faith and succeeds in dealing with the nuclear issue. Of course, however, we will use the opportunity for dialogue with Iran to raise the sorts of issues he describes.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I join others in congratulating the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) on all their work.

The Foreign Secretary previously announced the appointment of Ajay Sharma as the chargé d’affaires in Tehran, but our embassy remains closed. Bearing in mind the 81,000 British Iranians resident in this country who wish to see their relatives, what progress can be made to ensure the embassy is opened as quickly as possible?

Mr Hague: We will take a step-by-step approach. Ajay Sharma, who, as the right hon. Gentleman says, is the new non-resident chargé d’affaires, has been closely involved in the talks and will visit Iran shortly. If visits in both directions by officials go well, we will contemplate other steps that could lead ultimately to the reopening of embassies, but I judge it better to take a step-by-step approach. In a different way from the nuclear programme, that, too, requires the building up of trust, confidence and, above all, clarity that a reopened embassy could operate properly and with all the normal functions of

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an embassy. We would have to get clarity from the Iranians on that before we could reopen an embassy, so we will continue to take a step-by-step approach.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Given that Syria and Iran are joined at the hip, is it not clear that no such agreement would have been reached had the plan for an Anglo-American military attack on Syria gone ahead? So while we are busy conferring praise on Governments past and present, can we at least have a pat on the back for Parliament for its role in preventing such an ill-considered move?

Mr Hague: I always want to pat Parliament on the back, even when I disagree with it, but I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis. I agree—not with him, but with others—that the contemplation by the United States of military action produced a very important breakthrough on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary, alongside Baroness Ashton and Secretary of State Kerry, on his role in this matter. Does the agreement not show the effectiveness of united, co-ordinated EU action, just as the agreement did on normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo, which was also brought about by the efforts of Baroness Ashton seven months ago? Does he agree that we need effective co-operation between EU partners to get results?

Mr Hague: I do not regard it as a revolutionary thing to say that it is desirable to have good co-operation between European nations in foreign policy. Indeed, that often helps to produce results. The scale and effectiveness of EU sanctions, agreed by all EU countries, has made a big difference on this issue. It is important to add, though—this is something of a qualification to the hon. Gentleman’s question—that here the work with the United States has been absolutely indispensable. Such an agreement cannot be made without the United States. Indeed, the assistance of Russia and China has been important, too. So this is something that includes European unity, but goes beyond that, which is why it is so powerful.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was sighing loudly from his seat; he may now speak forcefully on his feet.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): How can we trust the Iranians—a terrorist regime that poses a grave danger to the Arab world and to Israel and has a long history of lying and duplicity? This is from their own chief nuclear negotiator:

“While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipments in parts of the nuclear conversion facility in Isfahan... By creating a calm environment…we were able to complete”.

So now they keep their centrifuges; they go on enriching uranium by up to 5%; and they pocket $7 billion. What is to stop them doing a North Korea and subjecting us to more blackmail in six months’ time?

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Mr Hague: My hon. Friend asks how we can trust people with whom we have many differences—we certainly have them—and who have concealed aspects of their programme in the past. The answer is that this agreement is so specific and so extensive that we will soon be able to see whether they can be trusted or not. We will all be able to judge whether these commitments are being entered into or not. If we are to take the approach that, whatever we agree, the Iranians cannot be trusted to deliver it, we can, of course, never have an agreement on this issue. That would not even allow us to test whether an agreement could be made and implemented. That would be a disastrous course to embark upon.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): These welcome developments are due in no small part to the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who stood on a platform of improving relations with the west and achieved a landslide victory. Considering that he had been in post only for a few weeks when we had a debate on the proposed military attack on Syria in August, does the Foreign Secretary think that military action by the west in Syria would have strengthened his position with the Iranian President or destabilised it?

Mr Hague: This is a similar question to the one from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). It is, of course, a hypothetical question, because such action did not take place. The debate about such action did, however, produce a change of policy by Russia and the Assad regime, and we are now seeing the dismantling of Syria’s chemical warfare programme. It is idle to speculate what might have happened in many different scenarios. Relations with Iran on this issue should be viewed on their own merits and on their own terms, and they are not necessarily related to Iran’s other policies and to its involvement in, or opinion about, Syria. We should be careful about making those linkages.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): Iran’s enrichment programme has cast a terrible shadow over the middle east and beyond for over a decade, so I very much welcome this landmark agreement—even if it is only for an interim period. I know that my right hon. Friend hoped to be here to make this statement last week, and its being made today is a tribute to his determination to see this through. Can he confirm that the IAEA will have full and free access to all Iran’s nuclear facilities, so that Iran’s commitment to the agreement can be properly measured?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. To give him a flavour of what is in the agreement on this, it requires the

“Provision of specified information to the IAEA, including information on Iran’s plans for nuclear facilities, a description of each building on each nuclear site, a description of the scale of operations for each location engaged in nuclear activities, information on uranium mines and mills, and information on source material”

all to be produced

“within three months of the adoption of these measures.”

If the agreement is implemented in good faith, it will involve the provision of a lot more openness and information to the IAEA.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): At the risk of sounding like the ugly fairy godmother at the christening—[Hon. Members: “Never!]—may I ask the Foreign Secretary to tell us what discussions would take place if the reintroduction of sanctions were required, and how speedily does he think that could proceed?

Mr Hague: That is a perfectly legitimate question. We are talking about either sanctions that will be suspended—not lifted or abolished—or about the unfreezing of a specified amount of frozen assets on a one-off basis. The sanctions relief that is being offered to Iran can easily be reversed if it does not abide by the commitments into which it has entered.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Of course we thank the Foreign Secretary and his Security Council and European Union colleagues for a very successful agreement, but we are mindful that the proof of Iran’s sincerity lies in inspection and verification in the next six months. Does he think that, while that is proceeding, Iran might be encouraged to participate in the other conversations in the middle east that must happen—the discussions on Syria that he has announced will take place in January, and discussions on other issues further down the track relating to Israel and Palestine?

Mr Hague: I hope so. There have been several questions about that topic. As I have said, it is too early to conclude from this agreement that other aspects of Iranian foreign policy will change, but of course we should like that to happen. I have said to Foreign Minister Zarif that if Iran—along with nearly all the rest of the world—were to accept last year’s Geneva communiqué on Syria as the basis for future discussions on the subject, many countries would be much more open to its involvement in those discussions. That is up to the Iranians, and I hope that they will respond positively to such suggestions.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I warmly welcome this breakthrough. The Foreign Secretary has referred to Iran’s appalling human rights record and to the prospect of future bilateral discussions about it. What prospect does he see of some movement on issues such as the Iranian Government’s practice of imprisoning church pastors?

Mr Hague: I think that we all hope that there will be movement on those issues, irrespective of anything relating to the nuclear issue. The right hon. Gentleman gives just one example of a truly appalling human rights record. Of course we will wish to discuss human rights with Iran as part of our bilateral discussions, and we will impress on the Iranians not only the importance, in our opinion, of universal human rights, but the positive impression that they would make on the world if they were to deal with those issues as well. Let me stress again, however, that it is much too early to say that we can read from this agreement a change in Iranian policy on other matters.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I add my support for the agreement? Given how long it has taken to reach this very limited stage of progress and given that the track record of the Iranian regime makes constructive dialogue with it so difficult,

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does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be perverse to turn our backs on this agreement and that the operative phrase in his statement is “if Iran implements the deal in good faith”? How confident is he that Iran will implement it in good faith?

Mr Hague: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support and for his wise words. Only Iran can determine whether it implements the deal in good faith, but I will say that, on the basis of our dealings with Foreign Minister Zarif—who has conducted all the negotiations from the Iranian side—I believe in his sincerity about reaching the deal and about implementing it. I hope that he will continue to have the necessary support in Iran—where there is, to put it mildly, a quite opaque and complex power structure—to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): The Secretary of State talked about the need for Iran to operate in good faith, but that is not what we have seen from Iran in recent decades. Is there a plan for action in six months’ time if we find that it has not operated in good faith and has not complied with this interim agreement?

Mr Hague: In that eventuality, we would not be able to renew the agreement. As I pointed out earlier, all the sanctions relief that we have signed up to here is reversible or is one-off, so it would not be repeated if Iran does not implement this agreement, but I think the Iranians have a clear understanding of that and that is part of the pressure on them to make sure that they do it.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his ability to function without sleep, seemingly. One of the issues is the interpretation of any agreement that has been reached. The interpretation that seems to be coming out of Iran is that the world has accepted its right to enrich uranium and to retain all the facilities that could enrich uranium if the agreement falls apart. What can my right hon. Friend say to the House and the world about Iran sticking to what we believe has been agreed?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, but all of us who were in the House in the 1990s, before the procedures of the House were changed, are entirely used to functioning without sleep, including speaking without sleep. Just to be clear, this is not a recognition of the right to enrich, which we do not believe exists under the non-proliferation treaty. The agreement envisages that if we agree a comprehensive solution, that would enable Iran to enjoy its basic rights of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, with a mutually defined enrichment programme limited to practical needs; but to get to that point, Iran needs to implement all the detailed measures—there is more detail than I have been able to give the House in the statement—that I described earlier.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): As the person who had the interesting privilege of being the first British Minister to visit Iran after a 21-year gap following its 1979 revolution, may I warmly welcome the progress made by the Foreign Secretary, Baroness

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Ashton and everyone else who has been responsible for the advances that have been made leading to this agreement, but at the same time echo the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about the risks of agreement being frustrated by those both in Iran and elsewhere who do not want this to lead on to a more permanent agreement? Remembering the frustration of the hopes that were placed at that time in the Khatami presidency opening the door for greater understanding, may I urge the Foreign Secretary and all concerned to do everything possible over the next six months to not let this opportunity drift out of our reach?

Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely; I am fully conscious, as are the Government and our allies, of the importance of that. That is one of the reasons why it has been important to respond quickly to Iran’s readiness to make such an agreement—so people in Iran can see that it is possible to make an agreement, that there are compromises that can be made and that it is in the interests of everyone, including the people of Iran, to do so. Showing that quickly gives the opportunity to those in Iran who want to be able to carry that on for the future.

Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the hard work and effort he and the other P5 plus 1 nations have put into getting this interim agreement, often in the face of vested-interest opposition both here and in Iran? Of course, as many colleagues have mentioned, verification and inspection will be the best way to put aside those who oppose this deal. When President Rouhani was part of the nuclear negotiation teams in the past, he was instrumental in getting Iran to sign up to, or commit to, the additional protocol of the nuclear proliferation treaty. Was that discussed and should we seek that in future, because surely the best way to achieve this is through international law and UN verification?

Mr Hague: Of course we would want Iran to observe the additional protocol. This is an issue that will have to be addressed in the discussions on a comprehensive agreement, and my hon. Friend will be aware from his knowledge of Iran that Iran’s ratification and observance of the additional protocol would be dependent on the Majlis. It would have to have a vote about that, in the Iranian system. That could introduce an additional complexity, but it is something we would certainly want it to do.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): We welcome this agreement, although it is a first step in a long process. I remind the Foreign Secretary that President Obama and the American Congress postponed a decision as a result of this Parliament stopping the Foreign Secretary and the Americans having an attack on Iran. More importantly, if it is sufficient to sit down with the Iranians to discuss what is a very serious issue, why are we not facilitating talks on Syria? Are we going to wait another six months, allowing that carnage to go on?

Mr Hague: The debates that we had, whatever side people were on, about military action in August were about military action relating to Syria, not Iran. It is very much part of our policy, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to promote a political solution in Syria, including supporting a peace conference on Syria, and I hosted

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the Friends of Syria core group in London last month to agree our approach to that. I met the Syrian opposition in Istanbul last week to encourage their participation in a peace conference; that has now been announced for 22 January. Of course, we will do everything that we can to bring about progress in finding a peaceful solution on Syria, just as we have on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Mr Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I apologise, Mr Speaker, for missing the first few moments of the Foreign Secretary’s statement—

Mr Speaker: Well, that is a very, very significant admission. On this occasion—[Interruption]honesty should be rewarded, as somebody is kindly suggesting. But I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that, notwithstanding his immense distinction, I am afraid that it will not be allowed again. On this occasion, we will let him; he has been very candid.

Mr O'Brien: I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. Given the question that I am about to put, I thought that transparency was the better decision.

This will all depend on the transparency of the monitoring and verification processes, and how much trust can be placed in efforts to remove the drivers of instability to gain greater security—an issue that is wider than just the nuclear issue. Can the Foreign Secretary comment on the expectations?

Mr Hague: If everyone involved is as honest and transparent as my right hon. Friend, there will be no problem in the implementation of this agreement, and I would strongly encourage that. Of course, in addition to all this inspection, all the monitoring and the joint commission, in the end any agreement is going to require good faith and commitment from the other side, and that has to come from political will. So we will do everything that we can to make sure that there is rigorous inspection, but it will only work if there is a real commitment from Iran as well.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): My right hon. Friend has spoken about the appointment of a new British chargé d’affaires to Tehran, but an Iranian Government mob smashed up the British embassy only a relatively short time ago and did millions of pounds-worth of damage which, under the Geneva diplomatic protocols, they now owe in compensation to the British taxpayer. Is any progress being made with Iran in securing that compensation before diplomatic progress is made?

Mr Hague: This is a good question. Indeed, the United Kingdom should be entitled—is entitled—to compensation for the damage done, and compensation will be one of the issues that we need to discuss in this step-by-step upgrading of diplomatic relations. As I mentioned earlier, the most important consideration will be whether an embassy is allowed to operate with all the normal functions of an embassy, but we will address compensation as well.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Back in 1994, an agreement was signed to curtail the development of nuclear weapon capacity in North Korea. At the time, President Clinton stated that the agreement

“will make the United States, the Korean peninsula and the world safer”.

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We all know how that ended, so how confident is the Foreign Secretary that history will not repeat itself and, on this occasion, the monitoring of the agreement will be sufficient to ensure transparency in the process?

Mr Hague: The provision for monitoring, as my hon. Friend can gather, is very extensive and very detailed—to a much greater degree than on any comparable agreement made in the past. How confident can we be that all these things will be abided by? Time will tell. I have spoken about the sincerity, I believe, of the Iranian negotiators; but implementing this is another matter. Our confidence must be based on what actually happens. I would only say, as I said earlier, that the provisions are sufficiently detailed about a sufficient range of sites and activities in Iran that we will be able to see whether confidence is justified or not.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): I commend the Foreign Secretary’s role in the negotiations, but does he agree that the concession to the Iranians on uranium enrichment in this deal is quite remarkable, given that all previous United Nations resolutions have explicitly stated that Iran should stop all such enrichment at its plants?

Mr Hague: It is true that this is different from past UN Security Council resolutions, although it is also true that it would not be possible to reach any agreement with Iran without this aspect to such an agreement. It is also true that this will go along with the other parts of the preamble to the agreement, which talks about the transparency measures, and that Iran has reaffirmed that in no circumstances will it ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons. When the world can be satisfied with that last sentence, it will be possible to make an agreement on the enrichment provisions of which I spoke earlier.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Many of my constituents are concerned about the vagueness of the deal in relation to addressing further uranium enrichment. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us, particularly when President Rouhani has stated:

“No matter what interpretations are given, Iran’s right to enrichment has been recognised”?

Mr Hague: I mentioned earlier the interpretation of the so-called right to enrich. The E3 plus 3 countries do not recognise a right to enrich, but we have referred to enrichment in the way that I read out earlier. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is nothing vague about the agreement. It includes these words, at the bottom of page 1:

“Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months.”

The agreement goes on to make other detailed provisions.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s personal commitment to securing the interim agreement that was arranged over the weekend. I am also pleased to hear that any sanctions relief will be phased. Will he confirm that any release of oil revenues held in frozen foreign bank accounts will happen only if Iran lives up to the commitments that it made at the weekend, month in, month out, and to its ongoing commitment to a comprehensive agreement?

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Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely. This will happen on a phased basis over a six-month period, and as I mentioned, it involves the release of frozen assets on a one-off basis. That can therefore be stopped at any time, so it will be important for all sides to see that Iran is really fulfilling the agreement for confidence to be maintained. The position is therefore as my hon. Friend has set out.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con):

“Past actions best predict future actions, and Iran has defied the United Nations Security Council… Simply put: Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt.”

Those are not my words, but those of the Canadian Foreign Minister yesterday following the announcement of this deal. There is no doubting the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to the agreement, but many of our closest allies and friends in the region and elsewhere are deeply concerned about it. Over the next six months, will he commit to working with those allies and friends, so that their views on the final deal can be taken into account?

Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an entirely fair point about the need to work with other countries, including some whose scepticism about such agreements we should understand, given Iran’s past record. It is important to understand their natural scepticism, but it is also important to think about what on earth the alternatives to reaching a workable agreement would be. My judgment is that this is a good enough agreement, because the alternatives could involve Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability, or getting to the threshold of that, in the not-too-distant future, or a conflict with Iran. We will, however, work with other countries and reassure them along the way.