Karen Bradley: To correct the hon. Lady, she said that two thirds are held for more than a month, but 63% are discharged within 28 days and either removed or released. The issue with the length of time for which people are detained is that the system that we inherited had too many layers, too many procedures and too many appeals,

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which meant that we could not get to the bottom of whether somebody was right to claim asylum or whether they should be returned to their home. By reducing the number of appeals to four, I hope we will see a shorter time period.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): The managing director of Serco’s home affairs business has said that an independent review was required because the

“public will want to be confident that Yarl’s Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity”.

Given the catalogue of shame and controversy over many years, is not the only way to regain public confidence to strip Serco of its responsibility for running Yarl’s Wood?

Karen Bradley: I do not think that the answer is to strip Serco of its responsibility; the answer is to make sure that we get to the bottom of what has happened. My hon. Friend is right to say that any form of abuse is an embarrassment. We need the public not just to see that there are no problems, but to believe that there are no problems. We need them to be happy that detainees are being treated in an appropriate and acceptable way. We are holding Serco’s feet to the fire: I want to see action, we are making sure that it takes action, and we will take action against it if we need to.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): In her opening remarks, the Minister said that a recent inspection had found Yarl’s Wood to be safe. Clearly, it is not. Could she explain the discrepancy between the reality and the inspection report, and what is she doing about it?

Karen Bradley: As I said in my opening comments, there have been a number of inspections of Yarl’s Wood by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and the independent monitoring board, which, as I have said, has the keys to Yarl’s Wood and can go in any time it wants. We have found no evidence that anybody is at risk. However, the allegations made in last night’s programme are very serious and we need to get to the bottom of them and take action.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): The recent footage was disturbing, but, unfortunately, allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable women and abuse at the centre are not new. Given the apparent gulf between official reports, what the Minister has said today and life at Yarl’s Wood, and given that we have seen so many repeated failures over such a long time and the reluctance of Ministers to act so far, can we be confident that change will really happen?

Karen Bradley: It is not fair to say that Ministers have been reluctant to take action—we have taken significant action. This urgent question follows an urgent question about Oxfordshire county council, and a summit on child sexual abuse is taking place at Downing street today. There needs to be a sea change in how all people in authority and all bodies treat allegations and victims. We all have a responsibility to take this seriously.

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Maternity Services (Morecambe Bay)

1.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr Jeremy Hunt): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the independent investigation into the care of mothers and babies at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, which is being published today.

I commissioned this report in September 2013 because I believed there were vital issues that needed to be addressed following serious incidents in maternity services provided by the trust dating back to 2004.

There is no greater pain for a parent than to lose a child, and to do so knowing it was because of mistakes that we now know were covered up makes the agony even worse. Nothing we say or do today can take away that pain, but we can at least provide the answers to the families’ questions about what happened and why, and in doing so try to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

We can do something else, too, which should have happened much earlier—and that is, on behalf of the Government and the NHS, to apologise to every family who have suffered as a result of these terrible failures. The courage of those families in constantly reliving their sadness in a long and bitter search for the truth means that lessons will now be learned so that other families do not have to go through the same nightmare. We pay tribute to those brave families today.

I would especially like to thank Dr Bill Kirkup and his expert panel members. This will have been a particularly difficult report to research and write, but the thoroughness and fairness of their analysis will allow us to move forward with practical actions to improve safety, not just at Morecambe Bay, but across the NHS.

I know that before we discuss the report in detail the whole House will want to recognise that what we hear today is not typical of NHS maternity services as a whole, where 97% of new mothers report the highest levels of satisfaction. Our dedicated midwives, nurses, obstetricians and paediatricians work extremely long hours providing excellent care in the vast majority of cases. Today’s report is no reflection on their dedication and commitment, but we owe it to all of them to get to the bottom of what happened so we can make sure it never happens again.

The report found 20 instances of significant or major failings of care at Furness general hospital, associated with three maternal deaths and the deaths of 16 babies. It concludes that different clinical care would have been expected to prevent the death of one mother and 11 babies.

The report describes major failures at almost every level. There were mistakes by midwives and doctors, a failure to investigate and learn from those mistakes and repeated failures to be honest with patients and families, including the possible destruction of medical notes.

The report says that the dysfunctional nature of the maternity unit should have become obvious in early 2009, but regulatory bodies including the North West strategic health authority, the primary care trusts, the Care Quality Commission, Monitor and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman failed to work together and missed numerous opportunities to address the issue.

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The result was not just the tragedy of lives lost, but indescribable anguish for the families left behind. James Titcombe speaks of being haunted by “feelings of personal guilt” about his nine-day-old son who died. “If only”, he says, “I had done more to help Joshua when he still had a chance”. Carl Hendrickson, who worked at the hospital and lost his wife and baby son, told me that he was asked to work in the same unit where they had died and even with the same equipment that had been connected to his late wife. Simon Davey and Liza Brady told me that the doctor who might have saved their son Alex was shooed away by a midwife, with no one taking responsibility when he was tragically born dead.

In short, it was a second Mid Staffs, where the problems—albeit on a smaller scale—occurred largely over the same period. In both cases perceived pressure to achieve foundation trust status led to poor care being ignored and patient safety being compromised, and in both cases the regulatory system failed to address the problems quickly. In both cases families faced delay, denial and obfuscation in their search for the truth, which in this case meant that at least nine significant opportunities to intervene and save lives were missed. To those who have maintained that Mid Staffs was a one-off “local failure”, today’s report will give serious cause for reflection.

As a result of the new inspection regime introduced by this Government, the trust was put into special measures in June 2014. The report acknowledges improvements made since then, which include more doctors and nurses, better record keeping and incident reporting, and action to stabilise and improve maternity services, including a major programme of work to reduce stillbirths. The trust will be re-inspected this summer when an independent decision will be made about whether to remove it from special measures. Patients who use the trust will be encouraged that the report says it

“now has the capability to recover and that the regulatory framework has the capacity to ensure that it happens”.

The whole House will want to support front-line staff in their commitment and dedication during this difficult period.

More broadly, the report points to important improvements to the regulatory framework, particularly at the Care Quality Commission which it says is now

“capable of effectively carrying out its role as principal quality regulator for the first time…central to this has been the introduction of a new inspection regime under a new Chief Inspector of Hospitals”.

As a result of that regime, which is recognised as the toughest and most transparent in the world, 20 hospitals—more than 10% of all NHS acute trusts—have so far been put into special measures. Most have seen encouraging signs of progress, with documented falls in mortality rates. There remain many areas where improvements in practice and culture are still needed. Dr Kirkup makes 44 recommendations—18 for the trust to address directly, and 26 for the wider system. The Government received the report yesterday and will examine the excellent recommendations in detail before providing a full response to the House.

There are, however, some actions that I intend to implement immediately. First, the NHS is still much too slow at investigating serious incidents involving severe harm or death. The Francis inquiry was published

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nine years after the first problems at Mid Staffs, and today’s report is being published 11 years after the first tragedy at Furness general hospital. The report recommends much clearer guidelines for standardised incident reporting, which I am today asking Dr Mike Durkin, director of patient safety at NHS England, to draw up and publish. I also believe that the NHS could benefit from a service similar to the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport. Serious medical incidents should continue to be investigated and carried out locally, but where trusts feel that they would benefit from an expert independent national team to establish facts rapidly on a no-blame basis, they should be able to do so. Dr Durkin will therefore look at the possibility of setting up such a service for the NHS.

Secondly, although we have made good progress in encouraging a culture of openness and transparency in the NHS, the report makes it clear that there is a long way to go. It seems that medical notes were destroyed and mistakes covered up at Morecambe Bay, quite possibly because of a defensive culture where the individuals involved thought that they would lose their jobs if they were discovered to have been responsible for a death. Within sensible professional boundaries, however, no one should lose their job for an honest mistake made with the best of intentions; the only cardinal offence is not to report that mistake openly so that the correct lessons can be learned.

Recent recommendations from Sir Robert Francis on creating an open and honest reporting culture in the NHS will begin to improve that, and I have today asked Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, to review the professional codes of both doctors and nurses, and to ensure that the right incentives are in place to prevent people from covering up instead of reporting and learning from mistakes. Sir Bruce led the seminal Keogh inquiry into hospitals with high death rates two years ago that led to a lasting improvement in hospital safety standards and has long championed openness and transparency in health care. For this vital work he will lead a team that will include the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and Health Education England, and he will report back to the Health Secretary later this year.

The report also exposed systemic issues about the quality of midwifery supervision. While the investigation was under way, the King’s Fund conducted a review of midwifery regulation for the NMC, which recommended that effective local supervision needs to be carried out by individuals wholly independent from the trust they are supervising. The Government will work closely with stakeholders to agree a more effective oversight arrangement, and will legislate accordingly. I have asked for proposals on the new system by the end of July this year.

For too long the NMC had the wrong culture and was too slow to take action, but I am encouraged that it has recently made improvements. Today it has apologised to the families affected by events at Morecambe Bay, and it is investigating the fitness to practise of seven midwives who worked at the trust during that time. It will now forensically go through any further evidence gathered by the investigation, to ensure that any wrongdoing

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or malpractice is investigated. Anyone who is found to have practised unsafely or who covered up mistakes will be held to account, which for the most serious offences includes being struck off. The NMC also has the power to pass information to the police if it feels that a criminal offence may have been committed, and it will not hesitate to do so if its investigations find evidence to warrant that. The Government remain committed to legislation for further reform of the NMC at the earliest opportunity.

The report expresses a “degree of disquiet” over the initial decision of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman not to investigate the death of Joshua Titcombe. I know the Public Administration Committee is already considering these issues, and will want to reflect carefully on the report as it considers improvements that can be made as part of its current inquiry.

Finally, I expect the trust to implement all 18 of the recommendations assigned to it in the report. I have asked Monitor to ensure that that happens within the designated time scale, as I want to give maximum reassurance to patients and families who are using the hospital that no time is being wasted in learning necessary lessons. We should recognise that despite many challenges, NHS staff have made excellent progress recently in improving the quality of care, with the highest ever ratings from the public for safety and compassionate care. The tragedy we hear about today must strengthen our resolve to deliver real and lasting culture change so that these mistakes are never repeated. That is the most important commitment we can make to the memory of the 19 mothers and babies who lost their lives at Morecambe Bay, including those named in today’s report: Elleanor Bennett, Joshua Titcombe, Alex Brady-Davey, Nittaya Hendrickson and Chester Hendrickson. This statement is their legacy, and I commend it to the House.

1.58 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his well-judged statement, and echo entirely the sentiments he expressed. Families in Barrow and the wider Cumbria area were badly let down by their local hospital and by the NHS as a whole. The Secretary of State was right to apologise to them on behalf of the Government and the NHS, and today I do the same on behalf of the previous Government.

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to lose a child or partner in such circumstances, but to have that suffering intensified by the actions of the NHS is inexcusable. Bereaved families should never again have to fight in the way that these families have had to fight to get answers. The fact that they have found the strength and courage to do so will benefit others in years to come, and I pay tribute to them all, and particularly to James Titcombe.

This report finally gives the families the answers that they should have received many years ago. It explains in detail what went wrong, the appalling scale of the failings and, as the Secretary of State said, the opportunities missed to identify those failings and put them right.

I echo the Secretary of State’s praise for Dr Bill Kirkup, his investigation team and the panel that assisted them. The report’s analysis is thorough, and its recommendations are powerful but proportionate. The Opposition support all the recommendations made today.

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I understand that the Secretary of State will want to take time to consider each individually, but he can rely on our full support in introducing them at the earliest opportunity.

People’s first concern will be whether local services are safe today. The report identifies the root cause of the failures as a dysfunctional local culture and a failure to follow national clinical guidance. There are suggestions in the report that that culture has not entirely disappeared. The report finds:

“we…heard from some of the long-standing clinicians that relations with midwives had not improved and had possibly deteriorated over the last two to three years…we saw and heard evidence that untoward incidents with worryingly similar features to those seen previously had occurred as recently as mid-2014.”

I am sure the fact that problems have been acknowledged means that there has already been significant improvement, but will the Secretary of State say more about those findings, and about what steps he is taking to ensure that the trust now has the right staff and safety culture?

After safety, people will rightly want accountability, as the Secretary of State said, not just for the care failings, but for the fact that the problem was kept hidden from the regulators and the public for so long. When information came to light, it was not acted on. Lessons were not learned, and problems were not corrected. The investigation recommends that the trust formally apologises to those affected. The whole House will endorse that call, and will want it done both appropriately and immediately. Further, will the Secretary of State ensure that any further referrals to the GMC and NMC are made without delay? Will he also ensure that any managerial or administrative staff found guilty of wrongdoing are subject to appropriate action? A number of staff have left the trust in recent years, many with pay-offs. Will he review those decisions in the light of the report and take whatever steps he can to ensure that those who have failed are not rewarded?

One of the central findings of the investigation is on the challenges faced by geographically remote and isolated communities in providing health services. The investigation warns of the risks of a closed clinical culture in which

“practice can ‘drift’ away from standards and procedures found elsewhere”.

Is not the report right to recommend a national review of maternity care and paediatrics in rural and isolated areas, and will the Secretary of State take that forward? Alongside that, there are concerns about the sustainability of the Cumbrian health economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has today written to the chief executive of NHS England to call for a review of the specific challenges it faces. I hope the Secretary of State will be sympathetic to that call.

On the CQC, the role of the regulator has always been to oppose poor care and challenge practice, but it is clear that it failed in its duty in this case. Given what was known, the decision to register the trust without conditions in April 2010 was inexplicable, as was the decision to award foundation trust status later in 2010, as was the decision to inspect emergency care pathways but not maternity services—in so doing, it failed to act on specific warnings. As the report states, there was and remains confusion in the system over who has overall responsibility for monitoring standards, with overlapping regulatory responsibilities. The Opposition support moves to make the CQC more independent, but does the

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Secretary of State agree that the journey of improvement at the regulator needs to continue, and that there is a need for further reform? Will he ensure that NHS England draws up the recommended protocol on the roles and responsibilities for all parts of the oversight system without delay, and does he agree that the CQC should take prime responsibility?

I want to close by focusing on two proposals that I believe get to the heart of the matter before us. I have thought carefully about how we truly do justice to the families’ campaign and learn the lessons of both this investigation and the Francis report. In my view, the answer is a much more rigorous system of the review of all deaths in the community and in hospitals than currently exists.

First, is the reform of death certification and the introduction of a new system of independent medical examination well overdue? The Kirkup report echoes findings that go back as far as Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into the Shipman murders, which were repeated recently by Sir Robert Francis in his two reports on Mid Staffordshire. The previous Government legislated for those reforms and made provision for the independent scrutiny by a medical examiner of all deaths that are not referred to a coroner. That has been piloted and proven to be effective. The investigation says that those reforms could have raised concerns at Morecambe Bay before they eventually became evident.

The second point is that we need a better system for scrutinising deaths in hospital. The report recommends mandatory reporting and investigation of serious incidents of all maternal deaths, stillbirths and unexpected neonatal deaths. Is there not a case to go further, including by looking at moving to a mandatory review of case notes for every death in hospital, and at how we can use a standardised system of case note review to support learning and improvement at every trust?

To help to guide the Opposition’s new approach to quality improvement, Professor Nick Black has agreed to advise us and inform the review, which will be concluded by the end of the month. In our view, that reform is much needed, because rather than looking at a sample of deaths to avoid harm, we would look at every single death to learn lessons, which means that every single person matters. Ideally, the review should be cross-party. I hope the Secretary of State feels able to endorse the review I have announced, which will make recommendations that the next Government can act on immediately. Is that not the best way to do justice to the issues that the families have fought to raise, and to ensure that the legacy of their campaign is to ensure that no others go through what they have gone through?

Mr Hunt: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his measured tone. I am sure he is absolutely sincere in wanting to learn from this tragedy. I thank him for his moving words and for his apology. He will understand that there is nervousness among the families because, in the past, when the Government have talked about rooting out poor care, we have been accused of running down the NHS. We have had a different tone today, and I welcome it.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points on the quality of care at the hospital currently, the best person and people to make that judgment are the new CQC and chief inspector of hospitals, Professor Sir Mike

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Richards. He has said that, in his view, the care at the maternity unity in Furness general hospital is good, and indeed safe—it is more than safe; it is good. That should reassure many people who are using the hospital. He is also very clear that there are many, many improvements to make, and his overall rating for the trust is not good. The report highlights many areas that still need to be addressed, but it is important to give that reassurance.

On death certification, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we fully support that policy. As he knows, it was recommended in January 2005, so it has taken a long time for both Governments to address. We fully support the policy and have had successful trials. We are committed to introducing it as soon as possible and we want to go further. There may be some common ground, because we, too, have been talking to Professor Nick Black about case note reviews. The latest advice I have had is that it would be technically very difficult to review the case notes of all the 250,000 deaths every year in NHS hospitals, because of the resource implications and the doctors’ time it would take. I asked whether it would be possible to do that. I was advised that, if we looked at case notes hospital by hospital, there would be a risk of trusts getting into big disputes about whether or not a death was avoidable. I asked Professor Black to help me to devise a methodology so that we can assess the level of avoidable deaths by hospital trust. We would be the first health economy in the world to do that. I hope we will have his full support as we take that forward.

On the decision to give the trust foundation trust status, the report makes it clear that Ministers were advised that they had no locus to intervene, because the process had already been set in train—the decision had been deferred but not stopped, so they were not able to intervene. It is clear that the level of knowledge in the Department of Health, as in the rest of the system, was wholly inadequate given what was happening in that hospital.

I should like to make one other point, on a comment made by Labour this morning that the report would say that the failings were very localised. In fact, the report says the opposite. I want to read what Dr Kirkup says in the introduction to the report:

“It is vital that the lessons, now plain to see, are learnt and acted upon, not least by other Trusts, which must not believe that ‘it could not happen here’.”

It is important that we take that lesson from the report extremely seriously.

I would like to finish on a note of consensus. I appreciate that it is not always easy for Oppositions to support the Government publicly as they put right policy mistakes that they have inherited, but I think there is one thing where we can make common ground: the need for culture change in the NHS. Policies can be changed over one Parliament, but culture change takes a generation. What the families who have suffered so much want to know more than anything else is that Members on all sides of the House are committed to that, so that we never again go back to the closed ranks and institutional self-defence that piled agony on to their tragedies, and that, once and for all, we all make the commitment that patients will always come first.

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Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): As a Member of Parliament for an area covered by the trust, I assure the Secretary of State that many thousands of workers in the NHS in my area do a really good job in very difficult geographical circumstances.

I was newly elected to Parliament in 2010. My experience, alongside that of colleagues whom I see in the House, as a constituency MP dealing with the huge institution that is the NHS has been that it is difficult to find out who is responsible, where and for what. Like everybody else, my heart goes out to the parents. I do not know how they have struggled on, with their loss and with being confronted with what almost seems like a professional or administrative closing of ranks and doors to their pleas for some information on what happened. It is just unbelievable.

My constituents do not understand why—this is mentioned in the report—a major incident in 2004 was not looked at. There were five more major incidents in 2006-07 and another five in 2008, yet still nothing was done. What will the Secretary of State do to reassure my constituents that when a major incident happens again—as presumably it could in any NHS hospital across the country—it will be acted on?

Mr Hunt: I am happy to do that. In fact, I can not only tell my hon. Friend what we are going to do, I can tell him what we have done. The main purpose of the new CQC inspection regime, with a chief inspector of hospitals and a special measures regime, is to make sure that these issues come to light much more quickly. The new regime has been very active: 20 trusts—more than 10% of all trusts in the NHS—have gone into special measures. We have seen dramatic improvements.

I would like to make a broader point to my hon. Friend’s constituents. He speaks very wisely when he says that this is not about the dedication and commitment of front-line staff. He is absolutely right. The Royal Lancaster infirmary is not the main focus of the Kirkup report, but of course as part of the same trust it suffered from the same management failings. There are Members of this House who have had problems at the Royal Lancaster infirmary and found that they were not listened to when they made complaints, because proper management was not in place. That will have affected his constituents. I hope they will take encouragement from the changes that have happened recently in that regard.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Secretary of State for the dignified and fitting way in which he was able to name some of the grieving parents and the babies they lost. We cannot escape the painful conclusion from the report that our hospital was compromised by some shocking failures in care and a deeply inappropriate defensiveness from certain individuals. Does he agree that the scale of failure laid out in the report may well serve to reopen the criminal investigation? Will he support the healing process that is now needed in our community, with resources if necessary, so that we can move on from this? Finally, will he set out a timetable by which he will look through all the recommendations and report back to the House on whether the Government will accept them? Will that be before the election?

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Mr Hunt: I do not know the answer to the last question because we have received the report only very recently, but we will do this work as soon as possible. Indeed, if we have cross-party support, it may be that we can expedite the process. The hon. Gentleman worked very closely with James Titcombe and is absolutely right to talk about the seriousness of what happened. As with the Francis report, however, I would caution against the idea that this problem will be solved if a few more nurses are struck off. We need accountability—that is incredibly important—and where there is wrongdoing, people must be fully held to account. The big lesson is the lack of openness, transparency and trust. It is quite possible that the reason some people did not speak out about poor care is that they were frightened of the consequences of doing so. They thought they would not be listened to. Other industries, such as the nuclear industry in which James Titcombe worked or the airline industry, have managed to create a culture of trust where people on the front line who make mistakes feel able to speak out and be supported if they do so. That is the most important lesson we need to learn from today’s report.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I, too, want to the thank the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for their entirely appropriate contributions, both the statement and the response, on this immensely sensitive and deeply personally upsetting series of circumstances. I want especially to pay tribute to the families who lost loved ones as a result of what Dr Kirkup referred to as

“serious failures of clinical care”.

He refers to the report as a damning indictment.

The dignity and determination of parents such as James Titcombe and Carl Hendrickson have led to this awful truth being laid bare today. Those parents are an inspiration to me, and they should be to all of us. I want to pick up on one point in particular that was raised during the Secretary of State’s statement. Dr Kirkup expresses disquiet that the NHS and the parliamentary ombudsman chose not even to investigate what has now been shown to be the needless deaths of at least 11 babies and at least one mother. May I press the Secretary of State to go further than he has in his statement and do everything in his power to ensure that the watchdog for patients is not a lapdog for senior managers? Patients need a powerful, effective independent investigator who listens to those who grieve, like the Morecambe Bay families, and not one who dismisses them without even an investigation.

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There were, clearly, very serious flaws in the way the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman operated, particularly in the case of Joshua Titcombe. My hon. Friend will know that the PHSO is accountable to this House through the Public Administration Committee, and not through the Government and the Department of Health. The Public Administration Committee is considering this issue in a great deal of detail to see what lessons need to be learned. I think one of the issues is the level of expertise within the PHSO and, with the greatest of respect, a certain lack of confidence in its ability to understand when there has been a clinical failure. I think everyone agrees that one of the things we need to

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do is to ensure that it can draw on medical expertise. It needs to make sure that its culture is as open and transparent as the culture it would like to see inside the NHS.

Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): The Secretary of State said that the fitness to practise of seven midwives is currently being considered by the National Midwifery Council. Given that this matter goes back over a decade, were any health professionals, either doctors or nurses, referred to their regulatory bodies during any of the incidents he outlined earlier?

Mr Hunt: I am not aware that they were. If that turns out to be the case, that would be extremely worrying. Since Dr Kirkup started his investigation, he has been in touch with the regulatory bodies throughout the process. He has not waited until today to refer back to them any names of people where he thinks there may be a concern.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his deep and meaningful statement. In my constituency, the effects of what has happened in our trust have been deeply felt. I would also like to reach out to my hon. Friend outside the Chamber, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). We have to put everything behind us. In my constituency, there is a campaign which says that the hospital is closing. The staff and the new management are beside themselves on this particular issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this has now got to stop? Hospitals and A and Es were never going to close down. At the end of the day, the staff are the only people who are going to suffer in all this.

Mr Hunt: I think this is a time when the whole House needs to unite behind the staff in that trust, who are working very hard to turn the situation around; indeed, they have made great progress. I had to call Nicola Adam of The Visitor to reaffirm the point that there are absolutely no plans to close the hospital. I hope the whole House will recognise that statement for what it is and that hon. Members will reiterate it in all their communications with their constituents.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) for the tone of the statement and the Opposition’s response. I want to ask the Secretary of State about the point he made in his statement about the relationship between clinicians and midwives, which Dr Kirkup identified as having deteriorated over the last two or three years. He said that there was evidence of untoward incidents, with worryingly similar features to those that had previously occurred, as recently as last year. The Secretary of State mentioned extra numbers, but is he confident that the relationship between midwives and doctors is now resolved and that we have safe care at that hospital and elsewhere?

Mr Hunt: I think we can trust the CQC’s view that the care in the maternity unit is safe, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the issue of the barriers between doctors and midwives, which is striking. That goes back a very long time: there seemed to be a kind of macho culture among the

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midwives to do with not letting the doctors in, which probably led to babies needlessly dying, which is the great tragedy. Making sure that that culture is changed, so that the patient’s needs are always put first, is obviously a massive priority. I know that the trust has made great strides in that area, but we all understand too that it takes time to change culture, and we need to support it as it goes on that journey.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to James Titcombe and all the families who have fought so long for answers. I also thank Dr Kirkup for his excellent report. I welcome the action that the Secretary of State has announced today, but can he add to that list by saying whether we can bring forward having medical examiners to look into the cause of death before the end of this Parliament and, if not, say what the barriers to introducing that much overdue reform are? Will he also touch on recommendations 20 and 21 in the report, which refer to the need for a national review of maternity and paediatric services in areas that are remote, isolated and hard to recruit to? Indeed, the report goes further and says that the problem extends beyond those services. This is an issue we need to address to improve safety without deterring recruitment in these areas.

Mr Hunt: I am afraid I can only commit now to us introducing independent medical examiners as soon as possible. We are wholeheartedly committed to this. It is incredibly important for relatives, because where they have a concern about a death and possibly a mistake being made in someone’s care in their final hours, the availability of an independent examiner has been shown in the trials we have run to be very effective, so we are committed to doing that.

I should have answered the shadow Health Secretary on the point about a review of maternity services, because he raised it as well. NHS England is doing that review; we have already announced that to this House. Today it is publishing the terms of reference of that review. That is important, because there has been a big debate inside the health service—a debate with which many people will be familiar—about what the minimum appropriate size for maternity and birthing units is, and we need to get to the bottom of the latest international evidence.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): During the period when I was writing the report on complaints in hospitals, I met Mr Titcombe. I was impressed by his persistence, because persistence is what anyone who is trying to tackle a complaint needs. I understand what he means when he says he is haunted by personal grief: I think of all those parents and relatives who have waited all this time to try to get some answers to their questions. The length of time it takes to answer people’s complaints is still not satisfactory. I myself have waited over two years and three months and I still do not have answers—I know that is not in his bag, but it is generally true of the whole of the United Kingdom. I support what my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said in calling for the medical scrutiny of all deaths that are not referred to a coroner. That is an important point. I want

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to ask the Secretary of State again: will he ensure that achieving the highest standard of complaints handling is included in the next NHS mandate?

Mr Hunt: No one has done more than the right hon. Lady to try to improve the standard for complaints, with the excellent work she did with Professor Tricia Hart. We are in the process of implementing her recommendations, but as the right hon. Lady knows, with the fifth largest organisation in the world, it is one thing to make a commitment in this place, but another to make it happen on the ground. There is definitely much work to do.

I also agree with the right hon. Lady’s comments about James Titcombe. This is a man who gave up his job working in the nuclear industry to come down to London and work in the CQC so that he could actively be part of the culture change that he wanted to see in the NHS. I do not think anyone could have done more than that. It is truly remarkable.

As the right hon. Lady has mentioned Wales, let me say that we have put 20 trusts into special measures in England and it is inconceivable that there will not be trusts with similar problems in Wales. I urge her to encourage the Labour party in Wales to look at introducing a special measures regime and a chief inspector of hospitals in Wales, because that has had such a powerful effect on improving standards of care in England.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and Dr Bill Kirkup for his excellent report. Let me reassure him and the House that the Public Administration Committee is also preoccupied with the failings of the parliamentary and health service ombudsman in the conduct of these cases. I, too, have met James Titcombe on many occasions and have been extremely impressed by his extraordinary commitment to making sure that he is heard so that so many others can be heard.

May I also point out that the report reeks of the confusion that exists between CQC and the PHSO about what their respective responsibilities are? If we are talking about accountability, what we need is an organisation that is accountable for investigating clinical incidents in the NHS, whether they are down to particular local problems or broader systemic problems—by which we mean not that that is an excuse for what goes wrong; rather, it is so those systemic problems can be put right. I therefore very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has mooted will be the task of Sir Mike Durkin: to look at how that capacity can be developed, in the same manner, perhaps, as the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport.

Mr Hunt: Dr Mike Durkin will be delighted that he has been promoted and given a knighthood for his wonderful work on patient safety, but it has not happened yet, even though he certainly deserves it. I thank my hon. Friend for his understanding of the complexity of these issues and the importance of the need for culture change. The work of his Committee has not been to scratch around the surface; it has tried to think hard about the solution. He is absolutely right that we need to end regulatory confusion. We now have a strong CQC, which is doing incredible inspections and is trusted across the system. However, we need a system in which

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people can get independent external advice quickly, which is why he was right to alert me to the potential of an air accidents investigation branch equivalent. I hope that is something that could be helpful for the ombudsman as well.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): I am pleased that the Secretary of State has declared his intention to implement the medical examination review. The president of the Royal College of Pathologists, Dr Suzy Lishman, has said that introducing such a system would

“improve patient care whilst reducing harm and saving money”.

She went on:

“If bereaved relatives get the answers that they need around the time of death, if all their questions are answered then, then they don’t feel the need to sue the NHS to get the answers they deserve.”

She has also said that it is “incomprehensible” that the recommended changes have not been implemented. Will the Secretary of State explain why there has been so much delay? From his answer to a previous question, I understand that he is not able to commit to implementing the reforms during the time of this Government.

Mr Hunt: With the greatest respect, I say to the hon. Lady that if she is suggesting that we have done nothing on this important issue over the last few years, nothing could be further from the truth. We have been trialling the right system; we think the trials have worked; and we want to make sure that we implement this in a way that is consistent with the many other things we are doing to improve patient safety, including proper case-note reviews of deaths in order to understand the level of avoidable hospital deaths and what we can do to bring the rates down. This is a priority for the Government, and we remain wholly committed to it.

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2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s ambition to create a new garden city at Ebbsfleet and of our intention to establish an urban development corporation to drive forward its development and delivery. I would like to take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the progress we have made.

This country has faced a shortfall in housing for many years, with young people and families struggling to find the homes they want and need, particularly in the south-east. We are committed to increasing their chances, and our programmes to accelerate house building are already seeing results. Our £1.5 billion large sites programme is expected to unlock 100,000 homes by the end of this month, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked as we take the programme forward. This is in addition to the plans in place to create housing zones on brownfield sites across the country.

Last year, we published our prospectus for locally led garden cities, and we are now working closely to support the development of a new garden town at Bicester, with a capacity to deliver up to 13,000 new homes. Our approach is locally led. We invite local areas to come forward, without any top-down, centrally imposed requirements. This approach will help make new garden cities acceptable locally—and, as such, to make them a reality.

With close transport links and large areas of brownfield land, the Ebbsfleet area has huge potential as a place to deliver a substantial number of new homes. It has long been identified—in fact, as far back as the last Government’s sustainable communities plan—as an ideal location for major development. Despite these ambitions, progress has been slow, and Ebbsfleet remains largely undeveloped. Our plans for Ebbsfleet aim to change that and to drive forward this historic development opportunity.

In last year’s Budget, the Government announced plans to create a new locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet, Kent, capable of providing up to 15,000 new homes predominantly on brownfield land or former quarries. The Government are seeking not only to increase the pace of development, but to create high-quality development. We want to build homes that are supported by local employment opportunities, green space and the necessary infrastructure, so that Ebbsfleet becomes a place where people want to live, work and raise their families.

To help realise this vision, the Government have announced that up to £200 million of infrastructure funding will be made available to support delivery. We also announced that a new statutory body—an urban development corporation—would be formed to bring real focus on driving forward delivery. Since then, we have been working closely with each of the three local authorities and other partners on the preparatory work to establish the urban development corporation and to set the scene for the future garden city. I put on record the fact that I welcome the cross-party support that the Opposition have given to these proposals.

I am pleased to report that house building is already under way in some parts of the proposed garden city. Last October, I opened the first phase of housing being

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led by Ward Homes at Castle Hill. Just today, Land Securities exchanged contracts with Persimmon Homes for the next phase of 170 homes at Castle Hill. Much remains to be done to increase the rate of development at Ebbsfleet, but this is welcome progress none the less.

In August last year, we consulted on the proposal to set up an urban development corporation. We set out the powers that we propose the corporation should have, including compulsory purchase powers, the transfer of the planning management powers that are currently exercised by the local authorities and, of course, the ability to invest money to secure the regeneration of the area.

In our consultation, we asked for views on the area in which the urban development corporation would operate, on the planning powers it would be granted, and on the composition of the board. The consultation was supported by an active engagement campaign, and the results demonstrated overall support for the proposal to create a development corporation for Ebbsfleet. In December last year, we published our response to the consultation, which confirmed our intention to continue with the proposal to establish a development corporation at Ebbsfleet.

Although supportive, the consultation did highlight some areas of concern, such as the impact of development on existing infrastructure. These issues were not unanticipated, and we announced in the autumn statement that there would be a review of the transport provision for the Ebbsfleet area. The Government also announced in the autumn statement the provision of the first £100 million to fund infrastructure and land remediation to kick-start development—obviously subject to due diligence. We are working closely with local partners to understand the scale of the infrastructure required and how best to accelerate delivery.

We want to ensure that, on establishment, the urban development corporation has in place the tools necessary to enable it to hit the ground running. It is crucial that the urban development corporation is able to pick up the reins from the local authorities and deliver its objectives seamlessly, without causing any unnecessary uncertainty among local communities and local businesses.

In August last year, we appointed Michael Cassidy as the chairman designate. He was the chairman of the City of London property investment board, and has extensive experience in a range of roles across the business and industry sectors. Since his appointment, he has actively engaged with local partners and the major landowners to develop a shared understanding of the work required to drive forward development.

More recently, we launched the recruitment process for a permanent chief executive. However, as this post will take some months to fill, we are appointing key interim personnel to maintain momentum and continuity. These interim posts will, in the meantime, continue to drive forward not only the set-up of the urban development corporation, but progress on the work to develop a shared strategy for the garden city.

We have made progress, too, on the process to recruit, through open competition, the remainder of the urban development corporation’s board members. Some 90 applications were received and interviews are under

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way. These will be in addition to the local authority representatives from Dartford, Gravesham and Kent who, as we have already made clear, will have a seat on the board.

The urban development corporation will develop a shared vision and master-plan for the locally led garden city that reflects the views of the local people. Much can be done in the meantime to set in place the foundations for this work, and to provide a platform from which the urban development corporation can work. We are progressing with the production of a development framework for the area. This will provide critical baseline data and act as the starting-point for the design of the future Ebbsfleet garden city.

In parallel, we are preparing the procurement process for a full master plan, which can then be taken forward by the urban development corporation. We want the design of the garden city to be as collaborative as possible. We will therefore use this preparatory work to make sure that future master planning is carried out in a way that encourages the full participation of the local communities and local businesses.

We recognise that there is likely to be a transition period between the establishment of the urban development corporation and the point at which it will be fully resourced to operate as the local planning authority. We are therefore working closely with the local authorities to agree and put in place a service level agreement, which will enable the local authorities to administer the planning service for the urban development corporation for a transitional period to ensure a smooth handover and to develop a partnership to deliver a locally led garden city. We are pushing forward with the final key stages of the physical set-up of the urban development corporation, putting in place the accommodation and technical facilities needed to ensure that the UDC is fully resourced and equipped to undertake its objectives.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Government tabled in the other place an amendment to the Deregulation Bill to change the parliamentary approval procedure from affirmative to negative for the establishment of urban development areas and urban development corporations. This amendment was accepted, and is now part of the Deregulation Bill. I should like to place on record my thanks to the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the shadow Secretary of State for their participation in discussions about how to proceed on this matter. I know that they share my wish to see this proposal make progress. The Government intend, subject to parliamentary approval, to lay a negative statutory instrument immediately following Royal Assent to establish the urban development corporation. A separate order to grant the corporation planning functions, making it the local planning authority responsible for the development of the area, will be laid at the same time.

I trust that that update will reassure Members of the Government’s commitment to creating a locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet that will be fit for the 21st century.

2.40 pm

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it. As he said, there is cross-party

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support for the development at Ebbsfleet, and Labour Members support it strongly. I agree with him that Ebbsfleet has huge potential to deliver a substantial number of homes and an outstanding new community.

Having been to Ebbsfleet, I have seen with my own eyes not just the opportunities that it offers but its terrain, which presents significant challenges. We want to see a new generation of garden cities and new towns, and we believe that Ebbsfleet could make an important contribution to such a programme. That is why, as the Minister said, we have sought to work with the Government constructively and on a cross-party basis to deliver the UDC. As the Minister also said, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) participated actively in the discussions with the Government, and is strongly committed to the delivery of a new generation of garden cities. She has spoken about the subject eloquently, in the House and elsewhere.

We naturally welcome the forming of an urban development corporation to drive this development forward, but we are concerned about the use of UDCs to deliver a full programme of garden cities. As the Minister knows, they are not set up to deliver garden city principles, which is why we pressed for the inclusion of a sunset clause. I am pleased that agreement was reached on that.

Although I welcome the Government’s initiative in establishing the UDC over the past five years, it would be remiss of me not to mention the number of mixed messages that we have received in regard to both Ebbsfleet and garden cities more broadly. In 2011 the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), spoke of rebooting garden cities, and in 2012 the Prime Minister announced that he would publish a consultation on garden cities by the end of the year. Six months later, the Deputy Prime Minister said that some lively debate was taking place within the Government, but promised incentives that would deliver projects that were “big and bold”. In December 2012, the Government announced that Ebbsfleet would be the site for a large-scale development of 20,000 new homes.

Subsequently, however, rather than seeing the “big and bold” projects that had been promised, we saw reports in the newspapers that the Prime Minister was suppressing a document and had gone cold on the idea. Later that year, the Housing Minister said that he was not aware of a report that was supposed to have been published, but the Deputy Prime Minister said that there was a prospectus, and that the Government should be honest about their intentions. The Secretary of State then contradicted his own Housing Minister, saying that his Department had told him that there was a report, but not a report from the Department for Communities and Local Government. We were a little bemused by all that. However, a prospectus for garden cities was finally published, and in last year’s Budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that there would be a new garden city at Ebbsfleet containing 15,000 homes—5,000 fewer than had been promised in 2012.

Given the scale of the housing crisis and the evident cross-party support for garden cities, I should like to know what is behind the Government’s stops and starts on the Ebbsfleet initiative and on garden cities more

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generally. I should also like to know where the additional 5,000 new homes have gone. That seems to be something of a mystery.

I welcomed what the Minister said about infrastructure. The Government said last year that, once established, the Ebbsfleet UDC would be expected to identify sources of additional funding, further to the funding for basic infrastructure that had already been announced. Will the Minister tell us how much additional funding he and his Department think might be necessary to get the Ebbsfleet project moving, and whether its source in either the private or the public sector has been identified?

The garden city movement, which was founded by Ebenezer Howard, has a long and proud history of promoting and providing outstanding places for people to live in. Although I support what the Minister has said today, I am anxious for the founding principles of the movement to be respected, albeit in a modern setting. Perhaps the Minister will explain why he did not mention affordable housing, and why his predecessor told my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham in a written parliamentary answer that

“The Government do not impose a particular level of affordable housing for housing schemes.”—[Official Report, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 239W.]

Can the Minister reassure us that the master plan will include a commitment to a significant proportion of affordable homes? If it does not, I fear that there will not be much garden to the garden city. The Government’s garden city prospectus invited communities to come up with proposals, or “big and bold” projects, as the Deputy Prime Minister called them. Will the Minister tell us how many bids have been submitted so far?

Let me end by echoing what the Minister said about securing the Ebbsfleet development. This is a long-term project that presents significant challenges but also has huge potential, and, as such, it requires a long-term approach from Members in all parts of the House. On that basis, I welcome the fact that we have reached cross-party agreement.

Brandon Lewis: I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for expressing what could broadly be described as cross-party support. She did, however, ask a couple of questions, and mentioned the pace at which the garden city programme had proceeded. She was absolutely right to refer to the terrain at Ebbsfleet. I think that anyone who watches our exchanges, or reads the Hansard report, and wonders why it has taken so long for us to reach this point needs to be aware of a couple of facts. I shall explain in a moment how the programme has been structured in the past, but there is no doubt that the terrain is an important element. Ebbsfleet is an astonishing place to visit: a map simply does not do justice to its contours and topography.

At one point, the hon. Lady asked how much garden there would be in a garden city. We want to deliver something of which we can all be proud. We need to have a vision of the way in which not just community housing but real communities should be built. That means ensuring that there is the right mix of residential, retail, commercial and open space for people to enjoy, so that they can get to know their neighbours and be part of a strong community. The community must be at the forefront of this project.

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We opted for an urban development corporation in this case—with Opposition support—because three local authorities and various landowners were involved. In fact, the Government have a small landholding interest. That makes the position very complex.

The hon. Lady said that it had taken several years for us to make progress. As she knows, we have been dealing with a legislative process over the past few months, since last year’s Budget statement. I found her comments slightly ironic. Let me politely suggest that she might like to stand up and name some of the eco-towns that have not been built since they were announced by the last Government.

We are now able to deliver on the garden city principles, at Ebbsfleet, at Bicester—which I visited again just last week—and in other areas because ours is not a top-down approach. We are not making decisions from on high; local authorities are coming to us and saying that they want to develop on the basis of those principles. It takes time for authorities to get organised and prepare to submit their proposals to the Government, but I think that that is right. The longevity of delivery that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned enables long-term plans to be developed properly, and to be locally designed, locally supported and locally proposed.

The hon. Lady referred to funding more generally, and to affordable housing. I repeat that ours is not a top-down approach. Once the urban development corporation has been set up, it will become the planning authority, and levels of affordable housing and section 106 agreements are a matter for planning authorities. On the basis of localism, we let the local authorities deal with such matters, and I trust them to do so. Some agreements are already in place, and are delivering substantial infrastructure and section 106 agreements for the area.

In terms of the total cost of development at Ebbsfleet, developing a prioritised infrastructure list will be one of the first tasks the development corporation will be taking forward. In advance of it even being established, we have been working with partners to identify the key items of infrastructure needed to support development. We do not yet have a total cost for the infrastructure because there will be many items that partners would want us to consider and include, and the development corporation needs to be the body that looks carefully both at what infrastructure is needed to support the garden city development and who should pay for it. Of course, much of the infrastructure building work will be paid for by developers, not by the Government or the development corporation directly. That is where the section 106 agreements that are already in place, and those that are developed for the major developments with outline planning consent, will take us forward.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Ebbsfleet in my Dartford constituency is home to some very ambitious housing projects. The full potential of the area will not be realised without proper investment and commitment to the infrastructure, not just of the garden city but the surrounding area. The Minister mentioned that the Chancellor announced £200 million of investment at the last Budget. Will the Minister give my constituents a guarantee that the Government are still committed to

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that and that local people will have an input into how that money will be spent? It appears that the Opposition want another 5,000 homes in the garden city. Does the Minister agree that we do not judge a good housing project on the number of homes we are able to cram into a particular area?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend has been a strong proponent not just of Ebbsfleet more generally but, as I saw on a couple of visits with him to his area, of making sure that this development is done in a way that is conducive to, works with and delivers for, the local community, recognising not just the community we want to build, but the communities and local authorities that are already in the area within the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has also worked closely with the local authorities who have their own affordable housing policies, which will be what govern the development of that area. Both of those authorities are clearly looking to secure a level of 30% of affordable housing, and I can assure my hon. Friend that today’s statement does not change what was said at the Budget last year or the finances announced in the autumn statement—I know that he has worked hard on that with his local residents and authorities. It stays in place, as was. What we are doing today is giving an update, in particular on the development and the incorporation of that corporation.

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): In welcoming the statement as the MP for Letchworth garden city, the world’s first, may I wish Ebbsfleet well? Does the Minister agree that the principles of garden cities—mixed tenure, a scheme of building that maintains garden city features over time, the features themselves, with allotments, space, commons, an agricultural area nearby, and separation of areas between residential, employment land and retail—can be applied not just to larger communities of 15,000 or 20,000, but to smaller communities too? In Hertfordshire we are looking at—the MPs are anyway—possibly pushing North Herts district council to go for a garden city or town that might be smaller than 10,000. Does the Minister agree that almost any size of community can be planned on garden city lines?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. One point I have made at various recent events is that we must make sure as we move forward that we build good-quality design, not just lots and lots of housing estates. There are two reasons for that. If we want people to be more accepting of development, not only have we got to make sure that people are involved in that through local plans and neighbourhood planning, but the development they see in their area must be of good quality. That requires good-quality design not just of the properties but the overall master plan. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that having even small areas developed where, when possible and appropriate, there is a good mix of retail, commercial and residential, with good open space and good community areas, bringing people together, does not just deliver good-quality homes for people to live in and good-quality places for people to

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raise their families, but also builds good, strong, long-lasting communities, and that is something I wholeheartedly support.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Ebbsfleet is blessed in that there is already a Bishop of Ebbsfleet, which must be the first time that the bishop has come before the city, rather than a city creating a bishop. I want to raise two points. We will not need an urban development corporation for Bicester. All the land for it lies within the area of Cherwell district council, and we are determined to make a success of it, and to make a garden town for the 21st century of which the country can be proud. What we will need, however, is the Ministry of Defence to surrender every square foot of MOD land that it does not need as speedily as possible. As evidence that Cherwell district council is determined to get on with this as speedily as possible, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know but the House may not know, Cherwell had acquired land to build 1,900 self-build homes. This is an incredibly popular project. Local development orders are now in place. Queues of people are coming, wanting to acquire these plots for self-build homes. May I suggest that this project, witnessed by the Prime Minister yesterday, could be rolled out to other parts of the country, because there is clearly a large appetite among the public for building their own homes, as we have seen in Bicester?

Brandon Lewis: My right hon. Friend has been a loud and strong proponent of the fantastic work being done in Bicester and of development on those garden city principles, and he is absolutely right. I visited Bicester last year and I visited again last week to see the excellent work done in just a few months, and the progress made to deliver the development in a good, strong, community-built way. He is right that this shows it does not have to be just one type of tenure. We can also develop the custom and self-build opportunities, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and I have agreed on in the House—there is cross-party agreement—in the last few months.

I would say, however, that we do not do well enough in this country in sharing best practice. I advise people across local government who are looking at developments and how to develop to look at what is happening in places like Bicester and to talk to those involved. They are strong proponents, they are happy to talk to people, and they have done some excellent work that they can share with others about how good-quality development can help build strong communities of which we can all be proud.

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Housing Ombudsman (Power to Settle Disputes between Neighbours and Tenants)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

2.56 pm

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a discretionary power to enable the Housing Ombudsman to attempt to resolve disputes between occupants of neighbouring properties in cases where nuisance is caused by tenants; and for connected purposes.

Members will know that houses in multiple occupation —so-called HMOs—are a growing feature of our towns and cities. Last year there were almost 200,000 in London alone, which was a growth of over 10,000 on the previous 12 months. There are now more than 1,000 HMOs in my borough of Enfield. Why have we seen this growth? Often HMOs offer cheaper and flexible accommodation. They are already a key component of our housing tapestry. HMOs are also an attractive prospect for private landlords. As the website of one property management firm puts it:

“If you have a large property and are renting it out to just one tenant, consider transforming it into a HMO or hostel. This gives you the ability to take on more tenants and thus increase your potential for profit.”

However, as the website also says:

“If you want to turn your property into a hostel or HMO, there are certain responsibilities you need to consider”,

most of which relate to the condition and safety of the premises. My Bill seeks to add to those responsibilities, particularly in the field of antisocial behaviour, without the heavy hand of regulation imposing greater burdens.

Some weeks ago a constituent came to me who lives next to one of the HMOs managed by the property management firm to which I have referred. Some of the tenants, who admitted that they smoked too much marijuana which made them behave erratically, made my constituent’s life a nightmare: scratching their car; constantly playing loud music; knocking on the doors well beyond midnight; and on one occasion smashing up their property. The police and the council batted the problem between them. My constituent could not, of course, over a period of time even build any relationships with the HMO residents, as they are often transient. The constituent, who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons the House will understand, has attempted to resolve the matter themselves. My constituent and their family are responsible, decent and hard-working, and do not immediately look to others, including the state, to solve their problems, but after weeks of discussion with the occupants and the landlord agent, they saw no progress. The state failed to solve the behavioural issues, and the agent simply recycled the tenants.

In a final attempt to resolve the problem, my constituent tried to contact the landlord. The agent would not disclose the landlord’s details. As far as we can tell, they made no effort to arrange a meeting between the neighbours and the landlords. In desperation, my constituent turned to their local MP, and I turned to this Bill. Clearly, the standard rules surrounding antisocial behaviour in private rented accommodation are simply not enough when dealing with packed HMOs. For example, the lengthy process for a neighbour to get a noise abatement notice against a single tenant is often too little, too late.

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Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate better than anyone the difficulty of controlling antisocial behaviour in a crowded House with many unruly occupants, but at least the boundaries here are clear.

Selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation acknowledges the unique issues and allows local authorities to crack down on antisocial areas, but as we have heard, many have failed to do so. However, authority-wide licence zones mean more costs for all landlords, not just the rogues. We need to give neighbours themselves the tools to hold landlords responsible, when appropriate. Put simply, when other steps fail to deal with the problem, or when landlord agents simply remove tenants and replace them with other challenging occupants, there is at present no recourse to the landlord. Landlords do not answer to neighbours for the consequences of contracts they have entered into with agents and tenants.

As we know only too well, antisocial behaviour is often treated as a problem for the victim, and there is no workable process to deal with the negative externalities that result from contracts being formed. However, the mediation that I propose, initiated by the ombudsman, would offer another solution. The Bill sets out a means of giving neighbours the right to seek mediation with the landlord, if the housing ombudsman agrees. At present, the ombudsman can instruct mediation only between a landlord and a tenant. Indeed, the advice from the ombudsman states:

“The first person to tell about a problem with housing is the landlord. They might be able to put things right.”

I could not agree more. I think that the same applies to antisocial behaviour next door, but at the moment, it is extremely difficult to locate and identify a landlord. Indeed, it is almost impossible when a landlord wishes to protect their identity.

The Bill would provide a means of dealing with the disturbing practice of recycling antisocial behaviour, which frankly takes too long for local authorities to sort

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out. I want to put a stop to the practice by giving neighbours who are the victims of antisocial behaviour the right to deal with the landlord of the property in question. I believe that that will help to resolve the problem in a timely fashion. The vast majority of landlords are good landlords, and they will want to stop bad behaviour when they are made aware of it. If there are landlords who do not care, the Bill will force them to take action. In many cases, the neighbours believe that the landlord is not even aware of the problems in the property that they have let out.

This change must be made, however, without getting the ombudsman involved in more generic neighbourhood disputes. This is not about disputes over high hedges, parking or planning. The Bill is not about interfering with the growth in HMOs. It does not confer rights on neighbours to object to the use of premises as HMOs. Rather, it is about easing the path of reconciliation by setting out clearly the right to take concerns directly to landlords when other reasonable steps taken by the victims have failed. The Bill would hold absentee landlords responsible for antisocial behaviour without having to introduce a special licence or blocking the HMO.

Who has not had constituents in their surgeries telling them that they are facing intolerable quality-of-life issues because of neighbours from hell? The House should seek to remedy that situation and make it easier for our constituents who do the right thing, the decent thing, and who wish to try to solve the problem for themselves. If we can facilitate that for them, we will be taking a great step forward. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Nick de Bois, Mr David Burrowes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Sarah Newton, Bob Blackman, Sir Bob Russell, Mike Freer, Mr Lee Scott, Mrs Mary Glindon, Sir Roger Gale, Graham Stringer and Ms Gisela Stuart present the Bill.

Nick de Bois accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 179).

3 Mar 2015 : Column 857

Estimates Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Estimates 2014-15


Housing Costs (Reformed Welfare System)

[Relevant Documents: Fourth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2013-14, Support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, HC 720.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2015, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £910,407,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1019,

(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £6,689,000 as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £2,183,111,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

3.7 pm

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I shall continue the theme of housing: we have had a statement and a ten-minute rule Bill on housing, and this debate is about the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system. There are two important debates scheduled for this afternoon, but given that we have had two urgent questions and two statements, our deliberations might have to be somewhat curtailed.

Our report dealt with the series of reforms to housing benefit and other support to meet housing costs that the Government have introduced since 2010. The report was published in April last year, and strangely we have been granted a debate on the Floor of the House today without having received the Government’s response to it. Normally, we would expect a Government response to a Select Committee report to be published before any such debate is granted. We have been waiting for almost a year to receive the Government response.

As I have said, our report was published in April 2014. We have still not received the Government response almost a year later, but that is not for want of trying. In September last year, the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, wrote to me to apologise for the delay, saying that although the response had been prepared, the Department for Work and Pensions was still in the process of seeking “cross-government clearance” for it. I do not know whether that means there is a major split in the coalition over the report; perhaps the Minister could fill us in on why the Government’s response has still not made it out of the DWP and into the light of day.

As we still had not received a response by December, I wrote, with the Committee’s agreement, to the same Minister to ask that a response be submitted as a matter of urgency, but I have still not received a reply to that letter. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, effective Select Committee scrutiny is hampered if the Government fail to abide by the agreed process. I appreciate that

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today’s Minister is not the one I have been writing to, but I hope he will engage fully with the detailed and specific recommendations in our report—the Government have failed to do that for nearly a year. The recommendations are important and we hope the Government are taking them seriously.

The report covered a wide range of issues relating to housing costs and the welfare system, but perhaps the most controversial was “social sector size criteria”. We called it that to try to make it sound more neutral; any other form of words can be emotive, because it is called the bedroom tax, the removal of the spare room subsidy or the under-occupancy penalty, depending on one’s political view. However, it is the charge that has meant that social tenants deemed to have more bedrooms than they need have had their housing benefit reduced. The Government said that the aims of the reform were to reduce benefit expenditure, make use of the social housing stock and incentivise people to enter work. We actually agreed that using housing stock more effectively and reducing overcrowding were understandable goals. The question was: were the Government achieving them?

Although it is true that some reduction in housing benefit has resulted, it is not because people have moved house and are now more appropriately housed; it is because many people caught by the bedroom tax—the social sector size criteria—have merely had to subsidise their housing costs from other benefit or other income, and so of course it has saved the Government some money. However, we found that many people whom we genuinely believe the Government did not want to be caught by the bedroom tax were being affected by it, and many of them are vulnerable people. As many as 60% to 70% of households in England affected by the bedroom tax contain somebody with a disability.

The whole idea was that tenants would move to smaller houses, but we found that not enough smaller houses were available across the country. Some people might have been able to move into the private rented sector, which might have been more expensive for them, but even in that sector not enough suitable accommodation was available. Others of the vulnerable group were not able to respond by finding work, because of their illness and their disabilities. We also found that a significant number of people caught by the bedroom tax had specifically adapted homes, which means that it is difficult and expensive for them to move to smaller accommodation. Whoever came up with the idea that they could do so clearly has not been through the process, as I have, of trying to find a home that is easily adapted or has been adapted.

The only option for many people was to remain in their homes and so have their housing benefit reduced. All they could do was make up the shortfall. DWP research has shown that that often meant cutting down on household essentials or borrowing money from family and friends. The reduction in housing benefit was not insignificant for those who had no choice but to pay up—a 14% cut where the tenant was deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and a 25% cut where under-occupation was deemed to be by two or more bedrooms. In addition, the deduction is made on the basis of the total rent paid, without regard to the level of housing benefit actually received. Therefore, those in partial receipt of housing benefit would have to pay more proportionately.

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The Government’s statistics show that by the end of November 2014 the reduction had been applied to nearly half a million claimants and that the average reduction was nearly £15 per week. We found that this reform was having a particular impact on people with disabilities, including those I have mentioned already: those who have adapted homes; and people who need a room to hold medical equipment or to accommodate a carer—often a family carer. We recommended that anybody living in a home that has been significantly adapted for them should be exempt from having their benefit reduced. We also called on the Government to exempt all households that contain a person in receipt of higher level disability benefits—disability living allowance or the new personal independence payment.

Hon. Members should note our use of the word “exempt”; we wanted those groups of people to be exempt. The Government’s response is to say, “Oh, but they don’t have to pay in any case because they have access to discretionary housing payments.” Given the number of people who are reliant on DHPs, there must be something wrong with the original policy if so many people have to rely on some kind of “transitional” arrangement. But it is not transitional, simply because there are not the houses for these people to move to or they cannot move because of the kind of accommodation they require which does not fit the criteria set down by the Government.

The Government say, as they have been saying for the whole year we have been waiting on their response, that the protection is available through the DHPs. It is true that the Government have substantially increased the funding for DHPs, but those payments are awarded by local authorities to people facing hardship in paying their rent, including tenants affected by the bedroom tax and by the benefit cap, and they are still discretionary. Of course, they are also not meant to be long term, as this is a transitional protection. The other problem is that DHPs are awarded on the basis of eligibility criteria, which each local authority can set itself. That can create a postcode lottery, and we felt it was important that the granting of a DHP should be based on access to the help needed, rather than being dependent on where a claimant lived. As we often say, any benefit or award should be based on need, not on somebody’s postcode.

We were also concerned that some local authorities are taking income from disability benefits into account in the means tests they apply for determining eligibility for DHPs. It may be that individual households would qualify normally for a DHP based on just the raw criteria, but when the means test is taken into account they do not get it. Members in this House have said that it did not matter whether an individual or a family was subject to the bedroom tax because they would always get the money reimbursed or they would be helped out by a DHP, but for a large number of families that did not happen because of the application of this second means test. The benefits that were being taken into account were things such as disability living allowance and personal independence payments, but they are paid to people who are long-term sick and to disabled people to help them meet the extra costs of their disability. They are not meant to subsidise their housing costs. Those extra costs do not go away just because

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someone has to contribute something towards their rent because their housing benefit no longer covers the full amount.

We recommended that the Government should issue revised guidance to local authorities, making it clear that disability benefits should be disregarded in any means tests for DHPs. As yet, we do not know whether that has happened, and I hope that the Minister can tell us whether that sensible and modest request by my Select Committee has been put in place.

There is also the problem that DHPs were meant to be temporary and transitional. They were never intended to provide a long-term solution, which is why we hoped that certain categories of claimants would be exempt. That makes far more sense than having claimants apply every six months, or every year, for a DHP, or for help towards their housing costs. We are talking about long-term problems. If a claimant cannot move house or find work, why is it that they still have to apply for a DHP?

Local authorities seem unwilling to make longer term awards, so claimants often end up having to re-apply every six or 12 months. Each time a family has to apply for a DHP, they go through anxiety and uncertainty, and they never know whether they will get the award this time round.

We concluded that if DHPs are to continue to be used as the main way of mitigating the hardship that the reforms are causing, substantial levels of funding will be needed for the foreseeable future. Claimants need to be given certainty that long-term awards are available. During our inquiry, we visited some people who were caught in that particular Catch-22 situation and they really were worried about the future.

There is also the question whether there is sufficient funding for DHPs. Although central funding was increased to £165 million in 2014-15, it will go down again to £125 million in the next financial year—a drop of £40 million. During our inquiry, the Government argued that DHPs were sufficient because local authorities had not bid for the full amount of funding that was available, but we believed—this has been borne out by later evidence—that that was because the reforms were at an early stage. Local authorities were still trying to adjust to the changes, and claimants were often not aware that DHPs were available. The DWP’s own research found that 56% of people who had not applied for DHPs were not aware that they existed, but they were as likely as other claimants to report difficulty in paying the rent or being in arrears.

We recommended that the Government should review the whole DHP provision when more detail was available, which it must be by now, and increase the funding, but we now know that that will be reduced. Obviously, there has not been a proper review and, as a result, it will be harder and harder for local authorities to continue to meet the costs of the DHPs that their own criteria say they should be paying out.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the evidential basis is for reducing DHP funding next year. Does the funding level take account of actual assessed levels of hardship arising from reduced housing benefit, or is it based only on the amount of DHP that local authorities have been able to distribute so far? What steps are the Government and local authorities taking to inform vulnerable claimants that they can apply for DHPs to help them make up their rent shortfalls?

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Another aspect that has arisen as a result of the changes to housing benefit is the introduction of a cap on the total amount of benefits that a household can receive. The current limit is £26,000 a year. It is relevant to housing costs because it is the claimant’s housing benefit that is reduced when they hit the cap.

It is worth noting that almost everybody affected by the cap either lives in an area of the country with expensive rented accommodation, such as London, or are being placed in temporary accommodation because they are homeless. Local authorities often have no option other than to put homeless people in temporary accommodation because of the lack of other rented housing in the area. That problem is getting more and more acute in a number of areas, but temporary housing is normally more expensive than permanent accommodation and claimants can then fall within the scope of the benefit cap.

Local authorities often end up paying the shortfall between rent levels and housing benefit for those affected by the cap through DHPs, so there is in fact no overall saving to public funds. We recommended that the Government should exempt all households in temporary accommodation from the benefit cap, because it seems particularly unjust for those claimants to be affected when they had no choice over where they were housed. We also found that the benefit cap was having an adverse impact on disabled persons and their carers, and that is a particular problem when the carer lives with the disabled person—usually as the parent of a child, but it could be as the adult child of a disabled parent—but they are not considered, for benefit reasons, to be part of the same household. We recommended that the Government should exempt from the benefit cap all recipients of carers allowance in that situation. The Government said that the benefit cap was not intended to push carers into work, but that may well be the effect unless the recipients of carer’s allowance are exempted from the cap. I do not think that the Government anticipated that carers would be caught by the bedroom tax.

We also looked at the local housing allowance, which is the former housing benefit for tenants in the private rented sector. The Government announced reforms to the LHA in the June 2010 Budget, and the Committee published a report that year highlighting our concerns about the implication of the changes. Our 2014 report assessed the impact of the reforms. We concluded that there was a growing discrepancy between average rents and the amount of local housing allowance that households can claim. We found that, as a result, private sector landlords are increasingly reluctant to rent to LHA recipients. Evictions and non-renewals of tenancies are increasing, and the properties that do remain available to claimants are increasingly of poor quality and there are fewer and fewer of them.

We also looked at the impact on homelessness. We noted that, despite homeless statistics being down overall, rises are occurring in areas where demand for housing is high, and that homelessness among those not deemed to be “in priority need” had increased by 9% between 2012 and 2013. In order to qualify as priority need, households need to be vulnerable in some way. We are talking about single mothers or victims of special circumstances, such as a fire or flood, so many homeless people are excluded from the definition. It is therefore not surprising that many people who are homeless are not necessarily showing up in the figures.

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We were also concerned about younger people affected by the changes to the shared accommodation rate, which is the housing benefit paid to claimants without dependants who live in private rented accommodation. Basically, it means that they cannot rent a complete flat or house of their own; they can afford to rent only a room. The benefit had previously applied to claimants under 25, but from April 2012, as part of the LHA reforms, the Government extended the SAR to any single claimant under the age of 35 without dependent children. We found that in many areas insufficient accommodation at this level of rent was available. We heard evidence of possible adverse impacts on people with mental health problems and on parents with non-resident children, who would no longer have room to accommodate their children when they came to stay.

We concluded that the extension of the shared accommodation rate to single claimants up to the age of 35 might well have reduced the availability of safe, appropriate accommodation for younger people, some of whom may be vulnerable. We recommended that the Government should assess the impact of this change to the shared accommodation rate. If there was evidence that the change was resulting in some vulnerable young people having to live in situations which were inappropriate or put them at risk, we thought that the Government should consider introducing exemptions for vulnerable people and doing more to increase the provision of appropriate accommodation.

On the face of it, the introduction of universal credit may seem unlikely to affect housing costs, but housing benefit is one of the six benefits that will form part of universal credit. The biggest change in respect of housing benefit is that it will be administered by the DWP directly as part of universal credit, rather than by local authorities, as is the case at present. Universal credit, including the housing costs element, will generally be paid direct to claimants once a month, although exceptions can be made.

For some time now most claimants in the private rented sector have received their housing benefit direct and paid rent to their landlords. However, for social housing tenants, this represents a huge change, as their housing benefit has always previously been paid to their landlords and they have not been faced with handling the significant sums that housing benefit sometimes involves, especially when it is paid once a month.

In a report that we published in 2012 we looked at how universal credit would affect vulnerable claimants. One of the key issues that we considered was the challenge that some vulnerable people would face in coping with direct monthly payments of UC which included their housing costs. To test the impact of direct payment of housing costs on social sector tenants, the Government set up direct payment demonstration projects in six local authority areas in 2012. The findings from the research showed a distinct and significant drop in rent payment rates when tenants first migrated to direct payment. As a result, rent arrears increased, as did the number of tenants falling into arrears. Although tenants adjusted to the new system over time, much of the arrears that had built up in the early stages were not repaid, so total arrears continued to rise. Overall, tenants who went on to direct payment paid 95.5% of all the rent owed, compared with 99.1% who were not on direct payment.

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The Public Accounts Committee last week published a report on universal credit that concluded that these findings show that the DWP needs to reflect on how it will tackle the potential problems of paying the housing benefit element of universal credit directly to claimants. As we said about universal credit in 2012, it may work well for the majority of claimants, but it is the vulnerable minority who need special attention and extra support. This is particularly the case when it comes to housing costs because they often represent the largest proportion of a household’s benefit payments. If people fall into arrears and lose their homes, there can be all sorts of dire consequences, particularly for children.

What I have said so far applies predominantly to England and Wales. Since we published our report there has been a referendum in Scotland and the setting up of the Smith commission to look into further devolved powers. My Select Committee has not had time to look at the implications of the Smith agreement and how that might impact on the way in which housing benefit is administered and paid in Scotland. Nevertheless, our report was wide ranging. I have not touched on all the important issues that it covered, but colleagues from the Committee are in the Chamber and they may do so.

In conclusion, we continue to be disappointed that the Government have not been able to provide a response to the very important matters that we raised nearly a year ago. Many of the issues that we identified in April 2014 still exist in the system and some have been exacerbated with the passage of time. I look forward to the Minister’s update on the progress that has been made in addressing some of the concerns that I have raised.

3.33 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee. She raises a number of interesting points that were debated in the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), the Affordable Homes Bill, which proposed a number of changes to the social sector criteria—the bedroom tax, spare room rent or whatever one wants to call it. One of those changes would, under certain circumstances, automatically exempt people with disabilities from being required to pay for a spare room.

In law as it currently stands, under article 14 of the European convention on human rights, there is a legally enforceable right to get hold of discretionary housing payments. I have achieved that in Birmingham in a couple of cases, by using the threat of it rather than making the application to court. My constituency experience is that in the cases in which we should get DHP, in general we have got it. I agree that we should have an automatic exemption from paying for spare rooms for those people who need them because they have a disability, which is obvious, and those whose homes have been adapted. However, we have managed to get DHP in those cases, and we are getting longer DHP awards following the changes that defined the budget for two-year periods, so some progress is being made.

The other change proposed in the Affordable Homes Bill was that people who said that they wanted to move would not have to pay. Of course, that is between 10% and 20% of people. In fact, I think that the figures

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for Birmingham show that roughly half those who were originally having to pay for spare rooms no longer have to, although obviously people are flowing in and out of the system. I find it rather sad—perhaps the Minister will take note of this point—that although the Department gets monthly statistics from all local authorities on what is going on with awards of DHP and the like, spare room rent and so on, we do not get up-to-date figures on the situation.

One of the changes introduced in April 2013 was to enable people in the social rented sector to benefit in the same way as those who own their own homes if they want to let out a spare room to a lodger or boarder. Not only would they not have to pay for the spare room, but they could keep up to £20 a week of the additional money. Given that the applicable amount for a 25-year-old is currently around £71.70, £20 a week is quite a lot of money. I believe that only a handful of people in Birmingham have taken that up, but I think that is because people do not know that they can benefit.

I had a meeting last night with care leavers, during which we discussed housing, because it is absolutely critical for them. We discussed how tight their budgets are when they have to live on means-tested benefits, because they have to pay water, gas and electricity bills, so there are great merits in people sharing property in certain circumstances. I advise young people to consider sharing, rather than trying to live alone. They raised a concern that even though they got some priority as care leavers, they were still given only one choice of property—take it or leave it. I think that varies from local authority to local authority, but perhaps more could be done in that regard.

In my constituency advice bureau I get people who are very upset. The last person who was in tears was a constituent who was in overcrowded accommodation; they could not live comfortably in the two-bedroom flat they had. I find it sad that we are still not managing to deal with those who are under-occupying and those who are over-occupying in such a way that councils can resolve the issue. I recently had a case in which a pensioner wanted to downsize from a house but the council was being exceedingly difficult about it, saying, “When you took the house, certain adaptations were made, so we want you to reinstate them before we move you.” Obviously he is not paying the spare room rent, but he is still occupying a house that could be occupied by a family. I do not think that there is the urgency that there should be in local authorities to try to deal with overcrowding.

Dame Anne Begg: Actually, there is a need to ensure that people are appropriately housed and that they move, but very little of that responsibility lies with local authorities. The wrong way to go about it is just to take money from people who are over-occupying and would love to move but are not in a position to do so.

John Hemming: I personally think that it would be harsh to go around evicting everybody who is under-occupying, although that happens when people try to succeed to a tenancy; they are told that they cannot do so because the property is too big. I do not think that overcrowding is taken sufficiently seriously. Malcolm Wicks highlighted in his memoirs how he argued, when a Labour Housing Minister, for the need to bring in something akin to the current situation.

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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that the proposals from the late Malcolm Wicks involved incentives to move, not financial penalties to be applied immediately whether or not houses are available.

John Hemming: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but my reading of all the documents, including those memoirs, is different from hers. It was not about an incentive to move, which I do not think anyone would criticise. I think that his proposals were very similar to those that have been adopted by this Government, as seen in the written parliamentary questions.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Does he also recognise that it is wrong to distinguish between individuals on the basis of who their landlords are? Whether their landlord happens to be in the private sector or the public sector should make no difference to the level of support they get.

John Hemming: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The scheme for working out how much space people need and paying them for it was introduced in the private sector many years ago. The Opposition will make the valid point that they did not make it retrospective, but the Government then say that if we want to deal with overcrowding and the like, this is one of the difficulties. Speaking personally, I would rather not do any of these things, but we do not have the finances for that. If we had chosen to take the Greek approach and said, “Can’t pay, won’t pay”, and then run out of money, we would not have had to do a lot of these things, but sadly we have to try to bring the books into balance over time.

Sheila Gilmore: The fundamental problem with this whole policy—I think the hon. Gentleman is taking this position as well—is whether it is about saving money or making better use of houses. The amount being saved even on the Government’s own initial estimates was not enormous, and when we factor in discretionary housing payments and all the other things that have to be taken into account, the savings diminish even further. This is not really something that will save a lot of money. [Interruption.]

John Hemming: From a sedentary position, the Minister says, “£1 million a day”, which is about the order of magnitude that we were talking about. A policy can have more than one objective. It can be designed to save money and also to deal with overcrowding. This year, I have not had anyone in my office complaining about social services criteria, but I often get people complaining about being overcrowded.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the bedroom tax was introduced, 19,000 people in his constituency were already on the waiting list, of whom 8,000 wanted one-bedroom flats? There was already a long queue of people before the bedroom tax was introduced,

John Hemming: In my constituency, I was aware of a family of four living in a one-bedroom flat who wanted to transfer out of that into better accommodation.

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Mr Spencer: I am not familiar with Birmingham, Yardley, but I wonder whether the fact that the lists were so long is a symptom of the legacy of the previous Government’s inability to build single-bedroom accommodation for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to move into.

John Hemming: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Social landlords have had a relatively simplistic approach to designing property to suit the demands of the market. That creates a difficulty, in as much as one should recognise that there are real difficulties in the financial costs of living alone, including paying rent. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South said that the changes to universal credit mean that people have to keep money aside for rent in a social housing property in the same way as they have had to in a private rented property, the logic being that it makes for a seamless move into work and therefore they are not frightened about getting a job.

In my constituency, I have worked with 6 Towns credit union, which is based in West Bromwich, to extend its service to Yardley, as it has done. It allows someone to be a preferred creditor. Basically, the housing element of universal credit or housing benefit is put to one side and made available for the landlord, be that a social housing landlord or a private landlord. It is important to do that, because we need to make sure that people do not end up in a mess. The idea is that budgeting is done through the bank account rather than the housing benefits system. That creates a situation in which people do not find themselves in great difficulty with budgeting as soon as they get into a monthly paid job.

There have been proposals to cash limit housing benefit by giving it all to the local authorities. I think that the Institute for Public Policy Research proposed something along those lines. That would lead to a situation where potentially many more tenants in social housing would have to pay towards the rent for their accommodation. I would be concerned about that, because it would put them in a situation that they could do little about. I favour the current process, which supports people with the housing costs they need to pay so that they can cope on a day-to-day basis.

This is a difficult area, and the Government have done many things that I would have preferred them not to do, one of which is the change to housing benefit, which it would have been nice to do gradually. However, we have to bring the books into balance, because if we do not, the interest rates on sovereign debt will go up and the amount of interest that we would then have to pay means that the cuts or tax rises that are necessary would become a lot greater than would have otherwise been the case.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I appreciate that there is a feeling the House is not very busy and that the whole afternoon and evening stretches before us, but another debate is scheduled to take place after this one. If everyone follows the example of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and speaks for approximately 10 minutes, all Members who have indicated that they wish to speak will have the opportunity to do so. I will not impose a time limit at the moment. The hon. Gentleman has set a good example, and I hope that everyone will follow it.

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3.45 pm

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. It was very well opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is a dedicated and inspirational Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. I want to put on the record my thanks to her for the way in which she has chaired the Committee and for all the things I have learned from her. She is the epitome of the iron fist in a velvet glove, and she manages to be both reasonable and radical at the same time.

I am speaking in this debate because I am a member of the Select Committee, and the Chair has already gone through some of the recommendations in our report. Given the importance of the report, it is disappointing that, a year on, we are still waiting for the Government response. I hope that the Minister will address that matter.

It is indisputable that we are the middle of a housing crisis. House building is down, homelessness and rough sleeping are rising, and houses are unaffordable for many people. The lack of social housing means that those with legitimate claims and in desperate need are deemed ineligible or not in priority need as local authorities try to implement housing strategies to manage demand with a only very few houses to allocate.

The private rented sector has filled the vacuum caused by the lack of affordable and social housing. As a result, the private rented sector in London has grown by 75% in the past 10 years. In my constituency, it is now common for families to live in private rented accommodation, although they previously either owned their own home or lived in social housing. Yet the ever-growing private rented sector is still failing to meet the demands of renters. It is easy to reduce discussions about housing costs to an evaluation of numbers and statistics, but the truth is that covering housing costs is crucial to securing a stable home life and a stable society. Affordable housing costs give families certainty and freedom from the fear of eviction, and help to foster communities.

Costs are spiralling out of control. The cost of renting has soared while wages have dropped. The lack of regulation in the private rented sector and the limited supply of housing in comparison with demand mean that private landlords are currently free to set their own prices. The cost of renting privately has increased consistently since 2009, and rents reportedly increased in London in 2012-13 by nearly 8%.

It is not surprising that so many people, both in and out of work, require help with paying their housing costs and have to resort to housing benefit. The number of in-work housing benefit claimants rose from 439,000 at the end of 2008 to more than 1 million in May 2014. The latest statistics also show that there were just under 4.9 million housing benefit claimants at the end of November 2014—increased from 4.2 million in November 2008—of whom 67% were in the social rented sector, but the rest were in the private rented sector.

The Committee’s report illustrated that the cost of housing benefit is rising, while the most vulnerable are failed when they rent privately. Over the past year, as a constituency MP, I have seen a spike in the number of people contacting my office who have been told that they are ineligible for social housing, but cannot secure

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private rented accommodation. That is due to a combination of factors, but one that has made things very difficult for people is the change in local housing allowance. Constituents tell me that when they go to the local authority, they are just given a list of private letting agents. The problem is that nearly all those on the list say that they do not take any tenants on benefits. Constituents are spending time and resources searching for suitable properties only to be told that they cannot be helped. That means that a large section of the private rented sector is unavailable to claimants, and that they are often forced to take poor, substandard property that fails to meet their needs.

John Hemming: We have found in the west midlands that private landlords are often willing to take people on housing benefit if they have a 6 Towns type of account that reserves the funds. There is a solution in the system as it stands. Perhaps that needs to be investigated. Obviously, 6 Towns does not operate across the country, but perhaps there are solutions that can be found within the current policy.

Teresa Pearce: It is true that solutions can be found. Sadly, no one seems to have found them yet in my part of south-east London.

The Work and Pensions Committee looked at the problems that are faced by people on housing benefit. They are discriminated against when looking for private rented accommodation. For families, that makes trying to find a roof over their heads an uphill struggle. Given that tenancies typically last for six to 12 months, private renters often have to move just as they have settled in. Children who live in such places have their life chances restricted and their education disrupted, and are often not registered with a doctor. That cannot be acceptable.

Private landlords may be reluctant to rent accommodation or provide temporary accommodation to claimants for a number of reasons. It might not just be general discrimination, but might be due to constraints that are imposed by mortgage lenders, who say that they are not allowed to provide longer tenancies, or due to fears that local authorities will fail to allocate housing benefit in a timely manner. Giving private renters the option of allowing the housing benefit component of their universal credit payment to go directly to their landlord might allay those fears and enable private renters to control their finances more easily. The Government must work with private sector landlords to address their concerns about universal credit and offer greater support to those who rent property to housing benefit claimants. That work must start now.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I grateful to my colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee for giving way. I met my key local social housing provider on Friday. It said that there was a 15% gap in rent collection between those on universal credit and those not on universal credit. That is manageable over a year or so, but over the longer term it will create huge problems. I wonder whether my hon. Friend wants to comment on that point.

Teresa Pearce: That is a valid point. It is something that we all encounter locally when we talk to housing providers. It needs to be addressed, so I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.

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Another problem for private renters is that the change to local housing allowance is further restricting their access to the widest selection of available properties. Local housing allowance rates match only the 30th per- centile of homes within a broad rental market area. The Government reduced that from the 50th percentile. I believe that that needs to be re-evaluated urgently, especially in London. Rents have risen, but the local housing allowance was frozen in 2012-13 and uprated by 1% in 2014. There has been a reduction in the number of homes that can be rented out at that rate.

An analysis by Crisis shows that across Britain, one in 10 local housing allowance rates for 2015-16 is 5% or more lower than the estimated 30th percentile of local rents. Those include 77 rates that have already benefited from an additional increase due to the targeted affordability fund. As was outlined in the Select Committee’s report, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that rent levels did not decline as a result of the cap. In fact, the most recent rental figures show a 1.8% rise across the stock in England and a rise of 2.4% in London. That is well above the recent 1% cap and means that additional properties will fall out of the reach of those on benefit.

Private renters should not have to choose between having a roof over their heads and eating, but increasingly that is becoming a daily choice for many people in my constituency. The Government should consider increasing LHA rates by more than 1% annually in more pressured areas. Although the Committee welcomed the introduction of the targeted affordability fund as a means of increasing LHA levels in areas of higher rents, some areas may see rents rising by more than the maximum of 4% a year. The Government should amend the targeted affordability fund so that it can be paid at higher levels in areas where rent increases are greater than 4%. It should also use available rents rather than stock rents as a measure for the rental increase.

Rents are currently unaffordable across the private sector. In 2012, the Money Advice Trust stated that rent arrears were the fastest growing debt problem it had encountered and that the number of calls it received on the issue had risen by 37% on the previous year. At the end of 2014, the National Landlords Association reported that almost a third of private landlords had seen arrears that year. There were a record number of evictions of renters across the social and private sector in 2014 as a result of a combination of factors, including the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions, increased numbers renting with the reduced LHA rate, and rising private sector rents.

Recent figures from Crisis have also shown that the No. 1 leading cause of homelessness now is eviction from a private tenancy. The figures highlight not just the lack of affordability for renters when having to manage competing living costs, but how unsustainable rising rents will be for the private rented sector without Government intervention.

The Government must continue to monitor homelessness levels and take action to mitigate the impact on households and local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government reported that rough sleeping increased by 14% in autumn 2014. I am regularly contacted by constituents who tell me that they cannot be housed by their local council because they are not in priority need and that they have no option but to live in overcrowded accommodation with family members or to couch-surf,

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which is code for sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house. If they can be housed, they have been told that their only option is temporary accommodation. In my local area of Bexley, people are often temporarily accommodated in Manchester and Bolton, which means having to uproot their children from school and leave their support networks behind.

It always worries me greatly that, while a number of landlords are reputable, a number of others are not. There are private landlords in my constituency who line their pockets while renters struggle to pay their rent. I wrote to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury in November to ask about the Let Property campaign, which was launched in September 2013 to target the residential property letting market. Specifically, I wanted to know whether it had been successful in closing the tax gap on let properties, but the responses I received were not encouraging. They said it was too early to tell, but one of the figures they did give me was an estimate that the tax gap on letting income was just over £500 million. It is absolutely disgraceful that public money is going to landlords who do not then pay their way or their tax. We need to address that urgently.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Before the hon. Lady addresses any further points. She may have been able to count, but she has now spoken for 12 minutes. I trusted her to speak for 10 minutes, so I trust that she is going to wind up very soon.

Teresa Pearce: I will finish by saying that I think this is a most urgent issue. I do not usually quote from Conservative manifestos, but the 1951 Conservative manifesto said:

“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes.”

That was true then, and it is true now.

3.58 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I am sorry that I missed the first couple of minutes of the speech by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), because she speaks very sensibly on this issue and many Government Members listen to what she has to say about it. I will pick up on a couple of points she made.

The hon. Lady has spoken in the past about the amount that we spend on housing benefit. It was a matter of concern to us all that the housing benefit budget seemed to be getting out of control in the run-up to the last general election. In fact, the housing benefit bill was forecast to rise over the current Parliament from £21 billion to more than £26 billion. This Government’s reforms have only pegged back that increase by about £2 billion a year, which, given the potential growth in the budget, is not very much at all.

The hon. Lady spoke about how the spare room subsidy has been working in practice. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), my constituency surgeries were visited by many people when the policy was first mooted, perhaps because they were scared by stories that were being circulated at the time about how it would affect them. There was a general lack of knowledge about discretionary housing

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payments and who can receive them for. I am pleased that we were able to help every person who came through the door of my constituency surgery advice centre seeking help in that area, and all received discretionary housing payments.

Interestingly, Daventry and District Housing, which serves a huge area of my constituency, saw the policy change coming down the line. It is a good housing association in many ways because it talks to its tenants on a regular basis and gets to know them, and it therefore made sure that they were ready for the change. Most tenants in Daventry and District Housing accommodation knew that the change was coming, and knew that discretionary housing payments were available and how to access them.

I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, which discusses these matters—I will mention the report that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South spoke about in moment—and it is fairly obvious that different parts of the country, different housing associations, and different councils have acted in completely different ways over this change. They have probably acted in their best local interests, which is fine, but it has led to different outcomes in various parts of the country that all have remarkably significant and different pressures on them.

In one of my first years on the Committee, its Chair, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), took us to see a primary school and surrounding housing estate in her constituency. We had been talking about health and housing inequalities, and the trip was to see how primary education was working. I acknowledge that the pressures on housing in Erith and Thamesmead, or in Barking and Dagenham, are completely different from those in my constituency, and that is why local experts and housing associations in that area know their tenants well.

The interesting background to this debate concerns an area of spending that was constantly growing and needed to be brought under control—however we paint the picture, the Government’s moneybags were not particularly full when they came to office in May 2010, and although they are a bit better now, there are still tough decisions to be made. Such decisions must be based on fairness—I know that some Opposition Members do not consider this measure to be fair at all—and we must consider how we change a policy that is already enacted for those in the private rental housing sector but not for those in the public rental sector.

At this point I should say that I rent out a house. My private property in Lincoln is noted in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and I rent it to a private sector tenant who to my knowledge is not on any type of benefit. There is a proper debate to be had about this issue, which was started in no uncertain terms by the previous Government.

This Government brought forward their proposals with the safety net of discretionary housing payments. I do not want to disagree with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) because she will know her local area much better than I will, but perhaps I misheard her. She was talking about warrants for evictions, and perhaps she meant from the private rental sector.

Teresa Pearce indicated assent.

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Chris Heaton-Harris: She did. I know from Ministry of Justice figures that warrants for evictions for public sector rental tenants were down over the period in question by 6%. An issue in the private rental sector might well need to be addressed, and that is probably in the south-east of the country rather than elsewhere, given the housing pressures that London might have.

My concern was the treatment of carers and those who are disabled. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, it would have been wonderful to exempt everybody from the change, but it was impossible to do so, and therefore discretionary housing payments were introduced. In my experience in my constituency, DHP has been granted for disability and caring in every single case it has been asked for. I pay tribute to Daventry and District Housing, the citizens advice bureau and the local council for the way in which they have dealt with those cases. The patch—I admit that it is a patch, and that I would much rather have seen it done in a much more solid way—seems to work. The extension of the term of DHP seems to have given people a better sense that they will be able to live in their property for a long period.

I conclude with comments on the Public Accounts Committee report on universal credit, which was published only a couple of weeks ago, and which the hon. Member for Aberdeen South mentioned. As she outlined, an interesting part of universal credit and one of the benefits that it will eventually wrap in—for many new claimants, that has started—is housing benefit. Housing associations up and down the country have had concerns about how that might affect them and how they will get their rents from tenants. However, the report shows how a change in the Department for Work and Pensions has been introduced—it has been seen as controversial by many, although a universal credit that aims to get as many people as possible into work and to make work pay better than benefits ever will is in fact policy on both sides of the House—how the programme has improved things and how it is now beginning to deliver what it was meant to deliver, and on scale across the country.

The report was groundbreaking in many ways. The Public Accounts Committee is very critical of all Departments that come before us where money is spent. We raised some issues, as detailed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, but if Members read the report they will see for themselves that we are much more comfortable with how the universal credit programme is going—that it is now delivering on scale and will deliver the savings expected. No matter on which side of the House hon. Members sit, they will welcome it in future, because it does exactly what it says on the tin.

The interesting paragraph is paragraph 6. The hon. Lady mentioned the potential problems of paying housing benefit elements of universal credit directly to claimants—the question was whether housing associations and others could maintain their incomes. I know from initial reports that her statistics are correct, but I would like to hear from the Minister, because I am pretty sure that new stats prove that there is not as much of a problem as she says.

John Hemming rose

Chris Heaton-Harris: I had better sit down and shut up, otherwise I will get the stare from Madam Deputy Speaker, which I never want to receive.

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Things are improving. We would expect that because when something changes, there is always upset at the beginning. Things are on the right track, but I would like to hear about it from the Minister.

4.8 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Hon. Members agree that there are serious problems when payments of housing benefit rise so high. We disagree on our analysis of how it came about and what we should do about it. Unless we tackle the underlying issues, we will simply trim the edges, to the detriment of many households and families. As the Office for Budget Responsibility says in its review of spending on benefits and pensions, the main drivers for the increase in housing benefit are increases in rents and the number of people on low wages who have to claim housing benefit to make ends meet. The OBR was concerned that those two things would continue to be drivers in the coming decade unless action was taken. There is very little—I would say virtually nothing—in the steps that the Government have taken since 2010 to tackle those problems. Indeed, they may have made them worse.

We were told by Ministers during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill that the private rented sector had become so intrinsically dependent on the housing benefit market that rents would fall as a result of the changes. Rents have not fallen. In many places, they have risen considerably above inflation. That is certainly true in my city, in the city represented by the Chair of the Select Committee and in London. The DWP accepts that this is the case. For the private rented sector, it has introduced additional payments in some areas to top up the local housing allowance—after it previously made reductions—because it accepts there is a growing gap between the actual rents available to people who want to rent and need housing benefit, and the payments they would otherwise receive. The promises that rent would fall as a result of the policy have not come about. I hope that in looking to see what savings are supposed to have been made, those additional payments will be factored in.

We are repeatedly told that this policy is about saving money. I think the Minister from a sedentary position said, “Oh, it’s about £1 million a day,” but that was based on the Government’s original statement that the policy would save about £500 million a year. Other experts said, at a very early date, that it would be lucky to be somewhere nearer £350 million, and that does not take into account the very high cost of discretionary housing payments, which are a cost to Government and so detract from any savings made. It is therefore not correct for the Government to say what they say.