By Mark Wallace
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Following the remarkable and scandalous decision of the UN's rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, to attack the Government's welfare reforms yesterday, there was considerable outrage.
She has used taxpayers' money to launch a politicised attack on a legal, domestic policy of democratically elected government. Worse, her conclusions are apparently based on anecdotal and deeply biased evidence, rather than any representative or academic study.
For that matter, she seems to think it appropriate to be grandstanding in Britain rather than focusing on more pressing (and more UN-relevant) matters of housing - like the fact that refugee camps for those fleeing the Syrian civil war are now full, leaving large numbers of people without even the most basic shelter, for example.
Grant Shapps has written in protest to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, demanding an immediate investigation. Here is the full text of his letter:
I am writing to request an investigation be carried out into the actions of UN Special Rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik.
Ms Rolnik came to Britain to complete a report into adequate housing. She concluded the Government's action to end the Spare Room Subsidy should be reversed.
The United Kingdom's legal system has already ruled that the abolition of the Spare Room Subsidy is lawful. I am therefore extremely surprised and disappointed to learn that the UN has directly contradicted the decisions of our courts.
Furthermore, I believe that the Special Rapporteur's report has been influenced by political bias and suggest that the UN withdraw her claims pending a full investigation .
Ms. Rolnik's investigations lasted for less than 12 days. In the course of this investigation, not once did Ms Rolnik request a meeting with the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, or anyone within the Department for Work and Pensions, to discuss the policy - nor did she request any detailed policy analysis from the Department.
An official from DWP sat in on one hour long meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government, where the Spare Room Subsidy was one of several items on a longer agenda. However, no further information was requested by Ms Rolnik.
The full report is not due to be published until March 2014 - yet Ms Rolnik has already reached her conclusion and declared as much in her press release.
Ms Rolnik has also already completed interviews with parts of the UK's press, including the Guardian and Independent newspapers.
The Rapporteur also took time out while visiting Scotland to take part in an interview and photo opportunity with the Daily Record, a paper which has actively campaigned against ending the Spare Room Subsidy, and accepted "a dossier compiled by the Daily Record featuring stories we have published illustrating the effect" of the measure in Scotland.
Ms Rolnik never refers to the money the Government has put into Discretionary Housing Payments. Nor does she reference at all the fact that councils have been given this money in order to try and keep those who genuinely need their spare room in their house.
Ms Rolnik never references the 250,000 families in this country living in overcrowded accommodation. Nor does she suggest what should be done about the families living in these cramped conditions.
By referring to the policy as the 'bedroom tax' and posing for photos receiving 'dossiers' from those opposed to ending the Spare Room Subsidy, I believe that Ms Rolnik has shown political bias. We would have hoped that Ms Rolnik would have taken the necessary steps to ensure her report was based on all the information available to her from the Government before she declared her conclusion less than two weeks after her 'mission' began.
I would like to request that a full investigation is conducted by the United Nations, including the provision of answers to the following questions:
i. What was the detailed process leading to the commissioning of this report?
ii. Were representations received from the British Labour Party, and from groups actively campaigning against the introduction of this policy?
iii. How did Ms Rolnik determine which organisations to consult as part of her data gathering?
iv. Why did the report's author decide not to visit the responsible Department or Minister?
Can you confirm that Ms Rolnik is the person featured in this Stop the Tax video, prior to being commissioned to produce this report?
I look forward to your response.
The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP
Chairman of the Conservative Party
Minister without Portfolio"
By Mark Wallace
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There's a interesting snippet from James Forsyth in the Mail on Sunday today, which will have inspired new worry lines to emerge over a few breakfast tables.
Forsyth reports that Grant Shapps is carrying out a cull of the candidates' list - focused on removing those who did not come to campaign in Eastleigh.
There's a clear logic in encouraging candidates to support the party at by-elections. However, there could be unintended consequences.
I recently reported on the encouraging trend for PPCs to be drawn from a wider range of jobs and to be more local than before. If we want more people who run businesses, more people who are engineers or postmen, and more people who have local ties to constituencies, then is it reasonable to expect every candidate to make it to every by-election?
Those who don't have the luxury of being able to ditch work to campaign whenever the party calls, those who live at the other end of the country from whichever by-election might come up or those who are not independently wealthy would understandably struggle to meet this exacting standard.
A careful balance must be struck - or else the party runs the risk of cutting back its newly widened candidate base just as it starts to flower.
By Peter Hoskin
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Y’know that list of “12 Conservative Achievements” that was handed out at Spring Forum? Grant Shapps did promise, in his article for ConHome yesterday, that you’d be able to download your own copies from today – and he wasn’t lying. You can find it here, ready to be printed, distributed, memorised, discussed, whatever. We’ve pasted our copy below
This is all part of CCHQ’s plan to spread the word about what the Tories are achieving in Government. Aside from this list, there have been the leaflets that were handed out after the Budget, as well as the cards that were handed out during last year’s conference. Indeed, it’s like I said in a column last September:
“The Coalition is entering an awkward, adolescent phase of the Parliament, when less can be blamed on the sins of governments past, and more emphasis must be placed on the achievements that have been sealed and the achievements that are yet to come.”
Anyway, here are the 12 Conservative Achievements (click for a larger version):
By Paul Goodman
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The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Tim Montgomerie
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One of Grant Shapps' first acts as the new Tory Chairman has been to ask for the election countdown clock to be put back on the wall of Conservative HQ. Meeting him yesterday afternoon he told me that there were less than 1,000 days until the next general election (969 actually if its 7th May 2015) and the party machine needed to start getting into battle mode.
Yesterday he announced the team that he hopes will help the party deliver victory for David Cameron. He, Lord Feldman and Mr Cameron made five new appointments:
Nicola Blackwood (Social Action), Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (International), Alan Lewis (Business) and Andrew Stephenson (Youth) were reappointed as Vice Chairmen. They are all pictured above.
Grant Shapps told ConservativeHome that one of the jobs facing him, Lord Feldman and the new team was to overcome the cynicism that people feel about the tasks currently facing Britain. He suggested that we were in the phase two or three years before the Olympics when people were suspicious about the cost of the Games and wondered whether all of the effort would be worthwhile. It was the whole Conservative Party's task, he said, to use the rest of the parliament to convince people that the road may be hard but the destination of better schools, a benefits system that rewards work and a paying down on the deficit will all be worth it.
The new Tory Chairman will be writing a regular monthly column for ConservativeHome.
PS Can any reader remember the last time that we had a party chairman who has won a seat from Labour?
By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Tim Montgomerie
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I published some photographs of Tory MPs - including the Prime Minister - enjoying the Jubilee celebrations on Sunday. Here are some more. They involve a lot of cake and quite a bit of rain.
First up is Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt. No doubt enjoying the break from the responsibilities he has for Middle Eastern policy he's judging a Jubilee cake competition at Wyboston, Chawston and Colesden Village Party.
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon saw Communities and Local Government questions in the House. Eric Pickles is often a target for sharp Labour questions - because of his combative approach, and the fact that his department is making cuts in one of Labour's bureaucratic strongholds, local government.
This belligerent attitude from the Labour - front and back - benches was on show yesterday.
By Jonathan Isaby
"Do the Government not recognise that their imposition of harsh housing benefit cuts and steep increases in rents for social housing, and their termination of security of tenure for new social lettings, will inflict misery and insecurity on many more tenants in the future?"
"That is an entirely inaccurate portrayal of what is happening. For one thing, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the rent policy was set by the last Government in a deliberate attempt to merge housing association and council rents. Ministers in past Governments, including some in the last Government, recognised that the lazy consensus that houses should be given to people for ever, even if their circumstances changed, was long past its sell-by date. It is ironic that so many Opposition Members are prepared to fight and die in a ditch for a policy of lifetime tenures that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher."
He was then moved to repeat the point later in reply to another question on the matter from a Labour MP:
"The truth of the matter is that homes are allocated to people who are in need because they are in need. The idea that just because at one point in their life they were in need, they should continue to have that home and be able to hand it on to another generation, lives, I am afraid, with a past generation. Even the shadow Secretary of State, when she was in my position, accepted the point that housing reform was greatly overdue."
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps spoke in Westminster Hall yesterday, during a debate on temporary housing. He opined that many more homes need to be built, but warned against their imposition on local communities:
"The Department for Communities and Local Government says that, on 31 March, there were 78,000 homeless households in England in temporary accommodation, which is nearly twice as many as in 1997. It also says that three quarters of those households in temporary accommodation contain children who are dependants. Indeed, I published a report a year ago almost to the day that showed that there are 130,000 homeless children living in various forms of temporary accommodation, which is double the number 10 years ago.
Those are the facts. What about the reasons? It seems clear that the lack of supply has been the biggest contributory factor to those enlarged figures and the supply side has created a range of problems. It does not really matter whether one is looking at temporary accommodation, lack of social or affordable housing, or housing in general. As has been discussed many times in similar debates, for every type of housing fewer houses have been built in the last decade, which I know is as deeply troubling to many Labour Members as it is to us in the Conservative party.
The simple lack of housing provision has led to many of the chronic problems that were described today in great detail, with individual case histories being provided during the debate. As was mentioned, it is a fact that only 27,000 affordable homes will be built this year.
The simple facts are that, on average, 145,000 homes have built each year under this Government, compared with 175,000 under the previous Government, meaning that over 10 years about a third of a million fewer homes have been built. If those homes had been built and were in play and in the marketplace, it is reasonable to expect that rents would be lower.
That situation is what we need to get back to, but we cannot do it through top-down targets; we need to do it through bottom-up incentives. That is a fundamental argument at the heart of this debate and every other debate on housing that takes place here in Westminster Hall. Until the Government recognise that they cannot force the targets down on unsuspecting communities without giving them something in return—those communities need to be provided with a carrot or an incentive to build new homes—we will continue in the mess that we find ourselves in today. Labour Members are happy to complain about that mess, but they will not recognise the source or the real reasons behind the catastrophic situation in relation to temporary housing, homelessness and, indeed, the cost of housing overall."
Mr Shapps is right to say that top-down targets cause a great deal of resentment. He is also right that there is demand for more housing. This is indeed a difficult circle to square, not least given environmental considerations such as the potential loss of green space and inadequate water supply.
The Conservative front bench may be less comfortable about tackling another matter - the extent to which immigration has put pressure on housing demand and whether a radical change in national policy is necessary.
That this House notes the growing concern over the effect of Home Information Packs (HIPs) on a fragile housing market; observes that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has warned that the introduction of HIPs has already led to a downturn in the market for both four and three bedroom homes; recalls that the Government was warned against introducing HIPs from across the housing industry; is concerned that none of the revised secondary legislation for HIPs was scrutinised or debated by the House before its implementation; calls for Home Information Packs to be scrapped and Energy Performance Certificates to be implemented separately; and asserts that ending stamp duty for first time buyers up to £250,000 would do far more to help home buyers and sellers.
Were the country looking for a single policy that best encapsulates the Government’s failure to listen, I suspect that home information packs would be in the running. In forcing through the legislation, Ministers have consistently ignored the advice of housing experts, the industry, the market, buyers, sellers and colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place. Now that HIPs are partially implemented, the results are becoming all too clear, with an already fragile housing market shaken to the core by a dramatic drop in the number of new homes being put up for sale. While everyone agrees that home buying and selling really should be faster and easier, is it not time that the Minister admitted that the Government have forced on England and Wales a half-baked law that is clumsy, ineffective and damaging to the housing market?
Time and again, the Government watered down their flawed proposals, and HIPs quickly turned into nothing more than expensive but worthless red tape. Then, under pressure to rescue the policy, the Minister for Housing made home condition reports optional, thereby destroying the centrepiece of the legislation. Although the Government’s website still says that home condition reports are
“an important part of the Pack”,
does she accept that, for all intents and purposes, they have been shelved and forgotten?"
More from Hansard here.