Gareth Thomas MP

From Harrow, For Harrow.

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Hansard record from Gareth’s contribution to a Westminster Hall debate on HIV, 15th April 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck, and to follow the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who gave a measured and constructive speech. I will try to continue that tone.

This debate is a timely opportunity to ask whether the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleagues have, perhaps inadvertently, downgraded the Department’s work on HIV and AIDS. Ministers rarely mention HIV and AIDS unless pushed. There is—granted, my exploration of DFID’s website was only cursory—no record of a serious ministerial speech on this issue unprompted by Parliament for a very long time. There is no sign of a push to signal Britain’s continued interest in the major international efforts to tackle the factors that still drive the spread of HIV and AIDS. Given the urgency of the investment that is needed if we are to achieve the 90-90-90 targets, which the hon. Gentleman spoke about, it is disappointing that the Secretary of State does not appear—unless the Minister has news for us—to have a major plan to do the advocacy work that is needed at an international level.

The 10 countries that had the most people living with HIV in 2014—the last year for which figures are available—are South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia. They are all countries in which DFID has a significant bilateral programme or with which our Government have a long history and good connections. Britain’s continued influence with the countries that have the most people living with HIV is unlike that of any other country in the G7 or globally. It is therefore all the more important that Britain continues to show leadership on this issue.

Similarly, the slightly different list of the countries with the highest incidence of HIV among adults, as opposed to the general population, comprises countries with which Britain has a close relationship at Government level or, with one exception, where DFID has significant programmes. Again, that highlights the importance of Britain’s role in galvanising further investment in antiretroviral programmes and in championing the legal and cultural changes that are necessary to improve the response to HIV and AIDS.

The Department’s work focusing on girls and women is important and very welcome, and it is strongly supported on both sides of the House and among the non-governmental organisation community. I commend the Secretary of State for that work. However, I continue to be surprised by the apparent lack of interest in the impact on women and girls of being HIV positive. HIV and AIDS continue to be the biggest single killer of women of reproductive age globally. Despite that fact, the impact of HIV on women as a priority group is not frequently discussed or reflected in ministerial policy.

Absolutely. Britain’s international leadership on this issue is important because one of the things that we, as a country, should be championing is the cultural change that is needed in countries so that, as the hon. Lady says, women and girls become more active decision makers. At the moment, in too many cases, they are not. I gently bring her back to the important point she made about the strong support given by Britain to the global fund. I welcome that investment, but it is not enough to outsource leadership on HIV and AIDS from ministerial offices to the global fund. Political change is needed in countries as much as investment in health services, with which the fund helps. I fear that that is the important missing link in Britain’s response at the moment.

On 16 March, at International Development questions, I asked the Secretary of State specifically whether her Department’s spending on HIV and AIDS would be rising or falling over the comprehensive spending review period. In her reply, she said that the Department was planning shortly to publish the results of its bilateral aid review. Will the Minister set out for us whether he expects bilateral HIV-specific programmes to be rising, when up to now they have been in decline?

I am told by some of the NGOs that follow the Department’s work on HIV and AIDS closely that no mention of any such work seems to be in the aid strategy published by the Department last November. It would be good to hear from the Minister why that omission has happened. Furthermore, the sexual and reproductive health team, which has responsibility for HIV and AIDS work—certainly on the basis of ministerial answers to written questions—appears to be prioritising a series of other issues. They are very important issues, granted, but they are issues other than HIV and AIDS. Again, it would be good if the Minister explained that choice to downgrade the work on HIV and AIDS by the sexual and reproductive health team in DFID. 

I come back to the first intervention that I made on the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green. He mentioned the Durban meeting, but I gently suggest that the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting on ending AIDS, which is to take place in New York in June, is equally important. That is surely the perfect opportunity for the Secretary of State to set out Britain’s continuing commitment to and willingness to play a significant leadership role in tackling AIDS.

In addition, Britain could ask the new Commonwealth secretary-general to prioritise a discussion of the work needed in Commonwealth countries to tackle the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Foreign Office ambassadors and senior staff could perfectly reasonably be tasked to talk to senior figures about what more might be done in countries with particular challenges in tackling AIDS.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A series of factors drive the spread of HIV and AIDS. A health response is needed—we have rightly talked about the need to invest more in antiretroviral AIDS therapy and to improve health services more generally. A series of cultural practices need challenging and gender empowerment issues need addressing. 

The only way that such things can happen is if political leaders are willing to step up to the mark. The challenge needs to come from a country such as Britain that has shown great leadership on the issue in the past; we will work with and support them, but we want things to change. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the Secretary of State is willing to show that kind of leadership in future.

Westminster Hall Debate on HIV

Hansard record from Gareth’s contribution to a Westminster Hall debate on HIV, 15th April 2016 It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck,...

Speech in response to the 2016 Budget on the 21st March 2016

"This Budget does not tackle the still evident fundamental weaknesses in our economy. Despite the lofty rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions today, the Budget still says that Whitehall knows best. It takes from the poorest to boost the incomes of the richest, and it will make the challenges facing our public services even more difficult.

In recent years, the weaknesses in our economy have become ever more marked. We remain hugely dependent on financial services and London. The jobs being created are predominantly short term, low paid and with little employment protection. Critically, too many small and medium-sized businesses still cannot get the capital and the lending they need to create jobs and wealth. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our productivity is lower than that of all our biggest competitors.

Among the many specific disappointments with this Budget is that faster progress towards full fiscal devolution was largely notable by its absence. There is little chance, for example, of really tackling the housing crisis in London if the Mayor and Assembly cannot match the tax regime around housing to help meet Londoners’ needs. Full devolution of all property taxes to London and, in time, to other cities and counties in England, is essential.

This Budget offers little for investment in public services, as others, particularly my hon. Friends, have already mentioned. The NHS is struggling to balance its books, with a number of NHS trusts, including those covering my constituency, in what the National Audit Office calls “serious and persistent financial distress”.

Our local hospital, Northwick Park, has had a deficit in every year but one since 2010, and that deficit has steadily risen to almost £30 million last year. It is therefore hardly surprising that Northwick Park has had one of the worst performances of all English hospitals for waiting times in accident and emergency in the past 12 months.

Our clinical commissioning group, from which Northwick Park receives much of its money, receives less funding than any other London area. It, too, is in deficit, and has been since it was set up. By last year, its underlying deficit had risen to some £20.1 million. So it certainly does not look as though the Budget is going to lead to much improvement in the NHS finances nationally or, I suspect, in my area either.

The position of other public services in Harrow is little better. As a result of the new funding formula, many of the schools in my constituency are expecting a budget cut of up to 1.5%, which is the equivalent of an experienced teacher or four teaching assistants, and that is before the vast costs, in time and money, of being forced to become academies. The number of police officers in Harrow has decreased by 137 since 2010; indeed, we have fewer police officers than virtually every other London borough. Our council is being hit by some £83 million-worth of cuts over the next few years, and according to a Library analysis it remains one of the worst-funded local authorities in London. Westminster, Brent, Camden and Islington all get double the revenue support grant funding that Harrow does. Our other neighbours, Barnet and Hillingdon, get between 25% and 50% more than Harrow does. I hope that, even at this late stage, perhaps in the course of the Finance Bill, the Chancellor will recognise the need fully to change tack, to invest more in public services and to do so in a fairer way. My constituents certainly hope so."

Budget Response 2016

Speech in response to the 2016 Budget on the 21st March 2016 "This Budget does not tackle the still evident fundamental weaknesses in our economy. Despite the lofty rhetoric of...

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Speech to the Harrow Churches Housing Association's AGM on the 14th March 2016.

The house I grew up in

I have lived in Harrow all my life.

I grew up in North Harrow – have lived in Pinner, South Harrow, Rayners Lane and now central Harrow.

The house in North Harrow where my parents moved to when they got married in 1966 cost £5,300.

Many years - and owners – later, the value of the home I grew up in has increased in value almost 100 times. When they moved in my Dad was a teacher and my Mum was a housewife. They were an average family; income wise. Nowadays, a family with children on an average salary cannot afford to buy in North Harrow. Indeed, they can no longer afford to buy anywhere in Harrow at the moment.

Prices in Harrow went up by 11% last year. An average Harrow property now costs £409,000 and house prices are expected to double over the next 10 years.

For those on middle incomes and obviously for those on lower incomes, Harrow is almost impossible to afford to buy.

It’s one reason why the work of Harrow Churches Housing Association is so important.

Inevitably, as house prices have increased, so have rents. Rents in London are now on average just under £1700 a month. In Harrow, they are cheaper, just – but still over £1300.

Housing = No 1 issue

In the last five years, housing has become the number one issue in my surgery that constituents want to see me about. The high cost of renting, the shortage of Council properties, and the quality of accommodation available.

Head teachers in Harrow have raised with me the turnover of pupils because their housing situation changes. Eviction or a forced move now inevitably means a school move for the children. Indeed, increasingly it means a move not only out of school, but out of Harrow and often out of London. Parents and grandparents wonder aloud to me how their children will be able to live near them. 

The importance of HCHA

The challenges Harrow faces in terms of affordable housing are not unique. London is in the grip of a major housing crisis, but the work that Harrow Churches does is one of the few big plus points on housing in Harrow at the moment.

And I’m a big fan.

90% tenant satisfaction last year is a very powerful confirmation of the quality of HCHA’s work.

Add in the fact that HCHA rents are almost 60% less than it costs to rent in the private sector and you’ll understand why I’m keen to reserve a place.

As someone who is unashamedly proud of Harrow, I was delighted by the £3.5m invested in new homes in our borough.

And the work you do with young people, 18-24 year olds, helping them with a range of basic help and life skills is clearly hugely important to those young people.

The great work of this Association cannot disguise the bigger debate on housing which our country needs to have.

Housing debate

Home ownership in our country is falling for the first time in a century. The number of families with children renting privately has doubled in the last decade.

Shelter argue England needs 250,000 new homes to be built each year. The Mayor of London argues 50,000 new homes are needed each year.

We are, at best, building half of what we should be.

I think there are solutions but I fear the crisis is set to get worse before it gets better.

The forced sale of Council homes is set to exacerbate both the shortage of housing in Harrow, and the Council’s financial difficulties. We have one of the lowest Council housing stocks in the country, yet Harrow Council will still be forced to sell its most valuable homes.

If the Housing Bill that is currently before Parliament goes through, Harrow will be sent an invoice by the government for its share of the cost of giving more housing association tenants the right to buy.

The bill will be based on the value of homes in our area and with Harrow losing £83m from its budget in the next 4 years, and as it already gets a lower level of funding than every neighbouring borough, in practice the Council will have little choice but to sell Council homes as they become vacant to pay the Chancellor.

Solutions to Housing Crisis

What’s really holding back house building is the cost of land.

Own a home and you’re doing well.

Own land, and be able to wait for its value to rise and you’re sitting on a goldmine.

All the while the vacant land around for example Kodak is not being built on, it’s going up in value.

The only way we will get more homes built in the long term is to get more land at lower and more stable prices into the hands of people who want to build. Stronger planning and compulsory purchase powers are overdue.

On Wednesday the Chancellor gets up in the House of Commons to make his Budget speech. Down the year’s Budget speeches have resulted in a huge amount of discussion between MPs and their constituents.

I hope this Budget will see more public and private money being made available to ensure more decent affordable homes are built. Shelter argue that a new Housing Investment Bank is needed to accelerate private investment in housing.

They also champion a crackdown on tax evasion by landlords, a raising of the local authority borrowing cap, and other measures to generate an extra billion pounds plus, for new genuinely affordable housing.

Lastly, I think a more radical devolution of power is needed. Scotland controls its housing market itself. It can and is going to end the right to buy. It also has the right to control rents and levy property taxes how it wants to. London should have the same powers. Part of the problem in London over over the last 8 years has been that the Mayor did not fully control the rules of the housing market, nor the property taxes that are levied or not levied on land and property crucial for housing.

We are not a nation like Wales and Scotland here in London. But the solution to our housing crisis demands that our Mayor and Assembly have powers equal to those that the Scottish Government have if we are to tackle our problems here in the capital of England.

Conclusion

I come tonight to celebrate another strong year for Harrow Churches Housing Association.

But also to remind myself of the work that still needs doing in Parliament and across the borough to champion more affordable housing.

Speech to the Harrow Churches Housing Association

  Speech to the Harrow Churches Housing Association's AGM on the 14th March 2016. The house I grew up in I have lived in Harrow all my life. I grew...


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