I am extremely conflicted on this difficult issue- though having listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I have to say he has not yet convinced me of the effectiveness of a policy which seems to rest on a number of disputed assumptions about the ground capacity of anti-Assad moderate forces, such as the Free Syria Army (regarded as essential to defeat ISIL since airstrikes alone cannot) and the prospects for a wider settlement and an end to the civil war. Without this, it is hard to see how we can achieve an outcome we can all agree is necessary.
I hope you do not mind if I set out my thoughts fully.
I would rejoice at the destruction of ISIL/Daesh. They are an exceptionally vicious and dangerous organisation, inflicting hideous barbarity on Christian and Muslim communities within the Middle East, and sponsoring terrorism abroad. As the massacre in Paris demonstrated, they have the capacity and intent to do us terrible harm. At the same time it is also true that the Assad regime has been conducting a murderous civil war against the Syrian people, and it is largely, though not exclusively, the terror and the brutality the regime is inflicting which has contributed to a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since World War Two.
Committing our country to military action is sometimes inevitable, in self-defence or in fulfilment of our ‘duty to protect’- and the choice NOT to act can also lead to terrible suffering and death (Bosnia, Rwanda). Hence I have supported military action in the past, and voted in favour of backing the Iraqi government in strikes against ISIL inside Iraq when this came before Parliament last September. I acknowledge the real dangers of militant Islamism in the various forms this has manifested itself in recent decades, and I do not believe that the horrors we are not witnessing are all a consequence of Western interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. But I have opposed military action in the past too, including when the Prime Minister sought backing to take action against Assad in 2013 (with the very real risk that it would have given more scope for groups such as those which eventually become ISIL to gain ground), and voting for the rebel amendment against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When we voted to support the Iraqi government against ISIL last year, Labour said that we would extend that support to Syria if ministers could present a coherent plan that met a number of tests about its aims and legality. So I have been open to the argument, and the situation is, of course, changing almost daily. For example, the unanimous vote at the UN last weekend means that there is now a legal basis for action. I also accept the argument that we have obligations to our allies and these must be properly weighed in the balance.
On the other hand, defeating ISIL and ensuring it, or another group in its image, does not re-emerge, means we have to learn from the mistakes of the past and not rely on vague and wishful thinking. Extending our role in the bombing campaign against ISIL in Syria is almost the simplest part (which is not to say it is simple or risk/cost free). Contributing to a lasting solution to the crisis is far more challenging.
So these are the key issues as I see them:
I agree with my colleague Dan Jarvis when he says one test is that “we need clarity about the difference that extending Britain’s intervention will make to hastening ISIL’s defeat. Our role should not solely be justified by solidarity, but on how we can make a practical difference”.
Given that the coalition has already conducted an estimated 2,700 air attacks in Syria (and 4,900 in Iraq, where we are already involved) it certainly cannot be argued that we are starting from a position of inaction. As Ewan MacAskill writes:
“In private briefings and in public testimony to Congress, a long line of senior American officers have acknowledged frustration with the battle against Islamic State. General John Allen, who was in overall charge of the US campaign in Syria and Iraq, has quit after a year. A marine commander, Lieutenant General Robert Neller, offering his best assessment of how the war is going, described it as a “a stalemate”. By the middle of last month the US-led coalition engaged in air attacks in Syria and Iraq had conducted 7,600 attacks (4,900 in Iraq and 2,700 in Syria). Their main problem is finding targets to hit”
David Cameron’s statement, whilst making a case for extending British air strikes into Syria, recognised the need for ground troops, since airstrikes are not sufficient to ensure victory. The assumption is that there are potentially 70,000 “moderate” Syrian forces to undertake this task.- but is this figure reliable in operational terms and is it sufficient? (The US alone had 170,000 soldiers in Iraq in 2007, when the insurgency was at its height). There are real differences of view as to the location, capacity and operational cohesion of these 70,000- not least as for many, their over-riding objective is defeating Assad. Meanwhile we are effectively backing these forces against ISIL despite the fact that one of our practical allies for this purpose- Russia- is also bombing some of them in de facto defence of Assad! So the assumption that airstrikes will easily support moderate Syrian forces to victory is an ambitious one, with huge potential to unravel.
Many of those concerned by an ‘ISIL first’ (Cameron’s words) approach want to be convinced both that there is a realistic prospect of securing a victory on the ground - bearing in mind the previously unpredicted scale of Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved necessary over many years- and that defeating ISIL contributes towards an end to the civil war.
There needs to be credible plan for a political agreement to end the conflict, beginning with a cease fire and with an emphasis on the establishment of safe havens for civilians, and this can only be secured by agreement with the other key partners now involved. It is surely impossible to see President Assad remaining in place as part of that process, given his regime’s role in atrocities which has substantially driven the mass exodus from the country, and which is responsible for more than 90% of the 200,000 deaths since 2011. In turn that means clarity on a political agreement which has the commitment of the key powers involved in the conflict, including Russia and Iran. The alternative- defeating ISIL whilst leaving Assad in a stronger position domestically, means no end to the suffering or to the outflow of refugees.
In the recent past, post-conflict reconstruction has proved far harder than anticipated following interventions, such as Iraq, whilst the experience of Libya shows that airstrikes may have an immediate impact but do not of themselves prevent the disintegration of the state. Lessons may have been learnt from Iraq regarding the risks of dismantling the apparatus of the state, but it is reasonable to want to know how Syria can be assisted given the very different interests within the anti-ISIL coalition.
In the short as well as the long term, we need to be looking at the economic, financial and ideological factors underpinning the conflict. How are ISIL being funded? Today’s government statement revealed that ISIL are generating an astonishing $1.5 million dollars daily from oil revenues- money which funds their terrorist as well as military capabilities. Where is the oil being pumped from within ISIL territory being sold to and why? How is money getting in and out of the territory it controls? How are funds from sympathisers being generated and transferred? And how do we bear down on the extremist theology being practiced and exported by countries in the region with which we are otherwise allied? As Paddy Ashdown said on the radio this week, there also has to be pressure on the Gulf states to stop the flow of Sunni jihadism.
The Paris atrocities demonstrate ISIL’s terror capacity - as was previously the case with Al-Queda, and as to varying degrees is the case with other groups, such as Jabbat Al-Busra; Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab. Of course it is right that we want to deal with the terror threat, yet the journalist (and David Cameron’s former speechwriter) Ian Birrell, has written:
“blasting it to bits will not solve the issues that sparked its rise. We can destroy it, just as we defeated al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but similar groups will flare up again in a different guise. The militants feed on poverty and poor education, the alienation of minority groups, sectarianism inflamed by repression, colonial borders that fail to match realities on the ground, and cack-handed foreign interventions. And generations are growing up for whom conflict is normal as ethnic, political and religious divisions worsen. More than ever we need focus in foreign policy, yet it seems sorely missing amid endless talk of fighting”
Finally, both at home and abroad we must continue with, and constantly refine, an effective intelligence, community policing and counter-terrorism capability, complemented by a comprehensive strategy for working with the majority of Muslim opinion which rejects extremism.
I still do not absolutely rule out the possibility of a package of measures which would, together, include and justify further military involvement. Yet neither the latest statement to Parliament- measured in tone though it was, nor the comments of the Defence Secretary earlier this week saying it would be for a “moderate Syrian government” to provide the necessary ground troops to support airstrikes, help defeat ISIL and maintain the peace, provided a sufficiently firm outline as to how to reach that desirable outcome to convince me. Our inability to find a coherent and internationally co-ordinated response to the refugee crisis doesn’t bode well, either, despite Britain’s undeniably important financial contribution.
So in conclusion: I believe taking part in an extension of military action without an robust, internationally agreed plan for Syria- including, but not restricted to - the defeat of ISIL, how we would deal with the aftermath, how we might build a lasting peace and what an exit strategy would be, risks repeating recent history. I may still be convinced by the precise proposal put before us, or by new information or circumstances, but as of now I think it unlikely.
Karen Buck MP
I am extremely conflicted on this difficult issue- though having listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I have to say he has not yet convinced me of the effectiveness of...
Relaxing the rules on ‘holiday lets’
New rules permitting homes to be ‘short-let’ without notification or permission (effectively for up to half the year in some cases) are now in force. Westminster Council confirms my sense that this has led to a rise in short-lets with more residential properties being advertised on the main websites. I am supporting the Council’s plans to seek an exemption for some areas - an exemption that would mean owners still have to notify them when they do holiday lets, making it much easier to deal with enforcement issues when problems arise. I am aware that Westminster are prioritising the Edgware Road area as they draw up these plans and have stressed that in my view they should also be considering some or all of Bayswater and Lancaster Gate as well, since I have had a number of residents complaining about problems in these areas. Do please let me know if you are affected, or have views on the issue.
Policing faces a further squeeze
There has been a steady increase in the number of complaints I have received about crime and ASB issues locally, from begging to burglary. A few weeks ago, police warned of a “small spate of street robberies” in parts of W2” and issued advice to people to take care using their mobiles on the street. There certainly seems to have been a rise in burglaries over the year, including some business break-ins (although crime over the long term generally remains down across the city). There have also been reports of a rise in begging in and around Queensway. Our Safer Neighbourhood teams continue to be very stretched, and there are concerns that the Spending Review settlement will leave the Met Police with another £800m or so to find in budget cuts. The Met Management Board has delayed a decision, originally due in October, to scrap all the remaining 1000 Police Community Support Officers.
Slow Broadband speeds let the local economy down
Small businesses make up two-thirds of the estimated 50,000 businesses in Westminster and many cannot afford premium-grade business services. Their development - and the wider economy - are being held back by “painfully slow” internet access, even though London is Europe’s leading ‘tech city’, according to the Council less than half the city, 47%, has access to super-fast broadband. I’ve taken this up with the Minister responsible and BT and will continue to do so on behalf of anyone who wants to contact me about it.
Westminster set to lose desperately needed social housing under new government plans
Government plans to extend the Right to Buy scheme to housing association tenants across the UK could force the sell-off of nearly 113,000 council homes, according to findings from the homelessness charity Shelter. In Westminster, three out of every four council homes- 9,213 -would be affected, with homes in areas such as Bayswater and Lancaster Gate most at risk. Not replacing properties sold to Housing Association tenants ( just one in five have been replaced) combined with the forced sales of council properties, means far fewer homes - in inner London especially - for people waiting in over-crowded or unsuitable homes, or expensive temporary accommodation.
In an even more recent announcement, the Government intends to allow developers to avoid building affordable homes to rent at all in favour of more ‘Starter Homes’, priced up to £450,000 in London. Locally, where 1-bed new builds sell for £500k or more, this will further reduce the availability of homes for lower and middle earners, with Shelter estimating that only those with incomes of £77,000 or more could afford them.
I held the third in my series of advice sessions for leaseholders in Bayswater in September- once again it was packed out with people- private and council leaseholders (including the Hallfield estate and Swanleys) struggling with issues such as the cost and quality Major Works; Service Charges, transparency and access to information. The Major Works on the Hallfield are now into their sixth year- certainly the most protracted Major Works programme I have ever known. Sadly, this means that those residents whose lives are impacted by excess cold and condensation face another winter of misery and high heating bills, whilst the cost of building works is not exactly going down.
I recently re-introduced my ‘private’ bill to give legal force to new council policy on restricting basement excavations, with cross party backing, including from MPs Mark Field and Victoria Borwick. Latest figures show that there have been 242 applications for residential basement excavations in the last two years alone, of which all but 38 were accepted. Whilst I welcome Westminster toughening up their policy (their new rules come into effect early 2016) there are still concerns that well-funded developers will be able to challenge them - as has now happened in Kensington.
It was a joy to be able to join the birthday parties organised by SEBRA this summer for two of the associations’ greatest champions: John Walton and John Zamit. It’s lovely that SEBRA is the sort of organisation to show appreciation for residents who put so much into their community without reward. The amount of hard work involved in running an amenity society, organising events, submitting responses to planning applications and so forth is often under-appreciated. Yet is it vital to a healthy civic society. Both John Walton and John Zamit deserve our grateful thanks.
Talking of events, the summer party was again great fun and blessed by the weather, and I look forward to SEBRA AGM in November (where there is usually a surprise or two in store for the main guests).
Please do continue to keep me in touch with your concerns and interests- by e-mail (email@example.com), phone (02089687999), letter (Karen Buck MP, House of Commons, London SW1AOAA, or Twitter (@KarenPBuckMP).
Relaxing the rules on ‘holiday lets’ New rules permitting homes to be ‘short-let’ without notification or permission (effectively for up to half the year in some cases) are now in...
Karen Buck MP
House of Commons
Cllr Heather Acton
Westminster City Council
Exemption to the de-regulation of short-term letting in Westminster
The Deregulation Act 2015 allowed householders in London to rent out their properties on a short-term basis without the need for planning permission and it also provided powers for local planning authorities to direct that this should not apply to particular residential premises situated in a particular specified area. We are very grateful for your support on making the case for exemption for Westminster.
Westminster’s unique circumstances as a densely developed area at the heart of the world city means that short-term letting in the centre is quite different from other parts of London, is carried out on a commercial basis, and often has major impacts on the quality of life of neighbouring residents.
The Council therefore decided to submit a case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for the exemption of Hyde Park and Bryanston & Dorset Square wards along with 16 residential blocks outside of these two wards where residents suffer an unacceptably high level of negative impacts upon their residential amenity as a result of short-term letting activity.
The exemption case, which is attached for your information, was submitted on 29th October 2015 and we await a response from the Secretary of State as to whether the Council will be permitted to exempt those areas identified from the relevant sections of the Deregulation Act.
Karen Buck MP House of Commons Westminster SW1A 0AA firstname.lastname@example.org Cllr Heather Acton Cabinet Member for Sustainability and Parking Westminster City Council 29th October 2015 ...
Picture 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1. The premier of Jailhouse Rock. The average house prince topped £2,300. And the maximum rent level below which a tenant could legally require their landlord to ensure their rented property was fit for human habitation was last updated.
So there is, in effect, no meaningful requirement for a home to be let or maintained in a fit condition. So when people express their surprise that there is no legal requirement for landlords to ensure properties are let- and kept- fit for human habitation, the answer is: “They are, but only if your rent is less than £52 a year!"
Perhaps the long term failure to update the law reflected the decline of private rented housing over much of the same period (and it is within the private sector that conditions are worse overall). But if that was true throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, it is certainly no longer true now.
The private rented sector has dramatically reversed its long decline and now accommodates more households than the social rented sector. The law needs to change to reflect that - and the not unrelated fact that conditions in the private rented sector are worse than those in other tenures. This is what my Private Member’s Bill set out to do.
Of course many landlords are responsible people (let’s leave important issues like rents and tenancy lengths for the time being). Yet nearly one in five privately rented homes (18.9 per cent) contains a Category 1 hazard – as defined by the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (this from a Yougov/Shelter survey 2014) and 61% of tenants have experienced mould or damp; leaking roofs or windows; animal infestations or a gas leak in the last 12 months.
Ten per cent of tenants report that their health has been affected in the last year because their landlord has not dealt with poor conditions in their property, and nine per cent of private renting parents said their children’s health has been affected. My postbag is full of such cases, such as the mum concerned for her vulnerable daughter, who wrote:
"For years my daughter has had damp in her home to the point where the walls were black. Many times surveyors comes out and the situation doesn't get resolved. This year workmen were sent out to deal with the damp and thinking the problem was solved, but two months ago it was back again. My daughter has lived with the damp, ruining her health, numerous times reporting it and nothing is done. She's vulnerable and although I as a mother try and look after her affairs I cannot be with her 24/7 as I work. My daughter is under the doctors …she suffers from depression, self-harm, has high blood pressure, drinks to block things out, has counselling and was abused by and i know that is part of her problems. I know if my daughter was to get out of the flat it would help her situation immensely, but her landlord is not doing what they should be doing and that is addressing the situation with the damp so that we can move forward."
Local authorities do what they can, but resources are incredibly limited and getting more so. A simple change in the law would have given legal rights to tenants to take action themselves against their landlord when properties are in an unfit condition- brining the law into line with what already exists in respect of disrepair.
It added no new duties to landlords- it simply gave better redress to tenants. All this also simply put into effect a recommendation from the Law Commission from the mid 90s- itself strongly backed by the Court of Appeal.
I was quite hopeful that such a practical and modest step- elegantly put together for me by leading members of the Housing Law Practitioner’s Association- would not meet opposition. Who could oppose a requirement to make homes fit for habitation, and redress against the minority of bad landlords who fail to do so?
The answer turned out to be, the government, and Conservative MP Philip Davies, who ‘talked the Bill out’ yesterday. But what won’t go away is the need for action- a need that was powerfully reinforced by new research which led in the Times today. So we will try again. And, if necessary, again…
Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill – My attempt to raise standards in the private rented sector
Picture 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1. The premier of Jailhouse Rock. The average house prince topped £2,300. And the maximum rent level below which a tenant could legally...
Further to this letter, I am picking up real concerns about the future from within the youth and early years sectors, including Westminster Council implying that all direct funding may be withdrawn if the Spending Review outcome is as bleak as predicted (although the extent to which Westminster in particular may see any offsetting benefit from the retention of business rates remains to be seen).
As we know, the users of the youth service are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged members of the community, and already face serious challenges- including the implications of living in the area with the highest population density in the country, and with some of the highest costs for leisure, recreation and other activities.
As it is, centres such as the Stowe and Feathers are already working closely with the Gangs unit in helping to respond to the gang/serious youth violence challenge, which may not involve more than a few hundred young people but which is a hugely expensive and complex problem when left unchecked. There is evidence locally and across Westminster that the progress made over the period 200111/2014 may be slipping back and we need to be extremely careful that we keep on tip of the issue- not least because massively reduced neighbourhood police capacity means it is harder to manage on the streets than it was. Youth centres are also an important resource within our diverse and multi-racial borough in helping us tackle extremism.
Prolonged uncertainty over finances and commissioning make it harder to retain safe and exacerbate the stop-start approach to youth work which we know is so profoundly unhelpful.
Could the Council, at the very least, take early action to bring together all the key players in the sector together with officers and business partners to facilitate a more co-ordinated approach to youth services? Leaving everything till after the Spending Review wastes valuable planning weeks.
Thank you very much
Karen Buck MP
Dear Charlie, Further to this letter, I am picking up real concerns about the future from within the youth and early years sectors, including Westminster Council implying that...
I was in Parliament to vote against the Government’s planned cuts to tax credit, which will hit low-paid working people very hard. Although the government claims that increases to the minimum wage and more child care offset the losses, this is not true for huge numbers of workers, as shown by independent experts the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The losers include lone parents working full time on the minimum wage; two parent families where one works full time and the other part time. Altogether, 3 million households stand to lose, with the average loss being £1300 a year.
I was in Parliament to vote against the Government’s planned cuts to tax credit, which will hit low-paid working people very hard. Although the government claims that increases to...
Increasing access to NHS services out of hours is essential if we are to reduce avoidable hospital admissions and provide more community based care. However, the NHS is, at heart, a service built on the commitment and skill of its staff, and it is vital to negotiate changes in staff working arrangements in a constructive way. The proposed new Junior Doctor’s contract has been described as ‘unsafe and unfair’ by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have stated that this could be ‘gravely damaging to the health and wellbeing of children’ and ‘adversely affect recruitment, retention and the morale’ of junior doctors. Here’s my letter and an article by Shadow health Minister Heidi Alexander:
”I believe that the Government’s current approach is completely the wrong way forward and that they should be working with the BMA and junior doctors to find a fair agreement that avoids the threat of industrial action.
Junior doctors are vital to the future of the NHS and it is clear that if we want to move toward a seven-day NHS and improve patient care we need to ensure that the staff we rely on are supported and valued. So it is very worrying indeed that the BMA have described the proposed contract as ‘unsafe and unfair’ and that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have stated that this could be ‘gravely damaging to the health and wellbeing of children’ and ‘adversely affect recruitment, retention and the morale’ of junior doctors.
I also fear that, rather than addressing the real strains that our NHS is currently facing, the Government are punishing staff for their own financial mismanagement of the NHS. We had an unnecessary and very expensive re-organisation in 2012, for example, and agency costs were rocketing at time when our own nurse training places were being cut.
I believe the Health Secretary should now withdraw the threat of imposing a new contract and re-engage in a meaningful dialogue with the BMA and NHS staff. The Government also need to accept that compromise is necessary to reach a fair settlement and come forward with a better deal that ensures patient safety is not put at risk. “
Obviously our Shadow Health Minister is leading on this and I have copied her recent article on it below
Recent reports suggest the government may be backing off under pressure - so let’s keep the pressure up
Increasing access to NHS services out of hours is essential if we are to reduce avoidable hospital admissions and provide more community based care. However, the NHS is, at...
We are all better served by having international trade rules than by not having them but they have to be properly balanced and fair.
TTIP proposals must receive proper scrutiny at both a UK and EU level and that any final deal must have transparency and accountability at its heart. I was disappointed that the Coalition Government paid such little attention to these concerns and I believe it is important that the current Government ensures they are covered in the negotiating process.
I support the principles behind the negotiations on TTIP and I believe there are ways the agreement could bring significant benefits to Britain. It is absolutely vital, however, that the benefits of TTIP filter down to employees, small businesses and consumers, that the deal is open and accountable and that it does not water down current labour, consumer, environmental and food safety standards.
There has been particular concern recently about the potential impact of TTIP on consumer safety standards following recent allegations that the car industry withheld a report suggesting safety standards in some US cars are lower than in the EU. I recognise how important these concerns are given the excess deaths caused by air pollution, and in my view we should not be prepared to accept any deal that does not protect consumer safety standards.
I fought the General Election on a manifesto that recognised the potential benefits of TTIP but emphasised that any final agreement needs to ensure that the NHS is protected and that it also promotes decent jobs and avoids ‘a race to the bottom’. Labour MEPs have also made the case strongly in the European Parliament to exclude public services – including our NHS – from TTIP negotiations and to ensure workers’ rights, environmental standards and food safety standards are protected.
The Government must listen and respond to these concerns. I can assure you that I will continue to work with my colleagues to press the Government to ensure that TTIP delivers the jobs, growth and fairer deal for consumers.
We are all better served by having international trade rules than by not having them but they have to be properly balanced and fair. TTIP proposals must receive proper scrutiny...