House of Commons
Monday 24 July 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Yorkshire Regiment is an infantry regiment consisting of three regular battalions and one Territorial Army battalion. The 1st and 2nd Battalions fulfil the light infantry role, and the 3rd Battalion fulfils the armoured infantry role. The role of the Territorial Army battalion is to provide a contingent component to support the three regular battalions and to act as a civilian contingency reaction force for 15 Brigade. The battalion was formed on 6 June 2006 with formation parades in York, Catterick, Warminster and the Balkans.
Will my right hon. Friend pass on the congratulations and best wishes of the Government and the House to the newly formed Yorkshire Regiment, and especially to the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion currently serving in Kosovo and the 1st Battalion soldiers, who will soon be deployed to Iraq? The Yorkshire Regiment is the only county regiment in the British Army. Does he agree that it is important to build links between the regiment and the people of Yorkshire, and for local government to do its bit by transferring the freedom of the city, which was awarded to predecessor regiments, to the new Yorkshire Regiment?
I am only too happy to pass on those warm thoughts from my hon. Friend. He raises an important point about links between the local community and the newly formed regiment, and the need to ensure that those links have the same strength and depth as links with the former regiments. He asked whether I would support that, and I would. He asked whether I would support the granting of the freedom of the city to the new regiment. The answer is yes. I am conscious of the fact that HMS York, which has done such wonderful work recently in Lebanon, has the freedom of the city. I am sure that those two complementary parts of the armed forces would work well together.
The Minister has already mentioned the Territorial Army battalion. A number of soldiers from the Scarborough TA centre have served with distinction in a number of theatres. Sadly, the staffing has already been cut from six to three, with an NCO in charge. We are told that further cuts will mean that there will be no full-time staff. Can the Minister reassure me that the writing is not on the wall for the Scarborough TA centre?
I cannot off the top of my head. I will write to the hon. Gentleman. TA rebalancing involves a complex picture. It would be wrong for me to try to remember every town and every element of it. I can tell him that we have put additional full-time resources into serving the Territorial Army for the prime purpose of making sure that there is depth to what it seeks to do in individual communities. I will write to him about Scarborough. I am sorry that I do not have a detailed answer today.
Of course we all wish the men and women of the Yorkshire Regiment well, but does the Minister understand that many people in Yorkshire mourn the loss of the regiments that the Yorkshire Regiment replaced? Will he assure the House that the Government will not dismantle any more regimental history and tradition?
The hon. Gentleman may wish to look at the history of regimental change over the decades and perhaps even the centuries. The one thing that the British Army has always been able to do is try to predict its future needs and what its shape should be, and organise things accordingly. He should also be aware that the recommendations for the new infantry structure and the whole Army structure were promulgated by the chiefs of staff. They did not come from any other drive. They were based on a number of factors, not least of which was the important change in Northern Ireland. The future Army structure and infantry structure will mean that we have more of the Regular Army available for operational requirements and duty than has applied hitherto. That must be to the benefit of our serving soldiers. There are other positive aspects. If the hon. Gentleman looks back at the statements made in the House, he may get a better understanding of the matter.
Defence Industrial Strategy
The aim of the defence industrial strategy is to ensure that the Ministry of Defence and industry work together to provide the best possible capability for our armed forces. It seeks to provide greater visibility of the Department’s forward planning so that industry’s planning can be better informed, and to identify the national industrial capabilities that we need to sustain on-shore. The strategy therefore offers the best basis for providing our forces with the equipment that they need and at the same time allowing our national defence industry to sustain significant levels of employment and core capabilities over time.
I met the commander of Portsmouth naval base and the managing director of Fleet Support Ltd this morning. We discussed the unique one-stop-shop service for ships at Portsmouth naval base, where concept, design, build, launch, support, upgrade and eventual disposal are offered. That is made possible by a partnership between industry and the Royal Navy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the only such service in the UK and that Portsmouth naval base, with its consolidation and co-location of industry and the Royal Navy, is a unique example of best practice in delivering the objectives of the defence industrial strategy?
It would be easy to say yes to that, but I would not want to give an impression that we do not have to examine all that we are delivering through work on the maritime infrastructure project. Of course, where we have excellence in companies—my hon. Friend mentioned one in her constituency, which has unquestionably given us tremendous service over the years—it is important that we consider how we can best ensure that we have the right capacity to meet our needs. The work to identify that will take some time. I have no doubt at all that those with particular excellence in this field will play a strong card, and my hon. Friend is a strong card on behalf of both her constituency and the company.
Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), I met the base commander and the company concerned last week, when they raised the same important issue. Are the Government prepared to ensure the stability of all three naval yards—Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth—so that there is a fair weighting of maintenance work? Will the Government also ensure that they rightly recognise the loyalty of the work force by giving them continuous support for their actions over the past 100 years or more?
I would be the first to congratulate the work force on all the work that they do. However, we must realise that change is under way, which is why we are working with all companies at all naval bases to determine the best configuration to meet the needs of the country not in the past century, but in the decades ahead. I do not think that that will be easy. We must realise that the number of ships that require maintenance now and the capacity in those bases will mean that there is change. We must be realistic, not romantic, which means that we need to look to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on developments on the joint strike fighter, which is a crucial project for our defence industry and our military? Will he comment on the progress that is being made on the transfer of intellectual property with the Americans and on the prospects for manufacturing facilities being located in the UK—and more particularly in Lancashire?
I know that my hon. Friend had a benefit last week that I did not have, because he visited the Farnborough air show. I was due to visit it, but unfortunately the events in Lebanon demanded my time. I would have liked to be there because I would have seen tremendous excellence from the British aerospace sector across the board, as he did. We are continuing to work very hard to deliver the joint intent of President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the UK’s operational sovereignty for the joint strike fighter. The matter is at the highest level of consideration. We have made good progress and have set a framework for further discussions over the next few months in even greater detail. We believe that these are important steps towards the signing of the memorandum of understanding towards the end of the year. There is still work to be done, although great progress has been made. As long as my hon. Friend continues to represent his constituency—both at air shows and in the House—I am sure that all that good work will be properly recognised.
Will the Minister ensure that the defence industrial strategy pays proper attention to the defence nuclear industry in terms of both science, technology and engineering, and, of course, the read-across to the civilian nuclear industry, because we will otherwise lose tens of thousands of highly skilled people? Their jobs would not be replaced in this country, so we would lose their expertise to foreign countries.
That is a critical part of the key manufacturing, scientific and technological strengths of this country, and too many people who are opposed to the nuclear industry, whether in the civil or defence sector, seem to forget that. Such a thing would rip the heart out of large parts of our science and technology base. We must ensure that we give those who wish to take up such aspects of a university and graduate career, or those who work in the technical side, a long-term future, because that is good for the economy and also the defence of the country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). Is he satisfied that industry is playing its full role in consolidating the submarine industry in a way that will allow those key skills to be kept together?
I know that my hon. Friend keeps a close eye on this subject, and I do not know how best to interpret the question. She knows that a major procurement programme is under way in terms of the Astute submarines, and the basing of that has been determined. There will be a long-term use of that particular capability. As we look towards future capabilities, we have set out what we intend to do about the replacement for Trident, if she was directing her question at that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that she was. I am giving a longer answer because there are bigger aspects to consider. There is more than just one element to the debate, which is why I mentioned the Astute programme. In terms of how we look forward, that will all be part of the national debate. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will make a major contribution to that debate.
The security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is stable, but fragile in places, including Helmand and the rest of the south of Afghanistan, where the rule of law has yet to be established fully.
With the Prime Minister advocating a NATO force of 20,000 for south Lebanon, and with real uncertainty over the US draw-down from Operation Enduring Freedom, is the Secretary of State concerned that we may end up with too few troops in Afghanistan, without the right equipment and without enough lift capability? What discussions has he had with Secretary Rumsfeld, and what is his assessment of the chances of other countries joining the international effort in Afghanistan?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, 37 other countries are involved in Afghanistan. One would be hard-pressed to find countries that are not. I have spoken to Secretary Rumsfeld about continued support from the United States and the transfer of authority at the end of this month. The United States will continue to be a member of NATO and to provide significant support. Indeed, in the south it will continue to provide a bridge in relation to the air support that is necessary. Having spoken recently to General Richards, who will be responsible for that, I am satisfied that there are sufficient forces and assets to maintain the operations that we are setting out to achieve.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend heard the “Today” programme a week or two ago, when the Taliban spokesman excused the bombing of schools by saying, “Oh well, actually we don’t bomb schools. We only bomb girls’ schools.” Is any special protection being afforded to such schools?
I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House after her recent illness and hope that she keeps well.
I did indeed hear that interview. The House should celebrate the fact that of the 5 million additional children who are now in school in Afghanistan, one third are girls, whereas no girls were educated at all under the Taliban regime.
In relation to Helmand province in particular, my hon. Friend may be aware that in the village of Nawzad, where our troops are providing a degree of security, the Taliban had not only closed the school, but taken it over and were using it as mortar base plate location. Delivering security is exactly the sort of activity that we have been conducting in those communities which will allow those schools to reopen. We will provide protection for the teachers and encourage the children, including the girls, to attend school.
The Secretary of State announced today that he will be sending two extra Chinook helicopters to Afghanistan. That is unreservedly to be welcomed. I congratulate him on making an announcement that brings forward things that will cost extra money. Does he accept, however, that that needs to be far from the end of the story? An extra two helicopters may well not be enough, given the importance and difficulty of the essential job that we are carrying out in Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, which I welcome. He will know that that was part of a statement that I made; I have no doubt that we will get to the other parts later in these questions. He will know, too, that those two Chinook helicopters were requested by commanders on the ground and staffed up to me by the chiefs of staff who approved that request, and I acceded to it. When I made the announcement about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I gave a figure to the House that included the anticipated cost of the additional helicopter support. The right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that in the same statement I said that we would keep helicopter and air support provision under review, and we will do just that.
My right hon. Friend knows that the role of the RAF will be absolutely fundamental in Afghanistan. Is he therefore absolutely satisfied that there is sufficient security for our air personnel, even with the assistance of the RAF regiment, to protect them from constant incoming attack?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the RAF is providing significant support in Afghanistan, not only for our troops in the south but for other troops deployed in that part, particularly from the Kandahar air base where our Harriers are based. We have made the decision to continue to base the RAF there for some time into the future. She ought to recollect that not long after I was appointed to this job I made an announcement that we were deploying additional troops to the Kandahar air base to provide full security. Consequently, having made that decision and having deployed those troops from the RAF regiment, I am satisfied that security is sufficient for the RAF.
Why are the few helicopters that we have in Afghanistan based in Kandahar where our troops are not, rather than in Helmand where they are?
The reason our helicopters are based in Kandahar, which is a comparatively short distance from our troops in Helmand—
The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. I have the advantage of having been there, seen the distance and indeed travelled in a helicopter from Kandahar to where we are based. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the helicopters are there because we believe that at present we can provide the level of support and in particular the security better at Kandahar than at Camp Bastion. At some time in the future we may well be able to provide that security at Camp Bastion, but that will be a matter for commanders on the ground and not for me.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have managed to train 28,000 soldiers and in excess of 30,000 police officers in Afghanistan—but we are not finished there. Not only are we training Afghanistan forces, but in Helmand province we are working with them very closely. In fact, we have deployed trainers and mentors who are working, living and eating with Afghan Kandaks and, as the commanding officer on the ground says, are prepared to die with them if necessary. That is having a significant effect on their ability to deliver security for their own people.
The whole House appreciates the excellent work that the British forces are doing in Afghanistan. As far as Helmand province is concerned, Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, is reported in the Colchester Evening Gazette only today as saying that morale is exceptionally high. The mission in Afghanistan is of enormous importance and UK troops are performing a vital role, but how do the Government reconcile the comments reported in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian made by General David Richards, head of the NATO international security assistance force, who says that Afghanistan is “close to anarchy”, with their own assurances that
“neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?
The hon. Gentleman disadvantages himself by relying on a press report of what General Richards said. In fact, when General Richards used the word “anarchy”, he used it specifically in relation to the lack of coherence in the network of international Government and non-governmental organisations operating in Afghanistan. He was not referring to the security situation or to the rule of law in the country. Lest it be thought that, by explaining the context of that reference, I am being complacent in any sense, I add that he went on to say that a number of measures were now in place that would tackle the problem of coherence in the Afghan and international community’s response, including President Karzai’s creation of a policy action group to co-ordinate and drive through key elements of Afghanistan’s development. He was not talking about security at all when he used the word “anarchy”.
My hon. Friend asks an important question, because a significant proportion of the additional troops whom we deployed to Afghanistan consists of 320 engineers. That is recognition, based on observations made in the early weeks and months in Afghanistan, of the fact that in order to deliver reconstruction in the context of improved governance, which will be the future security of the people in Helmand province, we must be able to find a method of doing so in a fragile security situation. That is exactly what the deployment of those engineers is designed to do. Through that deployment, we will take advantage of the progress that Commander Ed Butler and his troops made in the early months in Afghanistan to build on that security by delivering progress to communities across the south of Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province.
As the House is aware, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), are in Afghanistan, and I thank the Secretary of State for helping to facilitate their visit. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, we support the mission and, above all, the work undertaken by Her Majesty’s armed forces, but Parliament has a duty to hold the Government to account for their policy in Afghanistan.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards, who, on Friday night, said that western forces were “short of equipment” and were “running out of time”. He said, too, that there was a lack of unity between the different agencies responsible for implementing the reconstruction work, which means that the situation, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, “is close to anarchy”. How on earth does that square with the written answer that the Secretary of State gave my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring last week, in which he said:
“Neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?—[Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 342W.]
Surely there is an element of complacency in that, which ought not to be there?
There is no complacency at all. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is with the hon. Member for Woodspring in Afghanistan, and I was pleased to be able to assist in ensuring that they could have that experience and could communicate to our troops in Afghanistan their support and the support of other Members of the House. Before they left, they confirmed to me that they would be pleased to take that message to our troops in Afghanistan.
In answering the question as I did, I was doing exactly what I, and my predecessor, have done on a number of occasions in relation to Afghanistan: I drew a distinction between the strategic threat that the Taliban could pose to the Government of Afghanistan, and the localised threat that I have, on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, candidly admitted that they pose. I do not believe—nor does General Richards—that the Taliban pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. That is what my answer to that question was designed to impart. If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will see I have used that phraseology in that very context on a number of occasions. Indeed, it has been used by myself and by the previous Secretary of State for Defence since March this year, in answer to very similar questions.
Let me just deal with General Richards’s view: I had the benefit of meeting him on Friday morning, and I do not have to rely on the way in which he was inaccurately reported in newspapers. Let me quote what General Richards—
I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for not reading out the entire speech that General Richards made, but he made it at a public gathering at the Royal United Services Institute and it has been widely reported. Either all the reporters have got it wrong, or there is something wrong with the right hon. Gentleman’s recollection.
I want to ask the Secretary of State something else about Afghanistan, which is extremely important. Increasing numbers of British troops are being deployed to Afghanistan and the United Kingdom has another role to play there. We have been charged specifically with the lead role in helping the Afghan Government to rid the country of drug production. Last week the Minister for the Middle East said what the strategy should be. Perhaps I am quoting inaccurately and the Secretary of State can tell us if the newspapers have got it wrong, but the Minister said:
“Go for the fat cats, very wealthy farmers, the movers and shakers of the drugs trade”.
General Sir Mike Jackson, Britain’s most senior soldier, said:
“To physically eradicate”
“before all the conditions are right seems to me to be counter-productive”—
“The mission in Afghanistan offers the clearest example of how NATO is successfully transforming…Much progress has been made, and the strength, diverse capabilities, and flexibility inherent in multinational operations is being proved.”
Those were the words that General Richards used to conclude his contribution to the RUSI conference. They are entirely contradictory to the way in which his speech has been reported. Those are his own words, not three or four of them taken out of context.
With regard to drugs, there is no inherent contradiction between our focus on reconstruction and our ambition to rid Afghanistan of narcotics. There is no long-term sustainability for Afghanistan if its economy is substantially based on narcotics. At this stage we are not asking our soldiers to be drugs police officers. That is a matter for the Afghan police. However, we have accepted a responsibility to build up the capacity of Afghanistan to deal with the issue. We are doing that. We are putting significant investment into it, and by the delivery of security, we are creating a set of circumstances where that can be done. All this is perfectly consistent.
In preparation for decisions later this year on any replacement for Trident, officials are working on possible options and costs. Ministers will consider the outcome of that work later in the year. It is therefore premature to speculate on the possible costs of any replacement.
Given that the combined capital expenditure and through-life running costs of a Trident replacement could ultimately exceed some £40 billion, according to some experts, can the Minister say specifically where those funds will come from? Can he further assure the House that the funding for the UK’s conventional armed forces, which are already overstretched in many instances, will not be adversely affected as a consequence?
I have no doubt that in the context of the debate that will take place, the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make clear, individually and on behalf of his party, when we understand what his party’s position is on the matter, where they stand. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman, like his colleagues, will have to live with the financial consequences of any decision that we make, just as we on the Government side, and no doubt the official Opposition, will be prepared to do, but he can be reassured that the timetable set for the decision is such that the decisions about the costs can be incorporated in the comprehensive spending review considerations, and decisions about costs will be made once we work out which option we want to adopt and what the costs of that option are.
The development of our nuclear deterrent took place more than 50 years ago and involved the work of many armed forces personnel, not least the veterans who took part in the Christmas Island tests. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter of compensation for that ever-decreasing band of surviving veterans and their families, including my constituent, Mr. Tom Malone, before it is too late to help any of them?
When we have the debate on the strategic nuclear deterrent, could it include a discussion of the ballistic missile defence shield that America, South Korea and Japan have, but which Britain does not have? The Americans are looking for a third site. Could we have a debate about it possibly being located in the United Kingdom if they are prepared to pay for it?
Those are two separate issues. I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to relate them, but to conflate them in that way will merely confuse the debate. He can rest assured that when there are any considerations in relation to any of these matters, we will be transparent and report them to the House.
One of the ways in which we have managed relatively to keep down the cost of our nuclear deterrence is by our co-operation with the United States of America. If we want to do the same in future, would it not make sense for us to establish strong connections at every level with all our nuclear allies, including the French?
My hon. Friend will need to wait to see what recommendation the Government make after the risks, threats, options and costs have been considered before we have the debate about how that relates to our allies. I reassure him that we have the fullest appropriate co-operation with all our allies across all areas of defence.
Given the importance of the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in finding the money for any successor to the Trident submarine fleet, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether his good friend the Chancellor told him before he made his Mansion house speech, or only afterwards, that he was going to declare himself in favour of keeping the nuclear deterrent, not only in the present Parliament but in the long term?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his persistence in trying to get from me an answer other than the one that I have given him now on a number of occasions, which is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have many discussions, the nature of which I consider to be confidential. It was hardly a surprise to me that my right hon. Friend should make a speech that was entirely consistent with party policy. I only wish that all of the people on these Benches would make speeches that were entirely consistent with party policy.
With the greatest respect to the Secretary of State, not only was it consistent with party policy, it went rather further, because in talking about the long term it suggested replacement, not just continuation, of the existing fleet. But let us leave that aside and take the right hon. Gentleman’s answer as a no—he did not know until he read the speech. Given that the Prime Minister has said that the nuclear deterrent historically has tended to be sui generis, thus implying that separate funds would be found to pay for any successor to the present Trident fleet, can the Secretary of State confirm that it is not intended to raid the conventional defence budget to pay for a new generation of strategic nuclear deterrent?
I can confirm that it is not intended to raid the conventional budget to pay for a new generation of nuclear deterrent, but I do that from a position that no decision has yet been made about whether there will be a new generation. The timing of the decision will be such that it will be able to be incorporated into the discussions between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury in the comprehensive spending review, and that is when the decisions will be made. Finally, the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to come to the conclusion that my answer meant that I did not have a conversation with my right hon. Friend about the content of his speech.
The Government have an extensive development programme in support of the Iraqi people.
The Department for International Development, with the support of UK forces, has so far committed over £417 million of assistance, including significant investment in electricity infrastructure, raising output and strengthening the grid. In the next six months further projects will deliver a range of basic services, including drinking water, to make a real difference to the everyday lives of the people of southern Iraq.
The key to our withdrawal and that of the multinational forces from Iraq is building the capability of the Iraqi Government, both at national and provincial level, and of the civilian infrastructure, to take responsibility for a range of measures that previously they did not have responsibility for. For example, anybody who has visited Basra and compared it with Baghdad can see what 30 years of neglect by a dictator did for that part of the country, which he determinedly ran down. It is in building that capacity that we will be able to give the people of Iraq a way forward. If my hon. Friend wants an example of what we are doing to encourage that, he needs to recognise that a significant number of very able Ministers in that Government, including the Prime Minister, have been in London today meeting their counterparts and discussing how we can help them. Significant improvements have been made in Iraq. They do not always get reported, and sometimes they are drowned out by the violence, which I acknowledge has been at an unacceptably high and very dangerous level over the past months, but improvements are taking place there daily, and a substantial part of the country has moved forward.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that our troops’ reconstruction role in southern Iraq has been made much more difficult by the Government’s failure to condemn at an early stage Israeli forces’ attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon? That is a real concern, because whereas we have no troops stationed in Israel, we have thousands of troops stationed across Arabia, and many of our Arab friends are very angry about the situation. What is he going to do about it?
I again put to the Secretary of State the paucity of medical supplies and equipment in Basra’s main hospital, of which a lot of Iraqis are dying as a consequence. We have also heard that a number of doctors and medical staff have been killed in the insurgency. It is my position that UK forces should stock up that hospital and, if necessary, take children out of the country to get treatment. Is that his position, and, if it is, why are UK forces not acting?
It is my position that the international community, including the United Kingdom, has a responsibility to support health provision in Iraq, which we have been doing. It is not my position that the answer to the needs of those who should be treated in Iraq is to provide some method of moving them out of the country. That would be no answer to the problems. I accept that people in certain professions have been targeted, including the medical profession, but the answer to that is to work with Iraqi forces and the Iraqi Government at the national and provincial levels, which is what we are doing.
In a meeting today with the Prime Minister of Iraq, I was pleased when he told me that he has implemented proper supervision of the Basra security plan and that he will return to Iraq and visit Basra specifically to send a strong message to those from his community who are involved in the violence that it is unacceptable and that the security plan will address them. The long-term answer is to deliver security for the Iraqi people. My hon. Friend is consistent, but he should recognise the improvements. Although there have been setbacks, there have been significant improvements, too, and he should never underestimate how badly Saddam Hussein treated the people of Basra.
The Secretary of State will, I know, agree that a central part of the reconstruction of southern Iraq, as well as our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is provided by the Hercules based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency? There are currently two problems. First, there are not nearly enough Hercules, despite the extra one that he has deployed to Afghanistan. Of the 47 in the fleet, only 20 are available for purpose at any one moment—five have been deployed in the relief of Lebanon. Secondly, the fleet is at full stretch. Is it not time to consider the provision of extra heavy lift capability, perhaps by chartering a C-17 or an extra Hercules?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at additional air support and airlift. However, I am satisfied that we have responded to requests from theatre and provided the assets requested by those in theatre. In my view, that is an appropriate assessment of our capability, and we have not yet found ourselves with insufficient resources.
Last week, Premier Koizumi from Japan completed the transfer of the last of the Japanese contingent of 600 ground self-defence forces who have been based in southern Iraq in the city of Samawa and the area around it, notionally charged with humanitarian and reconstruction objectives. Does the Secretary of State feel that our own forces will have to pick up that role and therefore become even more seriously overstretched?
My hon. Friend could not, with respect, be further from the truth. The Japanese, who made a significant contribution in al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq, were able not only to stand their troops down from where they were positioned in al-Muthanna but to send them home because they had achieved their objective. My hon. Friend will have noticed that coincidentally with the Japanese Government’s announcement of a drawdown, there was an announcement of provincial Iraqi control—that is, with Iraqis themselves taking over responsibility for security and for the governance of al-Muthanna province. There is no need for any troops from outside Iraq to provide that in al-Muthanna, and that will increasingly be the case across Iraq.
There is no set budget for the future cost of operations in Iraq as costs vary with the tempo of the operation. In his recent Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside £800 million from within existing public spending plans for 2006-07 to meet the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan and other international commitments. Urgent funding requirements arising from operations are met from the reserve.
If I may be permitted, Mr. Speaker, in that regard I can announce today the conclusions of an urgent review into protected vehicles for operations, particularly in Iraq. We have identified three complementary ways forward, two of which build on and accelerate work that is ongoing, and the third is new. They will be funded from an acceleration of existing funding and, in part, from substantial new funding from the Treasury for Iraq and Afghanistan. I have set out the details in a written statement. Briefly, we are ordering 100 new Vector vehicles, 70 FV430 vehicles beyond the 54 already ordered, and about 100 new Cougar wheeled armoured vehicles for both theatres.
The Prime Minister recently underlined the threat to our troops in Iraq from Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-supplied weapons. I am delighted that the Minister has today announced that we are going to upgrade the armoured vehicle fleet available to our troops to protect them from that threat. However, the wheeled armoured vehicles that he has ordered will not be ready for deployment until the end of this year. What consideration was given to the procurement of battle-ready RG31 protected patrol vehicles?
We gave serious consideration to all the vehicles that were available. Thanks to the work that we were able to do with the Americans, and thanks particularly to significant work that my hon. Friend Lord Drayson was able to perform, we were able to identify about 100 Cougar vehicles to which the Americans were prepared to allow us to have access. We chose those because up-armoured, with electronic counter-measures added and with Bowman radios fitted, we believe that they would be the best protected mid-range vehicles in theatre. We made an objective decision to choose them instead of the RG31s. Had we chosen the RG31s, we would have had to fit ECMs and Bowman to them and possibly to up-armour them. In any event, the earliest possible time that we can get them into theatre is in the context of the six-month period of the next two roulements for Iraq and for Afghanistan. It physically could not be done any more quickly with any vehicle.
The Government have seen fit to finance a reserve battalion for Iraq stationed in Cyprus. The Secretary of State mentioned an unprecedented level of violence, which would seem to suggest that those reserves could be needed at any moment. Almost half the combat power of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has been sent to Afghanistan, not Iraq. Have we run out of money or run out of soldiers?
We have not run out of either money or soldiers. My announcement today, coupled with others that I have made about urgent operational requirements for both our theatres, show that, when resources are necessary, we will find them.
The deployment of individual soldiers is a matter for the Army. Identifying the appropriate troops, from whatever service, is entirely a matter for the services.
Given the tempo of operations in Afghanistan and the necessary cost that that implies, and given that the Secretary of State has confirmed that, before next year’s comprehensive spending review, no strategic defence review or review of defence planning assumptions will take place, is he confident that the Chancellor will continue to fund the current or possibly increased tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from a special reserve, or will the costs fall on the regular defence budget?
The hon. Gentleman has no reason to believe that the Treasury will not respond to the requests for additional resources for theatre and give access to the special reserve appropriately for them. There has been no occasion on which the Treasury has denied that access and there is no reason for the hon. Gentleman to start baseless speculation that that is likely to happen in future.
The answer is yes.
I welcome the decision to allow Parliament a vote. I hope that its timing will allow for not only a full and informed debate in Parliament but proper public consultation. Given that a vote solely on options for a nuclear deterrent would be inadequate, will the Secretary of State clarify whether it will be on the substantive question of whether the UK retains a nuclear deterrent?
I can give the hon. Gentleman a specific and clear answer: there will be a vote. I have not at this stage determined the question. I will not be in a position to help him until the threats, risks, options and costs are worked out and the Government reach a view to inform the debate that is already taking place.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not join all the other people who suggest that the Government should not reach a view and that we will have a remarkable debate in this country in which Ministers or the Government are the only ones who are not allowed a view. Every time one expresses anything that approximates a view, everybody suggests that the debate has been closed down. There will be a debate—indeed, it is already taking place—the question will emerge, and there will be a vote on it.
My right hon. Friend is right that we should have a vote following a debate. However, the debate should be informed. He has been asked once what estimates he will contribute to the debate. Although he may not have them now, what is his prediction for the month when we will get estimates that allow us all to take part in an informed debate?
A substantial amount of information about the current position is in the public domain. Almost every day, I answer a raft of questions that are designed to tease out individual pieces of information that can inform the debate. The Government’s position could not be clearer. We have set a timetable for around the end of the year and we will have an open and transparent debate. The Government have said that we will publish a White Paper to inform the debate. In my view, it must contain the components to answer all the questions, but only once the risks, threats, options and costs have been worked out. What is the point of my standing here speculating until those matters are worked out?
I do not want to be too helpful to the Secretary of State but it is obvious to me that the Government will be in favour of a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, that the Conservative Opposition will support the new generation of weapons of mass destruction and that the Scottish National party will oppose them. Would not it be helpful to know the Liberal Democrats’ position?
I cannot answer for the Liberal Democrats—they can answer for themselves when the time comes. It comes as no surprise that the Scottish National party is opposed to continuing—if it comes to that—with a nuclear deterrent. The SNP is opposed to NATO. Its defence policy is not clear apart from complaining about British soldiers, whom it does not intend to support in future.
I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to holding a vote on this extremely important issue; they are not being given sufficient credit for that, just as they were not given sufficient credit for holding a vote on the war in Iraq. We need an informed debate, however, and one of its most important aspects will be the nature of the security threat that this country will face, which will be very different from those that we have faced in the past. What information will Back Benchers be given to enable them to make the correct decisions?
My hon. Friend can look forward to having the opportunity to consider the available evidence on the nature of the risks and threats to our defence and security that we might face over the next 20 to 50 years. It will be the Government’s duty to reflect on the full range of threats to the security of the nation, so as to inform the nation and its parliamentarians about the decision that they will need to make on how we configure our defence for that very uncertain future.
There is consensus between the Government and the Opposition—it probably does not include the majority of Labour Back Benchers or the smaller parties in the House—on the need for a new deterrent, but it will be essential to our debate that we understand the alternatives between what might be described as an expensive option and the cheaper options. Some of the options might have been discarded by the Government when they made their proposals. Will they make it clear to the House what those discarded proposals are, so that we have the opportunity to debate them as well?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no hiding, discarding or non-publishing of information. The Government want the fullest possible informed debate on this issue. When options are considered and discarded, I will accept the responsibility for explaining why that has happened, if indeed it comes to that. The problem with hon. Members asking such questions at this stage is that I always have to qualify my answers by saying that the risks, threats, options and costs have not yet been assessed, and that no recommendations have been made to any member of the Government. I am therefore not in a position to explain to the hon. Gentleman what the shape of the White Paper will be. However, it seems to me that it ought to take into account the geopolitical side as well as the military issues.
The United Kingdom has a proud record on fulfilling its disarmament obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which remains the cornerstone of this country’s nuclear non-proliferation policy. Since 1998, we have withdrawn and dismantled the WE177 nuclear bomb and all of our remaining Chevaline warheads. As a result, Trident is now our only nuclear weapons system, and we are the only recognised nuclear weapons state to have reduced to a single platform. These steps have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads, which represents a reduction of more than 70 per cent. in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war.
I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and full answer. Following the exchanges between my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) and the Secretary of State, and given the principle of irreversibility agreed at the nuclear proliferation treaty conference in 2000, will the Minister tell us whether any increase in the United Kingdom’s nuclear capacity would be compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to which he has just referred?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for thanking me for my full answer. He should understand that that full answer means that we will be fully compliant with our international obligations under that treaty. This is why we have been so supportive of the United States’ statement on the draft fissile material cut-off treaty, which represented a way forward on these issues. We are leading the way, and seeking new ways to achieve disarmament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that and congratulate the Government on all that we have done, and on all that we will do in the future.
On the important matter of the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, will the Minister pay tribute to the work carried out by the thousands of people who work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston? In the context of the wider debate, will he also pay tribute to them not only for the work that they are doing today but for the work that they have done in the past and the work that they will do in the future to protect this country’s security?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I sought to answer in an earlier response. This work not only plays an important part in the defence of this country, in our role in NATO and in trying to maintain peace and stability in a troubled globe, but makes a major contribution to the science and technology base of this country. We need only consider the thousands of scientists and technicians who have been through not just AWE but other support elements of the defence industry in this country to recognise the quality and worth of their contribution. They defend us, but they also strengthen our economic and manufacturing base.
We will provide two additional CH47 helicopters, one in September and one in October. One will be drawn from the Falklands, and might be replaced by a commercial contract. The other will be drawn from the Chinook-47 deployable pool. Those changes, coupled with recently announced increases in helicopter hours, will give us the flexibility required to meet the demand. Helicopter force levels will remain under constant review.
My constituent has just received an e-mail from her brother, who is serving in Afghanistan, which ends:
“If it weren’t for the inherent stubbornness and capability of the honest Tommy to simply get things done, the true professionalism of the best armed forces on this earth coupled with the exceptional efforts of a few exceptional officers, the prospects for this campaign would be bleak indeed”.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that the lives of those brave British Tommys taking part in this vital mission should not be put at risk due to poor availability or poor positioning of essential kit, including helicopters? In that respect, how many helicopters are currently fit for purpose? What is he doing to reduce the number that are currently out of service?
The force that we have deployed in Afghanistan, and the additional forces that I announced to be deployed there, were designed by the commanders and approved by the chiefs of staff. I have not, and nor have any of my predecessors, refused to provide anything that has been requested for our operations in Afghanistan. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have provided additional support for the helicopter fleet in particular.
The mere fact that we are replacing helicopters elsewhere with contractors suggests that there is a shortage of helicopters. I, too, am receiving communications from relatives of people deployed in Afghanistan who are concerned about the level of support. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many other countries in NATO are deploying helicopters in Afghanistan?
If the hon. Gentleman receives such communication, he should pass it on to me immediately, and I will deal with it. I look forward to receiving from him tomorrow the communication that he has received in relation to those matters. The conclusion that he draws about the deployment of those two helicopters is incorrect. The fact that we are deploying helicopters from the Falklands suggests that the military are doing what they do. If resource can be deployed from somewhere else to do that work, that seems to me to be appropriate. Again, if the hon. Gentleman has concerns that come to him from constituents, he should pass them on to me and I will deal with them.
Child Support Redesign
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for reform of the child support system.
Parents, whether they live together or not, have a moral as well as a legal responsibility to support their children. Relationships end, but responsibilities do not. Government and society have a clear interest in ensuring that those responsibilities are honoured. That was the foundation on which the Child Support Act 1991 rested, and I believe that those are the right foundations on which to build any future system of child support. But as we know, despite the best efforts of its staff the overall performance of the Child Support Agency has fallen well short of expectations. When we came to office the agency cost more to run than it collected in maintenance, and it has been taking longer to process claims than the court arrangements that it replaced.
The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 made important changes, simplifying maintenance calculations and allowing parents with care on benefit to keep up to £10 of any maintenance received. Since 1997, the agency has nearly doubled the number of cases receiving maintenance payments. However, as we all know, problems have persisted. Only a minority of cases handled by the CSA receive any maintenance at all. There is a backlog of around 300,000 cases. Debts of over £3 billion have built up, with limited prospects of recovery. There is a net cost to the taxpayer of around £200 million per year. Levels of customer service, although they have improved recently, have never reached the standards of quality and consistency that the public are entitled to expect.
The need for radical overhaul is clear, but I do not believe that the continuing problems are due to a failing on the part of the staff of the agency. Rather, I believe that they are due to a failing of the policy framework, and of the system that the staff are being asked to run. That is why, in February, I asked Sir David Henshaw to redesign our system of child support. He has now presented his recommendations to me. Copies are available in the Vote Office and on my Department's website, together with the Government's response.
Sir David has recommended an entirely new system for child support that will be simpler to use and administer, will be tougher on parents who do not face up to their responsibilities and will make a bigger impact on the reduction in child poverty, while delivering value for money for the taxpayer. His recommendations have four main elements.
First, Sir David believes that the system should focus on tackling child poverty by ensuring that parents with care keep more of the maintenance owed to them. He recommends that lone parents on benefit should be allowed to keep more maintenance through a significant increase in the extent to which child maintenance is disregarded in income-related benefits.
Secondly, Sir David believes that a new system should promote greater personal responsibility by ensuring that, wherever possible, we help parents reach their own financial arrangements for the maintenance of their children. That means reconfiguring advice services to improve the quality and accessibility of information and guidance for parents. Sir David also believes that the Government should remove the requirement that parents with care on benefits make an application for child maintenance through the CSA even when a perfectly satisfactory private arrangement already exists. As a first step towards getting maintenance flowing to children, Sir David recommends that, with up to a fifth of potential child support cases not having their fathers’ names on their birth certificates, we should consider the joint registration of births.
When parents cannot reach an amicable agreement, the parents with care need to be confident that the enforcement arrangements will be effective. The third element of Sir David's recommendations is the introduction of new, tougher enforcement powers, including the withdrawal of passports. He also recommends exploring the potential to make better use of existing financial penalties.
Fourthly, Sir David proposes that there should be a clean break with the past. He believes that the delivery of child support requires a fresh start with a new organisation. He believes that there should be no automatic conversion of cases from the two existing schemes to the new redesigned system. Instead, parents wishing to use the new system should be able to reapply. He recommends that there should be a separate residuary body to “manage down” and enforce old debt, and that we should consider how best to give the new organisation power to charge clients for using the new system.
Sir David has consulted widely in producing his recommendations. I am grateful to him for his work, and grateful to all who have contributed to it. As his report shows, tougher enforcement and a substantially higher disregard could increase the number of children receiving maintenance to about 1.75 million, compared with just 1.1 million today. The changes will lift many more children out of poverty, and a smaller, more focused agency that deals with significantly fewer cases will deliver better value to the taxpayer, with administrative costs substantially lower over the long run. Although there is still a great deal of detail to be dealt with, I think it right that the Government should signal their view of the way ahead.
We have decided to accept the principal recommendations. We will therefore bring forward legislation at the earliest opportunity to remove the requirement that all parents with care claiming benefit are treated as applying for child maintenance. We agree with Sir David’s recommendation that there should be a higher disregard, but that must ensure a fair deal for taxpayers and avoid sending any signal that families might be better off apart than together, so we intend significantly to increase the level of the current disregard of £10. Details will be confirmed later this year.
Both those changes will help more families to receive more maintenance and reduce the risk of child poverty. They reflect both the rights of children to be properly maintained by their parents and the right of society to ensure that parental responsibilities are properly discharged. We also agree that the delivery of child support requires a fresh start. We will therefore create a new organisation to replace the CSA and we will strengthen enforcement powers.
We intend to go even further and seek legislation to strengthen the powers available to the agency to recover maintenance from those who repeatedly fail to pay, including through the imposition of curfews as well as the suspension of passports. We will explore publicising successful prosecutions, including the feasibility of naming those who have been prosecuted. We will continue the CSA’s current operational improvement plan, which is already improving our capacity to trace people who owe maintenance and which should see the CSA collecting a further £250 million in unpaid maintenance.
There is still a great deal of detail in Sir David’s report that should now properly be the subject of fuller consultation and debate. In particular, we want to consult on the best way to allow existing claimants either to move to private arrangements or to make a claim to the new system. We must ensure that, where people currently receive maintenance through the CSA, they continue to do so, if they wish, under the new system, without disrupting the payment of child maintenance.
We should consult on how best to deal with the legacy of debt that is left, while protecting the interests of both families and the taxpayer. We should also consult on the appropriate role for the courts in the new approach, how to improve parental responsibility from birth—including the possibility of compulsory registration for fathers—and how we can further simplify and improve the current assessment, collection and enforcement processes. We will also consult on the details of any new charging regime.
In advance of legislation, I intend to publish a White Paper later this year, which will set out in greater detail the way forward in all of these areas. In the meantime, I have asked Sir David to report to me on the policy and implementation issues that arise from his first report. During the process of change, agency staff are entitled to expect the full support of my Department, and they will have it. In particular, we will do all we can to help and support staff through the transition to the new organisation and in their efforts to ensure that children and families receive the maintenance to which they are properly entitled.
The original proposals for child support had a wide and broad measure of support in the House, but the consensus on aims was never translated into a consensus on means: we must not repeat the same mistake. That is why I want the new arrangements now be established to command the broadest possible measure of agreement. I believe that there is a clear sense, both in the House and outside it, that our system of child support needs radical change. It must offer better value for money for the taxpayer, enforce the rights of children and the responsibilities of parents more successfully and ensure that families and children in particular do not slide into poverty when parents split up.
I believe that the proposals I have set out today can help us better to achieve those vital objectives, which is why I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in letting me have a copy of the statement in advance, although he will understand that we have not yet had a chance to absorb the details of Sir David’s report.
I am sorry to tell the Secretary of State that his statement will be a disappointment to the 1.5 million families trapped in the shambles of the Child Support Agency, particularly the 900,000 who are trapped in the old system. The statistics are familiar to the House and the Secretary of State recited them again today, so I shall not repeat them, but what those people wanted to hear today was, above all, a timetable for moving them on to a new system of assessment. What they have got is yet another delay for further reports and more consultation, so they will feel let down once again.
The Government have invested half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money in their redesign of the CSA system and now propose to turn their back on that investment and start again. The headline in press releases this morning is “CSA to be scrapped”, but the reality is that the existing, failing CSA will be rebranded and left with its difficult case load while the political spotlight will be shifted to a new body with low costs, no legacy and a carefully controlled onflow of suitable new cases.
We share the Government’s stated determination to maintain the obligation on both parents to contribute to the upbringing and support of a child. We also share the view that, where those arrangements can be made voluntarily, they should be. But in the real world, that will often not be the case, and it is not obvious what the incentive of a high benefit disregard will achieve in those cases that are not settled voluntarily. If a CSA application is made, we are back in exactly the position that we are now. If a CSA application is not made, we are back in exactly the position that we are now, with the difference that there will not even be a theoretical accrual of liability by the absent parent to offset the state’s payments to support the lone parent and her children. The absent parent will be totally off the hook, so what price the Government’s commitment to both parents contributing to their children’s support?
Any advantage that the proposed change will bring lies solely in the cases where voluntary arrangements are made. Does the Secretary of State have any evidence about the proportion of benefit cases that that might involve? I note that, when he first referred to Sir David’s recommendation to remove the requirement that parents on benefits with care must make a CSA application, he used the phrase,
“when there is a perfectly satisfactory private arrangement already in place”.
But when he went on to announce that the Government would legislate to remove the requirement, there was no reference to the qualifying condition. So perhaps he can clarify whether the requirement will be removed in all cases, or only in cases where there is evidence that a satisfactory voluntary private agreement exists.
I also assume that the higher level of disregard will apply to all payments, not just those made voluntarily. If that is the case, while that disregard may have a significant impact on tackling child poverty in lone parent families, it will not operate as an incentive to agree voluntary arrangements, which I understood to be the Secretary of State’s original motivation for using the higher disregard in those cases only.
We have heard nothing of how parents not on benefit will be encouraged to make voluntary arrangements—other than vague reference to a threat to charge for the new agency’s services. I suspect that on an otherwise rather dismal day that may be the only thought that raises some merriment in single parent households that are trapped in the CSA bureaucracy at the moment.
Most importantly, the Secretary of State failed to deal with the key issue: the robustness of the assessment process, which was the focus of the 2000 Act reforms—sacrificing precision for simplicity—that are now acknowledged to have failed. Is the right hon. Gentleman really proposing to set up a new body attempting to assess and constantly reassess a payment that is due on the basis of fluctuating or uncertain in-year income? Unless the assessment process is made robust for those difficult cases, no system of collection will be effective. If the value of the claim cannot be accurately assessed on a real-time basis, no enforcement system, however draconian, will work.
There is no reason to suppose that the new agency will be any more successful than the old if it is constantly struggling to establish and maintain an accurate basis of assessment. When the right hon. Gentleman described Sir David’s remit as a redesign of the system, I understood that he was prepared to tackle this issue, but there is nothing in the statement on it—nothing, as the product of the past six months’ work, except a reference to it as something that requires further consultation and debate. There is no recognition of the fundamental importance of the assessment tool to a robust system of child maintenance.
We will look carefully at Sir David’s report and its implications. In the meantime, I have a couple of specific questions for the right hon. Gentleman. Can he give the House an estimate of the cost of the proposals? Obviously, the £200 million that the CSA is collecting for the Exchequer as a contribution to the agency’s costs will be lost. In fact, far from scrapping the agency, there will be the cost of maintaining two separate bodies, so can he tell us what the overall cost will be?
Can the Secretary of State also tell us what the programme will be for migration from the existing system to the new system, and over what period that will take place? Presumably, some people will have to remain with the residual agency, as access to the new system will have to be rationed at the outset in order to prevent it from being swamped. How will the Secretary of State deliver a perception of fairness in that migration process, as being on the new system will bring a huge financial benefit but it seems inevitable that that will have to be rationed over a number of years?
Can the Secretary of State give us a bit more of a feel about the level of the disregard? If he cannot give the exact amount of that, can he at least give some indication of it, because it is very difficult to understand the proposals without that? In his comments, he recognised that there is a risk that introducing a large disregard might create a perverse incentive for struggling families to give up and split up. What work has he done to establish to his own satisfaction that that will not result from the changes that he has announced today? Finally, can he tell us who will run this new body? Will they be the same people who run and staff the existing CSA?
We are disappointed by this statement, as will be hundreds of thousands of lone parents. It is mightily thin on substance. It consists of a rebranding exercise with no change to the substantive arrangements in, I suspect, a majority of cases, and that is not a solution for the families involved. We recognise that there is a need to make the system more effective, and to be more pragmatic about ways to increase the flow of maintenance, without losing sight of the underlying principles. Unfortunately however, it is not clear that the proposals address the fundamental flaws in the system. Having just poured half a billion pounds down the drain in respect of the CS2 system, the Government cannot safely move on and start again without being 100 per cent. sure that the real underlying causes of the problem have been identified and fixed.
It is unclear to me—and I suspect to most of my hon. Friends—what the hon. Gentleman’s view is of Sir David Henshaw’s report, and whether the hon. Gentleman will be able to give any indication today as to whether any of the proposals in it attract his interest or support. I find it bizarre in the extreme that he seems to want us to continue with the existing arrangements, as most of us, irrespective of which party we belong to, know that that would serve only to trap people inside a failing system that is not delivering for parents. [Hon. Members: “That is what the Government are doing.”] I note the comments from Conservative Members, so I think that I should send a copy of the statement to the hon. Gentleman again so that he can have another look at it, along with Sir David’s report.
These are undoubtedly the most radical reforms to the child support system that any Minister has brought before this House since the establishment of the Child Support Agency. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take a little more time to study the detail of the statement and of Sir David’s report. These reforms will address the fundamental flaws in the current system. We are encouraging parents to reach their own agreements—I would have thought, given all the ideological baggage that the Conservative party is keen to lose at the moment, that that at least would be one thing that they would want to support today. But, sadly, we did not hear such words of support.
Well, I do not think any Labour Members heard such words of support for that fundamental change.
We will remove the obligation on all cases; the hon. Gentleman asked about that, and we certainly intend to do that. The maintenance disregard will of course apply only in relation to benefit cases—obviously, it will not apply to other cases. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the assessment process. I think that there is broad support for that; Sir David Henshaw certainly found broad support for the reforms introduced in the 2000 Act, and we do not intend to revisit the issue.
The hon. Gentleman asked four specific questions. He asked about the estimate of long-term operating costs. Sir David has estimated that the changes to the administration of child support will probably save us 50 per cent. of the current operating costs of the agency. Of course, there will be other costs associated with making the changes, but they will depend on the detail of the proposals that we bring forward in the White Paper in the autumn.
On migration, Sir David recognised that more work will need to be done on that. I felt that it was important that Members could see the outlines of the new system as soon as possible; that is why I asked Sir David to bring his initial recommendations forward as quickly as possible. He himself recognised that a significant amount of work still needs to be done in that regard. It will be done as a matter of urgency, and I will take it as my responsibility to ensure that Members in all parts of the House have full sight of, and full involvement in, the development of that important work.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I can give further details today on the maintenance disregard. All that I can say to him and to Members in all parts of the House is that it will not be 100 per cent., because such a figure would send the wrong signal about the balance of responsibilities between parents and taxpayers. Some interesting American evidence shows that, if one focuses more on dealing with child poverty as the principal objective in child support systems, there is, in particular, no discernible impact on incentives to work. That is a very important lesson that we need to reflect on. The hon. Gentleman also asked who is going to run the new arrangements and with the greatest of respect to him, it is just a little too early to name any names in that regard.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on today’s statement? This has been a sorry 15 years of the CSA’s history that we have had to bear. Does he agree that the two principal factors that we need to consider are parental responsibility for maintaining their own children and attacking the child poverty target? Does he further agree that the full compliance of parents would have a significant impact on the child poverty figure?
I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend has said. He and the other Members of the Work and Pensions Select Committee made it very clear in their most recent report on the CSA that it really was time for the Government to consider setting up a new organisation that could pursue the very important objectives set out in it. I can confirm to him and to the House that those will be the principal objectives of the new system, and I am confident that, in the light of the arrangements that I have set out today, we can make those responsibilities stick.
May I thank the Secretary of State for his typical courtesy in making available a copy of the statement and of the documents so far in advance of today’s oral statement? May I also congratulate Sir David Henshaw and his team on completing this work in such a short time? Does not the speed of Sir David’s work contrast with the Government’s own tardiness in dealing with this issue since 1997 and, indeed, since the 2005 general election? I remind the Secretary of State that since that election, we have had a review of the CSA’s future, followed by a redesign of the policy on the CSA. We are now being offered today a consultation on the CSA’s future, to be followed by a White Paper on the CSA’s future. If the Secretary of State’s own document is to be believed, that will followed merely by
“an ambition…to see some aspects of the new system in place from 2008”.
In other words, what he is offering us today is that, 11 years after his Government came to power,
“some aspects of the new system”
will be in place. Does he think that that is really good enough, and does he acknowledge that his Government have wasted 10 years in dealing with this issue?
Is that point not also reinforced by what Sir David says at the beginning of his own document? He says that he had a very demanding timetable that was
“not sufficient to allow for a full redesign”,
but which allowed him to indicate only “the direction” of his new policy.
The Secretary of State said today that the CSA is going to be scrapped, which is what we have heard according to all the spin outside this place. He had previously said that he would not scrap it until he was clear what it was going to be replaced with. What is it going to be replaced with? Is it not astonishing that all that he can say today, in paragraph 55 of his own document, about the CSA’s future replacement is that there are a range of approaches that could be taken to the structure of the governance of such an organisation, and that an intensive programme of work will be undertaken, including full consultation with staff, to figure out a way forward? Is it really acceptable that, after 11 years in power—that is how long this Government will have been in power when these measures will, so the Secretary of State says, be implemented—he still does not know what he intends to replace the CSA with?
Is the agency going to remain under the DWP? Is it still going to be run by the existing chief executive, and is it going to be based at the existing locations? If so, is this not going to end up being a re-badging, rather than a fundamental replacement of the existing agency? The Secretary of State indicated that he intends to reinforce enforcement powers. Why has he proposed to introduce curfews for non-resident parents who are not adhering to their child support obligations when that proposal was not made by Sir David Henshaw? Will he tell us how effective that is likely to be? Is it likely to be as ineffective as previous Government gimmicks, such as withdrawing driving licences? That measure was used only 11 times in four and a half years.
We welcome the new emphasis on people making their own arrangements and the higher disregard that Sir David recommended and that the Secretary of State has undertaken to consider, but will he assure us that he will not use a charging mechanism for resident parents who have to use the agency and have had to deal with an incompetent service over the previous 13 years of the agency’s life, and who would be astonished to have to pay for the use of this incompetent agency in the future? Have the Government gone far enough in giving the new CSA access to the sort of income details that it would be able to get if it were part of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the ability to deduct money directly at source?
Today’s statement, which was made almost 10 years after the Labour party came to power, contained a set of proposals that seem to amount to no more than re-badging with additional lengthy delay and more gimmicks. Should we not have expected more after 10 years?
I say to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond): this is not a re-badging exercise, but a fundamental change to every aspect—root and branch—of the child support system. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) did not have the courage of his previous convictions and did not repeat his support for the transfer of responsibilities to HMRC. As he will know, that was considered on page 50 of Sir David Henshaw’s report and rejected for perfectly sensible reasons. He and his hon. Friends could usefully go away and study that. We cannot solve the problem of the administration by simply relocating it to a different part of Government. That is not the right way to deal with the problems of the CSA, because those problems are not just organisational or administrative. They are much more fundamental than that. That is why Sir David has come to his view that transferring the CSA to HMRC, which I understand is the hon. Gentleman’s policy, would not be right. We have no intention whatsoever of taking that course.
The hon. Gentleman berated the Government for taking 11 years to come to this decision. We tried very hard. We have tried repeatedly in recent years to make the arrangements that we inherited work. We have revisited the legislation and invested heavily in support and IT systems for the CSA. It does not work. We should have the courage to say that it is time to turn over a new leaf. That is what I am trying to do. He might catch up with us at some point, but I am afraid that he is significantly behind the curve today.
Most of the changes will require primary legislation. That is why we cannot announce the detail of all of them today. We cannot implement them until both Houses of Parliament have agreed that there should be changes to the primary legislation. That is called the democratic process and the hon. Gentleman will have to take part in that, as everyone else will, and I am sure that we will hear his views in due course.
I have made it clear that the operational details in relation to the structure of the new organisation will be set out in the White Paper. In relation to the enforcement powers, Sir David Henshaw suggested that we take on board the idea of a passport disqualification power and we will certainly do that. He has also made it clear in the report—the hon. Gentleman should study it—that he wants us to consider what further measures might add to the enforcement powers of the Child Support Agency. It is important that we have the powers. They will not necessarily always be used, but they will be a deterrent. That is the point and that is the way in which we should judge the success of all these issues. I want the CSA, now and in the future, to come down like a ton of bricks on absent fathers—it is usually absent fathers, but let us say absent parents—who are not discharging their legal and moral duties to support their children.
We will look for support from both sides of the House to strengthen the enforcement powers of the Child Support Agency, and I am sure that I will have it from my hon. Friends. When it comes to making some of the hard decisions, these guys—the Liberal Democrats—are never to be found anywhere on the premises. Given that, the hon. Gentleman’s response is entirely predictable.
I welcome today’s statement and the recognition that too many children are being let down by the agency. Will the Secretary of State expand on his comments about the role of Child Support Agency staff? They are working very hard to implement both the old formula and the new formula, but they will now be dealing with phone calls about his statement and coping with uncertainty about their future in whatever the new structure will be.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Those are major issues for the CSA and its staff to deal with. The Department will be providing all the support that it possibly can to help CSA staff to cope with the changes. She is right that there is likely to be immediate pressure on the staff. It is our responsibility to ensure that we provide every support that we can to them and we will certainly do that. We will consult closely with the trade unions of the CSA and work closely with CSA management and Stephen Geraghty, its excellent chief executive, to make sure that the reforms work in the way in which we intend. There will be full and proper consultation with all stakeholders, including the CSA staff themselves. Incidentally, the staff are doing a brilliant job for all of us, so it is our responsibility to support them to the fullest possible extent.
The Secretary of State said that he wants to come down like a ton of bricks on parents who do not contribute, but does he understand that the important thing is to get the infrastructure in place so that offices can talk to offices, e-mails can be answered, telephone calls can be returned and thousands of files do not just disappear as clerical files? He will recall that I wrote to him recently about a case, on which he kindly intervened. The senior resolution caseworkers have been involved, as has the hotline, but the case is stuck in Preston in a file that no one can see. Does the suggestion that there will be no automatic conversion of cases mean that my constituent will have to start again? She and her family have been deserted by a deadbeat father. How can I explain to her that the Government have now deserted her?
I will take further interest in the case that the hon. Gentleman cited, but I hope that he will make it clear that we are not deserting families. It is necessary to replace the CSA with a new organisation for reasons that are pretty widely accepted across the House, despite the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. In the intervening period, it is important that we do all that we can to support people, such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who are not getting the support to which they are entitled from the CSA.
By the way, we are investing another £120 million over the next three years in trying to deal with this and other related ongoing problems of the CSA. We are in no way walking away from the problems in the CSA that are there for us all to see. If the hon. Gentleman wants to confirm the details of the case to me again, I will certainly take a personal interest in it.
I was pleased to hear several of my right hon. Friend’s comments, but may I return to the staff? Many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) work at the Dudley call centre. Many are women, some of whom are lone parents with family responsibilities themselves. I met several over the weekend who were concerned about what was coming out in the press and worried about what might happen to their jobs. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate those staff on their work and diligence up to now? They have coped with all sorts of reorganisations and their stress levels have reached the point at which many of them have become ill. They have sometimes suffered abuse from parents who have become upset on the other end of the phone. Will he not only congratulate the staff, but reassure them about their employment prospects for the future?
I am happy to do that. The staff of the CSA do an immensely difficult job, often in difficult circumstances. It is incumbent on all of us in the House to do all that we can to support them in discharging the functions that we ask them to deliver on our behalf. As I said, we will certainly be working closely with the trade unions and the management to ensure that the reforms are a success. CSA staff have coped with major change before, so I am confident that they will be able to do so again.
I listened to the Secretary of State with great care and with no little sympathy, as he would understand. Although he might have been irked to some degree by the reservations of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), I am sure he will recall that one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in is that the House was far too consensual during the passage of the legislation. The Secretary of State will be helped rather than hindered if careful and serious questions are asked at the earliest possible stage.
In ensuring that the levels of maintenance, even under voluntary arrangements, do not go back to the original derisory levels that caused the CSA to intervene, does the Secretary of State intend to venture into the difficult territory of the relationship between access and maintenance, or will the new agency or new arrangements maintain the rigid separation between the two? Over the years, the difficulties of those two issues coming together have led to much unhappiness in the way in which child support is handled.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I was not irked by the remarks of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge; I was just rather disappointed by them because he has not recognised the seriousness of our proposals. I hope that he will come to do so in due course.
We will keep custody and maintenance strictly separate. It is essential that we do so. I understand that in the heat of separation there are often difficulties around custody and access to children, but if we confuse the responsibility of parents to support their children financially with other issues, we will take a giant step backwards. We will not blur that distinction. As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was one of the principal architects of the original scheme that we are trying to fix, I am sure that he will play an important role in our proceedings in the House.
In congratulating the Secretary of State on his courage in making today’s statement, may I make a plea for taxpayers? Since the Government rejected ministerial advice that the current system was not reformable, we have asked taxpayers to foot a bill of £50 billion for single-parent families. Does he accept that the more generous we are with the disregard under the new scheme, the bigger that bill will remain for individual taxpayers, and the more generous we are in the disregard, the more likely it is that some families will decide that it pays to pretend that they have split up, claim benefit and continue as they were? Are we not all wiser about the extent to which fraud can be committed from the response that we saw to the tax credit system?
Lastly, I make a plea that the Secretary of State keep together payment of maintenance and access. Many males who want to see their children and who regularly pay their maintenance feel that that is not taken into account fully in court. It is surely a sign of their good character that they have no access although every week they pay.
I accept my right hon. Friend’s caution about the level of the maintenance disregard. I assure him that we intend to proceed very carefully in that regard. It is fundamental to the reforms, however, that if we want to move to a system whereby we encourage and, yes, incentivise couples who are separating to reach their own financial arrangements on separation, we will necessarily have to look at being more generous in relation to the income support rules. That is what we intend to do. As I said clearly in my statement, we are not moving to 100 per cent. maintenance disregard, because that probably would hold out the prospect of some of the perverse consequences to which he alluded.
Is the indication in Sir David’s report of possibly reaching a maintenance figure of 1.75 million children, most of whom live in poverty, as distinct from the 1.1 million currently reached, to be a Government target? If so, when can we expect it to be reached? In addition, will there be recruitment to the new agency or new organisation that replaces the CSA? If so, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government do their best to ensure that recruitment to those employee levels in Northern Ireland reflects the community, unlike the situation in the recent past?
We are not planning any immediate changes to the targets that we set for the CSA. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and which Sir David mentions, are the likely consequences of moving to the new arrangement once we have passed primary legislation and established the changes. It is too early for me to say whether we will then want to set a target along the lines set out in Sir David Henshaw’s report. There is an ongoing process across government whereby public agencies sign up to agreements and targets.
In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s final point about recruitment, with the greatest respect, it is too early to be clear about all the details. Clearly, if the CSA is in the business of recruiting to the new organisation, that recruitment must be ethical, legal, fair and balanced across the United Kingdom, and it will be.
I congratulate the Minister on being bold, because it is often difficult for a Government to admit that they have perhaps been throwing good money after bad and to conclude that the time has come to draw a line and start afresh. That was certainly the conclusion to which the Select Committee came: it was a failing agency and something radical and different had to be done—so well done on that. However, does my right hon. Friend have any advice for non-resident parents who on hearing the statement today and as a result of some of the headlines may think that there is no Child Support Agency and that therefore they have no responsibility for their children in the interim, and might be tempted to stop paying?
I have one very clear message: the law will be enforced. That is why we are taking new and additional powers. We are investing more in the organisational improvement programme to speed further the recovery of unpaid maintenance. I want non-resident parents to hear today the very important message that, until we make the changes, the current law will be enforced rigorously and effectively. As I said, we will throw the book at people who are holding up two fingers to society and their families in not discharging their financial responsibilities.
The CSA has been particularly hopeless in dealing with the cases of self-employed fathers who seem to manage to live extremely well on negligible incomes and who change some minor aspect of their affairs when they are in danger of being caught up with in order to be put back to the bottom of the heap. I am sure we all have experience of that. Is the Secretary of State confident that his new system will be able to deal with that problem?
I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman and his knowledge of these matters. Sir David Henshaw did not make any specific proposals on the treatment of self-employed people, but I have a strong feeling that we shall have to return to that matter when the primary legislation is introduced in the House at the earliest opportunity.
Will the Minister confirm that when the Tory Prime Minister of the day, John Major, introduced the scheme he was at the same time toying with the idea, which he carried through, of the traffic cone hotline? Will he also confirm that we used to have large lobbies of people outside the House of Commons? One day it was against the CSA; I went out the following day and asked the policeman on guard, “Who’s this lobby, then?” He said, “This is the police against the CSA.” It was at that point that I realised that it was time the agency was scrapped, and my friend Bob Cryer and I voted to scrap it. It is interesting to note that the Liberal leadership were not with us.
As a former solicitor, I cannot help feeling that we are going back to the system prior to the CSA. None the less, subject to the details of this step in the right direction, we welcome the statement. We are concerned that there is no automatic transfer to the new agency and fear that there may be pressure to start some cases again from scratch. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there will be no delay in dealing with new cases? Who will decide what is a perfectly satisfactory private arrangement, and will it be as enforceable as an old court decree used to be?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not returning to the previous CSA arrangement, where exclusive responsibility resided with the courts to recover maintenance. That is definitely not what Sir David is recommending and not what we are proposing today. On maintenance agreements, it will be for the parents to reach their own agreement on what they feel is appropriate in the case of their separation and family situation, but if they cannot reach an agreement or the agreement breaks down, it will be the responsibility under the new arrangements of the CSA to step in and to enforce the agreement according to the proper formula in statute. We are mindful of the need to ensure that there is no abuse of women in particular and of parents with care in those arrangements, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for indicating in principle his support for the direction of travel.
One or two hon. Members have talked about the new system being deluged, but I do not think that will happen. Those who were failed by the first system and then failed to migrate to the replacement system will think twice before jumping on board any new system until it has had time to prove itself and if by then they are within two or three years of finishing with the CSA, perhaps they will not even apply at all. They want proper, objective assessment and robust enforcement, and once that has been proved over a period of time there will be voluntary transfer from the old system to the new.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. On his latter point, I can confirm that we want the system to be robust, and we want people to know that the CSA will be a serious enforcer of parental responsibilities. That is not how people view the current arrangements, and it is that fundamental perception, and indeed the reality of the present situation, that we have to change. The proposals will help us to do so.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that three systems will be used to manage child support payments? As single parents make the depressing choice to go back to square one and reapply under the new system, at what stage will the Government close down the old systems on which so few people are left? Have the Government assessed how many people will choose to go on to the new system and to go back to square one and reapply?
I know that the hon. Lady is a member of the Select Committee but, in fact, there are three systems now in operation: the old scheme, the new scheme, and the hybrid scheme for cases with which the IT cannot cope, so we have to deal with them manually. In future, there will be one scheme, not three, once we make the changes. That will significantly increase people’s understanding of the system and its clarity. She asked me for a specific figure, but I cannot give one today; we have to undertake work before the publication of the White Paper, but when we produce it in the autumn, I hope that it will deal specifically with those issues. In the meantime, Sir David Henshaw will continue to work with us to make sure that we get the operational design of the new system right, and I am very grateful to him for that. I hope that she will find the answers that she is looking for in the White Paper.
May I particularly commend the steps to encourage voluntary agreements between parents? Will my right hon. Friend set out in more detail the measures that he has in mind, including advice and other services for parents? Will he bear in mind, too, the durability of such agreements, in the face of the evidence of fractured relationships, and changed and new relationships that establish completely different household incomes, and that require a complete reassessment?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sir David has recommended that the CSA of the future develop more of an advisory and help and support role for couples who are splitting up and for families in those circumstances. It is important for those people to be given proper financial advice. On my hon. Friend’s latter point, the way forward that Sir David identified will be partly through the more generous maintenance disregard, which he believes—and I think that he is right—will encourage and incentivise more sustainable and durable financial agreements between separating couples. That is the direction of travel that Sir David believes it is right to follow, and he is absolutely right.
I think that members of the Select Committee on both sides of the House are pleased that the Government are finally addressing the crisis in the Child Support Agency. I am concerned about two issues: first, the extent to which the Government failed to address the amount of debt that they must write off for the CSA; and, secondly, the apparent inconsistency between increasing voluntary arrangements—I think that everybody would support that—and the proposal to start charging parents who have to use the new CSA replacement. Aside from the fact that the modest incentive of avoiding a charge might encourage voluntary arrangements—that I can understand—will the Secretary of State explain how parents who are not prepared to accept a voluntary arrangement, and their children, will benefit if the parents are charged to use the service?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s overall support. On debt, which I covered in my statement, we would need primary legislation for any debt write-off, and we are still looking into that. In the meantime, we are investing significantly more in the current operation, so that we can use more specialist debt recovery and debt enforcement agencies, mainly in the private sector, to recover more of the debt. That is beginning to produce results. On charging, I am not thinking of charging the mother but the non-resident parent who is failing to comply with the obligation to pay maintenance. It is important that we do not penalise the parent with care in those circumstances. The details of the charging regime will be set out in due course.
In the context of his welcome new proposals, can my right hon. Friend say how he foresees new family relationships being dealt with? I have often found that the objections to the CSA proposals and the pursuit of absent fathers come from mothers in a new relationship and the impact that the payments have on the family income.
That is getting us into complicated sets of issues to do with relationships between separating couples and their new families. It is work that will need to be examined in the context of the White Paper. We need to look in particular at Sir David Henshaw’s proposals to develop the new advice, guidance and support service for the CSA.
The Secretary of State rightly said that the proposals would take time, and in the meantime the law will be enforced. Has he any interim proposals to improve the operational ability of the CSA to ensure that the 300,000 claimants are dealt with much more quickly?
Yes. We published the details of those plans in February and I will happily send a copy to the hon. Gentleman.
Any of us who have struggled with the CSA will welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that unless we can deal with people who can make a modicum of change in their financial arrangements—that is, if they are self-employed or if they have a sympathetic employer—the enforcement powers included in his statement will not be worth the paper they are written on? May I urge him to test his enforcement powers against some of those cases? If he would like a few case histories, I am prepared to provide some from my constituency. The CSA fell down most in that respect and we must get it right now.
We could probably all add to my hon. Friend’s list of cases where we have seen the system fail. We must develop the proposals for primary legislation at the earliest opportunity—in the next Session of Parliament, I hope. My hon. Friend and others will then be able to judge whether the strengthened enforcement powers, which I would very much like to be available to the current CSA ahead of any change, are worth the paper they are written on. I will not waste the time of the House with powers and new enforcement roles that I do not believe will make a ha’p’orth of difference. I believe the new powers will make a difference, and as I said to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) earlier, we must look again at how self-employed people are treated under the current rules.
Notwithstanding the understandable nervousness of the Secretary of State about linking contact and financial support, have the Government recognised the practical advantages of deciding issues of financial support within the same framework as issues of contact and residence when, after all, members of the family are deciding all matters in relation to the future of the family?
That sounds to me like a request that we go back to the courts having primary responsibility for dealing with these matters. I see that the hon. Gentleman is agreeing with me. That is not what Sir David Henshaw is recommending and it is not what the Government believe to be the right way forward. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are proposals before the House to re-examine the matter of contact orders. That legislation is still progressing, and I am sure he will have the opportunity to make such comments in that regard.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on grasping the nettle and appreciating at last that tinkering with Tory failure will seldom produce an outcome. My constituents who run the CSA in Hastings—the many hundreds there—will be worried, as my colleagues have said. When will my right hon. Friend be able to say what the alternative will be, where it will be carried out and when their jobs can be made secure?
I hope and intend to set out the details of that in the White Paper in the autumn. I have been to Hastings and met many of my hon. Friend’s constituents. They are doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. I do not want to add to the difficulties that the agency is experiencing, but we need to spend the next few weeks getting it clear with the staff, the management and others how the new arrangements will work. That will be time well spent, but there will be full and proper consultation with all the relevant trade unions.
When parents separate, it is often difficult to come to voluntary agreements because the professional organisations that they go to, such as solicitors, are confrontational, rather than helping them to come to an agreement. Will the Secretary of State consider giving some funding to organisations such as Relate and Citizens Advice to help set up volunteer but trained mediation services to help parents who might want to reach a voluntary agreement at that time to find the mechanism, skills and process by which they could come to such an agreement that would stick?
I am interested in exploring all those options. They are primarily matters for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, but we will need to look at that in more detail as we prepare the White Paper.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making such a bold step forward after so much of a problem, which we have all faced as constituency Members. Given the rigidity of the current system, whereby individuals who work so hard for the CSA basically operate within boxes and anything outwith the parameter of the box is a nightmare for them to cope with, can he assure the House today that the new system will have flexibility, and that common sense will prevail in running the system?
Yes, that is very much what we would like.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 25 July 2005, I wrote to a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about an issue that is of great concern to a number of my constituents. Last week, on 19 July, I received a reply. The earth has done a complete orbit of the sun in the time that it has taken for my reply to arrive. I know that as the summer recess is about to begin this is a difficult time to raise this point of order, but would you, Mr. Speaker, use your good offices to explain to Departments how embarrassing it is for Members to have to write repeatedly to constituents to apologise for not having received a reply over such a long period?
The hon. Lady is very lucky that she got a reply. Many hon. Members have told me in points of order that they have not received a reply. I do not know the quality of the hon. Lady’s reply, but I hope that it was good. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that it was not. I can tell her that the Leader of the House and I are working closely to try to improve the time that replies to questions take so that Members receive them within a reasonable period. I hope that after the recess things will improve, and that that will help the hon. Lady’s constituents.
Orders of the Day
Welfare Reform Bill
[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 616, on Incapacity Benefits and Pathways to Work, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6861.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The reforms in the Bill set a new direction of travel for our welfare system. They are underpinned by a belief in an active enabling welfare state that sees tackling poverty and social exclusion as its central mission, with no one left behind and no one written off. The Bill therefore marks a major shift away from the established orthodoxy of welfare provision in our country, which has always treated functional limitations as automatically disqualifying people from the world of work. That is based on a flawed analysis of the nature of disability and the rights of disabled people, and it is time we changed it.
The Bill before us today therefore signals a new approach. It offers new support in return for new obligations for people to help themselves, and it delivers on our manifesto commitment to reform incapacity benefits while ensuring security for those who cannot work. Together with the wider welfare measures set out in our Green Paper, the Bill continues a process of reform that has sought to lock in the right set of values: of universality and opportunity; of security and equity; of fairness and due process— values that stretch back to Beveridge—under which the right to work is fundamental in tackling poverty and building aspiration for everyone in our society.
When we came to office nearly 6 million people in Britain were dependent on benefits. Between 1979 and 1997 unemployment went up by 50 per cent., and in a world where discrimination already scarred the lives of many disabled people and older workers, the numbers claiming incapacity benefits trebled, while 3 million children were left to live in poverty. I make no apology for reminding the House of those grim and shameful statistics. They set the context for the challenge that we now face, and they teach us valuable lessons about the role of the welfare state in today's society.
Through the minimum wage and tax credits, we have tried to make work pay, and through record investment in the new deal and Jobcentre Plus we have begun to create an enabling welfare state that tries to respond to the needs of individuals and matches rights with responsibilities.
Today, as a result, there are more people in work than ever before—2.5 million more than in 1997, with the biggest increases in the neighbourhoods and cities that started in the poorest position. Overall, there are 1 million fewer people on benefits, and 2 million children and 2 million pensioners have been helped to escape the poverty line. As last month’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report showed, not only do we have the highest employment rate among the G7 countries but, for the first time in 50 years, we have the lowest combination of unemployment and inactivity rates.
Of course, there is more that needs doing. The challenge that we face today is how to build a modern welfare state that allows people to exercise their fundamental right to work, when our economy and our society are changing more rapidly than at any time since the industrial revolution. While the pace of such change can seem daunting or even terrifying, the forces that lie behind it, in my view, represent progress, not decline, and they hold out more opportunities than threats. If we can take full advantage of them, they will extend the chance to reduce poverty and social exclusion in our society.
We must act to meet that challenge, which is why we have set ourselves the aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate, with 1 million fewer people receiving incapacity benefits, 1 million more older people in work and an extra 300,000 lone parents off benefit. That is why we are taking forward through secondary legislation the measures in our welfare reform Green Paper to provide more support to lone parents and to break down the barriers experienced by older workers. And that is why we have introduced the Welfare Reform Bill, which will enact crucial elements of the proposals that we set out to the House in January.
My constituency is 15th in the table of constituencies with the highest number of incapacity benefit claimants, so I welcome the attempt to get more people into work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key aspect of the process involves changing attitudes among some employers towards the employment of people with disabilities? A written answer in the other place recently stated that 15 per cent. of disabled people of working age who want to work are not in employment, compared with 4 per cent. of the non-disabled working age population. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that must be a key aspect of the welfare reform programme?
I agree that that is true. However, we are making steady progress in bringing to the attention of employers the tremendous pool of skilled labour available among people who are claiming incapacity benefit. It is a mischief and a mistake to assume that if a person is on incapacity benefit they have no skills, talents or opportunities—far from it. I have been tremendously encouraged by the agreements that we have reached with major national employers that are prepared to offer people on incapacity benefit a second chance to return to the labour market. We want to see more such agreements, and we will do everything we can to speed up the process.
How will the Bill help the unemployed in Shropshire? In the past year unemployment in the county has risen by 30 per cent., and it is rising in the west midlands, too. Is it not the case that unemployment is now at a four-year high? How will the Bill help those people?
Unemployment is a lot lower than it used to be, when the Conservative Government were in office. Labour Members remember that unemployment twice reached 3 million under the stewardship of the Conservative party.
The hon. Gentleman asks what the Bill will do for jobseekers. The Bill primarily focuses on the needs of people who currently have some functional limitation and are unable to work. The thrust of the proposals is to encourage the speedy return of those people to the labour market. Any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who currently claim incapacity benefit will have access, in the next 18 months to two years, to the pathways to work programme—the first attempt by any Government, Conservative or Labour, to do something practical and positive for people who are out of the labour market because of incapacity and who desperately want to return to it.
My right hon. Friend knows that I support the Bill. Will he accept that this is a unique opportunity to create a new consensus that belies the rather carping intervention by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), and which states that we agree about the right to work and the duty to work? It is the Government’s role to provide the facilities to allow people to work and to ensure that employers can cope with the extra needs of those who are currently on incapacity benefit and who should be able to work. However, such a consensus will work only if the Opposition parties endorse my right hon. Friend’s strategy.
I hope we will see that later. Certainly, it has been indicated so far that Opposition parties broadly support the proposals in the Green Paper.
I understand that that is in fact the case—[Interruption.] I should ask some of my hon. Friends to write my speeches for me, as they would be much more entertaining.
I am interested in the Minister’s comments. I agree about the need to work with employers to get more disabled people back to work. However, one of the things that struck me about the Bill was the lack of any clear idea of how people will be helped once they have obtained a job, rather than in getting a job. Many people, particularly those with mental disabilities, require long-term help after they have been appointed to a job. Can the Minister tell us about his proposals in that regard?
That is precisely what pathways to work currently provides. It is true that the details of that are not spelt out in the Bill, but we recognise the need for the Department and for Jobcentre Plus to provide such ongoing support. In Scotland there are now fewer people claiming incapacity benefit than there were in 1997.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the staff of the Glossop and Buxton jobcentres, and others throughout Derbyshire and in the other five pilot areas, on pathways to work? In my area they have vastly exceeded expectations not only in getting back to work many people who were not expected to be in the programme, but also in providing much job satisfaction for jobcentre employees.
I am happy to congratulate those staff. I visited the pathways to work scheme in Derbyshire a few months ago; it has probably been one of the most outstandingly successful examples of how this type of intervention can work. What was significant in Derbyshire, as we heard a few minutes ago, was that cognitive behavioural therapists were directly employed to fast-track the provision of help and support for people with mental health problems, to give them the self-confidence to represent themselves to employers and to secure work—and many have succeeded in doing so. That is a model of what more needs to be done, and what we are keen to extend across the country.
I am grateful that my right hon. Friend took the time to visit Glasgow and see at first hand the terrible problems facing the city. As he knows, my constituency has the highest number of people on incapacity benefit in Great Britain: more than 11,000 of the tragic Glasgow total of 60,000. Is he aware that the working links pilot in Parkhead and the partnership action team for jobs in Glasgow, East have come to an end despite being very successful? Will he consider extending those two projects to work in tandem with his reforms, in order to tackle successfully the most serious problem in my constituency and other constituencies in Glasgow?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the problem facing many people in Glasgow who are on incapacity benefit and want the opportunity to work again. I know how actively he is involved with this issue in Glasgow, where, in conjunction with the city council and local employers, a huge amount has been done to move people off incapacity benefit back into employment. Some 11,000 to 12,000 people in Glasgow have been helped to re-enter the labour market over the past few years. That is a great tribute to Jobcentre Plus, local employers and the local authority.
We took the decision to end action teams and roll up funding into a new deprived areas fund, which will allow access to a similar level of resources to support such initiatives in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am sure that local Jobcentre Plus staff would be happy to explain to him how they are taking that forward.
My right hon. Friend knows that more and more people cite mental health problems as the chief reason for claiming incapacity benefit. Will he confirm that the new personal capability assessment will be more sophisticated, the better to identify people with mental health conditions and tailor the help that they require more effectively?
That is our intention. We have convened several groups involving mental health stakeholders to work with us to design a better, more accurate and fairer assessment of people’s mental health problems when they present with a claim for employment and support allowance. It is important to find a way forward. The fact that the current arrangements do not do that properly has been the subject of continuing concern. We are anxious to try to find a way of resolving it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public sector has a huge role to play in helping people get back into work? Indeed, Lancaster city council has been involved in projects for the long-term unemployed. Does he also accept that it is sometimes difficult for private companies, which are small businesses, to employ someone who has, for example, been on incapacity benefit and may require several days off sick because of a genuine illness? That is sometimes one of the biggest barriers to people going back to work. Are there any measures to deal with illness once someone returns to the workplace, and with the need for time off?
That is a genuine problem. However, it does not lend itself to any quick legislative fix. The Bill contains nothing that would directly tackle the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. We have responsibilities in Jobcentre Plus to ensure that we do everything we can to support people with mental health problems in staying active in the labour market. We will continue to discuss with my hon. Friend and others ways in which we might improve on those methods.
Bridgend has been an incredibly successful pathways to work pilot scheme area. Unemployment is 2.6 per cent., with fewer than 1,200 unemployed, but more than 5,000 people are on incapacity benefit. On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I met the mental health matters group from Bridgend. Its members were worried about whether the personal capability assessment recognised that their capacity to cope changes daily. Even a change in medication or moving to a cheaper brand of medication can affect their performance and capacity to attend for interview. Will that be taken into account, and not lead to people losing their right to benefit because of a fluctuation in capacity?
It is important that the personal capability assessment is more than a snapshot. It is especially difficult to craft the assessment as my hon. Friend suggests for those who are mentally ill. We are working hard to try to reach agreement on the best way forward and we will continue to discuss that fully with all the relevant stakeholders. We need employers to co-operate with Jobcentre Plus, and I strongly believe that the evidence shows that they are willing to do that. My hon. Friend referred to pathways to work, which has been another great success in south Wales. I hope that we can build on that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way. Clauses 41 and 42 refer to recovering overpaid benefits. In his statement an hour or so earlier, he announced that the Child Support Agency would no longer be with us. As a critic of that agency for many years, I am pleased that it will finally be buried, even if the funeral is somewhat delayed. We are clearly dealing with some sensitive client groups in recovering those overpayments. Although the taxpayer must be protected, will the Secretary of State give some assurance that his officials will handle those cases sensitively and with appropriate discretion?
Yes, of course.
Part 1 provides for the new employment and support allowance, which will replace the current system of incapacity benefit. It places additional requirements on new claimants to be actively engaged in preparing for a return to the labour market in return for new support, by embedding the values and principles of the successful pathways to work pilots into the structure of the new benefit. We know the difference that pathways to work can make. In the first year of the pilots, the number of recorded job entries for people with a health condition or disability had increased by approximately two thirds compared with the same period the previous year. The pilots’ continued success has driven a significant increase in the proportion of people leaving incapacity benefit in the first six months of their claim, compared with that of non-pilot areas. This early success has underpinned our achievements in helping people off incapacity benefit, with new cases down a third since 1997, and with the first falls in the total count, now down 61,000 in the year to November 2005.
Not at the moment.
At present, nine out of 10 people who come on to incapacity benefit expect to get back into work. Yet as we all know, if they have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years, they are more likely to retire or die than ever to get another job. Little is expected of claimants, and almost no support is offered to them. The gateway to the benefit is poorly managed, and a person gets paid more the longer their claim continues. Even the name of the benefit sends a signal that a person is incapable, and that there is nothing that can be done.
The Bill seeks to change that. It provides for a transformed medical assessment as the gateway to the new benefit, with an assessment process that for the first time properly looks at a person’s potential capability to engage in the labour market, rather than simply measuring the level of their incapacity. It provides for a new benefit system founded on the concept of measuring and building up each individual’s capability rather than writing them off as incapable, and a radical extension of the support available, which will be underpinned by the extension of pathways to work to every part of Britain by 2008.
We are continuing to review the design of the new medical assessment, and we are particularly conscious of how important that process is for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.
The National Audit Office has found that 77 per cent. of cancer patients are not given information about the financial support to which they might well be entitled. Will my right hon. Friend comment on whether Jobcentre Plus staff will now routinely ensure that such advice is given to cancer patients?
We do all we can to bring an entitlement to benefit to the attention of such people, but I will reflect on what my hon. Friend has said and see whether there is anything more that we can do. We are not in the business of giving advice, but it is our responsibility to ensure that people are at least aware of the various entitlements that might be available to them.
I know that my right hon. Friend is coming to an important part of his speech. Many people who have been long-term recipients of incapacity benefit have received doctors’ lines time after time without any form of investigation into their illness. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the new system will ensure that that can no longer happen?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It will be important that, apart from having access to the support group, people have a regular face-to-face medical examination of their condition, so that we are able to provide them with the right measure of help and support that they need. This is a failure of the present system. I know that there are some of my own constituents who have not seen anyone for some considerable time, and that is not an acceptable way to run our welfare state.
My hon. Friend said that I was coming to an important part of my speech. I am not sure how he knew that, but I have been trying to get to it for quite a while. I would like to remind people of what I was saying about the design of the new personal capabilities assessment. We have created review groups, involving both technical and stakeholder experts, to look at the mental health and physical components of the assessment. We intend to complete this work by September so that we can provide a clear view of the new assessment during the Bill’s Committee stage.
The new personal capability assessment will identify those who are capable of undertaking work-related activity and the support and interventions that will be necessary to help them get back to work. It will identify separately people who are so limited by their illness or disability that it would be unreasonable to require them to undertake any form of work-related activity.
I notice that on several occasions the Secretary of State has referred to getting people back into work. Will some of the proposals that he is spelling out today also apply to people who have never enjoyed paid employment? They include people with learning disabilities, autism or mental health problems, who might well be in their 20s or 30s, and who would like to work but have no previous experience of doing so.
It was my mistake not to have made that clear. I agree absolutely with what the hon. Lady says. We want opportunities to be more widely shared than they are at the moment, and that will include people who have never been active in the labour market. Such people will not be excluded from any of the help and support packages that we are seeking to make available through pathways to work.
I recognise the sensitivity and importance of getting such a crucial distinction right. That is why we are consulting all our stakeholders carefully, to ensure that we take an equitable approach. The group that I have just described, known as the “support” group, will receive the new benefit at a higher rate. As now, they will be able to volunteer to participate in work-related activity and access all the appropriate support available, but it will not be a condition of their entitlement to any part of their benefit.
For the vast majority—those who are not in the “support” group—the new benefit will have a clear framework of rights and responsibilities. In return for the additional support provided by the national roll-out of pathways to work, claimants will be required to attend regular interviews, complete action plans and, in time and when resources permit, undertake work-related activity. As the Green Paper makes clear, the full level of benefit that they receive will be above the current long-term rate of incapacity benefit. However, those refusing to engage with the help and support offered, without good cause, could see their benefit reduced progressively to the basic level of jobseeker’s allowance.
I want to return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) a moment ago, which I did not deal with. She asked how we would approach the issue in relation to people who have a mental health problem, and who might, for a perfectly good reason, not have been able to attend, for example, a work-focused interview. At the moment, we would never dream of sanctioning in those cases, unless there had been a home visit, and until decision makers in Jobcentre Plus were absolutely sure that the person had no plausible reason for missing the work-focused interview. With all such matters—I shall make this point later, as I know that Members on both sides of the House will be concerned about benefit sanctions—the success of the policy is not to be judged by how many people we sanction, but the reverse. It will be judged by how many people we can help to get into work, whether for the first time or following on from an earlier career. As we established in relation to the new deal, if we are going to provide new help and support, it is essential to have some reciprocity in the provision of that additional investment in our welfare state. The vast majority of people, I hope, will have no difficulty with that argument.
I want to explore a little further the issue of work-focused interviews and people with mental health problems. I am pleased by the reply that my right hon. Friend has given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). In order to reassure those who have genuine fears, what steps will he take to ensure that his staff are properly trained to identify when someone’s mental health problem is so severe that it would be adversely affected by being required to attend a work-focused interview?
I accept that there is fear about all these issues, and it is important that we dispel those fears. There is no reason for people to be fearful. We invest significantly in the training of personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus. Through pathways, we have been doing this for the best part of two years, and we are beginning to find a sensible way forward. I do not doubt that there are areas for improvement, and Jobcentre Plus is always ready and willing to learn. If there is a role for some of the voluntary organisations to help us to train our staff properly, we should explore that further. We are making progress. It is not our intention to be punitive as we develop these approaches; that would be wrong. As I have tried to say previously, we can be radical, which I believe that these reforms are, without being punitive. I hope that my hon. Friend does not infer from anything that I have said today, or anything in the Green Paper, that we will punish people unfairly because they have a level of incapacity. That would be totally at odds with the values to which I referred earlier, and forms no part of the approach that we want to develop.
I welcome the Bill, which, as far as I can see, is based more on people’s abilities than on their disabilities. In relation to work-focused interviews and pathways to work, may I impress on my right hon. Friend that in rural constituencies such as mine, which has two Jobcentre Plus offices 75 miles apart, the difficulty of delivering what I hope will be delivered is much greater?
I absolutely accept that. That is why, wherever possible, we try to take our services out to our customers. I do not know the precise details of the issue raised by my hon. Friend, but he would be welcome to raise it with me in more detail on another occasion.
I support the Bill, and hope that I shall have an opportunity to explain why.
Given that the proposals relating to work-related activity depend heavily on the use of private and voluntary-sector providers, can my right hon. Friend assure us that decisions on sanctions will be made not by those providers but by Jobcentre Plus?
That is certainly the current arrangement, but, as my hon. Friend will know—I suspect that that is why he asked the question—clause 15 allows the possibility of benefit sanction decisions being made by some of our private and voluntary-sector providers. I shall come to that section of my speech shortly, but let me say first that a number of providers have told us that they would like to have those powers. I agree that not all them may want the powers, and I quite understand why, but it is worth exploring the issue a bit further.
I consider the additional obligations to be central to the reform package that we are proposing. As I said earlier, I believe that the vast majority of people will consider them to be reasonable and necessary. They are very much powers of last resort. As with any such measures, the proof of their success will come not in large numbers of cases in which the sanction is imposed, but in the number of people whom we can return to employment and, therefore, lift from poverty. In the current pathways areas where extra conditions have been imposed, the benefits of fewer than 1 per cent. of claimants have been sanctioned. That is a mark of the success of the deal that we have offered people on incapacity benefit.
I know that some have expressed concern—as my hon. Friend just did—about clause 15, which permits the application of employment and support allowance benefit sanctions by private and voluntary-sector providers. I can reassure the House and my hon. Friend that a clear system of safeguards, similar to that used in pathways, will be used before any such sanction can be applied, and that the normal rights of appeal will be fully applicable. We will talk to private and voluntary-sector providers about whether they wish to exercise the function, but I think it is important for us to explore whether the new power will be helpful as we engage with a wider range of welfare-to-work providers in the years ahead. We will invest a further £360 million over the next two years to support the measures in the Green Paper, and to secure national coverage of pathways to work.
Will the Secretary of State clarify what aspect of non-compliance the private and voluntary-sector providers might sanction? Might it relate to participation at an interview, taking up employment opportunities, or obtaining medical assistance?
No sanctions would apply to health care provision. I think it would be entirely wrong to apply sanctions to how an adult decides to obtain health care. Nor would sanctions apply to the job-seeking that the hon. Gentleman describes, because that is not part of work-related activity planning. Essentially, we are talking about work-related activity when it becomes a mandatory condition for benefit—if it does—along with work focus interviews and the drawing up of action plans. Only in those areas could benefit sanctions apply.
Working with our partners in the private and voluntary sector will be a critical part of our building of a modern, active and increasingly devolved welfare state which makes more use of a wider range of providers with the skills and expertise to target local labour market issues more successfully. I said a few moments ago that a modern welfare state could not afford to leave anyone behind, and should not seek to do so. That is why we will roll out our offer of help and support for existing claimants of incapacity benefits—available on a voluntary basis—as pathways spread nationwide. In Somerset, for example, we are already piloting a regular set of work-focused interviews for all existing customers as part of pathways, and if that approach works, we will seek to expand it further as resources allow.
In time, as provided for by schedule 4, existing claimants will be “migrated” to the new employment and support allowance. That will help to reduce the complexity involved in having two completely separate administration systems running indefinitely. I want to make one thing clear, however: existing claimants will not be mandated to undertake work-related activity as a condition of receiving the full amount of the new benefit. Clause 12 gives us the necessary power to require ESA claimants to undertake work-related activity, but we will ensure that the regulations made under the clause reflect the position that we set out in the Green Paper in relation to existing incapacity benefit claimants. As the Green Paper also made clear, the current benefit level of existing claimants will be fully protected.
What is the position of people who are still receiving the old severe disablement allowance, which preceded incapacity benefit? Will those whose claims show that they still have SDA status be brought within the incapacity benefit loop, or will they be treated as a separate group?
That is a very good question and I wish that I had the exact answer to it right now, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform deals with it in his winding-up speech.
Following consultation on the Green Paper, we made two substantial changes to our proposals. First, we listened carefully to concerns that the adoption of jobseeker’s allowance rates in the employment and support allowance would penalise disabled young people. It was never our intention to discriminate against young disabled people and we decided that young people will now get the same basic allowance as everyone else in the main phase of the ESA.
Secondly, there were strong concerns from employers over our proposals to simplify statutory sick pay. Our intention was to simplify the process of administering the scheme while maintaining the crucial balance between helping to keep costs down and retaining protection for the most vulnerable employees. Employers felt that the simplicity they would gain from these changes was not sufficient to outweigh the loss of flexibility that waiting days gave them, so we decided not to proceed with those proposals at that point. We will instead invite all interested stakeholders to discuss with us the scope for alternative approaches to simplification, which must not, however, involve unreasonable costs to employers.
In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the Secretary of State suggested that conditionality would not apply in respect of medical activities. Will he confirm that the conditionality in the Bill can apply to the work-focused, health-related assessments that are proposed in clause 10?
Yes, but it will not and we will make sure of that in the regulations.
Part 2 takes forward our Green Paper proposals to simplify the existing housing benefit system to improve work incentives and encourage personal responsibility for housing choices. Following the success of the 18 pathfinder areas, the Bill will facilitate the extension of local housing allowance across the deregulated private rented sector. Where possible, to promote personal responsibility among tenants, we propose that payments of housing benefit will be made to the tenant, rather than the landlord, but appropriate safeguards will be in place to protect both tenants and landlords so that in cases where tenants are likely to have difficulty in managing their affairs, payments can still be made to the landlord.
My right hon. Friend rightly points to the success of the 18 pathfinder areas. One reason for their success is the enhanced money advice provided in those areas, so will he give us an assurance that such an enhanced money advice service will be available on the roll-out nationwide?
Yes, we will certainly want to do that and it will feature in subsequent debate and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform will comment further at the end. He is going to have to make a longer speech than he anticipated, but there we are.
The Bill also provides for a reduction in housing benefit where someone has been evicted from their home on grounds of antisocial behaviour and refuses to co-operate with the support that is offered by the local authority to help improve behaviour. There is clear research evidence that the provision of intensive support and supervision can achieve significant changes in the behaviour of persistently antisocial households.
An active welfare state, with rights and responsibilities at its heart, must send a clear signal to those evicted for antisocial behaviour that they are at the end of the line and cannot simply expect to move to another property and continue their bad behaviour at the expense of decent hard-working families. That would serve only to undermine public confidence in our welfare system and if we are right to expect minimum standards in other areas of the welfare state—I believe that we are—we should be consistent across the whole system, including housing benefit.
We intend to pilot the sanction in about 10 English local authorities over a two-year-period as soon as we have the legal power to do so. Proper consideration will be given to the needs of any children involved in such cases, but we cannot go on turning our back on those who have to put up with that kind of behaviour and who rightly look to us to deal with the problem. The Bill makes a start in the right direction in this sphere.
My right hon. Friend knows that I have some doubts, but if people in rented accommodation suffer from that penalty, should it not also apply to those who receive state support for mortgage interest payments? If guilty of similar antisocial behaviour, should not those people be subject to a similar regime?
As my hon. Friend knows, that is not in the Bill, but if he raised that matter again in Committee or on Report, I am sure that we would reflect carefully on any arguments that he deployed.
Those responding to the Green Paper consultation expressed concerns about introducing local housing allowance for tenants in social housing. We recognise those concerns, and we have therefore decided not to introduce such legislation at the moment.
Part 3 proposes a number of measures to improve the administration of social security, including new powers to allow greater sharing of information to improve the take-up and delivery of benefits and other services administered by my Department and by local authorities. For example, where pensioners are entitled to both pension credit and council tax benefit or housing benefit, common information on personal and financial circumstances will only need to be given once.
Can my right hon. Friend explain who will decide whether an individual should receive personal payments of their rent allowance? There is great concern among professionals working in the health and social care sectors that families with children will find themselves in debt, as their benefit will be paid into overdrawn bank accounts, the banks will use it to pay off bank arrears and it will never reach the landlord. Can he explain how we can ensure that people are not forced into further debt under that proposal?
I can just point to the research and the outcomes in the pathfinder areas, and my hon. Friend might want to study them. We have seen no correlation between the direct payment of the local housing allowance in those areas and any difficulty that those tenants have in paying their rent. There has been no increase in arrears and no problem with landlords then seeking to evict tenants. As a general principle, it is right to treat adults as adults and for the payment of rent to go directly to them.
There are safeguards, however, and in the pathfinder areas—we have been very clear about this—about 15 per cent. of those who are eligible for local housing allowance have not received it directly, because they felt that they were at risk of not paying up. There are problems, for example, if someone has a drug or alcohol dependency. We certainly do not want to make matters worse in those cases. There is a sensible way to deal with those concerns that does not undermine the fundamental principle—this must be right in the welfare state—that we should treat people in the benefits system as adults. We manage money; they are perfectly capable of managing money, too, and we should not start with any assumption that they cannot do so.
My right hon. Friend is describing a new system that will bring together those in different parts of the civil service who did not work so closely together previously, along with other sectors. May I tell him that my discussions with people inside Jobcentre Plus suggest that that is causing them some concern. They need to learn lessons from the past. They are also concerned about the target that has been set of benefiting 1 million people’s lives. The assessment that others have made that that target is not too challenging does not fit with their concerns about the new system.
We will have plenty of opportunities to listen to those concerns and to act on them where we think that that is the right thing to do. I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the aspiration—the objective—of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit. That is the right objective for us to have. We are investing significantly more in the help and support available to people who have a measure of incapacity. They and the organisations that represent disabled people have made very clear to us the importance that they attach to extending what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who is no longer present, referred to as the right to work. That is the right and proper thing for us to do, but I am quite sure that the debate about how we implement these reforms will continue inside and outside Jobcentre Plus, and we are certainly more than willing to listen to what people are telling us about them.