House of Commons
Monday 28 March 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Before I answer this question, I would like to take the opportunity to offer my condolences—and those, I hope, of the House—to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who had tabled a question for today, but whose husband tragically died last week.
As set out in the equality impact assessment published earlier this month, the effect of the universal credit measures and the Welfare Reform Bill on gender equality are approximately equal; and universal credit will see significant improvements in incentives for both men and women to work. We expect the new system will be particularly helpful to lone parents, including those who are looking for work that will fit in with their children’s schooling.
Many working mothers in my constituency are concerned that the universal credit will mean the loss of their working tax credit and access to child care support. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that support for child care costs will be provided through an additional element as part of the universal credit?
That is absolutely what we plan to do. We will bring forward our proposals shortly. The idea is that the available money will continue to be used for child care support. We recognise how important child care is in helping parents, particularly lone parents, to fit in their obligations to work and to look after their children.
Witnesses to the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee stated last week that incentives for second earners to move into paid employment would be reduced in many cases under universal credit. Will the Secretary of State tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of the universal credit proposals on second earners and on women’s economic independence?
Yes. The majority of existing and potential second earners will not, on the basis of the figures I have looked at, be affected by the reforms, because the household already has earnings that take them beyond the reach of the benefit system. Approximately—I stress this is an approximate figure—300,000 second earners may see a deterioration in the incentive to increase their hours, and it is possible that some second earners will choose—or may choose as a result of their home commitments—to reduce or rebalance their working hours or leave. However, universal credit will provide much better incentives for the first earner, giving a greater choice to the household about how it wishes to spread its income.
The Secretary of State told us on Thursday that the Government have not yet decided how to support child care costs in universal credit. Is he yet in a position to assure women with children that in the new system they will be better off in work—after child care costs have been taken into account?
We are going to bring forward our proposals. It is because we acknowledge the importance of this area that we want to get it right. We are going to consult and we want people to recognise their priorities and have the opportunity to decide with us what they think those are. It is our intention—this can be stated absolutely, because it is the purpose of universal credit—to ensure that people will always be better off in work than out of work.
Disability Living Allowance (Halifax)
After disability living allowance reform, we will be spending broadly the same in 2015-16 as we spent in 2009-10. At present, some 5,480 people in the Halifax parliamentary constituency are in receipt of DLA. That is after a 30% increase in the number receiving DLA nationwide in the last eight years. We will work with disabled people and the organisations that represent them on the design and delivery of the personal independence payment. Until this work is more advanced, I am unable to predict precisely whether individuals will see a change in their entitlement.
I recently visited Mayfield house, a residential home in Halifax, to meet people who need and rely on DLA. The Government say that they are delaying their cuts to this benefit, but I hope they are not giving false hope to many of my constituents. Will they just admit that they have made a mistake and simply keep this benefit?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation yet again, even though the Prime Minister did so last week in Prime Minister’s questions. The Government are not removing DLA mobility from care home residents from 2012. We made it clear that we have listened to concerns across the House and from disabled people. We will consider care home residents at the same time as all other recipients—both current and future claimants—as we develop the personal independence payment. What we have uncovered is an unacceptable way in which mobility is often dealt with in care homes, and we will look at that further.
Employment Support Services
Liz Sayce is due to submit her independent review of specialist disability employment services by the summer of 2012. We look forward to her recommendations and will respond in due course.
As I travel around and speak to disabled people in various types of employment, I hear from them directly how important new media are in helping people in that sector both to obtain jobs and to remain in employment. I am sure that new media opportunities will remain at the heart of the Government’s drive to get more people into work.
As my hon. Friend will know, Work Choice was launched in October last year, and concentrates on both pre-employment and on-the-job support. We will support about 13,000 people a year through Work Choice—people who experience the most difficulties in obtaining employment—and I am sure that it will prove to be an important part of the Government’s programme.
Over the coming months, more than 11,000 people in Stockport will be required to attend a local centre run by Atos Healthcare for reassessment of their incapacity benefit. Disability Stockport is worried about the fact that the centre in Deanery Way does not provide easy access for disabled people on foot, and cars cannot park nearby. Atos has not consulted local disability groups about the choice of site. Will the Minister ask Atos to consult them, in order to ensure that the centre is fully accessible for disabled people before the assessment process begins?
I am still confused after the Minister’s reply to an earlier question, in which she said that the proposal to cut mobility allowance for people in residential care homes had been withdrawn. Can she tell us why the proposal is still in the Health and Social Care Bill, and specify the nature of the continuing review of the proposal to which she and other Ministers have referred?
The provision in the Bill is intended to ensure that there are no overlapping payments for anyone who is receiving other forms of Government money. That is very straightforward. As I told the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan), the purpose of the review is to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our community are given the support that they need, and that the current confusion ends.
State Pension Age
We recognise the importance of giving people notice so that they can prepare, which is why the timetable for the state pension age changes will not begin to affect people who are due to retire until after 2016. However, life expectancy has increased dramatically. We believe that the timetable in the Pensions Bill provides the best balance between the impact on individuals and fairness to the taxpayer, who will fund the cost of that increased longevity.
I think that we all accept what the Minister has said, but it remains the case that a very small group of women who just happen to have been born at a particular time are affected. It cannot be beyond the scope of Government to do something for that group, who at present are being more disadvantaged than anyone else simply because of the time at which they were born.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, but of course as soon as we do something for that particular cohort, another of people born a month earlier or later will say “That’s not fair”, and before we know it we will have delayed the change until 2020 at a cost of £10 billion. Although my hon. Friend asked his question in a characteristically beguiling way, I must tell him that there is no simple way of dealing with that one group.
The Minister will be aware that it is increasingly difficult for women over the age of 50 to obtain employment. Given the later pension age that the Government are introducing and the changes in employment and support allowance, women who find it impossible to obtain jobs may find themselves with no financial support at all.
The hon. Lady has raised an important point about the financial support available to the group concerned. In fact, about 70% of them are in paid employment, and that section of the labour market is doing better than other sections. We reckon that three in five of these women have built up occupational pension rights on which they will be able to draw before they reach the age of 66, and both ESA and JSA will be available in certain circumstances. A combination of sources of income will be available to them.
In his statement last Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that he was hoping for
“a new, more automatic mechanism for future increases in the state pension age based on regular, independent reviews of longevity.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 961.]
With longevity increasing by about a year every year, that brought to my mind the vision of a cohort of people who might never actually reach pension age. Will the Pensions Minister comment?
Tempted though I am, we do not propose to abolish retirement. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said was that we need to take account in a more automatic way. I do not recognise the improvement of one year per year, although it is rising very rapidly. The key is that we need to do things with proper notice and make sure people have successful longer working lives and therefore build up bigger pensions when they come to draw them.
I could not agree more with the points made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), because the Government’s proposals mean 500,000 women will have to wait for more than a year longer before they receive their state pension, while 33,000 women will have to wait for exactly two years longer. With 10,000 signatures now on a petition calling for a rethink, and full-page letters in today’s Times and Telegraph asking the Government to think again, will the Minister now accept that the strength of opposition both in this House and outside is too great for the Government not to think again?
I am surprised the shadow pensions Minister chose not to raise the issue of the state pension reform announced by the Chancellor in the Budget statement, which will be of particular benefit to this group of women. Many of the women who are aged about 57 spent considerable amounts of time out of work bringing up children, and we will reform the state pension system so that they get a proper pension for the first time.
Work Capability Assessment
We are committed to taking forward Professor Harrington’s recommendations so that we can make the system we inherited from the previous Government fairer and more effective. Many of the changes he proposed are already in place, and we will implement the remainder by the summer, to coincide with the first work capability assessments of incapacity benefit claimants taking part in the full nationwide reassessment.
I thank the Minister for his answer. What guidance and training will be given to decision makers and Atos Healthcare professionals on implementing the new work capability assessment effectively and fairly, and in particular what training will be given for assessing people with fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and ME?
Staff decision makers in Jobcentre Plus and Atos assessors are currently going through a renewed training programme to take into account the changes proposed by Professor Harrington. We have also now moved ahead with, and pretty much put in place, the recommendation to have champions in the network who specialise in dealing with some of the more challenging conditions which will undoubtedly be a factor in the assessments, and on which expertise may not previously have existed to a sufficient degree.
One of the findings of the Harrington report was that the Jobcentre Plus decision makers were not, in fact, making decisions; rather, they were simply rubber-stamping the Atos assessments. What steps have been taken to ensure that that is no longer the case, and will the Minister publish some figures on this so that we can have some reassurance that that has actually changed?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. That was clearly one of the flaws in the system we inherited. We have retrained decision makers, instructing them to take into account a broader range of evidence than simply the assessment so that claimants now have the opportunity to submit proper evidence from their own medical practitioners, and we have made it absolutely clear to decision makers that they are in charge. We have also introduced a process of reconsideration within Jobcentre Plus to reinforce that process.
The Harrington review contained some very welcome and important recommendations that the Government are implementing, including on increasing the discretion of Jobcentre Plus staff. In contrast, the Department recently introduced regulations making the descriptors for work capability assessments more prescriptive. As Professor Harrington will now be reviewing the descriptors as well, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will take into account Professor Harrington’s recommendations in that area, and look in general at the descriptors being applied to work capability assessments?
I can absolutely give that assurance. We want to get this right, and we have introduced these changes because we think they improve the process. For example, we expect more mental health patients to end up in the support group as a result of the changes we have introduced. I have made it very clear to everyone involved that if there are further ways of improving the process, as a result either of recommendations from Professor Harrington or of the experience of the national roll-out, we will move quickly to make the necessary changes.
I want to be clear on what the Minister is saying will be in place by June in respect of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, and whether that will include the new descriptors—I understand that they will be another year away. I ask about this because my constituents have already been through the system as they are the first to be migrated from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. It is important to ensure that they have been assessed properly, because they will also be the first cohort whose contributory ESA will be removed from them after they have been on it for a year—there is an unfairness in that process too.
We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the decision-making process is correct. Professor Harrington did not recommend changes to the descriptors ahead of the national roll-out; he recommended that they should be part of the second year review process. I invited him to accelerate that work, and if and when he makes further recommendations, either before or as part of the second year review, we will move quickly to implement them.
We are taking all necessary measures to try to clamp down on benefit fraud—we are using the latest technology—and we regard this as a key area for progress. The introduction of the universal credit, which will provide better flows of information around the Department, will make it easier to reduce fraud.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department is not only sharing data with other Departments but using the services of credit rating agencies to detect fraudulent claims? Such claims not only unfairly burden the taxpayer but unfairly tarnish those in genuine need of help.
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Welfare Reform Bill improves the flow of information and data sharing within the public sector. I can also confirm that we are now working closely with credit reference agencies—he will understand if I do not give too many details, as I do not want to give the fraudsters advance notice of what is coming.
The Minister will be aware that companies such as Atos Healthcare, which is French-based, are paid about £100 million per annum by taxpayers, yet in Scotland alone 40% of those deemed “fit to work” won their appeal. Does he think that that is a good use of money? Would it not be better used tracking down those who are avoiding paying tax in this country?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the flaws in the system we inherited from his party when it was in government. We have taken steps to improve the process. The Harrington review was designed to ensure that we have a better and more just process, with fewer appeals being made. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about wanting to see the number of appeals reduced significantly, but it is the right of the individual claimant to appeal if they so choose.
Welfare Reform Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill introduces a fundamental reform of the benefit system and should ensure that work always pays. The universal credit will improve earnings incentives for some 700,000 people and could reduce the number of workless households by about 300,000.
Casual work and temporary work are important routes into employment, but many people are put off them, not only by benefit loss but by the complexities they will face. How will my right hon. Friend’s welfare reform programme help to address that disincentive?
One of the complexities that most people face is the fact that two Departments administer what are, in essence, benefits: the working tax credit and the Department’s own benefits system. One of the problems that occurs is that people in difficulty often find it difficult and stressful to figure out who they are supposed to notify of the changes taking place in their lives, their working hours and so on, and they have to go to two Departments to deal with two sets of figures. That will all be sorted out as we bring those together under one benefit. First, these people will not have to notify so many people, and secondly, universal credit will pick up a great deal of that through the real-time system.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to the incentives in the Welfare Reform Bill, community initiatives such as the Enfield jobs club, which we launched this morning, play a vital role in securing employment, as does the support of a national charity such as GB Job Clubs?
May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his job club, whose launch I attended? This is a good example of an area where Members of Parliament can help enormously, because by working with their local jobcentres to set up these job clubs, which we now discover work incredibly well with those who are out of work, people can be given real enthusiasm and hope for the future.
With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until I bring the proposals forward. As I said earlier, there is no point in introducing the universal credit unless we stick with our principle that work should always pay better than being out of work.
Work incentives are only effective where there is work. As we now know, unemployment is projected to be at or above 2 million for the life of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State update us on whether the Treasury has provided him with additional funding to expand the Work programme so that it can take up the additional demand from the workless?
The Work programme is well set to cope with all the ups and downs that might take place over the next few years. The reality is that the Opposition go on about there being no jobs, but even now, advertised through the jobcentres, nearly a million new jobs have been placed in the past three months—that is 10,000 a day and about half the total number of new jobs created in the outside world. I say to the hon. Lady, with respect, that we are making these reforms and changing this complex system because more than half those jobs are likely to go to those from overseas, which does not help at all unless we reform the system to ensure that British people get a shot at the jobs, too.
All parents have a responsibility to support their families, but we will make it as easy as possible for families to adapt their own working arrangements. The structure of disregards and tapers in the universal credit will make it easier for parents to move into financially rewarding work that they can balance with their child care needs. When the child is very young—pre-school age—one of the parents can always choose to stay at home or to work and, where parents are meeting their responsibilities by working to support themselves and their children, they will have the freedom to decide whether one of them should stay at home.
As my hon. Friend will know, at the moment parents caring for their children can claim credits for the basic pension, but the credit for the second pension is more limited and has only come in since 2002. Our proposals to put in place a single-tier pension would have the advantage of making one year of caring worth the same as a year of working.
Obviously, the Minister will be aware that it is not just women who bring up children, and it is often not just the parents, either. I have been speaking recently to groups such as Kinship Carers about the situation that arises when grandparents or older siblings are left with the responsibility of bringing up a child, often having to give up work as a result. What support is available for people in such a situation?
Obviously, we support the very idea of kinship care. It is an important way in which children can remain in family care when their own parents are unable to look after them. I believe that in April we will bring in some support to help them with their pensions, too.
12. What recent progress his Department has made in reducing pensioner poverty. (49049)
17. What recent progress his Department has made in reducing pensioner poverty. (49054)
We have restored the earnings link for the state pension and given a triple guarantee that the pension will rise by the highest of earnings, prices or 2.5%. We will pay the winter fuel payment in 2011-12 exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government. We have made permanent the increase in the cold weather payment from £8.50 to £25 a week.
We will shortly publish a Green Paper with a range of options for state pension reform. As my hon. Friend says, one of those is a single flat-rate pension. One of its great advantages is that whereas many pensioners do not claim their means-tested benefits and therefore live in poverty, everyone claims their pension.
Like many Members, I welcome the single-tier pension. Will the Minister help us consider whether there could be an interesting interaction between that and a lifetime savings account, whereby people can take money in and out of an ISA-style savings account?
Although policy on the tax treatment of savings is a matter for our friends in the Treasury, it is absolutely the case that the single tier provides a firm foundation for saving. Whereas under the current system, every pound one saves results in the clawback of means-tested benefits, a decent single pension will get one clear of means-testing to a far greater extent.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although earnings are temporarily depressed, this is a policy for the long term, as many pensioners will draw a state pension for 20 or 25 years. He is absolutely right to say that the typical person retiring this year will have an enhanced state pension of about £15,000 through the restoration of the earnings link.
Even with the Government’s reforms, the restoration of the link and so on, the basic state pension will still be below the official poverty level, and way below comparable basic state pensions on the continent. What are the Government going to do to address the problem?
We have a twin-track strategy that does right by today’s pensioners and that puts in place reform for tomorrow’s. For today’s pensioners, as well as restoring the earnings link we are looking at measures to make sure that people claim the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled, but we will also be consulting on a much firmer foundation of state pension for the future so that we guarantee that more people do not have to retire into poverty, as too many people have had to in the past.
On Radio Sheffield last week, the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem aware of the Government’s decision on the winter fuel allowance which means that pensioners will receive up to £100 less this year. Were the Minister and his team aware of the changes, and can he confirm that winter fuel allowance payments to pensioners will be up to £100 lower this year?
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out that the budget for winter fuel payments is exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government. The winter fuel payment increases that were, mysteriously, for two years before the election and one year after—I cannot think why—were always temporary. However, what we have not done is cut the cold weather payment, which the hon. Lady’s party had planned to do.
What made the Government think they could get away with reducing the winter fuel payment by £100 by smuggling it through and not mentioning it in the Budget statement? If they think that they have got away with it and that pensioners have not noticed, they should have been in my constituency at the weekend.
Well, the right hon. Gentleman must not have been paying attention last year when the Chancellor announced in his comprehensive spending review that the winter fuel payment would be exactly as budgeted for by the previous Labour Government. Perhaps he was not listening.
The net effect of the triple guarantee for the basic state pension—the figure we gave a moment ago—and CPI for the additional pension is estimated to be a lifetime gain of around £10,000 for the average person reaching retirement in 2011. The impact on private sector occupational pension schemes will vary from scheme to scheme.
Obviously, this idea is at a very preparatory stage, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that pensioners will not simply face an increase in overall tax as would be the case if the two tax rates were simply added together. The idea is in its very early stages, a lot of preparatory and consultative work is going on, and I am sure that the Chancellor is entirely mindful of the points that the hon. Lady raises.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Chancellor announced in the Budget that the Government will shortly consult on various options, including one for a simpler state pension. In looking at these options one of our key priorities will be to consider how we deliver improved outcomes for women. Under proposals for a single-tier pension we would expect many women to benefit and we will publish more details of our proposals shortly.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and I warmly welcome the single-tier pension, which bears a striking similarity to the citizen’s pension on which he and I have campaigned. May I bring him back to the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) about the injustice faced by women born in 1953 and 1954, which he said there was no simple way of dealing with? The Minister is widely respected for his great expertise on the intricacies of the pension system, so even if there is not a simple way of dealing with the problem, may I urge him to look hard to find a complicated way of tackling it?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. The issue, unfortunately, having dealt with the one-month cohort about whom I understand there is particular feeling, is that it is not only that group who face an increase of more than a year. When one looks at the neighbouring months, an obvious way of dealing with the problem is by delaying until 2020, but if we did that, we would soon rack up a £10 billion bill. That is the sort of difficult trade-off we have had to face.
New Enterprise Allowance (Merseyside)
I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that the new enterprise allowance was launched in Merseyside on 31 January. We have a partner in place to deliver the mentoring support, which is being done through the local chambers of commerce, and we have appointed a provider for the NEA loans service. The early signs are promising: we have had nearly 400 referrals from Jobcentre Plus to the mentoring service, more than half of whom are now working with a business mentor, and some of the propositions for new businesses are close to fruition.
Certainly, in the 1980s and 1990s the enterprise allowance was a great success in north Wales and I look forward to a roll-out to our part of the world. If the enterprise allowance is rolled out throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, what proposals does his Department have to ensure that the universal credit will work in tandem with the enterprise allowance scheme in order to ensure that work pays, even for the self-employed?
It is important to say that we recognise the need to ensure that the universal credit works with self-employment. In the detailed design of the universal credit, we will ensure that it aligns with initiatives such as the new enterprise allowance, but more broadly we will make sure that self-employed people can also benefit from the support that the credit offers. They are a crucial part of our economic future.
In the context of Merseyside, we have been very pleased by the co-operation and support that we have had from the chambers of commerce. They are actively recruiting more mentors among the local business community. The lessons we have derived from Merseyside will enable organisations in other parts of the country and Jobcentre Plus to follow best practice in getting the scheme up and running nationwide in the course of the year.
Welfare Reform Bill
In real terms working age welfare spending climbed by 54% over the past decade from £48 billion in 1999-2000 to £74.7 billion in 2009-10. The explanatory notes to the Welfare Reform Bill report that there will be savings of some £960 million in 2012-13,rising to around £3.9 billion in 2014-15. We have also set aside £2 billion to cover the costs of implementing the universal credit.
This Government inherited a record Budget deficit, which rightly requires the re-examination of every Department’s spending. Instead of getting constructive suggestions from the Opposition, we too often get opportunism, including a demeaning comparison this weekend between protesters, civil rights marchers, people who fought for women’s rights and anti-apartheid campaigners. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the best way to bring down our welfare bill sustainably is to get people back into work by giving them the right work incentives?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key is to get people back into work, to reform the system so that it is simpler and to ensure that work always pays. As we approach April, when the Darling plan was meant to start, I have yet to hear one single figure for anything that the Opposition say they would have reduced, had they introduced it. Instead, apparently, the Leader of the Opposition now lines himself up with Pankhurst, Mandela and Martin Luther King. Miliband does not quite work, does it?
What account does the Secretary of State take of arguments by disability campaigners such as my constituent, Mr Rhydian James, who points out that much of the increased cost of the system is due to demographic matters and to reduced under-claiming?
The hon. Gentleman will therefore be pleased with the design of the universal credit, because the one thing that it will tackle hugely, which is why there is an extra cost to it, is under-claiming, which will stop. Those who are eligible and who should have their money will be able to get it. Better still, that will improve the level of those coming out of poverty, as opposed to what happened under the previous Government.
The Secretary of State may recall a row that broke out when a family on benefits was moved into a house in Acton worth well over £1 million, which people on average salaries would only dream of. Does he agree with those constituents who tell me that these reforms are fair not only to those in work, but to the taxpayer? Why has it taken so long for common sense to prevail?
Most people who work hard and who are on marginal incomes will consider it reasonable that the benefits system does not pay more than average earnings, which turn out to be about £36,000 gross. Most people who are in work would consider that to be a reasonable level of income. Those who complain about that complain about something that they should have resolved anyway.
Of course, the Secretary of State will have received many representations from carers’ organisations about the Welfare Reform Bill and its likely impact. In reply to a written question I tabled last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, stated that she did not yet know what impact the new personal independence payment will have on carers, yet the Bill is now in Committee and PIP will be decided in just a matter of weeks. Will the Secretary of State confirm that PIP will remain a passported benefit from carers’ allowance, how many carers will be affected by the change and how many carers will lose as a result of the changes being introduced by the Government?
I can say to the hon. Lady, much as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has before, that we are reviewing all of this. The purpose is to ensure that those who are involved in caring will get greater and better support and that they will be better cared for themselves. The reality is that we chose for that reason not to take carer’s allowance into the universal credit, which the hon. Lady has not touched on, because that would have meant that some people might have lost out.
Disability Living Allowance
Disability living allowance will be replaced by the personal independence payment, which is a new, more transparent and sustainable benefit underpinned by an objective assessment of the barriers disabled people face in living full and independent lives. From 2013-14, working-age individuals in receipt of DLA will be reassessed against the new eligibility criteria for PIP.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and share his concern about the lack of understanding that people sometimes have about what we are trying to do. I can reassure him that the Government’s reforms are all about putting integrity back into the support available for disabled people, moving away from a discredited system of DLA in which, in terms of the higher rate for the DLA mobility component, more money goes to people who are drug and alcohol addicts than to people who are blind.
What can the Minister say to my constituent, Jordan Owen, who is deaf and blind, currently attending school and in receipt of the mobility component of DLA, but who may well lose it when he leaves school and moves into residential care?
The hon. Gentleman will of course have heard the earlier exchanges in which I said that the Government are not removing the mobility component of DLA from care home residents from 2012. We will ensure that the needs of individuals in care homes are assessed in the same way as those of everyone else in receipt of DLA as part of the PIP reforms.
I can absolutely give an undertaking to my hon. Friend that we are learning a great deal from the development of the work capability assessment, although I would stress to him that it is a very different sort of assessment that looks at the barriers people face in living independent lives, rather than the barriers they face in getting into work.
Last Thursday night I met representatives of Lanarkshire Ace, a group in my constituency that looks after adults with learning difficulties. They are terrified about the prospect of going through a reassessment for DLA. Will the Minister confirm that people with life-long conditions, such as adults with learning difficulties, will be exempt from a reassessment in future?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to ensure that his constituents are not terrified about the future of DLA, and indeed the personal independence payment, because we are making sure that it will be a fair and transparent assessment. We will not be, as a rule, saying that individuals would be exempt from assessment, because we want to make sure that they are getting the right support, and we can do that only by looking at their needs.
Child Support Agency (ICT Systems)
The CSA currently uses two IT systems. It was the intention of the previous Government to transfer all 1993 cases to the 2003 scheme, but this proved impossible because of deficiencies with the IT they commissioned. This situation is unacceptable, which is why the Government have decided to bring in a new single system to replace the current ones. We plan to introduce this from 2012.
I have previously written to the Secretary of State about my constituent, Mr Jonathon Little, who had arrears added to his current child support bill that were impossible for him to pay. The CSA told Mr Little that the payment period would be extended to 2014, but he then received a letter stating that the payments on account would be reviewed every six months. When I queried this, the CSA told me, “That’s just a computer-generated letter; we’ve had problems with those.” Will the Minister assure me that he will look into the matter as part of the wider improvements being made to the IT system operated by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission?
I thank my hon. Friend for that example. She has just underlined the need for change, because the current system is not working as it should for all constituents. Indeed, there are now 100,000 cases that cannot even be dealt with on the current IT system—costing the taxpayer a great deal of money and, as she points out, the patience of a great many of our constituents.
This Government inherited a youth unemployment crisis, and to tackle the problem the Chancellor’s Budget announced 100,000 new work experience places and funding for an additional 40,000 apprenticeships, on top of the 75,000 places that we announced last year. That is a far better way of helping young people into sustainable jobs and long-term careers than some of the rather expensive and ineffective programmes that we inherited.
I would like to associate myself and my local fishermen with the condolences that the Secretary of State paid to our hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray).
I, like many other hon. Friends, am taking on an apprentice, and I wondered what the Department was doing to support apprenticeships and work placements, which are so crucial to giving young people that first step in the workplace.
We are doing two things. First, we are supporting the programmes in a practical sense. We already have apprentices working in the Department, but we as a Department will take a lead in providing work experience places—including something like 4,000 throughout the Department per year. We will also actively go out and encourage organisations to come forward and take part in the work experience programme. I hope every company in the country—private, public and voluntary sector organisations—will give young people the chance to take those first steps in the workplace.
May I start by associating Opposition Members with the condolences expressed to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)? The circumstances that the Secretary of State outlined were extremely tragic.
May I return the Secretary of State to our debate this afternoon and ask about what the Prime Minister said to the House last week? He said that he had no plans to proceed with the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, his hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) appeared to confirm that this afternoon. Yet, two hours after the Prime Minister sat down, his right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that he was ploughing ahead with making the savings. Whose side is the Secretary of State on? The Prime Minister’s or the Chancellor’s?
I am on the side of both of them, to be quite frank. I make it my business to be so—although it is not always necessarily reported accordingly.
The situation, as I, the Prime Minister and even the Chancellor have outlined, is very simple. We have a requirement to look at the whole disability living allowance spectrum, of which the mobility and mobility in care homes components are part. As I said the last time I was asked about the issue, we are absolutely setting out to make sure that the current overlaps and deficiencies in an incredibly messy and complex system, whereby local authorities, care homes and the Department all tread on each other’s toes, are sorted out and do not exist, so that the mobility component that is required for people in care homes will exist after we have completed that work.
I am grateful for that answer, which is familiar to many in the House. If the proposal were to be dropped, however, the Red Book would show that from 2013 the savings would be returned. In fact, it shows no such thing. Indeed, page 44 of the Budget states that up to £500 million more will be removed from the residential care component than originally planned; and, in a parliamentary answer to me, the Secretary of State says that 100,000 fewer people will be in receipt of DLA by the end of the Parliament. Can he see now why people with disabilities are so worried about his plans?
The letter I sent to the right hon. Gentleman and, I think, to others is quite clear. The point I am making, and I make again, is that the purpose of what we are doing—what the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) is engaged in—is to review a complex system, which does not work very well. Many people who need disability living allowance often do not get it; people, when they go back to work, are confused about whether they will still receive it; and people often feel that they should not take work because they think that the allowance is work-related, which we know it is not. So, that complex system, which the previous Government left to us, has to be reviewed. Many have welcomed the review, and at the end of it we will make decisions that benefit those who need DLA.
Essentially, the Work programme’s role is to help those who are longer-term unemployed and are struggling to get into the workplace. Our work experience proposals and apprenticeship plans are very much geared towards those who are newer in the labour market and looking for opportunities in the early few weeks of job search. Of course, the really stark comparison is between what we are proposing and the vastly expensive future jobs fund run by the previous Government, which has proved to be three or four times more expensive than even their relatively unsuccessful new deals. In my view, our programmes will make a difference in a way that theirs did not.
T2. Many of my constituents are facing lengthy delays in benefit appeals coming to tribunal. This causes real worry, but also financial hardship. What action are the Government taking to address this, given that demands on the Tribunals Service are increasing? (49063)
I am acutely aware of the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. We have been in detailed discussions with the Tribunals Service about this, and it is moving ahead with an increase in capacity that will help to ease the situation. We have also, for the national roll-out of the incapacity benefit reassessment, introduced a reconsideration stage at Jobcentre Plus level to try to reduce the number of appeals and to make sure that we get as many decisions as possible absolutely right.
T4. In my constituency, a large number of individuals come to my surgeries worried about being passed from pillar to post in the complicated welfare system that we have. Can the Minister give me some reassurance that the reforms are going to make it much simpler, especially in connection with people wanting to establish businesses? (49065)
I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend. We have inherited a system that has huge in-built disincentives and perverse incentives for people to do the wrong thing. The idea of this reform—the universal credit, alongside the Work programme—is that people have a clear understanding of what they will earn when they go to work. They will not need to have the brains of a professor in mathematics to figure it out; they will find it out themselves, and that will incentivise them to stay in work and not be put off by having to report to 50 different people.
T5. In his earlier response, the Minister implied that levels of winter fuel payment under Labour were based on the electoral timetable. In fact, the UK has the highest level of excess winter deaths, according to National Energy Action. Can he explain why pensioners in my constituency will be receiving less this winter than last? (49066)
For the first seven or eight years in which the winter fuel payment existed, it was set at exactly £200. For three years only, it was temporarily increased, and the budgeted amount was set to reduce this coming winter. Last year—the hon. Lady may not be aware of this—we ensured that poor pensioners got an £80 electricity rebate. This winter, subject to regulations going through the House, we plan that over 1 million poor pensioners will be entitled to a £120 electricity rebate—real help for people who need it.
T6. Next week, pensions get linked to earnings for the first time since Mrs Thatcher abolished the link in the 1980s. I do not think that pensioners have yet got all the good news messages that they should be getting from this Government. Can Ministers assure us, and pensioners, about what those messages are? Can they then make sure that every pensioner and pensioners’ organisation understands the range of good things from which they have already benefited thanks to Ministers in this Government? (49067)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I spend a good deal of my time going out around the country talking to pensioners’ groups. I shall be talking to one such group in Birmingham on Wednesday, and I will tell them that restoring the earnings link for the first time in 30 years will provide a firm foundation and dignity for pensioners. That is long overdue.
T8. Under new welfare rules, jobseekers will be required to undertake mandatory work activity placements such as stacking shelves for 30 hours a week for at least four weeks, and if they do not comply, their jobseeker’s allowance could be withheld. Can the Secretary of State tell me what safeguards are going to be put in place to prevent exploitation and whether sanctions will be placed on Work programme providers if it is found to be occurring? (49069)
The whole point about the mandatory work activity programme is that we listened to the advice of our front-line advisers on what they felt could make the biggest difference to the people they are working with. That is what this programme is designed to achieve in giving people an opportunity to step up their work search by getting involved in more full-time activity to get themselves focused on the challenge ahead. There will clearly be safeguards. Ultimately, the most important safeguard lies in the discretion of our front-line staff. There is no obligation for any staff member to sanction an individual if they judge a sanction to be inappropriate. They know and understand when a sanction is necessary, and when it is not, and that is guidance that we will continue to give to them.
T7. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that my constituents in Lincoln help to fund welfare spending in this country. Welfare spending has increased from £132 billion 10 years ago to £192 billion at present—an estimated real-terms increase of 45%. Will he assure me that even in these difficult economic times, this Government, unlike the last Labour Administration, will do all they can to help people in Lincoln who are genuinely able to move from welfare into work? (49068)
I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. He should be reassured by the fact that this Government are doing more to reform the archaic benefits system, which is full of all the traps to which he referred. That will benefit those who are in work. One big reason why they have to pay more tax is that the last Government left us with a nightmare system that prefers to keep people out of work than in work.
Having work experience and money reserved for apprenticeships will not automatically equal a reduction in unemployment among young people. When will the Minister report to the House on the unemployment that is faced by young people, and what will he do if the numbers do not fall?
The hon. Lady needs to understand that this problem has been building steadily for the past decade. It happened in good years under the previous Government. We are dealing with the appalling inheritance of 600,000 young people who left school, college or university and have never worked. We think that our programmes will start to make a difference, that they will be better value for taxpayers’ money, and that they will be more effective than the previous Government’s programmes. Above all, we think that apprenticeships give the foundation for a lifetime of skills and employment. That is why they were such a centrepiece of the Budget.
T9. Severe autism sufferer, Alastair Bolan, and his family came to my surgery in Winchester on Friday afternoon. Like many families living with the condition, they are anxious about the move to personal independence payments. They made the case to me passionately that a one-to-one interview for Alastair would be an absolute disaster, as it would be for many like him who have been granted permanent disability living allowance with good reason. I know that the Minister is good at reaching out to organisations, so will she reassure me that she will continue to engage with the all-party group and autism charities to minimise the uncertainty that some people feel? (49070)
I can reassure my hon. Friend that both I and officials have met representatives from the National Autistic Society, which has put forward helpful thoughts on the new assessment. It has asked for the people who carry out the assessments to be trained in autism, for individuals to be able to bring somebody to a face-to-face assessment, and for them to be able to use the best supporting evidence. We agree 100% with its proposals.
T10. I have been approached by a number of constituents who are private landlords, who are concerned that they have not received payments that have been made to their tenants. What measures are the Government considering to alleviate that problem? (49071)
We recognise that payments do not always get through to landlords. There is a provision that allows direct payment when there are eight weeks of arrears, and we have added a provision under our new rules so that direct payment can be made to a landlord when it will secure or maintain a tenancy.
I was contacted last week by a constituent who is in her 50s, has advanced multiple sclerosis and lives in a residential home. Her elderly mother has moved into a nursing home on the other side of Aberdeen. The taxi that allows my constituent to visit her mother costs £50 there and back—exactly the amount she gets from the mobility component of disability living allowance. Will the Minister guarantee that my constituent will continue to have access to those funds after the changes to DLA, and that she will not have to go through a reassessment to make sure that she really deserves it?
As we have said before from the Dispatch Box, the intention of our measures to reform the personal independence payment is not to remove the ability of people such as her constituent to get out and about. We will now include the needs of people in care homes in the overall PIP reassessment.
I express my sympathy to those of my hon. Friend’s constituents in that position. Unemployment is a very difficult thing for anybody to experience. We have put together a number of different proposals. Most immediately, there is support through the Jobcentre Plus rapid reaction service in the immediate aftermath of redundancy. Schemes such as the new enterprise allowance, as it is rolled out across the country, will give people the opportunity to move into self-employment, and we will examine all other sensible ways of ensuring that we mitigate the impact of unemployment on people at what remain difficult times in the labour market.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to report on the violent disturbances over the weekend.
On Saturday, 4,500 police officers worked to keep order during the TUC march of up to 500,000 people. During the afternoon and evening, gangs of thugs carried out acts of violence against the police, private property and public monuments. I want to place on record my gratitude to the officers who put themselves in harm’s way during Saturday’s operations. I want also to praise the Met’s senior officers—Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens and Commander Simon Bray—for their leadership, and I want utterly to condemn in the strongest possible terms the mindless behaviour of the thugs responsible for the violence.
I can confirm to the House that 56 police officers were seen by force medical examiners and that 12 of them required hospital treatment, while 53 members of the public were also hurt. I can also confirm that officers arrested more than 200 people on Saturday, and that 149 of them have already been charged. I expect that number to increase as the police go through video evidence, as they did after the student protests last year. The message to those who carry out violence is clear—they will be caught, and they will be punished.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, Ministers were kept informed of events. The Home Office was in regular contact with the Metropolitan police and City Hall. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has spoken to Kit Malthouse, the deputy Mayor, and I have spoken to Lynne Owens to thank her for the police operation, which was, on the whole, a success. The police might not have managed to prevent every act of violence, but they were successful in preventing wider criminality and are now actively engaged in investigating the perpetrators so that they can be brought to justice.
In my statement to the House following the student demonstrations in December, I said that the police would learn the lessons of that experience. Since then, the Metropolitan police have been learning the lessons necessary, and the tactics deployed on Saturday reflected that learning, but there is more that can be done. Just as the police review their operational tactics, so we in the Home Office will review the powers available to them. I have asked the police whether they feel they need further powers to prevent violence before it occurs. I am willing to consider powers that would ban known hooligans from attending rallies and marches, and I will look into the powers that the police already have to force the removal of face coverings and balaclavas. If the police need more help to do their work, I will not hesitate in granting it to them.
That is the right way of doing things. The police are operationally independent, the Mayor holds them to account for their performance and the Home Secretary’s role is to ensure that they operate within the right legal framework and have the right powers to do their job. I know the whole House will want to join me in sending this message: we will always back the police when they do their important work, and we will back them as they do everything they can to bring these mindless thugs to justice.
I thank the Home Secretary for her answer to my urgent question, after she withdrew her planned statement earlier today.
Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated peacefully on Saturday in support of their families, services, jobs and communities, but a few hundred mindless idiots and thugs launched violent attacks against property, businesses and police officers, and 31 police officers were injured. In a democracy, that kind of violence is no form of political protest. It is violent assault and criminal damage, it is thuggish behaviour of the worst kind and it must face the full force of the law. I welcome the speed with which the police have acted to charge 149 people with offences already. They will have the Opposition’s support in taking a strong line.
The police have made it very clear that those violent incidents were separate from the legitimate, peaceful march, and the Home Secretary has rightly done the same today, but I have three things to ask her. First, she rightly praised the police—like her, I have thanked Lynne Owens and Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin for the work of the Metropolitan police and other police forces, to which I pay tribute—but in addition to the 4,500 officers on the streets hundreds more officers and support staff worked on the operation behind the scenes. Will she join me in paying tribute to all of them, and assure the House that the police will have the resources that they need on the front line and behind the scenes to deal with future events?
Secondly, I welcome the Home Secretary’s consideration of further action. Will she consider co-ordinated action to deal with the so-called anarchist groups? It is vital that we do not let a violent minority undermine the power of peaceful political protest in a democracy. Such incidents have been increasing every time there is a crowd event, and, frankly, people are fed up with it. Co-ordinated, determined action was successful some years ago in tackling the football hooliganism that used to hijack crowds and frustrate ordinary fans. May I offer her the Opposition’s support? We will work with her and the police on a parallel or similar co-ordinated approach to wider action to deal with problems at crowd events.
Thirdly, we have a tradition in the House of standing together against extremism to protect public safety, property and the public right of peaceful protest. The Home Secretary will know that the Mayor of London today claimed that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor will feel quietly satisfied—[Interruption.] I want to quote the Mayor of London accurately because this is important. The Mayor said that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor will
“feel quietly satisfied by the disorder”
“They will be content to see the police being unfairly attacked on all sides”.
Will she condemn those disgraceful and outrageous remarks? The Mayor is the man whom she wants to put in charge of the governance of the Metropolitan police. Does she agree that it is the worst kind of politics to slur those who supported hundreds of thousands of peaceful marchers?
Will the Home Secretary answer those three questions on the police, a future strategy and the London Mayor? Let us be united in this House on rooting out hooliganism and supporting peaceful protest.
I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone in which she conducted most of her comments. Unfortunately, towards the end, she chose to move into a rather more political tone.
May I make two factual corrections to the right hon. Lady’s remarks? First, she claims that I withdrew a statement to the House, but I never asked to make one. Secondly, she said that I intended to put the Mayor of London in charge of the Metropolitan police, but, of course, he is in charge of them.
I, too, put on record the House’s support for and thanks to all those involved with the Metropolitan police who were not in police uniform or not warranted officers who took part in the policing operation on Saturday, both in relation to the march and the mindless acts of violence that took place.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the possibility of co-ordinated action. She will have noted that I said in my response that I was prepared to look at the possibility of some sort of pre-emptive banning orders for hooligans, which we have in place for football hooligans. It is now worth our looking at such experience, and I welcome the support she was willing to give on behalf of the Opposition. Everybody in the House wants to ensure that the police have the right powers and tools available to do the job of keeping our streets safe. The great majority of the march went ahead peacefully, but, sadly and unfortunately, it was damaged by the mindless violence of the thugs. The description given by Liberty is a very good one:
“The demonstration appeared to have been infiltrated by violent elements who periodically separated from the main route in order to attack high profile commercial properties and the police before melting into the demonstration once more…This minority presented significant challenges for the police and trade union stewards alike and at times jeopardised both the safety and ability to protest of those with peaceful intent.”
It is incumbent on those of us willing to criticise the police when they make mistakes, as they did during the G20 protest, to step in and correct the record when inaccurate and unjust criticisms are made, as happened over the weekend. The simple fact is that few police forces in the world could have delivered the peaceful outcome for the vast majority of 200,000, 300,000, 400,000 or 500,000 demonstrators during a march in which none was harmed or hurt, and in which all were able to exercise their democratic right properly. Similarly, the police were able to use intelligence to make the arrests to which the Home Secretary referred. However, I hope she will not pay any attention to the sort of thing said in The Times this morning by a retired police officer, when he called on her to use “dawn raids” and “snatch squads”. That is the sort of thing we might expect in Tripoli, not London.
It is important that the police have the powers they need to deal with such violent incidents. Of course, however, a balance always needs to be struck to ensure that the powers that the police use do not inadvertently damage the civil liberties that we hold so dear in this country. It is right that the police have operational independence—that is crucial—but we need to set the right legal framework for them. My right hon. Friend is right. I thought that the way in which the police dealt with the demonstrations and the march on Saturday was a fine example of, and a tribute to, the British model of policing. We do indeed have the finest police force in the world.
The Home Secretary is right to praise the police and condemn those responsible for this wanton violence, but a pattern is now emerging of peaceful demonstration followed by violent demonstration. Tomorrow, Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens will appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee to update us on what happened last Saturday. We need a big and open conversation with the police and to give them whatever they need to police the second part as effectively as they police the first; otherwise this tale of two protests will continue whenever there is a demonstration in London.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. When I spoke yesterday to Assistant Commissioner Owens, I specifically asked her whether the police would need further powers, so that we can discuss what is necessary to enable them to do the job we all want them to do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in rightly condemning the extreme behaviour of a few hundred people we are in danger of losing sight of the essential foolishness of the perfectly legitimate, but nevertheless misguided, demonstration, in which many prominent people in the Opposition took part? Does she agree that at a time when we have a deficit comparable to that of Portugal and Greece, it is ludicrous for the Leader of the Opposition to couch his words in those of Abraham Lincoln?
I think that many people in the House would share my hon. Friend’s views about the tone of the language used by the Leader of the Opposition. I wonder how many of those who demonstrated against the cuts know that the Leader of the Opposition, who addressed the demonstration, would, if in government, be cutting £4 out of every £5 that this Government are cutting.
The Home Secretary will be aware that it is an offence to encourage or assist crime. Will she please examine and have a conversation with the police to ensure that people who use social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook to encourage or assist crime are prosecuted?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. After such events, it is important that we take the appropriate time to consider all the issues that have arisen and give proper consideration to whether we need to give the police any further powers to enable them to do the job we want them to do in this new environment.
Will the Home Secretary commend the overwhelming majority of peaceful protesters and the police for their measured response, urge the police to maintain their close-proximity approach to policing and reject calls for a policing approach that is based on distance and relies on water cannon and cordoning off large sections of a city?
As I said in response to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the way in which the main march was policed was a good example of, and a tribute to, the British model of policing. It was important that the police were able to do that in co-ordination with the organisers of the march, who had been in discussions with them about it in advance of the event.
Will the Home Secretary enter into discussions with her colleagues about the way the events on Saturday were reported? Any impressionable young person watching the news on Saturday evening or through the night, or reading the newspapers yesterday, would believe that the only way to make their voice heard is by being involved in such actions, which none of us in this House condones. We need more balance from the British media so that that message can get through.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question; I am indeed prepared to do that. Over a period of years we saw a sensible response to football hooligans, which included banning orders. That is why I have asked the police whether we need more powers, and I am willing to look at that example.
Has the Home Secretary had time to reflect on the policing Minister’s response to a patsy question on the BBC, where the sense was that the Leader of the Opposition was responsible for the anarchist attacks? If she honestly believes that the Leader of the Opposition is responsible for them, then we had better bring back the planes from Libya and have a no-fly zone over the Labour party headquarters in London.
I would simply say to the hon. Gentleman that that was not what the policing Minister said. It is extremely disappointing that, at a time when the House should be uniting in its support of the police and its condemnation of violence, the hon. Gentleman chose to address his question in that way.
This weekend saw 400,000 people marching in London, while Sunday saw 35,000 of the tartan army march into the Emirates stadium. Will the Home Secretary congratulate those involved on the good nature of those mass events, and put on record her disgust at the violent minority who insist on ruining them?
I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in saying that, across this House, we want people to be able to demonstrate and make their point peacefully. It is those who chose to use violence to disrupt demonstrations or perpetrate acts of criminality as part of such demonstrations whom we condemn across, I believe, the whole of this House.
UK Uncut claims that what it characterises as a “fun and friendly” and “creative occupation” of premises on Oxford street on Saturday has been misrepresented. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for those who claim that they have been misrepresented?
I say to them that they certainly have not been misrepresented. We need to make it absolutely clear that the police are right in what they were doing to try to prevent violence on our streets. The people who should be condemned are those who were engaged in that occupation, and in perpetrating those acts and the mindless thuggery that took place. They will be brought to justice.
The Mayor of London is open to make the remarks that he chooses to make about the policing and the demonstrations. He is responsible for the Metropolitan police as the elected representative. We are all united in believing that it is absolutely right that the role of the police should be praised across this House, because they did a very good job in managing the situation on Saturday.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to quantify the cost to the public purse of the damage done at the weekend and of prosecuting the perpetrators? That money could otherwise have been spent on the public services that they claim to protect.
Does the Home Secretary agree that one of the reasons the policing of this demonstration was more effective than that of some previous events was that the police clearly differentiated the peaceful majority who were demonstrating from the violent, thuggish minority? Is it not therefore depressing that the Mayor of London, who is responsible for the police, actively sought to conflate the two? Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity to repudiate his remarks?
Of course it was important that the police learned from recent experience of policing demonstrations, and that, as a result, they chose to operate slightly differently and to use slightly different tactics. I quoted Liberty earlier, which made it clear that some of the violent demonstrators were moving in and out of the peaceful demonstration and—
I would say to those who want to comment on the remarks made by individuals about the demonstration that the reason Opposition Front Benchers are choosing to say so much about the Mayor is perhaps because they do not want to talk much about the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition at the demonstration.
The Home Secretary will be aware that, back in 2002, I was partly responsible for bringing 407,000 people to the capital and back again without so much as cracking a window pane. Will she assure the House that future protests will not be made more awkward or more expensive as a result of her proposals?
On a day when the House should be standing united in opposition to boys in black masks who disgrace the traditions of democracy in our country, will the Home Secretary dissociate herself from the Mayor when he said:
“Balls and Miliband…will be content to see the police being unfairly attacked on all sides”?
I am not able to give my hon. Friend confirmation one way or another in relation to all 149 individuals—[Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House is saying, “Can’t she just do it? Can’t she just say it?” Actually, it is not the Home Secretary’s decision whether to remand people in custody. This is the Opposition’s problem with these matters; they do not recognise the difference between political responsibility, operational responsibility and judicial responsibility.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Libya and report back from last week’s European Council. On Libya, I want to update the House on military action, on the steps that we are taking to strengthen and deepen the alliance, on our efforts to ensure that humanitarian aid gets through and on plans for the future, including the conference that we are holding tomorrow.
First, on military action, I believe that it is quite clear that allied operations have had a significant and beneficial effect. We have stopped the assault on Benghazi and helped to create conditions in which a number of towns have been liberated from Gaddafi’s onslaught. In towns such as Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, people are now free to return to their homes. The no-fly zone is now fully operational and effective. When it has been challenged, Gaddafi’s planes have been shot down. He can no longer terrorise the Libyan people from the air.
UK pilots have now made more than 120 sorties and flown for more than 250 hours. Over the weekend, RAF Tornados continued to conduct armed reconnaissance sorties, hitting a total of 22 tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces around Ajdabiya and Misrata. This involved some extremely skilful and courageous work by British pilots seeking out and destroying tanks while doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. I am sure that everyone here will want to send their best thoughts and wishes to our brave pilots and all those in our armed services for the work they do.
I can also tell the House that during the early hours of this morning our Tornado pilots flew deep into the desert to strike against major ammunition bunkers at Sabha, which we believe were being used to resupply Gaddafi’s forces, including those terrorising people in Misrata. Initial reports suggest that the bunkers have been destroyed.
There remain, of course, real issues of concern. The situation of civilians in Misrata and Zintan is extremely grave, and the situation for civilians in other towns under the regime’s control is also deeply concerning, with widespread reports of human rights abuses. But we have moved quickly and decisively over the last week and we will stick to our task, as set out in the UN resolution and take all necessary measures to protect civilian life.
Secondly, on the strengthening and deepening of the alliance, I told the House last week that we believed NATO should take on the command and control of Libyan operations. This has now been agreed. NATO is already co-ordinating the arms embargo, the maritime operation and the no-fly zone. Now it will take on command and control of all military operations, including those to protect the civilian population. Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard has been appointed as the NATO commander of the joint taskforce for the operation.
I have also made clear the crucial importance of the further active involvement of Arab nations. On Friday, the United Arab Emirates confirmed it would provide 12 fast jets, six F-16s and six Mirages, while on Saturday jets from the Qatari royal air force flew over Libyan airspace to patrol the no-fly zone for the first time. We look forward to welcoming the representatives of five Arab states, the Arab League and the African Union at our conference tomorrow.
Thirdly, it is critically important that humanitarian aid gets through to those who need it. It is absolutely clear that when the Gaddafi regime occupies a town such as Ajdabiya, the people suffer terribly. When the regime leaves a town, the way is open for proper humanitarian access. The important thing now is to make sure that it happens.
Our strategy is to help fund the humanitarian organisations that have been able to get in, to help the UN play its co-ordinating role and to provide assistance at Libya’s borders. We have funded the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is now present in Misrata, to provide support for up to 100,000 people for basic necessities and to treat 3,000 walking wounded. We flew 12,000 migrant workers trapped on the Tunisian border back to their countries and their families and we delivered 2,000 large tents and 38,000 blankets to the border. We will continue to give intense focus to humanitarian access in the coming days.
Fourthly, on plans for the future, in order to make the pressure on the Gaddafi regime as effective as possible, it is vital that we have the maximum political and diplomatic unity around the world. At the European Council, Europe came together over Libya. The Council conclusions endorsed UN Security Council resolution 1973, set out Europe’s
“determination to contribute to its implementation”
and recognised the lives saved by our action so far. This is an important step forward and it shows that Europe is now fully on board with this mission.
Today, alongside the British and French aircraft, there are Danish, Dutch and Spanish aircraft taking part in the action over Libya, flying from Italian bases, working with warships from the UK, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Poland. Romania will also provide a frigate and the Turks are planning to make naval assets available, too. Tomorrow, Britain will host a broad international conference in London to review progress and plan for the future. This will include representatives from more than 40 countries, including all the military contributors to the operation, and the United Nations Secretary-General will also be there.
I can tell the House this afternoon that France and the UK will issue a joint statement to the conference participants, setting out what is at stake as we gather to support a new beginning for Libya. A copy of the statement is in the Library.
Libya’s new beginning requires three things: first, to reaffirm our commitment to UN Security Council resolution 1973 and the broad alliance determined to implement it; secondly, to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, including to the newly liberated towns; and, thirdly, to help plan for the future of Libya after the conflict is over. It is for the people of Libya to choose how they are governed and who governs them, but they have a far better chance of doing that as we stand today than they did 10 days ago. Had we not acted, their future would already have been decided for them.
Let me now turn to the economic issues discussed at the Council. Britain had two goals at the summit: first, to support the euro area’s efforts to bring stability to the eurozone while fully protecting Britain’s sovereignty, and, secondly, following our Budget for growth last week, to win support for a similarly ambitious pro-growth, pro-market agenda for Europe as a whole. Let me take those two goals in turn.
I have always said that a successful eurozone is in Britain’s national interest. Given that 40% of our trade is with eurozone countries, we want the eurozone to deal with its problems and challenges, and we should therefore welcome the steps to which eurozone countries are committing themselves to taking with the euro plus pact. However, I have also said that Britain is not in the euro and will not be joining the euro, so it is right that we should not be involved in the euro area’s internal arrangements. That is why we are not intending to join the “pact” that euro area countries have agreed. It is also why I believe that we should not have any liability for bailing out the eurozone, but given the current emergency arrangements, established under article 122, we do have such a liability.
That decision was taken by the previous Government, and it is a decision to which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor specifically objected when it was taken by his predecessor after the election but before this Government took office. Frustratingly, we are stuck with it for the duration of the emergency mechanism, but that is why I ensured last December that the eurozone treaty change would carve Britain out of the eurozone bailout arrangements when the new permanent arrangements were introduced in 2013, and specifically secured agreement that, from that point onwards, article 122 would not be used for this purpose. That ends our current potential liability, and makes it clear that from 2013 Britain will not be dragged into bailing out the eurozone.
My second goal was growth. There was clear agreement at the Council about the link between action on deficits and action for growth. As the conclusions clearly state, fiscal consolidation
“should be frontloaded in Member States facing very large structural deficits or very high or rapidly increasing levels of public debt.”
We agree. It is worth noting that the UK still has one of the highest budget deficits in the EU—higher than those of Greece, Spain and Portugal—but because of the actions we have taken our interest rates are closer to those of Germany. It is also worth noting that the EU forecast is for the UK to grow in 2011 faster than France, Spain, Italy, the eurozone average and the EU average.
Just as we have a Budget for growth in the British economy, we need a plan for growth in the European economy. In advance of the Council, I organised a letter, which was signed by nine countries, making the case for specific actions to support growth: completing the single market and extending it to services, boosting trade, opening up and connecting European and global markets, reducing regulation, supporting innovation, and unleashing enterprise. That has had a real impact, not least because the argument is now being made not just by Britain but by Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. As a result, the European Council endorsed much of our approach. We agreed that we should focus on concluding the Doha round and other free trade agreements in 2011. We also agreed that
“the overall regulatory burden should be reduced”,
and that micro-enterprises should be exempted from certain future regulations. That moratorium, which mirrors the moratorium on regulation for small businesses in last week’s Budget, is a positive endorsement of the approach we are taking in Britain.
Finally, the Council discussed how Europe could help Japan to recover from the devastation caused by the earthquake and the tsunami. I spoke to the Japanese Prime Minister on Friday. As the House knows, we have provided search and rescue teams, and stand ready to help in other ways. I know that everyone in the House will applaud the resilience and courage of the Japanese people during these tragic times. Looking to the future, we should show solidarity with the Japanese, and help both our economies by pushing forward with a free trade deal between Japan and the EU. At Britain’s instigation, the Council conclusions explicitly refer to the
“potential launch of negotiations for a free trade agreement .”
At this Council, Europe was faced with a choice: to rise to the challenges facing our continent, or to take the path of least resistance. On Libya, Europe chose to come together around the stand taken by Britain, France and the United States to respond to the call of the Arab League and save people on our continent’s doorstep from slaughter. On the economy, Europe chose a new direction, based on the principles set out by Britain and other member states, for stronger growth and prosperity.
For too long Europe has focused on issues of process and structure. Last week, Britain helped Europe to focus on policies and people: on creating prosperity for its citizens, and confronting a humanitarian crisis on its southern border.
I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement.
I want to concentrate my questions on Libya, but let me first deal with the issues of economic policy and Japan. On economic policy, I welcome the Europe 2020 conclusions, the proposals on economic governance and the commitment—which I do not think the Prime Minister mentioned—to explore an international financial transactions tax. On the international financial transactions tax, may I ask the Prime Minister for clarity on the UK’s position and urge him to take forward discussions actively both with the United States and at the G20? On the 2020 strategy, we saw some welcome progress, as the Prime Minister said. The European Council also talked about the priority of “reducing unemployment”, which the Prime Minister did not mention in his report to the House. I wonder whether he shared recent UK experience with his colleagues and told them that the forecasts for UK unemployment have been revised up for each and every one of the next five years by up to 200,000—something the Chancellor failed to mention in his Budget speech. May I also ask whether the Prime Minister told the Council that he had recently unveiled a Budget for growth that downgraded growth this year, next year and the year after? Did he warn Council colleagues about the dangers of going too far and too fast?
On Japan, I share the sentiments the Prime Minister expressed about all possible help for reconstruction being given to the Government and people of Japan. The immediate priority for the UK Government will rightly be the situation of our citizens, but, looking to the future, will the Prime Minister update the House on the timetable for the report he has commissioned by Mike Weightman on any lessons that might need to be learned for British nuclear plants? It is important that this report is completed quickly, because we do not want to delay without reason the important progress we need to make on new nuclear power in our country.
Turning to Libya, may I start by welcoming the strong and unanimous position adopted by the European Council? I welcome the fact that the military operation to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians is showing signs of success. Now that the rebels are advancing, will the Prime Minister assure us that efforts are being made to remind them of their own humanitarian obligations to respect human rights and protect civilians at all times? Lord Ashdown raised a number of concerns this morning, and, for the record, may I ask the Prime Minister to repeat his reassurance of last week that the UN resolution is aimed at the protection of the Libyan people, not choosing the Libyan Government?
On the question of command and control arrangements for the military operation, I welcome the decision to move to the NATO command structure. Will the Prime Minister say a bit more about the governance arrangements that will now be in place for that, and in particular what the relationship will be between the North Atlantic Council and the narrower group, which I believe the French are convening, of those directly involved in military action? Given the importance of maintaining Arab support, I welcome the meeting being hosted tomorrow by the Foreign Secretary with a broad alliance of countries. What continuing role will this wider group play, and how often will it meet?
May I also emphasise to the Prime Minister another point: the importance of post-conflict planning? Whatever the eventual outcome in Libya, the peace is set to be as challenging as the conflict. Will he clarify where he believes responsibility for post-conflict planning lies? In particular, which institution, UN or otherwise, is in his view best placed to oversee this work, and does he see the case for a particular individual being asked to lead the international community’s efforts?
I think we both agree that the international community should continue with a strategy that includes non-military means. I therefore welcome the intention of the European Council to strengthen sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. The Council’s conclusions say that EU member states will be proposing the adoption of further sanctions measures at the UN Security Council. Will the Prime Minister say more about the scope and timing of those proposals? Finally on Libya, given that we have a long recess coming up, may I urge the Prime Minister to keep open the possibility of the House being recalled, should events require it?
Turning to events in the wider region, may I also welcome the words in the European Council conclusions about Syria, Yemen and Bahrain? It remains essential that we avoid the reality, or the impression, of double standards. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister what specific actions the Government are taking to attempt to prevent further repression in these countries?
Finally, may I once again pay tribute to the efforts of our armed forces? They are doing extraordinary work, protecting the people of Libya and enforcing the will of the United Nations. We owe them huge gratitude.
I will take the right hon. Gentleman’s comments in reverse order. First, I thank him for what he says about our armed forces. He is right to say that they have, as ever, performed with great courage, professionalism and dedication; they are extraordinarily capable and brave people and this country is lucky to have them. He asked about other countries and whether we are sending a clear message. I believe our message should be clear: the way to meet the aspirations of people in north Africa and in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression. We have made that clear throughout and it is important.
The right hon. Gentleman asked that we keep the House up to date and I certainly intend to do that. I can let him know, because I have checked this, that in my first 10 months as Prime Minister I have made 15 statements in this House. I am told that that is more than John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or indeed Margaret Thatcher made, so I think I am doing my bit to keep the House informed.
Thank you very much. I will certainly look at what arrangements need to be put in place for information to be regularly published and discussed in this House, because I am keen that that should happen.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about post-conflict planning and which body is in the lead. As I said in my statement, we want to make sure that the UN feels firmly in the driving seat; Baroness Amos does an excellent job and the UN should be gripping this emerging picture and working with those agencies that have managed to get through to places such as Misrata and Ajdabiya, and elsewhere. He asked about the wider group that will meet as well as NATO members. We are going to be forming a sort of contact group of friends of Libya for the future, but all the operations are now going to be run with command and control and co-ordination provided through the NATO machinery.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the emphasis is still on protecting people, not regime change. That is right—the UN Security Council resolution is all about putting in place the no-fly zone; protecting civilians, using all necessary measures; and, of course, humanitarian aid. He asked for assurances that we will make it clear to the rebels how they should behave in terms of civilian life. We are now in proper contact with the rebels; a Foreign Office official is having discussions with them. That is vital as we need to get to know and work with them, and make these points to them.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the fact that there was a discussion on nuclear energy at the European Council. We agreed to stress test all EU nuclear facilities, making sure that that is done by the appropriate bodies, carried out by independent regulators, properly peer-reviewed and tested. Europe must learn all the lessons from the Fukushima nuclear plant. I cannot give a timetable for the report we will be carrying out through the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, but it will be done as fast as possible.
I now turn to Europe and the financial transactions tax, which was mentioned in the Council’s conclusions. We are very happy to look at this, but we believe it has to be done on a global basis. There is a great danger of a group of countries deciding to do this and just seeing financial transactions go completely out of their area, so it must be done on a global basis.
Finally, on Europe, the right hon. Gentleman made some points about unemployment. We did discuss unemployment. In Britain, as he knows, we have seen the claimant count come down and we have seen 300,000 more people in work. I would just make a point about the message coming clearly from Europe. Commission President Barroso has said:
“Without fiscal consolidation, there is no confidence, without confidence there are no investments, without investments there is no growth.”
That is a lesson the Labour party could well learn.
I am not an expert in the politics of Baden Württemberg, but I suspect that this is partly about the euro and the effects of the euro. I think that there are also strong feelings about nuclear power in Germany. The point I would make is that whatever our views about the euro—I think that my hon. Friend and I agree that we should stay out of it—it is in Britain’s interests that the eurozone sorts itself out, because that is the destination for a lot of our exports. So we should support these countries in what they want to do to deal with their problems and challenges.
Does the Prime Minister accept that when he referred to the discussions that took place last May on the eurozone fund he gave a somewhat incomplete account of my conversation with the now Chancellor? We did indeed agree that we should do everything we could to keep Britain out of the main part of the rescue fund, but in relation to the smaller element to which the Prime Minister refers, what we discussed was not voting against, but abstention, recognising that Britain could have been outvoted—that is exactly the same thing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to when dealing with Ireland. So when the Prime Minister next refers to this issue, perhaps he would give the whole account, not a partial account, of what happened.
Fortunately, I have had a full discussion with the Chancellor about that issue and he was absolutely clear that it was something to which Britain should not agree; nor should we. The problem is that we are stuck with this mechanism, which I have managed to get rid of once the new mechanism is introduced. That is the sort of action, frankly, that we have needed in Europe these past few years.
When considering any of the variety of proposals that may be on the table at tomorrow’s meeting, will the Prime Minister do all in his power to prevent the endorsement of any proposals that would enable Colonel Gaddafi to regenerate the apparatus of terror and oppression that has sustained him for too long?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that question. This is a very important point. All sorts of people will quite rightly want to ensure that there will be a proper political process at some stage so that Libya can transition to democracy. It is important, however, that while such clear and flagrant breaches of the UN Security Council resolution are going on, we should do everything we can to protect people and, as a result, the Gaddafi regime will effectively be driven back.
May I strongly associate myself with the Prime Minister’s words about the successes of the past week in justifying the UN Security Council resolution on Libya? The rebels’ progress more than reflects the widespread view across the House about the importance of the resolution. However, the Prime Minister did not say much about the European Union’s relations with the rest of the Arab world in future. One reason to support the resolution was the danger for the rest of the Arab world of Gaddafi’s potential slaughter. Will the Prime Minister say something about the potential for conditionality in EU engagement with the countries of the middle east and north Africa on trade, development and other matters as we go forward in support of democratic governance in north Africa?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that Europe’s engagement with north Africa and the middle east has not always been very successful in the past, particularly on the grounds that he describes. There has not been enough conditionality on the progress those countries need to make towards more open societies and the building blocks of democracy, getting rid of emergency laws and the rest of it. The European Council conclusions, like those from our emergency summit, talk about putting in place a new partnership and making a new offer to these countries with deeper economic integration, broader market access and greater co-operation and, in return for that, we should ask for more conditionality in the progress that they make. Money is not the problem; there has been plenty of money put into these areas by Europe. We need more of a focus on what we believe we should be getting out of it.
Will the Prime Minister use tomorrow’s summit to clarify the rules of engagement? He will be aware of the criticism of the attacks on the arms dumps as they have been considered to involve a fairly broad interpretation of the UN resolution. Does he agree that it is critical that the future of Libya is not cluttered up with acrimony among the political consensus that he has successfully built up?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I would disagree with anyone who says that destroying a Gaddafi arms dump is not in the terms of the resolution, and for the following reason. We can see very clearly what Gaddafi’s regime is doing in Misrata, in Zintan and in other places. He is using munitions to kill people—to murder his own citizens—so depriving him of weapons is not only in the letter of the resolution but in its spirit, too.
Further to the question asked by the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), I am sure that there will have been an official note of the conversations between the former Chancellor and the present Chancellor. Will the Prime Minister publish that note so that we can decide for ourselves whether he or the former Chancellor is providing the more accurate report?