House of Commons
Wednesday 15 June 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
We are investing in the national citizen service, which will be very powerful in connecting young people with their own power to make a contribution to the community. In addition, we will invest £40 million over the next two years to support volunteering infrastructure and social action.
I thank the Minister. Grow, the organisation behind Wiltshire’s volunteer centre in Chippenham, is keen to extend the range of support it provides in matching young people with volunteering opportunities as part of Wiltshire council’s volunteer strategy and action plan. Will the new local infrastructure fund be able to support such initiatives, be they in Wiltshire or elsewhere?
I was in Devizes constituency in Wiltshire on Friday, and I recognise that Wiltshire council represents best practice in many ways in supporting local voluntary organisations and local infrastructure. I am delighted about the local infrastructure fund, because it will help existing infrastructure assets become even more efficient and effective in supporting front-line voluntary organisations and encouraging local people to get involved.
We all support efforts to encourage volunteering, but does the Minister share our concern that under proposals in the Protection of Freedoms Bill on the vetting and barring scheme individuals who are barred from working with children will be able to volunteer in schools, and without the school’s knowledge?
The Bill contains very important reforms to vetting and barring, and critically to the Criminal Records Bureau process, which many Members will know from their constituencies is a source of considerable frustration for people who are trying to volunteer. I agree with the reforms that will make that process simpler, more effective and more portable.
Industrial Action (Public Sector)
We are committed to maximum engagement with the public sector unions to seek agreement on essential reforms, and especially to make public sector pensions sustainable and among the very best available, as Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary has recommended. I am sorry that a handful of unions are hellbent on pursuing disruptive industrial action while discussions are continuing. However, we have rigorous contingency plans in place to minimise disruption in the event of industrial action.
Yes, I do. I strongly recommend that they should not go in for industrial action. If schools close as a result of teachers going on strike, there will be considerable disruption not only to children’s education but to the lives of parents whose livelihoods depend on schools being open. While discussions are still going on about how to keep public sector pensions among the very best that there are, and at a time when taxpayers in the private sector have seen hits to their own pension schemes, I think people will be really fed up if industrial action goes ahead.
Why should the Government be surprised that public sector workers, many of whom are pretty poorly paid, faced with an onslaught on their pensions and frozen pay have decided to fight back? It would be surprising if they had not.
If the coalition Government had not inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, we might not have to be taking these steps. I remind the hon. Gentleman that a civil servant on median pay—about £23,000—who retires after a 40-year career, which is not untypical, will have a pension that would cost £500,000 to buy in the private sector. No one in the private sector now has access to such pensions.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for his determination to engage to the maximum with the public sector unions to try to avoid industrial action? He has made it clear, however, that he does not rule out legislative changes. May I plead with him, on behalf of the Public Administration Committee, that we make changes in an orderly fashion, and that perhaps he should publish a Green Paper to consult on what changes should be made, so that we can have a proper debate about them rather than find ourselves propelled into legislative changes in an emergency?
I do not have responsibility for industrial relations law; that rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have made it clear that we do not rule out changes, and a number of proposals have been made from outside. We think that industrial relations law works reasonably well at the moment, but we keep it under review.
Does the Minister agree that pensions should be regarded as deferred wages, and that therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said, it should come as no surprise that pension scheme members are seeking to protect their future income?
That is why we are engaging in discussions with the TUC at its behest. The discussions continue, and there is much still to be sorted out. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, recommended the reforms to make public sector pension schemes sustainable and affordable for the future. That is what we are determined to achieve. Any union or public servant contemplating strike action is jumping the gun. There is a long way to go yet.
The Government are anxious to encourage more giving. On 23 May, we published a White Paper that set out a range of ways in which we can help to make giving easier and more compelling, and offered better support for charities, community groups and social enterprises.
Although people in the UK are very generous compared with Europeans, the rate of UK charitable giving remains only half that of the rate in America. What further steps will the Minister take to encourage us to give up to the level of our American cousins?
My hon. Friend is right—we are a generous country—but giving has flatlined, despite substantial interventions from previous Governments. We do not accept that as being inevitable, and we want to help people to give more. He will know that the Chancellor announced generous incentives in the last Budget. The White Paper contains many ideas, including a social action fund to support creative, new models that incentivise people to give.
More people would be encouraged to give, especially to health care charities, if the issue of irrecoverable VAT on all non-business supplies was sorted out. Discussions are being held with the Treasury, but will the Minister ensure that they are expedited so that a mutually acceptable solution is reached as quickly as possible?
The House will note that the giving White Paper states that the Government aim to support and manage opportunities for giving, but what will the Minister do to monitor what sums are given and to which organisations? Does he intend to plug funding gaps, should they arise, so that poor areas of the country are not disadvantaged? Indeed, if donations continue to fall, is it a sensible strategy to rely on philanthropy to fill gaps in public funding?
The Government see a substantial opportunity to encourage more giving, bearing in mind that 8% of the country do 47% of the giving. The hon. Lady asks about money for more deprived areas. Our “community first and community organiser” programme, which is worth about £80 million, is exclusively targeted on the most deprived communities. The programme incentivises the local giving of time and money to support social action projects led by those communities.
National Citizen Service
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) knows, we are offering more than 10,000 places to 16-year-olds this summer, including 135 in Northamptonshire. Our 12 providers are working hard to ensure full participation. I hope that he will lend his personal support to Catch22 and the Prince’s Trust in his area.
Our providers are working very hard to ensure full participation in the pilots by engaging schools, working with local media, and using social networking sites, including a dedicated Facebook page. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and I will write to every colleague in the House with details of how they can engage with their local provider, because we would like them fully to support this exciting and positive opportunity for young people in their constituencies.
There are a number of national citizens service pilots in and around my constituency. Does the Minister agree that we need to find ways of increasing and deepening access to this scheme in the most deprived areas by using innovative ways of communicating with youth clubs and other local institutions?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the key benchmarks for success of the scheme is creating the right social mix on residential courses. The aim is to create opportunities for young people to meet people they would never otherwise expect to meet. That is very much part of the obligation on our providers and we are monitoring it very closely.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive engagement with the national citizen service concept. I obviously reject his thesis and would point him to the investment in apprenticeships and everything else that we are doing. I urge him not to underestimate the potential of this programme to transform young people’s sense of what they can achieve.
May I ask the Minister again about the barriers to young people from deprived areas getting involved in this scheme, especially in the pilot projects, for which, in half of the cases, young people are being charged up to £99? Does he agree that such charges will be a severe disincentive to young people from those areas, and will he take action?
We have made it clear—I have done so personally—to every provider that money should not be a barrier to participation in the pilots. We are experimenting with a range of models to gauge people’s willingness to pay for the value that the models add, but we have made it very clear to providers that money should not be a barrier to participation.
The National Fraud Authority estimates that £21 billion is lost to fraud in the public sector each year. In recent months, the counter fraud taskforce, which I chair, has overseen a series of small-scale pilots that have made immediate savings of £12 million in benefit and tax credit fraud, and which—when rolled out—will save £1.5 billion a year.
It is one thing to have a target but another to reach it. The £21 billion of public sector fraud that the National Fraud Authority identified arose after his party’s Government had set their ambitious targets. We are getting on and doing things—identifying fraud and error and stopping hard-earned taxpayers’ money going out of the door, to ensure that instead it goes to the vulnerable people and important public services where it is needed.
One and a half billion pounds sounds not like a modest saving, in the words of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), but like a worthwhile saving, given that every penny comes out of people’s pockets. How soon will the Minister be able to take forward savings towards achieving the £21 billion total? We need to stamp this out of the public sector: what can we do about it?
I should make it clear that this is only the beginning. The issue is not only benefit or tax fraud but procurement fraud. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is undertaking a pilot on supplier fraud in his Department, and it is already yielding significant returns. If the previous Government had been as concerned with eradicating fraud as we are, the public finances would not perhaps be in the mess they are in.
Big Society Bank
I am delighted to say that we are making extremely good progress in establishing the big society bank. Sir Ronald Cohen and Nick O’Donohoe, with whom I met recently, have put an outline of the proposals on the website. They are now working with the actuary and the administrators of the dormant accounts. So as not to waste time while we wait for state aid clearance, we have also established a high calibre interim investment committee in the Big Lottery Fund to begin work immediately.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is tremendously important that the voluntary and charitable sector does not get into a debt spiral, and for that reason the big society bank’s plans involve trying to promote patient capital and risk capital that will allow the voluntary and community sector to expand without becoming over-geared and being put in financial peril.
Does the Minister agree that the big society bank will provide the vital backing required by investors in our social sector organisations, so that they can continue to support local groups dedicated to making communities better places to work and live?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important to point out that the purpose of the big society bank, under Sir Ronald Cohen’s direction, is to go beyond the traditional sources of finance and persuade, for example, large charities that have considerable investments to start to reinvest in the voluntary and community sector so that they can get good returns on, for example, social impact bonds.
That very much depends, of course, on the state aid process, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience, we cannot totally determine. In order not to waste time, however, the investment committee that has been set up within the Big Lottery Fund will begin to disburse funds from dormant accounts as soon as they are made available and released. I hope that that will happen within a few months.
The hon. Gentleman’s question reminds me of Maynard Keynes’s dictum when asked about the IMF and the World Bank. I think he said that the World Bank was a kind of fund, and the IMF was a kind of bank. There are often these oddities in the naming of things. Shall we just call it the BSB and know what it does, rather than worry about the name?
Public Bodies Bill
As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill has completed a tortuous but constructive passage through the other place, and we hope for a Second Reading in this place soon. In the meantime, the Cabinet Office and other relevant Departments are holding information sessions for colleagues who want to discuss this important Bill.
I thank the Minister for his reply, his hard work and the excellent job he is doing on the Bill. Under the Bill, public statutory corporations such as British Waterways will be reformed and become mutuals. Have Ministers considered other similar public bodies, such as trust ports, for inclusion in the Bill?
I understand that my hon. Friend is frustrated by the pace of progress in his committed and spirited attempt to allow the people of Dover to take over the port. He will know that the Transport Secretary, who is sitting alongside me, has announced a consultation on the criteria for assessing the sale of trust ports in England and Wales, largely to reflect the Government’s localism and big society agendas. It is right for that consultation to conclude before further decisions are taken.
In March, the Minister for the Cabinet Office claimed that he would make £30 billion of savings from his quango reform programme embodied in the Public Bodies Bill, so that he could
“protect jobs and front-line services.”
My freedom of information requests show, however, that nearly £25 billion of this £30 billion comes from front-line cuts to housing and our universities, including teaching and research. Will he apologise for these misleading statements about protecting front-line services?
No—and I am surprised by the line of questioning, because this programme of very overdue reform to the complex landscape of quangos and non-departmental public bodies goes exactly with the grain of the reforms proposed by the previous Government. We are going further in trying to deliver much greater accountability in government, and, on the way, delivering what we believe will be about £2.6 billion in communicative and administrative savings over the spending review period.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (59584)
As the Minister for the Cabinet Office, I am responsible for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.
Only three of the unions have done that. The majority of unions are continuing to engage in good faith with the discussions that are still taking place. It is our determination that at the end of the reforms proposed by Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, public sector pensions will continue to be among the best available, but we will ask people to work longer because they are living longer and to pay a bit more, to achieve a better balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers pay.
How can the Minister possibly justify the announcement on the No. 10 transparency website that since November the Government have spent more than £5 million on tarting up offices in Whitehall, including £680,000 on No. 10 Downing street? How can he justify that when he is laying off nurses, policemen, servicemen and so on? Will he now publish a line-by-line account of how the money was spent?
Point one: if we had not gone in for full transparency in what the Government are spending, the hon. Gentleman would not know anything about this. Point two: we inherited a massive programme of wasteful refurbishment of Government offices from the previous Government, including some unbelievably badly negotiated PFI contracts. If they had taken the same care as we are taking with taxpayers’ money, we would not have the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, which we inherited from his Government.
T2. Does my right hon. Friend think that responsible Members of this House, in all parts of the Chamber, should condemn irresponsible strike action that puts children’s education at risk and diminishes public services? Does the silence— (59585)
It would be good to hear Opposition Front Benchers joining us in urging the trade unions to stay with the discussions, which still have a great distance to go, to secure what will still be among the very best pension schemes available. If schools close down, it is not just children’s education that will be disrupted, but the livelihoods of millions of parents who depend on schools being open so that they can go to work to earn the money to pay the taxes to support public sector pensions. [Interruption.]
T5. By 2014, civil society will be losing £2.9 billion a year in revenue—the same as the amount forgone in corporation tax by big companies in the United Kingdom. Why are the Government being so soft on big business and so tough on charities and the voluntary sector? (59588)
I reject that statement absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is pulling numbers for lost income to the charity sector out of the air and completely ignoring the volume of public sector contracts going in, not least through the recent Work programme, which is worth at least £100 million a year. As for big business, I would simply refer him to a speech made by the Prime Minister last year called “Every Business Commits”.
T4. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that my constituency will hold a national sporting event in the next fortnight, the enjoyment of which could be undermined by strikes proposed by the unions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these strikes are unnecessary, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to talks to ensure that they do not have to happen? (59587)
As I say, we are committed to continuing those discussions. We had further discussions yesterday, and there will be more next week and the week after. There is much still to be resolved. It was Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, who recommended the changes, and in order to make public sector pensions sustainable for the future we need to drive these reforms through.
During 2011, I will be launching a new social enterprise, the Northamptonshire parent infant project. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that commissioners will be encouraged to provide medium-term contracts to charities that provide essential support services?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work she is doing with that organisation, which is tackling natal depression and perinatal problems. The central Government compact already provides for multi-year funding whenever that is appropriate. Local compacts are a matter for local decision, but I strongly encourage her county council to offer a multi-year contract, if that is at all possible.
We know that there is growing enthusiasm for public sector workers to come together to form employee-led co-operatives or mutuals to carry out and deliver public services. All the evidence shows that they deliver huge increases in productivity and better public services at lower cost, and I hope that the hon. Lady will give her full support—
We are waiting to see the result of the ballot this afternoon, but I hope that civil servants, who are imbued with a strong public service ethos, will recognise that we are seeking to achieve public sector pensions that continue to be among the very best available. However, because people are living longer, they will be asked to work for longer. Furthermore, because there is not a fair balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers—who have seen their own pensions take a hit—pay, we are expecting them to pay a bit more towards them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are right to reform welfare. Welfare costs have got out of control in our country. We want to ensure that work always pays, and that if people do the right thing we will be on their side. It cannot be right for some families to get more than £26,000 a year in benefits that are paid for by people who are working hard and paying their taxes. I would say that everyone in the House should support the Welfare Reform Bill tonight, and it is a disappointment that Labour talks about welfare reform but will not vote for it.
That is simply not the case. We are using exactly the same definition of people who are suffering and who are terminally ill as the last Government. We want to ensure that those people are helped and protected. The point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that if you are in favour of welfare reform, and if you want to encourage people to do the right thing, it is no good talking about it: you have got to vote for it.
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman does not know what is in his own Bill. Listen to Macmillan Cancer Support, which announced on 13 June: “Cancer patients to lose up to £94 a week”. Those are people who have worked hard all their lives and who have done the right thing and paid their taxes, yet when they are in need, the Prime Minister is taking money away from them. I ask him again: how can it be right that 7,000 people with cancer are losing £94 a week?
We are using precisely the same test as the last Government supported. All we see here is a Labour party desperate not to support welfare reform, and trying to find an excuse to get off supporting welfare reform. Anyone who is terminally ill gets immediate access to the higher level of support, and we will provide that to all people who are unable to work. That is the guarantee we make, but the right hon. Gentleman has to stop wriggling off his responsibilities and back the welfare reform he talks about.
The Prime Minister does not know the detail of his own Bill. Let me explain it to him. Because the Government are stopping contributory employment and support allowance after one year for those in work-related activity, cancer patients—7,000 of them—are losing £94 a week. I ask him again: how can that be right?
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the specific point. First of all, as I have said, our definition of “terminally ill” is exactly the same as the one used by the last Government. Crucially, anyone out of work who has longer to live will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. Irrespective of a person’s income or assets, that will last for 12 months. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and he should admit that he is wrong. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. That is the truth; he should check his facts before he comes to the House and chickens out of welfare reform.
So let us be clear about this: in his first answer the Prime Minister said that his policy was the same as the last Government’s; now he has admitted that the Government are ending contributory-based employment and support allowance after one year. Let me tell him what Macmillan Cancer Support says—[Interruption.] I think that Conservative Members should listen to what Macmillan Cancer Support has to say. Let me tell them; this is what it says—[Interruption.] I think it is a disgrace that Conservative Members are shouting when we are talking about issues affecting people with cancer. This is what Macmillan Cancer Support says—that many people
“will lose this…benefit simply because they have not recovered quickly enough.”
I ask the Prime Minister the question again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?
Order. I think it is a disgrace that Members on both sides of the House are shouting their heads off when matters of the most serious concern are being debated. I repeat what I have said before: the public despise this sort of behaviour. Let us have a bit of order.
I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker. This is important, and I want to try to explain to the right hon. Gentleman why I think he has got it wrong, and why I think what we are proposing is right. Let me explain the definition of who is terminally ill; these are horrible things to have to discuss, but let me explain. It is—[Interruption.] Hold on a second. The definition is the same one—as I say, it is six months. Anyone out of work who lives longer than that will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. That is irrespective of a person’s income or their assets and it will last for 12 months, not the six months that the Leader of the Opposition claimed. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. So as I say, it is the same test as under the last Government. It has been put in place fairly, we have listened very carefully to Macmillan Cancer Support, and we have also made sure that someone is reviewing all the medical tests that take place under this system. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to try to create a distraction from the fact that he will not support welfare reform, but I have answered his question, so he should now answer mine: why won’t you back the Bill?
In case the Prime Minister has forgotten, I ask the questions and he fails to answer them.
Let me try to explain it to him. He should listen to Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, who said:
“In my experience one year is simply not long enough for many people to recover from cancer. The serious physical and psychological side-effects can last for many months, even years, after treatment has finished. It is crucial that patients are not forced to return to work before they are ready.”
Macmillan Cancer Support and Britain’s cancer charities have been making this argument for months. I am amazed that the Prime Minister does not know about these arguments. Why does he not know about them? The House of Commons is voting on this Bill tonight. He should know about these arguments. I ask him again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?
I have answered the question three times with a full explanation. The whole point of our benefit reforms is that there are proper medical tests so that we support those who cannot work, as a generous, tolerant and compassionate country should, but we will make sure that those who can work have to go out to work, so that we do not reward bad behaviour. That is what the Bill is about. The Leader of the Opposition is attempting to put up a smokescreen because he has been found out. He made a speech this week about the importance of welfare reform, but he cannot take his divided party with him. That is what this is about: weak leadership of a divided party.
What an absolute disgrace, to describe talking about cancer patients in this country as a smokescreen! This is about people out in the country and cancer charities that are concerned on their behalf—and the Prime Minister does not know his own policy. It is not about people who are terminally ill; it is about people recovering from cancer who are losing support as a result of this Government. We know he does not think his policies through, but is this not one occasion on which we could say that if ever there was a case to “pause, listen and reflect”, this is it? Why does he not do so?
What we have seen this week is the right hon. Gentleman getting on the wrong side of every issue. On cutting the deficit, we now have the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the International Monetary Fund, his brother, and Tony Blair, on our side, and he is on his own. On welfare reform, we have everyone recognising that welfare needs to be reformed, apart from the right hon. Gentleman. On the health service—yes—we now have the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the former Labour Health Minister and Tony Blair all on the side of reform and, on his own, the right hon. Gentleman: a weak leader of a divided party. That is what we have learned this week.
On a recent visit to India, my constituent Baljinder Singh’s mother, Surjit Kaur, a British national, was kidnapped and then beheaded in a horrendous murder. May I ask the British Government to urge the Indian authorities to carry out a full, transparent and thorough investigation and bring to account those responsible for that horrendous murder so that my constituent and his family can get some justice for their mother?
I understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise this case, and on behalf of the whole House let me send our condolences to Mrs Kaur’s family. I fully understand and support their wish for justice to be brought to bear on the perpetrators. The Foreign Office has been providing the family with consular support, as my hon. Friend knows, and they will arrange to meet him and the family to see what further assistance we can give. However, responsibility for investigating crime committed overseas must rest with the police and judicial authorities in that country. We cannot interfere in the processes, but I take his point to heart.
Q2. We know that the deficit was the price paid to avoid a depression caused by the bankers, but in March the forecast for the budget deficit was increased by £46 billion—£1,000 per person. Will the Prime Minister now at last accept that cuts are choking growth, that VAT is stoking inflation and that both are increasing the deficit? He is going too far, too fast, and he is hindering, not helping, the recovery. Yes or no? (59595)
The deficit is the price paid for Labour’s profligacy in office. In his memoirs, Tony Blair said—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear about Tony Blair any more, and that is funny, really. He was a Labour leader who used to win elections, so they might want to listen to him. He said that by 2007, spending was out of control. That is the point. We need to get on top of spending, on top of debt and on top of the deficit. I understand that the Labour leader is trying to persuade the shadow Chancellor of that—well, good luck to him!
The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands by the forces of the Crown. Will he remind President Obama when he next sees the United States President that negotiations over the Falkland Islands with Argentina will never be acceptable to Her Majesty’s Government, and that if the special relationship means anything, it means that they defend British sovereignty over our own territories?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I am sure that everyone right across the House will want to remember the anniversary of the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands and the superb bravery, skill and courage of all our armed forces who took part in that action. We should also remember those who fell in taking back the Falklands. I would say this: as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory—full stop, end of story.
Q3. This week we have seen the Government change their mind on the NHS, on sentencing, on student visas and on bin collections, so will the Prime Minister tell us now whether he will change his mind over Government plans to force more than 300,000 women to wait up to two years longer before they qualify for their state pension? (59596)
All parties supported the equalisation of the pension age between men and women. That needed to happen. We also need to raise pension ages to make sure that our pension system is affordable. The point I would make is that because we have done that, we have been able to re-link the pension back to earnings, and as a result pensioners are £15,000 better off in their retirement than they would have been under Labour. I think that is a good deal and the right thing to do. If anyone in the Labour party wants to be serious about pension reform and dealing with the deficit, they should back these changes.
Q14. I agree with the Government’s timetable for increasing the men’s state pension age to 66, because it happens gradually. However, I ask the Prime Minister to think again about the women’s state pension age, because the planned timetable has it going up far too quickly and leaves women of my age—those born in 1954—without enough time to plan for what could be two years’ extra work. Will the Government please look at this again? (59607)
I understand the concern, but the point I would make is that, as I said in the House last week, more than 80% of those affected will see their pension age come in only a year later, so a relatively small number are affected. The key thing is making sure that our pension system is sustainable so that we can pay out higher pensions. The House had a similar argument in Cabinet Office questions, about the sustainability of public sector pensions. We have to take these difficult decisions; they are right for the long term and they actually mean a better pension system for those who are retiring.
The point about pensions is that there is the triple guarantee that they will go up by earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is higher, so it is not going to affect them in that way. Clearly, we want to see inflation come down. I think there is a shared agreement across the House, and it is right for the Bank of England to have that responsibility. I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not raise today the very welcome news that we have seen the biggest fall in unemployment in one month’s figures than we have seen at any time in a decade. I think it is time the Labour party started welcoming good news.
Q5. There is increasing concern within the House and across the country about the hidden suffering of trafficked children—and, indeed, retrafficked children. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential for a co-ordinated multi-agency approach right across the country—from borders to local authorities and local police forces, and including the excellent charitable organisations involved in this work—to be promoted urgently? (59598)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know how hard the all-party group works on this issue and I listen very carefully to what it has to say. One thing that is changing, which I hope will make a difference, is the formation of the National Crime Agency, which I think will bring greater co-ordination to such vital issues.
The Scottish National party won a landslide in the recent elections and a mandate to improve the powers of the Scottish Parliament, so will the Prime Minister respect the Scottish electorate and accept the Scottish Government’s six proposals for improvement in the Scotland Bill?
We listen very carefully to what people have to say, and of course we respect the fact that the SNP won a mandate in Scotland; we are responding extremely positively. The first point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the Scotland Bill, currently before the House, is a massive extension of devolution. He shakes his head, but it is an extra £12 billion of spending power. We will be going ahead with that and we will look at all the proposals that First Minister Salmond has made. I take the Respect agenda very seriously, but it is a two-way street: I respect the views and wishes of the Scottish people, but they have to respect that we are still part, and I believe will always remain part, of a United Kingdom.
Q6. Last Friday was the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion, next Monday is armed forces day, and on Tuesday 120 soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade will march through the Carriage Gates into Parliament to welcome them back from Afghanistan. Can we tell them, or will the Prime Minister repeat his assurance, that the armed forces covenant will now be written into law, for the first time in history? (59599)
Yes, I can give that assurance, and I am delighted that the Government and the Royal British Legion have agreed the approach we will take in the Armed Forces Bill, which is passing through the House. I am very glad that the House of Commons will be welcoming those soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade. Like the rest of our armed forces, they are the bravest of the brave and the best of the best. We cannot do too much for those people; that is why the armed forces covenant matters, and that is also why we kept our promise to double the operational allowance to soldiers serving in Afghanistan and other theatres.
Q7. Millions of our constituents are once more facing big increases in their gas and electricity bills. Many will find it very difficult to make ends meet. What action will the Government take to help them? (59600)
We are taking a range of actions. Obviously, the fact that oil now costs $115 a barrel and gas prices have gone up by 50% over the last year has an impact, but we are putting £250 million into the warm home discount. We are funding a more targeted Warm Front scheme that will help 47,000 families this year. We are legislating so that social tariffs have to offer the best prices available. We are keeping a promise we made that Post Office card account holders should get a discount. We are keeping the winter fuel payment, and of course we permanently increased the cold weather payments. We did not just allow them to be increased in an election year; we are keeping those higher payments, which are very valuable to many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
Q8. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and I visited Walton Hall special school near Stafford. In our meetings, parents expressed their gratitude for the excellent teaching, but also their anxiety over provision for their children after the age of 19. I know of my right hon. Friend’s deep concern about this subject, so what encouragement can he give them? (59601)
First of all, we must support special schools. The pendulum swung too far against special education and in favour of inclusion. It is important that we give parents and carers proper choices between mainstream and special education. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is that when disabled children become young adults, many parents want them to go on studying in further education colleges and elsewhere, yet currently the rules seem to suggest that once they have finished a course, that is it. Parents say to me, “What are we going to do now?” We have to find a better answer for parents whose much-loved children are living for much longer; they want them to have a purposeful and full life.
Q9. In the face of crippling energy price rises that are driving pensioners and vulnerable families into fuel poverty by the thousand every day under this coalition, is the Prime Minister struggling with his energy bill—or are any of the 21 other millionaires in his Cabinet struggling with their energy bills? When will he personally take a grip of the situation? (59602)
From reading the papers this week, the people who seem to be coining it are the ones who worked for the previous Government—but there we are. Clearly, fuel prices have gone up because of what has happened to world oil and gas prices, but this Government take seriously their responsibilities to try to help families. That is why we have frozen council tax, that is why we are lifting 1 million people out of tax, and that is why we have introduced the set of measures that I have described to try to help with energy bills. We have also managed to cut petrol tax this year, paid for by the additional tax on the North sea oil industry. I notice that although the Opposition want to support the petrol price tax, they do not support the increase in North sea oil tax. That is absolutely typical of a totally opportunistic Opposition.
The Prime Minister will be aware that this is national diabetes week. This year’s theme is “Let’s talk diabetes”, to encourage people with the condition to speak out and not to feel stigmatised or worried about being discriminated against or joked about in school or in the workplace. Will the Prime Minister please support this campaign?
I will certainly support the campaign. My hon. Friend makes the extremely good point that many people with diabetes find the illness embarrassing and something that they do not want to talk about, yet it affects more and more people. We have to find a way to encourage people to come forward and say that there is nothing abnormal or wrong about it. We need to help people to manage their diabetes, especially because we want them to have control over their health care and to spend less time in hospital, if at all possible. I fully support the campaign, and I think that we need to look at the long-term costs of people getting diabetes and recognise that there is a big public health agenda, particularly around things such as exercise, that we need to get hold of.
Q10. The Prime Minister will know that this is my first opportunity to ask him a question. I stand here fresh and full of hope, so I shall give him one more chance to answer this question. People in my constituency and throughout the country face the enormous increases in their energy bills announced by Scottish Power. They need help now. When will the Prime Minister keep the promise that he made in opposition to take tough action on excessive energy prices? (59603)
As I said some moments ago, we are taking action. There is only a certain amount that can be done when fuel prices have gone up by as much as they have over the past year—a 50% increase in oil and gas. We do have the warm home discount and the Warm Front scheme. We are making sure that when there are special tariffs, companies must offer them to users; that makes a difference. There is also the point about Post Office card account holders. At present they do not get all the discounts available to people who pay by direct debit, but we are ensuring that they will get those discounts. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is a lot more done in one year than the previous Government did in 13.
Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Cluny Lace in Ilkeston, which made part of the lace on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress? It is the last traditional lace factory in Erewash, and our town centres have declined in recent years as a result of the loss of such factories. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the review by Mary Portas aimed at revitalising our town centres has come at a perfect time? May I invite the Prime Minister and Ms Portas to visit Erewash as part of the review?
I shall be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I did not know that her constituents were responsible for the lace on the Duchess’s incredible dress, so I shall leave today’s session enriched by that knowledge. We want a growth in manufacturing and production in Britain. What we are seeing in our economy—difficult as the months ahead inevitably will be—is a growth of things made in Britain, whether that means cars, vans, or indeed lace for people’s dresses.
Q11. The United States Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, has said that the NATO operation in Libya has exposed serious capability gaps. The First Sea Lord, Admiral—[Interruption.] The First Sea Lord, Admiral Mark Stanhope, has said that the operations in Libya cannot be sustained for longer than three months without serious cuts elsewhere. Given those problems—[Interruption.] (59604)
He is called Mark Stanhope, if that helps.
I had a meeting with the First Sea Lord yesterday at which he agreed that we can sustain the mission for as long as we need to, and those were exactly the words that the Chief of the Defence Staff used yesterday, because we are doing the right thing. I want one simple message to go out from every part of the Government, and indeed from every part of the House of Commons: time is on our side. We have NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League. We have right on our side. The pressure is building militarily, diplomatically and politically, and time is running out for Gaddafi.
On the defence review, I would simply say that for 10 years the Labour party did not have a defence review, but now it wants two in a row. At the end of the review we have the fourth highest defence budget of any country in the world. We have superb armed forces who are superbly equipped, and they are doing a great job in the skies above Libya.
By the time Prime Minister’s questions finishes, 450 children will have died from preventable disease and famine. Is it not the case that increasing Britain’s aid budget is very much the right thing to do, and will save millions of lives across the world?
I very much welcome the support from my hon. Friend for the policy of increasing our aid budget and meeting the target of 0.7% of gross national income. There are good reasons for doing this. First, we are keeping a promise to the poorest people of the poorest countries of the world, and we are saving lives. Yes, of course things are difficult at home, but we should keep that promise even in the midst of difficulties. Secondly, we are making sure that our aid budget is spent very specifically on things like vaccinations for children that will save lives, so the money that we announced this week will mean a child vaccinated every two seconds and a life saved every two minutes. The last point that I would make to anyone who has doubts about this issue is that as well as saving lives, it is also about Britain standing for something in the world and standing up for something in the world—the importance of having a strong aid budget, saving lives and mending broken countries, as well as having—
Q12. In this carers week, when we celebrate the contribution of Birmingham’s care assistants and the loving families who look after their loved ones, will the Prime Minister join me in condemning Birmingham city council for cutting care for 4,100 of the most vulnerable in our city, branded unlawful by the High Court? What does he intend to do to ensure that never again will Birmingham city council fail the elderly and the disabled? (59605)
Everyone in the House should welcome the fact that it is carers week. I will be having a reception in No. 10 tonight to celebrate carers week with many people who take part and who are carers. This Government are putting in £400 million to give carers more breaks and £800 million specifically to make sure that those looking after disabled children get regular breaks. What we have in Birmingham is an excellent Conservative and Liberal Democrat alliance doing a very good job recovering from the complete mess that Labour made of that city for decade after decade.
Last night on Channel 4 there was a documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, showing the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people, which resulted in about 40,000 people being killed. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for justice for the Tamil people, and for the people who lost their lives?
I did not see the documentary, but I understand it was an extremely powerful programme. It refers to some very worrying events that are alleged to have taken place towards the end of that campaign. The Government, along with other Governments, have said that the Sri Lankan Government needs that to be investigated, and the UN needs it to be investigated. We need to make sure that we get to the bottom of what happened, and that lessons are learned.
Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of the shambles of corporate governance that is the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. I would not expect him to comment specifically on that, but does he agree, on behalf of millions of pensionholders and small shareholders across the country, that high standards of corporate governance in the City of London are critical, as is the role of the Financial Reporting Council? (59606)
I am aware of the problem. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that of course we want companies to come to London to access capital and float on the main market or the AIM market. It is one of the attractions of Britain that we are an open global economy, but when those companies come, they must understand that we have rules of corporate governance that are there for a reason, and they need to obey those rules. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will address that not only in his speech tonight, but in the papers that we will be publishing in subsequent days.
Does the Prime Minister agree that if the coalition Government had not adopted the economic policy that they did, but listened to the advice of the shadow Chancellor instead, mortgage interest rates could be 5% higher than they are now?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is that in this country today, tragically, we still have Greek levels of Government debt but German levels of interest rates. That is an enormous monetary boost to our economy, and we should all welcome the cut in unemployment today. If we had not taken action on the deficit and proved to the markets that we had a way of paying back the debt and the deficit, we would be straight back in the mess that that lot left us in.
Humanitarian Emergency Response Review
I should like to make a statement on the Government’s response, which I will publish in detail online later today, to the humanitarian and emergency response review carried out by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.
The Ashdown report is a deeply impressive document. It makes a compelling, clear and powerful case for reform. The Government agree with and endorse the review’s central thesis and will accept the vast majority of its specific recommendations. Indeed, in many areas we will go beyond its specific recommendations in order to drive faster improvement in the international response to disasters. I am extremely grateful to Lord Ashdown and his team for the work they have done to produce such a compelling and well-argued review. His formidable insight and experience shine through it. I am also grateful to all those who have taken the time and trouble to respond to the consultation and whose experience has added to the quality of the recommendations.
I pay tribute today to those Brits around the world who are working tirelessly in extreme circumstances to save lives during humanitarian crises. Their work, which is often unsung and undertaken at real personal risk, is truly heroic. I also pay tribute to the role of the British armed forces in responding to humanitarian emergencies. In Pakistan last year our armed forces provided swift and effective relief, flying in emergency bridges to reconnect families separated by the floods. In Haiti they brought life-saving equipment and supplies to those stricken by the earthquake.
The report sets a challenging agenda for the 21st century. It recognises that, although disasters are nothing new, we are experiencing a sudden increase in their intensity and frequency. It makes it clear that this trend will only grow with climate change, population growth and greater urbanisation. The review concluded that the Department for International Development has played a strong role in improving the quality of the wider international response. It is an area where Britain is well respected and well regarded, but there is no room for complacency, which is why I commissioned the review and why the Government will take action to implement it.
In the Government’s response to the review, I have set out how, in collaboration with others, we will rise to the challenges presented and how we will do even more to help people stricken by disasters and emergencies. There are some fundamental principles that will guide our response to humanitarian emergencies. First, we will continue to apply the core principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality to all Government humanitarian action. Secondly, we will respect, and promote respect for, international humanitarian law. Thirdly, and crucially, we will be motivated not by political, security or economic objectives, but by need and need alone.
We will deliver humanitarian assistance in three main ways. We will provide predictable support for our multilateral humanitarian partners, including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the United Nations. In humanitarian emergencies, where there is compelling and overwhelming need, we will provide additional resources to the international system, Governments, charities and non-governmental organisations. We will intervene directly where the UK can contribute in ways that others cannot or where there is substantial public interest in our doing so.
Let me turn to the detail of our response. Lord Ashdown’s report identifies seven specific themes: resilience, anticipation, leadership, innovation, accountability, partnership and humanitarian space. I will address each in turn. It is not enough for us simply to pick up the pieces once a disaster has struck. We need to help vulnerable communities to prepare for disasters and to become more resilient. That is where we can have most impact and where we can prevent lives from being lost. More resilient communities and countries will also recover faster from disaster. I commit DFID therefore to build resilience into all its country programmes.
We must anticipate and be prepared for disasters. We will work with Governments and the international system to become better at understanding where climate change, seismic activity, seasonal fluctuations and conflict will lead to humanitarian disasters. With others, we will set up a global risk register of those countries most at risk, so that the international effort can be more focused.
The review calls for stronger leadership by the international community. We strongly agree that the United Nations must be central to this, and I am extremely pleased that, under the leadership of the emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, the UN has already made that a priority. Britain will specifically back her agenda for change, but I accept that significant challenges remain. Members from all parts of the House need only look back to the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods to see examples of the United Nations failing to deliver the leadership that was badly needed, so we will work with other donors for much needed reforms.
The review highlights the role that innovation and science can play in every aspect of humanitarian response. We will establish an innovations team to embed humanitarian research and innovation in our core work.
We must always be accountable for and transparent about how we spend our development budget. It is taxpayers’ money. That duty of accountability extends not only to British citizens and taxpayers, but to those who depend upon our aid. We will therefore make accountability central to our humanitarian work and do more to measure our own impact and that of our partners.
Rarely is partnership more important than in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The strength and quality of that co-ordination can make the difference between life and death. We must therefore strive to develop stronger alliances, particularly with new donors, including the Gulf states, China and Brazil. We must improve the quality of our relationships with other key bilateral donors, making sure that our efforts are better co-ordinated and the burden of responsibility shared. I also want to involve fully charities, NGOs, faith groups, the diaspora and the private sector in our emergency response work.
The review calls for the protection and expansion of humanitarian space, including for people brutally affected by armed conflict. That is crucial to our aim of protecting civilians in conflict situations. We must make a consolidated effort throughout the Government, using all diplomatic, legal, humanitarian and military tools, to secure unfettered and immediate access for humanitarian relief wherever we can.
We recognise that to deliver this ambitious agenda, it is right that we change the way in which we fund the system, making it more effective and efficient, particularly in the first hours of an emergency. I have looked at the performance and efficiency that different humanitarian agencies offer. Many offer good value for money and have a sound track record in delivering results, saving lives and reducing suffering in some of the world’s most difficult places. Some, however, do not. I am therefore outlining today increased core support for the best performing humanitarian multilaterals. I have also commissioned detailed work to design a new facility that will enable prequalified charities and NGOs to respond to crises within the first 72 hours, and to design a new mechanism to support the strongest performing British charities to improve the timeliness and quality of responses to humanitarian causes. The Government will consult further on the details of those two instruments.
This country is a world leader in responding to humanitarian emergencies. By implementing Lord Ashdown’s recommendations, and by working alongside new partners, the private sector and other countries’ Governments, we can be even better. I want this House and this country to be proud of our efforts, knowing that we in Britain will be there when the disaster strikes.
Let me end with the words of a survivor of a cyclone in Haiti:
“The water started to rise, and it did not stop...the water was already so high and strong that I could not hold on to one of my children and the water swept her away. Luckily someone was there to grab her.”
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of the Government’s response to Lord Ashdown’s report. May I advise the House that I am responding today because my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Secretary of State is currently visiting Sierra Leone? We welcome Lord Ashdown’s important report. I pay tribute to him and to those who worked with him to produce an impressive and excellent set of proposals.
Over the past year, in Pakistan, Haiti, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Indonesia, we have seen the terrible destruction caused by a range of natural disasters. In Libya and Ivory Coast, we have seen how humanitarian crises can develop incredibly rapidly, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people. Lord Ashdown’s report reminds us that the number of humanitarian crises is likely to increase, and we must be ready to respond rapidly and effectively. We welcome the report’s emphasis on working through multilateral organisations. Does the Secretary of State agree that working multilaterally is generally the best way to ensure greater co-ordination and coherence in response to disaster and to prevent it?
The report recognises that DFID has been widely praised for its leading role in the international humanitarian community. The Secretary of State will know that since 2005 the Department has been one of the leading voices in calling for reforms in the international humanitarian system. We welcome the fact that the Government’s response recognises the need to strengthen international leadership, but what specific steps will he take to bring about that change? Will the Government take the lead in initiating a new round of high-level talks at the UN to push for greater reform, as the Labour Government did back in 2005? Why have the Government rejected a recommendation in the report to encourage the convening of a UN high-level panel to look at ways of improving the international system to face future challenges?
Our efforts in government also led to an expansion of the important central emergency response fund, and the report says that the fund should be expanded further. We welcome the extra $40 million that the Government announced for the fund in December last year, but can the Secretary of State tell us what the UK is doing to push other donor countries to make a similar substantial contribution? Does he agree that, as well as improvements in its response to disaster, the international community must do more to help to prevent and predict disasters, as Lord Ashdown’s report underlines?
As we have recently seen in Libya, gaining access to deliver humanitarian relief can be extremely difficult. I pay tribute to the many organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Islamic Relief, World Vision and Save the Children, which are often the first to reach those who need help. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will do all he can to ensure that aid workers can operate in safety and that aid is delivered in a way that ensures its neutrality and impartiality?
DFID is indeed rightly recognised around the world for its leadership in responding at times of crisis, and I pay tribute to its expert staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that in anticipating and responding to humanitarian emergencies, it is essential to have expert and skilled people? As DFID is reducing its administration budget by a third, can he assure us the necessary investment in humanitarian skills will be made given the scale of such cuts?
Lord Ashdown’s report recognises that the international humanitarian system is poorly equipped to ensure an equitable response for the most vulnerable—for example, women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. I welcome what the Secretary of State said in that regard and what the Government say in response to the full report. Will he assure us, however, that the Government will ensure that across the areas identified in the report, women in particular will be fully involved in the response to disaster, wherever it occurs?
Lord Ashdown’s report underlines the important role that diaspora communities play in responding to disaster, both through remittances and by raising awareness. I am glad that the Secretary of State recognised that in his statement. Can he give us more information on what he will do to ensure that there is greater recognition of the money that hard-working people in people in the UK send home to help people in the developing world?
The Ashdown report is an important step forward. Labour provided a strong lead on this issue in government, which produced real reform, but we know that there is much more to do. As Lord Ashdown said, humanitarian work
“cannot be the sticking plaster for a lack of political action”,
but it can make an important contribution to alleviating suffering around the world. Today’s welcome words need to be transferred into concrete action to ensure that in times of crisis our aid helps those who need it most.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and for his words about the team who constructed the Ashdown report under Lord Ashdown, and about the response from my team, particularly those in DFID’s conflict, humanitarian and security department.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a huge amount of common ground on this matter. In opposition, we long realised that there was a necessity not to be complacent, but to accept that we could do some things better. That is why my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister, some two years before the election, called for a report such as this, and why we have carried it out.
The hon. Gentleman was right to underline that all serious research suggests that the number of disasters will increase by as much as 50% over the next 15 years. That adds additional urgency to the work that we are doing. He was right to make it clear that the right way to lead in these disasters is through the multilateral system. That is why we are determined to play our part in making that system better. The cluster system that operates within it, in which Britain takes a leading role, is the right approach and we will do everything we can to see that it improves.
The central emergency response fund was set up by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is sitting alongside the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), and we supported it strongly in opposition. We think that it works extremely well and that it provides additional and immediate money in the event of a disaster. That is why we have significantly increased resources to the CERF. The additional fund that I announced today for help in the first 72 hours from pre-qualified charities and NGOs will enable us to carry on the principle of that work in, I believe, a more effective way.
The hon. Gentleman was right to make the point that building in resilience from day one is vital in all the work we do, and that is now happening. He was equally correct about the importance of gaining access for humanitarian relief, which we have called for consistently in Libya and will continue to call for in Syria and South Kordofan in Sudan. He was right that women should always be involved in such work. The role of women as people who suffer from humanitarian disasters on the front line is well understood. We give that issue our strong support through this work.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about remittancing and that there must be transparency in all that we do. As he pointed out, the money that we spend is taxpayers’ money. We are committed to recognising that. That is why we published the transparency guarantee early in the lifetime of the Government. When taxpayers’ money was used to alleviate the results of the floods in Pakistan last year, we had a floods monitor online so that people could see how hard-earned British taxpayers’ money was being spent and what relief it was securing.
In respect of these proposals, I believe that the International Development Committee has announced that it will consider in about a year’s time whether we have enacted what we have said we will do.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Lord Ashdown for his excellent report. On behalf of the International Development Committee, I thank Lord Ashdown for his active engagement with us on two separate occasions when we were preparing our report on the Pakistan floods. I note that the Secretary of State said that he will publish more detail than he could put in the statement on the steps that are being taken to improve the UK response.
Will the Secretary of State say what role the UK can play in getting UN leadership, not least to ensure that in the most vulnerable countries the UN co-ordinator has both the competence and the line-management authority to execute effective rescue operations? He spoke about the co-ordination of NGOs and lead NGOs. Will he ensure that that is not just a UK response, but that such co-ordination will happen internationally so that NGOs do not get in each other’s way and have the opposite effect to helping in the disaster?
My right hon. Friend is entirely right about those dangers, which he and his Select Committee have identified in their work, not least on the crisis in Haiti and the international response to it, particularly in the early hours.
On co-ordination, I did not answer the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) about the high-level panel. It is important to make it clear that Baroness Amos is leading an effective reform programme as the emergency relief co-ordinator. We back her strongly in that role, as do the heads of the UN agencies. I continue to talk to her and others at the UN about the findings of the multilateral aid review and the humanitarian emergency response review. That is the right way to take this agenda forward, so let us see how we get on with that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Lord Ashdown for a comprehensive report. On partnership, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Ashdown’s very strong view that we should consult those who receive aid, civil society in developing countries, and NGOs in areas where there is an established need, because those are the people on the ground who are best placed to tell us what is going on?
The right hon. Gentleman is extremely experienced in these matters and he is absolutely right. I am grateful for his comments about the Ashdown report. The issue of partnership, which Lord Ashdown identifies so clearly, and the issue of accountability are at the forefront of what we seek to do. For example, when we published the multilateral aid review, we did not keep it as an internal document, but put it online. We invited those we were assessing to comment on what we said and the recipients of the money to hold us to account. We will continue to do that. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that in the poorest parts of the world, understanding the effect of what we do on those we are seeking to help is vital to making the whole operation more effective.
I welcome this report and the Government’s response to it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he sees a significant role in the reshaped British humanitarian response to disasters for small, niche charities, such as the west country-based ShelterBox, which are often the first on the scene with important life-saving equipment such as tents, cooking facilities and water? I am sure that he does.
My hon. Friend is right about the absolute priority that the Government place on supporting such smaller charities. Many Members on both sides of the House will have seen them doing brilliant work overseas. There are a number of mechanisms through which they are supported. There is, of course, the global poverty action fund, which will have a fresh round for NGOs and charities in a month or two. ShelterBox, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will be known to many Members. It does a brilliant job and we support it strongly.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s words today, in particular his praise for the contribution of British NGOs in responding to humanitarian disasters. I appreciate his continuing support for the central role of the UN, in particular the agency that Valerie Amos leads so well. I gently point out to him that it was disappointing that no British Minister attended the CERF annual meeting in December. Given that America and France, two of our leading allies in the development debate, do not contribute to the CERF, will he set out how his leadership on this issue will lead to the topic being placed on the agendas of the G8, European Development Ministers and perhaps a No. 10 summit, so that there is more investment in the CERF to help the UN give the leadership it so desperately needs to give?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that we consider attendance at such meetings on the basis of need. We consider whether our attendance or our work in advance of a meeting will have the most effect. I and my ministerial colleagues travel ferociously in pursuit of this agenda. We have contributed in a large number of ways to the shape of the international community’s handling of humanitarian emergencies. The multilateral aid review played a significant part in that and the Ashdown review has played an enormous part in it. The Ashdown review is being read avidly by most of those who are engaged in this important work. For the future, we will consider, as we always do, what is the most effective way in which Britain can intervene to ensure the overall effectiveness of this vital work.
The UN has been notoriously slow and unco-ordinated in the past in responding to certain disasters, as a result of the poor leadership that has been identified. Notwithstanding the report on the agenda for change by Baroness Amos, will the Secretary of State assure us that his Department will relentlessly keep up the pressure on the UN? The next disaster, God forbid, may come tomorrow, and we need to know that the UN is fit for purpose today.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. It is the quality of local leadership on the ground that determines how quickly we can respond. Inevitably, although the UN actors on the ground are extremely good at what they do in normal times, they are sometimes not the right people to respond to disasters. That is why it is essential to get people there who can provide the necessary quality of leadership. For example, it was very interesting that the presence of John Ging, the No. 2 to Valerie Amos, in Libya very shortly after the conflict started led to an immediate response of a much better quality than we had previously seen.
Many communities in my constituency—particularly those from Pakistan and Bangladesh, although I could name many others—have a commendable record of contributing to relief when humanitarian disaster strikes. Given that, will the Secretary of State give us some more details of how he expects to involve diaspora communities in emergency relief work and ensure that their expertise is taken advantage of?
It depends on the disaster, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to point to the valuable work that diaspora communities do. In the case of the Pakistan floods last year, the Pakistani diaspora, not least in the midlands, made a tremendous contribution not only financially but through a number of different charities to which it gave strong support, not least Islamic Relief. That meant that it played a vital part in the overall British relief effort that was mobilised.
I welcome this excellent report and the Government’s response to it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the most deprived and threatened people are those in war zones? Does he further agree that the inter-agency working that he stressed so heavily, bringing together diplomatic, military and aid effort and the best of the non-governmental organisations, is in the very best interests of the criterion of need, and does not compromise it, as has occasionally been suggested?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course, people who live in conflict areas lose out twice over, first because they are very poor and secondly because they are permanently frightened by the conflict that is going on around them. That is why the coalition Government have made an absolute priority of doing much more in conflicted areas to bring help to people who are doubly cursed in that way. He is also right to point out that although humanitarian relief should always be circumstance-blind and help those who are in great need, proper co-ordination among all those who can help is essential.
As the Secretary of State knows, there is a continuing argument in the development community about whether it is appropriate for the military to deliver humanitarian aid. I should like to pay my own tribute to the British armed forces, whom I have seen in many parts of the world delivering humanitarian aid to people who would have died if they had not been there at the appropriate time.
The right hon. Lady makes a truly excellent point. Like her, I have seen how the military have delivered to desperate people at times of great need. We saw it, indeed, in Pakistan last year. We have not needed military support to deliver aid in Libya so far, although the military have been willing to provide it. I have discussed the matter frequently with Valerie Amos, who takes a sensible and pragmatic view in the interests, which we all serve, of trying to get aid and support through to people who are in great need.
I welcome the excellent Secretary of State’s statement. One problem appears to be the loss of life in the early hours of a disaster. We have seen emergency response teams ready to go from this country but being stopped because they do not have clearance to land in the areas affected. What can be done about that problem?
I think my hon. Friend is referring to a particular incident involving a Scottish charity. I have looked at that incident in detail, and I am happy that what he says about it is not actually correct. However, it is extremely important that there should be really good co-ordination. We should not have the situation that we saw all too frequently in Haiti, which was a huge number of people heading towards a disaster target without the co-ordination to ensure that they could be effective on the ground.
May I add my own voice to the welcome for the report of the noble Lord Ashdown and the Government’s response to it? As part of its inquiry into the humanitarian response to the Pakistan floods, the International Development Committee found that some eight months after the disaster, and with millions still in need of assistance, only one third of the $2 billion UN appeal funds had been disbursed in Pakistan. The noble Lord’s report states that that was disappointing, maybe even inadequate, and adds that it cost money, opportunities and perhaps even lives. What leadership will the Government show at UN level to ensure that that does not happen again?
The hon. Gentleman identifies one of the problems with the relief effort that the international community mounted in Pakistan. Indeed, the Select Committee on which he serves has produced a most valuable report, from which the international system will learn relevant lessons. I think it would be fair to say that Britain was concerned, we were the first country to come in great scale to give strong support to the people of Pakistan in their hours of greatest need. Britain also continually pushed and prodded the international system to up its game. That was what we did at the time, and those are also the tactics that we are using now. The report will be helpful in achieving them.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to my noble Friend’s report. Together with the Government’s pledge to fulfil the 40-year-old promise to spend 0.7% of our national income on development assistance, including the outstanding promise to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, that puts us in a potentially world-leading position in international development and humanitarian assistance. Will he reassure us, though, that the pre-qualification process that he described will not inadvertently disadvantage the smaller local NGOs that are obviously on the ground first and, as the review makes clear, often do an excellent job at very low cost?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are going to consult about the pre-qualification process, to ensure that that does not happen. The fund will be there to help those who are already on the ground, so that in the first 72 hours, when action is critical for reasons that the House will acknowledge, we can ensure that money is not a barrier to immediate and effective action. I therefore think I can reassure him on that point.
The GAVI pledging conference that took place yesterday will have a direct effect on disaster relief, because it will prevent children from getting sick. We should all be enormously proud of the leadership of Britain and the Prime Minister. As a result of the replenishment conference exceeding its target yesterday by some $600 million, we will be able to vaccinate more than a quarter of a billion children over the next five years in the poorest parts of the world and save nearly 5 million lives.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s thinking on a standing faculty for emergency response, including NGOs. Will he assure us that there will be no tension in practice between the follow-through on the Ashdown review and the follow-through on the previous DFID reviews, which put particular emphasis on buying results? The Ashdown review particularly emphasises resilience, innovation and science, and humanitarian space in areas of conflict, the benefits of which are not always as quantifiable as those of some other measures. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Ashdown recommendations are not casualties of the results-buying emphasis of previous reviews?
All three reviews to which the hon. Gentleman refers focus directly on the results that we are achieving, not only in delivering real value for money to British taxpayers, whose money we are deploying, but for those whom we are trying to help. Whereas the Ashdown review was a review given to the Government, to which I am responding today, the first two were reviews by the Government. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at all three, he will find that they are seamlessly joined by the common interest of ensuring that international development work from Britain is more effective and buys yet greater results.
I cannot think of anyone better than Lord Ashdown to have produced such a report, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on commissioning it. The real lead on humanitarian responses is, properly, the United Nations. We have a first-class person for emergency co-ordination in the UN, in Baroness Amos. However, above her in the UN is the Security Council, which too often makes decisions at the speed of a striking slug. Is there any way in which we, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can encourage other members and ourselves to make a special case for emergency responses, so that we are not constrained by the requirements of veto, unanimity or majority voting?
My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about these issues, tempts me to stray beyond my areas of competence. However, I can tell him that the Foreign Secretary has been ceaselessly engaged over the last week in precisely that way in respect of a new resolution on Syria.
I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s point, and I agree that it was absolutely right to appoint Lord Ashdown, whose peculiar combination of talent and experience has led to this extremely good, wise and sensible report. I also agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to prioritise the UN, and to understand that at the end of the day, only the UN can be the chief co-ordinator. The UN is essential if we are to have an effective response on the ground.
The Secretary of State says that he wishes to put women and girls at the heart of his development policy. He will be aware that violence against women and girls is a feature in such crises. How do we deal with that problem better?
It is an absolute priority of the Government to try to stop violence against women—we have some 15 country programmes for which that is an absolute priority. I attended the Home Secretary’s meeting of Ministers yesterday on that very subject, and spoke about the international dimension of it. The hon. Lady may rest assured that it remains right at the top of our agenda. Of course, women and girls suffer most in such crises. We have provided protection for children and displaced women, not least in respect of the Ivory Coast-Liberian border, on which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State leads. That is the most important aspect of the work that we do there.
I welcome both the Ashdown report and the Government response. DFID is a world-class organisation with a world-class reputation.
It is particularly important to focus on anticipation. The risk register is a great addition to the tools that DFID can use. On that basis, will we also develop strategies to mitigate that risk and that can ensure that we push and help countries to move along a pathway to reduce the risk that they face from, for example, climate change?
My hon. Friend identifies entirely accurately one of the seven key points made by Lord Ashdown and his advisory committee in their report. Anticipating disaster and ensuring that we develop a comprehensive risk register, and working on disaster reduction, which is one thing that the Minister of State has focused on in Nepal, are essential if we are to take that agenda forward.
Even though the Secretary of State has been in office for only a year, he is turning out to be outstanding at his job, supported by a very fine team of Ministers. Will he confirm that nothing in his statement will affect the Government’s ability to deliver relief to the people of Yemen? It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is on the brink of civil war. Will he confirm that we can still help the Yemeni people?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We understand the importance of Yemen, which remains on a humanitarian knife edge. With the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we are looking specifically at needs mapping within Yemen for when we can get back there. We continue to give very strong support to the agencies that conduct humanitarian relief in Yemen, and to bear in mind at all times whether we can do more to assist.
I warmly welcome the Ashdown report and the Government’s response. May I urge the Government to take an integrated, cross-departmental approach to this that includes the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence as well as DFID, in order to anticipate better how different risk factors can combine to threaten human life? For example, water shortage in a politically volatile area could trigger conflict, turning a humanitarian problem into a humanitarian disaster.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, which are extremely helpful. She is right to talk about the absolute importance of integration. I can reassure her to this extent: proposals on climate change, on which we are involved in much work, come to a cross-ministerial board, which includes DECC, DFID, the Treasury and other Departments that have a direct interest. As I indicated in my statement, we will not forget the importance of strong, cross-Whitehall collaboration.
I welcome what the Secretary of State says about resilience and enabling countries to respond better if a crisis strikes, but does he recognise that some humanitarian crises can be avoided? If we did more work on food security and pre-positioning food stocks—in the horn of Africa, say—on climate change or on regional integration, such as by getting an upstream country to warn a downstream country when a flood is coming, we could avoid crises. Work must be done by DFID and the UN on that.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. That is why we have, for example, consistently sought to pre-position food and shelter in respect of Sudan, which until very recently has not been required. In respect of Pakistan, we are trying to ensure that we understand the monsoon pattern and whether any flooding will take place this year. The review and the Government’s response rightly recognise his point on encouraging resilience and anticipation.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement? He will know that there was an earthquake in Nepal 70 or so years ago and that another is predicted imminently. What steps are his Department taking to plan for that and to assist if that need arises?
My hon. Friend accurately recognises a serious threat within Nepal. That is one reason why the Minister of State has taken a close interest, including by visiting Nepal and talking to all those who are involved there about the role of disaster reduction. We take very strong account in our planning of the points that my hon. Friend rightly makes, not only in respect of Nepal, but in other areas of stress and vulnerability.
May I, too, welcome Lord Ashdown’s report and the Secretary of State’s statement? Does he agree that there are particular dangers for those involved when a humanitarian emergency results from a political crisis? He will remember the kidnapping of the head of Caritas earlier this year during the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Soldiers will continue to play an important role in providing humanitarian relief, but will he ensure that assistance is always given on its merits, and that it is not conditional on political strategy or military engagement?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point on which I sought to be absolutely clear in my opening remarks. Humanitarian relief must be needs-based, and must not take account of such extraneous factors. That is the commitment of the British Government —it has long been a commitment of Governments of all parties, and it continues just as strongly today.
Whenever disaster strikes, and in almost whatever form it takes, there always seems to be a shortage of helicopters. What can we do to improve international co-ordination to ensure a quicker and better helicopter lift capacity in emergency zones?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He rightly identifies that problem as one of the critical pinch points, as it was particularly in Pakistan last summer. We are considering that and a number of similar issues, and I hope to have more to say in due course.
In his introduction, the Secretary of State said that “we will intervene directly where the UK can contribute in ways that others cannot”. I welcome that, but will he clarify whether that means intervening for the sake of the responsibility to protect agenda? If so, does he agree that often humanitarian disasters occur in areas of conflict or failed states, and that we therefore have a responsibility to recognise that we must sometimes act quickly and without the agreement of the relevant Government?
In respect of the responsibility to protect, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a technical UN term that triggers certain other actions. The point that I was making was narrower and it was that if Britain has a unique skill or the capacity to intervene in a humanitarian situation, we should always consider whether it is right to do so. That was my point and it is narrower than the basis on which he seeks to get me to proceed.
I warmly welcome both Lord Ashdown’s report and the Government’s response. In a humanitarian crisis, securing access to clean water and sanitation is often one of the key challenges. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is hugely important that engineering charities such as RedR and WaterAid are given the support they need to provide technical assistance in an emergency and upskill local people to make that sustainable?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. She identifies two of Britain’s brilliant NGOs, RedR and WaterAid, which both do such good work in some of the most challenging places anywhere in the world. She also identifies the importance of clean water and sanitation. Britain is doing this in terms of steady state development, with a commitment to get more clean water and sanitation to people in the poor world than the total population of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in terms of our work through the cluster system, giving strong support on water and sanitation, not least to Oxfam. That is an absolute priority in almost all humanitarian disasters.
The objectives set out in Lord Ashdown’s report will require what he calls “transformational change” across the Department to give greater prominence to the humanitarian agenda. In the Government’s response, will the Secretary of State set out in more detail how he intends to bring forward that transformational change, in particular with regard to staffing and programming of DFID projects?
All the humanitarian aid we give for natural disasters, such as that in Pakistan, or to countries with civil unrest, such as Syria, Egypt and Sudan, is good news. However, the feedback from some of those countries is that those of a Christian faith and in evangelical Churches are at the back of the queue and ignored when it comes to humanitarian aid. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that that two-tier system of assistance will not continue to disadvantage those of that faith in those countries?
I hear those allegations from time to time and I always ensure that they are investigated with the seriousness and rigour that such allegations obviously deserve. We have set up a working party with all the faith communities, which will commence work shortly. That will be quite a good issue for the faith communities to address and advise on. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, we take all such matters extremely seriously and investigate them immediately.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I received a letter this morning before I asked the Prime Minister a question about a company called ENRC. The letter was from the solicitors Mishcon de Reya and it referred to comments that I made during an Adjournment debate on 23 May. Essentially, it accuses me of a misuse of parliamentary privilege and I ask for your advice on what, if anything, I should do next. It seems to me that if I call someone “a shady middle man”—as I did Dan Gertler, their client—because that is what I believe to be true and a justifiable comment, it is a use of parliamentary privilege rather than a misuse. The letter appears to be an attempt to constrain a Member of Parliament from expressing his views clearly and fairly in this House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for notice of his intention to put it to me. My response is twofold. First, if he wishes to make a complaint about the attempted denial of his parliamentary privilege by the firm of lawyers to which he refers, he needs to write to me and I will consider that complaint in accordance with the normal procedure. Secondly, I recall clearly that I was in the Chair for that Adjournment debate on 23 May. If he had been out of order, I would have said so. I did not, because he was not.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier, I asked the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, whether he could tell me the date on which parliamentary counsel were instructed to draft amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill following the NHS Future Forum consultation. In response, the Minister of State referred me to the Health Secretary. In fact, the Minister of State is responsible for parliamentary counsel and should respond to that question. What guidance can you give on how to obtain that information as the Minister responsible did not respond to the question?
I am grateful for that point of order, of which I was unsighted. I make no complaint about that, but I simply say that I am giving an off-the-cuff response to the hon. Gentleman. Which Minister responds to a particular question put by the hon. Gentleman is a matter for the Government. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is disappointed by the response—or what he regards as the absence of a response—but he is an experienced and indefatigable Member who I am sure will find other ways, possibly through the Table Office, to pursue his concerns.
If there are no further points of order, we come now to the ten-minute rule Bill, for which the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has been patiently waiting.
Remembrance Day (Bank Holiday)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to designate the Monday after Remembrance Sunday as an annual bank holiday in the United Kingdom with effect from 2012; and for connected purposes.
This Bill would consolidate and entrench long-term public support for our armed forces. My constituency of Devizes includes many of the Salisbury plain garrison towns and is home to more than 10,000 members of the armed forces and at least the same number of service family members.
My father, both grandfathers and my great-grandfather served in the British Army. I am therefore particularly proud to wear a poppy in early November, sport various charity wristbands, attend homecomings and parades in both Westminster and Wiltshire, observe the silence at 11 am on Armistice Day, and to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday. Indeed, laying a wreath at the Devizes war memorial last November was one of the most solemn and thought-provoking moments of my new career as a Member of Parliament. I am also proud to support armed forces day, introduced more than two years ago and held in late June. I know that in all of this support I am joined by Members on both sides of the House and millions of people across the country.
But I fear that with all these initiatives and opportunities to show our support we have perhaps fragmented that support—diluted the brand. And many events happen at weekends when working families—as I know for myself—can face as many time pressures as they do during the week, sometimes making their participation in weekend events difficult.
I am also concerned that while we have seen a real upwelling of support for the armed forces in the last few years, due in no small part to the tireless work of the Royal British Legion, who are Britain’s “custodians of remembrance”, as well as the work of charities such as Help for Heroes—headquartered in my constituency—SSAFA and the Army Benevolent Fund, when our soldiers return home from their current operations it may be difficult to keep this momentum going and to ensure that we as a country deliver on our obligations under the military covenant. A day set aside in our busy calendars for remembrance, support and celebration of our armed forces would help to keep the support alive in the future.
This is not a radical suggestion. Many other countries pay tribute to their armed forces with a national holiday, including the United States, Canada, Russia, France and Israel. Indeed, among the five countries spending the most on their military budgets, only Britain and China do not have a national holiday commemorating their service personnel—but at least in China soldiers get a half-day off on army day.
With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take the House on a 10,000-mile trip to the southern hemisphere and consider Anzac day in New Zealand and Australia. As many Members know, I have the great good fortune to be married to a Kiwi, and it was his reminiscences of Anzac day—a national holiday in those countries on 25 April—that contributed to my proposal today. Many young people from down under could tell us in detail about the brutal Gallipoli campaign of the first world war; how many fought, died and were wounded; and how many and who fell from their school. Furthermore, many will have made a pilgrimage to the Dardanelles site. Do you think, Mr Speaker, that if we asked a similar cohort of British young people to name even one first world war battle, let alone the casualty numbers, we would get a similar result? I think not.
Setting aside a national day of remembrance and celebration would help us all with that collective memory. I have suggested the Monday after Remembrance day as a bank holiday. I would equally be in favour of having the holiday on Armistice day itself, but I am aware that the British Legion has concerns about diluting the long-standing tradition of the silence, and if the Bill is taken forward I would wish to work with the British Legion and other organisations to work out the best day. However, one of these historically resonant dates would be appropriate.
It is not for me to propose an additional holiday, although I know it would be popular in the country, and I am aware that it would cause concerns for businesses. However, there are clearly some anomalies in the current distribution of bank holidays. This year we have had one bank holiday in January, three in April and two in May, but there is only one more to look forward to—at the end of August—before the Christmas break. Many people think that trading one of the bank holidays—one in May, it has been suggested—for a Remembrance day holiday in November would be a reasonable swap. Members on both sides of the House support this proposal, although my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said that he would do so on the basis that the holiday be called Wootton Bassett day, which is a suggestion I am, of course, prepared to entertain—I am relaxed about the title.
The British people support the idea. In a recent YouGov poll, Remembrance day, along with St George’s day, was the favoured date for an additional holiday in Great Britain. Last week I spent the day with young men and women of the British Army, many of whom were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in the next few months. I was deeply moved by the spirit, dedication, determination and quiet courage of those young people. I would like the whole country to have an opportunity to pay tribute to them, their comrades, veterans of the services and those who have fallen, to whom we owe so much. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Claire Perry, Andrew Rosindell, Bob Stewart, Mr Julian Brazier, Kwasi Kwarteng, Mr James Gray, Mr Michael McCann, Mr Dominic Raab, Chris Heaton-Harris, Charlie Elphicke, Dan Jarvis and John Glen present the Bill.
Claire Perry accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October, and to be printed (Bill 203).
Welfare Reform Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Ending of discretionary payments
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 39, page 52, line 22, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) Section 138(1)(b) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (discretionary payments out of Social Fund) may be repealed, if the Secretary of State—
(a) publishes a detailed proposal for a replacement scheme, or schemes, based on wide consultation with relevant stakeholders;
(b) ensures that such a scheme, or schemes, will provide financial protection for applicants in an emergency or crisis, with the eligibility criteria for applicants specified in regulations;
(c) demonstrates the feasibility of such a scheme, or schemes, through a pilot or pathfinder process; and
(d) demonstrates how an independent appeals mechanism will be implemented.’.
Amendment 40, page 52, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) In consequence of the provision in subsection (1), the office of the social fund commissioner may be abolished.’.
Amendment 54, page 128, line 28, leave out Schedule 8.
Amendment 53 relates to the abolition of the social fund and addresses a number of the concerns that Members raised on Second Reading and in Committee.
The Government propose to abolish key elements of the social fund—the community care grants and the crisis loans—and to replace them with support through local authorities. The social fund, particularly the crisis loan, is critical to many Members in representing their constituents. That is the case not only in my constituency but across the country. These mechanisms support people in desperate need and at key times in their lives, and they are safety nets when people are facing essential expenditure that they cannot meet. My concern is that many organisations have made representations to the Government, Committee members and Members of the House urging that the social fund should not be abolished without robust and effective alternatives put in its place. The proposal should certainly be fully explored and tested before any change is made.
Social funds have been critical. The numbers of recipients of social funds and of applications demonstrate their importance. In 2009-10, there were 640,000 applications for community care grants, 3.64 million for crisis loans and 1.69 million for budgeting loans. Some 263,000 CCGs were awarded, 2.7 million crisis loans were awarded, and 1.2 million budgeting loans were awarded, so the expenditure was significant. They have a significant impact on individuals’ lives and in tackling poverty across the country. Some £139 million was spent on CCGs, £109 million net was spent on crisis loans, and £482 million gross on budgeting loans. This is therefore a large-scale activity that is vital to the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society. Even at this level of expenditure, however, the Public Accounts Committee concluded, having investigated CCGs, that only 32% of legitimate demand was being met.
I am extremely pleased that the Department for Work and Pensions is retaining budgeting loans and advance loans for alignment payments. However, I and many Members and voluntary organisations working in this field are unclear about what will replace the crisis loans and the CCGs. I am gravely concerned about the proposals to transfer responsibility to local authorities, which will be expected to design their own schemes for emergency support. Those responsibilities are being transferred at a time when local authority budgets are being cut. My understanding is that the funding will not be ring-fenced. In their consultation, the Government suggested that local authorities could also meet some of the demands with payments in kind—food parcels and second-hand furniture were mentioned as examples. I am also concerned that without clear guidance councils might be able unilaterally to introduce and force new conditions on those applying for emergency support.
I tabled the amendment because of the real danger that we will now be faced with numerous schemes being developed by local authorities, and that vulnerable people will lose this essential support. I am concerned that if the funding to local authorities is not ring-fenced, it will be diverted to other priorities.
Let me give the example of what happened to the playbuilder grant in my area. I chair the local play association, which I also helped to set up. When the ring fence was lifted, the Government initially sought to withdraw elements of the second year of the scheme. I am grateful that the Secretary of State for Education reinstated them and returned significant amounts to local authorities, which was a real breakthrough. However, because the money was not ring-fenced, much of it unfortunately appears to have been diverted into other areas of council expenditure, rather than going to improve play for children. That is just one example, from the most recent period, of funds that were not ring-fenced being allocated to local authorities and then spent for purposes other than those that the Government had intended. The Minister has agreed that allocations will be based on social fund spending, which will be regularly reviewed and the data updated. However, my concern is that if money is not ring-fenced in the first stages, it will be creamed off in the early years to be spent elsewhere.
We in Scotland have had four years’ experience of the removal of ring-fencing, supposedly to free up local authorities. I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s comments on our experience. Now that the ring fence has been removed, it is difficult to track what is happening to funds such as the supporting people fund, which give people valuable low-level support.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me: I forgot about the experience in Scotland. What she describes is a classic example of what could happen. I am quite fearful, because I have been a councillor and I know about the pressures on local authorities when they expend their resources. If there are no clear guidelines or statutory duties placed on the authorities, elements of expenditure that the Government might have allocated with the best of intentions might not be spent in the way that the Government would want.
I am fearful that if people lose access to the scale of emergency support they currently draw on, their alternative will be to go to higher-cost lenders such as loan sharks, thereby falling into greater debt. Even in advance of the reforms, we have already had a number of pawnbrokers opening up in the town centre in my area, with the local citizens advice bureau reporting increased evidence of the use of loans from loan sharks. A number of organisations have expressed their concern that having numerous different local schemes could mean that we end up with—I do not like this phrase—a postcode lottery of access to life’s necessities, as a result of the loans not being distributed coherently and consistently. I am also concerned that local authorities seem not to have been given any guidelines or directives about establishing an appeals mechanism. Unless an appeals mechanism is set up, claimants will not have the security of being able to challenge decisions made locally.
I would therefore urge the Government not to abolish or wind down the social fund without giving an absolutely clear commitment about what will replace it. If emergency support is to be localised, we need strong, unambiguous and extremely clear statutory duties placed on local authorities to support vulnerable people, and for those duties to be attached specifically to such funding. I urge the Government to think again about ring-fencing, so that the money cannot be diverted away from the poor. The social fund commissioner proposed that the Government consider establishing national criteria for the schemes to be drawn up by local authorities, to ensure consistency in the use of local discretion. It would still be possible to reflect local circumstances, but national parameters would be set on the use of that discretion. I am also concerned that the devolution of emergency support services might create high administrative costs—this has been mentioned by a number of organisations, including Age UK and the Disability Alliance—which might divert funds away from provision for the poorest.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Would he like to comment on the observation made in the evidence that we received on the Public Bill Committee that the distribution of such loans nationally is very uneven in any event, despite a national body administering them? On that basis, would there not be some merit in distributing funds to local authorities on a needs basis?