Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 536: debated on Monday 28 November 2011

House of Commons

Monday 28 November 2011

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Benefit Fraud

I remind my hon. Friends of our inheritance from the previous Government: fraud and error in the benefit system were at £3.1 billion and progress had plateaued since 2005. The joint strategy with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs started in 2010 and included mobile regional taskforces to look at different areas. We are targeting claimants in high fraud areas with visits, phone calls and letters. One pilot has been completed in Birmingham and we have two more in Cardiff and Croydon. We will carry out evaluation once all three are completed. So far, since October, from case cleansing alone we have saved more than £100 million.

I thank my right hon. Friend. Will he share with the House how many benefit fraudsters were actually prosecuted last year?

We prosecuted almost 10,000 benefit fraudsters in 2010-11, up from 8,200 the year before. Of those, 86% were successfully convicted—[Interruption.] I would have thought that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) would like to keep quiet, because he has made one mistake already and is bound to put his foot in it again. We will push for the strongest possible sentences. In all cases, benefit fraudsters are required to pay back the money they have stolen.

Benefit fraud is not just stealing from the taxpayer; it also leads to less money being available to those who are most in need. One measure that should deter benefit cheats is the one, two and three strikes rules. How successful does my right hon. Friend think that those rules will be in reducing benefit fraud?

When the Welfare Reform Bill has passed through the other place, that process will begin and I think it will be very successful. Another important thing that we will do is bring together all the disparate benefit groups chasing fraud so that we have a much more cohesive strategy. Under the previous Government data were collected so shoddily that it is difficult to get to the absolute truth about the figures, so finally and importantly, we intend to change that.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to tackle benefit fraud, and he mentioned the scheme in Cardiff. Is he being equally assiduous in tackling a lack of benefit take-up among people who should be entitled to benefits?

That is exactly what universal credit will help to change. The most important point is that its automatic nature will mean far fewer cases of people not receiving in the first place what they are entitled to. One good example is child care: many women, in particular, who are responsible for looking after children do not get the child care that they need, and under the universal credit that should change.

Universal credit is supposed to be much simpler than the current system. Why, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, will 380,000 people receive penalties for mistakes on their application and when will negligence be defined?

The point about universal credit is that it gets rid of quite a lot of the complexity in the system. That complexity has led to so many mistakes by individuals claiming and by the officials who are meant to be settling those claims. The hon. Lady, and her party, should welcome the arrival of universal credit at the earliest opportunity.

Jobcentre Plus (Business Support)

2. What support is available through Jobcentre Plus for people who wish to start their own business. (82820)

I am pleased to refer my hon. Friend to the announcement we made a couple of weeks ago that our new enterprise allowance is now available nationwide for people who are looking to move from unemployment to self-employment. The early indications from Merseyside, where the scheme started back in the spring, are that a significant number of people have moved into self-employment. Those to whom I have spoken regard it as a really positive experience and are doing well as a result.

I thank the Minister for that answer. One resource that we do not necessarily use effectively is the help of retired business men and women who are interested in mentoring new start-ups. Would Jobcentre Plus consider recruiting them across the country to ensure that such start-ups have a much greater likelihood of success?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of mentoring. The difference between the new enterprise allowance and previous schemes is that it involves mentoring, which is often, as she says, provided by retired business people. We are looking to recruit as many mentors as possible through the Jobcentre Plus network and the organisations supporting enterprise allowance participants. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have an important role to play in helping to encourage people whom they come across in their constituency work to put themselves forward as mentors.

What advice is available now through Jobcentre Plus? I am sure the Minister agrees that we do not want people to end up back on benefits having started businesses which failed only a few weeks or months later because they did not know how to run them effectively.

That is absolutely the reason we have put mentoring at the heart of the new enterprise allowance—so that participants have a mentor who will work alongside them, not simply to prepare a business plan but to ensure in the first few months of trading that they do not make the kind of mistake that can cause the business to fail immediately.

I am greatly encouraged by the efforts of the Minister and the Department for Work and Pensions to encourage entrepreneurship among the unemployed. The plan currently includes the provision of low-interest loans of up to £1,000, but sadly that amount does not go an awfully long way these days. I would welcome hearing from the Minister that the Department might consider, down the line, providing low-interest loans of up to £2,000, as that would make a significant difference.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are several aspects to the scheme that we intend to review and consider as time goes by to see whether changes can be made to make the scheme even more effective. I will happily give serious consideration to the point he raises.

The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group points out that tax credits today support self-employment much better than the proposals for universal credit will in future because universal credit will assume that people are earning at least the minimum wage, which is completely unrealistic in the early years of self-employment. Will the Minister look again at that particular problem with universal credit at least for people in the first year or two of self-employment?

We will monitor carefully how the decisions we have taken on universal credit work. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we want to encourage and support self-employment, and we cannot allow people to shelter themselves on benefits under the false excuse that they are self-employed. In order to encourage people and to make sure that claimants are genuine, we are putting in place new rules. However, as I have said to him in Committee, every individual will have the right to self-assess or self-refer each month, so that we always get amounts right and do not penalise people who are trying to do the right thing.

Disability Benefit

3. What steps he is taking to improve public understanding of benefits available for people with (a) a hidden disability and (b) other forms of disability. (82821)

5. What steps he has taken to improve public understanding of benefits available for people with (a) a hidden disability and (b) other forms of disability. (82823)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, the Government’s welfare reform programme will help to make our benefits system more understandable, less complex and better focused on those who really need help to live an independent life, so restoring trust in benefit provision, which has been so badly eroded in recent years. The Government also provide support for better understanding through Jobcentre Plus and work to support user-led organisations.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Government are right to tackle benefit fraud, but is she aware of the “Bad News for Disabled People” report by the university of Glasgow, which showed that the public dramatically overestimate the level of fraud in disability benefits by as much as 70%, based on inaccurate media reporting? What can the Government do to challenge that?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question on an issue of which many hon. Members are aware. We are very conscious of the language we use when we talk about these issues, because we are clear that it is the system that has trapped people in a spiral of welfare dependency and that there has been a failure to reform benefits such as disability living allowance and to build any sense of reassessment into them. Those are the sorts of things that can create such problems and the Government are tackling them.

Despite the public’s overestimation of benefit fraud, in our constituency surgeries we see cases of the exact opposite—people who have a severe disability that affects their ability to work but who are found by the initial Atos assessment to be fit for work. Appeals can be stressful and costly, so will the Department implement Professor Harrington’s recommendation and publish data on the quality of Atos assessments and the percentage of successful appeals, so that we can judge for ourselves whether improvements are being made?

We have accepted all of Professor Harrington’s proposals. Let me draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that the number of successful appeals against the work capability assessment are substantially lower than for its predecessor, the personal capability assessment.

What work have the Minister and her Department undertaken with employers to make them more aware of hidden disabilities and the adaptations that they may need to make in the workplace to enable disabled people to keep or obtain a job?

As the hon. Lady knows, we work on an ongoing basis with employers through a number of forums. In particular, I am aware of the work that an organisation such as BT does to support its employees in such matters. It is by showcasing that sort of good practice that we will get a better understanding more broadly among employers.

Given that evidence of public understanding of disability benefits is often hazy, does the Minister with responsibility for disabled people agree with the Secretary of State when he said earlier this month in a comment in a daily newspaper:

“At the moment . . . millions of pounds are paid out in . . . benefits to people who have simply filled out a form”,

thereby giving credence to yet another negative and erroneous story about disabled people? If she does not, what efforts has she made personally to discover who briefed the story, and what action has she or her Secretary of State taken to correct the facts in this instance and to challenge future stories of a similar ilk?

The right hon. Lady will know, from her time working in the Department for Work and Pensions, that there are indeed many people who simply fill in a form and receive a benefit, and that we are not making the right sort of assessment to ensure that that is correct in future. She may also be aware that £600 million is given out each year for disability living allowance, which is an over-assessment of people’s needs.

Contracted Work

16. What steps he has taken to ensure that work contracted by his Department will not be moved offshore. (82837)

We have a policy to control contracted work being offshored. Our suppliers are required to seek approval before they offshore any contracted work. Those approvals are predicated on their meeting stringent guidelines. I should also say that, as a team of Ministers, we have indicated very clearly to our suppliers that we will not countenance seeing existing UK employment offshored.

My right hon. Friend’s comments will be welcome news for many of my constituents, who are employed by his Department in Leeds. Can he tell the House what the future holds for the disabled benefits centre in Leeds?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are in the process of rationalising our estate, where we have a number of part-empty and under-used buildings. We have not made a formal announcement about the future situation, but I can confirm that it is our intention to continue to process disability benefits in Leeds.

Following a recent meeting of business leaders in my constituency, we are working hard to try to ensure that contracts stay in Redditch and that we bring new jobs to Redditch. Will the Minister consider Redditch as a serious contender for any new contracts that he wishes to award?

I commend my hon. Friend for her commitment to her constituency. Clearly, my colleagues and I have listened to the point that she makes, but there is a more important issue behind what she says—that each one of us as Members of Parliament, even including yourself, Mr Speaker, have an important role to play in building links between employers, welfare-to-work organisations and others who can help make sure that the unemployed in this country find an opportunity to get back into work as early as possible.

Last July, during Department for Work and Pensions questions, the Minister said that in his view,

“British-based staff are the best contact centre staff”.—[Official Report, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 604.]

Will he therefore acknowledge the role played by MPs, workers and the Public and Commercial Services Union in persuading Hewlett Packard to drop its plans to offshore more than 200 DWP jobs, and will he commit to ensuring that his Government’s procurement policies do not permit contractors to jeopardise UK jobs and sensitive public data in this way in future?

The hon. Lady is right. I personally intervened as Minister to say that that offshoring should not take place. It is important that we do not see Government-controlled employment move offshore. We have a job to try to maximise employment in this country, and I pay tribute to all those involved in that work force for drawing our attention to the issue and the challenge. It is by far the best option to see people investing in the UK. It is particularly gratifying to see the contact centre industry around the UK increasingly reopening centres, recognising that British workers are far better at delivering good customer service than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Work Experience

8. What assessment he has made of the effect of work experience programmes on employment prospects. (82826)

13. What assessment he has made of the effect of work experience programmes on employment prospects. (82834)

Early indications show that the work experience programme is proving extremely successful. The first figures we published for the period up to August show that more than half the young people starting a work experience placement under the scheme are off benefits within three months. As the scheme is extremely cost-effective, that is welcome news.

Will the Minister visit one such successful work experience programme in Haverhill in my constituency, where youth unemployment has fallen by 15% since the programme started? Some 40% of young unemployed people are on the programme and, as with the national average, half of them are going into full-time jobs, even where there were no vacancies.

I pay tribute to the staff of Jobcentre Plus in my hon. Friend’s constituency for their part in delivering a successful scheme. I will be delighted, the next time I am in Suffolk, to drop in with him to meet and pay tribute to them for what they have done.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that work experience schemes need to progress to apprenticeships, and will he support the scheme I am working on with the charity New Deal for the Mind, Harlow college and Essex county council, which aims to employ genuine apprentices in Parliament?

I am very happy to support and pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts. He is a model example of how an individual Member of Parliament can make a real difference by identifying an area where they can transform people’s prospects. His work on apprenticeships is a credit to him and to the House.

As someone who was involved in recruitment for many years before becoming a Member of Parliament, I know that it is certainly better to have work experience on a CV than a gap, so will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn those people who have described the scheme as akin to modern-day slavery?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are times when I read things and have to step back in amazement and think, “Some people just don’t get it.” The work experience scheme is making a real difference for young people. I pay tribute to the firms taking part in the scheme, particularly, given recent publicity, our supermarkets, which are large and diverse employers with wide-ranging opportunities. They are playing an important role in giving young people a start in their careers. The scheme is working, and that is enormously down to the work of employers in helping to give young people an opportunity.

I believe, like other colleagues, that work experience is beginning to have a real effect on the employment prospects of the young. I also see from the sister programme, the Work programme, a really encouraging drop in long-term unemployment in my constituency of Gloucester. I understand the reasons for waiting a year to analyse the results, but will the Minister consider publishing data, at least on a preliminary basis, after six months to show the results across the country?

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying. I am not in the business of burying good news. We are hearing encouraging noises from the early stages of the Work programme. Indeed, one of our providers has said on the record that it is going much better for them than the previous Government’s flexible new deal. I will bring forward statistics on the Work programme as soon as it is practical to do so, but I am under obligations from the Office for National Statistics to produce statistics that are valid and appropriate, which is what I will do.

I had drawn to my attention today the case of a constituent's grandson who has worked at Debenhams on one of these courses for four days a week, then for three, then for two, then for one, and now it is down to four hours only, for £24 with a bus fare for travelling to and from Derby. Surely that is not benefit plus, but benefit minus. Will he ensure that people placed in that predicament do not lose their benefit?

From what the hon. Gentleman says, I do not think that he is describing our work experience scheme. If he wants to write to me about the individual case, I will look at whether it is due to something that the Government are doing or something else.

Will the Minister comment on reports that even young people with qualifications are being sent for 13 weeks of shelf stacking? What sort of experience is that giving them?

I am always very disappointed to hear Members attacking major employers such as our supermarkets. A few months ago I met a man who had been long-term unemployed, who was given a job at one of our major supermarkets and who, within a few months, had graduated to running a department of 20. These are major employers with good opportunities, and we are about giving young people a start in life.

Youth unemployment in the north, the north-west and my area of north Wales is rising higher and is deeper and longer than in the south. Does the Minister have any assessment of the quality and number of work placements in the north versus those in the south of England?

I have talked to Jobcentre Plus about the availability of placements, and I am confident that, together with the changes that we announced last Friday, which will double the size of the work experience scheme, we will be able to offer every single young person who needs such a placement the opportunity to embark on one.

Youth unemployment has now hit 1 million, and the OECD has forecast today that unemployment is set to climb to 9%, as thousands and thousands more people lose their jobs. The Government scrapped the future jobs fund in their very first month, but the new measures that they have announced do not start until April—two years later. Will this morning’s shocking projections finally wake up the complacent and out-of-touch Ministers before us and persuade them to implement our plan for 100,000 jobs, paid for by a tax on bankers’ bonuses?

The trouble is that we just cannot take the Opposition seriously when we know that they have already announced 10 different ways of spending that money. We as a Government are delivering real action through real schemes that work and are affordable, and that is something that they failed to do. It is worth saying also that Labour is the party under which, back in 2009, more than 1 million young people were not in education, employment or training—despite the fact that Labour Members tell us otherwise.

Automatic Pension Enrolment

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that individuals are able to build up pension pots under automatic enrolment. (82825)

10. What steps he is taking to ensure that individuals are able to build up pension pots under automatic enrolment. (82829)

I am pleased to confirm that we will go ahead with the introduction of auto-enrolment next year as planned, and I can confirm further that all businesses remain in scope. We have, however, decided to extend the reform’s current five-year implementation, so that small businesses will not have to start enrolling their workers until the start of the next Parliament. The revised plans will, nevertheless, still result in more than half of all workers being enrolled before the end of this Parliament. This is a positive programme, and there will be no exemptions.

This Government are doing a huge amount to help people deal with the challenges of old age. In that context, does my hon. Friend have any plans to change the rules governing short-service pension refunds?

As my hon. Friend points out, certain pension schemes but not others currently allow people to take money out within the first two years, and that is an anomaly. We need to ensure that money put into pension savings stays there, and that is why short-service refunds for defined contribution schemes will not be part of the long-term landscape under automatic enrolment.

Does the Minister agree that auto-enrolment will bring into pension savings for the first time millions of low-paid workers in the private sector, both men and women, and that they can begin to look forward to the same kind of retirement income that we rightly offer our public sector employees?

As my hon. Friend points out, at the moment not only do literally millions of people in the private sector not have a moderate pension; they have no pension at all. Auto-enrolment remains key to our policy goals, and as I just observed, more than half the work force will have been auto-enrolled by the next election.

I am disappointed to hear that there will be a delay in the roll-out of auto-enrolment, but I appreciate that the Minister was under a lot of pressure from noises off to bring in some exemptions, so I am pleased that that is not to be. What guarantee can he give to businesses, however? They need an absolute guarantee that the scheme will go ahead on time and to a new timetable, and that there will be no stepping back by the Government.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee for welcoming our decision to keep everybody in. In terms of certainty, everybody who was due to be enrolled this side of July 2013 will see no change in their dates, and we will publish early in the new year the revised schedule. I entirely agree that certainty is needed, and I can confirm that there will be no further changes to the timetable.

Auto-enrolment is—or should I say, was?—central to the Pensions Minister’s strategy, so his resorting to bureaucratic language, saying that “all businesses remain in scope,” is not going to reassure anyone. The fact is, as I hope he will confirm, that the schedule has been moved back and millions upon millions of the employees whom he was keen to get saving in a pension scheme will not be auto-enrolled until after 2015. Is that correct?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but under his party’s plans the roll-out of employers with one to 50 employees was already scheduled to go into 2016. I can confirm that the majority of the work force will be auto-enrolled during this Parliament. There was already a five-year roll-out for auto-enrolment, so it was already a phased process. Yes, we have changed the schedule, but, as he may be aware, his party changed it twice in a three-month period.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulties and dilemmas involved in deciding what to do about the pension pot, particularly with regard to small businesses, should send a message out there to all those who can look forward to index-linked public sector pensions that they should be grateful?

My hon. Friend is right that we do not want to see a levelling down in pension provision. We want quality pensions for our public servants, but we want to make sure that many more people in the private sector get quality pension provision as well, and auto-enrolment will help to achieve that.

Child Poverty

The overhaul of the benefits system through the Welfare Reform Bill will hugely improve the incentives to work. Universal credit will bring in an improvement for children, in that 350,000 children will be lifted out of relative poverty. As the hon. Lady may be aware, we have also made available an extra £300 million for the poorest people who are caring for children.

The Children’s Society’s analysis of the impact of the welfare reforms says that they will push more children into severe poverty and homelessness. Currently, one in four children in my constituency is in severe poverty. Eighteen bishops have called for the Secretary of State to reconsider his position on the reforms—will he listen to them?

I think the hon. Lady is referring to the cap, but I do not agree with her. The cap, which I understand Labour Front Benchers support, is rational and reasonable in that nobody who is out of work should be earning more than average earnings—that is, about £26,000 net. She may deal with constituents who have to travel perhaps an hour into work in the morning and an hour back, who work very hard and who look at those who are out of work and on benefits and find it difficult to accept that they are unable to earn as much.

With child poverty targets repeatedly missed pre-2010, what role does the Government’s support for child care and the extension of early years provision play in helping families and keeping children out of poverty?

My hon. Friend has hit the issue right on the head. If we focus narrowly on income, we get a perverse result. Through our early years work, through the support provided by the pupil premium in schools, and through the work that we are doing with universal credit, we have been hugely improving future outcomes for parents and their children who currently languish in poverty.

As the Secretary of State will know, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2015 there will be 400,000 more children in poverty. Does he agree with us about this, and if so, what is he going to do about it—or does he just accept that it is a necessary evil of the Government’s current policies?

With respect, we are already doing a lot about it. Of course, people can predict as far ahead as they like, without making big assumptions that nothing ever changes, and they will get the kind of results that they want. The reality for us is that all the work that I described to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is vital in changing outcomes for parents and children. Unlike Labour when in government, we do not think that children should be considered separately from their families; we lift families out of poverty and children out of poverty too.

A genuine challenge for us is to move into work those young unemployed people who have not had the role model of a parent getting up and going out to work in the morning. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that we are tackling this cycle of dependency to assist children and young people for the future?

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer given earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. The Work programme is a huge change for people who have been out of work for a long time. If we couple that with work experience and the opportunities for apprenticeships, we can see that this is a big step forward. Together with the introduction of universal credit, which will ensure that someone is always better off in work than out of work, the whole benefit and welfare system should be changed positively to support those sorts of people.

Disability Strategy

I will publish a discussion document in December to support debate, and a new disability strategy next year. Our vision is to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential. We will co-produce the strategy with disabled people and their organisations, focusing on the themes of realising aspirations, individual control, and changing attitudes and behaviours.

Has my hon. Friend assessed how many disabled people the Department will be able to support back into work as a result of the Government’s reforms?

I am sure that the strategy we develop will include an action plan and that work will form an important part of it. The Work programme is already providing important support for disabled people to get into work. The further work that is being done with the Sayce review suggests that an additional 35,000 disabled people could be supported into work if we use the money that is there to support specialist disability employment more effectively.

Will the review look into the impact of the severe cuts in the public sector and in public sector jobs on the availability of jobs for disabled people?

We of course always consider the availability of jobs for all people, and particularly for disabled people. Remploy’s employment services have been particularly successful in securing employment for disabled people, even over the past year in these difficult economic times.

Youth Unemployment

The measures that we announced on Friday build on the support that we have in place. There will be more intensive support for all 18 to 24-year-olds, including through the doubling of the work experience and sector-based work academy schemes. There will also be a wage incentive for any young person under the age of 24 who is placed in long-term employment, usually in the private sector, through the Work programme.

In Blaenau Gwent, there has been a 70% rise in young people who have been on the dole for more than six months. The Government now acknowledge that high long-term youth unemployment is a slow-burning social disaster. How many of their private sector, subsidised work places for young people will be delivered in Wales next year?

Let us deal head-on with the issue of an increase in long-term youth unemployment. The only reason that the figures for long-term youth unemployment show an increase is that we no longer hide young unemployed people on Government schemes and training allowances, which created a totally misleading figure. The reality is that long-term youth unemployment on a like-for-like basis is now almost identical to what it was two years ago under the previous Administration. Every single young unemployed person in Blaenau Gwent will have access to a work experience placement through our work experience scheme or to the Work programme, through which they will receive a wage subsidy for any employer who takes them on and gives them a long-term job.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the £25 million that is being made available for 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeships is welcome not only because it will help to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing, but because it will provide a number of skilled jobs for young people? Is not the challenge now to encourage employers to take up and offer those apprenticeships?

Absolutely; I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have regular meetings with employer groups, where I encourage them to take up apprenticeships. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has met his target for delivering apprenticeships, unlike the previous Government. The Opposition seldom refer to this point, but the increase in the number of apprenticeships far exceeds the number of places that were available through the future jobs fund.

What impact does the Minister think the youth contract will have in Hull, where in my constituency 58.2 people go after each vacancy? As I understand it, the youth contract will provide only a third of the jobs that the future jobs fund would have provided.

Of course, the young people of Hull now have access not simply to the guarantee that we will find them a work experience placement and to intensive, personalised support through the Work programme for those who have not found work, but to far more apprenticeships than was ever the case under the previous Government. That package is designed to create long-term employment and not the short-term, artificial placements that were created by the previous Government.

Universal Credit

17. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the new system of universal credit accommodates changes in personal circumstances. (82839)

The design of universal credit will largely be about improving people’s personal circumstances. It will take account of such changes. That is the point of using the real-time information system. Essentially, such information will flow automatically, thus stopping what happens at present. All too often, there is too much of a delay in changing people’s circumstances, which can damage their outcomes, as was the case for one of my hon. Friend’s constituents. That should be brought to an end. At last, we will have a system that reflects people’s needs.

The constituent to whom the Secretary of State refers, whose domestic circumstances changed, immediately notified Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but she tells me that it took seven weeks to reassess her claim for working tax credit and child tax credit. During that period, payments were suspended and my constituent was placed in some hardship. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that under the new system of universal benefit, such delays will not occur?

May I say on behalf of the Government that such a delay is unacceptable? My hon. Friend knows that I have already written to him about that. The current system, much improved though it is, still leads to great difficulty because of the complexity of the benefit system that we have inherited. Universal credit will change that and at last give constituents such as his a chance to take a job, change their circumstances and get the money they should have got in the first place.

Women’s working lives often have much variation in them, as they sometimes take a few years off to have children. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the benefits of universal credit in taking account of such changes, specifically for women?

Universal credit is now widely perceived as being very beneficial to women, particularly to lone parents who struggle a lot. They are in and out of work, and often their hours change. That will be reflected almost immediately in universal credit. I know that many who come out of work temporarily lose some of their housing benefit because it takes so long to reorganise it, and thus are worse off. That should all be brought to an end by universal credit, and it will also improve the support for child care.

Winter Fuel Allowance

18. How much his Department paid in winter fuel allowance in (a) Glasgow North West constituency and (b) Scotland in 2010; and how much it will pay in 2011. (82840)

Winter fuel payment expenditure in 2010-11 was £3.6 million for Glasgow North West and just under £240 million for Scotland. If those shares of total Great Britain expenditure in 2010-11 were maintained in 2011-12, the projected figures would be approximately £2.8 million for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and £185 million for Scotland.

This year, 440 fewer households will receive winter fuel payments in my constituency, and 3,560 fewer in Glasgow as a whole. With the elderly population and housing numbers growing, how can that happen?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it was the policy of the previous Government to link the age of eligibility for the winter fuel payment to the women’s state pension age. As that increases, the number of pensioners within its scope will fall.

Habitual Residency Test

20. What estimate he has made of the potential cost to the public purse of the removal of the habitual residency test. (82843)

The initial estimates shared with the European Commission showed that the additional annual costs of awarding benefits to economically inactive EU nationals may be as much as £2.5 billion.

Will the Minister confirm that this matter is a red line for Her Majesty’s Government which the European Commission shall not be allowed to cross? Will he undertake to lead a coalition of EU countries against these Commission proposals to interfere in the domestic business of quite a few member states in an area where the Commission should not be going?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We have had a number of robust discussions with the European Commission about this matter, and I can confirm to the House that we are formally rejecting in the strongest possible manner the Commission’s reasoned opinion against the right to reside condition of the habitual residency test. I am in regular discussions with my counterparts in other European countries, many of whom share the same concern. I regard this as a battle that I do not intend us to lose.

With all due respect, that sounded like ministerial waffle and a refusal to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). Surely the answer should just have been yes.

We are most grateful to the Minister, who has brought some additional happiness into the life of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).

Topical Questions

I am pleased to announce today the publication of the Löfstedt report on health and safety legislation. We have accepted its findings, including the recommendation to move about 1 million self-employed people out of health and safety regulation altogether where their work activity poses no potential risk or harm to others. I believe that the report is good for everybody and will help us put some much-needed common sense back into health and safety.

At a recent meeting of the Basildon and Thurrock branch of Epilepsy Action, concerns were expressed that the work capability assessment does not fully take account of the debilitating effect that a condition such as epilepsy can have on a person’s ability to work. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that those conducting the work capability assessment do understand the complexities and intermittent nature of neurological conditions such as epilepsy, and that those are taken into account when making the assessment?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are expecting further work from Professor Harrington about fluctuating conditions shortly, but I have also extended an invitation to voluntary sector groups that specialise in particular conditions to come into Jobcentre Plus and give briefings and training sessions about those conditions to our decision makers, so that we do everything we can to ensure that we get this right.

With the OECD forecasting that unemployment is set to spiral to more than 9% in the next year or two, it is clear that the squeeze on working families will only get tighter and tighter. Can the Secretary of State remind the House how much extra it is budgeted will come off tax credits over the next year?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he needs to wait until the autumn statement to have all those figures set in place—if such a thing does exist.

I am happy to write to the Secretary of State with his own figures. Budgets laid out by the Chancellor project that more than £3 billion will come off tax credits and child benefit for working people, starting from next April. That squeeze is already serious, and that is why it is unacceptable to propose a further squeeze on tax credits in order to pay for the Secretary of State’s failure to get young people back to work.

On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked where the money for the new youth contract would come from. He said:

“Well the money clearly comes from the Government”.

He is full of insight. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has been rolled over by the Deputy Prime Minister and that tax credits will be squeezed to pay for his failure to get young people back to work?

Just in case the right hon. Gentleman has missed the point, I remind him that decisions about tax credits are a matter for the Chancellor. I am surprised that he does not know that, because he was once in the Treasury himself. That reminds me that he is the individual who left a letter saying that there was no money left. Where does he think we were going to get the money from to get our successful programmes under way? The answer is that we have made a great start through the work experience programme, the Work programme and the changes to universal credit. We as a Government are doing more to get people back to work than anything his Government did when they were in power.

T2. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential effect on UK defined benefit pension schemes of the European Union proposal to review the institutions for occupational retirement directive and align it with the solvency II directive? Is not that just a further EU assault on the hard-pressed UK occupational pension sector, and the last thing we need? Will the Minister stand firm against that? (82845)

We are gravely concerned about these proposals. The UK Government do not accept the need for new solvency arrangements for defined benefit schemes based on solvency II, which would have potentially serious effects for UK defined-benefit pension schemes. We are especially concerned about any proposals that would increase costs for employers at a time when we are looking to keep costs down, or that might affect the vital role pension funds play as investors in the UK. We will oppose these proposals.

T4. Has the Minister revised his previous estimate that, by 2012, 25,000 single parents will be in work when their income support ends when their youngest child is five years old? Does he not accept that unemployment in my area, Hull, is at a record high, thanks to his Government’s policies? (82847)

I am always astonished by the Opposition’s defeatist idea that trying to get single parents back into work to support their children is somehow a bad thing. The reality is that the hon. Gentleman’s Government left this country bust, and without any money to do any of the things that he wants to do. They keep spending the same money again and again in their proposals. It is time that they grew up and got on with the real opposition that we expect.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that it is still possible to study David Beckham, Harry Potter and surfing as part of degree courses in the UK. Following the Government announcement about the youth contract, can he assure me that he is in touch with the Department for Education to ensure that young people are equipped to deal with jobs in the real world? (82846)

My hon. Friend is right. It is of paramount importance that our higher and further education systems are as focused as possible on delivering the right skills for young people. The partnership that now exists between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for these areas, and ourselves is unprecedented, and it is making a real difference.

T5. I was appalled to hear the sort of advice that jobcentre staff had given to a Master’s graduate in Liverpool. She was told to stop claiming her jobseeker’s allowance and, instead, to carry out an unpaid internship. Does the Minister of State think that that is morally correct? If he does not, what will he do about it? (82848)

I obviously cannot comment on that specific case, but what I can say is that anyone who is going through a work experience placement can continue to draw their benefits. That is the big difference that we made. Under the previous Government, somebody who was offered a work experience place was forced to lose their benefits.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people of both sexes, in Gloucester and elsewhere, who are currently without a pension will benefit considerably from the on-time and on-budget auto-enrolment that will arrive next summer? Does he also agree that many more people, especially women, would benefit from the current proposal under consideration for a single-tier state pension? (82849)

I absolutely agree. Auto-enrolment is not a negative; it is a positive. The fact that the Government are to plough ahead with it, that there will be no exemptions and that all companies will be brought under its scheme is critically important. I support the proposals of the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb). Furthermore, the reason that we were left in such a parlous position, with too many people owing money, was that not enough people in Britain had saved; now is the time to start changing that.

T7. Last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the real value of average median wages has declined by 3.5% this year, with an even bigger fall for the lowest paid. Does the Secretary of State recognise the impact that the child tax credit has in improving the living standards of the low paid, and would it simply not be an attack on the poor to refuse to uprate the child tax credit in line with inflation next April? (82850)

I need to remind the hon. Gentleman that whatever our opinions on this, it is a matter for the Chancellor and not the Department for Work and Pensions.

T8. Over the past 12 months, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 13%. According to the headline on the front page of the Rugby Advertiser, that is the largest fall in the country. In contrast to the picture painted by the Opposition, there are some good news stories. Does the Minister agree that in dealing with unemployment, this Government are taking the right steps? (82852)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate all of those who are involved in the labour market in his constituency. This is an important point. All we hear from the Opposition is doom and gloom and that inevitably depresses those who are looking for a job. We should start to talk in a more positive way about the real opportunities that are still out there, even in these difficult times.

The Department itself recognises that many people will simply flow through the Government’s Work programme without securing a proper job at the end of it. How many people does the Minister estimate will end up on his mandatory workfare placement scheme after the Work programme? Does he have an estimate of the numbers?

The whole point about the Work programme is that it is uncapped; we have not set specific targets for it. The community action programme, which was announced a couple of weeks ago, is designed to help those who do not find a role through the Work programme. I would be delighted if it achieves 100% outcomes, but it probably will not. We have been determined to ensure that we do not simply send those who do not find a job in the first two years back home so that they end up sitting on benefits doing nothing. They will be asked to take part in a constructive and positive programme of useful work in our community that will, I hope, build their skills and give them a better opportunity to go back into the process, and to get a job the second time around.

There has been a 42% increase in apprenticeships in Thirsk and Malton. There are currently almost 700 vacancies. How can we marry up the apprentices, when they have finished their apprenticeships, with the local vacancies?

I hope very much that most employers will view taking on an apprentice as a precursor to giving them a permanent job. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that the support we provide through Jobcentre Plus and Work programme providers, as well as the work that we, as Members of Parliament, can do to support the growth of job clubs and enterprise clubs, will make it much more likely that if something goes wrong and an apprenticeship does not last, the skills built up will still lead to a role elsewhere and a longer-term career.

There have been several recent cases in Newport in which children with autism have been routinely turned down for the mobility component of disability living allowance only to be successful on appeal—although many are discouraged from appealing. Will the Minister consider this matter, and does she understand that this is precisely the kind of issue that is making many of my constituents extremely fearful of the new assessment for the personal independence payments?

The hon. Lady will be aware that there have been no changes in the assessment or eligibility criteria, so I am not sure why there might be perceived changes in the case she raises. I am obviously happy, however, to pick up on any issues that she wants to raise with me separately.

Here last month, the Minister with responsibility for disabled people said that she wanted to reflect on the Low review into personal mobility in state-funded residential care before announcing her final decisions. I am glad that the matter has received careful attention since then, but when might she be able to lift this cloud from over disabled care home residents and their families?

I thank my hon. Friend for his assiduous attention to this issue. We are considering very carefully Lord Low’s extremely helpful report and will come forward soon with our final response.

A constituent of mine, Abigail McGhee, was engaged to, and living with, the father of her two young children when he sadly died. Her application for widowed parent’s allowance was declined on that basis. Will the Minister reconsider the application of this benefit for people who find themselves in that sad position?

Yes, I will, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to send me the details of that case, I will pay particular attention to it.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department’s swift adoption of the Löfstedt review’s recommendations today? Does he agree that when introduced they will have the capacity not only to reduce the burden of red tape on organisations, but to improve their understanding of health and safety and therefore its effectiveness?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who took part in the panel working with the TUC, the British Chambers of Commerce, John Armitt, who runs the Olympic Delivery Authority, and Professor Löfstedt himself, for putting together a report that gives a really good blueprint for the future of health and safety regulation that will ease the burden on business without endangering life and limb in the workplace—the core purpose of health and safety laws.

Following on from that question, will the Minister confirm that there will be no attempt to remove any necessary protections preventing injuries and the causes of ill health in the workplace? Has he agreed with the Treasury that the necessary resources will be made available to his Department to do the very detailed work that Professor Löfstedt recommends?

I regard good health and safety as of paramount importance. Britain can be proud of having the best record on health and safety in the workplace in Europe, and nothing that the Government do will undermine that. I can confirm that it is my view and that of the Health and Safety Executive that it has the necessary resources to get the job done and to deliver in reality on this very good report.

I have been very encouraged by the participation of employer groups and the TUC in the Löfstedt proposals. The fact that we had people from both sides of the employment and political spectrums supporting the report at this morning’s launch was a tribute to the work of everybody involved. It is a sign that we now have a cross-party blueprint for the future of health and safety in this country.

Since last May, an extra 155,000 working households have been forced on to local housing allowance—an increase of 42% on the previous year. Is that because rents have risen or because wages have fallen?

As the hon. Lady knows, when we entered office we inherited a housing benefits system in a mess and local housing allowance was already spiralling —it has approximately doubled in the last 10 years—so she should look at what happened before as much as at what happens now.

Does the Secretary of State agree that new policy announcements from his Department should be made to Parliament first?

Does the Secretary of State agree that new policy announcements from his Department should be made to Parliament first?

I am glad that I asked for the question to be put again—and I am glad I heard the answer. Very satisfying.

I was particularly disappointed to hear the reply that the Minister with responsibility for disabled people gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire). The Minister seemed to imply that the only way one could trust a disabled person to tell the truth was in a face-to-face interview. The Government seem hellbent on making every disabled person go through multiple face-to-face interviews to get any kind of benefit. She was disparaging about filling in a form and getting supporting medical evidence. Dame Carol Black has said in her most recent reports that there should be fewer face-to-face interviews for employment and support allowance. What is the Minister’s response to that?

The problem with disability living allowance is that 70% of those currently in receipt of it have it as a lifetime award, and do not have the necessary updates and reassessments to keep track of whether that assessment is right. Having a face-to-face assessment in the first place means that disabled people get the opportunity to talk to a health care professional about their condition and ensure that they receive the right support.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to seek your advice on the Government’s deliberate and selective leaking of tomorrow’s statement, which has now become, in effect, a crisis Budget. So far we have been treated to Government media announcements on youth unemployment, housing, credit easing, infrastructure spending, schools spending, an energy package and a minor adjustment to the Government’s ferocious squeeze on rail commuters. Ministers from the Chancellor on down have made numerous media appearances confirming the leaks. This morning on the “Today” programme the Chief Secretary to the Treasury refused to discuss the bad bits of tomorrow’s statement, and spent the whole time talking about what he thought were the good bits. The ministerial code requires that Parliament should hear important statements first, and there can be few more important than this. Has not the Government’s disgraceful behaviour over the past few days made a laughing stock of the ministerial code, which is now more honoured in the breach than the observance?

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for that point of order. I have been gravely concerned about these matters, and I can tell the hon. Lady and the House that I have had conversations with senior members of the Government on the subject. I would like at this stage to await events. The House will look forward with interest and respect to hearing the statement by the Chancellor tomorrow, but I remain alert to the concerns that she has raised and shall be looking further into the matter.

I do not want to have a lengthy exchange on this subject—I have given a ruling—so I feel sure that the following point of order, from a Member of Parliament who has served in the House for 28 years and five months without interruption, will, in accordance with precedent, be on a completely different subject.

My point of order is simply this. Having served in this House for 28 years and five months, I would not like you to think, Mr Speaker, that concern about this matter is restricted simply to Opposition Members. Those of us who love Parliament believe that Parliament should come first.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and the terms in which he has said it.

The hon. Gentleman has served for well over 30 years in total, so I am sure that he will observe the precedent even more closely.

I note that you did not mention the exact years and months, Mr Speaker, and I am pleased about that. I wonder whether I might make a helpful suggestion, arising from what my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has said from the Dispatch Box. In order to save parliamentary time on Tuesday, and in view of all the leaks that have occurred, would it not be helpful when the Chancellor stands up to make his autumn statement for him merely to say, “I refer hon. Members to the press releases that have already been issued over the past weekend”?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think it would be very sad if we were to reach that situation, but coming from an hon. Member who first came to the House in 1966, I have to say that there is more than a grain of truth and validity in that observation. Members should take account of it.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On the subject of policy being made in the press and with particular regard to the case of auto-enrolment, before the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions left the Dispatch Box, he suggested that policy should be made in the House. Would a written ministerial statement on the changes to the auto-enrolment schedule be in order?

The decision as to whether a policy announcement should be the subject of a written or an oral ministerial statement is, in the first instance and without exception, a decision for the Minister. It is not a matter on which the Chair would adjudicate—and certainly not in advance of any such matter having to be decided. We ought to leave it there.

Unfortunately, it will not now be a point of order; I simply wanted to express my concern about this matter.

Well, there is much meeting of minds—from the Back Benches at any rate—this afternoon. We are grateful to Members for that.

North Africa and the Near and Middle East

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of political developments and security in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

It is a timely moment for this debate. Next month, as hon. Members know, it will be a year since the death of the fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which heralded the eruption of mass democracy movements across the middle east and north Africa, bringing the potential for significant advances in human rights and freedom, as well as, of course, risk and uncertainty. Supporting positive change and reducing instability in these areas is one of the highest priorities in British foreign policy, and is therefore an important subject for debate.

I wish to record my gratitude to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and those who serve in the regions we are debating today or who support our efforts from London and in international institutions such as the United Nations and NATO. Their work over this last year has been outstanding, and we could not have done without them.

Over the last six months, the Foreign Office has been extremely active in rallying international action over Libya. Over the coming months, we will be pushing forward international policy on Somalia with equal energy, starting with a major conference hosted on 23 February in London by the Prime Minister. I want to concentrate my initial remarks on the horn of Africa and the Sahel, before turning to deal with north Africa and the middle east, which we so often debate and on which I have made many statements.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have died in recent months; a million are internally displaced and facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The country is a scene of great human suffering, but it is also a base for piracy and terrorism, which exacerbate the country’s plight and threaten our own security. The transitional federal Government in Mogadishu need to succeed in making the necessary political progress to begin to stabilise the country.

We need a more effective international approach that addresses the root causes of the crisis. In our view, this requires a new inclusive political process; a coherent strategy to undermine al-Shabaab and tackle piracy; and economic support, humanitarian aid and assistance to the African Union Mission in Somalia—AMISOM.

The aim of the February conference in London will be to build agreement on such a reinforced international approach. We have been laying the groundwork for some time. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Mogadishu in August—the first British Minister to set foot there since 1992—and on my visit to Ethiopia and to Kenya in July, I met the Somali Prime Minister and, separately, the President of Somaliland.

We are taking increased action on piracy through the use of naval assets as part of the international forces operating in the gulf of Aden, protecting the transit corridors and the wider Indian ocean; we are working with the shipping industry and are allowing armed guards on UK-flagged ships. We are also providing funding to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to continue developing prisons and prosecution facilities on the ground in Somalia and in the wider horn of Africa, as well as operating bilateral transfer agreements, which will facilitate the transfer of suspected pirates back to Somalia to serve their sentences.

The Foreign Secretary said that he had met members of the transitional Government and the leaders of Somaliland separately. Will he clarify the position of our Government in regard to the long-standing aspiration of people in Somaliland towards some form of self-government?

I met those representatives separately for many reasons, including the fact that one set were in Ethiopia and the other set were in Kenya. Although we understand the wishes and desires of Somaliland, its leaders and its people, we have continued, to date, the policy of previous British Governments of not recognising it as a separate country. We think that the emphasis must be on trying to resolve the problems of Somalia as a whole. They are integrated problems, and we need an inclusive political process as well as the strategy to undermine al-Shabaab and effective action to deal with piracy. That must be our priority, and I do not think it right, at this moment, to change our policy on the recognition of Somaliland.

I imagine that the right hon. Gentleman, who has a long-standing interest in these matters, wants to ask me a question on the same subject.

I should like to develop the theme. I greatly welcome the approach that the Foreign Secretary is taking, and his engagement and that of his Ministers with the issue. Does he agree that Somaliland has earned respect by the way in which it has developed its own system and democratic structures, and the way in which it has been helping to deal with the problems in the south over recent months? Does he also agree that it is necessary to find a way in which these neighbours can be in the same room, with respect being paid to the democratic achievements of Somaliland, rather than their being virtually told that they cannot play a role in the same debates as the transitional federal Government?

Yes, I broadly agree with that. I think that a great deal of progress has been made. We have increased our contact and engagement with Somaliland, and my meeting with the leaders of Somaliland in Addis Ababa was part of that. We will continue to encourage everyone to move in the co-operative direction that the right hon. Gentleman recommends.

It is commendable that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are organising a conference next year, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that members of a delegation from Hargeisa in Somaliland will be invited in their own right? I think that otherwise the administration in Somaliland will feel that they are in the background, and that all the attention is being focused on the transitional federal Government in Mogadishu.

They have been invited, as I have just been reminded by the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), and their engagement will be very important.

We have committed £128 million in famine relief for Somalia since July, and nearly £4 million this year to support the African Union Mission in Somalia. The United Kingdom already makes a huge contribution to efforts to improve matters there.

The Foreign Secretary spoke of putting guards on merchant vessels. That was announced at the end of October. Will he tell us what has happened since then, particularly in regard to the establishment of the procedures and protocols and the various rules?

The rules will follow briskly, but of course these things take time to organise. The fact that there has been an announcement does not mean that there will instantly be a guard on every ship; it means that the procedures are in the process of being changed. I have no reason to think that people are dragging their feet, but I will check and write to the right hon. Gentleman, because we will certainly not let them drag their feet.

Successive British Governments have grappled with the problems emanating from Somalia, but we believe that now is the time to seek intensified international action, which I hope the House will welcome.

Regrettably, the situation in Sudan is also deteriorating. I was present when South Sudan became independent in July, when effective international diplomacy helped to ensure a largely peaceful separation from its northern neighbour. Recent events, including the bombing of South Sudan by the Sudanese air force on November 10, have jeopardised the prospect of Sudan and South Sudan co-existing peacefully in a stable region. We urge both sides to exercise restraint and refrain from military activity in each other’s territory, including through support to proxy forces. We are deeply concerned by the lack of humanitarian access in the conflict areas of southern Kordofan and Blue Nile state, and I urge the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to address this and to negotiate for a lasting peace settlement. The two countries must resolve remaining legacy issues from the comprehensive peace agreement, particularly on oil revenue, citizenship, border demarcation and the status of the disputed region of Abyei.

The House does not often debate the Sahel, but it is a region of growing importance to the UK. I visited Mauritania in October, becoming the first British Minister ever to do so, as a signal that Britain will seek closer engagement with it and the wider region. The Sahel is deeply affected by poverty, insecurity, weak governance and a lack of education and employment opportunities. The revolution in Libya has also had an impact, risking an influx of weaponry from Libya as well as potential new recruits for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the form of former mercenaries.

During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Mauritania, did he have any discussions about the Western Sahara and the wish of its people to determine their own future, rather than remain under Moroccan occupation?

I did have discussions on that in Mauritania, as well as on my visits to Morocco and Algeria on the same trip. The hon. Gentleman will be well acquainted with the position of successive British Governments on this matter. We encourage Morocco and the Polisario Front to reach a mutually acceptable and lasting political solution, which provides for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara, and we support the work of Ambassador Ross in trying to make progress in that regard. I had plentiful discussions on that long-standing problem with all the Governments in the region.

When my right hon. Friend was in Mauritania, I hope he had a chance to listen to its concerns about European Union vessels fishing off the Mauritania coast, raping the sea there, and about the EU not financing some of the projects it promised to fund in Mauritania.

My hon. Friend was, I think, the first Member of Parliament to visit Mauritania in a long time, and he is right to bring attention to that issue. On my visit, we were discussing regional security issues however, so we did not get into the detail of the fishing arrangements, but of course we want them to be resolved to the satisfaction of the countries in the region.

On the Western Sahara, are there any developments at all in respect of the referendum? It was a long time ago when I was shadow Foreign Secretary and went to the Western Sahara and the camps in the Algerian desert, but even then the referendum was regarded as the solution. That was a long time ago, so this is a long time to wait for a democratic vote.

Yes, it is a long time. The problem has been almost identical ever since when the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Foreign Secretary, so this certainly counts as a long-standing problem in world affairs, as I said. The sad news is that there has not been progress on this issue, but there are repeated and continued international efforts to make progress. I referred to the diplomatic work that is going on, and there will be further discussions on this matter over the coming months, but I do not have any better news to pass on than the right hon. Gentleman will remember from the time when he was dealing with this issue in more detail.

I was talking about the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—AQIM. It is increasing its influence throughout the region. Operating largely from northern Mali, it presents an increased threat to our security. Last Friday, a group of visitors to Timbuktu was kidnapped. I want to stress to British nationals that they should carefully note our travel advice, which advises against all travel to most of Niger, Mauritania and Mali, including Timbuktu. AQIM is known to have established contact with Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group operating in Nigeria, contributing to the growing strength and ambition of that group in recent months and extending AQIM’s reach into northern Nigeria. We are stepping up our efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel region and to support economic and political development. We are co-funding a military and police base on the Mali-Algeria border, as well as emergency planning training in Mali and Niger. We are also working closely with Nigeria to combat the threat of terrorism, following the Prime Minister’s visit in July.

We are also working with France and other European allies to develop an effective EU approach to security and development in the Sahel. Plans are at an early stage for a small, focused and carefully calibrated common security and defence policy mission in the region, focusing on policing, security, infrastructure development and regional training. Funding for this mission would come from the common foreign and security policy part of the EU budget. As we already contribute to that budget, this mission will place no additional resource burden upon us, save for minimal costs associated with the deployment of any British personnel. Once we have an agreed outline of this mission, we will submit it to parliamentary scrutiny. The mission is necessary to safeguard our own national security and to help countries in the region.

Instability in the Sahel could have a profoundly destabilising effect on countries in north Africa and the Gulf that are currently engaged in moves to open up their political and economic systems to different degrees. That was particularly apparent on my visit to Algeria in October. Important steps there to lift broadcast media restrictions and reform the electoral system take place against a backdrop of military confrontation with al-Qaeda. As the House understands, the politics and history of each country in the wider middle east are very different. But the contrasting experiences of those Governments beginning peaceful reform now and of regimes such as those in Syria and Iran that have set their face against reform altogether show that moves towards greater political and economic openness are essential for their long-term security and prosperity, as well as being right in themselves. So we welcome the recent elections in Tunisia, and the efforts under way to form a Government who reflect the will of the Tunisian people.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is about to discuss last Friday’s general election in Morocco. Will he note that the PJD, a moderate Islamic party—apparently—has emerged as the largest party? Does he share my slight concern at that, because Islamic parties, however moderate they may profess themselves to be, have a tendency to move away from the west, and that would be a great pity in the case of Morocco?

My hon. Friend invites me neatly on to my next paragraph. As he rightly says, last week voters also went to the polls in Morocco to choose a new Government, following the constitution passed in a referendum in July. That is an important part of Morocco’s progress towards greater democratic accountability. We urge Morocco and Tunisia to turn these democratic gains into real reform that meets the long-term aspirations of their people. That is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question; we have advocated democracy in these countries, and where they have turned to democracy and are holding free, fair and respected elections, we must respect the outcome of democratic votes and not try to second-guess the electorates of those countries. The test for us is not their domestic programmes—that is up to these countries—but whether they are able to continue choosing Governments in the future, having further elections and having alternating Governments in the future. Many African countries, for example, Zambia, have recently set a good example in that regard. That is the test. I do not think that we should couple our support for democracy with regular or constant criticism of parties that engage in the democratic process in these countries.

Is it not worth taking into account that although the Moroccan Islamist party may be the largest single party, it obtained only just over a quarter of the vote and, as in Tunisia, non-Islamist parties in both these elections have emerged with a large majority of the popular vote? That indicates that public opinion is not necessarily going to be dominated by the Islamist point of view.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point and what he has described has indeed been the pattern so far in Tunisia and Morocco. In addition, we must not prejudge how these parties will develop. Understandably, there is some anxiety about that, but they will find in many countries that they are under pressure increasingly to secularise their policies in order to deal with the practical concerns of their people. We will see over time—but only over time—how they develop.

On that particular point, does the Foreign Secretary not accept that in Tunisia there were some concerns about whether Ennahda would be able to represent all of Tunisia? In fact, Ennahda was expected not to meet the rule that was brought in requiring 50% women candidates but, in the end, 42 of the 49 women elected to the Tunisian Parliament came from that party.

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a very important point and that is why we should not dismiss the gains and popularity of such parties or assume that their programmes will necessarily be a retrograde step for those countries. The situation might vary from one country to another and we should avoid generalising.

On the question of people’s long-term aspirations and democratic gains, let me turn at greater length to Bahrain and some of the other countries I have mentioned. Members on both sides will have studied the long-awaited report of the independent commission of inquiry set up by King Hamad of Bahrain. The report confirms shocking and distressing abuses, including the use of excessive and unnecessary force against protestors, deaths in custody as a result of torture, the

“systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment”

of detainees, the “deliberate terrorising” of the families of suspects, arbitrary arrests and many other violations of international and Bahraini law. It also points the finger of blame at some protestors who targeted the Bahraini security forces.

The commission has set out clear steps for the Bahraini Government to take, including the establishment of an independent national committee to oversee implementation of its recommendations, an independent committee to hold to account those who broke the law, an independent investigation into deaths caused by the security forces and into allegations of torture and abuse, a permanent new anti-torture organisation that would also oversee human rights training for security forces, the recruitment of Shi’as into the security forces and pardon or acquittal of all those convicted of crimes relating to freedom of expression. The commission called on the Government to publish a timetable for implementation of those and its many other recommendations.

We condemn the behaviour described in the report and call for the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations in full. We also acknowledge the groundbreaking nature of the commission. This is the first time that any Government in the region have set up an international investigation into allegations of abuse, and we welcome King Hamad’s pledge to use the report as a “catalyst for change” to overcome the country’s divisions. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain immediately after the issuing of the report, to urge its implementation and offer British support for that objective. Now is the time for Bahrain’s Government and opposition groups to engage constructively, to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to demonstrate a shared commitment to a peaceful future for Bahrain.

Given what the Foreign Secretary has just said about Bahrain, is it appropriate—or was it appropriate, as I do not know what the position is now—to continue to train Bahraini military personnel at British establishments, for the Prime Minister to be photographed on the steps of No. 10 shaking the hand of the Bahraini Crown Prince, or to invite the Bahrainis to a British arms fair? Those human rights abuses have been known for many years.

The abuses the commission talks about have taken place in recent months. I think that it is right—we have considered this carefully at every stage—to have maintained a degree of engagement with Bahrain over recent months. The Prime Minister and I have had meetings with the Crown Prince of Bahrain when he has visited London and I have maintained regular telephone contact with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. Yes, there are links between our armed forces, and the Royal Navy minesweepers that operate in the Gulf are based in Bahrain. I think that it has been right to continue that engagement while making clear public criticism of what has gone wrong—criticism that I have reiterated today.

Bahrain looks to us for advice and we have repeatedly said that the commission is of enormous importance and that its publication would be of enormous importance and we have urged the Bahrainis to follow the path of treating such a commission seriously and using it as a catalyst for change. Such improvements as we might now see might be partly the product, in some ways, of the engagement of some western countries with the rulers of Bahrain, so it is therefore important to keep that up. In all these countries our Government are ready to support projects to achieve greater political participation, tackle corruption and assist employment. Our Arab Partnership fund, which I announced in February this year, is already supporting 47 projects on political and economic reform in nine countries across the region from Morocco to Iraq. During the visit by His Majesty the King of Jordan to London earlier this month, we agreed to increase our economic co-operation and support for reform in Jordan.

In Egypt, unrest is being fuelled by the fact that the democratic transition is proceeding more slowly than many in the country had hoped, as well as by economic hardship. As a result, last week we saw the largest demonstrations at any time since the revolution. More than 40 people died in violent clashes in Cairo and other cities. We have condemned those deaths and the use of excessive force by the Egyptian security forces. I welcome the fact that, despite these events, parliamentary elections are under way today, and I congratulate the people of Egypt as they go to the polls. Free, fair and credible elections are essential to retaining public confidence and keeping Egypt on track for presidential elections by the end of June 2012. The Egyptian authorities must build trust that there will be a full transition to civilian control, with the military stepping back from power, as well as economic recovery. The new Government being formed should be inclusive and enjoy broad support. I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Thursday to convey these messages.

We have to do our utmost to help Egypt and the countries of the Arab world to make a success of more open political systems and economies, and it is overwhelmingly in our interests to do so. This is very apparent in Yemen, which has experienced 10 months of acute violence.

May I ask about Egypt before my right hon. Friend moves on? Nobody would wish to offer any succour or comfort to those responsible for the deaths and violence in Tahrir square last week, but is it not a little unwise for some western countries to call for the immediate removal of the military regime at a time when the country is facing economic collapse? Is not the long-term process of democratic elections, which will take three months at least, much more important at the moment?

We have called for power to pass to a civilian Government as rapidly as possible, but also for elections to take place. It is quite right for the presidential election to be brought forward to next June rather than for it to take place in 2013. Those are the sorts of things we have urged on the Egyptian authorities. I have always argued with Egyptian leaders that they need a presidential system with strong democratic accountability, which they did not have before, in a country such as theirs and that they were leaving it too late to elect their President. I think we are giving sensible advice. At the heart of this matter is the fact that the elections should proceed, as my hon. Friend says.

I was just beginning to talk about Yemen. We welcome the fact that on 23 November President Saleh signed the Gulf Co-operation Council agreement at a ceremony attended in Riyadh, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). This paves the way for the formation of a national unity Government, a Prime Minister nominated by the Opposition, and early presidential elections within 90 days. I congratulate the GCC countries on that agreement. All sides in Yemen must work together to re-establish internal security and tackle its huge economic and humanitarian problems.

May I congratulate and thank the Foreign Secretary and the British Government for the patient diplomatic efforts they have made over the past few months, including the move in the Security Council to try to get the President of Yemen to sign the agreement, which he has now done? Is there absolute confidence that he will stick to that agreement? Given that the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), is present, let me ask whether we can now start to provide the aid that Yemen so desperately needs at this time in its history.

I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. I should particularly like to credit our ambassador in Yemen, John Wilks, who has done fantastic work in very dangerous—literally physically dangerous—circumstances in the past few months. Last year, there were two very serious attempts on the lives of our diplomats in Yemen. They do an extraordinary job in working there and we have kept our embassy functioning at all times. We will now do all we can to support this process and the work of Vice-President Hadi and the transitional Government. I propose to discuss these things with him soon. We have already provided more than £15 million in UK aid this year alone, but DFID has been restricted in what it can do. This is less than the Budget originally provided because of the very difficult security situation on the ground. We can do more in the development sense in Yemen once security has more widely returned.

As to absolute confidence, it would be a very brave Minister—indeed, a foolhardy one—who expressed absolute confidence in what will happen next in Yemen, after what we have been through in recent years. Nevertheless, the signing of the GCC agreement by the President in the presence of so many regional leaders, including His Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia, is a very big step forward. Now we all have to give every assistance to the process being carried out on the timetable that has been set out.

On Libya, the House will welcome the announcement of a transitional Government, headed by Prime Minister al-Kib. The transitional Government will pave the way for elections to a national congress, a new constitution and elections to a Parliament in 18 months’ time. There are positive signs that the Prime Minister seeks a new Libya built on human rights and the rule of law.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the report issued by the UN Secretary-General, which says that there are up to 7,000 enemies of the state who have disappeared or are being maltreated and tortured in militia-held prisons? Clearly, we cannot have double standards about this. We went to war to protect human rights. We must go on putting maximum pressure on the new Libyan Government.

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. Members on all sides will be concerned by reports of the abuse of detainees and of other human rights violations. I raised the issue with the new Prime Minister of Libya when I spoke to him 10 days ago. It is important that the Government’s commitment to uphold human rights is translated into visible action, and we look to them to do that. There are positive signs, as I was saying, that the new Government will be built on human rights and the rule of law. The new Government includes five women, two of whom are Ministers heading the Departments for Health and Social Affairs, respectively. Libya has also now resumed its seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

The Government face urgent challenges, in addition to the one that we have just mentioned, to ensure law and order, control weaponry and integrate revolutionary fighters into the security forces or help them to find other employment. The capture of Saif al-Islam was a significant moment which will help to bring the whole Gaddafi era to a close. The Libyan authorities have committed themselves to ensuring that he receives a fair trial and have indicated their preference for a trial in Libya, which is provided for in the Rome statute. We will urge them to co-operate with the International Criminal Court, as indeed they have said they will do.

Libyans are not alone, of course, in wishing to ensure accountability for crimes attributed to the Gaddafi regime. We, too, wish to see the killers of WPC Yvonne Fletcher brought to justice, and the resolution of other issues that have scarred lives and our relations with Libya, including the Lockerbie bombing and Gaddafi’s support for IRA terrorism. There is no expiry date for such crimes, and we will work to support British nationals seeking justice and closure for these terrible episodes.

We will be a strong partner with the new Libya, working to build a better future for Libyans and strong bilateral relations. We will work together in a range of areas including education, migration, trade and investment and security co-operation. It will take time to cement Libya’s transition from 42 years of dictatorial rule, but the House and our country can be proud of Britain’s role in saving lives and helping to bring about this historic change.

Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that his Department is doing everything possible to lobby the Government of Niger to hand over the remaining Gaddafi loyalists who have sought sanctuary in that country?

We have done that. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, in particular has been in direct contact with Ministers in Niger, and we have reminded them and other countries in the region of their international responsibilities, which they have assured us they will live up to.

The progress that Libya is making stands in stark contrast to the repression in Syria. The toll of more than 3,500 lost lives since March this year is truly appalling. The UN commission of inquiry report issued today highlights the shocking actions carried out by the Assad regime against its own civilian population, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and the violation of children’s rights. I welcome yesterday’s unprecedented decision by the Arab League to impose sanctions on Syria and seek UN support to address the situation. The decision by Russia and China to block Security Council action on 4 October was utterly wrong and, in my view, has been confirmed as misguided by everything that has happened in Syria subsequently.

What representations are the Foreign Secretary and the Government making to the Chinese and Russian Governments to ensure that they adopt a stronger position on sanctions?

We have discussed that at some length, as the hon. Gentleman can imagine. The Prime Minister and I discussed it with Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, on our visit to Moscow a couple of months ago. We are in constant contact about it at the UN Security Council, as are our representatives there. I continue to believe that it would be right for the Security Council to address the issue and we will make further attempts to do so. Of course, passing any resolution will require a different attitude from Moscow.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the welcome decision by the Arab League, but I understand that at least two important neighbours of Syria— Lebanon and Iraq—have said that they will not impose sanctions. Is that because of the influence of Iran, through Hezbollah, and Iraqi political parties, and does he feel that Iran could play a very negative role in the process?

I will move on to Iran shortly, but I absolutely feel that it plays a negative role in the process and has assisted the Syrian authorities in various ways to try to repress the Syrian population. It would certainly not be surprising if Iran was using its influence on some Arab countries to reduce the impact of any sanctions on Syria. Nevertheless, we should recognise that what the Arab League is doing is unprecedented. The vast majority of its members not only voted for it, but are now preparing to implement meaningful sanctions on a fellow member and colleague. That shows how seriously the Arab world takes the situation in Syria, which will have an impact on the Assad regime. Our Government’s goal is to give maximum support to Arab League efforts to persuade the President of Syria to end the violence while using every lever at our disposal to bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear. We have supported successive rounds of EU sanctions that have banned the import of Syrian oil and targeted individuals responsible for the violence with asset freezes and travel bans. We are pressing ahead with plans for further sanctions on Syria at the EU Foreign Affairs Council later this week.