House of Commons
Wednesday 1 February 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The bilateral aid review identified as the main needs of Bangladesh: expanding access to health, education and safe water for the poorest; protecting against risks related to climate change; and supporting private sector development to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. The UK’s development programme directly targets those needs and will lift 5 million people out of poverty by 2015.
All three Department for International Development Ministers have visited Bangladesh in the past few months, and we are encouraging all political parties to work towards free, fair and credible elections to be held by early 2014. That requires the politics of vision, not the politics of venom, and the UK stands ready to continue our work with the Bangladesh Election Commission to make the elections a success and to help the democratic process.
Many of the multilateral programmes focus more than our poverty programmes do on this challenge, but the right hon. Gentleman does the issue a great favour by highlighting the significance of diabetes. I can assure him that we will give it the attention it deserves in all the work that we do in the country.
UN Relief and Works Agency
In 2011 DFID gave just over £30 million to UNRWA, and we are in the process of setting our budgets for the next few years. We will work with all donors and host Governments to help UNRWA’s long-term financial position so that it can continue to deliver its programmes to meet the needs of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees.
The Minister will be aware that about 75% of Palestinians in Gaza depend on food aid from UNRWA, and with the massively increased number of demolitions of homes in Jerusalem and the west bank by Israeli forces, UNRWA’s work is vital to Palestinians. The Government have a good record on funding. Will he give a commitment that that will continue, and will he work to ensure that the international community recognises UNRWA’s importance?
Yes, we have repeatedly made clear to the Israelis our serious concern at last year’s 40% increase, as recorded by the UN, in the number of demolitions of Palestinian properties in the west bank and East Jerusalem. We view such demolitions and evictions as causing unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians and as harmful to the peace process. In all but the most limited circumstances, they are contrary to international humanitarian law, and we condemn them.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that UNRWA’s remit extends beyond the Palestinian territories themselves. Conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan remain fragile, and DFID funds UNRWA to provide essential services to all these refugees across the region. In 2011 our support helped to provide maternal health care to 263,000 women, education for 45,000 children, and food and income support for 29,000 refugees. We are in close contact with UNRWA as it strives to maintain services in Syria.
Most of the support to refugees is given through UNRWA, but we are giving our full support to the Palestinian Authority, it being the effective government of the west bank, and through it we hope to ensure that all those affected are properly supported by access to the full legal rights necessary to pursue any claims that they might have.
May I particularly welcome the extra funding recently announced for the 400,000-plus refugees in Lebanon to help fund health care and education for thousands of children? Does my right hon. Friend agree that although this assistance is welcome in the short term, it is no substitute for the long-term peace settlement necessary to enable these 5 million refugees to go home and get on with their lives?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am sure that the vast majority of Members in this House agree with him. The permanent plight of someone who is an everlasting refugee is not something that any of us would relish, and it is the peace process that we hope can eventually give a permanent settlement and solution for those who are so affected.
I returned yesterday morning from a visit to Somalia. Thanks to British aid and support, the lives of millions of Somalis have been saved. We have reduced the number of people in danger of imminent death by two thirds, but 250,000 people—many of them children—remain in danger of starving to death.
On his visit to Somalia, the Secretary of State will have been in a good position to make an assessment of the current state of the famine there. We know that the United Kingdom has made a significant effort in leading the relief work. Is he satisfied that the international community is making the same effort to help the beleaguered people of Somalia?
My hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of the whole international community being engaged in tackling the famine. The situation is that some two thirds of those who were in imminent danger of starving to death are no longer in that position, and Britain has been involved in quite literally saving something like half a million lives in the last year. Huge lobbying is still required. Britain has made it clear that we will produce assistance over the next year, specifically to tackle acute malnourishment, providing seeds, fertiliser and clean water, but the whole international community must take up this task.
My hon. Friend has used his opportunity well, Mr Speaker. Some 60% of Britain’s development support for Somalia goes into Somaliland, but as the Foreign Secretary has made clear recently, it is extremely important that Somaliland and Puntland settle the dispute on their border as speedily as possible. When disputes are settled in Somalia, we will be able to address the underlying causes of poverty and not have to cope with the symptoms of it.
The consequences of the bad harvest last year and the famine are, of course, enormously aggravated by the lack of security in Somalia and the control that al-Shabaab has in many parts of the country. What are the Government doing, on their own account and through the European Union, to strengthen AMISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia—and improve security in Somalia?
It is absolutely essential that AMISOM is strengthened and given the capacity to operate more effectively, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the Prime Minister has convened a conference on Somalia in London on 23 February. The processes that come out of that will not be led by the international community or Britain; they need to be owned by the Somalis, led by the Somalis and the countries of the region, and strongly supported by the international community.
May I ask the Secretary of State for his response to the criticism in the Oxfam and Save the Children report “A Dangerous Delay”, which is partly based on Somalia? Does he think that there are lessons to be learned, given that an imminent threat of famine is now looming in the Sahel?
Oxfam and the other agencies did a service in pointing out—as they did in their report, if not in their press release—that Britain had shown the way and led the world in tackling the famine in the horn of Africa. However, the report is right in identifying the importance of long-term action to support resilience. As for the Sahel, Britain is not going to lead there, but we have announced a significant amount of support, specifically: therapeutic feeding for 68,000 children; support with food and water for 50,000 people; and support in terms of seeds and vaccinations for cattle for 30,000.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his visit to Somalia and on Britain’s proactive response to the crisis there. However, may I ask whether he will be joining Turkey, which has said that it will be approaching some of the wealthiest Muslim countries to see if they can make a more substantial contribution to preventing starvation in Somalia?
My hon. Friend identifies a most important aspect of the conference on Somalia that is to take place in London, which will be to ensure that all the different nations that are engaged in Somalia work together. It will also be important to ensure better co-ordination of humanitarian relief with the established, richer donors and the donors in the Gulf.
In recent years, there have been problems off the Somali coast for travellers, although progress has been made in recent months on that issue. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that liaison will continue internationally to ensure that people can travel across that part of Africa in safety?
One of the problems is that of piracy. In Puntland, I was able to see the importance of tackling piracy by arresting pirates and putting them through the judicial system, as well as the other measures that, given some stability, the international community would be able to use to tackle the problem directly. We hope that this subject will also be addressed at the London conference.
The situation in South Sudan remains somewhat bleak, in the absence of agreement on the outstanding issues between the two Sudans. Humanitarian needs in South Sudan remain pressing, due to continuing inter-communal violence in Jonglei and elsewhere, and to the influx of refugees and returnees from Sudan. The United Kingdom continues to play a lead role in supporting an effective and co-ordinated humanitarian response. I will be giving oral evidence on South Sudan to the International Development Committee later today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question; his knowledge of that part of the world is indeed deep, not least because of the tremendous contribution that his wife made to supporting the people of South Sudan some years ago. More than 85,000 refugees have arrived in South Sudan, fleeing the conflict over the border. There are 25,000 in Unity, and 61,000 in Maban. In Warrup county, the humanitarian community is supporting 110,000 people who have been displaced from Abyei since 2011. In addition, 360,000 have already been assisted in coming down from Sudan, with a potential 700,000 still to come. This is placing enormous strain on the emergency and humanitarian response, but the UK is playing a lead role and, in December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a two-year package of support for the humanitarian funds. [Interruption.]
The United Nations mission in South Sudan has been widely criticised for having a poor mandate and for having its resources in the wrong place. What is the Minister’s view on that?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just returned from the African Union summit that was held in Addis Ababa last weekend, and he is fully seized of that issue. He had direct discussions on this matter with the chairman of the commission, with President Mbeki and with Prime Minister Meles. People are focused on the question of an appropriate mandate, but the current position is that it is better to deploy into the right places the troops who have been mandated, rather than distract ourselves with a review of the mandate itself.
The Select Committee is looking forward to having an extended exchange with the Secretary of State on South Sudan this afternoon. In the light of the disruption of oil supplies, and the fact that the South Sudan Government are 98% dependent on oil revenues, will the Minister tell us what steps our Government and the international community are taking to resolve the dispute and to support the South Sudan Government in regard to that financial constraint?
Extensive meetings took place in Addis Ababa over the weekend, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was involved at the highest level. The straight fact is that, while the oil dispute is outstanding, progress is going to be impeded. We call on all parties to acknowledge that it is in their mutual interest to pull back from the brink and reach an agreement, with the north getting the ships to sail and the south to release oil from the wells again.
Employment (Developing Countries)
7. What steps he is taking to increase the number of people in employment in developing countries. (92783)
Economic growth is the primary driver of job creation, and it is a top priority among the United Kingdom’s new development policies on economic development, wealth creation and job creation. The Department is implementing programmes that will strengthen the private sector, encourage investment, improve finance for businesses and enhance the education and skills of the work force in developing countries.
At the last G20 meeting, world leaders committed to establishing a taskforce to look at employment in developed countries. With unemployment rates in developing countries above 60%, will the UK Government urge the G20 taskforce to look not only at developed countries but at developing countries as well?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to look at both developing and developed countries. As discussed throughout what has been a disappointing out-turn from the Doha round, it is important to understand what is coming through in terms of jobs, job creation and investment flows in the emerging countries as well. She is right: this has to be on the agenda for developing countries as much as for developed ones.
The CDC has undergone fundamental reform over the last 18 months and is now ready not only to identify those things in which it can uniquely and competitively invest—patient capital, as it is best known—but to focus on what will end up being job-full rather than job-less growth in a way that will benefit the economies of developing countries.
Does the Minister still think that companies like Sun Biofuels, which has made more than 1,000 people redundant in Tanzania and treated local people appallingly, are a shining example for countries around the world of how to produce green energy that is good both for the environment and for the economy, despite concerns about the impact of biofuels on food security, water access, land grabs and doubts about whether they even contribute to environmental gains?
The hon. Lady raises an issue about whether combining business risk and new green sources of energy is inevitably risky, with failures likely along that track. I understand her concerns, but she should not overlook the enormous progress made in developing economic growth and business potential in these countries, along with the drive towards green energy production and the need to ensure that these countries have an opportunity to leapfrog many of the technologies we have in the western world.
The coalition Government have doubled British aid to Burma. If progress on political reform continues, we will be able to do much more.
My hon. Friend poses the key question of whether these reforms are real. The fact that the regime in Burma has now released nearly all its political prisoners—particularly Min Ko Naing whom many Members campaigned to see released—is an enormously encouraging sign. The real test will come with the 48 by-elections due to take place before April. We will see how those elections are conducted and whether they are free and fair. If they are, that will be the most eloquent possible answer to my hon. Friend’s question.
My Department is preparing energetically for the Prime Minister’s conference on Somalia in London on 23 February. We are working hard to deliver the results we set out to the House in the key reviews conducted last year, and we are procuring humanitarian support for many of the most wretched people in the world.
Stepping Stones Nigeria is the charity based in Lancaster involved in educational development in the Niger delta. Would my right hon. Friend be good enough to facilitate a meeting between his officials and the charity to see how far that work can be expanded?
The charity is doing excellent work, and we will be pleased to ensure that it can meet officials perhaps to find out how it can access the Government’s new global poverty action fund, which specifically seeks to help non-governmental organisations and charities that are doing brilliant work in difficult parts of the world.
Does the Secretary of State think that it was appropriate for him to say in Delhi last December that a strategic aim of the United Kingdom’s aid programme for India was “seeking to sell Typhoon”? With that one comment, he undermined the commitment of successive Governments not to tie aid to trade. Does he stand by his irresponsible comment?
T3. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government recognise the importance of tackling neglected tropical diseases, and can he tell us what discussions he has had about the matter with the Gates Foundation? (92794)
My hon. Friend is right to mention the work of the Government, together with the Carter Centre and the Gates Foundation, on the neglected tropical diseases that destroy the lives of millions of people in the world. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who has driven the process for the British Government, to the great advantage of people who are caught by these terrible diseases.
T2. I welcomed the words that we heard from the Government earlier in condemnation of the displacement of Palestinians, but can the Secretary of State tell us specifically what assistance might be offered to the Bedouins who are currently being displaced from their traditional areas? (92793)
All these humanitarian issues are wrestled with by the international community. The hon. Lady heard about the very specific support that Britain is delivering through UNRWA. We will consider her question about the Bedouins in the terms that she has specified.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Arab Partnership Fund is financed partly through the Foreign Office and partly through my Department. We address many of the humanitarian issues, as well as issues involving the capacity-building and economic growth that are essential if progress is to be made, while the Foreign Office addresses many of the political issues. I am satisfied that the APF is delivering what we seek from it, but I accept that much more needs to be done in the future. [Interruption.]
T6. On 7 July 2010, the Prime Minister joined me
“in welcoming the peaceful and credible elections in Somaliland”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 361],
and promised to increase engagement and aid as a consequence. Will the Secretary of State tell us what his current priorities are in relation to helping economic and social development in Somaliland? (92797)
We looked at the Somaliland programme following the intervention by the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that some 60% of British support for Somalia as a whole goes into Somaliland. During my visit to Hargeisa in Somaliland last year, I was able to observe the specific impact of that support both on economic development in Somaliland and on security. Britain is strongly engaged in supporting the training of the police and security forces.
T5. I am sure that all Members were appalled by the recent bombings in northern Nigeria, when so many people were killed and maimed. Given that 9 million people live in the city of Kano, all of whom are vulnerable to poverty and many of whom suffer abject poverty, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will take action, and continue to take action, to assist there? (92796)
There were British officials in Kano when the explosions took place. They have all been safely evacuated to Abuja, but my hon. Friend is right to make it clear that our programme of support for northern Nigeria, where there are many extremely poor people who are a magnet for the terrorist recruiter, must address all those issues, and Britain is working closely with the Government of Nigeria to do that.
T7. On a recent visit to the west bank, I was horrified to learn that schools are routinely targeted for demolition. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that that undermines humanitarian efforts in the west bank and East Jerusalem, and will he join me in condemning that appalling practice? (92798)
As the Minister of State eloquently set out in answer to an earlier question, and as I saw for myself on a visit to the west bank and Gaza immediately before Christmas, humanitarian aid is targeted directly at helping the victims of what the hon. Lady describes. Our commitment is to continue to ensure that Britain is engaged in the most effective possible resolution of those matters, both on the ground and in international forums.
APASENTH, a group with 20 years’ experience of working with adults with special educational needs in London, will shortly visit Bangladesh to see whether it can use its expertise to establish a centre there for people with autism. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and members of APASENTH after its visit to see how his Department can help that initiative?
I certainly undertake to ensure that a Minister meets my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. I suggest that he and the charity engage with the global poverty action fund—a new fund set up by the coalition Government to support non-governmental organisations with matching money. He may find that a rewarding vein to mine.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones from 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron 200, and Lance Corporal Gajbahadur Gurung, attached to 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. These were dedicated soldiers who were highly respected by their colleagues. Their courageous, selfless service will never be forgotten by our country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate myself and the whole House with the Prime Minister’s remarks and his condolences to the families and friends of the two brave soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country?
In the past week, chief constables in England and Wales have warned that policing is on a “cliff edge” and is facing a “watershed moment”, as numbers fall to their lowest in a decade. My force in Staffordshire is cutting hundreds of officers and staff, yet during the TV debates before the general election, the Prime Minister said:
“there’s no doubt about it. We’re not seeing enough police on the streets, we’re not catching enough burglars, we’re not convicting enough.”
How does the Prime Minister’s rhetoric then square with the reality of what is happening to front-line policing now?
The fact is that the percentage of officers on the front line has actually increased. We inherited a situation where there were 6,000 uniformed officers performing back-office roles in the police. We have had to make difficult spending reductions, but I think that if the hon. Gentleman listens to his Front Benchers, he will now find out that they support the cuts, and they support the pay freeze. They even support our police commissioners so strongly that droves of Labour MPs are going to quit to try to become them.
Q2. Tonight, the House will have a historic vote on whether households on benefits should be able to receive more than households in work. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the introduction of a benefits cap should have the support of the whole House? (92712)
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The cap is right, and the cap is fair. It is right to say that you should not get more than £26,000 a year in benefits—that is £500 a week—and it is fair because we are introducing a new principle into our welfare system: an able-bodied family who can work should not get more in benefits than the average family gets from work. The leader of the Labour party has said that he is not against a cap in principle; tonight we will find out whether he is in favour of a cap in practice.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones from 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron 200 and Lance Corporal Gajbahadur Gurung, attached to 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment? Both men showed exceptional courage and bravery and our thoughts are with their family and friends.
Before the election, legislation was passed by Parliament with cross-party support to make all banks disclose how many people earn more than £1 million, but it needs the Government to trigger the change. Will the Prime Minister now go ahead and do it?
We now have the toughest and most transparent regime of any major financial centre in the world. For the first time ever, banks will publish the pay of the top eight executives. That never happened in 13 years of a Labour Government. On the specific Walker reforms, Walker himself said that they should be done at the same time in all countries across the European Union.
Exactly what we would expect: no leadership on top pay from this Prime Minister. In case he has not heard the news, more than eight people are earning more than £1 million at our banks. What did the Chancellor say in opposition? He said this—[Interruption.] Government Members should listen to what the Chancellor said in opposition. He said:
“We…support…proposals to make those banks disclose the number of their employees who are on high salaries.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 706.]
He even called for the banks to publish their names. It is another broken promise from this Government. I ask the Prime Minister the question again: the legislation is on the books, it is ready to go and it had all-party support, so why does he not make it happen?
We are listening to the advice of the man who produced the report for the last Labour Government. The right hon. Gentleman asks about the number of people getting £1 million bonuses, but let me remind him that it was the last Labour Government—when he was in the Cabinet—who agreed an RBS bonus pool of £1.3 billion. Literally hundreds of people were getting £1 million bonuses and he signed it off. The issue for the right hon. Gentleman is why he is in favour in opposition of things he never did in government. Some might call it opposition; some people might call it hypocrisy.
I will tell the Prime Minister what hypocrisy is: it is saying that he will stop a £1 million bonus to Stephen Hester and then nodding it through. I have to say to him that I think we have now heard it all, because he says that the class war against the bankers is going to be led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires. I do not think it is going to wash, frankly.
Let me ask the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Let me ask him about another simple proposal. He had no answer on transparency. Does he agree with me that to bring a dose of realism to the decisions about top pay there should be an ordinary employee on every pay committee, so that people on a huge salary have to look at least one of their employees in the eye and justify it?
I am very happy to do that, Mr Speaker. It is just that we are expected to listen to the people who presided over the biggest banking and financial disaster in our history and it is not as if they had nothing to do with it. One of them was the City Minister and the other was sitting in the Treasury. I have to ask: who failed to regulate the banks? Labour. Who gave us the boom and bust? Labour. Who failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining? Labour. Who presided over these multi-million pound bonuses and did absolutely nothing? Labour.
I have looked very carefully at the right hon. Gentleman’s propositions and I do not think it is practical to do what he is suggesting. It breaks an important principle of not having people on a remuneration committee who will have their own pay determined, so I do not think that it is the right way forward. The House might be interested to know, as I have looked carefully at all his proposals, that he also proposed in Glasgow to ban performance-related pay in all but the most exceptional circumstances. That is completely wrong. There are people working in offices, factories and shops around the country who want performance-related pay and who, if they meet some targets, would like to have a bonus at the end of the year. That is pro-aspiration and pro-doing the right thing for your family. That shows that the right hon. Gentleman has not a clue about how to run an economy.
Now we know where the Prime Minister stands: no to transparency and no to an employee on the remuneration committee. And what was the Chancellor doing last week when they were supposedly cracking down on top pay? He was going to Davos to tell the business community to lobby for a reduction in the top rate of income tax. We know the truth. When it comes to top pay, this Government and this Prime Minister are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Yesterday, it was announced that the French company Dassault had won the first round in the contest for the $10 billion fighter aircraft contract with India. That is disastrous news for thousands of workers up and down the country, particularly in my constituency. Given the long relationship between India and Britain and given that we give many times more aid to India than France ever did, will the Prime Minister engage himself and the full force of the Government in attempting to reverse that decision?
Of course I will do everything I can, as I have already, to encourage the Indians to look at Typhoon, because it is such a good aircraft. The decision is obviously disappointing, but it is about who the Indians have assessed as making the lowest bid and have therefore asked to enter into further negotiations. They have not yet awarded the contract, and I would say to my right hon. Friend, who I know cares deeply, as I do, about the people employed in his constituency, that we do not expect any job losses to stem from this decision and that it does not rule out Typhoon for India. We must go on making the case that this is a superb aircraft with far better capabilities than Rafale, and we will try to encourage the Indians to take that view.
Q3. The Deputy Prime Minister recently said that means-testing might be brought in for pensioner bus passes. Was he speaking for the Government and does the Prime Minister really think that is fair? (92713)
If a local supermarket closes down, another quickly takes its place. If Portsmouth football club closes down, Pompey fans will not be content with buying their season ticket from Southampton. Will the Prime Minister add his voice to mine in calling for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to meet the club so that it recoups the tax it is owed, our club survives and the fans have their chance to become its owners?
I will certainly do that, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Knowing one or two Pompey fans, I can completely understand that the idea they could go and support Southampton is completely incredible. We must do everything we can to keep the friendly rivalry going.
This week, the British Medical Journal, the Health Service Journal and the Nursing Times published a joint editorial that said the Prime Minister’s reorganisation
“has destabilised and damaged one of this country’s greatest achievements: a system that embodies social justice and has delivered widespread patient satisfaction, public support, and value for money. We must make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Why does the Prime Minister think he has so comprehensively lost the medical profession’s trust?
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to raise the welfare cap today. I think that people up and down the country will recognise that.
There are tens of thousands of general practitioners up and down the country who are implementing our reforms because they want decisions to be made by doctors, not bureaucrats, they want to see health and social care brought together and they want to put the patient in the driving seat. The right hon. Gentleman should look at what is actually happening in the health service. Waiting times are down, infection rates are down and the number of people in mixed-sex wards, which we put up with for 13 years under Labour, is down by 94%. He should be praising the good things that are happening in the health service rather than having his policy, which is to say that an increase in NHS resources is irresponsible. That is Labour’s position; it is this Government who are putting the money in and getting the reforms right.
Every time the Prime Minister talks about the NHS he just shows how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground. Let me now tell him who is lined up against the health Bill: 98% of GPs, against the Bill; the Royal College of Nursing, against the Bill; the Royal College of Midwives, against the Bill; the Royal College of Radiologists [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]; the British Medical Association [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]; the Patients Association [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]. He knows in his heart of hearts that this Bill is a disaster. There were rumours last week that he was considering dropping the Bill. He has a choice: he can carry on regardless or he can listen to the public and the professions. Will he now do the right thing and drop this unwanted Bill?
If you are trying to bring into a public service choice, competition, transparency, proper results and publication of results, you will always find that there will be objections. The question is, is it going to improve patient care and the running of the health service? [Interruption.]
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman something that Tony Blair once wrote about the process of reform. Now there is a man who knows a thing about bonuses and pay. He said this—[Interruption.] Listen, listen:
“It is an object lesson in the progress of reform: the change is proposed; it is denounced as a disaster; it proceeds with vast… opposition; it is unpopular; it comes about; within a short space of time, it is as if it has always been so. The lesson is instructive: if you think a change is right, go with it. The opposition is inevitable, but rarely is it unbeatable.”
That was someone who knew a thing or two about reform.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. A year ago, I asked the Prime Minister for help when the announcement was made of the Pfizer closure in Sandwich. Does he agree that the support and help from his Ministers, which delivered us an enterprise zone and £40 million for jobs in east Kent, have ensured that we are still a leading centre for life sciences?
I am delighted with what my hon. Friend says. It was a tough and difficult time when Pfizer made that decision, but I think this has shown that, by Government, industry, local people in Kent and organisations coming together, we have been able to keep a lot of jobs, and a lot of investment and research and development, in that area. I would say to all pharmaceutical companies that this Government have the patent box, so if people invent things in this country and develop them in this country, they pay only a 10% corporation tax rate. That enables us to say to pharmaceutical companies all over the world, “Come and invest in Britain.”
Q4. This week, temperatures across Britain have dropped drastically. Last winter, 200 people died every day from preventable cold weather-related illnesses, but in Barnsley, instead of being able to focus resources on promoting the dangers of cold weather, we have had to set aside £17 million for an undemocratic, top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituents whether that really is a responsible use of public money? (92714)
First, I would say to the hon. Gentleman and to everyone in Barnsley that this Government have been able to keep the higher level of cold weather payments, which was introduced before the election, and we have kept it for all years. I think that will be a real help, along with the winter fuel allowance. On the NHS, I say to him that he should simply look at the figures. Since the election, there are 4,000 more doctors working in our NHS. There are 620 more midwives working in our NHS. We are treating 100,000 more patients per month in our NHS. That is what is actually happening in the NHS, if he looks at what is happening in his hospital, rather than just repeating what the trade unions are telling him.
Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that talks between St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust on their possible merger have been abandoned. I seek reassurance from him that Epsom and St Helier will be able to engage with local partners, such as local authorities and clinical commissioning groups, in order to come forward with a proposal that meets local health needs, and that the £290 million allocated for the hospital is still available. (92715)
I totally understand my right hon. Friend’s concern about this issue. The priority for the trust remains securing the future of the Epsom, St Helier and Sutton hospitals. I understand that the trust board and those working on a possible merger had already started to look at other options in case the merger did not happen. I understand that they are now looking at the next steps and I am sure that the Department of Health will want to engage very closely with him as this unfolds.
Q6. The Prime Minister is keen to tell us that work should always pay, so what would he say to my constituents from low and middle-income families who have contacted me to convey their fears about the measures the Government are bringing forward, such as the removal of working and child tax credits? These are working people who are already facing severe financial difficulties, and the current proposals could cost hard-working families with disabled children and in receipt of the lower disability premium over £1,300 a year. (92716)
I would make two points. Of course we have had to reform the tax credits system. When we came to office, tax credits went all the way up the income scale so that even Members of this House were eligible for them, so we have taken them further down the income scale. In terms of what the hon. Lady says about disability, I would make two points. First, disability living allowance—the absolutely key benefit—is going up by 5.2% this April, which will be well ahead of inflation. The point I would make about universal credit is that the lower rate for disabled children is £53, as she will know. Anyone on that level will be completely protected through transitional payments. We have not yet set the higher rate, but I can tell the hon. Lady that it will be at least what it is now, and possibly higher.
Q7. Will the Prime Minister, as a matter of urgency, look at the recent shocking report by Anna Klonowski on allegations of overcharging of vulnerable adults on Wirral and cases of violence and intimidation under a Labour-led council, making sure that those responsible are brought to account and never work in adult social services again? (92717)
I will certainly look at the report my hon. Friend mentions. This is clearly a very serious matter. I will also ask the Minister responsible in the Department of Health to look into the matter further and then speak with her. The Care Quality Commission, which has had a difficult birth, clearly has a really important job to do in ensuring that its inspections are thorough and targeted in the areas where they are most needed. It sounds from what she says that there is clearly a very great need for this to happen on Merseyside.
Q8. Today the Prime Minister denied yet again that he is cutting benefits for disabled children, but the lower rate of disability living allowance for disabled children is being reduced from almost £54 to almost £27, a cut of practically 50% which will affect 100,000 children. Is that not correct? (92718)
I think that that is absolutely right. It is right to bring in the cap. It introduces a new principle, which is that you should not be better off on benefits than the average family is in work. What we have had from the Labour party is complete silence. Will it support us tonight in the Lobby? Why does the Leader of the Opposition not just nod? Nod? Answer came there none. I thought that it was all about taking tough decisions—that they were in favour of a cap; they were going to tear up some of Labour’s history; it was time to make some bold decisions. Come on, one bold decision—just nod. Are you with us or are you against us? A great big vacuum.
Q9. Will the Prime Minister explain why a 65-year-old constituent of mine, who cannot get a council home, has to pay £100 of her £570 a month rent because of his housing benefit reforms? Why is this Prime Minister so much tougher on the vulnerable than he is on the powerful, with their excessive bonuses? (92719)
We know that the Opposition are not going to back us on the welfare cap, and now we can see that they are against the housing benefit reforms as well. Let me just remind the hon. Lady what her own shadow welfare Minister said. He said that it is completely unacceptable that housing benefit has rocketed to £20 billion. This is what he said. Where is “Baldemort”? He is not at home today. He said that Beveridge
“would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20 bn a year.”
This Government are reforming it; that Opposition are doing nothing.
Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that all Members who claim that they are on the side of hard-working families throughout the country should vote with the Government tonight to cap benefits at £26,000, which is, after all, the average income of hard-working families? (92725)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People up and down the country will be completely amazed that the party that is supposedly meant to stand up for working people thinks that it is okay to get more on benefits than a family gets from working. So let me give the Opposition one more go. Are you with us in the Lobby tonight? Absolutely hopeless.
Q10. It is now clear that the single biggest funder of the Prime Minister’s party got his peerage on false pretences. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that Lord Ashcroft has now told the whole truth about his connections with the building company Johnson International, or is it yet again one rule for the Prime Minister’s rich friends and another rule for everyone else? (92720)
Q11. Eight million households have to make do with earning £26,000 or less before tax. What message does my right hon. Friend think that we will be sending to those people if we renege on our promise to cap benefits at £26,000 a year? (92721)
There will be many people in the country who criticise the benefit cap, saying, “Actually, £26,000, £500 a week, is too high.” I think it is fair, I think it is right, but I think that people expect their politicians to make it clear that you are better off in work than you are on benefits. Plenty of people are excluded from the cap because they are on disability living allowance, not able to work and the rest of it, but if you can work you should not be better off on benefits. That is a simple principle, and I find it amazing that the Labour party cannot agree. One more go? One little nod? Nothing.
Q12. In opposition the Prime Minister told millions on TV: “If you work hard, I’ll be behind you.” RBS, which is 82% state-owned, has not signed up to pay the living wage of £8.30 per hour in London and £7.20 elsewhere for all its staff and contractors. Why do his Government support low wages for workers but big bucks and bonuses for banksters? (92722)
I thought that by referring to standing up for people who work hard the hon. Gentleman was beginning to get the hang of it and that we might have had a supporter tonight. What this Government have done with RBS is radically cut the bonus pool, which was massive under Labour; say that there should be a £2,000 cash cap, unlike the massive cash increases under Labour; and begin to get that bank under control.
Q13. The Liberal Democrats’ plan to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 was on the front page of our manifesto. It will give many working people an extra £700 a year and lift millions of poorly paid people out of income tax altogether. At a time when many working people are struggling to make ends meet, will the Prime Minister agree to go further and faster on that much-needed tax cut? (92723)
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I am proud of the fact that we have taken 1.1 million people out of tax. Those are some of the lowest paid people in our country, and the majority of them are women. We are committed to making further progress during this Parliament with this policy.
Q14. Before the general election, the Prime Minister told midwives that he would make their lives easier and that he would recruit 3,000 more of them. Since the general election, nurses and midwives have been down-banded, working harder for less, and midwives in training have been reduced by 3% a year. Were the British people wrong to take him at his word? (92724)
I am very sorry, but the hon. Lady’s figures are, in fact, wrong. Compared with the time of the election, there are over 620 more midwives working in the NHS and there are record numbers in training. We want to do more, but we will be able to do more only if we keep funding the NHS; the hon. Lady’s party is committed to cutting it, saying that NHS funding increases are irresponsible. We will be able to do that only if we keep cutting back on the bureaucracy, which we are doing very successfully with our reforms, and making sure that the money goes into the front end. But there are more midwives. There are more in training. I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s figures are wrong.
On new year’s eve 2010, my constituent Jamie Still was killed by a drink-driver who was more than twice over the limit, yet Jamie’s family had to face the fact that the person who had killed him continued to drive for a further eight months until sentencing. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet the family and consider their campaign, which is that people who are seriously over the limit in death by dangerous driving cases should have their driving licences withdrawn as part of their bail conditions?
My heart goes out to my hon. Friend’s constituents for the loss that they have suffered. He raises a very important point about what happens in cases such as these and what one can and cannot do with bail conditions. I will certainly go away and look at that. It may well be that this is something that we can consider alongside the recommendations that we are considering about drug-related driving. There is more work for the Government to do in this area, and I will certainly listen to my hon. Friend’s and his constituents’ concerns.
We believe on these Benches that the Government’s welfare cap is both fair and reasonable, and we will be supporting the Government in the Lobby tonight. But we also believe that the Lords amendments affecting vulnerable people—cancer patients and disabled people—are also fair and reasonable, not least because of the disproportionately detrimental effects, of which the Prime Minister will be aware, on Northern Ireland. Why, therefore, are we so limited in time for debating these crucial issues, which affect so many of our most vulnerable people?
First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support in the Lobby tonight and I look forward to seeing him there. On the issue of the cancer sufferers and the plans for the employment and support allowance, let me just explain that under our plans the number of cancer sufferers who will get extra long-term help through the ESA support group is actually going to increase. We are going to reduce the number of people who have to have face-to-face assessments. These proposals have been fully supported by Professor Harrington, whom we asked to look into the issue because we were not happy with the previous Government’s arrangements and the way in which these things were dealt with.
The point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that there are two types of employment and support allowance. There is the support group, who will always go on getting support, which is not means-tested; as long as they need that help they will get it. There is also the work-related activity group—people who, with help, are able to work. I think it is right to ask them, with support, to get into work, and that is what we are going to do.
Who does the Prime Minister think is on the side of hard-working low paid families in Nuneaton—the Conservative-led coalition, which is taking the lowest paid out of tax and capping benefits, or the Labour party, which took away the 10p tax rate and is flip-flopping over the benefit cap?
Order. Before the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) presents his ten-minute rule motion, I issue my usual appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber. They should do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can listen to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he can move into view. [Interruption.] We are exceptionally grateful.
Airport Security (People with Disabilities)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require security search arrangements at airports to ensure that appropriate levels of privacy are provided for people with disabilities; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would require Her Majesty’s Government to take measures to ensure that the dignity of stoma bag users and other disabled people is protected at airport security checkpoints throughout the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Many people who face life-threatening health conditions such as bowel and bladder cancer and Crohn’s disease must undergo surgery, such as colostomies and urostomies. Such surgery should not end their right to travel, whether it be for business, for pleasure or to see friends and family, nor should it end their right to be treated with dignity while doing so. Unfortunately, that is what often occurs.
One of my constituents who has had cancer and who requires the use of both urostomy and colostomy pouches attended my surgery to tell me of the humiliation that she has faced at several airports throughout the European Union. She requested my assistance in preventing future such occurrences. She explained that the security personnel at Budapest airport were far from sympathetic. After a pat-down search, they wanted to examine her underwear, despite her attempts to explain that she had colostomy pouches. She was required to attempt to explain that to them in public, in front of fellow holidaymakers in the security queue—an experience she described as “totally degrading”.
Sadly, such practices and such a lack of sympathy are not unique to that case. My constituent told me how she had faced poor treatment at an airport in the north-east. A rudimentary internet search reveals similar instances at airports throughout the world, including at John F. Kennedy airport in New York and Tampa in Florida. At John Lennon airport in Liverpool, a colostomy bag user from Ballymena faced a public search. Although it is vital to ensure that aerospace flights are secure, one would hope that in such circumstances, airport security staff would act with compassion, humanity and common sense.
My constituent had a card and a doctor’s letter, with an explanation of her situation in several languages. She faced problems because she was separated from them when her hand luggage was scanned. The man from Ballymena also had a letter signed by his doctor and even offered to be searched privately. His letter and request were apparently ignored by the Securitas guard. Such practices must surely be regarded as a violation of a passenger’s fundamental and inalienable right to be treated with dignity, and they must cease.
The Bill would address those problems. The British Government would be compelled to ensure that all airport security staff in the United Kingdom with responsibility for searching passengers were trained in preserving the dignity of stoma patients while maintaining our security. Furthermore, the Bill would address these issues throughout the European Union by compelling the Foreign Secretary to urge the European Commission to amend regulation No. 300/2008 on common rules in the field of civil aviation security to require all airport security staff in the EU to be so trained. The Government would also be expected to lobby for such training to be mandated worldwide by the International Civil Aviation Organisation through the Chicago convention.
This issue must affect thousands of British citizens every year, but sadly it attracts little attention. I hope that Members recognise that granting this Bill a Second Reading is an opportunity for this House to make a difference to people’s lives by ensuring that their right to dignity is respected.
Question put and agreed to.
That Tom Blenkinsop, Steve Rotheram, Nic Dakin, Yvonne Fovargue, Mr Iain Wright and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Tom Blenkinsop accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed (Bill 301).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on the written ministerial statement laid today by the Ministry of Defence on the White Paper, “National Security Through Technology: Technology, Equipment, and Support for UK Defence and Security”, and on the reference that was made in Prime Minister’s questions to BAE losing the Typhoon order from India. Is it possible for a Defence Minister to come to the House to address both those issues as they are of such importance to many Members of Parliament and their constituents?
As the hon. Lady knows, the manner in which the Government make statements is a matter for those on the Treasury Bench. Specifically, it is for them to judge whether there should be a written or an oral statement. Her point of order will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and will doubtless be transmitted to the Leader of the House and his deputy. Moreover, the hon. Lady is an assiduous attender of Question Time each day and will be conscious that tomorrow there will be business questions, where she may make an appearance to pursue this point further.
Welfare Reform Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
That the following provisions shall apply to the Welfare Reform Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 9 March 2011 (Welfare Reform Bill (Programme)) and 13 June 2011 (Welfare Reform Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1.Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 pm at this day’s sitting
2. The proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
15.17 to 19 and 23 (employment and support allowance
47 (benefit cap)
1 to 14, 16, 20 to 22, 24 to 46, 48 to 110 (remaining amendments
4. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
5. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mr Newmark.)
Question agreed to.
Welfare Reform Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in a substantial number of Lords amendments. If the House agrees to these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Period of entitlement to contributory allowance
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 15.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Lords amendment 17, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 18, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 19, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 23, and Government motion to disagree.
Throughout the process of the Bill in both this House and the other place, we have listened carefully to the concerns that have been raised. We have taken them on board wherever possible and provided important clarifications on the Government’s position and responses to technical concerns. However, let us be clear that we stand firmly behind the aims and detail of our reforms.
As you indicated, Mr Speaker, Lords amendments 15, 17, 18 and 23 impinge on the financial privileges of this House. I ask the House to disagree to those amendments, and I will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason for doing so. It cannot be denied that we are in extremely difficult financial times, and that the Government have no choice but to take measures to address the situation. Tackling the unsustainable rise in spending on benefits and tax credits, as part of the Government’s overall deficit reduction strategy, is undeniably important. However, I emphasise that the affordability of the welfare system is just one objective of the reforms being introduced in the Bill.
We are making principled reforms that will finally tackle the trap of welfare dependency. Universal credit will ensure that work always pays, lifting 900,000 individuals out of poverty, including more than 350,000 children and about 550,000 working-age adults. The Bill will also deliver fairness for claimants and for the taxpayers who fund the system. We will discuss the benefit cap in the next group of Lords amendments, but it is clearly not fair, for example, that households on out-of-work benefits should receive a greater income from benefits than the average earnings of working households. Finally, our reforms will radically simplify the system, ensuring that it is easier for claimants to understand and for staff to administer. Hon. Members should be clear that those are vital principles, of which financial considerations are only one part.
I turn specifically to the provisions on employment and support allowance that are dealt with by this group of amendments. I shall set out the Government’s full rationale for rejecting the Lords amendments. First, Lords amendment 15 was simply a paving amendment that had no effect. Lords amendment 17 would increase the time limit for claimants receiving contributory ESA in the work-related activity group from the proposed 365 days to a minimum of 730 days, which would have to be prescribed in regulations.
On contributory benefit, does the Minister accept that giving a person who has made a recovery after suffering from cancer only 365 days to get back into work is a little prescriptive? Does he accept that the Lords amendment would allow them additional time—up to two years—to get back into work? The amendment is about fairness for those people alone.
I will talk in more detail about cancer, which is one of the measures we are addressing. I accept that there are anxieties in respect of cancer, but the approach that we are taking to all our reforms, and particularly those relating to sickness and disability, is that we should not write off automatically any individual with a particular condition. Applying a one-size-fits-all measure to any one condition is the wrong thing to do.
The Minister initially said that the Government are introducing their measures because they need to save money on the welfare Bill, but he also said—I hope there is great support in the House for this—that their measures will shape behaviour. Are the national insurance measures designed to shape and change behaviour, and in what way will they do so, or are they merely just to save money? In other words, is the Minister doing what the Treasury has required him to do on national insurance?
The important thing about that measure is that we must have a welfare system in which people have confidence. The principle of our proposal reflects the principle used in the jobseeker’s allowance system—people should get something back for what they have contributed, but not indefinitely. The Government’s measures simply seek to extend that principle to the group on ESA.
The principle I described is a long-standing one that has been applied to other benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance. It is important to state that the Government are not taking benefits away from people who have no other form of income, or from people in the support group who need long-term, unconditional help. The measure simply affects those in the work-related activity group. It applies to them the same principle that exists in jobseeker’s allowance.
Does not the Government’s proposal conflict with what they are trying to do? The Minister says that benefits will not be taken away from those who have nothing, but their measure will take away benefits from, for example, a couple in which one partner is in part-time work. They could be asked to dig into what they have saved for retirement.
The principle of the welfare state that I described—that it is there to provide a safety net for those who have no other form of income—has operated for a very long time, including under the previous Government. The welfare state provides a degree of support to those who have another form of income, but it is a long-standing principle of the jobseeker’s allowance system that such support is not unlimited. We are simply applying that same principle to ESA for people who are deemed to have the potential, in due course, to return to work.
Is the Minister aware that many of us are grateful for what the House of Lords has done? It has acted as the conscience of Parliament. It is extremely unfortunate that the Government are today determined to reverse its decision. What is so obnoxious about the Government’s measures is that the most vulnerable are being hit, meaning not only cancer patients, but others with life-threatening diseases. It seems that the Government are totally indifferent to the group of people who will be harmed as a result of their proposals.
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s views, but he is a member of a party whose leader and shadow Secretary of State made speeches a fortnight ago on the need to take tough decisions on welfare. I am afraid that what the hon. Gentleman says is another example of the disconnect that exists within the Opposition.
What taxpayers in my constituency find obnoxious is people who use the welfare state as an alternative lifestyle choice rather than as a safety net, for which it was first intended. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government, through this measure and their other changes, are trying to go back to what the welfare state was initially intended for, namely a safety net rather than an alternative lifestyle choice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to have a system that is fair both to the taxpayer who pays for it and to the recipients. As a result of these reforms, we will have a system that is fairer to those receiving support and also fairer to those who are paying for that support.
Support to find work, for those people who will be affected, will be available for all ESA claimants from the outset of their claim, through Jobcentre Plus on a voluntary basis until the outcome of the work capability assessment and, following the WCA, for those claimants placed in the work-related activity group, through Jobcentre Plus or through the Work programme. Every single person who is on ESA, including those on a contributory basis, has access to the Work programme.
Some have said that the limit is arbitrary. I do not accept that. As the Minister with responsibility for welfare reform explained in the other place, it is similar to that applied by several countries around the world, including France, Ireland and Spain, and strikes an appropriate balance between the needs of sick and disabled people claiming benefit and those who have to contribute towards the cost.
Can the Minister clarify, for the avoidance of doubt, that someone who has been in the work-related activity group on contributory ESA for two years who subsequently gets reassessed as belonging to the support group will have their ESA reinstated even though they do not have the national insurance contributions that would allow that to happen?
I can indeed confirm that that is the case. We have listened very carefully on this issue, and it was a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) in Committee. We have listened and we have taken appropriate action. It is important that we look at such details to ensure that we get them right, but that does not detract from the overall principle of what we are trying to achieve.
I believe that a time limit of one year is the correct approach. It applies the right balance between restricting access to contributory benefits and allowing those with longer term illnesses to adjust to their health condition and surrounding circumstances. There is also a very strong financial argument. If accepted, this amendment would reduce the total savings in the spending review period by around a third by 2016-17, which is £1.6 billion. Given the current fiscal climate, we cannot afford to forgo these savings and this is one of a number of very difficult decisions the Government have had to make because, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out at the time, there was no money left.
Lords amendment 18 would mean that no time limit would be applied to contributory ESA for those claimants receiving treatment for cancer if they have or are treated as having limited capability for work, or they have or are treated as having limited capability for work as a consequence of a cancer diagnosis. The whole point of our approach on these matters is that we have always looked at the effects of a condition on an individual, rather than at the condition itself. We can all think of other cases which could equally be regarded as special cases. We are trying to be sensitive to the very real concerns of individuals suffering from cancer, and since we took office we have made significant changes to improve the protection and support that we provide to them.
Most individuals with cancer are placed in the support group at the outset of their treatment. We have increased the scope of the support group for cancer patients. We have been working closely with Macmillan Cancer Relief to improve how the WCA assesses individuals being treated for cancer. We are now consulting on our proposals, following work by Macmillan and Professor Harrington, our independent assessor of the work capability assessment.
We are clear that our proposals, which are now out to consultation, include a presumption that someone with cancer will be in the support group. What we simply do not accept is that in all circumstances, regardless of the impact of cancer on an individual’s ability to work or otherwise, they should be guaranteed a position in the support group. We have not taken that approach with any other condition and we do not believe that we should take it with cancer.
I know that there has been some discussion in the last few days about whether, if a doctor or nurse were able to provide confirmation that a person with cancer was not able to work, that person would be automatically passported into the support group. Is that something that the Government intend to introduce?
It is very much our intention—especially for those who have finished their treatment but are not yet prepared to return to work—to have a simple system that enables a medical professional to indicate to us that that person is not yet sufficiently recovered to make a return to work. Our proposals are out to consultation at the moment, but our overall clear goal is that, in the vast majority of cases, someone who is undergoing treatment for cancer or is recovering from the aftermath of that treatment should be in the support group. What we cannot accept is a principle for absolutely all cases and regardless of circumstance, and some people with cancer do work—
The issue comes back to the core principle of why we are imposing the time limit. We are not taking benefits away from people who do not have other financial means. The people who will be affected by the 12-month time limit—not just cancer patients, but generally—are those who either have another household income or who have many thousands of pounds of savings in the bank. They are the ones affected. We are not taking contributory support away from those people in the support group. Most cancer patients, as I have just described, will be in that support group. We are not taking benefits away from them, just from those with other financial means.
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
If amendment 18 were accepted, it is estimated that it would cost around £90 million cumulatively by 2016-17 based on a two-year time limit, or around £140 million cumulatively based on a one-year time limit. That would be a significant additional cost for the taxpayer, and would fly in the face of a principle that we have tried to bring to this whole process, which is that we do not bracket any condition into one absolute position. We look at each individual case to understand the impact of the condition on the ability to work.
The third area of focus this afternoon is our proposed changes to the condition relating to entitlement to ESA on grounds of limited capability during youth. These changes are part of our principled approach to reform. We want to modernise and simplify the current welfare system, focus support, avoid duplication of provision and redefine the contract between the state and individuals, in advance of the introduction of universal credit. It cannot be right that, for example, where a claimant has qualified for contributory ESA under the youth provisions and some years later they receive a substantial inheritance, they should be able to continue to receive unlimited contributory ESA without the need to have paid any contributions and without any condition from the state.
These proposals will not affect those in receipt of income-related ESA. We expect that around 90% of those who presently receive ESA on youth grounds will be eligible for income-related ESA. It will be a simple transition from their point of view. Only some 10% will not qualify because they have other means available to them—and I emphasise that that means a partner in full-time work or capital of more than £16,000. We are merely targeting the support the Government can provide to where it is needed most. I do not think it is right that someone with independent income or capital should be able to access state support on a long-term, ongoing and unconditional basis.
Can the Minister clarify absolutely that a 20-year-old who will never work and who lives at home with their parents will be able to get income-related ESA? Obviously it cannot be contributory as they have made no national insurance contributions. Even if they live in a household above income support levels, will they continue to get income-related ESA in their own right?
I cannot give an undertaking in all circumstances, because every circumstance will be different. But 90% of those who presently receive ESA on youth grounds will be eligible for income-related ESA. It will depend on the circumstances of each individual case.
We have already mentioned the fact that the Government amendments allow claimants to re-qualify for a further award of contributory ESA after their ESA has ceased as a result of time limiting, and they are later placed in the support group because of a deterioration in their health. That applies equally to ESA youth claimants.
There is, however, another factor to take into account—and this, again, is an example of why this is about more than just money. We must also consider the impact of the Stewart judgment given in the European Court on 21 July 2011, as a result of which someone living abroad can qualify for benefit without having to satisfy the past presence test, if they can demonstrate a genuine and sufficient link to the United Kingdom. The Court determined that Ms Stewart arguably could demonstrate a link with the UK because she was in receipt of another UK benefit, was dependent on her parents, who were UK pensioners, and had spent a significant part of her life in the UK.
We want people to qualify only if they have lived in the UK recently prior to the claim, but we are also obliged to take account of the Court’s case-law view of what constitutes a sufficient link. We strongly disagree with the Court’s ruling. The effect of that EU judgment is that we can no longer have a blanket past presence test of this kind for benefit claimants. As a result, the ESA youth provision is potentially more widely available than intended, and given that we are bound by EU law, there is nothing, short of abolition, that we can do by way of domestic legislation—even primary legislation—to change its effect. As a consequence, we could end up paying this benefit, on a long-term unconditional basis, to more people who have never lived in the United Kingdom but who can simply demonstrate a link to it.
It relates to someone who has not lived in the UK for most of the past 15 years, although she is a British national and has a link to the UK. The implication of the court case is that somebody who has a link to the UK but who has had no recent contact with it is none the less entitled to receive benefits. That is where we disagree with the European Court and why we think that its decision was wrong.
We think that the best way to close this door is to abolish the ESA youth provision, but it is not the only reason we are abolishing the youth provision. It is by no means the sole rationale for doing so, but as a matter of principle it is our view that we should make every effort to ensure that our benefits are paid only to those whom we think should be paid UK benefits—those who have recent connections to, or have lived in, the United Kingdom.
I want to try to follow the Minister’s logic a step further. Is he going on to propose that British citizens who have retired abroad—for example, to Spain—will not be able to receive their pensions in the years to come? Is that the logical extension of his argument?
Of course it is not. We are saying that somebody should not be able to claim a benefit for the first time having not lived in the United Kingdom for many years. That is the argument that we put to the European Court, and it is a principle that we stand by. I emphasise that that is one of the reasons, but by no means the only reason, why we are taking this measure.
I would love to secure a more pragmatic and sensible approach to the regulation of social security in Europe. I have been working on it for the past 18 months with my counterparts in other member states, and I hope that we will make progress as soon as possible. Right now, however, we must obey European case law as delivered to us by the European Court—much as it sometimes might be frustrating to do so.
I have a couple of technical points to make before I finish. As a result of providing for the new category of entitlement, in respect of claimants whose health has deteriorated to such a degree that they are placed in the support group—I referred to this earlier in response to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg)—it has been necessary to remove the substance of the ESA youth time-limiting measure from the original clause 52 and to insert it in clause 51 via a new subsection in section 1 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007. The Opposition amended that new subsection by changing the period of the time limit from 365 days to a period to be prescribed of at least 730 days. That is Lords amendment 19. As a result, the House will need to agree to amendment 19 but with an amendment consequential upon the rejection of the other amendments providing for entitlement to ESA to be for 730 days rather than 365 days. This will restore the Government’s intention.
A similar complexity surrounds amendment 22, which was voted for in the other place and which ensures that no new claims can be made under the youth provisions in the future—in effect, from whenever that provision is commenced by order. This amendment would amend clause 52 by removing the substance of ESA youth time limiting, which is now included in clause 51, but would retain the key provision in clause 52 preventing new ESA youth claims from being made.
I am afraid that this position is further complicated by the fact that also in the other place amendment 23 was not pushed to a vote and therefore also stands part of the Bill. Amendment 23 effectively allows claims to be made to contributory ESA under the youth provisions for those that are placed in the support group. We therefore now have two conflicting clauses for conditions relating to youth. Finally, if amendment 23 were to be accepted, it would reduce the expected cumulative benefit savings by around £17 million by 2016-17—savings that would need to be found elsewhere in the benefits system.
In the light of these arguments—the urgent need to address the fiscal deficit we have inherited and the need to deliver principled reform to our welfare state—I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the Government.
The Government are determined to insert some terrible things in the Bill, and none of them is worse than the indefensible one-year time limit on contributory employment and support allowance for people in the work-related activity group. Amendment 17 removes that one-year limit. The Government are trying to put it back. Now, with the blanket appeal that we have heard for financial privilege, they are trying to prevent the other place from daring to disagree with them once again.
The measure is literally indefensible: the Government have been unable to defend it. The Minister made no effort to defend it in his speech, other than to point out that it would save a great deal of money. He referred to what happens in other European countries, but there, of course, the support that people fall back on is much more generous than here. There is no defence for the one-year time limit, and the House needs to be aware that this change will start to impact in two months’ time, at the beginning of April. According to the Government, 100,000 people will lose contributory benefits at the beginning of April this year, having already been in receipt of contributory ESA for more than one year, and another 100,000 will lose it as they reach the one-year stage of their claim over the following 12 months.
Some people argue that ESA should not be limited at all—for example, the Liberal Democrats. At their party conference, they opposed any arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA, and the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Thomas of Winchester told Members of the other place that what troubled the conference last year was
“the arbitrary nature of the one-year cut-off.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 158.]
Liberal Democrat party policy is clear on this, but we understand that today its elected representatives will take no notice of it.
The Lords amendments that the Government want to overturn are much more modest. They argue that the time limit should be not less than two years and, crucially, that the limit should be set down in regulations rather than in primary legislation. If the Government get their way, absurdly it would require a new Act of Parliament to change the limit. Throughout debates on the Bill—many Members have been present in Committee and other stages of the Bill—the Minister has told us that the purpose of the Bill is to provide the structure and that the details would be in regulations. On this measure, however, with no explanation, the opposite approach has been applied. These debates provide a clear indication of whether Ministers mean what they say when they tell us these things, or whether they are simply reading the script put in front of them.
We do not quarrel with time limiting. As the Minister said, contributory jobseeker’s allowance has been time-limited to six months for many years. The rationale has always been that within six months more than 90% of jobseekers are back in work. If it is to be fair, however, a time limit for ESA must also give people a reasonable chance to get back into work. A year is not enough. The Government’s own figures suggest that 94% of those who qualify for ESA are still on it a year later, so fewer than 6% are managing to get into a job within a year.
The question is: how long do people need to be on ESA before they get back into work? According to the Minister’s figures, only 6% are off the benefit within a year, whereas 90% are off contributory jobseeker’s allowance within the period that is being allowed for that benefit.
I answered the Minister’s question. What his figures show is that only 6% of those who go on to ESA—no doubt many of them will have been on statutory sick pay before that—are in a position to come off the benefit within one year. That is not a reasonable chance to get back to work, as I think the Minister will recognise if he reflects on the matter.
As the Minister said, Lords amendment 18 specifically addresses cancer. I do not think that anyone in this House will be surprised to learn that, for many cancer patients, 12 months is not long enough to become well enough to get back into work. At 12 months, many people are still experiencing debilitating physical and psychological effects from the cancer and from its treatment. People cannot go back to work in those circumstances, and that is why Macmillan Cancer Relief, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) referred to, says that
“proposals that ESA claimants who are expected to carry out work-focused activities will only receive the benefit for one year, without being means-tested, will hit cancer patients particularly hard”.
Macmillan also says:
“Three quarters…of people with cancer placed in the ESA Work-Related Activity Group are still claiming ESA 12 months later.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Minister, with his rather “Let them eat cake” answer to our right hon. Friend, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), was emphasising that the 7,000 people affected would generally have another income available to them? That ignores, first, that that other income could be quite modest; secondly, their family circumstances; and, most importantly, the fact that they face other costs—of a personal, family and household nature—because of their condition.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ministers say that there is no need to worry because means-tested ESA will still be there, but if a partner is earning £7,500 a year, no means-tested support will be provided at all.
In the other place, Baroness Hayter quoted a letter from a 59-year-old man currently on contributory ESA who has worked and paid into the system since he was 15—that is, for 44 years. Now, when his health is failing, he will be left on the poverty line. He draws the obvious conclusion—this picks up on the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made earlier—saying:
“It would be better if my wife stopped working then perhaps I could claim income-related ESA—just like any person who has never worked”.
That is the position that this change is putting people in. The Government say they want to reward work; with this measure, they are scrapping the reward for work.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on, perhaps he could dwell on that point. The Government rightly say that this Bill is about changing and shaping behaviour, and for all of us in this House, it is important to know that this year we will probably crash through the £200 billion mark. Anybody who thinks that that does not affect people’s behaviour is living in cloud cuckoo land. However, what message is this Bill sending out, when those who have provided and paid their contributions will get no benefits if there is any other income in their house, whereas those who have not played by the rules—who have decided that they will coast it on the back of taxpayers—get rewards?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am afraid that the message that this measure is sending to people in that situation is, “You’ve wasted your time.” Indeed, that is the case not only if they have a partner with an income, but if they have any savings. If they have more than £16,000 saved, there will be no means-tested support at all.
Members need to be clear about what the Government will be doing if they get their way. Under this measure, people who are in the middle of a health crisis will be plunged into a financial catastrophe. People who have worked and paid into the system all their lives—people who have, as my right hon. Friend says, done the right thing—will find that the system is not there to help them when they need it.
The shadow Minister has just talked about the position of somebody who has a spouse who is earning £7,500 a year. Will he confirm to the House that as a result of a diminution of household income, they would also be entitled to working tax credit, housing benefit, council tax benefit and possibly to child tax credit, and that therefore the amount of support that they will receive is substantially more than he is suggesting?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, very simply, this change that the Government are seeking is saying to cancer patients, “You will be penalised because you are not recovering quickly enough”? That is where the insult rests: they are doing their best.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: 12 months is simply not long enough for a very large number of cancer patients—or other patients, in fact—to get back to work.
Lords amendment 18 was moved in the other place by Lord Patel, the Cross-Bench peer who was formerly president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. He quoted a man with renal cancer who had had a kidney removed and who started claiming ESA in March last year. His partner earns £160 per week, but if the Government win, that man will lose all his contributory benefit in April. He says:
“We have used up virtually all our savings already. I have worked all my life and paid into the system but this doesn't seem to mean anything”.
Is that really how the Government want their system to work? Of course, it is not just cancer patients who will be affected.
Does the shadow Minister agree that it is completely illogical to single out cancer as a separate disease when, in fact, there are many illnesses and conditions that may result in someone being unfit for work and when, under these provisions, they would be provided for by being put in the support group?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—indeed, I am just going on to make that very point. It is not just cancer patients who will be affected; there are many other people in exactly the same position. That is why we have argued for a two-year limit instead of a one-year limit, because with a two-year limit there is a chance for people to get back into work. The National Aids Trust makes the point:
“Many people living with HIV who are found eligible will face significant barriers to work that cannot be overcome within 12 months.”
The other group of people who will be affected by the time-limiting are those who have slowly progressive degenerative conditions. Initially on diagnosis, they may not be able to work—or they may have fallen out of work—but their conditions will not be severe enough for them to be placed in the support group, and they could spend up to 10 years without any kind of independent income-replacement benefit.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A woman with Parkinson’s disease also makes exactly that point:
“There’s no guarantee that I’ll find a job in 12 months. It could take me much longer. I’ve worked all my life and paid for decades into the system on the understanding that there will be support if I need it. To be told that all this support could have a… time limit is…unfair and stressful.”
The charity Sense points out that for some people in the work-related activity group, once their health has stabilised, they will need to retrain to get back into work. It will be impossible for them to do that within the 12-month period that is being proposed.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about those constituents of mine who have had strokes and who are not able to return to work within that period of time, and the concern that DWP officials are implementing the legislation in advance of its being on the statute book?
I was not aware of that, and I am concerned to hear it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that stroke is exactly the type of condition that we are talking about. In the other place, Lord Low read out a letter that had been written to him, which said:
“The state is breaking its side of the contract at a time when people are most vulnerable”,
having had a stroke, or whatever it is. Someone else was quoted in that debate in the other place who made the point that the news of the time limit
“came as a massive shock to me. I have found it…hard to come to terms with the fact that the government can be so cruel”.
“My medicine prescription has been increased 4-fold and been supplemented with extra medication since the time limit was announced”.
This is a dreadful proposal. Removing contributory benefit long before most people will have a chance to get back to work will remove an absolutely key plank of the contributory system. In the past, people have been able to depend on support in the event of a health disaster. This change will mean that that will no longer be the case. Those in the other place were absolutely right to say that what the Government are trying to do is shameful. This House should throw it out.
The right hon. Gentleman has accepted the principle of time-limiting. He says that a year is too short a time, and he is against arbitrary time limits. Will he tell the House the basis on which he alighted on two years, rather than three, four of five?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the amendment, he will see that it refers to a period of “at least 730” days. That was proposed precisely because there is as yet no evidence—certainly not from the Department—about what the right period should be. We can be absolutely sure, however, that it should not be less than two years, for all the reasons that I have just outlined.
Those figures were quoted extensively in our debate. Our view is simply this: we should not be taking large sums of money from people who are recovering from cancer or from a stroke, and who have been told throughout their lives that if they paid into the national insurance system, they would be able to get help when they needed it. That pledge needs to be honoured, even by this Government.
Let me turn to Lords amendment 15 and the question of the youth passport. It is astonishing that the spiteful policy towards disabled young people remained in the Bill for so long. It is even more astonishing to see the Minister now trying to ram it back in today, after the other place took it out. The current principle is that people who have been disabled since birth or childhood should be passported on to a contributory benefit. In Committee, the Minister described the principle as an “oddity”, but it has been well established since the 1970s and backed by Tory Ministers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Only now are this Government trying to scrap it. It provides an independent income for severely disabled people whose disability started before they had a chance to work. The Minister wants to deny them that. The principle that young people who are disabled from birth ought to be able to rely on a secure independent income might seem odd to him; to most people, it is simply right.
The Government’s impact assessment justifies this change, disgracefully, on the basis of simplifying the system.
The change will affect not only those who have had a disability since birth or childhood. A young person who has worked for only six months before having a major accident could also lose out and never have the chance to have an independent income-replacement benefit at any time in their life.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The impact assessment states that the provision
“puts those previously eligible for ESA ‘youth’ on an equal footing with others who have to satisfy the relevant National Insurance conditions before they qualify for contributory ESA, which will create a simpler system”.
It will not put them on an equal footing. They have been unable to work since before they had a chance to work, or at least to build up two years of contributions, as my hon. Friend points out. They have had no chance to build up their contributions, and they are therefore at a disadvantage, compared with everybody else. Attempting to justify the proposal—in frankly Orwellian terms—as a simplification really takes the biscuit. We are talking about a small group—15,000 people—who have never had a chance to build up a contribution record. It is right that they should be treated differently. A little complexity is necessary for fairness.
It is worth looking at how much money the Government will save by overturning this amendment. It involves a fair amount of contributory ESA —Ministers in the other place said £70 million. However, many of those young people—the Minister said it would be 90%—will be entitled to income-related benefit if they lose their contributory benefit. Furthermore, the amendment from the other place is very narrow. It applies only to the support group—that is, those who the Government accept should be protected from ESA time-limiting. The net annual saving from this spiteful cut will be about a quarter of the amount that the state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland will hand out in executive bonuses this year. It will be less than £10 million a year.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) asked a question about a 20-year-old living at home, we did not get an answer. I was just wondering whether my right hon. Friend was trying to find out the answer by osmosis. At what point will disabled young people qualify in their own right for means-tested support, as opposed to having a household means test applied to them?
I also noted that the Minister did not give my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South the assurance that she was seeking. My understanding is that any other income in the household, from any source, contributes to the household income, and the benefit for the disabled young person is therefore removed, pound for pound. My hon. Friend was seeking an assurance that some other provision would be put in place to safeguard the young person, but the Minister was unable to give her such an assurance, because I do not think that that is the Government’s intention. No such provision appears in the Bill at the moment.
The social impact of the proposals concerns me greatly. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly characterised them as “spiteful”. It is at the point when a long-term severely disabled person is in transition from their teenage years to adulthood that their parents or family unit require additional support. Cutting that support will hit the family, and the young person, really hard, socially.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was talking about young people who are living with their parents, who might have a little bit of income or savings. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South was seeking an assurance on that point, and if the Minister were able to give her that assurance, it would be most welcome.
My right hon. Friend is prompting the Minister with the answer. We will look carefully at the detail of the proposals. Presumably, they are going to appear in regulations; they are certainly not in the Bill. It is helpful that the Minister has told us that, however.