House of Commons
Monday 5 March 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent assessment he has made of the outcomes of his Department’s work experience schemes for unemployed people. (97688)
Work experience is a very positive scheme, and 51% of people are off benefits 13 weeks after starting a placement. I am delighted to tell the House that, notwithstanding the attempts to damage the programme, it remains strong, with another 200 employers, including Airbus and Centre Parcs, wanting to get involved to help young people to gain vital experience of work.
Will my right hon. Friend expand on the answer he has just given and tell the House what other support he has received since the row about work experience broke out? This vitally important and publicly popular initiative helps young people to get the experience they need to get into work. Would he echo Sir Stuart Rose’s comments that companies involved in the scheme should show some “backbone” and not give in to politically motivated protests?
Before I answer that question, may I pass our message of support to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, who has had a terrible accident? We wish her well and a speedy recovery to her normal place for Work and Pensions questions.
There has been a lot of support for the work experience programme. A small number of people, in some cases backed by the unions, have made trouble. I shall quote Sir Stuart Rose—this is interesting because his successful career started at the bottom. He said:
“We’re offering young people the opportunity to…understand what the workplace is…really…about and it appears that there is some plan to sabotage this which…is nonsense…it seems …straightforward. You can come in, you can get work experience and if you…don’t like it after the first week you can”
Given the importance of schemes such as work experience to giving unemployed people the skills they need to compete in the labour market, especially in the north, will my right hon. Friend update the House on discussions he has had with companies that support the Government in trying to achieve that?
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State who has responsibility for employment held a meeting with a number of employers who are part of the scheme, all of whom backed and supported it. They were concerned that the message goes out that the scheme benefits young people. One employer who is not a profit-maker—the chief executive of Barnardo’s—said:
“Scrapping the scheme would have taken a lifeline from thousands of young people.”
I should also quote a girl called Dawn, who was on the programme after having real trouble finding work. She said that work experience was daunting, but that:
“It’s work experience—the clue’s in the name. Nobody is going to give you a job unless you get experience first, and that means sometimes working for free”.
I urge the Secretary of State to sort out the teething problems with the programme—there have been such problems. Will he look at the Morrisons initiative, which is different and overcomes many of the criticisms that have been made of the programme? Will he also be assured that many Opposition Members want a scheme that gets young people into work and work experience rather than being on the dole?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s positive involvement. I simply say to him that the scheme as it stands is incredibly positive. More than 50% of those who enter the work experience scheme go into work, many with the employers who took them on for work experience. The reason we set up the scheme is what young people said, and they told us, “Our problem is that when we go to an interview, employers ask us, ‘What experience have you got?' We say, ‘We don’t have experience.' They say, ‘We can’t employ you.' But without employment we can't get work experience.” I genuinely believe from our discussions with employers that the scheme is a positive move, but I will certainly look at the scheme that the hon. Gentleman talks about.
I echo the Secretary of State’s good wishes to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.
Work experience is a very good thing. The Minister of State has emphasised that the scheme is voluntary—his U-turn last week underlined that—but jobcentre letters say the opposite. They say:
“If, without good reason, you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going…Jobseekers Allowance could cease to be payable”.
The Department for Work and Pensions website says the same. Until recently the website also said that the minimum wage applied unless work experience was compulsory. That point has mysteriously disappeared from the site. Will the Secretary of State get a grip, clear up this extraordinary muddle and end the confusion in his Department?
I will do a little deal with the right hon. Gentleman: I will ensure that any little discrepancies are sorted out, providing that he and his party step forward and publicly welcome the whole idea of the work experience programme and condemn the many unions, such as Unite, GMB, Unison and others, that are backing this ludicrous Right to Work programme. Will the Opposition state that the unions should withdraw their backing? Last week, we held discussions with employers, and they asked that no sanctions be taken unless they say that something has happened to damage the business or cause a problem. We have agreed that in essence, and that is how it will stand.
Across Government, we are investing in a range of programmes to tackle the drivers of child poverty. Universal credit alone will lift 350,000 children out of poverty. The previous Labour Government spent £150 billion on tax credits from 2004-2010, much of which was targeted at families with children, but despite that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted recently, we are still a long way off hitting the targets. There is still much to be done.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, according to the IFS, the Government will not reach their statutory target by 2015? Equally importantly, is he aware that of the 35,000 children in Coventry and Warwickshire whose families are on the poverty line and will experience a reduction of £1,400 a year, many are disabled? Will he reconsider his position on that?
Interestingly, the IFS assumed that no changes to future policy would be made and did not account for fundamentals, such as behaviour change, or for education policies such as the early intervention work and some of the education reforms. The IFS did not consider several other policies—for example, the work with disadvantaged two-year-olds, the £180 million bursary fund, the early intervention grant and the fairness premium—which is fair enough, but we believe that they would affect its figures. We are desperately keen to eradicate child poverty, as we originally stated, and we stand by that. We did not enter power not to do that. The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, however, that we also inherited a terrible deficit and huge debt problem. Those things tend to collide, but we are doing our level best—this is what universal credit does—to rectify the situation for the poorest in society.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a country where one child in five is growing up in a household without work, the best way to tackle child poverty in the long run is to break the cycle of dependency now running, in some cases, into three generations? Many of the measures he has mentioned, including work experience schemes, literacy programmes, subsidy programmes and so on, are designed to do that.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We also inherited a system with far too much in-work poverty. Our aim is to move as many people as possible through universal credit and into work, and to ensure that, through universal credit, they are better off. That is the key point. I have also made the point, however, that the idea of “poverty plus a pound”, by which we just rotate money between people to move them slightly above a particular level before they collapse back, is a mistake and led to poverty rising on the previous Government’s watch.
A recent report by the Children’s Society indicates that there will be a sharp increase in the number of disabled children living in poverty when universal credit is introduced, as a result of the £1,400 a year reduction. All the statistics show that poverty disproportionately impacts on families with disabled children. Does the Secretary of State think that the current levels of support are too generous? If not, why do the Government continue with this very harsh proposal?
It is my belief that universal credit will hugely help people in those situations, and the transitional protection for them will also protect those who move on to a slightly different level. My main point to the hon. Lady, who I know takes this very seriously—
I beg her pardon. I say to the right hon. Lady—quite rightly so and well deserved—that we are in the business of trying to secure life change through all these groups so that they can take control of their lives. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people is working to ensure that it is far easier than ever before for people to get into work and take control of their lives, and that is what most of the lobby wants us to do.
It is important to support students who become seriously ill. Those whose illness or disability causes them to suspend their studies with the agreement of their college may be eligible for disability living allowance, which has a three-month qualifying period. A student in receipt of DLA can also claim employment and support allowance. However, those who are terminally ill are not subject to the qualifying period and can claim DLA and ESA immediately.
My constituent Ian Leech sadly lost his daughter Melissa to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, while she was a student. It was six months before Mel received any financial support from the Government. I am proud that last year the Government removed an important barrier to seriously ill students receiving support, by ending the rule that said that those who had to suspend their studies would be treated as having received their student loan. However, those students cannot claim ESA unless they qualify for DLA, even though they might be suffering from a disease such as cancer. Will the Minister look again at what more can be done to help students?
I am very much aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises and pay tribute to Mr Leech, who has been a tireless campaigner for change in this area. Employment and support allowance is an income-replacement benefit; therefore, students are eligible only under limited circumstances, because their main source of financial support is the education system. However, I understand my hon. Friend’s point that a three-month qualifying period for DLA means that some long-term sick students might have to serve a waiting period before they become eligible for ESA. I am taking the opportunity presented by the introduction of PIP— the personal independence payment—to reconsider the position, and I can tell him that I am looking closely at it.
A constituent of mine, Mr Ollie Evans, had to interrupt his studies owing to a serious illness. He was unable to claim the various benefits that the Minister has outlined; at the same time, the Student Loans Company was clawing back all types of support that it had given him. Will she commit to working in collaboration with the Minister for Universities and Science to put in place a more flexible system of support for students who have to interrupt their studies?
The hon. Gentleman will already be aware that if students fall ill they are eligible for student finance for up to 60 days—I am sure that he will have advised his constituent of that. I can assure him that as PIP is developed and we consider the issue further, we will be talking to colleagues in other Departments. The important thing is that we have the right support in place for long-term sick and disabled students.
We are in the final stages of preparing for the launch of the youth contract in April. We believe that it will have a positive impact on youth unemployment, providing nearly half a million support opportunities for young people. We and employers are working together to give young people the support they need to gain employment.
At a meeting with business people in my constituency some months ago, there were calls for a small tax break, or some other form of support from the Government, to help them take on young people. I am therefore delighted that 160,000 job subsidies worth up to £2,275 will now be available for each business that employs an 18 to 24-year-old through the Work programme. Can the Minister comment on the level of interest in the scheme so far?
There is already considerable interest in what is planned, and I hope that it will give unemployed young people a leg-up in the workplace. We hope that the challenge that they face owing to a lack of previous experience—which we were talking about earlier—will be ameliorated, at least to some degree, by the incentive payment that we will provide, and that the result will be far more young people getting their first opportunity to get into work.
We are also stepping up the support that we provide to young unemployed people through Jobcentre Plus, which will include more frequent work-focused interviews. We are also recruiting more youth advisers in Jobcentre Plus to provide help to the young unemployed. We are determined to deal with the problem of youth unemployment, which in all parts of the House we agree is a massive challenge for the nation.
I assume that the hon. Lady is referring to the programme that we have just announced for 16 to 17-year-olds. Of course, the big challenge with that age group is not the total number of NEETs, because most young people move quickly back into education. However, there is a hard core of young people who spend long periods not in education or employment, and they are not in the benefits system either, so we have no direct means of engaging with them. I hope and believe that the new approach—founded on payment by results, with charitable and private sector groups working together to try to reach that audience—will make a big difference to engaging with them and getting them back into either employment or education.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is continuing to cite figures that are statistically inaccurate. The figures to which he refers were distorted by the previous Government’s propensity to bury young people in the statistics where they would not be visible. Now that we do not put people on to a training allowance, which counts as being off jobseeker’s allowance, we are telling the truth about the scale of youth unemployment and seeing the real picture. Our statisticians have made the calculations and found that, when those statistical adjustments are taken into account, there has been no increase in youth unemployment of more than six months over the past two years.
Rather than falling since the general election, youth unemployment in my constituency has risen by five people; it is still too high, however, and I certainly welcome the youth contract. Clearly, it has also risen in other parts of the country at a rate that the west of England has not experienced, so will there be a way of ensuring that the take-up of the youth contract will be high in the parts of the country where it is most needed?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that this is a huge challenge for us. The truth is that, since the general election, youth unemployment has risen by approximately 100,000, with about half that increase coming from full-time students looking for part-time jobs. I regard any level of youth unemployment as too high, and I hope that the subsidies that we provide for employers who hire young people, together with the extra work experience and apprenticeship places being created through the youth contract, will help those in precisely the parts of the country to which he is referring.
Incapacity benefit reassessment has been successfully implemented and the reassessment exercise remains on track to be completed by spring 2014. We are reassessing around 11,000 claimants on incapacity benefits each week. Those who are ready and fit for work are able to receive support via the Work programme. Those who are not fit for work will continue to receive ongoing support for as long as they need it.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but is it not true that growing delays in the process are increasing the uncertainty for vulnerable people? Does he accept the evidence provided by groups such as the Barrow & District Disability Association that the call-back time for the advisers’ helpline has increased from three hours to often more than 24 hours? Does he acknowledge that if this process runs aground due to incompetence, the most vulnerable people and the taxpayer will lose out?
Let me repeat that the incapacity benefit reassessment process, which is just coming up to one year old, is running on time. We have some delays in the claims process for new claimants of employment and support allowance, which is resulting in people having to wait an average of five days longer to be assessed than was previously the case. That is too long. They are having to wait five days longer as a result of the changes implemented following Professor Harrington’s review, but we have a programme in place to enable us to catch up by the summer.
Real-time reporting of PAYE information aims to reduce administrative burdens for all employers, and builds on processes that are already in place. The current burden of PAYE falls disproportionately on small employers. We are building on existing processes, and the annual saving to all businesses is estimated at £300 million per year from 2014-15. The smallest employers—those employing nine people or fewer—will be given free software upgrades by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A recent HMRC consultation showed that 75% of people thought that the Government’s time scale for implementing real-time PAYE information was unachievable. All employers will have to move to the new system by October 2013 if universal credit is to succeed, yet some small businesses are still unaware of the time scale, and many are not computerised. What additional assistance will the Government provide to help such businesses to ensure that they meet the timetable?
HMRC, which is now responsible for this measure, meets me and others in the Department regularly. We have embedded some DWP employees in the HMRC programme; they are locked together. They are, as I understand it, on time, and they are having constant discussions with large and small employers about the issues and the problems, and assessing what needs to be done to make this happen and to make all the changes. We must remember that all those firms collect those data anyway; the only question is how they report it back within the monthly cycle. We are on top of that but, obviously, we want to keep our eye on the matter.
Small businesses and business more widely rightly demand that the burden Government place on them is as light as possible, but the current restrictions on saving for a pension with the National Employment Savings Trust mean that businesses must deal with multiple pension providers. Last month, the Pensions Minister told me that he was reflecting on whether to remove the restrictions on NEST. Will the Secretary of State confirm that reflection will now turn into action?
Cold Weather (Financial Assistance)
This winter, we have made more than 5 million cold weather payments at a cost of more than £129 million and over 12 million winter fuel payments at a cost of over £2 billion.
I would like to make a plea on behalf of the pensioners in my High Peak constituency, which, as the Minister’s colleagues on the Front Bench will know from previous visits, is one of the coldest in the country. Will the Minister concede that winters in High Peak are cold, bringing increased heating costs for all our residents, but more particularly for old-age pensioners?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Although I have not visited his constituency, I suspect there is a clue in the name. He will be pleased to know that three weather stations are linked to his constituency—Bingley, Woodford and Leek—and each has been triggered twice this winter, so low-income pensioners and disabled people will all have received £50 this winter to help them with their fuel bills.
Does the Minister accept that, despite the allowances, energy bills remain simply a nightmare for so many elderly and vulnerable people on low incomes, so would it not be appropriate for his Department to have a word with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and particularly with the Secretary of State, about the very substantial increases in energy prices, which, as I say, are the cause of so much misery for our elderly people?
I am sure the whole House would agree with the hon. Gentleman that high energy prices, poor home insulation and a lack of competition in the market are all issues for pensioners—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is very much aware of them. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 600,000 of the poorest pensioners received £120 off their electricity bills this winter through the warm home discount scheme—something that will be expanded in future winters.
The Department provides support for sufferers of mesothelioma by way of compensation paid through the industrial injuries scheme. The main benefit is a weekly industrial injuries disablement benefit, while lump sum compensation payments are also available through the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme 2008.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that, because of its shipbuilding and industrial heritage, Medway has the second highest rate of mesothelioma deaths in the UK. His Department has been in active discussions with various stakeholders regarding a compensation fund of last resort for some time now. Given that we are expecting a spike in mesothelioma deaths in the next few years, will he advise us when the discussions will conclude and the outcomes will ensue?
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate on behalf of her constituents on this terrible condition. We accept that this process is taking longer to conclude than we had hoped. I can assure her, however, that my noble Friend Lord Freud is continuing in active discussion with the insurance industry and others, and that we are determined to bring forward our proposals as soon as possible.
Rather than set an arbitrary deadline, we are keen to conclude as rapidly as possible. One important step forward has been the setting up of the employers’ liability tracing organisation. Often, people worked for firms many years ago, making employer liability insurance difficult to come by. This tracing service is helping people to get the insurance payouts to which they have every entitlement.
The youth contract, to which I referred earlier, is worth nearly £1 billion. It builds on the substantial support already available to help unemployed young people to enter work. It includes more intensive support for all 18 to 24-year-olds, additional funded work experience places and a new wage incentive scheme delivered through the Work programme.
The number of young people in my constituency who are not in education, employment or training is double the national average, and it has been suggested that the area should be treated as a hot spot for action. Stockton borough council is doing its bit as a local employer, but its powers are limited in the wake of spending cuts. Will the Minister take specific action to help the hardest hit areas, such as mine, and will he make proper resources available so that real things can happen, rather than tinkering around the edges?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I regard the labour market in the north-east as one of our big priorities. That is why we have targeted the area with support through the regional growth fund and established an enterprise zone in the Tees valley, and that is why we are doing all that we can—through the Work programme, the different aspects of the youth contract, and our work in the skills arena in providing more apprenticeships—to bring about both private sector growth and an increase in the skills of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to help them get into work.
The Minister has form with respect to inner-city Manchester: he once compared Moss Side to the film “The Wire”. Will he tell me whether he takes the question of youth unemployment seriously? We know that, if left unchecked, it will have an impact on all the malaises that lead to exactly the sort of thing that we see in north American cities, and we do not want to see it once again in inner-city Britain.
Let me say first that the hon. Gentleman clearly never read the speech that I made, and secondly that I defend my comments in relation to the country as a whole in the wake of the terrible scenes that we saw last summer. That issue is one reason why we must focus on youth unemployment, why we are investing so much money in tackling it, and why it is at the top of the Government’s list of priorities. It is just a shame that the last Government failed to deal with the problem in good times, when it started to become an issue after 2004.
Youth unemployment is far too high. I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s youth contract proposals, but does he agree that basic skills and qualifications are also vital to ensuring that young unemployed people obtain jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have introduced skills conditionality in Jobcentre Plus, and have also increased the flexibilities available to our skills providers to ensure that when a young person who is out of work has a skills gap, we can refer him or her to a training course immediately to ensure that that gap is filled.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of apprenticeships in Harlow has increased by 76% in the past year? Is that not a better way of getting rid of the problem of youth unemployment than the dependency culture loved by Opposition Members?
My hon. Friend is right—and that statistic is no coincidence, because he, as the local Member of Parliament, has put a huge amount of effort into trying to ensure that more apprenticeship places are provided in Harlow. He deserves a lot of credit for that, as do all Members who are looking for extra apprenticeship opportunities, holding job fairs, setting up job clubs, and making a real difference to their constituents.
We are making good progress towards the delivery of universal credit in 2013, and I have fortnightly progress meetings with officials and weekly reports from my office. I also chair the universal credit senior sponsorship group, which brings together all Government Departments and agencies that are relevant to the delivery of universal credit. Design work is well under way and is being continually tested with staff and claimants, and the development of the necessary IT systems will continue in parallel.
Many of my constituents complain to me that the current benefits system is far too complicated. There are more than 50 different benefits that people can claim, although no one appears to know the exact number, which leads to huge confusion among those who are genuinely in need. Can the Secretary of State confirm that universal credit will reduce that complexity, improve the user experience and, most important, make clear to all claimants that it will always pay to work?
I can confirm that. Universal credit will put together all the benefits that are relevant to people going back to work. Benefits that are not relevant to the Work programme will not be included, but the rest will. That will hugely slim down the complexities, and will ensure that people understand that in every hour for which they work, they are better off in work than out of work. The migration will take place in three phases over four years, and each phase will bring in a new group of claimants of those different benefits until we have finally completed the process and there is a single universal credit.
As the Secretary of State says, when the universal credit is introduced in October 2013, a couple with two children and working 16 hours a week will be better off in work than on benefits, so why is he introducing changes to the working tax credit this April that will make the same family £728 a year worse off than an equivalent family with no one working? That does not seem to make much sense in policy terms.
The tax credit system, which the hon. Lady’s party left us, is administered and run by the Treasury. She said that I was bringing this measure in, but the Treasury has made that policy decision. [Interruption.] Before Opposition Members get over-excited, I should add that I of course fully support everything my colleagues at the Treasury do. I remind the hon. Lady that when universal credit is reintroduced, people who fall into the bracket in question will be £95 better off than they would be on benefits. I also remind Opposition Members that we inherited a massive debt that the last Labour Government racked up, and we have to reduce it. This measure is one of the mechanisms by which to do that.
The Government are supporting women to move into employment, including self-employment, through the Work programme and our business mentoring scheme. We are also improving careers advice and training, and encouraging more women into apprenticeships. The action we are taking to increase flexibility in the workplace and support with child care costs will also help to open up opportunities for women.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but she did not mention the fact that female unemployment is now at a 25-year high. The Daycare Trust has found that, with nursery costs having increased by an average of 6% in the last year, some families are no longer better off in work once child care costs are taken into account. When will the Government accept that the self-defeating cuts in child care tax credit have made the female jobs crisis far worse?
The hon. Gentleman will also know that we are doing a great deal to help to make child care more affordable for those parents who need to use it. Early years education has been increased to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds and our support for disadvantaged two-year-olds has increased by £760 million. An extra £300 million will go in through the universal credit to help women who are currently working limited hours to get access to subsidised child care. This is the sort of practical support that can truly help.
In Wales, women are currently being hit disproportionately hard by job losses. Indeed, last month’s unemployment figures show that there were 2,000 more women out of work but 5,000 fewer men out of work. As the public sector job losses begin to bite, what extra are the Government doing to help women in this regard?
We entirely understand, and take very seriously, the challenges women face in getting back into the workplace, including the problem of retaining jobs. That is why the Minister with responsibility for employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is putting so much effort into the Work programme and universal credit, both of which will help many hundreds of thousands of workless households into work. Again, that is the sort of practical support that can truly make a difference for women.
Of the 348 current vacancies listed at the Malton job centre, some of the hardest to fill are care worker posts. Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that women returning to work are pointed in that direction as well as to skills such as national vocational qualifications?
My hon. Friend is right: care work is now a very important job in all our communities. Jobcentre Plus has a number of vacancies in that area, and it is always trying to ensure that people with the appropriate training apply for them. As she rightly says, we also need to ensure that people have access to training, and the Work programme can help in that respect.
Motivation, employability and skills are the attributes that best help unemployed men and women into the workplace. Will my hon. Friend the Minister congratulate Conservative-led Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, on its employability and skills fair to be held this Friday, which will bring together local unemployed men and women with agencies and employers in an attempt to tackle the unemployment situation head-on?
My hon. Friend is right: we should applaud the work of those councils, including Kettering, that ensure that such skills fairs take place. Through them, unemployed people can learn not only where the jobs are but where the training can be found. There are currently more women starting apprenticeships than men, which shows that great changes can be made.
Despite promising policies to cut unemployment and make work pay, the Government are supporting measures that will leave many mums better off out of work. Is it not clear that these out-of-touch Ministers have not got a clue what life is like for mums struggling with food and fuel bills, given that their benefit and tax changes will cost the average family £580 this year, with thousands being hit by up to £4,000 as a result of the tax credit cuts alone?
I am sorry, but rather than leaving the country with the massive deficit that the hon. Gentleman’s party left us, the Government are putting practical programmes in place—if these had been done when his party was in government, the country would perhaps not be facing the current fiscal deficit.
We published adjusted projections of attachments to the Work programme in December. Those revised projections have been communicated to providers and published in the House of Commons Library. The revised projections take account of the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, observed trends in referrals since June, and policy changes.
I am grateful for that answer. The Work programme is a crucial element in helping the long-term unemployed back into work, and I particularly welcome the emphasis on payment by results. However, as our economy emerges from its current problems, there will be some regional variations in the job market. What is the Minister doing to monitor the situation? If necessary, might he consider a regional element to the pay structure?
I am pleased to be able to reassure my hon. Friend on this. I was in his county of Cornwall last week to meet Work programme providers in both the private and voluntary sectors, and what I saw was very encouraging. The progress they are making is similar to that being made elsewhere in the country, and there is no obvious sign of the regional variation he describes. I wish to pay tribute to the voluntary sector organisations I met, which are very involved in the Work programme. I pay particular tribute to Groundwork, which is running one of the most innovative motivational programmes for some of the hardest to help I have yet seen in the Work programme. That is, of course, helping his constituents and will do the right thing to help them into work.
Work Capability Assessments
We are continuing to implement the reforms recommended to us by Professor Malcolm Harrington. He argued for a number of changes in his first report, all of which have been implemented, and we are in the process of implementing the changes recommended in his second report.
I thank the Minister for his response. One third of employment and support allowance claimants have mental health conditions and a significant number of initial work capability assessment decisions are overturned on appeal when further evidence becomes available about their condition. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that medical evidence is taken on board at a very early stage in order to prevent a number of appeals?
This is one area where we have worked very hard to secure a change. A large amount of new evidence was indeed appearing only at the appeal stage and that was one of the key things that Professor Harrington suggested we address. We are now bringing in medical evidence much earlier—at the start of the process, when the decisions are taken or when a reconsideration is taking place in Jobcentre Plus. There are now few circumstances in which new evidence appears at the appeal stage, and that is really important.
I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the research undertaken by Citizens Advice Scotland for its report “From pillar to post”, which highlighted some issues that Professor Harrington should be considering in his further reports. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of Citizens Advice Scotland to discuss those concerns so that he can discuss them with Professor Harrington before he undertakes his third review?
I have many meetings with people involved in these matters. I suggest that it is better for the hon. Gentleman and Citizens Advice Scotland to meet Professor Harrington directly to raise those concerns, rather than for me to be a middleman. We listen carefully to the recommendations he makes, and I would be happy to arrange that meeting for the hon. Gentleman.
20. What steps he is taking to reform bereavement benefit. (97710)
A public consultation was launched in December 2011, seeking views on options for reforming bereavement benefits to ensure that they provide effective support to those who lose a husband, wife or civil partner. The consultation closes today and we will publish an official response to it in due course. That will summarise the comments received and outline the Government’s plans for reform.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Bereavements clearly cause a period of great stress for the families involved, and I welcome the Government’s review to ensure that we have a suite of payments that are fit for purpose and easy to understand. Will he bear in mind the problem that a number of my constituents have encountered, which they are struggling to understand? Benefits allowances are payable based on either the national insurance contributions of the deceased person or the widow’s or widower’s status, whereas the bereavement payment is based only on the NI status of the deceased person, and in the depth of their grief many people struggle to understand what seems to them to be an anomaly.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that different bereavement benefits, allowances and payments have different contribution rules. One of the issues on which we are consulting is whether they should be aligned in a more accessible way and although the consultation closes today, I shall take my hon. Friend’s question as a submission to it.
Not for the first time, I had a constituent in tears in my surgery last week as she had to pawn all her possessions to pay for her husband’s funeral. When the Minister simplifies the bereavement benefits, will he undertake not to use it as an opportunity to save money, too?
I am pleased to give the hon. Lady that assurance. She will, I am sure, have read the consultation document we produced before Christmas, which confirms that this is about spending the support we give to people who have been bereaved in a better way, not about reducing the spend.
The Welfare Reform Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent later this week and will mark an important moment, cementing a new contract with the country that states that we will protect the most vulnerable and provide a system that is fair to the taxpayer by making sure through universal credit that work will pay. I believe that those changes are long overdue and I am grateful to all in this House who have helped to get them on the statute book.
The shadow Chancellor claims today that families are better off on benefits, where so many were trapped during 13 years of complex Labour reforms. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he will change all that with the universal benefit and make it his mission to ensure that no family is better off on benefits?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the whole purpose of the Welfare Reform Bill, including the universal credit, which is at the heart of it, is that people will be better off in work than on benefits. I am always astounded by the fact that although many Opposition Members quite legitimately say that they support the universal credit, during its passage through this House and the other place they have never actually voted for it.
I want to bring the House’s attention back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). She has exposed an important truth: a couple on the minimum wage were £3,000 better off in work under Labour but after the changes that will be made in April they will be £700 better off on benefits. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many people he expects to give up work because they will no longer be better off in a job?
I do not expect anyone to give up work, because the jobcentres and the jobcentre staff will work with people to ensure that, as far as possible, they work up the hours and take advantage of the benefits that come with working more hours. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, as ever, and to the Opposition that they behave as though when they left office they left a perfect situation, but they left a massive deficit and debts piling up. He was the one who said at the time that there was no money left, so perhaps he would like to tell us where he was going to get the money from to pay off some of the deficit.
Let me give the Secretary of State a simple lesson in economics: the more people who are in work, the more tax comes into the Treasury; the more people who are on the dole, the more we pay out in welfare payments. That is why welfare payments are going through the roof. The Work programme is in chaos, the Minister for the Armed Forces is saying that there is a crisis in the funding model, and now we find out that people will be better off on benefits than in work. Will the Secretary of State promise us that in the Budget he will fix the situation whereby it no longer pays to go out and get a job?
The only group that is in chaos is the Opposition. First, they have completely failed to admit and recognise that they left this economy in a desperate state. Secondly, they said that they supported key measures in the Welfare Reform Bill but have never voted for them. They also voted against some of their own measures, which we carried through in our Bill. The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman’s economics do not add up: going on a spending spree, spending £150 billion on benefits and achieving nothing is a failure.
T2. Will my right hon. Friend advise us what steps he is taking to ensure that benefit fraud is reduced? (97714)
We have a whole series of measures. We recently introduced a new fraud and error strategy, which is already having some success. Future fraud will be reduced now, and agreed by the Office for Budget Responsibility in a sense, but we will reduce future fraud right now by £237 million. The plan and target is for us to reduce it by about £1.4 billion by March 2015. These are major measures over and above what we were left by the Opposition, who seemed quite content to watch fraud and error spiral out of control.
T3. As you know, Mr Speaker, the Wedgwood museum in Stoke-on-Trent is one of the greatest museums in the world and is facing the liquidation of its collection due to faulty pension legislation. The problem lies with the 2008 occupational pension schemes regulation and the last man standing principle, which leaves a solvent employer liable for the whole of the deficit in a multi-employer scheme. That was never meant to apply to charitable collections. Will the Minister review that legislation before we sacrifice more of our national heritage to the lawyers? (97715)
When any charity or other organisation joins a last man standing pension scheme, it is important that it take proper advice about the liabilities it is taking on. Obviously, that is a general observation. On this specific case, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), has spoken to the chairman of the Pension Protection Fund about the Wedgwood museum, has explained the importance of the collection for the nation and has asked her whether she can find a way of preventing the collection from being broken up. That is something we all want to see.
T4. My constituent Vicki Gilbert relies on the disability living allowance mobility component, which gets her the blue parking badge she needs to go about her daily life. Despite the fact that she is an amputee with no possibility of recovery, she has been forced to go through periodic reassessment, and because of the backlog she has had to wait five weeks without a blue parking badge. Does the Minister agree that the process is superfluous in such situations, and will she look at this issue so that others in similar circumstances do not have to wait for their badge? (97716)
I know that blue badges are incredibly important for disabled people in getting out and about and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), is looking into the issues to do with blue badges, and I will make sure that he is aware of the comments that have been made.
T6. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) from the Front Bench, do Ministers agree that the current restrictions on the National Employment Savings Trust that restrict transfers and limit the amount that can be saved each year diminish the pressure on other established providers to bring down their excess costs and charges? While the Government are reflecting on this, surely they are missing an opportunity to make pensions more affordable for everyone. (97719)
The previous Government put those restrictions in place for a good reason—to try to make sure that NEST focused on the bottom end of the market. NEST has had a positive effect and new entrants have come into the market, but we are continuing to look at that issue because we are determined to make sure that people have a choice of good-value, low-cost pension providers.
T5. My constituent Gillian Reeves is actively looking for work and is expanding her skills, knowledge and experience by volunteering for local voluntary organisations and charities in Somerset. Will the Secretary of State give some clarity to those who are keen to be out of the house and busy doing something useful but are advised by their jobcentre that they must limit their volunteering to 16 hours a week or lose their jobseeker’s allowance? (97717)
We now actively encourage people to volunteer. I prefer to see people out of the house and doing things. They have an obligation to keep up their job search while they do so, but I shall happily discuss this specific case because it certainly is not our intention that people’s volunteering opportunities should be limited.
One of my constituents recently had his adoption allowance cut because his child received disability living allowance. We managed to get that overturned but can the Minister make sure that guidelines are issued so that adoption allowance is not cut when DLA, which is intended to meet essential needs, is received?
T7. The Work programme is proving to be much needed and effective, but may I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that there will be downstream activity from contracts so that small businesses and local community projects can also participate in delivering outcomes? (97720)
That is indeed happening. We now have several hundred voluntary sector organisations providing support to the Work programme in various ways, some on a localised level in local communities. They are an important part of the team delivering the project. It is a partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors and it is making a difference to unemployed people, despite the attempts of the Opposition to put about negative stories which are completely without foundation.
I have a constituent with a degenerative, very painful condition who is due to lose his employment support allowance in two weeks. He feels a long way from the labour market. He also does not think he will be attractive to employers because of the degenerative nature of his illness, but to date he has had no advice or support from anyone about how he might go about getting the kind of job that he might be able to do. What advice would the Minister give my constituent?
We clearly have had to take a difficult decision on time-limiting, which we have debated extensively in the House. It will apply only to people who have another form of household income or who have savings in the bank. Everyone on ESA is entitled to volunteer for participation in the Work programme, so my advice to the hon. Lady’s constituent would be to discuss his situation with the jobcentre. There is specialist support available for people with health conditions and disabilities.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. When people have saved for a pension, it is vital that they get the best possible pension out of it, and that may not be from the company they have saved with. That is why I very much welcome today’s Association of British Insurers code, which will be mandatory for members of the ABI and will make it much more natural that shopping around becomes the default, rather than something that one has actively to seek out.
What are the Government’s plans for the future, if any, of the Department’s contract with Atos?
The Department’s contract with Atos runs until 2015. We have taken no decisions about how the contracting structure will work beyond that point. Consistency of provision was necessary through the incapacity benefit reassessment process, but we will not take decisions on the detailed structure of the renewal of that contract for some while to come.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than let the Socialist Workers party and their protest groups continue to confuse a good programme such as work experience with others, we should congratulate not only the companies that are doing so much for young people, but the young people who are taking up the scheme and have the motivation to build their CVs?
As ever, my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Work experience is a great programme, which is helping lots of young people to get into work at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer. Those two things need to be borne in mind. It is no good the Opposition sitting quiet, watching while trade unions back these anarchists and try to stop decent people getting into work.
People diagnosed with mesothelioma—141 former railway carriage builders in York have now died—can often claim compensation from their employer. The earlier they get compensation, the less they and their dependants need in benefits, so will the Secretary of State talk to the Secretary of State for Justice about fast-tracking these cases through the courts, as is currently done in the royal courts of justice in London, and making that a nationwide approach?
I am happy to have that conversation. We are also working hard with the insurance industry to make sure that we match employees who have suffered from the illness with employers who may have disappeared some years ago, to ensure that we find the employers liability insurance policies that can pay those employees the compensation that they so desperately need.
My constituent Andrew Taylor relies on the Motability scheme in order that he can work and live independently. His concern is that the personal independence payment thresholds will interfere with that. What assurance can the Minister give him, please?
Beverley Herbert in my constituency was one of six people recently employed on a work experience basis by a major pub chain. Within four weeks, four of the others had gone, and the two people who were there for eight weeks collecting glasses were given permanent jobs, but were sacked within two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the work experience programme to enjoy widespread confidence, safeguards are needed to ensure that it does not end up exploiting people and providing free labour?
If Labour Members really want to answer the questions about the work experience scheme, they need to talk to some of the young people who have been through it, got jobs in their thousands and are delighted by the support they have received. That is what a responsible Government do: try to tackle a real challenge, find the right way to solve it and do so in a cost-effective way for the taxpayer. It is just a shame that the Labour party is not more vociferous in its support for what we are doing.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a great shame that the Labour party seems unable to get behind the work experience programme and condemn the protests out of hand, and will he tell the House why he thinks that might be the case?
I have been wondering about that. Some right hon. and hon. Members—and some more so than others—have been conspicuous by their absence in this debate, and I sometimes wonder whether their trade union paymasters have something to do with their staying quiet throughout this whole debate.
We support any sensible measures to tackle youth unemployment, because it is a challenge for all of us. The hon. Gentleman needs to answer this question: why is his hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) chairing a protest movement that is designed to stop young people getting the work experience opportunities that would get them into work and do the right thing for them?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council. The Council focused on the measures needed to address the growth crisis in Europe and complete the single market. It also reached important conclusions on Somalia, Serbia and Syria. I will take each in turn.
First, on growth and jobs, this was the first European Council for some months that was not completely overshadowed by an air of crisis surrounding the eurozone. The problems in the eurozone are far from resolved and we need continued and determined action to deal with them, but the biggest challenge for Europe’s long-term future is to secure sustainable growth and jobs. Ahead of the Council, Britain, along with 11 other EU member states, set out in a letter our action plan for growth and jobs in Europe. This was an unprecedented alliance involving countries from all across Europe and representing over half the EU population and a quarter of a billion people. It included our traditional partners on this agenda in northern Europe, but it also included countries such as Poland, one of the largest in the EU, and countries such as Spain and Italy in the south of Europe which previously had not prioritised this agenda.
Over the past year we have frequently succeeded in inserting references to the single market and competitiveness into Council conclusions, and the Commission’s proposals have begun to reflect that, but what was encouraging about this Council was that an EU growth agenda, based around free trade, deregulation and completion of the single market, received stronger and broader political support from Heads of State and Government than ever before. A whole series of concrete commitments to actions and dates by which those actions need to be taken was inserted into the final communiqué. Now it is vital that these commitments are fulfilled.
The reason Britain so strongly insists on the completion of the single market is its huge potential for growth and jobs at home. The single market is the biggest marketplace in the world, with 500 million consumers. Removing barriers to trade in products has clearly had a huge impact and, with one of the largest manufacturing sectors in Europe, Britain has clearly benefited from that, but the benefit can be even greater if the single market is completed in other areas where Britain also has great strengths. The first of these is services. Full implementation of the services directive could add 2.8% to the gross domestic product of the EU within 10 years, and Britain would stand to be one of the prime beneficiaries because, from financial services to legal services to accountancy, Britain has some of the leading companies in the world.
The Council also agreed to complete the digital single market by 2015, which could boost EU GDP by as much as €110 billion every year. Again, that could particularly help Britain, with our strength in digital technology and all forms of creative content, including film, television and online media.
The Council agreed a specific deadline to complete the single market in energy by 2014. That could add 0.8% to EU GDP and create 5 million jobs. Again, many of those of jobs could be in Britain, because we are a major producer and exporter of energy, with the most liberalised market in Europe.
The Council agreed that there will be a special focus on trade—including trade deals with fast-growing parts of the world—at the next Council in June. Completing all open bilateral trade deals could add €90 billion to the EU economy, and a deal with the US would be bigger than all the others put together. Britain is one of the most open trading nations in Europe, and that is why trade deals have a particular importance for us.
On deregulation, for the first time we got a specific commitment for an analysis of the costs of regulation sector by sector, and we got a repetition of our call for a moratorium on new regulations for those businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Taken together, those measures represent a clear and specific plan for growth and jobs at EU level, and we must now ensure that Europe sticks to it.
I turn to wider international issues. On Somalia, the Council welcomed the conference held in London last month and the important conclusions that we reached, cracking down on piracy and terrorism and supporting a Somali-led process for a new representative and accountable government.
On Serbia, Britain has always been a strong supporter of European Union enlargement, from eastern Europe to the countries of the western Balkans. That policy has clearly demonstrated success in embedding support for democracy and human rights across the continent, so I was particularly pleased that the Council granted Serbia candidate status. I have no doubt that this decision would not have been possible without the courageous leadership of President Tadic. It was he who secured the arrest of Ratko Mladic, closing one of the darkest chapters in Serbian history, and it was he who took the brave decision to engage in a dialogue with the Kosovans.
It is also right to mention the leadership of the Kosovan Prime Minster, Hashim Thaci. He too has been prepared to enter into constructive dialogue with Serbia. That decision has rightly been rewarded by the European Commission, starting the process that can lead to a new contract between the European Union and Kosovo. That is the first important milestone on the long road for Kosovo itself to join the European Union.
Let me turn to the grave situation in Syria. I know that the whole House will join me in welcoming the safe return of British photographer Paul Conroy, who escaped from Baba Amr last week. I spoke to him this morning and he described vividly the barbarity that he had witnessed in the city. The history of Homs is being written in the blood of its citizens.
Britain is playing a leading role in helping to forge an international coalition to try to do three things: first, to make sure that there is humanitarian assistance for those who are suffering; secondly, to hold those responsible for that appalling slaughter to account; and, thirdly, to bring about the political transition that will put a stop to the killing. We must pursue all three at the same time.
First, on humanitarian assistance, Britain has already provided an extra £2 million to agencies operating on the ground in order to help deliver emergency medical supplies and basic food rations for more than 20,000 people. But the real problem is getting that aid into the affected areas. Now that the Syrian Government have occupied Baba Amr, they have a duty to allow humanitarian access to alleviate the suffering that they have caused. Britain will be working this week to secure a United Nations Security Council resolution that demands an end to violence and immediate humanitarian access. The longer access is denied, the more the world will believe that the Syrian regime is determined to cover up the extent of the horror that it has brought to bear on Baba Amr.
Secondly, we are working to make sure that those responsible for crimes are held to account. The European Council agreed that there must be “a day of reckoning” for those who are responsible. Britain and its European partners are working together to help to document the evidence of those atrocities so that evidence can be used at a later date. International justice has a long reach and a long memory.
Thirdly, we are working for a political transition to bring the violence to an end. The European Council was clear that President Assad should step aside for the sake of the Syrian people, and it supported the efforts of Kofi Annan to work for a peaceful process of political transition.
Syria’s tragedy is that those who are clinging to Assad for the sake of stability are in fact helping to ensure the complete opposite. Far from being a force for stability, Assad’s continued presence makes a future of all-out civil war ever more likely. What can still save Syria is for those who are still supporting and accommodating Assad's criminal clique to come to their senses and to turn their back on the regime. It is still possible that Syria’s national institutions can be saved and play their part in opening a path to an inclusive, peaceful and decent transition. We will deploy every tool we can—sanctions, aid, the pressure of diplomacy, reaching out to the opposition in Syria and beyond. We will work with anyone who is ready to build a stable, inclusive, non-sectarian, open and democratic Syria for all Syrians. That is the choice that is still open to those in authority in Syria. Now is the time for them to make that choice, before it is too late.
Finally, on Friday morning, 25 member states signed the intergovernmental agreement on the fiscal compact. This binds countries in the eurozone to a budget deficit of no more than 0.5%, and it involves countries giving up the power to write their own budgets if they go beyond it. Britain is not signing this agreement. Britain is not in the euro, Britain is not going to join the euro, so it is right that we are not involved. But it is important that we continue to ensure that vital issues such as the single market are discussed by all 27 members. That is exactly what happened at this European Council. Far from not being included in the vital discussion that affects our national interests, Britain helped to set the agenda at this Council and Britain helped to ensure its success. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and associate myself with his words on Somalia and Serbia?
Let me turn first to the pressing issue of the continuing violence in Syria. The pictures and testimony coming out of Homs in the past few days, and again today, are truly horrific, with women and fathers telling of their children being murdered in front of their eyes. Responsibility for the brutal repression and murder of innocent people lies firmly at the door of President Assad and his regime. It is appalling—I agree with the Prime Minister on this—that the Syrian Government have so far even refused requests for humanitarian access. In this context, it is even more important that Britain puts pressure on the international community to back a United Nations resolution and address this desperate situation.
May I ask the Prime Minister a few questions? First, will he update the House specifically on what he believes the UK and the EU are able to do to support the Arab League and the joint special envoy in his efforts somehow to broker an end to the bloodshed? Secondly, what steps are now in train to strengthen sanctions against the Assad regime, including through the proper enforcement of the Arab League sanctions? Thirdly, given that the Russian Government are responsible for vetoing the last UN resolution on Syria, does the Prime Minister agree that they will be judged by their actions rather than their words on Syria? No doubt he will be speaking to President-elect Putin in the coming days. What will he be telling him in those conversations? I hope—I am sure that I speak for the whole House and the country in saying this—that he will make it clear to President-elect Putin that action is necessary and that the Russian position is frankly unacceptable.
Let me turn to other matters discussed at the European Council, particularly jobs and growth. At his press conference on Friday, the Prime Minister was uncharacteristically shy—indeed, totally silent—about the main event of the summit: the signing of the fiscal compact. He did at least mention it today at the end of his statement, although I am very struck by the fact that in the written copy that was kindly distributed to me before he delivered it, the word “treaty” was used, but he could not bring himself to use that word. Of course, the reason he was uncharacteristically coy in his press conference is that his veto was not a veto; the treaty has gone ahead. Can he confirm that for all his claims, both the European Court of Justice and the Commission will be fully involved in implementing the treaty? Can he tell us how he will find out about the result of the meetings, in which a whole variety of economic questions that will affect the UK will be discussed? Apparently, his spokesman was asked about this last Wednesday, and the best that he could manage was to say, “The Prime Minister may not be in the room, but he will be in the building.”
Yes, he is Elvis. I do not think that the spokesman’s comment is very reassuring.
It is a matter of record that the Prime Minister spent Thursday complaining that he felt frustrated because he did not feel that the other 25 leaders were taking enough notice of him as they prepared to sign the new treaty. However, on Friday, he claimed that in less than 24 hours, his powers of persuasion had once again triumphed:
“The communiqué has been fundamentally rewritten in line with our demands.”
After the experience of the veto, I am sure that he will forgive us all for being a little sceptical about his claims.
Let us examine the Prime Minister’s claims. He said that big strides forward were clear from the communiqué on energy, micro-enterprises, the single market and reducing trade barriers. However, will he confirm that the commitment on the energy market was in the conclusions of last February’s Council, that the commitments on the single market and trade simply echo those following the October 2011 Council, and that the supposed progress on micro-enterprises was in the conclusions of last December’s Council?
Listening to the Prime Minister, I had a sense of groundhog day. I then realised why. He sent the same letter to the European Council a year ago. Believe it or not—of course, we do believe it—he claimed the same triumph then:
“I organised a letter…making the case for action on growth, on deregulation, on completing the single market, on extending it to services… I think this has had a real impact”.
The people behind him are not looking amused. If last year’s letter had such an impact, why did he have to send it again? For the avoidance of doubt, I will place last year’s letter in the Library of the House, because it will probably be next year’s letter as well. For all the Prime Minister’s slapping himself on the back, the reality is that not one job has been created, not one family helped and not one business boosted. Why does he not learn the lesson that empty claims of a European triumph lose him credibility at home and influence abroad?
Why did the Prime Minister not press those countries with fiscal headroom at the summit to stimulate growth in Europe? Why does he not lead by example and sort out the jobs crisis here at home? He said on Friday and repeated today that there was not an air of crisis about the euro. Will he tell the House whether he thinks that a sustainable solution has been put in place for the euro area, because that is one of the most important long-term issues that we face and that the European economy faces?
The reality is that we have a Prime Minister who is isolated and without influence. He is unable to argue for jobs and growth because of his own failure at home. He achieved nothing for Britain at this summit. For all the good it has done us, he could have given the summit a miss and gone horse riding instead.
First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about Syria and answer his questions specifically. On the special envoy, we are helping Kofi Annan. Indeed, we are funding part of his mission. The right hon. Gentleman asked about sanctions. We are on round 12 of the EU sanctions against the Syrian regime. We will continue to ratchet up the pressure in every way that we can, with sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans and the like.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Russia and China. We will make it very clear, as we have already, that their veto was completely wrong. Their reputations are suffering as a result in the Arab world. I will be speaking to President Putin later today and will say that it is important that we have a unified UN Security Council resolution about humanitarian aid and access that puts a stop to the appalling killing that is taking place. I know that there is all-party support for that.
Turning to the EU Council, the right hon. Gentleman said that the communiqué did not change between the arrival of the countries at the EU Council and its conclusion on Friday. If he had done his homework properly—he was working very closely on his gags, and they are getting better—he would have noticed that there was no mention of deepening the single market in services in the original communiqué, but that we now have a clear commitment to that; that there was no mention of tackling regulated professions and properly opening up the single market, but that that is now clearly in the communiqué; and that there was no reference to deregulation, but that we now we have, for the first time, sector-by-sector analysis so that we can see the cost of regulations. When Labour used to go along to EU summit after EU summit, it never got half of that sort of thing.
On the issue of the treaty, there is one big problem in the right hon. Gentleman’s position, which is that he has got to make up his mind—would he have signed it or not? Why does he not just nod for a yes or shake for a no? I think I know the cause of the confusion. It is that there is a slight division between the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor about whether they want to join the euro. The shadow Chancellor has said that it will not happen in his lifetime, whereas the Leader of the Opposition, when asked whether he would join the euro, said that it depended on how long he was Prime Minister. I agree with the shadow Chancellor—clearly, the Leader of the Opposition should not be Prime Minister in our lifetime.
May I welcome the European Council’s decision to prepare further targeted sanctions against Syria? If Russia continues to refuse to accept its responsibilities, should not the Arab League and Turkey, on their own incentive but with full support from the United States and Europe, close their land borders and airspace to all exports destined for Syria? If that were combined with a United States-led naval brigade, would it not prevent further armed supplies from being delivered to the Assad regime, thereby possibly saving the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian people?
My right hon. and learned Friend, with all his experience, makes an intriguing suggestion for further steps that the Arab League could take. Indeed, it has shown great leadership in putting pressure on Syria. However, if we want to turn the pressure up on the regime, a United Nations Security Council resolution that could be unanimously agreed and that was tough about humanitarian access and the unacceptability of what is happening should be part of the picture.
May I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the developments in the western Balkans? However, I wonder whether he agrees that the most significant piece of economic news last week was the decision of the Spanish Government to amend their austerity programme in the face of stagnation and recession. The Prime Minister of Spain said he thought that when circumstances changed, policy should change. Is that not the kind of common sense that we need here?
I am not at all surprised by what the Spanish Prime Minister did. After all, he is stuck inside a fixed exchange rate system with no ability to have an independent monetary policy. If we had listened to the right hon. Gentleman all those years ago and joined the euro, we would be in the same boat.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the responsibility for the appalling treatment being handed out to the people of Homs rests as much with those who authorise it as with those who carry it out? Is he aware that in the course of last week, Hillary Clinton said that there was a case for regarding President Assad as a war criminal? Does he agree?
I do agree with that. I believe that, as the Foreign Secretary has said, it is now a criminal regime. That is why it is so important that we gather the evidence of the war crimes, the human rights abuses and the dreadful things that are being done in Homs and elsewhere. As we collect that evidence, we need to be very careful to try to join all the dots, right up the chain of the command, to the people who run the regime. However long it takes, it is important that we are clear that there should be a day of reckoning when those who are responsible for crimes are made accountable for them.
I thank the Prime Minister for highlighting the role of Boris Tadic and of Hashim Thaci, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, in moving the western Balkans forward. I should declare an interest—I recently published a book on Kosovo, which I hope all hon. Members will read. Does the Prime Minister agree that the next step forward is for Serbia to recognise Kosovo, as 90 other UN member states have done? That decisive step would help to bring more stability, peace and co-operation and a European future to the western Balkans.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise in this area, and I thank him for welcoming the news. We have to understand that Serbia has already taken some quite important steps forward that were difficult for it to take. I was concerned that the European Union should demonstrate its openness to the steps that President Tadic had taken, because slamming the door in his face after he had taken them could have encouraged the extremists in Serbia rather than people who want to have a peaceful European future.
In congratulating the Prime Minister on his veto—[Interruption.] It would have been an EU treaty had the Prime Minister not exercised the veto. In congratulating the Prime Minister on his veto and on his insistence on growth, does he recognise that we are at a crossroads, with two separate European treaties—one in line with the Lisbon treaty, and the other in breach of it? With the Chancellor of Germany now insisting on a further leap towards political union, will the Prime Minister take forward his current concerns about the legal position of the non-EU treaty to the European Court?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. He is absolutely right that that treaty places no obligations on us. It is worth making the point that it does not have the force of EU law: not for us, not for the EU institutions and not for the countries that sign it. As he knows, my view is that while we have reserved our legal position on the use of the institutions because there are real concerns, the path he outlines—of a legal challenge—is a less good one than using our leverage and influence to ensure that the agreement sticks to fiscal union rather than gets into the single market. That is the right approach and the one we are pursuing.
Everybody knows that without growth, it is virtually impossible for Greece’s problems to be reconciled. The Prime Minister talks about growth—he talks, for example, about a detailed account of regulatory reform—but nothing he has said and nothing that came out of the Heads of Government meeting gave a programme for growth. Where are the drivers for that?
I am afraid I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Britain has leading industries in services, energy and the digital economy. If we can complete the single market in those areas, there are real opportunities for British business. The additions to gross domestic product that we would have through completing the single market in those areas would partly mean jobs, investment and growth here in the UK. When there is no room for fiscal stimulus, as there is not in the UK because the budget deficit is so big, and when we already have a very accommodating monetary policy, the right way for growth is to look at structural reform and changes, just as we are doing through the EU.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that ambitious companies looking for growth in Mid Sussex will be extremely pleased with the steps the Government took towards seeking to resolve the crisis in Europe through growth? May I suggest that he looks further back—to European Councils of the past 10 years—to see how many good ideas signed up to came to naught, and could well, with a bit of effort, have come to something good?
My right hon. Friend is correct about this. Of course, Europe has on many previous occasions signed up to wonderful rhetoric about single markets, energy and all the rest of it. That is partly what the Lisbon agenda—not the treaty—was all about. What is different this time is that there was real pressure from the 11 countries that signed the letter with Britain to insist on actions and dates by which those actions would be taken. We must still ensure that those things are achieved. Many countries will want to hold up getting rid of regulations on services and many will want to keep some of those regulations on small businesses, but we now have a majority in the EU to try to fix those things in a way that is good for our country.
Does the Prime Minister believe that the European Council will ever publicly criticise China, not just for what it is doing—or not doing—in Syria, but for what it is doing to its own people, particularly in Tibet? That is being done behind closed doors, with no brave photographers and journalists able to get in. Will the European Council start taking on the might of China?
One advantage of having forums in which the EU meets the Chinese leadership is that the EU can speak on behalf of all members about the importance of human rights, the rule of law and some of the issues the hon. Lady raises. Sometimes that is a useful way for pressure to be brought to bear. The EU Council president and the Commission President should have no compunction in doing that.
Many UK citizens, especially in London, are world leaders in the provision of services such as legal and insurance services. What are the roadblocks to regulatory reform? I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in echoing the words of the Mayor of London, who said that we are always happy to see more businesses come to London.
The roadblocks come in two forms. First, there is the fact that the services directive has not been fully implemented, and some countries have been blocking it. Those countries—Germany is among them, I think—are now undergoing infraction proceedings by the European Commission. The second part of the problem concerns the number of regulated professions in Europe that countries continue to regulate separately rather than open up to competition. Britain has a relatively good record on both the services directive and getting rid of regulated professions but we need to keep up the pressure.
Was there any discussion of the European arrest warrant? I ask because the Prime Minister will know that a lot of his Back Benchers want Britain to withdraw from it, whereas the Liberal Democrats want no change at all. If he insists on riding two horses at once, may I suggest that he campaign for reform rather than withdrawal?
I welcome the consistency with which the Prime Minister has argued for the development of the single market. Does he agree that a successful single market does not require harmonised employment laws? Can anything be done at this late stage to mitigate some of the damaging effects of the agency workers directive in particular?
On the agency workers directive, it is difficult, because it has already effectively been implemented. However, as I and other countries said, it is no good pursuing a growth agenda in the EU if, at the same time, the Commission is still coming forward with directives that cost business and industry a huge amount of money. I mentioned the new ergonomics directive—believe it or not—which will cost business many hundreds of millions of pounds. As I said, however, with the new Prime Ministers in Italy and Spain, there is now southern support for the northern agenda of deregulation. We need to ride that horse as fast as we can.
Is not the great challenge facing the European democracies the need to marry deficit reduction with sustainable growth in the interests of their peoples? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the present restructuring of Greek debt is the largest of its kind in history and a testament to the eurozone’s capacity to bring stability to the euro? Building on the questions from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd), is this sustainable growth not essential for our country as well as the eurozone?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on this point: 40% of our exports go to eurozone countries and we want those countries to recover. We have to accept, however, that doing that while dealing with fiscal deficits is enormously challenging. On Greece, those of us who are sceptical about the euro and who do not want to join it must accept, whatever our views, that the Greeks have made their choice. That is the path that they want to pursue. Whatever our misgivings, we must allow them to make those decisions to make their economy more competitive within the eurozone.
Given that the evidence from last week’s summit is that full participation in the EU is the best news for jobs and growth in this country and for all our neighbours, will the Prime Minister tell us the best estimate of the number of extra jobs that completion of the digital services and energy single markets will achieve by the end of this Parliament? Will he also reassure the House that we will lead the way in dealing with tax fraud and tax evasion at the next European summit in June?
We believe in dealing with tax fraud and tax evasion. That is vital. On the jobs effect of completing the energy and digital services single markets, I have given the GDP figures for how much it would add to the EU, but if the right hon. Gentleman would like, I could perhaps look at how many jobs that could convert into. It is worth noting, however, that the Commission’s forecast for growth this year is that Britain will grow faster than France, the EU and the euro area. Furthermore, according to International Monetary Fund figures, we will grow faster than France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the EU and the euro area this year and next year.
The conclusions from the summit were clear:
“Innovation and research are at the heart of the Europe 2020 strategy.”
They are also vital for growth at home. The conclusions also referred to intellectual property, research and development, and patent protection. Can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that concrete progress was made towards a unitary patent protection scheme, as agreed by the Competitiveness Ministers last June, and also update us on the parallel process for the unified patent court?
There has been quite a breakthrough on the unified patent process, because the EU has been discussing this for, I think, around three decades. There is now an agreement among those countries that want to go ahead and have a unified patent process, so that is a success. There is not yet agreement about where the court should be. We strongly believe it ought to be in London, because London is the centre of international litigation and finance, but the French believe it should be in Paris and the Germans believe it should be in Munich, and there is what is known as a negotiation under way.
We are very lucky to have a British bulldog of a Prime Minister fighting for our interests in Europe, and of course, the Prime Minister is nearly always right on most things. [Hon. Members: “But…”] No, not “but”. Earlier he quite rightly said that Spain could not grow without devaluing its currency. I know that he cannot tell us what he says in private, but can we assume that the advice in private is significantly different from what he can say in public?
I did not quite say what my hon. Friend said. Spain is forecast to have a decline in its GDP this year. It has tough targets for its fiscal deficits, which it is trying to reduce, and at the same time its Government, like all others in Europe, want to get back to a position of growth. The point I would make is that I have always believed that it is better as a country to have both fiscal and monetary levers at our disposal, so that we have the most flexible way to respond to economic circumstances. In Britain, we are able to have tough measures to reduce our fiscal deficits, but at the same time, because we have an independent monetary policy, set by the Bank of England, we are not constrained by being members of a currency bloc. That is why I oppose Britain joining the euro—ever.
The Prime Minister takes great pride in having achieved a deeper and greater commitment to completing the single market and deregulation. Last Friday the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) said that some EU financial services proposals
“verge on the discriminatory, verge on protectionism”.
Has the Prime Minister made any progress on doing something about that?
We are making quite good progress on the financial services dossiers. We are having to deal with them one by one. There are some cases where we are actually arguing that countries ought to be able to regulate even further than the EU is allowing—for instance, in building up capital in our banks. However, there are some difficult financial services directives, which we have to deal with one by one, to make sure that they are proportionate and not threatening to our financial services industry, which, as I say, is not just an asset for Britain, but an asset for the whole of Europe.
Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on what he means by “reserving our position” in relation to the fiscal compact? Does it indicate that Her Majesty’s Government doubt the lawfulness of the compact under EU law and are considering a legal challenge at some future date?
Let me try to shed some more light on that. The position is this. I think there are some major legal question marks over what the 25 EU members have signed up to. However, the best thing for Britain to do, instead of going for an outright legal challenge—which might be partly successful—is to say, “We have our misgivings and concerns. We’ve reserved our position, but we won’t challenge, so long as you are sticking to the elements of fiscal union and not the single market.” I have given this considerable thought and I think that that is the right way forward, not least because there are some things being done in the agreement that the EU treaties give permission for, because they allow member states, as my hon. Friend will know—he is a great expert on this—to do things together under some circumstances. Therefore, the legality is not completely black and white. That is why I think it is in Britain’s interest to use our leverage to make sure that those involved stick to the fiscal union and do not get involved in the single market.
There are newspaper reports that the Prime Minister is one of a group of four Conservative EU leaders who are proposing to ostracise François Hollande, who is soon to be the socialist President of France. Given that Monsieur Hollande is more of a Euro-realist than President Sarkozy, would it not be sensible to work positively with him, instead of against him?
I can confirm that I am not part of any secret pact. I basically take a pretty straightforward approach, which is that it is not normal practice to see candidates in the middle of an election. I have made exceptions on occasion, but I am not going to make an exception in this case.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on pursuing a growth and deregulation agenda at the EU Council. Did he have an opportunity over the weekend to see the reports in the newspapers here about proposed changes to the working time directive that would allow employees to add sick leave and paternity and maternity leave to their end-of-year holiday entitlement? Does he agree that such proposals run entirely counter to his agenda? Will he confirm that the Business Secretary would have his full support if he were to oppose them here in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have a blocking minority on extending the working time directive and we need to ensure that we keep that together. In my view, however, this is the sort of area that the European Union should not have got into in the first place.
We are not signatories to the agreement, so we will not be represented at the meetings. What was interesting about Friday was that, although they signed an agreement, there was only one meeting, which was a meeting of the 27 that discussed, funnily enough—[Interruption.] I was in the room at the time—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] We discussed not only the single market but single currency issues.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Among the dubious legal matters contained in the fiscal compact, which is not an EU treaty, are the provisions relating to what is described as “reverse qualified majority voting”, which sounds bad and is even worse than it sounds. Will he be extremely vigilant and ensure that this coercive and profoundly undemocratic practice is not extended into the EU proper?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This treaty does not have the force of EU law, either on us, on the institutions or on those that have signed it. I am sure that he could give us a very straightforward explanation of reverse qualified majority voting, but I can tell the House that it is basically a way to impose the will of a group of countries on to others, and I do not think that it is the way forward. But we still have not heard from the Opposition whether they would sign this treaty or not—[Interruption.] Well, would you sign it? Nod for yes; shake for no. Yes or no? It is one way or the other. Even Wallace and Gromit could do this! What is so difficult? Why don’t we ask the Leader of the Opposition’s brother? Maybe he could tell us. This is farcical. This thing now exists, and everyone else has signed it, so would you sign it or not? Utterly, utterly feeble.
The Prime Minister’s officials were reported to have told the Press Association during the summit that he was frustrated at being ignored. Despite jockeying for position, why does he think that his European colleagues might want to ignore his advice on how to grow their economies?
I think that one might have been better if it had stayed in the stalls; it was never going to make it out on to the course. I was frustrated that the original draft of the communiqué did not have the actions and the dates that the 12 countries that signed the letter authored by Britain had asked for. I was frustrated because, if half the population of Europe, in countries as diverse as Spain, Italy, Poland and Britain, all ask for actions to be taken, they should be taken. But the good thing is that, at the end of this European Council, all the key issues that we asked for in the letter—which is in the Library of the House of Commons—are now in the Council conclusions. If the hon. Gentleman has plenty of time, he can slip on his nosebag and have a good look.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at this meeting and other European meetings, political leaders need to have a clear idea of what is in their national interests, that decisions often have to be taken in the middle of the night on whether to participate in treaties, and that we cannot dither for weeks afterwards about whether to sign them?
Fortunately, at this European Council, the dinner only went on until about 11 o’clock at night, so it was not the middle of the night. However, my hon. Friend is right. There is now nowhere for opposition parties anywhere in Europe to hide. This thing exists, and the Opposition need to work out whether they would sign it or not. They cannot tell us that. Even though they say that they want to be at the heart of Europe and complain that we have put ourselves on the sidelines, they cannot answer that question. Would they sign it: yes or no?
The Prime Minister has mentioned a special focus on trade deals with fast-growing parts of the world. Will that focus take account of human rights experiences in those parts of the world, and how will he ensure that this push does not compound the frustration of poor developing countries that are waiting for trade justice?
On trade justice with the poorest countries in the world, the EU has quite a good record on giving those countries duty-free access to our markets under the “Everything but Arms” agreements. Where we should make more progress is, for example, on the free trade agreement with Korea, which is worth up to £0.5 billion to the British economy. There are opportunities for many more free trade agreements, which include all sorts of different stipulations but could make us more prosperous here at home, too.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the lack of support shown by the Leader of the Opposition and Labour Members for the measures on growth taken at the EU Council show a real lack of respect and support for the manufacturing and small business sector both in my constituency and in those of all other Members?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. To be fair to the last Government, they spent quite a lot of time trying to push issues like the energy single market and the digital single market, so one would have thought that there would be some sort of welcome for the progress that has been made. Instead, we got absolutely nothing from the Opposition and a complete silence on whether they would have signed up to what they think was the important bit of the European Council—the signing of the treaty. If they think it is so important, they should be able to say whether they would have signed it.
While condemning totally and without reservation what has happened in Syria—the President should certainly be condemned as a war criminal and be brought to justice in due course—should there not be some hesitation about the sort of people we support, bearing in mind the wrecking of wartime graves over the weekend by armed militia in Libya, which was a despicable act, damaging the graves of those who fought and sacrificed their lives in the fight against Nazism?
I agree that what happened in Libya with the desecration of those graves is completely unacceptable. To be fair to the interim Libyan Government, they condemned it absolutely, clearly and frankly in terms when it happened several days ago. We now need to make sure that those graves are fully restored and that the Libyan Government properly help in doing that. The interim Libyan Prime Minister is going to be in Britain this week, and he will meet my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I hope that I will see him, too. We will make it clear in terms how important it is to put those graves right. On Syria, there are all sorts of questions about who is involved in the Syrian opposition. We have to ask careful questions, but we should be clear that the people of Syria would best be served by a transition away from this dreadful President.
There is a sense of urgency, which is why the June Council will be dedicated to this issue. There are obviously some different views within the European Council and there are the familiar cries about not going ahead unless there is full reciprocity. I believe that Britain, as an open trading nation, should be in the vanguard of arguing for these deals, because we have a lot to gain from them.
It was obviously right for the Council to concentrate as a priority on the bloodshed and murderous actions of the Assad regime in Syria, but does not the example of what happened in Libya at the weekend emphasise why we should not lose focus on what is happening elsewhere in the middle east and north Africa? In view of some of the reverses that have taken place, will the Prime Minister give us an update on what the European Union is doing to support moves towards democracy and human rights in those countries?
What the European Union has been doing—I think it is right—is to rewrite its neighbourhood agreements and neighbourhood partnerships to make them more conditional on political reform and economic progress. I am still optimistic about what is happening across the middle east. For all the difficulties there are in Libya, at least that country has the prospect and the chance to make peaceful progress. We see that happening in Morocco, but what is happening in Egypt is clearly far more challenging. Europe has a real influence to bring to bear here, but we should be clear that our money and our help has some strings attached in terms of political and economic reform.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and warmly congratulate him on not signing the fiscal compact agreement. Article 16 of the agreement provides that within five years at most, a further attempt will be made to bring the agreement into the legal framework of the European Union. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will remain as Prime Minister throughout that period, so can he reassure me and the House that if such an attempt is made, he will exercise his veto once more?
I certainly agree with that, but let me make this point to the hon. Gentleman. Those who say that the veto did not achieve anything must ask themselves why other European countries are so keen to try to fold this agreement back into the treaty. That is important.
We made our position very clear. We made it clear that we would not allow a EU treaty to go ahead unless it contained proper safeguards for the single market, for financial services and in relation to other issues, and nothing has changed in that respect.
Last week it was revealed that youth unemployment in the EU had risen to 5.5 million—an increase of 269,000 in the last year. One in two young people in Spain and Greece does not have a job. Where is the plan that has arisen from this summit to deal with youth unemployment? Is it not the case that without such a plan, there will be no return to growth and no resolution of Europe’s debt crisis?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The levels of youth unemployment in many countries in Europe are completely unacceptable. There is a wide spread of practice—from countries such as Holland and Germany with very low rates to countries such as Spain and Greece with very high rates. Britain needs to do better, and that is why we are investing about £1 billion in measures such as the youth contract.
This morning I was at a meeting with employees of Tesco, which has announced the creation of an extra 20,000 jobs in the next two years, including 10,000 apprenticeships. It is absolutely committed to the work experience scheme. I must say this to Opposition Members: one of their number is chairing the Right to Work campaign, which is basically a bunch of Trots trying to destroy the scheme, and they have got to get serious about it.
Order. A good many Members are still seeking to catch my eye. I remind the House that today is also an Opposition day, and I have to factor that into my thinking as well. What is required is brevity—to be exemplified, I feel sure, by Mr Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
The failure of the Assad regime to allow humanitarian assistance into Syria is utterly despicable. What does my right hon. Friend think are the chances of the Russians and Chinese abstaining on the relevant United Nations resolution?
I think that we must work not just to get them to abstain, but to try to get them to support a resolution that is about humanitarian access and is clear about the unacceptability of what is happening. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had a long telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I hope to speak to President Putin later today. Although we are not going to agree with Russia on all that needs to happen in Syria, I hope that we can agree about the bottom-line things that absolutely do need to happen.