House of Commons
Monday 10 December 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—
8. What his plans are for the future of housing benefit for people under 25 years old. (132034)
In June, the Prime Minister instigated a debate about the merits and risks of taxpayers continuing to meet the £2 billion bill that automatic entitlement to housing benefit for people aged under 25 brings. More work is required, and that discussion and debate is still going on.
Last year, 10,000 young people became homeless because, through no fault of their own, they could no longer live with their parents. Will the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that there will be no further plans in this Parliament to take away young people’s housing benefit?
When the Secretary of State is having those further discussions, perhaps he will take account of experience in my constituency, where around a third of residents are under 24. Nationally, an estimated 400,000 households are headed by someone under 25 who claims housing benefit, half of whom have dependent children. When he is having those discussions, will he consider the impact on children of his policy proposal?
That would go without saying—all impacts on various groups will be taken into consideration. The main point I would make is that, no matter what else, if we were to implement such a policy, we would have to take into consideration categories of people who might find it incredibly difficult, such as those described by the hon. Lady. There would not necessarily be carte blanche—there would be nuances and changes. However, as I have said, discussions are ongoing, and as she can see, no policy exists at the moment.
That is obviously a matter for concern, but also for wider change. We want to ensure that couples stay together, and our plans and changes with universal credit will help with that enormously. It is worth reminding ourselves of the situation left by the previous Government. Labour Members go on about our policy, but in the past decade the housing benefit bill doubled from £11 billion to £21 billion. We are reducing the overall rise, but housing benefit under this Government will still rise by around £2 billion, as opposed to the huge sum the previous Government would have instigated.
What would the Secretary of State say to the GISDA organisation in my constituency, which works with homeless and vulnerable people in marginal and rural areas uniquely through the medium of Welsh? It depends on housing benefit to move those young people into housing, employment and training.
Up until now, many people have been trapped on benefits, as they will continue to be without change. The point has been made in this discussion and debate that many who are not on housing benefit but on low incomes find that they must make difficult decisions on where to live—on whether to stay at home or share. My point is simply that we are looking at how we bring those who fall under the benefit bill into line with others, thus giving them a greater opportunity to take work and profit by doing well from an early age. That is all the debate is about. It should surely be welcomed as a right debate to hold.
It is interesting that, despite the Liberal Democrat campaign, the Secretary of State is not ruling the proposal out. Young people have been coming to London to get on in life since Dick Whittington. What does the Secretary of State say to the youngster who took the advice of his predecessor, Lord Tebbit, and got on his bike, moved to London, worked hard and paid taxes, but was made redundant? Should he lose his home and have to move hundreds of miles to live with his parents, where there might not be any jobs? All hon. Members want housing benefit to come down, but how would that promote aspiration?
This Government are doing more to help unemployed young people back to work than was ever done by the previous one. I remind him that his Government left us with rising youth unemployment. They took all those who were unemployed for over 10 months and put them on a course. When those who were unemployed came off the course, they went back to zero, and therefore were never registered. We have a better record than they had.
We are investing £400 million in the next four years to reduce fraud and error as part of a joint operation with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Cabinet Office. We are already making progress, and universal credit will enable even greater strides to be made. At the autumn statement, the inclusion of universal credit in the baseline—a critical moment—means we now anticipate savings from fraud, error and overpayments to be roughly £2.2 billion per year.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. Any money defrauded from the taxpayer is money taken from those who are most in need. Does he agree that universal credit is one way in which the Government are cracking down on those who are abusing the system?
That is absolutely true. We were left with a series of benefits that too often were riddled with fraud and error. Not all of this is about fraud. Many people are receiving overpayments or underpayments when they should be receiving the correct amount. Too often with tax credits, people are chased at the end of the year, without their realising that they had received the wrong money in the first place. Universal credit will be kinder in the sense that it will be adjusted each month. It will help us save huge sums—some studies state £2.2 billion per year.
The Government’s decision to go digital by default—in other words, people will be able to receive universal credit only if they apply online—surely creates a greater chance of fraudulent activity. We all remember what happened with the online form for child tax credits. What guarantees do the Government have that universal credit will not be susceptible to online fraud and that the necessary checks will not take such a long time that they will delay payment? All of a family’s income will come through universal credit.
We have taken account of that. I have had the opportunity to discuss this with the hon. Lady, and I am sure I will again. The reality is that digital by default does not mean that that is the end of it for people who are not online. On the contrary, we allow for those who are not online. We will help and support them as they make their claim, and it will be taken through the system. They will receive their money on time. For those in doubt, we will make payments anyway. We fully recognise the reality of the need for money and for it be sorted out afterwards—that has been taken into account.
Automatic enrolment was introduced in October and the number of workers saving into a pension in some of Britain’s largest companies has already increased. In steady state, we expect 6 million to 9 million people to be newly saving, or saving more. To support this, we are running a national communications campaign, including TV adverts targeting those least likely to be saving in a pension.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that we on the Government Benches are on the side of those who strive and work hard in society. In that vein, how can my constituents in Wolverhampton South West who are saving for the future have access to enrolment to high-quality pension funds?
Through the creation of the National Employment Savings Trust we have ensured that there is a benchmark of low-cost, high-quality pension provision, which is driving down costs across the market. We need to go further and we are looking at whether the role of NEST can be expanded. We are also driving through transparency on charges, so that firms and employees can see what they are paying for and can pay less over time.
Would not one good test of who is on the side of the shirkers or the strivers be a state pension that guaranteed that people were taken off the means test, so it would be safe to save through companies? Will the pensions Minister give us a date for when we will see the White Paper?
The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the Chancellor only last Thursday reaffirm our commitment to state pension reform, and to do exactly that—to ensure that people who work hard and save hard are clear of means testing. The White Paper is at an advanced stage.
Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will not repeat the measures introduced in 1997 by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), which undermined the basis of work-based pensions? Does the Minister understand why the right hon. Gentleman is so often absent, which is doubtless due to his embarrassment about that assault on security?
I would have thought that Conservatives had more respect for the office of Prime Minister, Mr Speaker.
Do the Government have plans to make the rising state pension age fairer for those who have worked in manual occupations their whole life and who will tend not to have the same life expectancy? How do the Government plan to make the state pension age fair across all occupations?
I am interested in that point—it is one that the hon. Gentleman’s late right hon. Friend, Malcolm Wicks, used to raise regularly—and we are always interested in looking at ideas on it. Our proposal is that the state pension age would be more automatically linked to the general improvement in longevity that has applied across the social scale. He is right that there remain significant differences, but a rising tide—as it were—is lifting all boats.
When developing the social sector size criteria policy, we considered the impacts on disabled people, as set out in our impact assessment. We have added a further £30 million a year to the discretionary housing payments fund from 2013-14 aimed specifically at those in adapted accommodation and foster carers.
Why will the Government not withdraw the housing benefit changes, which are having a devastating impact on disabled people, including my constituents, Mr and Mrs Harris of Seven Sisters, Neath, about whom I have written to the Secretary of State? They live in an adapted property. Mrs Harris cannot sleep at night, Mr Harris is a full-time carer for her and they need two bedrooms, but the draconian and oppressive changes the Government are implementing mean that there is funding for only one bedroom. There is a shortage of one-bedroom properties in Neath and they cannot afford the extra rent. It is time the Government withdrew these policies. Do they not understand that the changes will have a massive impact on the most vulnerable people in our society? The Secretary of State started off with the seemingly sincere motive of tackling poverty, but he has ended up by punitively and callously hitting the most vulnerable.
That is not the case. An impact assessment has been done and £30 million of discretionary funds have been put in place for exactly the people the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. We have to do this in the round. There are a million spare rooms in the country and millions of people on waiting lists and in overcrowded homes, and we have to find properties for them, too. The case that he mentions, however, is precisely the sort the discretionary fund will be for.
As co-chair of the all-party group on carers, my understanding is that, where a person requires a full-time carer, local authorities may provide housing benefit for them to have a two-bedroom property. Have I misunderstood the situation, or have I understood it correctly?
Is my hon. Friend aware of the anxiety felt by those who have received notification that they might be affected by these changes? Will she guarantee help not only for those we have heard about, whose homes have been adapted, but for those with noisy respiratory equipment, for example, with whom it would be unreasonable to expect others to share a bedroom at night? How long will this fund last, and is she confident it will cover all those cases?
Disabled people across the country currently have to cope with a torrent of piecemeal welfare reform changes that will impact on their lives. Disability Rights UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mind, Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Carers UK, among others, including tens of thousand of people who have signed Pat’s petition, have asked the Minister to conduct a cumulative impact assessment. If she is confident she is doing the best for disabled people, why does she not listen to them and conduct a cumulative impact assessment? Why does she stubbornly refuse to do one?
I am afraid that the right hon. Lady never did one when Labour was in government. Disabled people remain my top priority. Let me reiterate to the House that the disability living allowance, carer’s allowance and the support group of the employment and support allowance will all increase with CPI. We have protected the disability support programme in its entirety, and an extra £15 million is going into Access to Work.
We have recently taken steps to increase access to the new enterprise allowance by extending eligibility to day one of an individual’s jobseeker’s allowance claim and increasing the number of mentoring places available by 30,000.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight take-up in Yorkshire. In his constituency, 40 claimants have started with a mentor, and so far 30 have started training. That is a good result—better than the national average—so clearly people in his constituency are getting good advice. We need to ensure that the quality of advice increases. We want more people to see self-employment as a way into the work force.
The Minister is right that more people should go self-employed; the problem with the way the system has been set up is that it assumes people earn the minimum wage for every hour worked, when that is far from the truth, as he will know. Will he assure me that he will make changes where they are needed to ensure that self-employed people can take advantage of the scheme and not be disadvantaged, which is a potential problem at the moment?
The new enterprise allowance is there to help people to make the transition from unemployment into self-employment. It is absolutely right to give them the support they need not just to earn the minimum wage but to go beyond that. We have seen some good examples of people taking up the new enterprise allowance who have started their own businesses and are now employing others.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) in saying that take-up in Yorkshire has been excellent. Indeed, in my constituency there has been demand to access the scheme earlier, but one issue needs to be addressed. In many areas there is a lot of other potential support for businesses, but jobcentre staff are not necessarily aware of it. Can we ensure that the advice given is as tailored as possible, taking into account the various funding streams available locally?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The advice given is not given by Jobcentre Plus staff: we get private and public sector contractors in to give that support. We need to ensure that people setting up their businesses are signposted to other sources of advice and funding to give them the best possible start in getting their businesses off the ground.
Nationally, more than 57,000 young people on the Work programme have found work and just under 10,000 have been in work for six months. Of those, about 80 are in Leicester.
Unemployment and youth unemployment are higher in Leicester South than they were at the general election. The latest statistics show that about 3% of people have found work as a result of the Work programme. Many employers who took advantage of the future jobs fund tell me that they are shunning the Youth Contract or that they are sceptical about the Work programme. Given that the Minister’s own Department has said that the future jobs fund was of benefit to society, employers and those on it, does he now regret abolishing it?
The evidence from the future jobs fund demonstrated that the taxpayer was never going to recover the money that was spent on it and that it was 20 times more expensive than the work experience scheme, which is similar to it and from which we are getting good outcomes. Taking into account Labour’s fiddled figures, youth unemployment is lower today than it was in May 2010.
In the invitation to tender for the Work programme, the Minister’s Department said that if there was no programme at all 5% of people would secure job outcomes within 12 months. We now know that, under the programme, the figure was 2%. For people on employment and support allowance, it was 1%. Of the 9,500 people on employment and support allowance who used to be on incapacity benefit and who were referred to the Work programme in its first 14 months, only 30 secured job outcomes. The Minister told The Daily Telegraph that Work programme providers needed to “get their act together”. Why does he think that they are to blame?
The Work programme providers are responsible, and they are paid to get people into work. This is a much better value programme than its predecessors, but we need to get providers to raise their game. The figures released at the end of last month showed that job outcomes were rising and that the longer the programme had been functioning, the more people were getting into work. This is a good start, and it is a much more effective programme than the schemes introduced by the previous Labour Government.
Last month, we published data showing that 57% of claimants who joined the Work programme in June 2011 had spent some time off benefits. The figures showed that the programme was moving people off benefits and that, as claimants spent longer on the programme, more of them came off benefits.
I recently visited A4e, which is helping to provide the Work programme in Kettering, and I was impressed by its commitment to getting unemployed people back into work. Is the Minister aware, however, that the two biggest barriers to finding permanent employment in my constituency are travel costs and child care difficulties? What can Her Majesty’s Government do to solve those two problems?
There is a range of ways of helping people with their travel costs in order to get them back into work. Jobcentre Plus can provide money through the flexible support funds, and Work programme providers can provide support to help people to reduce the cost of their travel. There is also funding available to help people who want to work to get free child care.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures produced by the ERSA last month show that more than 200,000 people have found work through the Work programme. They also show that the programme is effective at moving people into work and that job entries are rising from month to month. They clearly show improvements in performance as the programme matures.
The DWP’s own evaluation has shown that the Work programme is proving less successful at getting women than men into work, that it is particularly poor at getting lone parents into work, and that the black box approach is failing to deliver substantive personalised support. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the Work programme genuinely meets the needs of those furthest from the labour market?
The Work programme has been designed to allow providers to use a range of ways to help people back into work. We give them that flexibility. In return, they are paid only when they are successful. That contrasts with the schemes introduced by the previous Government, in which most of the money went in up front and providers were not paid by results. I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that, under this Government, there are more women in work than ever before.
16. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response a moment ago about the success of the Work programme. Does he acknowledge, however, that of the almost 9,500 people who were in receipt of employment and support allowance who used to receive incapacity benefit and who were referred to the Work programme in its first 14 months, only 30 received job outcomes? What are the Minister’s plans for making the Work programme work? (132042)
As I have already made clear in answer to a similar question, the Work programme is improving its performance, and the longer the scheme is in operation the more people are getting into work. That will lead to more job outcome payments in future. We are in the early stages of the scheme, but there is solid evidence to demonstrate that it is getting people off benefits and into work.
We have taken a range of actions to improve the performance of Work programme providers. We are working with them to establish best practice, particularly in areas such as helping people on employment and support allowance into work. The Department has also written to a number of providers advising them that we want to see a step change in their performance and asking them to produce performance improvement plans, which we will monitor carefully. Programme providers know that they could lose their contract if their performance does not improve.
For the last year, the Secretary of State and all his Ministers have said they could not give us any information about what was happening with the Work programme because the data was unverified. Now we are getting a stream of unverified data, but does that mean we can now see inside the black box? May we have clear information about what services are given to people when they are referred?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the minimum service standards for each provider are published. Last month, we saw data produced on off-benefit flows and on the number of people getting six months’ work. The trade association ERSA—Employment Related Services Association—produced details on the number of job starts. I think that a huge amount of data has been published, and I am surprised that the hon. Lady is complaining about it.
My noble Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform has met Welsh Ministers on several occasions to discuss welfare reform, including changes to housing benefit, and he maintains regular correspondence with them. In addition, officials from the Welsh Government are represented on a number of working groups relating to welfare reform.
Does the Minister accept that the 40,000 people in Wales who will be hit by the bedroom tax changes to housing benefit are either unemployed and long-term unemployed or, very often, are in work on low incomes? What advice would he as a Liberal Democrat offer? Would he encourage them to seek higher-paid jobs, to give up their homes or to take a massive cut in their income?
The impact of the social housing under-occupation measure is lower in Wales on average than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. A range of options is open to those who face a shortfall. As the Minister with responsibility for disabilities, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) said, one of them arises when a set of people living in over-occupied accommodation need to move somewhere larger. Many social landlords are getting to know their tenants and their pattern of need, better juggling the housing stock, which is vital and to the benefit of all our constituents.
Disability Living Allowance
10. Whether it is his policy that people with cystic fibrosis should be eligible for disability living allowance. (132036)
Disability living allowance is available to any severely disabled person, including those with cystic fibrosis, who meets the eligibility conditions.
I was recently contacted by my constituent, Peter Chisholm, whose 18-year-old daughter Kate suffers from severe cystic fibrosis. Such is the severity of her condition that she is currently in hospital receiving physiotherapy and taking 50 tablets a day. Kate has been refused DLA and her appeal has been turned down. Does the Minister think that that is right, and if not will she ensure that Kate gets the support she so badly needs?
I know that this issue is of great interest to the hon. Lady, sitting as she does on the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, so I listened with great interest—[Interruption.] Apologies, but I am correct in saying that you have a great interest in this subject. I do not know the specific issues relating to the case that you mention. We will obviously look into it, but I have to say that this constituent of yours would have been assessed under the DLA arrangements—it is for that very reason that we are bringing in the new personal independence payment assessment and criteria.
Let me remind the Minister that her answers should be addressed through the Chair. She has just referred to my constituent. I would have been delighted to have had my constituent addressed, but it would not have been appropriate here and now. We will move on.
Today we are publishing a high-level framework for evaluating universal credit. A full programme of evaluation is being developed. This will include studies of implementation, covering themes such as claimant, staff and stakeholder experience. This, along with other analysis, will form part of a continuous programme of evaluation on the roll-out of universal credit.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will resist the last Government’s temptation always to launch things with a big-bang announcement, often followed by failure? In this case, will he carefully learn the lessons of the pilots he is launching in April?
The process we are engaged in—by the way, I have fully briefed the Opposition Front-Bench team, so there are no secrets here—involves a pathfinder starting in April, and by the beginning of October we will start the national roll-out. The whole idea is to roll it out progressively throughout the UK, making sure that we learn the lessons as we roll it out. Whatever changes need to be made can be made at that point. It seems to me that that is the reasonable and right way to do these things, but I remind my hon. Friend that we are not only below budget, but on time—and it will be completed on time.
No doubt the Secretary of State will confirm that, following the introduction of universal credit, when people’s incomes change they will have to go to the local council to sort out their council tax benefit changes, and to the DWP to sort out their housing benefit changes. Two visits, or two contacts, will be required as a result of one change of income. What progress is the Department making in discussing with councils the need to provide a joined-up service so that, in future, people will need make only one contact when their incomes change?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. We are currently engaging in discussions with local authorities with the aim of ensuring that people receive a proper and comprehensive service, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly what they will receive as and when the time comes to roll out universal credit. The point of universal credit is that all the other benefits, including housing benefit, will be combined in a single payment, which will simplify matters enormously for claimants and recipients; and councils will, through council tax benefit, have the opportunity to provide the best possible service for their tenants.
Work Capability Assessment
We welcome Professor Harrington’s invaluable contribution to our efforts continually to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the work capability assessment. We published our response on the day of the publication of his third review. We accepted five recommendations outright, and the sixth in principle.
I greatly appreciate the Government’s continuous efforts to get this process right—it is a very difficult process to get right—and it is great news that all Professor Harrington’s recommendations have been adopted. May I ask the Minister to join me in urging Opposition Members to stop scaremongering and frightening disabled people in my constituency who are being deterred from coming forward to claim the benefits to which they are entitled?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. There has been a great deal of scaremongering about the work capability assessment, and a great deal of criticism, most of it unfounded. Let me inform the House of two facts. First, decisions about eligibility are made not by Atos but by the Department’s decision makers, and, secondly, we have established that in only 0.4% of cases in which tribunals have overturned DWP decisions has Atos been the cause.
I am not sure whether some of those last remarks were aimed at me, but may I ask whether the Minister agrees with Professor Harrington’s comment:
“The appeals process remains an area of considerable concern”?
As a number of charities have pointed out, many people who were given zero points in the initial assessment discovered, following appeals, that they had at least 15. How many people have found themselves in that position in the last year?
If the hon. Gentleman feels guilty, perhaps he ought to examine his conscience in relation to remarks that he himself has made.
In his report, Professor Harrington said:
“All they call for is a scrapping of the WCA but with no suggestion of what might replace it.”
He added that to
“recognise that things are beginning to change positively in the best interests of the individual… would be helpful.”
This process is an important part of the way in which we help people to get back into work, but the scaremongering that we hear undermines people’s confidence in it, to the detriment of those who are trying to claim employment support allowance.
When the last Government placed the contracts with Atos, they omitted to ensure that work assessment centres were fully accessible. In 31 of them there is no ground-floor access for wheelchairs, which is clearly absurd. What is the Department doing to deal with that?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. We are working with Atos to ensure that as many centres as possible have ground-floor, accessible medical examination rooms, but when they are not accessible, we will try to make arrangements with claimants to ensure that they have access to suitable locations for their assessments.
Access to Work Scheme (Disabled People)
13. What plans he has to improve the Access to Work scheme for disabled people. (132039)
We are undertaking a radical review of Access to Work so that it can help more disabled people into mainstream employment. We are implementing several improvements, including a fast-track assessment process and the removal of cost-sharing for small employers, as well as working with an expert panel to consider how the scheme can be further personalised and made to work more effectively for disabled people and their employers.
I welcome the Government’s continued commitment to the Access to Work scheme. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the report of the all-party parliamentary group for young disabled people, which I chair? One of its recommendations was that the scheme should be extended to both internships and long-term voluntary work placements. Will the Minister undertake to consider that recommendation?
The policy intent of Access to Work is to support disabled people into paid sustainable work, and as such it is not offered for unpaid internships or voluntary work. However, from 1 October this year Access to Work has been available to young disabled people undertaking work experience under the Youth Contract. I would like to meet my hon. Friend to talk further about this matter.
We are working hard to get everybody from all the Remploy factories into work. When I last talked about this matter in the House, only 35 of those people across the country had got into work, but I am pleased to say that we have now more than quadrupled that number, to 148. We have looked into the personalised support, and we are adapting it every day. We are working on it, and we will make it better.
Although there is no specific exemption from the cap for carers, in practice most carers will be exempt because their partner or child is in receipt of disability living allowance. In addition, there are exemptions for people in work that can also apply to carers. Under universal credit, carers need only work the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the national minimum wage to be exempt.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but it is not quite correct. Close reading of the regulations indicates that a household comprising parents and a disabled adult dependant receiving disability living allowance will not be exempt from the cap, despite the Minister’s promises that they would be. I am sure the Minister appreciates that this is causing great anxiety to those potentially affected. Will she undertake to fix this problem?
Should there be another adult in the house, that is then a separate household, so both have to be assessed separately. However, I reiterate the fact that those who are exempt from the cap include those on working tax credit, all households with someone who is in receipt of a disability-related benefit, war widows and widowers, and those in receipt of war disablement pensions. A lot of people are therefore exempt.
Ministers have repeatedly stressed that a household containing anyone in receipt of disability living allowance will not be affected by the benefit cap, but constituents of mine who have an adult disabled child are now being told they will be affected by the cap because the regulations appear to state that if a family has an adult severely disabled person living in the household, that person is not a member of the household. Please will the Minister clarify whether the benefit cap will apply to someone who is looking after a severely disabled adult child?
I will reiterate what a household is: a household is a basic family unit, and for the purposes of paying out-of-work benefits that will be a single adult or a couple and children, so once another adult is in the house, that is a separate household. [Interruption.] That has been the definition for a very long time. However, in the instances the hon. Lady mentions, discretionary payments are available and will come to fruition. [Interruption.] There is no point in Opposition Members huffing and puffing. That is the situation, and an extra £30 million has been put in place for this. [Interruption.]
Jamjar Budgeting Accounts
Budgeting accounts will be a useful help for some claimants both in supporting transition to universal credit and in terms of broader financial inclusion, in particular for those claimants who have not managed their money monthly before—that is an important category—or who have not been responsible for their own housing costs.
I am grateful for that answer. The demonstration projects have shown the value of jamjar accounts, and commercially they could have much wider application. In the tendering process, will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention to the unique possibilities of credit unions, given their local base and links with housing associations?
I will indeed. We are doing our level best; we are giving credit unions extra money and backing them enormously to get going. I think that they will develop hugely, and I hope that they will eventually replace the payday lenders—it is really important that we all agree about that. On the jamjar accounts and the way we are making these payments, everyone warned us that there would be problems if we paid housing benefit direct. We have trialled that in one of the demonstration projects and, importantly, only 3% of those who receive their housing benefit payments direct are having to revert to indirect payments because they have been unable to cope. That is a major advance from the existing local housing allowance.
I welcome the announcement made in the autumn statement last week that housing support for those living in supported exempt accommodation will be disregarded from the benefit cap. We have listened to the concerns of organisations including Refuge, Women’s Aid, the National Housing Federation and others. That announcement addresses their concerns, meaning that individuals in very vulnerable circumstances, including those fleeing domestic violence, will be protected.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the direct payments pilot schemes, which are taking place before universal credit, before the bedroom tax and before the changes to council tax benefit. Is he aware that the pilots are showing an increase in rent arrears due to an increase in partial payments? If that remains the case at the end of the pilots, is he prepared to change policy to make it easier for rent payments to be made direct to the landlord?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The figure I gave in my response to the last of the questions showed that, in actual fact, the pilots are beginning to show categorically that if there is proper management by local authorities, the number of people defaulting is very low. That we can deal with. [Interruption.] Instead of playing games, paying this direct and treating housing benefit tenants as children, does he not think that part of the reason why they crash out of work early is that they cannot cope with the extra responsibility? By getting them ready for that responsibility before they go to work we are doing them a favour, and that figure shows we are supporting them.
T2. Later this week, my constituent Danny Shingles will go into hospital to have a debilitating polycystic kidney removed. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that cysts on kidneys burst, poisoning the body and creating great discomfort. While preparing for his operation Mr Shingles is also having to appeal a decision to stop his disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, despite the fact that after his operation he will be entitled to have them again. This is causing my constituent much unnecessary stress, so will the Secretary of State review the guidance given to assessors to ensure that all factors, including the scheduling of operations, are taken into account when making decisions about whether someone is entitled to benefits? (132051)
I would like to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this case, as I do not know the full facts.
I do not believe that there will be a dole rise. The reality is that, under this Government, in the last year we have seen more people back into work; more private sector jobs than were ever created by the previous Government; and more women in work. Unemployment levels have fallen and youth unemployment levels have fallen. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to apologise for the total mess his Government left us.
The Secretary of State clearly does not know, so let me help him. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that the dole bill will rise by £6 billion as a result of his failure to get Britain back to work. To pay that price, he is proposing an uprating Bill which, I am afraid to say, sounds all wrong to me. It is wrong to take £4 billion from tax credits, it is wrong to take £300 million from maternity pay, and it is wrong that this strivers tax is going to hit 4,500 working families in his constituency. He should be fixing welfare reform, not flogging working families. Perhaps he would like to tell the House this afternoon just what share of the savings from this uprating Bill is going to come from working families.
I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that our unemployment figures are better than those originally forecast by the OBR. I remind him—as if he needed reminding—that he left this Government with a 6% fall in GDP, an economy that was on the rack, and debt that was higher than that of any other country in northern Europe and rising every year, with £120 million a day being spent on the interest. Let me remind him of one other thing: he has voted against every single change and every cut we have made to deal with that debt. The Opposition are irresponsible and not fit for government.
T3. I welcome the introduction of universal credit next year. However, will the Secretary of State outline how my constituents without bank accounts will in practice be able to access universal credit? Does he agree with the suggestion made by Westgate ward Councillor Paul Toleman that Post Office accounts could be a useful alternative mechanism? (132052)
It is correct that Post Office accounts would be a useful measure in ensuring that we can give people the right kind of choice and the right kind of places for their accounts. Under universal credit, people will be given an opportunity to begin to live their lives in the same way as they would live them if they were back in work. That is a critical and huge change that will allow them to get back into work rather than not have to make the changes that could change their whole outlook.
T5. The Secretary of State failed to answer the substance of the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) a few moments ago. Of those affected by the 1% uprating, 81% are women and 60% are in work. Is not the reality that this Government are clobbering the strivers? (132054)
I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the autumn statement we yet again raised the threshold, which allow an extra £5 a week for families. Families on low incomes are better off and the average family is £125 better off as a result of the autumn statement.
T4. Further to earlier questions on this matter, PATCH—Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Hardship—a charity that deals with poverty issues in west Wales, is concerned about the housing component of universal credit. Will the Secretary of State confirm how he intends to define “vulnerable tenants”? (132053)
Vulnerable tenants will be defined as they always have been, as people who for various specific reasons are unable to cope. All those people will be considered carefully and all the mechanisms that we are putting in place—this is the point that makes universal credit different—mean that by ensuring that we identify those who have difficulties, we can get to them and sort out their problems rather than just dealing with the symptoms, such as their being unable to make their payments. We need to deal with why they are in debt, what is happening to their families and whether, say, the family is drug addicted and start to put those problems right before they crash out of work later on.
T7. The DWP recently published an evaluation that confirmed a net benefit of £7,750 per participant from the future jobs fund, a scheme that originated in my constituency. That can be set alongside Barnsley college’s successful sector-based work academy, which is already demonstrating its effectiveness in getting long-term unemployed adults into work. Does the Minister understand why, when it comes to reducing long-term unemployment, my constituents have more faith in those schemes, which originated in Barnsley, than they do in the Work programme, which came from his Department? (132056)
The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that the sector-based work academy is part of the Youth Contract. It is effective and is an idea put forward by this Government. I am pleased that it is working well in Barnsley. The other thing in the Youth Contract that is working well is work experience, which is as effective as the future jobs fund but 20 times cheaper. The Government can demonstrate that we are giving help to get people into work, and are giving much better value to the taxpayer.
T8. What further measures is the Department taking to ensure that the benefits assessment process takes into account applicants with invisible disabilities, such as autism, that are often accompanied by speech, language and communication problems? (132057)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why, for example, we encourage people who feel that they cannot communicate at an assessment to take a friend or a carer with them to help in that process, and we gave support to people to help them to complete the ESA50. We want to make the process of assessment as easy and as straightforward as possible by giving vulnerable claimants the help that they need.
In my constituency, organisations such as Yellow provide accommodation solutions for young people under 25 so that they can get into work. In his deliberations on the future of housing benefit for the under-25s, how will the Secretary of State identify those youngsters who have suffered traumatic family break-ups, dysfunctional families, and sexual and physical abuse and separate them from the others? It is a genuine practical question.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we would make every effort to ensure that those most vulnerable people would not necessarily be included in a change like this. As I said earlier, this is not a policy at the moment; it is a consultation, and we are happy to listen to anybody about the groups they think ought not to be included in such a policy. I have an open door in that regard, and he is more than welcome to come and see me.
T9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best outcomes for children are where at least one parent is working? Does he also agree that all Government measures should try to support the best outcomes for children and families? (132058)
I do agree with my hon. Friend. Universal credit should help that enormously through its disregard process, which I call the work allowance. The allowance of a couple with a child will be more than £6,000 when they go back into work; under the present system it is only £520, and under the Work programme it is a little more. The difference is enormous and will provide a real boost and a real income to families and support them at home.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the ever-increasing number of workplace pensions that are wound up in mergers and takeovers, as happened at Whitbread where former employees have lost their pensions. Will he review the legislation in order properly to protect people’s pensions on mergers and takeovers?
We are obviously concerned when anybody does not get the pension they were expecting. The regulator has powers where corporate restructuring has been designed to avoid pension liabilities. If the hon. Gentleman gives me more details of the case, I will be happy to look into it.
T10. People with HIV report poor levels of understanding of their condition by Atos assessors. This may be because the guidance is outdated and lacks information on living with HIV. Will Ministers be monitoring the guidance issued on such conditions? (132059)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of Professor Harrington’s recommendations was that the medical directors of charities review the guidance and some of the bases of assessment for conditions. I can assure him that the guidance for HIV/ AIDS is being reviewed by the medical director of the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Getting to a job interview can sometimes be a challenge for people looking for work, so many jobseekers will be pleased to hear about a new scheme launched today called Bus for Jobs, which provides free travel, initially during January, for those seeking work. In my constituency that will be Stagecoach Midlands. Does the Minister agree that the scheme is an innovative approach by the Government to help people to find work?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is important. As we heard earlier, for some people the cost of travel is a barrier to employment, and I am delighted that the major bus companies have worked together to provide free travel in January. That is on top of the additional support that Jobcentre Plus and Work programme providers offer to ensure that we get as many people as possible into work.
Yesterday on the Directgov website, DWP job ID 438253 advertised for female presenters for Loaded TV working at home on internet babe chat. The advert has now been removed from the website, but does the Secretary of State think that DWP should be accepting and promoting jobs for internet babe chat? What does it say about this Government’s values on work?
I remind the hon. Lady that it was this Government who changed the rules: under her Government, it would have been wholly acceptable, I suspect. The new system is in its national pathfinder and will, I hope, be rolled out before Christmas. We already have checks in place: more than 6,000 jobs, 60 attempted employer accounts and 27 bogus employers have been blocked so far, and we act swiftly if complaints are raised. I remind her that, on average, more than 5 million daily job searchers are working on this system. It will be a massive improvement and will benefit jobseekers, so the hon. Lady should not carp about the odd difficulty that arises. We get rid of the bogus jobs.
I congratulate the Government on extending Access to Work to disabled people on work experience and on removing the need for small companies who employ fewer than 49 people to pay for Access to Work. Will the Minister look seriously at extending Access to Work to disabled people on the Work programme because of the additional cost of their disabilities?
My hon. Friend has a great track record of championing the rights of people with disabilities. I will look carefully at the proposals he has made and work with the Minister responsible for disabled people to get the best possible outcome for people with disabilities. It is important to help them get into work.
Same-sex Marriage in Churches
Following the Government’s consultation, which looked at how to allow same-sex couples to marry, we will put to the House tomorrow our plans on how we intend to legislate. Our position remains that we firmly support marriage. It is one of the most important institutions we have in our country. The Government should not stop people getting married unless there are very good reasons for doing so, and I do not believe that being gay is one of them.
In respecting the rights of gay couples to have access to civil marriage, we also fully respect the rights of religious institutions when they state that they do not wish to carry out same-sex marriages. Freedom of religious belief is as important as equality. The views that people of faith hold should not be marginalised and should be fully respected. I would never introduce a Bill that encroaches on religious freedom or that could force religious organisations or religious ministers to conduct same-sex marriages.
The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the rights as set out in the European convention on human rights put protection of religious belief in that matter beyond doubt. The Government’s legal position confirmed that, with appropriate legislative drafting, the chance of a successful legal challenge through domestic or European courts is negligible. I have therefore asked the Government’s lawyers to ensure that that is the case here.
There are long-standing plans to make a statement to the House, which will now be done tomorrow. It will set out the Government’s response to the consultation and outline our plans on how to take forward equal civil marriage, in line with our decision to legislate before the end of this Parliament. I believe that it will be vital to continue to work with religious organisations to ensure that effective safeguards are in place.
Whatever one’s views on this issue, it is clearly highly controversial and legally complex. There has just been the biggest consultation ever, with four times the number of sponsors than any previous consultation. If the Government are going to announce a change of policy, surely they should come to this House of Commons first. May I ask the Minister why the Prime Minister announced on television over the weekend that, contrary to what was in the consultation, he now wants to legislate for same-sex marriage in churches? The consultation specifically excluded same-sex marriage in churches; it was about civil marriage. Now that the Government have done a U-turn on the matter, will there be a brand-new consultation? Does the Minister accept that this change of policy greatly increases the chance of human rights litigation to force churches to have same-sex marriages against their will and that we should have a consultation on that? The state has no right to redefine people’s marriages.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to talk about this today. I share the House’s disappointment that we are discussing this issue in response to an urgent question, given that I am planning to set it out tomorrow. Equally, though, I am pleased to have the opportunity to make sure that my hon. Friend is very clear about the situation. The Prime Minister did not announce anything new this weekend; he simply restated the Government’s position and, in particular, expressed a personal view regarding the possible role for churches in future—a view that he first expressed in July. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important matter that should be discussed first here in the House, and that is why we have brought forward our statement to tomorrow.
Let me respond to a couple of other points that my hon. Friend raised. We have not changed our support for equal civil marriage; the consultation that we have just gone through is about how to put equal civil marriage in place. There may well be policy implications, on which I will be better able to provide further detail when the consultation response is set out tomorrow. I hope that he can bear with me on that, and perhaps we can give him the responses that he is looking for at that time.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer, although I regret that it was not a full statement—the media were obviously briefed on Friday. Her answer raises some additional questions.
We are clear that when couples love each other and want to make a long-term commitment, that should be cause for celebration, not discrimination, and they should be able to marry regardless of their gender or sexuality. I agree with the right hon. Lady about that. When Labour was in government, we legislated for the equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships, an end to the armed forces ban, and other provisions to tackle discrimination. Many of those measures were controversial among some at the time, but they were the right thing to do, as legislating for same-sex marriage is now.
Freedom of religion rightly means that no church or religious organisation should be required to hold same-sex marriages, so can the right hon. Lady confirm that that will be in the Bill? Freedom of religion also means that people of faiths such as the Quakers, the Unitarians and others who want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriage should be able to do so. The right hon. Lady will know that I have been arguing for this for many months. Can she confirm that the Government will include that, too, in the Bill that she brings forward?
I strongly disagree with Government Back Benchers who are not only calling for these plans to be dropped but supporting the invidious section 28, which would turn the clock back on discrimination and homophobic bullying and which should be condemned in all parts of this House.
I also disagree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). Marriage is not the preserve of any individual faith or organisation. Civil marriage is about the way the state views and values long-term relationships, and the state should not discriminate. Marriage laws have rightly changed before so that married women are no longer treated as their husband’s property and can no longer be legally raped—something that was possible as late as the 1990s. Does the right hon. Lady agree that changing the marriage laws again now to bring in same-sex marriage will strengthen rather than weaken the institution of marriage, and that we should urge everyone to support it?
I thank the right hon. Lady. There are many things that one can control in this world, but media comment is certainly not one of them. However, I also draw the House’s attention to the fact that she asked me a great number of detailed policy questions that the media have not set out, so perhaps that requires more of a detailed policy announcement from us tomorrow.
I agree with the right hon. Lady that marriage is a source of joy and celebration. The Prime Minister and I have set out really consistently in recent months that we want to make sure that more people are able to enjoy the benefits of marriage, hence the consultation that we have been carrying out. I hope that the proposals we bring forward will enjoy cross-party support; that is certainly my intention.
The right hon. Lady is right, however, that safeguards are incredibly important for those who have deep-seated religious beliefs in this area. As I have said, I believe that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and rights under the European convention will put protection of religious belief beyond doubt. When we, the Government, give our full response to the consultation, I am sure that I will be able to give her and other hon. Members more detail in that regard.
The right hon. Lady is right to say that the proposals being considered by the consultation will work to strengthen the relevance of marriage in our society today and for the future. She drew on some of the innovations that have been put in place in recent centuries; perhaps this is our opportunity to make sure that marriage is relevant for our century.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. Does she agree that, while civil partnerships were an incredibly important step forward for gay people, they are not marriages; that gay people will not feel that they are fully accepted in society while they are denied access to what is one of our most important institutions; and that that is the reason for proceeding with this reform? Will she confirm that she will press ahead with it?
My right hon. Friend is tempting me to go further than I want at this stage. We will make a full statement tomorrow, but he is right that civil partnership and marriage are perceived differently. Marriage is a universally understood and recognised status and it is right that we as a society should have it open to all couples. The consultation has been looking at how we would take forward that proposal and I am sure that the consultation response will furnish the House with more details.
I commend the Minister for what I think is her approach—it certainly seems to be the Prime Minister’s approach—but it would have been nice to have had the statement today, because that would have saved us a great deal of time in not having to come back tomorrow. Does she recall that exactly the same warnings were made about civil partnerships? It was said that allowing some faiths to have them in church would force all churches to do it, but that did not happen. Would it not be iniquitous if those churches and faith groups that wanted to celebrate marriage on their premises were prevented from doing so because of the opposition of others?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am here today not because I have chosen to be here, but because others have asked me to be here. As a Minister, it is always very important to come to the House if requested.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is important to recognise the different views of different religious institutions. We held the consultation and wanted to talk to people more fully because we wanted to make sure that when we take forward the idea of broadening out the availability of marriage to same-sex couples, we understand in full exactly how it should be done. He is right to recognise that different groups have different views, and we will certainly consider that further.
I say to my right hon. Friend that in the real world this issue is neither complex nor controversial. In fact, if confirmed tomorrow, it will be widely welcomed by millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across our country. I very much look forward to hearing her statement tomorrow.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a great deal of support for making sure that marriage remains a relevant institution in Britain today. I do not think that this has anything to do with fashion, style or modernity; it is all about fairness and equality. In considering how we make sure that our civil institutions are fair to all people in society, it is right that we look at how marriage works in Britain today.
Will the right hon. Lady clarify something factually? My researches, such as they are, indicate that parts of the law on marriage are opaque and that the right of places of worship to refuse to marry a man and a woman exists, although it can be challenged. In the Jewish religion, a synagogue may well refuse to marry a man and a woman if it doubts the validity of either partner’s conversion to Judaism. Am I right that she is seeking not to force any place of worship to marry somebody in a same-sex partnership, as she has made clear, but to protect places of worship that refuse to do so?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that what I am trying to set out is that the Government respect all religious institutions’ right to determine whom they marry within their precincts. I have set that out as my priority, as has the Prime Minister this weekend and last summer. Right hon. and hon. Members are rightly focused on such safeguards. I am sure that we will look at that matter closely when we talk about the consultation response.
I suspect that the opposition to the Government’s proposals would be far less if Mr Colin Hart and his so-called Coalition for Marriage had not sent out hundreds of thousands of letters aimed at constituents of particular political persuasions to say that they should not vote for their party if the proposals go ahead. May I challenge Mr Hart, through my right hon. Friend, to come into the open and justify what he has done, and to defend himself to the Archbishop of York and the former Archbishop of Canterbury? I think that what has happened is disgusting.
My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the facts when it comes to the ability of religious organisations to continue to determine what happens in their own precincts, organisations and churches. There has been quite a lot of hyperbole over the implications of what we are talking about. The Government’s objective is simple: we want to ensure that marriage, which is a hugely valued part of our society, is open to more people. I think that that should be applauded.
Having married more people than I can remember—as a vicar, that is—I have never understood how extending marriage to more people could invalidate the marriage of other people who are already married. I wholeheartedly support what the Government are doing. I remind the Minister that the Prayer Book of 1662 states that marriage is
“ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
Why on earth would any Christian want to deny that to anybody? Is it not right, therefore, that the Minister will categorically allow churches to do that?
The hon. Gentleman is again taking me into things that we will come on to tomorrow, such as the role of churches. Unlike him, I have married only once, but I married well, so I am lucky. He is right that marriage strengthens our society and that the proposals will strengthen it further. This is a rare opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and I to agree, and I will savour the moment for as long as I can. I am sure that we will continue to be in agreement as we look at the detail of what comes forward.
My right hon. Friend will know that one of the many important issues for the Church of England and other Churches is that the Bill must do what the Government purport that it will do and provide statutory protection so that Churches that do not want to carry out same-sex marriages are not forced to do so. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that she will ask her officials to work with me in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner and with lawyers for the Church of England and other Churches to ensure that by Second Reading we are all confident that the quadruple lock protection, which will hopefully be in the Bill, will do what we all hope it will do, which is to give the Churches the protection that the Government wish to give them?
I very much value my hon. Friend’s contribution and he is right to say that our objective of ensuring that no organisation is forced into doing something that it does not want to do must be made absolutely clear. I give my hon. Friend a complete undertaking that my officials will work with him—well before Second Reading, I am sure—to ensure that he and other religious leaders are content with proposals that may be forthcoming around the future of equal civil marriage. We all share the objective of wanting to ensure that individuals who want to be married can be married, but that institutions that want to protect their freedoms and religious beliefs have that protection.
If marriage is opened to allow individuals to marry one another regardless of sex or gender, article 12 of the European convention on human rights will apply to both same-sex and opposite-sex marriages. If that is the case, will the Minister seek a derogation under the convention to protect churches, rectors and church trustees who do not want to hold same-sex marriages in their buildings, in order to protect their rights, freedoms and religious identity?
The hon. Gentleman is drawing me into a great deal of detail—exactly the sort of detail that a Bill Committee would look at in the development of any legislation. He is right to say that such detail is important and must respect freedom on both sides, and I am sure such matters will be considered on Second Reading and in Committee. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Northern Ireland will be different; this is a devolved matter and the Northern Ireland Government may take a different view.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that approximately 500,000 people who responded to the Government’s consultation by saying no to redefining marriage have been excluded from the Government’s consultation and effectively denied a voice, although others—including those beyond the United Kingdom—have been included in that consultation? Is the consultation in danger of being seen as a sham that does not provide the Government with a mandate to redefine marriage?
We have taken into account all valid contributions to the consultation, which was exceptionally important in shaping and forming the Government’s view on how we take forward equal civil marriage. More than a quarter of a million people responded to the consultation and we have taken time to consider their responses in detail. I assure my hon. Friend that those responses were integral to how the policy has been taken forward.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that most parents would prefer their children to be happy, rather than prefer them not to be gay?
Some of us have no interest in what happens behind people’s bedroom doors but might be slightly more concerned about what the legislation will do behind the church door. In her opening comments my right hon. Friend described the legal challenge as negligible. Will she publish all the legal advice that the Government have been given on the possibility of Churches, and other religious groups, being forced to conduct same-sex partnership ceremonies?
My hon. Friend will know that the Government do not publish legal advice, but he can be assured that the work we are doing is in accordance with the law. I state again that European Court case law and the European convention on human rights put the protection of religious belief beyond doubt. The whole House should welcome that, and we will ensure that we have the sorts of protections that—as I hear from all sides—are very much wanted.
Does the Minister agree that freedom of religion works both ways? Although it is right that no religious group should be forced to marry same-sex couples if it does not wish to do so, the faith groups that wish to marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so.
I very much support the Government’s position, but some Churches in my constituency are concerned that they will be forced—perhaps through the courts—to hold same-sex marriages on their premises. What assurances can the Minister give that the Government’s correct ruling will not be overturned in the courts, whether in this country or on the continent?
My hon. Friend is right—we do not believe that any religious organisation should be forced to do something that is beyond their belief and faith. I direct him to case law of the European Court, which has made it clear that those are issues for individual countries and not something on which it will rule centrally.
Some Churches in our country allow marriages only of members of their fellowships. Equally, some Churches will not allow the remarriage of divorced people. Many different faith groups have different rules. If that has not been seriously challenged in the past 10 years, does the Minister agree that it is highly unlikely that there will be such a challenge to same-sex marriages?
With Christmas just around the corner, lots of people might be thinking of giving a dictionary as a present. Before they do so, and for the benefit of dictionary publishers, will the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to change the definition of any other words?
All such views need to be taken into account. People should be able to say what they think on this matter and we should not stifle debate. Suffice it to say that I believe marriage is hugely important. It is vital that all religious institutions continue to be protected and that we ensure that marriage is open to more people in future. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) are a matter for him.
I am a Christian and I am against the redefinition of marriage, but that is for tomorrow. The urgent question today is why on earth the Government briefed in advance about a new policy and a change to the previous position. The Minister has condemned that herself in the past. Will she have a word with the Prime Minister and tell him off?
My hon. Friend might be jumping to one or two conclusions. It is right that we discuss policies first and foremost in the House. I have a long-standing commitment to make a statement in the House this week, but have brought it forward to tomorrow. I share the House’s concern and disappointment that there has been such widespread discussion this weekend, but we will be able to go into the detail tomorrow.
The Movement for Reform Judaism is headquartered in my constituency, and is a large faith group that wishes to have same-sex marriage. Is this legislation not in the best Conservative principles of expanding personal choice while protecting religious freedoms?
Although there will be a separate Bill in the Scottish Parliament on this issue, there is strong cross-party support for the policy that the Minister has nearly announced today. In Scotland, 68% of people believe that religious organisations that want to be able and free to marry same-sex couples under the law should be able to do so. What discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about whether any provisions in the draft Bill she may announce tomorrow will apply in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is right: on issues as important as this, cross-party support is crucial. I just urge him to make sure that he also respects those who may not agree with same-sex marriage being open to all religious institutions. It is important that we show that respect throughout. I can assure him that my officials have been in intensive discussions not only with the Scottish Government, but in Northern Ireland and Wales. This affects all parts of the country, and we want to ensure that there is full co-operation wherever possible.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, which has been a concern for many of our constituents. I can confirm that nothing will change what children are taught. Teachers will be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage will be available. It is important to reassure people. There is a great deal of what perhaps one could call scaremongering. It is important that teachers and faith schools are aware that they will continue to enjoy the same situation as they do now.
On a broad rather than a detailed point, perhaps the Minister has, like me, met young people who have been forced out of homes by families who did not accept their being gay. Does she agree that a change towards equal marriage is an important way in which society can send a signal that their contribution is greatly valued today?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we should all be striving for equality in civil life. In ensuring equality for citizens, however, we should respect the right of faith groups to have their beliefs too. Religious freedom and equality are two things that we should all cherish and protect in any way we can.
I welcome what the Minister has said, and I agree with the Government’s plans to introduce legislation to allow same-sex marriage. However, I am a little confused about what will happen between now and tomorrow’s statement. Will she confirm that every single member of the Cabinet agrees with the proposals and will vote for them when they come before the House?
The hon. Lady will know—well, maybe she was not in the previous Labour Government—that we are in the process of finalising this policy in the usual way, but to ensure that the House is fully informed as quickly as possible, I have speeded up that process.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance that if the Government plan to expand equal marriage to churches willing to carry out the ceremonies, other churches have nothing to fear. After tomorrow’s statement, will she seek to reassure those churches that they have nothing to fear from the legislation?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of providing reassurance and working with religious institutions. I will be speaking personally with heads of religious groups, and my ministerial colleagues in the Equalities Office will be doing likewise. This is the start of a process of ensuring that they can be confident that the protections will be robust and effective.
As someone with a long-term personal investment in the institution of marriage, I can thoroughly recommend it to everyone who wants it. Nevertheless, will the Minister also introduce proposals for those who do not want the institution, such as heterosexual couples who want a civil partnership rather than a marriage? I have constituents who have raised this with me.
I am sure that the question of civil partnership will be addressed as part of the consultation response, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that civil partnership was never put forward as a replacement for marriage, and I am not sure it is something we want to open up to more people.
I want to live in a free society, and at the heart of a free society surely lies personal freedom and religious freedom. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this proposal simply upholds those principles, affording those of us who might want to commit the opportunity to do so, and the power for religious organisations to decide whether to offer it? Given that getting married is a significant event in anybody’s life, I wonder who would want to get married in a church that did not want them.
Many people of faith in Stratford-on-Avon are rightly concerned about the Bill, and I hope that tomorrow we will see freedom of religion front and centre of the proposals, but the big question is about discrimination. Up until 1967, 16 states in America banned interracial marriage; it was only overturned in 1967. I am sure that no one in the House would argue on moral grounds to ban interracial marriage today. Let us get rid of discrimination and protect freedom of religion.
My hon. Friend is right to focus on the importance of freedom of religion and the need to ensure that faith groups that want to can continue to voice their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, rather than between two people of the same sex. Perhaps even more important than this issue of marriage, however, is the role of faith groups in our society. Many faith groups might feel that they have been marginalised in recent years and are not central to some of the debates in this country. This is a healthy debate about the importance of protecting our religious freedoms, while taking forward civil marriage in a way that opens it up to more people in our community. It is important that we do not marginalise people of faith and that they are absolutely respected and at the heart of this proposal.
This country has found it hard to resist prisoner voting, despite the majority of the House having voted against it, so can my right hon. Friend appreciate that many hundreds of my constituents from faith groups are understandably concerned about legal challenge?
My hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue of prisoner voting—it is something that many in the House feel strongly about—but it is not the same as marriage. The European convention on human rights contains clear protections for religious belief, and the fact that marriage is at the heart of many religious institutions’ beliefs means that it is clearly protected. As I have said, we believe that rulings in European case law have put this matter beyond doubt.
Before my right hon. Friend gives us the Government’s proposals in response to the consultation tomorrow, may I thank the Prime Minister through her for his constitutionally rather unusual personal statement on Friday and again thank him as leader of the Conservative party for intending to give Conservative Members of Parliament a free vote? On an issue such as this, that is something we should see across the House.
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is all about balancing freedom of the individual with equality—freedom for people of faith to follow the views of their faith and freedom for individuals in same-sex relationships to take part in civil marriages in the way as heterosexual couples do.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, look forward to a day when we no longer talk about “equal marriage”, “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage”, but just talk about marriage—a loving commitment between two people who want to love each other and be with each other?
My hon. Friend is right. Having been married for many years—many hon. Members will be aware of this as well—I know that marriage brings a stability to life and creates a loving place to bring up children. That is important to recognise, but we absolutely have to respect the rights of religious institutions to take a different view. As a sophisticated and mature society, we should be able to enter that debate with respect on both sides.
My right hon. Friend said that the views of people of faith should never be marginalised. Will she tell the House how she will square that with the 619,007 people who have signed the Coalition for Marriage petition, which calls for no change in the definition of marriage?
As my hon. Friend will know, for more than 180 years there have been two different ways to enter into marriage—one through a religious ceremony, the other through a civil ceremony—so the role of religious organisations in marriage is there indelibly. To ensure that those views absolutely continue to be centre stage, I am working on safeguarding the freedom to continue to view marriage in a different way in different religious institutions, but that in no way means that we have to stop individuals in same-sex relationships being able to be married as well.
Many Members have expressed the sentiment that marriage is at the centre of religious life—amen to all that—but have the Government considered introducing other forms of marriage, such as polygamy, and if not, when can minorities who believe in such a practice expect their own consultation?
While I deplore discrimination on any level and will certainly be supporting same-sex civil marriage—I am glad that the Government are now considering supporting those religious institutions that support that—I have many constituents from more orthodox communities, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. What assurance will the Government give to protect their beliefs?