House of Commons
Monday 20 May 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I wish to report to the House that the rooms of a Member were searched yesterday pursuant to a warrant issued by the circuit judge in Preston Crown court on 16 May. The warrant related to the investigation of a serious arrestable offence.
I should remind Members, as did my predecessor in 2008, that the precincts of Parliament are not a haven from the law. In accordance with the protocol issued by my predecessor on 8 December 2008 on the execution of search warrants within the precincts of the House of Commons, I considered the warrant personally and was advised by Officers of the House that there were no lawful grounds on which it would be proper to refuse its execution. In addition, as provided for in paragraph 6 of the protocol, I consulted the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, who concurred in this advice. I am very grateful to them. The Clerk of the House was kept fully informed throughout, and also concurred.
The Serjeant at Arms and Speaker’s Counsel were present when the search was conducted. Undertakings have been given by the police officers as to the handling of any parliamentary material until such time as any issue of privilege is resolved. The investigation is continuing and it would not be right to comment further. I will not take questions on my statement.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work Capability Assessment
As with each of Professor Harrington’s reports, we have adopted all recommendations to improve the process we inherited from the previous Government. We are in the process of implementing those recommendations.
The Minister will be aware that the rate of successful appeals has actually increased, which would appear to suggest that the reforms to the system are not yet working. Does he intend to investigate the claims made by Greg Wood, a former medical assessor for Atos, who said that the system was skewed against the claimant and made several serious allegations about how people’s claims were assessed?
As I said, we are in the process of implementing Professor Harrington’s recommendations. I would make the point to the hon. Lady, however, that when her party was in government, one in 10 people received the full employment support allowance, but as a consequence of our reforms three in 10 people now receive it, which demonstrates that the system is an improvement on the one that we inherited.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I want a system that gives the right support to the people who need it the most. We should also recognise that because of our reforms and improvements to the process, only 15% of fit-for-work decisions are successfully overturned.
Will the Minister explain the successful appeals? What factors underlie the success rate?
The Minister will be well aware that there have been issues of public confidence in Atos ever since it was first commissioned to do this work by the last Government. Are the Government looking into and making progress on Professor Harrington’s alternative assessment process for those with hidden and fluctuating conditions, which is a very important area?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. As a consequence of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, we are considering a range of different descriptors. We are working closely with medical experts and charities to assess those descriptors and will report later in the year on the effectiveness of the programme.
I believe that the new enterprise allowance has been very effective in helping people set up their own business. As at the end of November last year, 31,540 have received or are receiving support from a mentor, and more than 15,000 have commenced trading. As my hon. Friend knows from his own experience, self-employment not only enables people to take responsibility for themselves and their family’s welfare, but gives others the chance of a job as the business grows.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate the voluntary mentors who are taking their role seriously, helping people to get into work and identify ways of setting up their own business. On Thursday, I was in Bradford talking to a group called Inspired Neighbourhoods, which promotes self-employment in its area and provides many voluntary mentors to help people take advantage of those opportunities.
Given the difficulties and challenges in setting up a business, does the Minister agree that it is essential that the advice given ensures that people can succeed, so that they do not end up in a worse situation than if they had not gone down that route in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman is right. That was one of the lessons from Inspired Neighbourhoods, which sat down with people and said, “This is the amount of money you need to make from your business to ensure you become free from benefits and help your family to look after themselves.”
21. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming last week’s employment figures, which show that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Reading East is now at its second lowest level since February 2009. Given Labour’s poor track record of securing sustainable employment, does he agree that the Opposition’s proposed job guarantee would fail to provide as many positive outcomes as the new enterprise allowance? (155879)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the number of people claiming JSA fell by 7,000 last month, which also saw the 11th consecutive monthly fall in the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The measures we are taking demonstrate the effectiveness of our programmes, particularly the new enterprise allowance.
The hon. Lady should be aware that a large number of Work programme providers see self-employment as a route out. For example, I know from talking to Avanta, which operates the Work programme in the north-east and elsewhere, that it sees lots of opportunities for people to get into self-employment and supports them to do so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as providing opportunities to get into self-employment, the small businesses generated are potential generators of many jobs? Has he seen the academic work showing that in business cycle after business cycle, small businesses created during a recession have a much higher chance of survival than those created at other points in the cycle?
That is a very good point. When I have visited jobcentres, I have seen examples of people who have created employment opportunities for themselves and others as a consequence of setting up their own business. That is a testament to the strength and resilience of the sector.
Does the Minister realise—I tell him this as someone who has employed a lot of people in social enterprise—that social enterprise is also a good destination for entrepreneurs? Is he aware of the critical importance of high-quality mentoring? I know he went to Bradford; he could have come to Huddersfield to see the Enterprise Foundation. The quintessential success of that operation was down to good mentoring and trained mentors who carry on mentoring over the long term.
Indeed. I went to Portsmouth last month to see the Cathedral Innovation Centre, which was working with people from the Royal Society of Arts and Portsmouth university business school, as well as volunteers, to provide the right sort of mentors to enable social enterprises to get set up and be successful.
Employment and Support Allowance (Appeals)
Jobseeker’s allowance is available to those found fit for work. Alternatively, employment and support allowance can be paid for those who subsequently decide to appeal. ESA can be backdated to include the reconsideration period. Those who are put in the work-related activity group, but appeal because they want to move to the support group, will continue to be paid ESA at the assessment rate, as now.
I thank the Minister for that answer. A number of my constituents who have claimed for JSA have been told that they are not fit for work—they have a medical certificate—and are therefore not eligible because they are not available for work. What are people supposed to do in that situation? Will it not drive them into the hands of payday lenders?
First, if someone is found fit for work, they should be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance. The hon. Lady will be aware, as I am, of some of the hardship arrangements that are in place to help people, but it is absolutely right to try to encourage those claiming incapacity benefit to be reassessed, to ensure that those who are fit for work can get back into work, rather than be written off and face a lifetime of inactivity, as happened under previous Governments.
More broadly, when the Select Committee on Work and Pensions looked at this issue, we were interested in claimants’ experience of face-to-face interviews and, in particular, claimants with mental health problems. Will the Minister update the House on his assessment of those areas?
As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably about this issue. When the employment and support allowance was introduced under the previous Government, a third of those with a mental health condition received it. As a consequence of the reforms we have introduced, that number has now gone up to 43%.
Is the Minister aware of the representations that I have made to the Secretary of State about a constituent of mine who has been suffering from mental illness for 13 years? Three months before his Atos test, he tried to commit suicide. Nevertheless, he was immediately refused a continuation of his benefit and was put into the limited liability group. Does the Minister not realise that there are some horrendous cases of punitive action being taken against people who are completely innocent in this respect? That constituent was without any visible means of income, and I had to refer him to the food bank in order to prevent him from starving. Is the Minister proud of such consequences of his policies?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he was in the Government who introduced the work capability assessment and the employment and support allowance. I have set out the improvements that we have made to the system that we inherited from the previous Government, which was not working. We are continuing to make reforms, and that is demonstrated by the fact that the proportion of people claiming employment and support allowance has tripled under this Government.
I am afraid that appeals to tribunals following refused ESA claims are taking far too long. The Leicester office, which deals with appeals from my constituents, now has a waiting list of 40 weeks. I know that this is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but will he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to get this sorted out as quickly as possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the whole process is taking far too long. We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice to reform the system and ensure that appeals can be heard more quickly. We are also working with charities to see what additional support we can give to people claiming employment and support allowance, to ensure that the right information is made available as soon as possible to enable claims to be processed as quickly as possible.
What would the Minister say to my constituent, Philip Gillespie, who served our nation in Afghanistan and lost his right leg in an explosion there? Last month, he lost his disability living allowance and was told that he would be caught up by the new military system that is soon to be put in place. I hope that he will be caught up by it, but will the Minister ensure that this never happens again, and that a soldier serving his nation is never refused a benefit to which he is entitled?
I am not familiar with the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but we are working on arrangements with the Ministry of Defence and, in future, such cases will be dealt with by the Ministry rather than by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the assessment is about functionability, not about someone’s condition. The old system, under which people were judged on their condition, resulted in many people being written off for decades because of their illness.
Offshore Safety Inspections (North Sea)
4. What assessment he has made of the arrangements for offshore safety inspections in the North sea. (155862)
I meet the chairman and chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive regularly to discuss health and safety matters, including those relating to the offshore sector, as appropriate. The departmental Select Committee and the Maitland review, which was commissioned after the Deepwater Horizon episode, both concluded that we had a strong offshore regulatory system.
The Minister will be aware—or at least he should be—that next month will be the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, which precipitated the present health and safety approach taken in the North sea. Does he share the concern expressed by the trade unions operating in the North sea that the Health and Safety Executive’s energy division was set up without any consultation with the unions, and that the division undertakes not only offshore inspections but others as well? Will he guarantee that neither the number of inspectors available to conduct offshore inspections nor the number of such inspections will change as a result of this?
We have brought together various aspects of the energy sector in a single department. That bringing together of complementary skills is a sensible response to the increased diversification of the energy sector. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no slackening of focus on the offshore sector; indeed, we are recruiting more offshore inspectors.
We have published a detailed assessment of women in that group, and we have found that an overwhelming majority will receive more pension over their lifetime than under the existing system than would a man born on the same day who receives a single-tier pension.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and for the work that he has done on this matter. Given the fact that the new system and the current one will run concurrently after the implementation of the single-tier pension, can he reassure women in the affected age group that none will lose out in the transition, compared with women who are eligible for the proposed single-tier pension? Would he also consider meeting a group of women from my constituency to discuss the matter?
Obviously, women in the age group we are talking about get a basic state pension based on 30 years, whereas those under single tier will need 35 years and those a few years older need 39 years. Each group has a different system, but the key point is that the new system will cost exactly the same as the system it replaced. We are not putting extra money into new pensions and ignoring today’s pensioners; it is the same amount of money, but spent in a simpler way.
There are 900 of my constituents who are female and were born between 6 April 1951 and 6 April 1953, and who will not receive these new pension entitlements while men of the same age will. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to those 900 women and bring forward proposals to look again at making sure that we have proper equality in the system?
I think that the hon. Gentleman might have written his question before he heard my earlier answer. Comparing those women in his constituency with men born on the same day, as he did, misses the point that those men will have to wait several years longer for their pension. They would far rather be in the position of the women who get their pension at 62 or 63.
The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is to say that these women are in a far better position than equivalent men. Let me push him a little on this. How did he come to a calculation suggesting that these women are better off? My understanding is that, under the Government’s plan, 700,000 women currently aged between 60 and 62 will on retirement receive a lower state pension every week than a man of the same age. Will he tell us specifically how much less a week on average these women will receive on retirement than a man of the same age?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, two things matter: how much people get, and when they get it, and he ignores the second thing. A man born on the same day has to wait until he is 65, but the women he is talking about will get a pension at 61, 62 or 63. The fact that they get the pension for years longer more than offsets a lower average receipt.
Under-occupancy Penalty (Wales)
Our equality impact assessment estimates that around 40,000 claimants will be affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy in Wales. A formal evaluation of the policy will be carried out over a two-year period with initial findings available early next year.
BBC Wales reports that for every 70 victims of the bedroom tax, only one alternative unit of accommodation is available. That means that 69 out of every 70 will have no choice but to endure this tax, which is unfair, impractical and will further impoverish the already poor.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we are asking social tenants to pay £2 a day towards a spare room—something that private tenants had to do under Labour’s local housing allowance scheme. Within Wales, a quarter of all social accommodation is one-bedroom properties. If we can deal with overcrowding and people on the waiting list in Wales, we will be doing the right thing by the people of Wales.
I am pleased that £50 million-worth of discretionary housing payments have been made available to ease the transition in difficult cases and to support families. How will the Minister ensure that my constituents are aware of this extra support?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need local authorities and social landlords, with which we have been working, to alert tenants to the fact that over £150 million has been made available to local authorities this year to help individuals in hard cases.
Monmouthshire council has allocated over a third of its £121,000-worth of discretionary housing payments in the six weeks since the bedroom tax came in. Given that the demand and the need is so high, does the Minister really believe that the Government have given enough money?
It was always the case that there would be high demand at the start of the year, because unlike other discretionary housing payments that arise randomly through the course of the year, this will apply for the whole year. We expected and planned for a higher rate of demand at the start of the year. We do keep these things under review, of course, and we are in close contact with local authorities in Wales to monitor the early implementation of this policy.
My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that local authorities use the money that has been given to them to assist households when an extra contribution would be helpful. We have given a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to councils for that purpose, and we expect them to use every penny of it.
19. Government changes already require the British taxpayer to find nearly £2 billion more to rehouse vulnerable families. How many families does the Minister think will need to be rehoused as a result of this punitive bedroom tax? (155877)
I do not recognise that number at all. In fact, many of the scare stories that have come from the hon. Lady and others have proved not to transpire. When we capped rents in the private rented sector, we were told that there would be mass evictions and that vast droves of people would be moving all over London, but the evidence has not borne that out.
There are more than 21 million people in full-time work, and the number has risen by over 600,000 since the general election.
Yes; this is an intriguing figure. As we have succeeded in enabling people who, when the last Government left office, were inactive but of working age to find employment, the total number of people without jobs has fallen by 380,000 since 2010. That fall has been driven by a fall in the rate of inactivity that was left by the last Government. As a result, the number of people receiving incapacity benefit and a number of other benefits—including lone parents—is at its lowest for some two decades.
Unemployment, including youth unemployment, is stubbornly high in Telford. Does the Secretary of State still talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or indeed the Prime Minister, because there was nothing in the Budget about youth unemployment, and there was nothing about it in the Queen’s Speech? Is he talking to them at all?
I talk to them regularly, and they talk to me. What I tell them constantly is that the figure for youth unemployment is lower than the figure that we inherited. We have also introduced the Youth Contract, which provides us with extra money so that we can give many people below the age of 24 a real chance to benefit from work experience programmes and apprenticeships. Many more people will go into apprenticeships under this Government than ever went into them under the last Government.
Last week I held my second jobs fair, at which 30 local employers met 300 jobseekers in my constituency to talk about more than 300 vacancies. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there is currently a record number of vacancies in the United Kingdom?
That is correct. On average, about half a million vacant jobs are advertised, and that may not represent all the work that is available. Our universal jobmatch scheme ensures that claimants look for and apply for jobs, because they must be mandated on to the system. The number of private sector jobs has increased by 1.25 million since the election, and every six jobs created over the last six years correspond with one job loss in the public sector.
I agree that there is a particular problem in that regard. I am talking to all the voluntary sector groups as well as to providers, including all our staff at the DWP, and also to Opposition Members. We need to make more progress, because youth unemployment is not good regardless of the numbers involved, and we cannot do enough to drive it down. I can give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that we will make more efforts to deal with this particular problem.
We are taking steps to tighten further the rules relating to all migrants, not just new migrants. We are strengthening the habitual residence test; the Home Office is creating a statutory presumption that European economic area jobseekers and workers who are involuntarily unemployed will not have a right to reside here after six months unless they can demonstrate they are actively seeking work and have a genuine chance of finding a job; and we will prevent those with no entitlement to work in the UK from claiming contributory benefits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it may be a good idea in the longer term to consider a more contributions-based system of benefits for all? One of the biggest problems for many people is although they may have worked and paid into the system for many years, if they are out of work for a period they receive little more than someone who turned up only last week.
Why do the Government not insist that out-of-work benefits paid to non-United Kingdom citizens should be paid at the rate of benefit prevailing in the claimant’s home country? Should we not insist on that being a red line in the welcome forthcoming renegotiation?
My hon. Friend is aware that we are, in part, operating within a framework determined by the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met his German counterpart last week, and further meetings are planned for next month with European employment Ministers to discuss these very issues.
Even where we have had to take difficult decisions on welfare spending, we have systematically protected pensioners from the impacts of changes. Indeed, we have gone further: we have permanently increased the cold weather payment to £25, and the basic state pension is now a higher share of average earnings than at any time in the past 20 years.
As my hon. Friend knows, our goal is to have a retirement income based on the foundation of a simple, single, decent state pension—the legislation on this was announced in the Queen’s Speech—complemented by automatic enrolment into a workplace pension, so people have a pension based on their national insurance and a pension of their own with a contribution from both the employer and the taxpayer. That is a good combination to build on.
What does the Minister have to say to my constituent, a 91-year-old pensioner who is occupying a four-bedroom property and has been told that, because the priority has to be given to allocating smaller homes to people currently being hit by the bedroom tax, she has no immediate prospect of being housed in smaller, more suitable accommodation?
We expect social landlords to manage their housing stock effectively, and many social landlords have put in place schemes to enable older tenants to trade down, which many of them would want to do. If the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent is 91, I would think the housing association in question has had plenty of time to do something about that.
My hon. Friend is right: we cannot build a building on an uneven foundation. That is why we had to get state pension reform right with a single, simple, predictable state pension. That makes private saving and automatic enrolment far more effective, and I am grateful for his support for that principle.
Universal Credit (IT System)
The IT system to support the pathfinder roll-out from April 2013 is up and running. As Members would expect, we continue to monitor, test and learn. That system is a crucial aspect of our pathfinder approach—although not all of it, by any means—which will guarantee the careful and deliberate wider roll-out of universal credit.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he confirm that three of the pathfinders are not going ahead precisely because the computer system is not ready? Will he also confirm that in the one pathfinder that is going ahead, the staff have one computer screen on which to record information, and the rest of the claimant information has be written down by pen on a notepad? That is the situation, is it not? How can the Secretary of State possibly come to this House and justify that as being satisfactory, after years of preparation?
The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong. All the pathfinders are going ahead. The IT system is but a part of that, and goes ahead in one of the pathfinders. The other three are already testing all the other aspects of universal credit and in July will, essentially, themselves roll out the remainder of the pathfinder, and more than 7,000 people will be engaged in it. All that nonsense the hon. Gentleman has just said is completely untrue.
22. The pilot commenced on time and substantially on budget at one of the pathfinder locations, implying that much of the application must be working. Does that not contrast well with the failed big-bang approach taken by the last Government in similar implementations? (155880)
I repeat to my hon. Friend what I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts): the reality is that it is far better for us to do this carefully, and to check each time that the systems work and that those who are meant to be using them know what they are doing, so we learn the lessons from the whole system. The last Government went for a big-bang approach in one project after another, and most of them literally did just that: they blew up.
The Secretary of State will recall that I wrote to him in November 2010 to warn that the IT system could not possibly be delivered in the time scale he was claiming—unfortunately, that has proved to be the case. In November 2011, he announced that 1 million people would be receiving universal credit by April 2014. What is his latest estimate of the number of people who will be receiving universal credit by April 2014?
Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of a quote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies about the way we are rolling the system out. It said:
“The level of problems caused to tax credit claimants and employers as the new tax credit systems went live in April 2003 demonstrated that there were undetected gaps in the design of the testing regime for the systems.”
This system is a success. We have four years to roll it out, we are rolling it out now, we will continue the roll-out nationwide and we will have a system that works—and one that works because we have tested it properly.
In November 2011, 1 million people were going to be claiming by next April: now, the Secretary of State has not the faintest idea how many there will be—so much for this project being on schedule. There were supposed to be four pathfinders, but now there is only one, under which the only people who can get universal credit are those in the most straightforward circumstances. How long will it now realistically be before he has an IT system that can cope with, for example, applicants with children?
Interestingly enough, I had the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) in to see me last year and I told them exactly how we were rolling the system out—[Interruption.] No, no. I told them that the pathfinder would continue first of all with single claimants. As for the idea that somehow things have changed—he knew about that then and the situation is exactly the same now.
Disability Living Allowance/Motability
We wrote to every DLA claimant earlier this year, as well as holding stakeholder engagement events and MPs’ events. Online, there is a personal independence payment checker and a PIP toolkit. As the hon. Lady asks specifically about the highest rates of both components, I am sure that she will pleased to know that we have increased those rates under PIP from 16% to 23%, which is an increase of seven percentage points.
It came as a great shock to my constituents that the new regulations will see the removal of the Motability lease payments after 28 days of a person’s being in hospital. Will the Minister explain why she is prepared to leave disabled people worried about going into hospital and potentially losing their Motability car, losing their deposit and having to restart the whole process when they come out? They will be worried about what it will mean for them to reapply for a new car with new adaptations that requires a new deposit. Additional administration will fall on the Department for Work and Pensions, so who will bear the cost incurred when the exclusively and specifically adapted Motability cars have to be returned—
Obviously, I do not know the specific details of the case, but when somebody is in hospital for a long time they will not need the Motability car. However, every case is taken on its specifics and everything is dealt with in the most sensitive way. That has always been the case with Motability cars.
A constituent with a severely disabled daughter who is dependent on disability living allowance and a Motability car came to see me. Will my hon. Friend assure me that my constituent will be entitled to an appeal before those things are arbitrarily removed?
At the moment, we are considering working age people and that is where the changes are happening, so we would not be specifically considering the case my hon. Friend mentions. However, if she is talking about what happens at the end of a fixed-term period for which the child has entitlement, the assessment would be the same as it always was for DLA. The focus of the reforms is to ensure that the billions of pounds we are spending every year—a figure that is going up over this Parliament—will be focused on those who most need it.
The Minister really needs to look at the specifics of this. Her regulations have changed: a person in hospital will now lose their higher mobility rate after four weeks, instead of 13 weeks. Their Motability car will have to go back, even though they may have spent thousands of pounds on adaptations to it. The Minister really has to look at how her regulations have changed.
The Minister and the Secretary of State have recently been found out using figures that show a dramatic increase in the number of people receiving disability living allowance. To quote the Secretary of State, they wanted
“to get in early, get ahead of it”—
that is, the PIP. However, Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that there was a significant decrease in the number of working-age people—that is, those affected by the changes—getting the benefit, so much so that The Economist said:
“Over the past few months…questionable numbers have floated out of Iain Duncan Smith’s office into the public debate like raw sewage.”
Those are the words of The Economist, not mine. Will the Minister take this opportunity to correct the figures on the record, and to resolve to use accurate figures only? As The Economist puts it,
“they shouldn’t manipulate…and distort”
“to tell stories that aren’t actually true.”
I will put on record that we do use correct figures. We use the right figures, and we make sure that people know exactly what is happening, because that is only right. We are dealing with the most vulnerable people in society, and it is only right that they get the correct information. We will continue doing that.
Jobseeker's Allowance (Claimant Sanctions)
Sanctions have played a key role in ensuring that jobseekers meet their commitments to the taxpayer in return for jobseeker’s allowance, and 40% of claimants say that they are more likely to look for work due to the threat of a sanction.
In my constituency, the number of jobless people chasing each vacancy is more than double the national average, yet my local citizens advice bureau informs me that there has been an increase in the number of people who have been to see it who have been kicked off benefits because of sanctions. When will the Government—more specifically, the Tories—stop demonising the unemployed for not having a job, and when will they stop this relentless war against the poor?
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are people in his constituency who are paying their taxes and working, and who expect jobseekers to do all they can to look for work, so that they can look after themselves and their families. That is the contract that underpins the welfare state—the contract that the previous Government signed up to; I am surprised that he seems to be backing away from that.
Housing Benefit Cap (Evictions)
Landlords must support their tenants in maintaining their tenancy. All those affected by the cap have already been contacted, most of them more than a year ago, so tenants uncertain about their situation should have asked for a review by now, to check that they are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled. The local authority may consider paying discretionary housing payments, which we have already given them, in negotiations with the landlord, to find a way to avoid eviction.
The Secretary of State is precisely avoiding the point. He knows very well that landlords are using as an excuse for getting rid of tenants, and as a reason to evict them, the fact that they are on the benefits cap. He said that the benefits cap would be a way of bringing rents down, but it is not; it is a way of evicting tenants who are living on benefits. That is appalling, and he needs to do something about it.
On the implementation of the cap, people have had over a year to work on this, and I know that local authorities are working with them; we keep in constant contact with them. We will have given local authorities more than £380 million in discretionary moneys. It is very clear that if the issue is only the cap, there is no requirement for people to be evicted. This is a reality, and authorities must work with them. The hon. Gentleman needs to talk to his party, because it wants to make the cap worse by regionalising it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I always make a point of doing, on his persistence in supporting credit unions. I know that he is a member of his local one, which has about 300 members. I hope that he will welcome the award of a contract for £38 million to the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, which will help 1 million people, and will act as an alternative to loan sharks and payday loans.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful answer. I know that he would like to praise the volunteers at Colchester credit union for all they do. Will he discuss with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education the importance of encouraging all of us, particularly children, to undertake regular saving?
My hon. Friend is right and his campaigns have helped us shape some of our thinking on that. It is worth noting that for the first time financial education will be on the national curriculum, which is extremely important. Through universal credit we are making available a series of financial planning devices and special bank accounts, so we hope this will drive people in the right direction. The crackdown on payday lenders who abuse their position has already started and is yielding real results.
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, there are different types of benefit for disabled people, including disability living allowance, which is paid irrespective of whether the claimant is in work or not, as well as income replacement benefits such as employment and support allowance, so a person could receive ESA and DLA or wages and DLA. Around a third of households in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance also receive support for their housing costs.
I have been driven to ask this as an oral question by my being refused a reply to a number of written questions on the grounds that it would cost too much money. I have been able to discover that there are 678,000 housing benefit claimants who are also receiving ESA, so there are at least two thirds of a million disabled people in receipt of housing benefit. In Slough landlords—
We have supported people with discretionary housing payments amounting to £360 million. The authorities are working with credible landlords. We are supporting those people. Perhaps the hon. Lady could not get an answer to her question because she was looking for something that was not there.
Today I welcome the step that we are taking to support those suffering from mesothelioma and their families, which is a vast improvement on previous taxpayer-funded schemes. The Mesothelioma Bill will correct the failings of the insurance industry to keep proper records, speeding up tracing and setting up the scheme whereby insurers will make payments to some 300 people a year who cannot trace their past employers’ insurers. The Bill is a laudable and long-overdue step towards redress for sufferers of this terrible disease and I welcome its Second Reading in the other place.
Seven weeks in, the true devastating consequences of the bedroom tax are becoming clear: claims for discretionary housing payments up 338% in a month, and in Glasgow rising to 5,500, the highest in the entire country. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State has not provided local councils with the resources they need to deal with a crisis of his making?
We have substantially increased the budget for discretionary housing payment, so it is not surprising that there is a rising number of people applying for it. My officials are in regular contact with Scottish local authorities to look at the issues there, as well as in other parts of the country. We have formal evaluation over the next year and two years, and we are monitoring the situation on the ground to see how these reforms are working.
T5. I am proud to have given full-time jobs to two young people who did some short-term work experience in my constituency office. That was work experience, not an internship. What evidence has my hon. Friend that work experience helps people get back into work? (155888)
An evaluation that we published last year shows that young people who have had work experience have a better chance of getting off benefit and into work. I am grateful to everybody, including my hon. Friend, who makes available work experience places to give young people a chance to get out of unemployment and into employment.
No, because the reality is that we have also said that there is three years’ worth of payments—that is the point of the word “discretionary”, by the way. Local authorities can use the money for precisely the kinds of reasons they want, and their observance is to spend it. We keep it under review, as we have said we will do persistently. I cannot understand the point of the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
Let me tell the Secretary of State the point of the question: across the country discretionary housing payment fund money is about to run out. In my home city of Birmingham applications are up five times on last year. That policy means that in places such as the north-east three-bedroom houses are now standing empty because people cannot afford to move in. There are now 53,000 households in our country being put up in temporary accommodation, which is costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. When will he admit the truth: the hated bedroom tax now costs more than it saved? It is time to scrap it, and scrap it for good?
Discretionary housing payments are given to councils, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. They set the scheme up. They can top the money up as they wish—[Interruption.] One moment they want discretionary moneys, and the next they do not. That falls into the pattern for the Opposition. When they were in government they lost control of the housing benefit bill, which doubled, and it was due to rise by another £5 billion. Every time they come to the Dispatch Box and oppose what we are doing, it means another spending commitment. They have gone from old Labour to new Labour and now to welfare Labour.
My hon. Friend will recognise that we have seen a big fall in the number of people who are out of work and a reduction in the number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits. I am confident that our reforms to universal credit will further improve the lives of those who are out of work and those who are on low incomes.
T2. For many, retirement is a welcome liberation from demeaning drudgery. For others, it is an unwelcome end to their useful lives, often leading to ill health. What are the Government doing to ensure more choice in the age of retirement? (155885)
One of the measures we implemented early on, and of which I am proudest, was the abolition of forced retirement. The previous Government talked about it a lot, but we abolished it, so people can no longer be forced out of their jobs simply for turning 65. However, there is much more to do. We are working with employers’ groups on attitudes to older workers to encourage them to retain them and enable them to stay in the work force if they wish to do so.
T7. Ministers will be aware of the long-overdue changes to shared parenting in the current Children and Families Bill. Will they liaise with their hon. Friends in the Department for Education to ensure that non-resident fathers are not deterred from engaging in their children’s lives as much as possible because of welfare changes that might make it difficult for them to secure appropriate accommodation when their children come to stay? (155890)
First, may I welcome the fantastic work my hon. Friend did when he was in that job? He is absolutely right, and I will ensure that we liaise with colleagues and make that argument strongly, but it is one that I think they already bear in mind strongly.
T3. I keep hearing of homeless people having particularly difficult and negative experiences of the Work programme. Crisis has told me of a woman who lives in a hostel and has serious mental health problems, some of which relate to being homeless, yet she was referred to a sub-contractor specialising not in mental health, but in learning difficulties, who was obviously no use to her whatsoever. What will the Secretary of State do to sort out the people who are supposed to be offering services and support that are appropriate to people’s needs and end the failure of his Work programme? (155886)
There are some excellent examples of how the Work programme has worked with people who are homeless and those who have mental health problems. The important thing is to learn from where practice is excellent. We will ensure that that happens and that good practice is shared.
As of today, of the 1,100 Remploy staff who have come forward for help, 351 are in work and about the same number are in training. We are working closely with former Remploy staff to ensure that we get this as good as possible. I will also say that when the previous Government closed 29 factories in 2008, absolutely no support or monitoring was put in place, something that this Government have done and got right.
T8. The Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues have taken a number of questions on Atos and the work capability assessment, and I think that many people listening to these proceedings would consider their answers relaxed to the point of complacency. Does he recognise that people who have intermittent, real problems with working—people with brain damage and with mental health problems—are not being served properly by the work capability assessment? Does he recognise that this is a problem, or not? If he does, what, in practice, is he going to do about it? (155891)
The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that his party in government introduced the work capability assessment, so Labour Members cannot shirk their responsibilities. Since we came into office we have implemented the findings of Professor Harrington, and the fourth independent report is under way. The proportion of people going into support groups has tripled under this Government. That is a consequence of the reforms that we have introduced to fix a system that the previous Government created.
T10. Will the Minister join me in welcoming last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics showing a fourth consecutive quarter of significant growth in the employment of UK nationals? Will he contrast that performance with the performance of the previous Government between 2004 and 20011, when we saw a significant increase in the employment of non-UK nationals in the economy? (155893)
A constituent of mine who lives in Haddington was recently asked to attend a tribunal for her disability living allowance in Glasgow, which, because she had to use public transport, would have meant a round trip of six hours. That is not only unacceptable for her but places a strain on welfare rights in my constituency. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable?
The transition to the personal independence payment is a good thing in theory, but some people are telling me that they are concerned that the threshold for qualification is unacceptably high and they feel unsupported in trying to work out how to make a difficult choice among the variety of suppliers available.
I was not exactly sure where the right hon. Gentleman was going with that question. The PIP was introduced to support the most vulnerable and to make it as easy as possible to do so, and to ensure that people who could not fill in a self-assessment form could see somebody on a one-to-one basis. This is the biggest ever change in welfare. I thank all the people who have helped with it in Jobcentre Pluses, and the stakeholders. Over 1,000 disabled people got involved to make sure that the system was right, and I thank them for making it a good transition to a new benefit.
Many of my constituents rely on the sub-prime lending sector to manage from day to day and to build their credit record. What conversations has the Secretary of State’s Department had with the Financial Conduct Authority in its efforts to improve that sector and to make sure that my constituents get a good service rather than, in some cases, being driven into the hands of illegal moneylenders?
That is a very good question. My noble Friend Lord Freud is conducting those discussions, which are in line with all his discussions with the banking and finance sector in advance of universal credit coming in. The hon. Lady makes a very valuable point, and she is absolutely right. I will ensure that we press people very hard on this.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Department suffered £1.2 billion of fraud losses last year and recovered just under £50 million. Will he look again at the scope for greater data sharing with the private sector, which is often targeted by the same fraudsters, to see whether risk-averse legal advice within the Department is hampering these recoveries?
Yes. When we came into office, the fraud and error in tax credit loan bills stood at some £11.6 billion—money lost by the previous Government. Since then, we have published a new fraud legislative strategy, refreshed in February last year, and we are convicting and punishing more people. There were almost 10,000 convictions for benefit fraud in 2011-12, up more than 40% on 2009-10.
The Secretary of State blithely told us earlier that if the budget given to local councils for discretionary housing payments runs out, they should just top it up. Where exactly does he think they should get the money from to top up their budgets, and, if he is not prepared to accept the failures of the bedroom tax, why does he not at least agree to top up the budgets himself in order to make up for the deficiencies of his own policy?
I have said all along that we will keep this under review and talk to local authorities. The Opposition have not once apologised—they did not do so when in government, either—for the fact that, under them, house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s and that there was more overcrowding. There are 1.5 million spare rooms and 250,000 people live in overcrowded accommodation. There were record levels under the previous Government. Why do they not say sorry for the mess they left housing in?
I know that Ministers want to be on the side of those who work hard to get on, including a constituent of mine—about whom I have written to the employment Minister—who worked hard for many years before undergoing chemotherapy for blood cancer. Two years ago he spent a month between jobs, during which time he chose not to claim benefits, but he has been told by the benefits office that, as a result of this gap in his contribution history, he is not eligible for contributory employment support allowance. Will the Minister meet me so that we can examine this case and try to make sure that rigid bureaucracy does not prevent us from helping people in such situations?
A recent judgment said that homeless people using night shelters are not eligible for any housing benefit payments. Given that night shelters will not be able to continue without an income from their service users, what action is being taken to address this problem?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the conflict in Syria, which continues to worsen.
The Syrian regime’s military offensive against opposition-held areas around Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo is intensifying, with complete disregard for civilian life. The death toll has doubled in the first five months of this year and now stands at an estimated 80,000 people. There have been well-verified reports of massacres around Damascus by regime security forces, and of communities killed in cold blood in villages around Baniyas. Online footage has shown bodies heaped in the streets and children butchered in their homes. Ten thousand people are believed to have fled the area in the panic created by these brutal killings, and last week there were unconfirmed reports of further attacks using chemical weapons.
More than 4 million Syrians are internally displaced and a total of 6.8 million are in desperate need, including 3 million children. It is horrifying to imagine what life must be like for these children, witnessing violence and death on a daily basis, and enduring trauma, malnutrition, disease and shattered education.
This suffering has devastating consequences. It is undoubtedly contributing to a radicalisation in Syria. Syrian people are facing a regime that is using warplanes, helicopters, heavy artillery, tanks, cluster munitions and even ballistic missiles against them, often without them having the means to defend themselves and their communities. The conflict is therefore creating opportunities for extremist groups. Syria is now the No. 1 destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today, including approximately 70 to 100 individuals connected with the United Kingdom.
The conflict is also endangering regional peace and security, with more than 50 people killed in a bombing in Turkey last week, the kidnapping of United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, and cross-border shelling and clashes on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Half a million Syrians have become refugees in the past 10 weeks alone, bringing the total number of refugees to 1.5 million, 75% of whom are women and children. The UN assesses that, on these trends, by the end of this year more than 3.5 million, or 15% of Syria’s total population, will have become refugees in other countries. The Foreign Minister of Jordan has warned that Syrian refugees are likely to make up 40% of his country’s population by the middle of next year, with similar numbers predicted for Lebanon.
One of two scenarios lies ahead for Syria. On the one hand, there could be an ever more savage conflict and military stalemate, producing an even bigger humanitarian disaster, greater radicalisation and deeper sectarian divisions, further massacres, and even the collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of its territory. On the other hand—and this is what we must strive for—there could be a negotiated end to the conflict that ends the bloodshed and leads to a new transitional Government, enabling refugees to return to their homes and extremism to be contained.
All the efforts of the United Kingdom are devoted to bringing about such a political settlement and to saving lives. We have provided more than £12 million in non-lethal assistance, including to the Syrian National Coalition. That includes vehicles with ballistic protection, body armour, trucks and forklifts, solar power generators, water purification kits, equipment to search for survivors in the aftermath of shelling, computers, satellite phones, and office equipment to help people in opposition-held areas.
We have provided human rights training and support to members of Syrian civil society. We have supported human rights investigation teams to collect documentary, photographic and interview evidence of abuses, and trained medical staff to gather forensic evidence of torture and sexual violence. That material is being made available to the UN commission of inquiry and other international investigative bodies so that those involved in human rights violations can be held to account. We therefore welcome the resolution sponsored by Qatar, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 May by 107 votes to 12, urging accountability for human rights violations and progress on a political transition, as well as humanitarian assistance to Syria.
The Prime Minister announced last week that we would double our non-lethal assistance this year to £20 million. That will be used to provide services to the Syrian people, deliver assistance to them on the ground, forge links between different communities and opposition groups, and support better communications.
Our humanitarian funding to date totals £171.1 million. That includes £30 million, which was also announced by the Prime Minister last week, to support people in need in opposition-held and contested areas in Syria. Much of our funding is going to support refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. We have provided food for more than 150,000 people, clean drinking water for more than 900,000 people and more than 280,000 medical consultations for the sick and injured. The Government have worked hard to urge other countries to meet their commitments to the UN humanitarian appeal for $1.5 billion. That is now 71% funded and we will continue to urge other countries to do more.
We are increasing the support that we are providing to Syria’s neighbours. We are providing equipment to the Jordanian armed forces to help them deal with the immediate needs of Syrian refugees at the border and transport them safely to international humanitarian organisations. We have provided funding to the Lebanese armed forces for four border observation towers to help reduce cross-border violence in key areas and to protect and reassure local communities. We are also working with the Syrian National Coalition and key international supporters to develop plans for transition and Syria’s post-conflict needs, building on the conference that we held at Wilton Park in January.
The international focus must above all be on ending the crisis. To that end, we are stepping up our efforts to support the opposition and increase pressure on the regime in order to create the conditions for a political transition. On 20 April, I attended the meeting of the core group of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul, where a new compact was agreed with the Syrian National Coalition. The coalition issued a declaration committing itself to a political solution and transition, promising to guarantee the rights of all Syria’s communities, and rejecting terrorism and extremist ideology. It pledged to preserve the Syrian state, uphold international law, guarantee the safety and security of chemical weapons, and work to keep weapons out of the hands of extremist groups—commitments which I am sure the whole House will welcome. In return, the core group nations agreed to expand support to the coalition and its military council, as the United Kingdom already has done. As I speak, we are working to broaden and unify further the Syrian opposition.
On 8 May in Moscow, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed the basis for a new international conference to bring together representatives of the regime and the opposition. The Prime Minister visited Russia on 10 May for talks with President Putin to cement understanding of the purpose of the conference. He held further talks with President Obama in Washington on 13 May and spoke again to President Putin last Friday. In our view, the conference, which should be held as soon as possible, should focus on agreeing a transitional governing body with full executive powers and formed by mutual consent, building on the agreement that we reached at Geneva last year.
We are urging the regime and the opposition to attend the conference and to take full advantage of the opportunity to negotiate. In the end there will have to be a political and diplomatically supported solution, if there is to be any solution at all. There is no purely military victory available to either side without even greater loss of life, the growth of international terrorism, and grave threats to neighbouring countries.
The Prime Minister and I have both spoken to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon about the conference, and we continue to support Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in his role. I am in constant contact with Secretary Kerry about the preparations. Tomorrow I will travel to Jordan to meet him and other Foreign Ministers of the core group on Wednesday, and on Monday I will go to Brussels for the EU Foreign Affairs Council on this subject. The EU should give strong support to this diplomatic process, including by agreeing further amendments to the arms embargo, without taking any decisions at present to send arms to the Syrian opposition.
The case for further amendments to the EU arms embargo on Syria is compelling, in order to increase the pressure on the regime and give us the flexibility to respond to continued radicalisation and conflict. We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives, rather than the current trajectory of extremism and murder. We have not sent arms to any side during the conflicts of the Arab spring. No decision has been made to go down that route, and if we were to pursue this, it would be under the following conditions: in co-ordination with other nations; in carefully controlled circumstances; and in accordance with our obligations under national and international law. The United Kingdom and France are both strongly of the view that changes to the embargo are not separate from the diplomatic work, but essential to it. We must make it clear that if the regime does not negotiate seriously at the Geneva conference, no option is off the table.
There remains a serious risk that the Assad regime will not negotiate seriously. That is the lesson of the last two years, in which the regime has shown that it is prepared to countenance any level of loss of life in Syria for as long as it hopes it can win militarily. We also have to persuade the opposition to come to the table, recognising how difficult it is for them to enter into negotiations with a regime engaged in butchering thousands of people.
There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime used—and continues to use—chemical weapons. We have physiological samples from inside Syria that have shown the use of sarin, although they do not indicate the scale of that use. Our assessment is that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is very likely to have been by the regime. We have no evidence to date of opposition use. We welcome the UN investigation, which in our view must cover all credible allegations and have access to all relevant sites in Syria. We continue to assist the investigation team and to work with our allies to get more and better information about these allegations.
The United Kingdom holds the presidency of the UN Security Council next month, and we remain in favour of the Security Council putting its full weight behind a transition plan if it can be agreed. All our efforts are directed at ensuring that the coming conference in Geneva has the greatest possible chance of success. We are entering in the coming weeks into a period of the most intense diplomacy yet, to bring together permanent members of the UN Security Council, to attempt to create real negotiations, and to open up the possibility of a political solution. The Prime Minister is fully committed personally to those efforts, and the central role of the Foreign Office over the coming weeks will be to support that process. At the same time, our work to save lives, to help stabilise neighbouring countries, and to support the national coalition inside Syria will continue to be stepped up.
With every week that passes we are coming closer to the collapse of Syria and a regional catastrophe, with the lives of tens of thousands more Syrians at stake. We are determined to make every effort to end the carnage, to minimise the risks to the region, and to protect the security of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House and giving his statement, and for advance sight of that statement. We have all watched events unfold in Syria with increasing horror, yet the whole House has not had the opportunity to discuss the conflict in Syria for some weeks.
Let me begin my questions with the key issue of arming the rebels, which in recent months the Prime Minister has suggested is key to “tipping the balance” and creating peace in Syria. Indeed, in his statement today the Foreign Secretary added: “The case for further amendments to the EU arms embargo on Syria is compelling, in order to increase the pressure on the regime and give us the flexibility to respond to continued radicalisation and conflict. We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives”. This signal should not surprise us. Indeed, in recent weeks, there have been newspaper reports of a confidential document that sets out a range of options that would allow the UK to send lethal support to Syria’s opposition. The Foreign Secretary has again chosen his words carefully today, but I believe that the risk of a decade-long sectarian civil war in Syria, fuelled in part by weapons supplied by the UK, should give him serious pause for thought before embracing that course.
The struggle in Syria today is between forces funded and armed by outside sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Also participating are foreign religious groups that are not directly controlled by their sponsors, namely the Sunni Salafist and Iranian-aligned militias, together with intensely anti-western al-Qaeda fighters. I would therefore be grateful if the Foreign Secretary addressed himself to this point: if, as he states, his priority is a negotiated end to the conflict, is contemplating arming the rebels the crucial question? Surely the crucial question is how to create a sustainable political settlement in a complicated and fractured country. The conflict is so vicious today in part because the stakes are so high for each of the communities involved. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Syria is awash with weaponry? What is his assessment of how much weaponry would be required to tip the balance against Assad, and how, in practical terms, will the Foreign Secretary ensure that weapons supplied do not fall into the arms of al-Qaeda-supporting jihadists?
The choice for the international community is not between sending military support to Syria’s opposition and doing nothing at all. Assad is sustained by external support from Russia and Iran and the foreign cash that allows him still to pay his forces. Will the Foreign Secretary explain why he did not place more emphasis in his statement on the practical steps that could be taken to choke off Assad’s finances and the country’s energy supplies through effective enforcement of sanctions? Any future actions or policies of the UK Government should be adopted only on the basis of their capacity to contribute to a peaceful outcome.
I agree with the Government that they should seize the opportunity afforded by the proposed US-Russia conference to try to end the fighting and prevent the Lebanonisation of Syria. That is exactly the type of engagement with the Russians that the Opposition have urged for many months, as the Foreign Secretary will recollect.
Syria has experienced minority rule for 40 years, so any comprehensive peace settlement for Syria must, by its nature, be inclusive. It would be wrong to underestimate the fear, particularly in the Alawite community, that a change from minority rule to democracy provokes. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore assure the House that that is the approach he will advocate in Jordan tomorrow and in his further discussions ahead of the conference?
In conclusion, we have learnt from recent history that when a country with such a range of religious and ethnic identities emerges from a bloody war, communities are slow to trust one another again. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the Government’s assessment of the scale of post-conflict planning currently under way by the international community? What role are the UK Government playing in facilitating that?
The Opposition strongly support and welcome the Government’s humanitarian funding for the Syrian people, but does the Secretary of State accept that Britain alone cannot take on the burden of upscaling the humanitarian response in Syria in the wake of any peace agreement, which all hon. Members wish to see? It is therefore vital that he delivers on the pledge he made at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting, which he chaired: he said that his immediate priority was
“ensuring that donors who generously pledged their support at the Kuwait conference fulfil their commitments”.
How will he ensure that all those commitments are indeed turned into payments to help to rebuild Syria?
There is common ground between the Government and Opposition on supporting humanitarian efforts to assist the people of Syria; supporting the work of the human rights observers; supporting UN investigations into the use of chemical weapons; and encouraging a diplomatic resolution to this continuing conflict. However, if the Government wish to take the step of arming the rebels, I ask and urge the Foreign Secretary to come back to the House before that decision is made and make the Government’s case to Members on both sides of the House who, along with the President of the United States, continue to have concerns about the wisdom of that proposed course of action.
I am grateful, as always, to the right hon. Gentleman. While there are some differences—I will reply to his questions—there is also a great deal in common across the House. As he knows, I regularly come back to the House whenever there is the slightest variation in the situation, so if there are any developments in the Government’s policy I would certainly seek to do so. He said that we had not had the opportunity to discuss this matter for a while. I must just make the observation that, most unusually, the Opposition chose not to devote any day of the debate on the Queen’s Speech to foreign affairs. We could have discussed Syria and all other issues at great length. That was a mysterious decision and I do not want to speculate on the reasons for it, but the opportunity was there.
There is a lot of agreement on many issues. The right hon. Gentleman asked about humanitarian support. Since the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting, far more countries have supplied the funding they committed to at Kuwait. As I mentioned in my statement, the UN appeal for $1.5 billion is now 71% funded. However, that was an appeal to cover the period from January to June. We have to expect, in the near future, a new UN assessment of the humanitarian aid that will be required, which could be well above the previous appeal of $1.5 billion. This is already the biggest ever UN humanitarian appeal, demonstrating the scale of what we are dealing with. I pay tribute to my colleagues in the Department for International Development—the Minister of State is here—for all their efforts to get other countries to meet their commitments, as we in the UK have.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about post-conflict planning. We have led the way internationally, with the conference earlier this year at Wilton Park. Understandably, many minds in the opposition, and in the regime for that matter, are turned to the conflict rather than post-conflict planning. It would be good if all sides could spend more time on post-conflict planning, but we continue to give advice and discuss the matter with our partners on the Security Council. It may well be that we will hold other events ourselves to ensure that that planning exists.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the need for a political settlement to be inclusive—that is absolutely critical. The compact we made with the National Coalition at our Istanbul meeting includes a clear commitment to a democratic and non-sectarian Syria; a Syria without retribution, other than against those who have committed war crimes; and a Syria in which the institutions of the state are not dismantled. The Syrian National Coalition is concerned to learn lessons from Iraq, where too many institutions of the state were dismantled. On all those points, I think I can entirely satisfy him and be in accord with him.
The right hon. Gentleman was, however, going too far to suggest that there is somehow an alternative policy by which sanctions could be better enforced. The European Union enforces its sanctions tightly, but the House must remember that the EU is alone in the world, as a grouping, in enforcing sanctions. The United States and some of the other Arab states enforce sanctions on Syria, but there are no UN sanctions of that kind, and there are routes around such sanctions over time. It is not within the power of the EU to change that; it is within the power of the UN Security Council, but Russia and China have never supported resolutions on that subject, so that is not an available alternative policy.
I did indeed choose my words carefully on the question of arms. We are seeking amendments to the embargo, not immediately to use those amendments. The discussions we will have in the EU in the coming week, will be very important in making the Geneva negotiations take place, let alone be a success. We need more pressure on the regime. We need more encouragement to the opposition that they will not for ever have to endure, if all negotiations fail and there is no way forward, people—who may be described as rebels, but are men, women and children sitting in their communities—suffering virtually every kind of weapon that man has ever invented being dropped on them while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves. If we come to a choice about that, it is a very important foreign policy and moral choice, which of course should be discussed fully in this House. It is a very important choice indeed. We have to bear it in mind, however, that one of the drivers of radicalisation is the availability of weapons to extremist groups and to the regime, but often not to moderate opposition groups. Of course there are legitimate differences over all such issues, and it would be a very difficult foreign policy choice. We are clear that we need amendments to the arms embargo to take EU policy in the right direction, which is what I will be working for over the coming week.
Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that the business to follow, on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, is also of intense interest to right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, and it is my duty, as best I can, to protect time for debate on it. I therefore issue my usual appeal to Members to offer the House single, short, supplementary questions, without preamble, and to the Foreign Secretary, as ever, to provide us with his pithy replies.
I soberly disagree with the shadow Foreign Secretary in his opposition to military support for the Syrian National Coalition. What incentive does President Assad have to use a forthcoming conference to seek a political solution, when he continues to receive weapons of all descriptions from Russia and Iran? I know that my right hon. Friend has slowly and reluctantly come to the view that military support may be necessary. I strongly commend that conclusion and urge him to do what he can—in the cautious manner I know he will adopt—to ensure that the civilian communities in Syria are protected from the merciless onslaught from the present Syrian Government.
As he has done consistently over a long time, my right hon. and learned Friend argues the case from the other perspective. As I said, this would be an important foreign policy decision and moral choice. We certainly need to apply additional pressure on the regime in order to make for a successful negotiation, because without that pressure the regime might well believe that it can sit tight for much longer yet, even with a collapsing society and economy underneath it. I think he puts the case very well.
I entirely understand the frustration about the situation—we all share it—but if the arms embargo is lifted, is there not a risk that it could just lead to an escalating arms race between the west and Russia and Iran, whose interest in the conflict is as existential as Assad’s?
There are no options here without risks. There are risks with every possible course of action, and of course there is evidence of large flows of weapons into Syria from Russia and Iran taking place now. That is part of what is radicalising some communities in Syria. I do not want to pretend to the House that there is any option without risks. We must do everything to ensure that these negotiations succeed, but we will have to weigh fully the risk of people indefinitely having every weapon devised by man used against them without the means to defend themselves. We will have to weigh the risk of what that might do for the creation of extremist groups and the permanent destabilisation of the entire region. It is a choice between risks.
I cannot give my right hon. Friend a precise percentage—obviously such a thing does not exist—but from everything that can be gathered and ascertained, the great majority of opposition fighters and supporters support the National Coalition or groups affiliated to it. That coalition is committed to a democratic, non-sectarian future for Syria, but the extremist groups are undoubtedly growing in strength. I would argue that one reason for that is that somebody who wants to join an extremist group can get a rifle and training immediately, whereas those who go to support a moderate group cannot. We have to bear that in mind in the debate we have started to have in the House.
The Foreign Secretary does not appear to deny that the provision of lethal aid to the opposition would be a huge thing to do in such a complicated situation as Syria. Is he guaranteeing to the House—because many of us are really worried about this—that he will return here for a decision before that line is crossed?
As I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary, I return to the House whenever there is a major development or change in Government policy. In all my time in government, I have never been one to try to deny the House an opportunity to make a decision about something.
My hon. Friend will understand that negotiations with other EU states about the arms embargo are going on now, and there are different forms of amending it. We will meet as Foreign Ministers in Brussels next Monday to look at those discussions in detail. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are prepared to do that if necessary, but of course we are looking for agreement with other EU member states.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman accepts that his remorseless drive towards British military intervention through supplying arms—because that is what it is—will make the civil war even worse. Having said that, I welcome his commitment to a negotiated solution, although the only way it has a chance of succeeding is by not maintaining the precondition that Assad must go. Of course we all want to see an end to his barbarous rule, but so long as the precondition that he must go is maintained, the conference will never get off the ground.
If is of course our opinion—I suspect it is the opinion of everyone in the House—that Assad should go, but we are not producing any new precondition for the conference or recommending that anybody else should do so. Our starting point for the conference is the outcome of last year’s Geneva conference, which agreed that there should be a transitional Government with full Executive powers formed by mutual consent—that the regime and opposition should each be content with those forming that transitional Government. It would be wrong to retreat from what was agreed last year—that is the only basis for peace and democracy in Syria—and we are not adding any further precondition to that.
Although historical analogies are dangerous, I fear that if we were in 1917 now, the Government would be advocating backing the Russian revolution on the basis that the Mensheviks might come out on top and not the Bolsheviks. Is it not a fact that thousands of al-Qaeda fighters are fighting in order to overthrow Assad? If they get their hands on his chemical weapons stocks, woe betide us in the west.
My hon. Friend is quite right about the importance of extremist groups not getting their hands on chemical weapons stocks. That is one reason for strengthening more moderate groups in Syria, rather than letting the extremists gain greater strength, which is what is happening on the current trajectory. I will not follow him into all his historical analogies, but he will be well aware that Winston Churchill pretty much pursued the policy he was just talking about.
Given the accelerating humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Foreign Secretary will know that Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations are warning not only of the importance of diplomacy, but about the amount of weapons going into the country. Will he give serious consideration to the fact that if the embargo is lifted and more weapons go in, it will be akin to pouring petrol on a fire?
Of course I always take very seriously what is said by Oxfam and other NGOs. We will all have to weigh heavily all the different sides of the argument, but we must bear it in mind that, as things stand, people who have done nothing wrong—except to want dignity for their country and freedom for themselves—are being butchered. We must bear in mind what that does to their political opinions and whether that is acceptable, to us in the western world or to any part of the world. We will have to make our choice about that.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, including those relating to the EU arms embargo. Does he agree that the negotiated political solution that we all want would become less likely if either the murderous Assad regime or the extremist jihadi militants believe that they can defeat those fighting for democracy and win by force and terror alone?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. That is absolutely right, which is why, in everything we are doing to send help into Syria and to deliver humanitarian assistance, we are trying to bolster the more moderate opposition forces with the practical help that we have given so far. Otherwise, it will become a contest between a murdering criminal regime on the one hand and the extremists on the other. That would be the worst situation of all for the world to be left in.
The brutality of the regime is hardly in question, but have not both sides committed terrible war crimes against humanity? Why should the House believe that the sending of arms to the rebels will help to resolve this terrible conflict, rather than escalating it?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, having listened to my statement, I am not asking this country to make that choice at the moment. We are talking about amending the arms embargo. He is quite right to say that crimes have been committed by both sides. He should also know that the military and civilian leadership of the National Coalition have expressed their utter horror at such things, and that they are doing their utmost to ensure that they are not done in their name. We can all understand, in a country with so many different groups fighting in such a disparate way, that extremist groups and others do things that are not within the control of those commanders. The United Kingdom is resolutely against any such crimes and wants the perpetrators to be held to account, whether they are in the Government or the opposition.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has made crystal clear the catastrophic consequences of a failure to deliver a negotiated settlement. I also welcome the recognition of the fact, ugly or otherwise, that the Russians are absolutely central to the process and are now being seriously engaged. Given that both sides in the conflict are increasingly steeped in blood, and that many players on both sides are guilty of war crimes, does my right hon. Friend agree that we might need to be flexible on the question of retribution for such crimes if we are to deliver a settlement that will take Syria out of this wretched crisis?
I hope that such judgments will be a matter for the Syrian people in their own state and through their own judicial system. I know that that seems a long way away today, but I hope that that will be the way forward. It will also be open to a future Syrian Government to refer their own country to the International Criminal Court. These matters must be dealt with through the proper processes and I do not want to speculate about how many people have committed war crimes, but, on the regime side at least, it will be a very large number.
That is partly the purpose of the negotiations. We want the regime and the opposition to engage in serious negotiations about how a transitional Government would work. The National Coalition has set out its commitment to a non-sectarian Syria, which would include the role of the Alawites. We do not have any such vision from the regime, because it has not set out a vision other than one in which President Assad stays in power and negotiations take place only with the tamer elements of the opposition. I hope that the negotiations are sufficiently successful that they get into the matter of the nature of a Syria after transition.
No option is without risk, but given the west’s poor track record of arming groups and individuals—the mujaheddin and Saddam Hussein, for example—and given that certain rebel groups are allying themselves to al-Qaeda, will the Foreign Secretary answer the one question that he has so far failed to answer? How would he prevent the arms that are being poured into the area from getting into the wrong hands?
My hon. Friend is getting ahead of where we have reached in our policy making. We could supply arms only in carefully controlled circumstances, and with very clear commitments from the opposition side. I cannot at this stage go into what arrangements could be made—some of them would necessarily be confidential—but we would want to be able to assure the House and the country that we had confidence in any such arrangements. That is a subject that we might have to return to.
The Foreign Secretary said that he was in constant contact with US Secretary of State John Kerry. As a result of those constant contacts, is he in any position to ascertain exactly the US Administration’s position? Why have they failed to act on President Obama’s so-called red line? Does the US support arming of the rebels or will it consider a no-fly zone?
There is no mystery about the position of the United States. In public as well as in private, the US is driving the initiative put together with Russia on 8 May to have the Geneva conference. Secretary Kerry is therefore working very hard on the diplomatic side of all this work. The US is very sympathetic to any means of putting greater pressure on the regime ahead of the conference, including the European Union matters I have been talking about, while fully recognising that it is for EU states to decide on that. It is the view in America, as it is our view, that it is important for the facts on chemical weapons to be established in the eyes of the world. We have sent our evidence to the UN team, and particularly after what happened in the last decade it is important for our claims about the existence or misuse of weapons to be established, preferably by the United Nations.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the United Arab Emirates regarding its funding of decent facilities and medical care for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and the contribution that it has made to the humanitarian effort to date?
The UAE makes a big contribution. I have had many discussions with the UAE Foreign Minister and will do so again in Jordan this year. It has given substantial assistance—I do not have the figures with me and it does not necessarily publish all the figures—to setting up humanitarian camps, including in Jordan. We encourage it, as we do all other countries, to increase such work.
I suppose that one could ask that question about almost any statement by most opposition groups in many parts of the world, or indeed by many Governments in many parts of the world. It is our view, as Foreign Ministers of the core group, that the Syrian National Coalition is sincere in its commitments, which is based on our knowing the people involved over some months and seeing how the opposition has developed. They know that the commitments are very important to their future success and they have discussed them at great length. They contain and comprise a steadily broadening group of people of different ethnicities, origins and professions. I believe the sincerity of the commitments, but I also believe that the coalition is worried about the growth of extremist groups and knows that support would be lost over time unless it gets enough support from the rest of the world.
Across the middle east, Shi’as are becoming increasingly targeted by Sunni extremists, and it is partly for that reason that Iran is backing the regime and indeed the Alawite community. If the Foreign Secretary is genuinely serious about trying to resolve at an international conference a political and diplomatic-supported solution, will he perhaps entertain the prospect of allowing Iran to contribute to that conference, which is also the wish of Russia?
Iran did not attend the previous conference in Geneva and our baseline or starting assumption—although this is a matter for all the nations involved—is that the next Geneva conference should involve the same group of nations. Of course, that does not exclude creating mechanisms to consult other nations that are not at the conference. Iran has many motives, which are perhaps more complex and substantial than those my hon. Friend mentions, and it certainly plays a major role in bolstering the Assad regime. It was not our view at the time of the previous Geneva conference that Iran’s presence would be conducive to reaching any agreement on anything or any solution at all, and therefore we were not in favour of including Iran at the first Geneva conference. These matters are for discussion with all the nations involved.
The Foreign Secretary gave a rather disappointing answer to the last question. Clearly, if the humanitarian crisis and all the killings are to end, there must be a political solution; and a political solution must involve all the countries, all of which have complex demands and aims, including Iran. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to be much more specific? What contact is he having with the Iranian Government, and what preparations are being made to include them seriously in any conference on the future of Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely entitled to be disappointed with my previous answer, but it was my answer. Let me put it differently. I doubt whether, if Iran had been represented at the Geneva conference last year, we would have reached agreement even on the step of being in favour of a transitional Government formed by mutual consent. At least the permanent members of the Security Council and the other nations present were able to agree on that at last year’s conference, but I am sceptical about whether we would have agreed on it if Iran had been in the room.
If weekend reports are correct, the Russians have beefed up their fleet in the Mediterranean and supplied anti-ship weapons. Does that not mean that they are upping the ante? Has my right hon. Friend any cause for optimism that if the Russians turn up to the next peace conference, they will negotiate in any meaningful manner?
I think that we have to try, although my hon. Friend’s question is entirely valid. Of course we disapprove strongly of continued arms sales to the regime. Those arms are being used by the regime in the present conflict, and there has been the recent announcement about anti-ship missiles. I do not think that that helps in the present circumstances. At the same time, we must work with Russia, which is a partner on the United Nations Security Council. As time has shown, we cannot pass any resolution on this subject without working with Russia. Therefore, rather than expressing optimism or pessimism, I say that we must do our utmost to succeed—to have a successful negotiation—and must create all possible conditions to allow it to be successful. The first of those conditions was agreeing with Russia on holding the negotiation; now we must try to make it a success.
The scale of the suffering outlined in the Foreign Secretary’s statement is truly appalling. May I ask him to say a little more about the evidence of the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and about the impact that that evidence is having on discussions about possible arms supplies to the opposition, both within Europe and with the United States?
As I said in my statement, we have some credible evidence about the use of chemical weapons, particularly sarin; but, as I also said in my statement, that does not give us evidence about the scale of use. There are a number of reports and accounts, and in some cases there is actual physical evidence, of the use of chemical weapons on a small, localised scale, which could easily mean that the regime is testing how the world will react. The use of such weapons is, of course, totally unacceptable on any scale, but, in our view, that is the pattern that is emerging.
What is important now is for the United Nations investigation for which we called, and which is being mounted by the UN, to have access to all the relevant sites, but so far the regime has denied it access. That is a rather telling point in itself. Of course, the regime’s preparedness to use any weapons at all against the people of its own country should affect the debate that we have about how we are to help those people.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his Russian counterpart about the status of the port of Tartus, and about the alleged presence of tens of thousands of Russians in Syria today?
I have had many discussions with my Russian counterpart about all the issues concerning Syria. We are not denying Russia’s relationship with Syria in any way. Indeed, we think that whatever that relationship is, it would be best preserved by a peace settlement in Syria, and we are happy for Russia to take the credit for that if it plays a constructive and leading role. We are not saying that Russia is not entitled to be in Syria, and we are not calling on any future Government of Syria not to allow any Russian presence or port facilities. While my hon. Friend is quite right to refer to the issue, it does not constitute an obstacle to our efforts to work with Russia on a negotiated settlement.
The Secretary of State told us that evidence has already been gathered of crimes of sexual violence. How will his preventing sexual violence initiative ensure that those guilty of those vile crimes are brought to justice, and what expertise is there in the PSVI in order to support children to access justice?
I am grateful for that question. The hon. Lady knows that one of the first deployments of a team of experts on preventing sexual violence has been to the Syrian borders, in order to gather evidence about these crimes, and to make it easier for others to do so. It is the gathering of evidence that is always very difficult in these situations. I anticipate that there will be many further deployments throughout this year, including to the Syrian border. That expertise also helps to address issues of violence against children, which is all too common. I will keep the House regularly updated on this.
I have listened very carefully to what the Foreign Secretary has said, and I shall try to throw him another lifeline regarding Iran. Given that Iran is supplying arms, money, men and intelligence, does he agree that the elections in Iran in four weeks’ time, after which Mr Ahmadinejad will no longer be in place, may present an opportunity for us to press the reset button in our relations with Iran?
I will give very short answers from now on, following your injunction, Mr Speaker. We must always have hope about elections in other countries, but I am not over-optimistic, let us say, about a major change on this issue, although we are open, of course, to an improvement in our relations with Iran in the right circumstances.
The opposition in Syria is clearly already being supplied with, and is obtaining, arms from outside the country, which implies that to make a difference in the balance between the opposition and the regime there will have to be a qualitative and quantitative increase, or change, in the type of supplies being provided to them from outside. Does that not run the risk of creating the very spiral of violence and further aggression and conflict about which those on both sides of this House are clearly so concerned?