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Commons Chamber

Volume 570: debated on Monday 18 November 2013

House of Commons

Monday 18 November 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Independent Living Fund

I declare an interest, in that my brother is enabled to live independently in his own community by the ILF, and I am extremely grateful that that opportunity is afforded to him. Will the Minister assure the House that when the Government come to consider their future plans, there will be full consultation this time with disabled people and disability groups in Wales, the regions of England, and Scotland, and specifically with the Welsh Government?

I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman, but the conclusions of the Court of Appeal were nothing to do with consultation. It was a process issue, in that the Court felt that the Minister had not been given enough information, based on the information that was put in writing. The Court went on to say that there was evidence that the Minister

“consulted personally with many affected groups”

and it had

“no doubt that evidence of hard cases would have been forcefully drawn to her attention.”

That is what the Court ruled. It had nothing to do with consultation.

The Department for Work and Pensions annual report was due to be published in April this year. When will we finally see it?

With due respect, the Court ruling did not have an awful lot to do with that so I cannot answer the question. The annual report will come out in due course.

The Minister of State has the advantage in this case of being right. It was rather a cheeky inquiry by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), even by his own standards.

Employment and Support Allowance (Kettering)

2. How many people in Kettering constituency claim ESA; how many such claimants have had their claim turned down in the last year; and how many are appealing that decision to the first tier tribunal. (901069)

In Kettering 4,400 claims started between October 2008 and February 2013. Of those assessed, 49% were deemed fit for work. Appeals data, I fully accept, are running very slow, especially in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which he has been campaigning hard for. We will be looking to recruit more judges as we go forward.

Benefit appellants in the Kettering constituency are being told that they now have to wait up to 40 weeks for a first-tier tribunal hearing. This is more than twice the national average and is completely unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend speak with his counterpart in the Ministry of Justice and get the situation sorted out?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning hard on behalf of his constituents and we have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice, which is why I can announce that there were six sessions per month in June 2012 and there are now 18 sessions per month, a 300% increase, and we intend to do better.

People in Kettering and claimants elsewhere might be able to get a quicker resolution of their cases if the testing of the new descriptors for mental health and fluctuating conditions were brought to an end. It is more than two years since Professor Harrington suggested action. When will we see the results?

I am sure that in the hon. Lady’s constituency as well as in Kettering, we are working very hard to bring down the time it takes, particularly in the tribunals. We have been working closely on the area of mental health, and we will continue to work to make sure that everybody gets a fair deal from the process.

Full and Part-time Employment

Three in every four people work full-time, and full-time work accounts for all of the significant rise in employment over the last year.

The Minister has done exactly what I hoped she would do, which is to deal with the fact that whereas the Leader of the Opposition in 2010 said that the Government’s policy would lose a million jobs, my understanding is that since the election there have been more than a million new jobs, and this year more than a quarter of a million new jobs. Will the Minister put it clearly on the record that these new jobs are not all part-time jobs, that there has been a significant growth in full-time employment and that that is predicted to continue?

My right hon. Friend is correct. It is good news that UK business is creating so many new jobs. Since the 2010 election we have seen a rise of nearly 800,000 in the number of full-time jobs and of more than 300,000 in the number of part-time jobs.

With many people in my constituency, particularly women, doing a number of part-time jobs to make up an income, the knock-on consequence is that many of them do not pay national insurance and are therefore not building contributions to their pension. What is the Minister doing about this long-term consequence of too much part-time employment?

The family will accrue credit if they have family responsibilities. That is a very positive step that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has taken. We can all welcome the fact that more than a million people are now in work, and more than 210,000 more women are in work this year alone.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating New College Telford, Telford college of arts and technology and Harper Adams university on providing the skills and training throughout Shropshire to ensure that unemployment continues to fall as it has done month on month for the last seven months?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in celebrating this positive news. What is happening in his constituency is also happening in every constituency throughout the country. This is positive news that we can all celebrate.

Has a comparative assessment been made of former Remploy employees who find themselves in part-time or full-time work, and if so, will the Minister publish those findings?

I and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will be publishing those findings. We have had significant success with Remploy employees. They have gained jobs at a faster rate than others who have been made redundant, and the work of the local Jobcentre Plus has been exceptional.

Benefit Cap (Employment Outcomes)

Recent poll findings show that of those notified or aware that they would be affected by the cap, three in 10 took action to find work. To date, almost 36,000 have accepted help to move into work from Jobcentre Plus and around 18,000 potentially capped claimants have moved into work.

Jobcentre Plus in Dorset worked extremely hard to identify those affected and to get them into employment. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of that on the recent encouraging employment figures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I give credit to Jobcentre Plus for the action that it took, which sometimes goes unnoticed, when it knew that this policy was coming in. From April 2012, it wrote to potentially affected people with advance warning. It set up a helpline on the benefit cap and an online calculator so that they could work out some of the figures themselves. It then telephoned some of the most vulnerable, and visited them as well. It set up funding for intensive employment support and worked with local authorities to support claimants in budgeting, housing and child care, and big employment events. This is one of major reasons why about 61% of those who moved into work did so after they were notified.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this, and I assure him that in an area such as mine, which includes the ward with the highest level of child poverty in the south-east region, my constituents welcome the fact that we really are trying to encourage people who have been far too long on benefits to look for options to work. The news that he has just announced is what is needed.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The reality is that of more than 19,000 householders capped in mid-September 2013, 60% were lone parents and 78% were capped by £100 or less a week. This is a system that is returning fairness to the whole programme. The Opposition opposed the cap, and it is worth remembering that even though the trade union leaders opposed it, 80% of Unite members support our policy on welfare reform, as I discovered from a poll the other day.

Youth Contract Wage Incentives

6. What progress he has made on delivering his target of 160,000 Youth Contract wage incentives by April 2015; and if he will make a statement. (901073)

13. What progress he has made on delivering his target of 160,000 Youth Contract wage incentives by April 2015; and if he will make a statement. (901080)

There were more than 21,000 wage incentive job starts up to May 2013. The next wage incentive statistics are due to be released early in the new year.

As the Secretary of State is well aware, in the first 14 months of this programme his Department delivered less than 3% of what he promised. Together with the appalling underperformance of the Work programme, and with Ministers and civil servants at each other’s throats over the chaotic introduction of universal credit, is this not yet another example of how this Secretary of State promises much but delivers little?

I am quite sure that what the hon. Gentleman was reading out was a piece of fiction and I would like to give him the correct figures. The Youth Contract is made up of many component parts. One is wage incentives, and there is a wage incentive for apprenticeships, and another is for work experience. Of the 113,000 people who went on work experience, 50% have a job, and 21,000 have wage incentives, and that figure is rising by 4,000 a month. Youth unemployment has fallen for 17 consecutive months. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, it has fallen 35% in the last year. Perhaps he wants to congratulate us on that.

I do not congratulate the Government on the level of youth unemployment in my constituency; there are 900 unemployed young people in my constituency and almost 1 million nationally. The system of wage incentives is clearly not working, because the numbers are appallingly low for constituencies such as mine. Is not it time that Ministers stopped being in denial and started doing something radical to help young people back to work?

I would just like to mention Labour’s record: a 40% increase in youth unemployment. What we have done, as I have said, has seen youth unemployment fall for 17 consecutive months. It is now lower than it was at the general election.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that since the Youth Contract was launched in April 2012 youth unemployment has fallen by more than 59,000 and that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has been dropping for 17 consecutive months?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Just so that we can hear it again, even though I have said it twice and he has said it once, youth unemployment has fallen for 17 consecutive months.

Will the Minister tell the House how the Youth Contract performs in terms of value for money and effectiveness compared with the future jobs fund?

The future jobs fund cost £6,500 per outcome, whereas our work experience outcomes cost £325, which is a 20th of the price for exactly the same outcomes. As always, the coalition Government are delivering value for money.

After more than two years of the Work programme and 18 months of the embarrassing flop of Youth Contract wage incentives, youth unemployment is still nearly 1 million, higher than it was at the general election and higher than when the Work programme began. That is terrible not only for young people, but for the future of the economy. When will Ministers finally get serious about that and back a proper youth jobs guarantee?

Obviously the Opposition like to rewrite history. The 40% increase in youth unemployment that we saw over their years in office was shocking, particularly given that it was during a boom period. We are dealing with the issue most practically. The Youth Contract has been, is and will be a huge success, with wage contracts increasing from a slow start of 1,000 a month to 4,000-plus a month.

Pension Charges

As my hon. Friend knows, we are consulting on whether there should be cap on charges in workplace pensions and, if so, what costs it should cover. Without pre-empting the consultation, he can be assured that our presumption would be in favour of a broad definition of charges for those purposes.

I thank the pensions Minister for that answer and congratulate him on his consultation on introducing a cap that is 50% of the level of the cap for stakeholder pensions introduced when the Opposition were in government. That is a step forward. A further step forward across the whole industry would be to have better comparability and transparency of charges generally. We have acted to do that for energy companies by simplifying charge structures. Will we consider doing that for pensions?

I thank my hon. Friend for being the only Member who managed to get a pensions question on today’s Order Paper. [Interruption.] I will make the most of it. He is quite right that the Office of Fair Trading identified 18 different sorts of charges, which are often baffling and hidden. One of its recommendations was that the committees that oversee pensions should be given transparent information about charges, and that is a recommendation we will be looking to take forward.

Over the last generation the net size of employment units has shrunk as a function of technology and changes in society. That has meant smaller pension schemes that in net terms require a greater management effort to run them. What will the Minister do to try to bring together some of the smaller schemes to get better value for money overall?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In fact, consolidation is happening; the number of medium-sized schemes has declined quite significantly in the past few years. The quality standards that we will be putting in place will mean that running a small, substandard, sub-scale scheme will not be an option, so we anticipate that there will be much more consolidation. Together with the National Employment Savings Trust, the Government’s own scheme which already has over 500,000 members, we are moving towards better value for money.

Tonight on Channel 4, the Minister will accuse big pension companies of making excess profits at the expense of those who have worked hard and saved all their lives. “Dispatches” will claim that many savers are losing up to £10,000 per year every year in their retirement as the companies make excess profits, yet the Pensions Bill that the Minister has just taken through the Commons does precisely nothing to tackle rip-offs in annuities. When will he get a grip on the annuities market and end these rip-offs?

I make no apology for defending consumers against an abuse that has gone on for far too long, with people buying annuities where they will get their money back only if they live until they are 90 or beyond. The Financial Conduct Authority, which was created only about six months ago, has already reported on annuities and will bring forward further proposals. We are working with our colleagues at the Treasury who lead on these matters to make sure that this issue, which has gone long unaddressed by successive Governments, is finally tackled.

Universal Credit (Lone Parents)

Universal credit fundamentally simplifies support for working lone parents and our analysis shows that UC will create positive work incentives for lone parents.

But does the Minister not accept that research for Gingerbread shows that two in every five lone parents will lose out in cash terms under universal credit, with lone parents in work fighting an uphill battle to make work pay beyond 20 hours a week? Are not this Government not only botching the introduction of universal credit but breaching the Secretary of State’s pledge that UC would make sure that work paid for each and every hour that people work?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the Gingerbread report, which I have here. It says:

“Universal credit increases the financial pay off from working of single parents”.

Does the Minister agree that regardless of any particular problems that might be thrown up by the introduction of universal credit, one of the biggest problems with the welfare system is that it is far too complex, which leads to all sorts of mistakes being made, and that regardless of the teething problems we must press ahead with universal credit?

My hon. Friend is quite right. At the moment, people have to go to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for their tax credits, to the local authority for their housing benefit, and to the Department for Work and Pensions for their jobseeker’s allowance. Having all this in a single system will improve take-up, and that is one of the things that the Gingerbread report did not factor in.

The Gingerbread report does, though, warn that working single parents are likely to lose a higher proportion of their income than other household types. Why does the Minister think that the children of lone parents should lose out?

As I say, the report makes some assumptions that it accepts are not true. One of its assumptions is that there is no impact on take-up; it assumes 100% take-up before and after. We know that that is not true—that take-up is partial—and rolling all three benefits into one will improve take-up for the benefit of the children of lone parents.

The introduction of new IT systems can be challenging for business as well as for Government Departments. What lessons have been learned from the mistakes of others as regards the introduction of the new universal credit and its new IT system?

As my hon. Friend knows, the litany of failed IT systems under the Labour Government would fill the remainder of this Question Time. One of the key things that is often forgotten is that every day this Department pays pensions and benefits seamlessly to millions of people. All the IT projects that are developed without delay and without hiccup never make it on to the front page of the newspapers.

Free school meals offer vital support to many lone parents in my constituency. When does the Minister plan to set out the eligibility criteria for free school meals under universal credit?

The broad intent is to mirror, as far as possible, the current rules. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for stressing the importance of free school meals. She will therefore welcome the coalition’s decision to extend access to free school meals to all infant school children.

Work Programme

9. When he estimates the Work programme will provide the same number of job outcomes as the flexible new deal. (901076)

The flexible new deal ran for two years from October 2009 to the end of September 2011, by which time 50,000 people achieved a six-month job outcome. By August 2012, after only one year and two months, 47,000 people achieved a six-month job outcome through the Work programme. Only one month later —in September 2012, after one year and three months—63,000 people were in a job. Simply put, the Work programme is outperforming the flexible new deal.

It is not so much a work programme, as a Government do not work programme. Whatever the Minister says, the figures she commissioned from a private company state that the flexible new deal created more jobs over a limited period than the Work programme.

I think I set out plainly how many jobs the flexible new deal did not create. To date, 117,000 people have achieved six-month outcomes through the Work programme, so it is working. I am pleased to note that in the Vale of Clwyd the level of jobseekers is at 3.6%, the lowest it has been since November 2008. We must be getting something right.

The Work programme is failing disabled people badly, with only 5.8% getting into work—worse than if there was no programme at all. Meanwhile, specialist disability charities are complaining that they are getting only a handful of referrals. The employment and support allowance is costing the public purse £1.4 billion per year. When will the Minister get a grip on this failing programme, so that disabled people can receive the expert support they need to get them into work?

I have just had a successful meeting with the Shaw Trust. Its latest report calls for the Work programme to be refined, not redone. The Work programme is working, but we need to make it better. The Opposition left 1.4 million people without support or help, and those people are being helped for the first time. Although it is tough, we have got significant numbers into work.


In the short time I have been the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, I have had the pleasure of meeting the all-party group and victim support group representatives to discuss the Mesothelioma Bill currently before Parliament.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward this much-needed Bill. Does he agree that thousands of working-class people have been killed through being negligently exposed to asbestos in the workplace and that their families have been denied financial security, while the insurance industry has got off with almost £1 billion in unpaid compensation payments? I urge him to reject the proposals from the House of Lords for the insurance industry to be responsible for 75% of compensations payments only, and to make them pay the full 100%. Let the vultures in the insurance industry pay.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on campaigning on behalf of his constituents and others. People have been suffering from this abhorrent disease for many years. The issue was discussed extensively in the House of Lords and will be discussed extensively in this place. Our discussions will not be quite as extensive, so that we can pass the Bill and the people who need it may receive compensation. Governments—I stress Governments—have turned their back on these people. We are not going to do that.

Universal Credit

Within the time scales set out, our priority is to deliver universal credit safely and securely, and we will set out our plans in more detail in a couple of weeks.

Why did the Secretary of State tell the House last month that his plans for universal credit were on track?

As I said in my earlier answer, I ordered a reset so that we do not have difficulties when we start to roll out the scheme. We have rolled out the pathfinder already. It is important to note that there have been at least six sites from October, and there will be many more around the country when we expand that. As I said, I will make clear to the House the plan and programme for the full roll-out, all the way through to complete delivery, in detail in the next couple of weeks.

The Public Accounts Committee found that leadership of the universal credit programme was hapless. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is responsible for that blunder?

I already take full responsibility for everything that goes on in my Department. I have to say that I take responsibility for making sure that universal credit as originally planned was stopped and reset. Before anybody was affected, we made absolutely sure that when we roll it out, as we have begun and will continue to do, it will deliver maximum benefits of more than £38 billion to the public.

I take no lessons from the Opposition, who spent years rolling out programmes regardless of how they affected people—a disaster on IT for tax credits and a disaster on the health service. A little bit of humble pie on their part might not be a bad thing.

The pathfinder mentioned by the Secretary of State was meant to include 10 separate Jobcentre Plus areas by October this year, but only one has come on line, in addition to those already in place, so there has been a further slowing down of the roll-out of universal credit. Indeed, the ones assessed have been the very simplest cases. When will the Department deliver on its original timetable, far less on any speeded-up timetable?

As I said to the hon. Lady when I appeared in front of her Committee in July, we have been very clear that we would roll out universal credit on the plan and programme already set out. The pathfinders are on track. Those before Christmas and those after Christmas are on track—[Interruption.] Yes they are. It is not just the pathfinder centres; we already have a huge amount of change. We are putting 6,000 new computers into jobcentres to be ready for universal credit, and we are training 25,000 jobcentre staff to ensure that they are ready for its delivery. We are on track to make sure that universal credit—the bit that follows next—can use those pathfinders to deliver a universal credit programme that works, unlike so many of the programmes that the previous Government used.

Dear, dear, dear. [Interruption.] No, the report does not say that; I can tell you what it does say. It says that, precisely in the Government’s timetable, from October 2013

“All new claims for out-of-work support are treated as claims to Universal Credit.”

That has not happened, has it? The Secretary of State is not on time, he is not on budget, and it looks as if he is going to lose £140 million. The first step to recovery is owning up that you are sick. You are not on time, you are not on budget—are you?

Mr Speaker, you are not only on time, but you are always on budget.

That was a lot of sound and fury from the hon. Gentleman, signifying absolutely nothing. The reality is, as I have said quite categorically and publicly, the report could be written because of the actions I took over a year ago to ensure that universal credit will roll out and deliver exactly as we said it would. The hon. Gentleman served for I do not know how many years in a Government who allowed all these other programmes to fail, but not one person will be adversely affected by the change we have made. Universal credit will deliver maximum benefits to the British public, and the Opposition will remain out of government, because they have not a single clue.

Benefit Payments (Post Office)

12. What plans he has to introduce the payment of pensions and benefits and begin accepting applications for universal credit through the Post Office. (901079)

I assure my hon. Friend that all Department for Work and Pensions benefits and entitlements, including universal credit, are normally paid by direct payment into a mainstream bank account, the vast majority of which can now be accessed over the counter at post office branches.

Millions of people have chosen to collect their pensions and benefits at a post office through a Post Office card account, but the contract is due to expire in 16 months’ time. Will the Government end the uncertainty and announce that POCA will continue after April 2015 with, I hope, improved banking facilities?

We are in active discussions with Post Office Ltd and our colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Indeed, I am meeting ministerial colleagues later this afternoon to discuss that issue. I can assure my hon. Friend that I share his commitment to the post office network.

How long does the Minister anticipate that post offices will have to wait before they are in a position to take applications for universal credit?

Just to be clear, people can receive universal credit into an account accessible at a post office already. Universal credit obviously has an online application process, so if there is access to the internet at local post offices, that can be done already.

Youth Employment

The Government are not only creating job opportunities. In the last quarter, youth employment was up by 50,000. That shows that our approach is working. We are providing young people with the support that is needed, including work experience and apprenticeships.

North Hertfordshire college in Stevenage has developed a range of learning companies in which students work while they gain their qualifications. We have seen an increase in the number of job offers for students who are learning in that way. Does the Minister agree that learning companies offer opportunities for young people, in partnership with local employers?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. If people come together to create opportunities that turn into jobs, that is welcomed by the Department. We are leading the way and have put down a strategy that enables people to work in partnership.

Does the Minister recognise that her response to that question sounded a bit complacent? Will she consider how we can build a better relationship among employers and further education colleges, schools and universities? Is it not time that she spoke to her colleagues in the Department for Education and brought a careers service back into our schools?

If I gave the impression of being complacent, I am sorry, but I am certainly not. I know the size of the job that the Government have to do to help all the youth out there. We are doing that job and will continue to do it as best we can. We do talk to other Departments. There is a duty on head teachers to provide careers guidance in their schools. We have a National Careers Service at Jobcentre Plus. We can work with schools to ensure that children have the best careers advice.

17. In my constituency, youth unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since before the last election. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent partnership in my constituency between MidKent college and ActivKids, which improves the job prospects of young people? (901084)

I join my hon. Friend in celebrating that success. I know that it is something in which he takes much interest and that he has helped greatly. I hope to hear many more stories like that from across the UK.

Jobseekers (Support)

Conditionality measures were announced in the spending review to increase the support for jobseeker’s allowance claimants. Claimants will be asked to write a CV and register with universal jobmatch. Longer initial interviews, weekly signing and quarterly reviews with our advisers will provide more intensive support for claimants.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will she reassure me that that conditionality will involve remedying deficiencies in what is often called work readiness, as well as focusing on the overall number of jobs for which a claimant applies each week?

My hon. Friend is quite right that work readiness skills are key and that it is not only the number of jobs for which somebody applies that matters. Through the claimant conditionality and the longer intensive interview when a claim is made, the people at Jobcentre Plus will find out what skills the claimant needs and support them.

The Minister will know that Deloitte is selling its interest in the Work programme. Why does she think investors are pulling out of the scheme?

Investors are not pulling out of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that Deloitte is not working with Ingeus any more. Ingeus is one of the top performing Work programme primes. We expected to see movement in the industry. Deloitte came in and supported Ingeus as best it could, and now it is exiting, as happens when any businesses come together. As I said, the Work programme is working. The figures are going up, which is something that the Labour party could not achieve.

Not only is the number of jobseekers falling, but the number of economically inactive people of working age has fallen by more than 400,000 under this Government to a level that has not been seen for more than two decades. Does the Minister agree that when people are returning to the labour market after a long period outside it, new jobseekers need support to prevent them from becoming long-term unemployed themselves?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us look again at Labour’s record. It left 5 million people unemployed and claiming. We have taken the number of people who are claiming the three main benefits down by more than 500,000 since coming to power. Instead of criticising what we are doing, all Members should take pride in the fact that 1 million more people have jobs.

Employment and Support Allowance

21. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Work programme for people already claiming employment and support allowance. (901088)

Work programme provider performance is helping people on ESA move towards work, and to continue that improvement we are setting up a best practice group to help other primes share best practice.

Last Wednesday, I spoke at a conference entitled, “Newcastle: a good city in tough times”, where faith, volunteer groups, charities and business all emphasised the importance of volunteering and the voluntary sector in helping claimants into work, yet the Department for Work and Pensions is making it harder to volunteer, through sanctioning, and squeezing the voluntary sector out of Work programme contracts. That is one reason that Newcastle’s success rate for ESA claimants is only 2%. What is the Department doing to encourage volunteers and the voluntary sector to help build the community skills we need to get people back into work?

Of course, we fully support people doing voluntary work, so long as they can commit to their job signing and the work they have to do to get a full-time job. We see voluntary work as an important step to getting a job, and nearly 50% of Work programme providers are from the voluntary sector. Also, I am sure the hon. Lady will join us in celebrating the fact that the claimant count in her constituency has fallen by 13% in the past year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Work programme and other measures have seen the number of people unemployed in Harlow fall by 100 over the past year and that other Government measures have seen the number of apprenticeships increase by 86%? Does this not show that the Government are helping working people?

Absolutely. Not only are we helping people through the Work programme, wage incentives and record numbers of apprenticeships—half a million in the last year—but the Government are doing everything to support people, young and old, back into the workplace.

Working-age Benefits

22. How many people in (a) Stafford and (b) England were receiving the major working-age benefits in April (i) 2010 and (ii) 2013. (901089)

In May 2013, the number of people claiming working-age benefits in England was down to 4,645,040 from 4,807,940 in 2010—a fall of 162,900. In Stafford, the number was down to 8,070 from 8,690 in 2010—a fall of 620.

The figures suggest that the number of people on major out-of-work benefits has fallen substantially since May 2010. In addition to the great benefit to former claimants of being back in work, will the Minister estimate the saving to the taxpayer?

My hon. Friend is right. The figures suggest that out-of-work welfare dependency has been reduced by nearly 10%, which of course is very encouraging. Furthermore, in the past 12 months, the change in the number of JSA claimants has saved £1 billion.

Care Leavers

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s work on the all-party group on financial education for young people. Last month, we launched the cross-departmental care leavers strategy, brokered through the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice, to ensure that for the first time pooled resources from education, employment, health, housing and justice will be tailored to the challenge facing a group of young people for too long left to struggle alone.

Does the Secretary of State agree that equipping young people in general and care leavers in particular to manage their own finances well is a vital tool? What are the Government doing to address this matter, as recommended by the report of the all-party group on financial education for young people?

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend, because we will definitely be considering this next recommendation of hers. I have listened and read her suggestions, and we have actually managed to alter the new curriculum. The final version will now state that

“the functions and uses of money, the importance and practice of budgeting, and managing risk…income and expenditure, credit and debt, insurance, savings and pensions, financial products and services”

will be taught as part of the curriculum for the first time.

Medical Services Reports

25. What steps he is taking to improve the quality of medical services reports on claimants of benefits. (901092)

This Government take the quality of assessments very seriously. That is why, before I became the Minister, when the Government saw a drop in the quality of work capability assessments, Atos was instructed to implement an improvement plan to ensure that assessment reports meet the high standards that the Department needs. That plan is now complete.

My constituent Mr Robert Shafer suffered an injustice as a result of a rogue medical services report from many years ago. Will the Minister undertake to take further steps to improve the quality of medical services reports, and arrange a reply to my latest letter to the Secretary of State, to which a response is overdue, on behalf of my constituent?

On the latter point, not only will I ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the letter he requires, but if he wants to meet me, I will be more than happy to do that. The Department has commissioned four independent reviews. We know we need to get there; we know we need to do more. We have made changes to help cancer patients and are carrying out an evidence-based review of criteria, which is being overseen by Professor Harrington. I expect to see that report quite soon.

My constituent Matthew Moore, who has a severe mental health condition, was told that he no longer qualified for employment and support allowance. He appealed and months later saw the decision in his case overturned in a few minutes. The tribunal chair said that he was shocked that ESA had been withdrawn in the first place and had no hesitation in awarding 30 points. Is that not yet another example of the incompetence of the many people paid to carry out assessments of some of our most vulnerable people, and of why the Government need to get their act together, have some compassion and ensure that such people are treated fairly?

Individual cases are understandably quite emotional for individual MPs and their constituents. If the decision in that case was overturned, we will look carefully at what the tribunal said. We need to do that to ensure we get it right. However, this process was started by the previous Administration—it is nothing new for this Government—but we will get it right where, I am afraid, they got it wrong.

Topical Questions

Today I welcome the latest labour market statistics. We have seen the largest annual drop in the claimant count for 15 years. Almost every area in Britain has seen the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance fall over the last year, contributing to a total fall in worklessness of more than 500,000 since 2010, while there are now more than 1 million more in work. All this is a testament, I believe, to this Government’s success in getting Britain working again.

Few would disagree that careers advice in schools needs improvement. Given that unemployment is now down to 2.6% in my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that Jobcentre Plus is well placed—it has the resources and the local knowledge —to deliver part of that improvement, preferably in conjunction with local employers?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his area on having an unemployment rate of 2.6%, which is testimony to the efforts this Government are making. Schools obviously have a legal duty to secure independent careers guidance for their pupils, and employers have to work with them, but it is also a fact that Jobcentre Plus has a careers guidance programme. We are now in talks with the schools to ensure that somehow we can connect would-be school leavers, long before they leave school, with companies and businesses, to tell them exactly what they need to have and what skills they will need to obtain.

This weekend it was reported that Atos had pulled out of a DWP contract providing specialist disability advice. What was the Department’s response? An internal memo instructing staff deciding whether people are disabled enough to receive disability living allowance to “google it”. Is this not the biggest indication yet of the sheer contempt in which the Department for Work and Pensions holds disabled people?

The hon. Lady is completely wrong. First of all, it was not an internal memo; it was guidance that goes out to the Department in the normal way. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) needs to keep quiet for a while and listen a bit more. This man has travelled so far in his political career that we never know what he is talking about. He has gone from being a Tory to being a Blairite and then a Brownite, and now he is a socialist on his website, so I wonder whether he needs to keep quiet and listen a little more.

The answer to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) is that Atos Healthcare has not withdrawn from the contract. Normal procedures to update guidance in the process of DLA reform are going through. Under DLA, only 6% had face-to-face assessments; the majority have face-to-face assessments now, under the personal independence payment. Therefore, decision makers have much more objective information than they ever had before, so there is no change to the quality of the service. This is a simple contract adjustment to reflect and meet the corresponding business needs. The hon. Lady should really not listen to jobbing journalists who come to her to tell her they have an issue.

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State has even bothered to read the memo from his own Department. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because of the failure of his Department to deliver the reform, the personal independence payment is going out only to a third of country. After the chaos of the universal credit, the work capability assessment, the PIP, the Work programme and the Youth Contract, DLA is now in chaos as well. Is there any part of the Department for Work and Pensions that is actually working?

The thing that is wonderful about the hon. Lady is that she never listens; she just reads what is on her script that she prepared before, and it does not matter what question was answered. I have already told her—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda should keep quiet; otherwise he will jump out of his underpants if he carries on like that—

Order. These occasions are becoming deeply disorderly. A question has been put, and the Secretary of State is answering it. The House must hear the answer with all due courtesy and orderliness.

The first answer is that the hon. Member for Rhondda should keep quiet for longer. The real answer to the question on PIP is that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. As with every other programme, we are controlling the roll-out to ensure that it meets all our needs. There is nothing for the hon. Lady to concern herself about. This is working and it will work all the way through next year, exactly as planned. The truth is that the hon. Lady raises these questions because she does not want to come back to last week’s failed Opposition day debate, when her argument was so powerful that 47 Labour Members—including the shadow Chancellor, who I gather is a “nightmare”—decided to abstain.

T4. Will the Government use the Post Office to allow people without internet access to submit applications for universal credit and to give help with the application? Post offices are in the heart of communities, and for many of my constituents, this would avoid a long journey to the nearest jobcentre. (901136)

May I say to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what we want to do? We want to make sure that those claiming universal credit can claim it in a number of different places—for example, we are setting up the facility to claim in libraries, in local government offices and also in jobcentres. We will work and are working with post offices to ensure that if people need to make claims from them, particularly in very rural constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, that facility will be made available as well.

T2. Last month, the Secretary of State tried to tell me that lots of people were using food banks simply because they were available and it made sense to do so—adding insult to injury for the many thousands of people who are being forced to use food banks and have been referred to them by agencies because they are recognised as being in desperate need. Has the Secretary of State seen the research commissioned by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into the rise of emergency food aid? Why has this been shelved? Is it because it reveals that the Government are at fault for people not being able to feed themselves and their families? (901134)

We have not shelved anything, and I have to tell the hon. Lady that she needs a few facts to be put on the table. First, during a time of growth under the Labour Government—[Interruption.] Labour Members really hate to be reminded that they were in government once and that the reason why they are no longer in government is that their incompetence was so phenomenal that even at a time of growth, people ended up claiming food parcels. If we look back, we see that under the last Government the number claiming rose by 10 times. More importantly, let me inform the House of an international comparison. In the UK at the moment, some 60,000 or so are food bank users. In Germany, which has a much higher level of welfare payment, 6 million people use food banks—one in 12, which is many more, and it is the same in Canada. The hon. Lady should not always read everything she reads, particularly when it is her lot that write it.

T5. A recent report by the Office of Fair Trading identified no fewer than 18 different points at which charges can be levied on a pension. Does the Minister share my view that there should be radical simplification and disclosure on pension fees and charges—however and wherever they are levied? (901137)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue. Over the last few years, we have taken expanded powers to cap charges and to require disclosure along the lines he describes. We will shortly act on our charges consultation and will publish quality standards, which will include requirements to disclose relevant information, including charges.

T3. Eleven parishes in Oswaldtwistle have come together to open Hyndburn’s four food banks, which often serve people who are in employment. Is the Secretary of State not concerned about these levels of poverty, particularly in constituencies such as mine? (901135)

I am. That is why we are doing all that we can to reduce the levels of poverty, and are succeeding. Child poverty, for example, has fallen by more than 300,000 under this Government. [Interruption.] I accept that the hon. Gentleman may well find that there are issues and problems in his constituency, and I am ready and willing to discuss them with him at any stage. The fact is, however, that child poverty rose under the last Government. They spent more than £170 billion on tax credits in an attempt to end the situation, and one of the hon. Gentleman’s own colleagues has said that they would no longer be able to afford them. They were more than 10 times more expensive than anything that they replaced.

T6. We have heard about the excessive amounts being charged on pensions and annuities. Does my hon. Friend the pensions Minister agree that it is important for us to re-establish a real savings culture, and will he tell us what else he can do? (901138)

I do agree with my right hon. Friend. We are establishing an economy that is based on savings rather than debt, and one of the most important measures that we are implementing is automatic enrolment in workplace pensions. By Christmas, about 2 million workers will have been enrolled. Nine out of 10 people are choosing to stay in workplace pensions, and it is encouraging to note that—notwithstanding what sceptics have said—young people are particularly likely to do so, thus establishing a culture of saving from an early age.

Since January, the coalition has no longer been producing the statistics showing the number of people chasing every job vacancy in each constituency. Will the Secretary of State bring those statistics back, so that we can have information about what is happening in our own constituencies?

Does the Secretary of State agree that a non-resident parent who has no declared income, but chooses not to claim benefits and is living on a loan, should be required by the Child Support Agency to contribute the flat rate of £5 rather than being party to a “nil” arrangement and not having to pay anything? Should not such people contribute to the considerable costs of raising their child or children?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that when we bring all new claims into the 2012 child maintenance system, we will use information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs relating not just to earned income, but to income from all sources. Provided that income is coming into the household and HMRC is aware of it, we shall be able to use that information in assessments.

Can the Minister tell us how many people have died as a result of illness or suicide between their being declared fit for work and the hearing of their appeals? If he does not know, does he not think that he has a duty to collect those figures?

I think that we should be very careful about scaremongering. There will be people to whom that applies, but such figures are not collected centrally. I know the hon. Lady very well, and I do not think that the House expects scaremongering of that kind from her.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing a benefit cap. The feedback that I receive from my constituents suggests that they thoroughly support the principle of the cap, but feel that its level is too high. Will the Secretary of State encourage them by announcing that he will consider lowering the level, perhaps to a figure beginning with 1?

I shall take my hon. Friend’s plaudits and congratulations in the spirit in which they were meant. The benefit cap is intended to be fair to those who pay tax to support people who are out of work by ensuring that people cannot earn more through being out of work than they can through being in work. Of course we keep the whole issue under review, but the cap is working very well at its present level.

How interesting it is that not one Opposition Member wants to talk about issues such as getting people back to work and being fair to the taxpayer. The only policy that the Opposition have come up with so far is reversal of the spare room subsidy. That is a pathetic indictment of the lack of welfare policies in the “welfare party”.

I welcome today’s figures showing a reduction in unemployment, but what are the implications for the targets relating to inappropriate sanctions on jobseeker’s allowance claimants? This is a real issue, and it needs to be addressed. It is distorting the JSA figures.

With regard to discretionary housing payment, under a recent freedom of information request it has been established that Calderdale’s budget is almost £384,000 and under the same FOI we learned that in the first six months of the spare room subsidy Labour-run Calderdale has struggled to spend around £24,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this massive differential between budget and actual spend could indicate that the spare room subsidy in Calderdale is not an issue, or does he think Labour-run Calderdale is not doing enough to help the most vulnerable?

We will, of course, be releasing figures on this later, but what I say to councils up and down the country is, “That is what the money is there for—to help alleviate issues and problems, at their discretion.” I remind my hon. Friend that last year, after having complained that they did not have enough money, they returned £10 million to the Exchequer, so my urging to them is, “Either do what you’re meant to do or stop complaining.”

What advice does the Secretary of State have for the 4,963 people in Sefton chasing the 10 available one-bedroom properties? Where does he expect them to go, especially given that many of them are disabled and are unable to pay the bedroom tax?

As my hon. Friends made clear in the debate last week, there is actually an awful lot of available property in HomeSwap, with over 300,000 available in the last week alone. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, and, through him to the councils, local authorities and housing associations, that the purpose of this programme is to get them to manage their housing better, and not to be building bigger houses when they need one-bedroom properties, and to start managing better for the people who need their property.

Commonwealth Meeting and the Philippines

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the disaster in the Philippines and the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.

Ten days ago a category 5 super-typhoon brought massive destruction across the Philippines, where the city of Tacloban was devastated by a tidal wave almost 2.5 metres high. The scale of what happened is still becoming clear, with many of the country’s 7,000 islands not yet reached or assessed, but already we know that more than 12 million people have been affected, with over 4,400 dead and more than 1,500 missing, including a number of Britons. This disaster follows other deadly storms there and an earthquake that killed 200 people in Bohol last month. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House will be with all those affected, their friends and families.

Britain has been at the forefront of the international relief effort. The British public have once again shown incredible generosity and compassion, donating £35 million so far, and the Government have contributed more than £50 million to the humanitarian response. In the last week HMS Daring and her onboard helicopter, an RAF C-17 and eight different relief flights have brought essential supplies from the UK and helped get aid to those who need it most. An RAF C-130—a Hercules—will arrive tomorrow and HMS Illustrious will also be there by the end of this week, equipped with seven helicopters, and water desalination and command and control capabilities.

Beyond the immediate task of life-saving aid, the people of the Philippines will face a long task of rebuilding and reducing their vulnerability to these kinds of events. Britain will continue to support them every step of the way.

Let me turn to the Commonwealth, and then to the issues in Sri Lanka itself. The Commonwealth is a unique organisation representing 53 countries, a third of the world’s population and a fifth of the global economy. It is united by history, by relationships and by the values of the new Commonwealth charter which we agreed two years ago in Perth. Britain is a leading member. Her Majesty the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales did our country proud acting on her behalf and attending last week.

As with all the international organisations to which we belong, the Commonwealth allows us to champion the values and economic growth that are so vital to our national interest. At this summit we reached important conclusions on poverty, human rights and trade.

On poverty, this was the last Commonwealth meeting before the millennium development goals expire. We wanted our Commonwealth partners to unite behind the ambitious programme set by the UN high-level panel which I co-chaired with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia. For the first time this programme prioritises not just aid, but the vital place of anti-corruption efforts, open institutions, access to justice, the rule of law and good governance in tackling poverty.

On human rights, the Commonwealth reiterated its support for the core values set out in the Commonwealth charter. Commonwealth leaders condemned in the strongest terms the use of sexual violence in conflict—an issue that has been championed globally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. We also called for an end to early and forced marriage, and for greater freedom of religion and belief. We committed to taking urgent and decisive action against the illegal wildlife trade ahead of the conference in London next year. And Britain successfully resisted an attempt to usher Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth without first addressing the deep concerns that remain about human rights and political freedoms.

The Foreign Secretary and I also used the meeting to build the case for more open trade and for developing our links with the fastest-growing parts of the world. The Commonwealth backed a deal at next month’s World Trade Organisation meeting in Bali that could cut bureaucracy at borders and generate $100 billion for the global economy. Before and after the summit in Sri Lanka, I continued to bang the drum for British trade and investment. I went to New Delhi and Calcutta in India before heading to Sri Lanka—the third time I have visited India as Prime Minister. And I went from the summit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where Airbus agreed new orders from Emirates and Etihad airlines that will add £5.4 billion to the British economy. These orders will sustain and secure 6,500 British jobs, including at the plants in north Wales and Bristol, and open up new opportunities for the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby.

The last Government agreed, late in 2009, to hold the 2013 Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka. That was not my decision, but I was determined to use the presence of the Commonwealth and my own visit to shine a global spotlight on the situation there, and that is exactly what I did. I became the first foreign leader to visit the north of the country since independence in 1948 and, by taking the media with me, I gave the local population the chance to be heard by an international audience.

I met the new provincial Chief Minister from the Tamil National Alliance, who was elected in a vote that happened only because of the spotlight of the Commonwealth meeting. I took our journalists to meet the incredibly brave Tamil journalists at the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, many of whom have seen their colleagues killed and who have themselves been beaten and intimidated. I met and heard from displaced people desperately wanting to return to their homes and their livelihoods. And as part of our support for reconciliation efforts across the country, I announced an additional £2.1 million to support de-mining work in parts of the north, including the locations of some of the most chilling scenes from Channel 4’s “No Fire Zone” documentary.

When I met President Rajapaksa, I pressed for credible, transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes, and I made it clear to him that if those investigations were not begun properly by March, I would use our position on the United Nations Human Rights Council to work with the UN human rights commissioner and call for an international inquiry. No one wants to return to the days of the Tamil Tigers and the disgusting and brutal things that they did. We should also show proper respect for the fact that Sri Lanka suffered almost three decades of bloody civil conflict and that recovery and reconciliation take time. But I made it clear to President Rajapaksa that he now has a real opportunity, through magnanimity and reform, to build a successful, inclusive and prosperous future for his country, working in partnership with the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province. I very much hope that he seizes that opportunity.

Sri Lanka has suffered an appalling civil war—and then of course suffered all over again from the 2004 tsunami; but it is an extraordinary and beautiful country with enormous potential. Achieving that potential is all about reconciliation. It is about bringing justice, closure and healing to the country, which now has the chance, if it takes it, of a much brighter future. That will happen only by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.

I had a choice at this summit: to stay away and allow President Rajapaksa to set the agenda he wanted, or to go and shape the agenda by advancing our interests with our Commonwealth partners and shining a spotlight on the international concerns about Sri Lanka. I chose to go and stand up for our values and to do all I could to advance them. I believe that that was the right decision for Sri Lanka, for the Commonwealth and for Britain. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Let me start by saying that all our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines as they struggle to deal with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Thirteen million people have been affected by the typhoon, over 4 million of them children; nearly 3 million have lost their homes and, as the Prime Minister said, thousands are believed to have lost their lives, including a number of British citizens. The pictures we have seen are of terrible devastation. As so often happens when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the British people have reacted by reaching deep into their pockets: so far, £35 million has been donated by the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee. I also want to thank our forces on HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious for the work they are doing to help with disaster relief, and to commend the leadership of the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary in providing £50 million in aid. We need to see the same from other countries, as the UN appeal has only a quarter of the funds it needs. Therefore, may I ask the Prime Minister what actions the Government are taking to encourage other countries to commit and free up resources as quickly as possible to the Philippines, so that this UN aid target is met? Serious damage sustained to airports, seaports and roads continues to present major logistical challenges for the emergency response, so may I ask the Prime Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that humanitarian relief is reaching those in very remote and isolated areas who have been worst affected by the typhoon?

On the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting —CHOGM—we welcome the communiqué’s conclusions on global threats and challenges, on programmes promoting Commonwealth collaboration and, of course, on development. At its best, the Commonwealth summit gathers together 53 countries seeking to promote common values, including democracy, accountability, the rule of law and human rights. I believe that this House is united in our abhorrence of terrorism and in recognising that what happened in Sri Lanka, particularly towards the end of the conflict in 2009, when tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered, totally fails the test of those values.

It was for that reason that, at the 2009 Commonwealth summit, the last Labour Government blocked the plan for Sri Lanka to host the summit in 2011. As the current Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:

“The UK made clear…during the 2009 CHOGM...that we would be unable to support Sri Lanka’s bid to host in 2011.”

Those are the words of the Foreign Secretary. Delaying the hosting of the summit until 2013 was to allow time for the Sri Lankan Government to show progress on human rights. This has not been the case; indeed, things have got worse, not better. I say to the Prime Minister that when he attended the summit in 2011, he could have acted precisely as the Labour Government of 2009 had done and brought together a coalition to block Sri Lanka’s hosting the Commonwealth summit in 2013.

Let me ask the Prime Minister a series of questions. First, the Deputy Prime Minister said in May to this House that

“if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]

Can the Prime Minister tell us: what were those consequences for the Sri Lankan Government? Secondly, at the summit on Friday, the Prime Minister called for the Sri Lankan Government, as he said, to initiate an independent inquiry by March into allegations of war crimes. But by Sunday, President Rajapaksa had already appeared to reject this. The UN human rights commissioner called two years ago for an internationally led inquiry, and we have supported that call. Is not the right thing to do now to build international support for that internationally led process?

Thirdly, after this summit the Sri Lankan President will be chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years—that includes attending the Commonwealth games. Did the Prime Minister have any discussions at the summit with other countries about whether President Rajapaksa was an appropriate person to play that role? Finally, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Prime Minister of India decided not to attend this summit. In explaining his decision, Prime Minister Harper said:

“In the past two years we have...seen...a considerable worsening of the situation.”

Accepting the good intentions of the Prime Minister, were not Prime Ministers Harper and Singh right to believe that the attendance of Heads of Government at CHOGM would not achieve any improvement or prospects for improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka? Indeed, the summit communiqué failed even to reference the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka.

The legacy of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is in contradiction to the good traditions of the Commonwealth. We believe we cannot let the matter rest. Britain must do what it can to ensure that the truth emerges about the crimes that were committed, so that there can be justice for those who have suffered so much. When the Government act to make that happen, we will support them.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the response on the Philippines. I agree with him: other countries need to do more, and we will continue to work with them, through both the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to make sure everyone lives up to their responsibilities. He asked specifically how we will ensure that relief gets through. That is why HMS Illustrious, with seven helicopters, joining the American carrier there can make a difference—because of the lift capacity.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response on Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth, but it is worth recalling that, had we listened to his advice, we would not be having this statement now in the House and discussing this issue. Given that Labour agreed to this conference taking place in Sri Lanka, criticising my attendance breaks new records for opportunism and double-speak. Let me respond very directly. In 2009, some time after the end of war, the last Government agreed that the conference should take place in 2013 in Sri Lanka. If he knows anything about foreign affairs—I doubt it, because he barely gets out of Islington—he would know that this is a consensus organisation: once something has been agreed, it is very difficult to unblock it. So it was in 2009 that the pass was sold. I have to say to him that, more than that, this shows very poor judgment. This is a multilateral organisation of which we are a leading member and our Queen is the head. How do we advance free trade if we are not there? How do we stand up for issues such as tax, transparency, tackling poverty, and preventing sexual violence in conflict? How do we do all that from 4,000 miles away?

On Sri Lanka, the right hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether we pressed for our agenda. Yes, we did, very directly, on the importance of land reform, on the importance of human rights, on the importance of an independent inquiry. Of course, some other leaders decided to stay away, and everyone must take their own decision, but frankly, no country on earth has a more direct relationship with the Commonwealth than this one, and that is why it was right to go. If he is concerned about the rights of Tamils, as I am, and reconciliation, the right thing to do is to go and shine a spotlight on their plight. You cannot do that sitting at home. I remember when his brother said that we needed Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers who could stop the traffic in Beijing. He will not even get out of Primrose Hill. This whole area of judgment by the right hon. Gentleman is a sign of weakness. He was given a choice: an easy political path or a tough, right path, and he cops out every time—too weak to stand up to Len McCluskey, too weak to stand up for Britain abroad.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s observations about the Philippines and congratulate him and the Government on ensuring such a remarkable response on behalf of the United Kingdom?

I am not one of those who believes that the Prime Minister should not have attended. Unlike other Prime Ministers, he had a constitutional obligation to be present to provide support and, if necessary, advice for the Prince of Wales who was representing Her Majesty the Queen. Is not the rightness of the Prime Minister’s decision demonstrated eloquently by the quality and volume of the coverage he was able to achieve? Of course, the test will be the extent to which there is a proper follow-through. In that respect, will my right hon. Friend assure us that everything will be done to try to achieve unanimity of purpose at the United Nations for an inquiry of the kind he has outlined?

I am very grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend says about the importance of attending. This point about media organisations is important, because they have been unable to travel freely in the north of the country. By taking respected organisations such as the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 directly to the areas affected in Jaffna, they were able literally to shine a spotlight on the things that have happened. He is entirely right to say that what matters now is follow-through, but what is important is that this is now an established part of Britain’s foreign policy—to raise at every international forum, in every way we can, the importance of a strong, united, prosperous and reconciled future for Sri Lanka, and that is exactly what we will do.

The report from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the FCO’s human rights work stated:

“We recommend that the Prime Minister should obtain assurances from the Sri Lankan Government that people who approach him to talk about human rights while he is in Sri Lanka to attend the CHOGM do not face reprisals or harassment by security forces.”

Was he able to obtain those assurances from the Sri Lankan Government, or not?

I made very clear to all the authorities I spoke to how important it was to be able to visit the north of the country, to meet refugees and displaced people and to raise their cases. That was exactly what I was able to do with the President. The world will now be watching what happens to those people, and I was given assurances that people were being re-housed and given new livelihoods. We will watch very carefully to see what happens to the people I met.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on going to Jaffna and raising those difficult questions with President Rajapaksa. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that as Sri Lanka will be in the chair of the Commonwealth running up to the Mauritius CHOGM, it is incredibly important that it focus relentlessly on the agenda he encapsulated of good governance, the rule of law, free trade and wealth creation?

That is absolutely the agenda we should be addressing and pushing for. I would make the point that the role of the Commonwealth chair can be overstated, as it is the Secretary-General who sets the agenda for the Commonwealth. Again, however, the Commonwealth is a consensus organisation. Once the previous Government had signed up to CHOGM’s being in Sri Lanka, the natural consequence was that Sri Lanka would be the de facto chair for two years. That flows from a Labour Government’s decision, not our decision.

May I press the Prime Minister on the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? She asked him whether undertakings were given that there would be no harassment of those he met and had dealings with in the north. Re-housing is one thing, and it is important, but I would be very grateful if he expanded on that.

The point I was trying to make was that although undertakings that those people should not be harmed were vital, their cases should also be taken up by the Sri Lankan Government. The response of the Sri Lankan Government to such issues is not to say that such people do not exist or that there is nothing that can be done. They are saying, “Please give us time. We are dealing with this.” It is right for the international community to press them on these issues. Yes, there were many more internally displaced people four years ago, but there are still too many today and they need to be properly looked after.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real issue at stake is the approximately 40,000 women, children and men—innocent people—who were slaughtered at the end of the conflict, and that the robust approach he showed on the visit to Sri Lanka and CHOGM should be carried through, as their memories deserve justice as well as the work that he has done? I have had many e-mails over the past few days thanking the Prime Minister for his robust approach, while also asking him to ensure that we take things forward in March if President Rajapaksa does not take his stance.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I challenge almost anyone in the House to watch even part of the Channel 4 documentary about the events at the end of the war—when there were appalling levels of casualties among civilians in the north of the country who were, it seems, targeted—and not to believe that there should be a proper independent inquiry. Of course, dreadful things happened throughout the war and it is for the Sri Lankan Government to decide how they should be investigated. It is clear, however, that those particular events at the end of the war need an independent inquiry so that the issue can be properly settled.

Will the Prime Minister explain how exactly he proposes to follow up his demand for an inquiry? What monitoring and reporting will there be, and what action will the Commonwealth take if and when Sri Lanka does not follow up on the assurances he was apparently given? Many people are dead, and many people are very angry about the abuses of human rights by the Sri Lankan Government.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. The key thing is that the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has made the point that there should be an independent inquiry and has set the deadline for when it should at least begin. If it is not begun, there needs to be, as she has said, an international independent inquiry. We are saying that we support that view and will put behind it Britain’s international diplomatic standing in all the organisations of which we are a member, including, of course, the United Nations.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the fierce reaction in the Government-influenced press in Sri Lanka throughout his visit ensured that human rights in that country was the stand-out issue? Would he agree that in future CHOGMs, a stronger presence on the part of Commonwealth parliamentarians would help the whole matter of the promotion of human rights?

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that links between Commonwealth parliamentarians are very helpful for raising these issues. His first point is absolutely spot-on: because of visiting the north and raising these issues, human rights, and questions about land reform, reconciliation, and investigations, were top of mind for the press, the media, and everyone in Sri Lanka in a way that they simply would not have been.

The Prime Minister says that the Government will press the issue in March next year at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the light of that council’s woeful record—at one point, it actually praised the Government of Sri Lanka for their internal policies—how confident can he be, given the authoritarian states and friends of Rajapaksa who are on the council, that we will get anywhere on this in the UN?

I think this is going to be very hard pounding for a very long period of time, but what the Sri Lankan Government need to understand, and I think understand more today than perhaps they did a week ago, is that the issue is not going to go away, and if they do not hold an independent inquiry, the pressure for an international inquiry will grow and grow. Using the UN human rights machinery is the right way to do that.

The UN Special Court for Sierra Leone has been sitting in The Hague for some time now. It demonstrates that there is plenty of precedent showing that if the United Nations Security Council has the will, it is perfectly possible to devise mechanisms for independent judicial inquiries into crimes against humanity by UN member states.

My hon. Friend brings considerable expertise and experience to this area. I would argue that the Commonwealth, like the United Nations, is of course an imperfect organisation, but even with the Commonwealth, it is possible to point to examples where it has stood up for human rights and for democracy —perhaps particularly recently in the case of Fiji. We have to use these organisations to get the results that are right, in terms of human rights and these sorts of issues.

I thank the Prime Minister for what the Government are doing on the Philippines disaster, and pay tribute to the many communities up and down the land who are contributing massively to the public appeal, not least in my constituency, where there is a community sit-out on the Shankill road to raise funds; I pay tribute to those involved.

On the Commonwealth summit, may I press the Prime Minister on the issue of combating poverty? Will he tell us in more detail what has been done to combat corruption and promote good governance?

First of all, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in praising all those who are raising money for the Philippines Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I think it is incredibly striking, in all our communities, how many people come straight out on to the streets and are rattling those tins and raising that money; at the weekend in my constituency, I saw rotary clubs doing precisely that.

On the issue of tackling poverty and the link between corruption and poverty, in the report from the high-level panel, which I co-chaired, if we look at the 12 targets that we thought should be set, a lot of those concern things like access to justice, freedom from corruption, absence of press censorship, proper democracy and the rule of law, because those issues are vital in helping countries to move sustainably from poverty to wealth. That, I think, is the great thing about this high-level panel report: yes, it is about aid, and yes, it is about economic growth, but it recognises the golden thread of vital issues to do with democracy and institutions as well.

Regarding the Philippines, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Government and the British public for their very generous response? In addition, may I say that the Secretary of State for International Development has done the most amazingly sterling work? We owe her and her team enormous thanks for everything that she has done.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Department for International Development and the Secretary of State have done a superb job—in marshalling resources in response to the crisis, in working with the Ministry of Defence to get HMS Daring and then HMS Illustrious alongside, in generating income and money to go directly to the appeal, and in making sure that we work with our partners to do that. There are now two teams out there to assist with the Foreign Office effort, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just told me that some of our experts on victim identification will be part of an Interpol team that will be there soon as well.

The Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into the terrible events in Sri Lanka would carry a great deal more weight if he had not obstructed the report on the Iraq war. The Chilcot inquiry demanded papers to reach a conclusion on why, 10 years ago, the House made a decision to join Bush’s war in Iraq, with the loss of 179 British lives.

It is ingenious and imaginative—the hon. Gentleman is always that—but the Prime Minister is already on his feet.

I am responsible for many things, but holding up the Iraq inquiry is not one of them. Conservative Members and, indeed, my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches called for an inquiry, we voted for an inquiry and we worked for an inquiry year after year before one was finally set up. I very much hope that its conclusions will shortly be available for all to see.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Commonwealth is in many ways uniquely placed to take advantage of the global world in which we all live? Will he say a little more about the opportunities for commercial development between Commonwealth countries, particularly this country and the Commonwealth?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Commonwealth brings quite different and disparate countries together—some of the largest on earth, such as India, but also some of the smallest and most fragile island states in the world. It is a forum in which we can discuss issues, share values and perspectives, but also, yes, talk about business and trade, which is why there is a business angle to the events in which we took part. We should use all those forums to push for our agenda of free trade and trade facilitation, and there is an important meeting coming up in Bali very soon.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s third visit to India, and his first to Calcutta. In Jaffna, he saw the devastation and grief inflicted on the Tamil people by President Rajapaksa. Is he aware that we continue to deport Tamil people from this country to Sri Lanka, where they are tortured? Will he speak to the Home Secretary about updating the advice given on the Home Office website so that we can protect those people, who are genuinely seeking asylum in our country?

The asylum system should work on the basis of the best and latest information about whether someone genuinely faces a risk of torture and persecution if they return. Of course, I shone a light on some of the human rights abuses that are taking place, but it is also right to point out that in Sri Lanka today warfare, civil war, terrorism and violence of that kind are not taking place, so we should be clear and welcome that.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about my third visit to India and my first to Calcutta. This is part of building the special relationship that I believe should exist between Britain and India, and which spans diplomacy, politics, trade and other international relations.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the high impact that he and the British Government have had in relation to the Philippines. That includes not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development but the extension resourced through the armed forces, which is most welcome.

In relation to CHOGM, the Sri Lankan President proposes a truth and reconciliation process, but that is not adequate to meet the concerns and anxieties about alleged war crimes. We therefore need to follow the process proposed by the Prime Minister, however good the truth and reconciliation processes have been in South Africa and Mali.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I accept that the Sri Lankan Government have set up some processes, including the ones to which he referred, but too many of them have been military-led inquiries—basically, private inquiries into events at the end of the war—rather than a proper, independent inquiry, which is what needs to be held.

I have to confess that I thought it unwise to go to Sri Lanka, but having heard the Prime Minister’s statement and what he now plans to do I am changing my mind—not a bad thing, possibly. As someone who has raised the Tamil question many times in the past 20 years or so, may I urge him and the Foreign Secretary to give due priority to the issue to ensure that at an early stage we will have a just peace and reconciliation on this worried island?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind and very generous remarks, and for the way in which he put them. I completely agree. Having made this visit, having taking this important stand and having given the issue the attention it deserves, we must now make sure that we follow through, but we should do so on a basis of huge optimism about the potential future of the country. If proper efforts at reconciliation are made, there is no reason why that country, which is now essentially at peace and is not suffering warfare and terrorism, cannot be an immense success story in the future.

As somebody who was very uncomfortable about the meeting happening in Sri Lanka in the first place and very troubled by our participation endorsing President Rajapaksa, may I, too, commend the Prime Minister for being extremely robust and effective on the war crimes issue, and encourage him down that road? Was he able to ask any questions about disappeared people and about assassinations, and is there a chance that the Commonwealth, under its next Secretary-General, will stand up for human rights better than it has been doing?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind remarks and for what he said about my attendance at the summit. I did raise the issue of the disappeared, and at the refugee centre in the displaced persons village I met some people who told me about relatives who had disappeared. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), held a meeting with families of the disappeared, so the issue was raised at every level in our engagement with the Sri Lankan authorities. We must continue to raise these issues in the months and years ahead. There is much to commend in the Commonwealth, but it is an imperfect organisation. At its best it does stand up for values that we all share and believe in, and the more it does so the better an organisation it will be.

In answer to a question, the Prime Minister suggested that he had made a tough and brave decision to go to CHOGM. May I tell him through you, Mr Speaker, that the tough and brave decision was that of those family members of the disappeared who were willing to approach him? They are now at serious risk for their lives, the lives of their families and the future of relatives they have not seen for years. What are the Government going to do, and principally what is the British high commission in Colombo going to do, to ensure the safety of those families?

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. The bravery that was shown was by the displaced people who were prepared to meet me and to speak out about their concerns. Bravery was shown by all those who have lost relatives and who do not know where they are. Also, it was incredible to meet journalists who have stood up for freedom of the press and risked assassination, torture and persecution. In the offices of the Uthayan newspaper are pictures around the walls of journalists who died reporting facts and truth in Sri Lanka. We should do everything we can, including through the high commission, to make sure that nobody who spoke out or met me suffers in any way at all. It is now very public who I met and where I went, and our engagement with the Sri Lankan Government could not be clearer about the importance not only of their safety, but of making sure that they are properly housed and have access to a livelihood as part of reconciliation.

At this time of national crisis for the Philippines, will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the splinter groups of the MNLF and MILF in the southern Philippines to lay down their arms in order that the Philippines army can help the needy throughout the whole of the country, rather than take up arms against rebel groups?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Philippines. The overwhelming priority now must be getting aid to people who need it and trying to put that country back together again.

In the wake of the disaster in the Philippines, our leading aid agencies have said that the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events should act as a wake-up call for the international community to do a lot more on climate change. Does the Prime Minister agree, and what does he intend to do?

I do agree that climate change presents huge dangers for our planet. There is a strong case for saying that there are connections between unusual weather events and the climate change that is taking place. That is why it is important to keep the issue high up the international agenda. At the Commonwealth conference I was able to raise the fact of the international climate fund, to which Britain has made a significant contribution, and how it should be helping these countries. The Commonwealth is a good place to make the point because many members are very vulnerable small island states for whom climate change is literally an existential challenge.

Manufacturers in the black country will be reassured to hear that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary used the Commonwealth meeting to promote our trading links with the fastest-growing parts of the world. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the prospects for more open trade with India following his very successful meeting with Mr Tata?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We continue to push with India the case for a free trade agreement. With India being effectively in an election year, I am not sure that we will make huge progress now, but we continue to make the arguments and demonstrate the figures for how beneficial it would be for both our countries, and for the EU, to have this agreement go ahead.

What progress can the Prime Minister point to in relation to human rights in the Commonwealth? Is he, for example, aware of the excellent report of the Kaleidoscope Trust, chaired by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), on the state of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s rights in the Commonwealth? An incredible 41 countries still criminalise same sex activity by adults. Is not that a disgrace?

We have a very clear view that there should be proper rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and we do raise these issues, including at the Commonwealth meeting, as the Minister of State and the Foreign Secretary did. The report that the hon. Lady mentions is an excellent report. It is still depressing that so many countries persecute gay people, but there has in some countries been some progress in terms of greater rights and, as we have done in this country, celebrating gay marriage.

Despite the fact that 53 countries signed up to the communiqué to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, does my right hon. Friend not think that the Commonwealth has a long way to go to uphold those core values, particularly if some countries thought that Zimbabwe could creep back in?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. At its best, the Commonwealth comes together and signs up to important declarations, such as the Perth declaration on human rights, but sadly, at its worst, those values are not always stood up for in every case. We can point to the good places, such as Fiji, excluded from the Commonwealth, given a path back to the Commonwealth if the right things happen, but we can all point to examples where these values have not been properly upheld. But it is an organisation that we should be proud to belong to and want to make it deliver to its best.

Given what happened at the end of the war in Sri Lanka and what has happened since, why does the Prime Minister think that the Sri Lankan Government can be trusted to set up a proper independent inquiry? Why is it not right for us to press now for what he said he might press for in March, which is an international inquiry in which the world can have trust?

Just to be clear, I have not said we might support it; I have said we will support it. What is required is an independent inquiry, and if there is not a proper independent inquiry, we will—will, not might—push for an independent international inquiry in March. That is the right approach. The Sri Lankan Government need to be put to the test. The war is over. The terrorism is finished. They have this incredible opportunity. It is no good the shadow Foreign Secretary just sitting there. He was the first one who said there was no point going; there was nothing to talk about; nothing Britain could do. It is the sort of stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach to diplomacy that does absolutely no good for this country or for human rights.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the excellent work of the Royal Navy in the Philippines crisis well illustrates its unique capability not only to project power but to provide assistance around the world, and will not that capability be massively increased when we have two fleet carriers providing that sort of potential for the future?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that our Royal Navy does have these multiple purposes. One of the strengths of HMS Illustrious is that it has the ability to desalinate water, and it also carries seven helicopters, and the two new carriers will be even more capable of such a role in the future.

The Prime Minister looks a little like someone sticking their head in the sand when it comes to the environment. All the world’s scientists are looking at what is happening to our planet’s climate, but I read all the news reports of the conference and saw nothing on the environment, and there was nothing on the environment in his statement today. Global warming is going to destroy our planet. Why did he not take a lead on that at the conference?

It is obviously quite difficult to take a lead at a conference if one does not attend, which of course is what Members on the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench were suggesting. In my contribution I talked about the importance of integrating our goals on climate change into our general approach to tackling poverty. I made the point that, with so many small island states in the Commonwealth that are so vulnerable, this is an existential issue for them and we should support them, including through the international climate fund, which is exactly what we are doing.

For some time now many Government Members have been privately pressing the Sri Lankan Government to undertake an independent inquiry in order to allay the fears of our constituents, including my constituent, Mr Jana Mahalingam, who regularly corresponds with me on the issue. Does the Prime Minister agree that although peace has come through the ending of violence, the battle is now for reconciliation, which could be achieved through an independent inquiry?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. An independent inquiry is essential, but we should be clear that reconciliation is so much more than that. There were issues put to me about restoring land to people who have been moved from their homes, about the army needing to play a reduced role in the north of the country, and about real change being needed with regard to respecting the elected chief Minister in the north of the country. That is both frustrating and yet quite exciting: the country is, at one level, at peace, because there is no more war or terrorism, so the Government there can afford to be generous and magnanimous, and that is exactly what they should do.

Further to the question from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), does the Prime Minister accept that over the past few years the British Government have forcibly returned Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, only for the