House of Commons
Monday 13 January 2014
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—
Work Capability Assessment
We remain committed to reviewing continually and further improving the assessment. Dr Litchfield’s independent review was published in December, and the Government will publish their response in the first quarter of this year.
It has come to my attention through research conducted by several disability campaign groups that as many as four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the Department’s work capability assessment. Will the Secretary of State reflect on those figures? When he finds them to be true, as they are based on his Department’s data, will he come back to the House and apologise to the families of the deceased, who suffered unnecessarily in their last precious days? We can recuperate benefits that are awarded incorrectly, but we cannot recuperate a person’s life.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people and families who have lost their loved ones. There is a system in place for people with life-threatening illnesses, and particularly for those who are likely to die. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Chairman of which is in the Chamber, we are trying to get the decision making down to seven days, which we would all welcome.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, the scheme was brought in by the previous Administration—the Opposition have selective memory loss about that. We are determined to get the scheme right to help people get back into work and to help those who cannot get back into work through the benefits system.
As the Court of Appeal recently threw out the Government’s appeal against the decision that the work capability assessment disadvantages those with long-term mental health problems and learning disabilities such as autism, will the Minister accept that the test is simply not designed to deal with such people? What will he do about that?
In my part of the world, the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment are administered by Atos. When my constituents finally get an assessment, they find an organisation that is as insensitive as it is incompetent. Would not the best way of improving the work capability assessment be to remove the incapable Atos?
We inherited the contract with Atos as the company running the WCA. We were not happy with the quality of its work, which is why we brought in measures. We accept that that is causing delays to the system, but it is better to have the necessary quality than to get it wrong.
How many people have to lose their appeal after 12 months of trying to get justice done? How many more people—including the four a day referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—have to die before they get an appeal? Surely it is time for even this insensitive Government to understand that Atos is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned, and that we should start all over again.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman said that all the way through to his own Government when they brought in Atos. What the Opposition put in place when they were in government was a complete mess. We are determined to get it right. We are listening to why the tribunal judges make their decisions so that we get the decisions right earlier on.
Personal Independence Payments
The Department intends to publish official statistics in the spring. In the meantime, we are looking to see whether we can publish interim information as soon as it becomes available.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news for a lot of people. He will appreciate that a lot of people are suffering while Capita takes so long to get that information out; they have the anxiety of not knowing whether their appeals, or even their applications for assessment, have been agreed. What kind of monitoring of Capita is he doing, and does it have enough people to do the job?
We are monitoring the work of both Capita and Atos, and we will have the figures as soon as we can. Under the previous Administration’s scheme, fewer than 6% of people claiming this or a similar benefit were ever assessed. It must be right and proper that there is not self-assessment; it is done by the experts.
Will the Minister look into the fact that personal independence payments seem to get stuck in the system and are not passed on to the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent waited three months for an assessment. Three more months later, it is still stuck in the system. The Department wants to sort it out. What more can he do to ensure that they liaise with each other?
The Department’s officials and the contractors, Atos and Capita, are working closely every single day. We need to ensure that we get the decisions right. In such situations as the one brought to the House’s attention by my hon. Friend, we will work closely. If my hon. Friend contacts me later, we will look exactly at that point.
When the Minister appeared in front of the Select Committee, he admitted that there had been very long delays in getting PIP assessment determinations. People had applied in the summer and still did not have a determination by December. We are a month further on and they still have not yet heard anything. I am now receiving e-mails from people across the whole country, as well as from my own constituents, who have been waiting for more than six months since they had their face-to-face assessment. They still have not heard whether they will get the benefit or not. What is the Minister doing to ensure that people find out whether they qualify?
The evidence I gave to the Select Committee—the Committee’s questions were useful to me and I hope the evidence I gave was useful—is that the key to this is that we roll it out until we get the decisions right. The next part of the roll-out is taking place today in south Scotland. If we get it right, it will be a much better benefit for everybody. As we know, there are delays, but they are based on getting the quality and the decisions right. We are working very closely and very hard to make sure that decisions are correct when they are put out.
Discretionary Housing Payments
Figures published in December show that in the first half of the financial year 2013-14 the average committed spend by local authorities was 40% of their allocated budget. Against those who had said that they were overspending, in fact it turns out that the vast majority are not.
Yes, this is a narrow but complicated area dating back to 1996 with the introduction of local reference rent rules. They were intended to offer transitional protection at that time for existing claimants, but they were not in any way time limited. There was another opportunity, in 2008, to change the regulations when the previous Government brought in local housing allowance. They were not adjusted then. This protection had been dormant for 17 years and not used. This is a complex area that we are now resolving, but I have to say that in three different Governments it has missed the attention of Ministers.
Some would have had us believe that the discretionary housing payment will run out very quickly and that people will be forced out of London to live elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there was an underspend in discretionary housing payments of nearly £11 million, and that the claims of social cleansing from the Opposition were complete rubbish?
Yes, I can. The reality, as my hon. Friend says, is that last year about £11 million in underspends was returned to the Department. It is interesting to note the claims made by some in this House. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said that the money in her area was fast running out. It turns out that, at the six-month cut, only 28% of discretionary housing payment has actually been used. In Nottingham South, only 33% has been used. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said that too much had been spent in Birmingham, Erdington, but only 47% has been used. Discretionary housing payments are there to be used to help those in the most difficult circumstances. Councils should get on and use them.
My right hon. Friend may not be aware that Suffolk Coastal has used 60% of its budget after nine months and Waveney has used half its budget. Does he agree that that shows that discretionary budgets are working and that it is wrong to try to make political capital out of potentially very difficult human circumstances?
It does. The reality is that about 71% have spent less than half of their discretionary budgets by the half-way cut of the year, and politicians should always be careful about using individual cases and making political capital out of what are often human tragedies.
The Secretary of State should be careful about throwing around accusations of incompetence in local authorities. I was going to ask a different question, but I want to put it on record, and reassure the Secretary of State, that Manchester city council will be spending all its discretionary housing payments and has recently applied for more. Will he accept that application for more funding?
The answer I gave previously was based on what the hon. Lady actually said previously, which was:
“The money is fast running out, if it has not already run out”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 838.]
At the six-month cut, Manchester city council had spent 28% of the discretionary payments. I suspect that, in reality, the hon. Lady was about to ask me about that, but realised that she could not because she had got it wrong.
What a lot of waffle in response to that planted question from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). The bulletin that the Secretary of State issued last week is a clear admission that he has been hitting thousands of people illegally with the bedroom tax since April. Is he aware of the latest survey from the Northern Housing Consortium, which says that nearly half of all front-line housing workers have dealt with someone who has threatened to commit suicide, largely because of the Government’s welfare changes? Will he apologise this afternoon to those people for the concern and chaos that he is causing?
I said it all right, and I say it again: the Department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been. However, what we were left by the last Government was this: 1,000 pages of complex housing benefit regulations. Under universal credit, they will be reduced to 300 pages and we will simplify them. The reality is that this is a problem of the massive complexity of housing benefit that the last Government left us, with a housing benefit bill that has been rising and that doubled in 10 years on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch.
Discretionary housing payments simply will not plug the gap for disadvantaged tenants in Scotland. Given that last week the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published clear evidence showing that the policy is costing more to implement than it saves, will the Secretary of State finally accept that it has been a disaster and abandon it?
What I never hear about from the other side of the House, including from the hon. Lady, is what was left to us, which is 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. Nobody on the Opposition Benches ever speaks for them or for the 1 million people they left on waiting lists who cannot get into homes while the taxpayer subsidises people to live in homes that they do not fully occupy. I simply put it back to the hon. Lady: I wonder when she or Opposition Front Benchers will ever speak for those they left in terrible conditions in overcrowded accommodation.
24. As always when I talk about my wonderful South Derbyshire district council, I declare an interest: its leader is my husband. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good councils are spending the appropriate amount of money on this issue and that councils need to look at the systems they have to look after the most vulnerable people in our society? (901917)
That is exactly the point. I am sure that the leader of South Derbyshire district council is doing almost as good a job as my hon. Friend did previously, although I leave her to sort that out with him later. The key thing is that discretionary housing payments are there to help the most vulnerable. Councils should use them. We have allocated an extra pot for those that think they might run over, so there is extra money to bid for, and we are happy to entertain those bids.
Capping benefit at average earnings is forecast, by reducing the large benefit amounts previously paid to households, to save £85 million this year and around £140 million next year. What is more, some 19,000 potentially capped claimants have moved into work, where paying tax and national insurance contributions brings a further benefit to the Exchequer.
Residents in my North-West Leicestershire constituency are doubly astonished, first, that more than 30,000 households were claiming more than £26,000 in benefits prior to the introduction of the cap and, secondly, that the Labour party completely failed to support the introduction of a cap at all. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that this Government will persevere with its benefits cap policy and review the level at which the cap is set—currently at considerably more than the average post-tax income in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is not alone, when 73% of the public support the cap as it stands, as did nine out of 10 Londoners in a recent poll. It appears that the only people who do not support the cap are Labour Members. We will keep the policy under review, but the one thing we should celebrate is that we are reforming welfare to ensure that those who need the money get it, and those who do not get back to work.
I am not sure from that whether the right hon. Gentleman supports the change or not. [Interruption.] He supports it—yet again a lone figure on his side, on which I congratulate him. We have carried out a whole load of revisions and changes, making sure that we watch implementation carefully. We carry out research constantly when it comes to the effects of all of our benefit changes. This one is an overall positive rather than a negative.
Personal Independence Payments
As I said earlier, the end to end journey time for people claiming PIP is too long—within the DWP as well as with Capita and Atos in the hon. Lady’s constituency. More than anything else, this is to do with quality issues that we want to get right. There is no point in having a very quick journey if we get the wrong decision.
I thank the Minister for that reply. My constituent Mr Weaver applied for PIP in June, and Mrs Curran did so in July. They both had their assessments with Capita in August. The assessments have still not reached the DWP, which is totally unacceptable. Legitimate claims are being denied, which cannot be good money for the Government and cannot be a quality service. This company is inept, inefficient and not fit to carry out the work it is asked to do.
I thank the hon. Lady and we will obviously look into the individual cases she mentioned. It is absolutely crucial to get it right and to get the quality right so that when benefits are claimed, those who deserve them get them and those who do not deserve them do not. Face-to-face assessment is a crucial part of this and I have said previously, that fewer than 6% of those who claimed benefit were ever assessed.
Is it not the appeals process against the initial decision that is slowing the process down? Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. What often happens is that evidence is produced on the day of the tribunal that the Department’s officials have never seen before. In some cases, evidence has understandably come forward at that stage when we might not have known anything about it. We are looking closely at that as well as at getting more information from the judges.
Since June, I have had five cases brought to my attention at my constituency surgery where applications for PIPs have been made yet not one of them has been paid. The assessments have been carried out, yet DWP employees are telling people being treated for cancer to phone up and chase Capita. Will the Minister do something about it because this system is collapsing?
Those with terminal illnesses are; cancer is not always terminal. I know this is an emotive subject, but fortunately plenty of people in this country live through their cancer. I will look carefully into what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is not the case that no benefits are getting through. The vast majority are. I see cases at my surgery the same as others do, but the vast majority are getting their benefits. We will, however, work on the quality.
Even the last Administration had the sense to recognise that GPs were very close to their patients, and that it was therefore necessary to obtain evidence from other health experts as well, especially consultants. However, the assessment relates not to an illness or other condition, but to a person’s capacity to work. That is what is important.
OECD Disability Spend
The most recent OECD figures, from 2009, show that the United Kingdom spent 2.4% of its gross domestic product on benefits for people with disabilities. According to UK figures for 2012-13, we are spending about £50 billion a year on such benefits.
The reason we are spending so much money is that we want to ensure that people with disabilities or other long-term conditions can lead lives that are as fulfilling as possible, and, if they are able to do so, enter the workplace. Much of the money is spent on the Access to Work scheme, which has proved very successful. It is interesting that not many Opposition Members seem to approve of the £50 billion that the Government are spending.
Ministers have been taking a pick-and-mix approach to the OECD figures, claiming that the United Kingdom is a top spender on disability-related benefits while referring to only one indicator rather than to total incapacity-related benefit spending. Is it not time that they came clean? Will the Minister now admit that disabled people are bearing the brunt of the Government’s welfare reforms?
We do not “pick and mix” at all. Those who look carefully at the figures will see that Germany spends roughly half the amount that we spend in relation to GDP. If the hon. Lady thinks that we should spend more, that will mean another spending commitment from the Opposition.
The latest employment statistics, which show a record number of people in work and falling unemployment, demonstrate that our policies are working.
I know that my hon. Friend is very interested in this subject. I understand that he runs business breakfast clubs to help people to obtain work, and to secure growth in his constituency. I can tell him that 525,000 fewer people have claimed the three main out-of-work benefits since the election, that both unemployment and the claimant count are lower, and that in his constituency the claimant count has fallen by 23% in the last year, long-term unemployment has fallen by 16%, and youth unemployment has fallen by 28%. Obviously, all that is saving the Government a considerable amount of money.
Youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 25.6% in the last 12 months alone thanks to this Government. I organise a job fair every year, and last year more than 2,000 people came through the doors, many of them wanting to swap jobs. Thanks to the Government, things are moving very much in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Government are expanding the new enterprise allowance scheme, which is designed to improve young people’s entrepreneurial skills. What is the Minister’s assessment of how that is going?
My hon. Friend is another Conservative Member who is doing a great deal in his area. He has got together 2,000 people from his local community—job seekers and businesses—and has found everyone work. He is right: youth unemployment has fallen by 28% over the year, and long-term youth unemployment in his area has fallen by 26%. The new enterprise allowance scheme is expanding—2,000 young people have already set up businesses in that way—and we are investing more money by extending the scheme until December 2015.
The December report of the Office for Budget Responsibility increased its projection for increased spend on housing benefit by £1.8 billion between March and December and attributes half of that to people in employment who will have to claim housing benefit. Is not the truth that because of low hours and wages, savings in one respect are simply popping out as increased spending in another?
That is not the case. We want to look at the numbers. If we look at the spend on housing benefit, we see that it doubled under Labour from £12 billion to £24 billion. What we have got to do is look in the round at those people who are in overcrowded housing and those on waiting lists as well as those who have got houses that are bigger than they necessarily need and yet the taxpayer is funding all of it. The figures are right: the cost doubled under Labour’s watch.
What plans does the Minister have to tackle the new record level of people wanting full-time work but only able to get part-time work? That went up in the most recent statistics to 1.47 million. It is the highest level it has ever been. What is the Minister going to do about it?
22. For the past three years running I have had an apprentice caseworker in my office who has been an A-level school-leaver. Does my hon. Friend agree that having apprenticeships perhaps before university is an opportunity for young people to get on to the road to work by getting some work experience and that that is an incredibly valuable experience for young people that more and more of them are taking advantage of? (901915)
I totally agree with my hon. Friend who set up one of the biggest and best job clubs in her area, supporting people into work. Work experience is key and it does not matter whether people are on their way to university or just wanting to get into a job because this helps in understanding what jobs they want to do and what jobs they do not want to do. Around 113,000 people have gone through work experience and over 50% of them have ended up in a job. My hon. Friend is right to sing the praises of work experience.
Employment and Support Allowance
ESA claimants in the work-related activity group have access to a wide range of employment support, including the Work programme where claimants receive tailored support for two years, and a flexible menu of support through their Jobcentre Plus. Specialist support is also available through Work Choice.
The Minister will be aware that the Lichfield review analysing the system said that it was beset by delays beyond the stipulated regulatory period and that Work programme providers consistently reported that they had very little information about the people referred to the scheme. Can the Minister explain to the House what specific steps she has taken to address those concerns?
First, let us talk about the Work programme, which is the first time we have ever had a coherent way to address and support these people back into work. We know through industry statistics that over 440,000 people have got a job from that programme and that over 100,000 have found a long-term job. We are supporting people as best we can—the first time we have ever done this. We are taking specific steps, too: we are analysing everything, watching what works, conducting a best-practice group and implementing the findings. So this is new, it has started and we are getting it better.
Can the Minister confirm that the pilot is the first time that ESA has been looked at in a co-ordinated way to try and get people to fulfil their potential? Will she also confirm that it is innovative policies such as this that mean our unemployment is so much lower than that in countries such as France where the Labour party’s policies are being pursued to economic catastrophe?
My hon. Friend is right. Most of Europe is looking to us to see how we get people into work, whereas the Opposition are looking to France where the exact opposite is happening. This is a very complicated journey for people who are in the ESA group and for most of them it is about understanding their lifestyles and getting them closer to the workplace and then into a job.
I am pleased to update the House and say that more than 2.5 million workers have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. That puts us roughly a quarter of the way through the entire programme of automatic enrolment.
My hon. Friend is quite right. Every change that we have made to the administration of automatic enrolment has been designed to reduce the burden on firms. For example, we have raised the wage threshold at which people are automatically enrolled, and we have delayed the staging for the smallest firms so that no one who employs fewer than 50 people will have to stage before April 2015.
Basic State Pension Inheritance
The ability to access or increase a state pension based on the national insurance record of a partner or former partner was introduced in the 1940s, but less than 5% of people reaching pension age after the single tier is introduced will be affected by the removal of this facility. We are putting in place transitional arrangements for certain women who paid the married woman’s stamp, but to go beyond that and make transitional arrangements for a broader group would severely damage the simplicity of the scheme.
When the Minister announced his flat-rate state pension reform, the key argument was that the public would henceforth have clarity about what they could expect from the state in retirement. Now we find, via a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), that the Government have no intention of writing to individuals to communicate what the state pension changes will mean for them and their families. Why did the Minister give the impression that the Government would write to people about their state pension entitlement if he has no intention of doing so?
I am slightly baffled by that question, because our reforms to the state pension will affect everyone who reaches state pension age after 2016. That is almost the entire working age population. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that we should write 40 million letters?
It is important that help is targeted at those who are least well off at the time the need arises. The Government therefore firmly believe that the qualifying criteria for the funeral payments should be linked to the receipt of one of a number of income-related benefits.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the reality is that almost one in five people struggles to pay the cost of a funeral service for a member of their family, and more and more are taking on debts so that they can afford to pay for a service for their loved one. Will the Minister therefore consider adjusting the criteria so that families suffering emotional hardship need not experience financial hardship as well?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have expanded the scope of the budgeting loans scheme to include funeral costs, which were not previously eligible. If someone is short of cash to meet funeral costs, they can borrow money through the social fund if they are eligible for a budgeting loan, as well as applying for the grant that we pay, which averages £1,200.
The average weekly reduction in housing benefit resulting from this measure is £14.50. However, two thirds of those affected experience weekly reductions of less than that, and the average weekly loss for those who have moved off benefit as a result of this policy is £8.
When I visited the Scunthorpe food bank recently, the excellent volunteers there reported a significant increase in the numbers of people using the food bank. When I asked them why that was, they chorused in unison: “The bedroom tax.” When are this Government going to do a proper evaluation of the damage the bedroom tax is doing to hard-working families?
I, too, praise the local community, the voluntary groups, the Trussell Trust and the Churches that are helping people through the food banks, but I do not agree that we can draw an analogy between what is happening there and our attempt to get fairness through changes to the spare room subsidy. What about those people who are in overcrowded homes? What about those people who are on a waiting list? How do we support everybody in this way? Labour shirked dealing with this problem, and it is a very difficult issue to get right. Labour shirked it but we are dealing with it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is financially unsustainable for the housing benefit bill to continue rising at the level that it has historically without the type of fundamental reform to housing benefit that this Government are introducing?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are many dimensions to this, because it is not just about a housing benefit bill that doubled under Labour’s watch; it is also about the lack of houses that were built, fairness in the system, getting housing right and building right for the future.
This might be all right if there were smaller properties for people to go to, but there are not. It might be all right if £14.50 was a tiny sum, which it may be to the hon. Lady or to any of us in the Chamber, but it is not to the carers who do an invaluable job, not only on behalf of the person they care for, but for the whole of society. So how can it possibly be right that 60,000 carers are paying, on average, as the Minister has just admitted, an extra £14.50 a week? Are this Government dim-witted, short-sighted or just plain cruel?
I am afraid none of those are true. I see that the hon. Gentleman gathered much information together, but let us see what happens; as I said, we have got to get this right. We have to get the housing right. We have got to have more smaller buildings. He wrote to me as he did not understand about conversions and I had to lay it out clearly in the letter; the National Housing Federation agreed with me. Despite not knowing the facts, he did produce a press release for the papers. We are getting conversions right, sorting out the problem and helping as many people as possible.
Live-in carers are provided for as part of the assessment of household need. An additional room for non-resident overnight carers is allowed in certain circumstances. Discretionary housing payment funding has been increased to £180 million for 2013-14 to help support vulnerable claimants to adjust to the reforms.
Many children grow up with separated parents, but I think we would all agree that joint parenting is in the best interests of the child. One of my constituents is a devoted father whose small son lives with him 50% of the time, but he now has to lose his son’s bedroom because the benefits system will accept only one parent as the “main carer”. Will the Minister re-examine that rule and consider an exemption?
The hon. Lady is right to bring this matter to the House, and such situations are always difficult, but the room would be allocated to whoever was the main carer of the child. In this instance, that is the mother and that is who we would be looking to. We would not be supporting two sets of rooms in two separate houses, as we are trying to get this housing policy right.
May I bring the Minister back to the issue of unpaid family carers of sick and disabled people? She recently admitted in a response to my question that 50,000 or 60,000 of those carers were affected by the bedroom tax. More than 1 million of those carers have given up work to care, and they have nowhere to go to find the money. She has talked about live-in carers, but it is not about that. Will she answer about the 50,000 or 60,000 carers? Will she admit that it was a mistake not to exempt them from the bedroom tax?
What we did is not name absolutely everybody who could have part of the discretionary housing payment. We have allowed discretion for those people who might need it the most, hence it is called “discretionary”, hence it has been trebled and hence we are supporting these people. Obviously, if somebody on housing benefit, or their partner, needs an overnight carer on a regular basis, they would have their spare room subsidy; they would be exempt from this.
Habitual Residence Test
Migrants must now meet a much tougher habitual residence test than before, showing the efforts they have made to find work before coming to the UK and that their English language skills are not a barrier to getting a job. They must also have been resident in the UK for three months before being able to access out-of-work benefits. We have plans to make it even stronger, by introducing a minimum earnings threshold, with tougher questions on whether work is genuine, and job seekers from the European economic area will not receive housing benefit.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that detailed answer. I urge him to go a bit further and listen to the representations he has received to extend the qualifying period for the habitual residence test, and make people have to be here for a year before they can get those benefits.
As has been made clear beyond this Chamber, we are looking at that matter at the moment, and we have been discussing it with a number of other European nations, the vast majority of which are clear and with us on the idea that freedom of movement should not result in an opportunity for people to take benefits from wherever they want and to pick and choose their benefit areas. We are looking at how we can come to an agreement on those time scales and limits.
Based on caseload projections, we expect more than 6,000 claimants from the pathfinders to be on universal credit in January.
Beyond the pathfinder scheme and in the live running of universal credit, we are also rolling out other components, such as the claimant commitment. Jobcentre Plus advisers have agreed around 120,000 JSA claimant commitments, rising by some 30,000 each week. That continues our progressive approach to date, enabling a safe and successful delivery.
Kettering Jobcentre Plus
In the last three years, the number of young people and adults claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Kettering has fallen by 26%, long-term unemployment is down 8%, youth employment is down 35% and long-term youth unemployment is down 31%. Claimants are not required to tell us their reason for leaving JSA, but surveys suggest that it is that 77% of people move into work.
I will indeed. I was planning to give my hon. Friend some information for those young people in Kettering. There is a growth hub, Brackley job club, Christ Church work club, the graduate boost work club, Kettering library work club and a whole host of extra support. Across the country, we have put £1 billion in the Youth Contract to help young people get into work.
I welcome industry figures that suggest that business hiring intentions are at their highest for two and a half years and that even more UK businesses are reporting that they intend to recruit in 2014. Those positive signs are backed up by the latest labour market statistics that show that more people are in private sector employment than ever before—up by more than 1.6 million since the general election.
I indeed agree with my hon. Friend that the Post Office card account has played an important part in supporting the post office network and enabling pensioners and benefit recipients to receive their money at a local post office. All of the options under consideration conclude that access to pensions and benefits via the post office will continue beyond March 2015.
We already know that 600,000 people are affected by the bedroom tax, two thirds of them are disabled and 60,000 are carers. Will the Secretary of State now tell the House exactly how many long-term residents have been wrongly paying the bedroom tax since April because the Government failed to spot a loophole in the legislation?
The fact is that the Secretary of State has not got a clue. It could be 5,000 or it could be as many as 40,000 people, as reported by the experts. What a total shambles! Will the Secretary of State now guarantee that everybody who has been wrongly paying the bedroom tax will be reimbursed, and instead of closing the loophole, will the Government now do the right thing and scrap the bedroom tax?
Yet again, what we have from the hon. Lady is a moan about a policy that helps people in difficult circumstances. I said earlier that not once has she come to the Dispatch Box and said that she was concerned about those her party left behind living in overcrowded accommodation. Not once has she mentioned the 1 million on the waiting list or apologised for the fact that building levels for social housing fell to their lowest point since the ’20s. Of course we will look after those affected by the policy, but she must make it clear that she supports one of these policies; otherwise, there will be a total cost to the Exchequer. The shambles is on the Opposition’s part.
I am encouraged by the close interest my hon. Friend is taking in the single-tier pension, and I feel he is a kindred spirit. He is right that, as the 35-year qualifying rule includes not just earned contributions but credits for caring and so on, the vast majority of people will qualify for the full single-tier pension.
T3. In response to an inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed to me that employers advertising vacancies on the Government’s jobmatch service must provide a full, clear and accurate job description. Does the Secretary of State agree that they should also make it clear when they are offering zero-hours contracts, rather than simply listing them as part time? (901885)
Of course, the key point is that all contracts must be clear from the beginning and every employee must know what contract they are on. A very small percentage of the population are on zero hours and great care is needed, as some jobs and some individuals prefer such contracts—as the hon. Gentleman’s Government found out when they were in power.
Legislation on compensation for mesothelioma sufferers went through the House last week, and I was pleased to see the Bill receive its Third Reading. As I said at the time, it is not perfect but it will help as a fund of last resort for those who have had nothing from the system because they could not trace their employers or insurers. I hope that Her Majesty will grant it Royal Assent at the earliest opportunity.
T4. The Government’s auto-enrolment pension scheme will provide relatively poor and insecure returns, based as it is on the private pensions industry and subject to stock market vagaries. Is not the only long-term solution a comprehensive and compulsory state scheme for all, with defined and guaranteed returns, in line with schemes overseas? (901886)
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his consistency on the issue. His view is that he wants his income in retirement to be wholly dependent on a promise that future taxpayers would fund it. I must say that I would prefer to spread my risks by having a decent, simple state pension, such as the single-tier pension that we are introducing, and a stock market-linked investment that will benefit in the long run as the economy grows and, crucially, will benefit from a contribution from the employer, too, which is not the case in the state scheme.
The total figure for the fall in the number of workless households has been in the order of 17%. The position we inherited was that it had not fallen for 30 years and approximately 2.5 million children were living in such households. That number has fallen by several hundred thousand—a clear change and a clear improvement for the public and those going back to work.
Universal credit is set to roll out according to the timetable I laid out the other day. We have been round this—[Interruption.] With respect, Mr Speaker, I know that Christmas is over but I think one of the pantomimes left its dame behind on the Opposition Front Bench. Universal credit will roll out in the time scales available and will be a major benefit to all those who come under it, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith).
Constituents of mine who face mandatory reconsideration are stuck with the possibility of a gap in their benefits until their tribunal hearing. I know that the Secretary of State is very keen to deal with that problem. Will he tell the House what further steps can be taken to protect my constituents?
One of the things we have done in the past couple of weeks, since I came to this post, is get information back from tribunal judges. Previously, we did not have that information. We are studying why judges are making those decisions, so we can make sure that we get decisions right before they go to tribunal.
T6. Given the praise for the Health and Safety Executive from respondents to the recent triennial review, including positive feedback from the business sector, will the Minister support its regulatory function of saving British workers’ lives, instead of repeating the tired old Tory mantra about work-based dangers: “It’s health and safety gone mad”? (901888)
I am slightly disappointed in my hon. Friend for asking that sort of question, because it is very important that health and safety is taken seriously in the workplace and in public areas. Right across the Christmas period, I went public about the need to ensure that Christmas was not spoiled by stupid comments, and stupid local authorities saying, “We shouldn’t do this or that”—throw snowballs, or have Christmas trees in certain areas—“because of health and safety.” That is wrong, and it has nothing to do with health and safety; it is an insurance risk.
Has the Secretary of State managed to watch programmes such as “Benefits Street” and “On Benefits & Proud”? If so, has he, like me, been struck by the number of people on them who manage to combine complaining about welfare reform with being able to afford to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos, and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television? Does he understand the concerns and irritation of many people who go to work every day and pay their taxes but cannot afford those kinds of luxuries?
My hon. Friend is right: many people are shocked by what they see. That is why the public back our welfare reform package, which will get more people back to work and end these abuses. All these abuses date back to the last Government, who had massive spending and trapped people in benefit dependency.
May I ask the Secretary of State to look carefully at his many policies that are delivered through intermediaries such as G4S, Capita and Atos? Are not many of those private sector providers deeply ineffective and inefficient? They cause many of my constituents great grief.
While I accept some of the things that the hon. Gentleman says—in particular, I accept that Atos’ contract for the work capability assessment was brought in by the previous Administration—there can be benefits, and savings can be made, if assessments are done correctly. To look after our constituents, we have to make sure that companies do them properly.
In the Minister’s reply to my written question of 5 December, we learned that there was a prosecution in fewer than one in four of 45,000 cases of benefit fraud. Only 400 cases resulted in a prison sentence; the vast majority were handled through informal recovery processes. What proportion of the informal repayment arrangements are up to date, and does the Minister believe that increasing the incidence of prosecution would be helpful in reducing the incidence of benefit fraud?
We have made great progress in pursuing more people than have ever been pursued before. The reality is that the amount got back from those who have been defrauding the state is better than it has been, but in the answer to which my hon. Friend refers, we made it clear that we have much more to do. It is the nature of many benefits that they are open to abuse; changes such as universal credit will simplify the process and give far less opportunity to those who would defraud the system. That is the right way to deal with the issue.
It is this Government who have stood by that. The Prime Minister gave a pledge before the last election, and we intended to, and will, see that all the way to the election. As always, all further commitments will be made and published in the manifesto.
I can indeed. Universal credit replaces the benefits that are most open to fraud, in many cases. Also, housing benefit doubled in value under the last Government; universal credit will deal with those problems, get things back into order, and provide an incentive to go back to work; that is the key thing. Getting people back to work, which the Opposition are not interested in, is the key element of welfare reform.
Given this latest bedroom tax shambles, can the Secretary of State clarify whether he will write off, or seek repayment for, discretionary housing payments that have been made to those people who will now receive back payment of housing benefit?
I urge the Secretary of State to promote fairness for people on housing waiting lists, fairness for people in overcrowded accommodation, where children have to do their homework in the hallways, and fairness for hard-working people and their families when it comes to welfare tourism.
That is exactly right. The reality that my hon. Friend has spotted is that the Opposition have voted against every single one of our welfare reforms. Not only would the welfare bill have been £45 billion higher under them, but more people would be out of work and they would have failed the British people.
On the Work programme, can the Minister explain why Dundee is once again the least supported city in Scotland, with only 9.79% of people being helped back into work by the programme? Will she apologise to the people of Dundee and explain why 90% are still not being helped?
The majority of people are being helped by the Work programme. As I said earlier, this is the first time we have had a co-ordinated approach to support, and it has supported 2.5 million people so far. Of course we have to make it better and support more people, but 444,000—that figure is from industry statistics—have actually got a job.
Tragically, nearly 10,000 families suffer the death of a child each year, including 7,800 babies under the age of one. Is it not time that the Government did the right and compassionate thing in the remainder of this Parliament by backing the Change Bereavement Leave campaign and introducing a statutory right to bereavement leave for all parents who lose a child?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are reforming bereavement benefits. The intention, having talked with bereaved families, is to focus the funding on the point of bereavement and the immediate year thereafter, but obviously ongoing support for bereaved families will be available through universal credit. I will be happy to discuss the matter with him further.
A few moments ago the Secretary of State quoted the Minister for the Cabinet Office on universal credit, but he forgot to mention the part where the Minister called its implementation “lamentable” and said that a lot of money has been wasted. We also learned last week that the Cabinet Office withdrew the Government Digital Service from universal credit, a decision described as “disappointing” by the lead official. Why did the official describe it in such terms?
Yet again the Opposition are farming in and around old e-mails. The truth is that universal credit and the Cabinet Office are working together, with the Cabinet Office supporting us on the digital ask. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made it absolutely clear that that is where we are going. I know that in reality the Opposition do not support universal credit, but it would be better if they came clean: it will be delivered and they will be thankful in the end.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Syria. I would first like to inform the House that we have reached E3 plus 3 agreement with Iran on implementing, from 20 January, the first stage nuclear agreement reached in Geneva, as set out in my statement on 25 November. We will now move to seek a comprehensive settlement on the nuclear issue with Iran.
Yesterday I attended the meeting of the core group of the Friends of Syria in Paris to prepare the ground for the Geneva II peace negotiations beginning in Montreux on 22 January. In his letter of invitation, the UN Secretary-General makes it clear that the aim is to
“assist the Syrian parties in ending the violence and achieving a comprehensive agreement for a political settlement, implementing fully the Geneva Communiqué, while preserving the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria.”
That means agreeing a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent, to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.
Our united message in Paris yesterday, from all 11 countries represented, was the vital necessity of this process, the great importance of both the regime and the opposition being prepared to attend, and our determination to support a political settlement and end the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. No one should underestimate the difficulty of the negotiations ahead, but we will not give up on diplomacy as the route to stopping the appalling bloodshed, nor will we waver in supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, for if there is only a murderous regime on the one side and extremists on the other, there can be no peaceful settlement in Syria.
President Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition has always said that he is ready to attend the Geneva negotiations. His task is to persuade the rest of the moderate opposition to agree to that at a time when their towns, villages and homes are under relentless attack. The National Coalition is expected to make a final decision at its general assembly this Friday. We urge it to attend and to put the spotlight on the Assad regime’s responsibility to end this terrible conflict. Today Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov met UN and Arab League envoy Brahimi for further discussions ahead of the talks. There is a pressing need for measures that can build confidence ahead of the negotiations such as prisoner releases and progress on humanitarian access, including through local ceasefires. We call on all parties in Syria to work towards such actions.
Since my last statement to the House, the violence has remained intense. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now puts the death toll at over 125,000 people. The regime continues to bombard Aleppo and other towns and cities, including through the repeated use of barrel bombs. These huge canisters, filled with explosives and shards of metal and dropped from helicopters on to civilian areas, have killed 600 people in Aleppo alone since mid-December, including 172 children, and injured 3,000 people. The use of this deliberately indiscriminate weapon is yet another war crime and is clearly designed to sow terror and weaken the will of the civilian population. Assad and those around him should be in no doubt that the world will hold them to account.
The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is also utterly unacceptable. The UN Security Council presidential statement in October last year demanded that aid must be able to reach all Syrians. However, the UN estimates that 2.5 million people inside Syria are currently not receiving assistance, including 250,000 people trapped in besieged or hard-to-access areas. Countless numbers of people are being denied access to food and medicines, and there are now sickening reports of innocent people dying from malnutrition. Last week at the Security Council we proposed a new statement calling for immediate and unfettered access for aid. This was blocked by Russia, but we will continue to seek action at the UN Security Council and to work with Russia to try to bring about progress at Geneva and in the humanitarian situation. More than half the Syrian population is now in need of humanitarian assistance: 9.3 million people within Syria, and 2.3 million refugees in the region, who are facing bitter winter conditions.
The UK has now provided half a billion pounds in aid—the largest sum our country has ever committed to a single crisis. Today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced that we have now allocated or delivered on all our funding promises. On Wednesday she will attend a pledging conference in Kuwait where the UK will make a major further donation, in response to the new UN appeal, of $6.5 billion for Syria in 2014, and we will urge other countries to be equally generous. We will also press for the lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations, the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities, and respect for international humanitarian law.
In this House and this country we are very conscious of the importance of a greater role for women in ending conflicts and building peace. The UK has led the way in advocating a direct role for women in the Geneva negotiations. We have put forward proposals to ensure that both sides include women in their delegations, we have urged the UN to facilitate a clear role for women’s groups and civil society in the form of a consultative body present at the negotiations, and we are providing £200,000 in funding to enable Syrian women’s groups to take part.
On top of our humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, we have given more than £20 million in support for opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists. This includes training and equipping search and rescue teams, providing power generators and communications equipment, supporting and training civil administrations, and helping survivors of sexual violence.
In November last year, we announced an increase in non-lethal support to the supreme military council of General Idris, including communications assistance and medical and logistics equipment. In December, we took the decision to impose a temporary halt to deliveries of those supplies, following fighting over control of the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. We are ready to resume—and to consider increasing—this assistance as soon as we are satisfied that conditions on the ground allow the military council to take safe delivery of our equipment.
Since 3 January, Syrian opposition groups have been battling an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group—the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—in dozens of locations across northern Syria. Opposition groups are reported to have driven the al-Qaeda-affiliated group back in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and al-Raqqah governorates. The fighting has been accompanied by widespread public demonstrations against the torture and summary executions carried out by the extremists.
The fact that the moderate opposition is prepared to fight against these groups is a demonstration to the world that they reject extremism, just as they reject the Assad regime. It gives the lie to Assad’s claim that that there is no choice other than his regime or extremist terrorists. And it underlines the importance of supporting the moderate opposition forces to help them counter the extremists—which is vital for security in the region and in the UK. Assad’s brutality is the best recruiting tool the extremists have. Ultimately, the only long-term way to deal with the extremist threat is to reach an inclusive political settlement.
We have always warned that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the consequences will be for regional peace and security. There have been further car bombings in Lebanon, as well as clashes on the Lebanese border. There has also been fierce fighting in western Iraq involving al-Qaeda extremists—at least in part the result of the conflict in Syria. And both Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, are generously coping with the strain of the ever-increasing burden of Syrian refugees, hosting more than 575,000 and more than 860,000 refugees respectively. We have given more than £111 million in humanitarian support to Jordan, more than £109 million to Lebanon, and more than £15 million to the Lebanese and Jordanian armed forces to help protect their borders.
One area in which progress is being made is the destruction of Syria’s chemical stocks. The first consignment of the most dangerous chemicals has now left Syria, after a short delay caused by intense fighting and poor weather. The Syrian regime must ensure that the remaining material is transported to the port as quickly as possible, to ensure that all chemicals can be eliminated by the end of June. The disposal of Syria's chemical stockpile is a strong example of international co-operation. Italy, the United States, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland and China are all making important contributions.
In addition to the support worth £2.4 million that the UK has provided to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons destruction effort, we announced on 19 December that we would accept some of the chemicals for destruction in commercial facilities here. These chemicals are similar to many other industrial chemicals routinely handled in the UK and we are working to ensure the safe management of this operation.
A Royal Navy ship, HMS Montrose, is about to join the escort of the Danish and Norwegian vessels transporting the chemical stocks from Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has also informed the House today that we will provide specialist equipment for use on board the US vessel where material of greatest proliferation concern will be neutralised.
The situation on the ground in Syria is appalling and getting worse, as I have described. The threat to regional and international security continues to grow, as the conflict increasingly cannot be contained within Syrian borders. We will continue to intensify our efforts to reach a political settlement, to save lives and to protect our own security.
It is only through a political resolution that the conflict can be brought to an end. The start of the Geneva II peace conference on 22 January is an important step, and, while we have no illusions about how difficult and challenging a process this is likely to be, we will do everything possible, with other nations, to help it succeed.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it.
On Iran, agreeing the terms of the deal in Geneva back in November was indeed an important first step, but the real test remains how it is implemented on the ground. Given the past conduct of the Iranian regime, it is now vital that the international community remains vigilant and stringently monitors the implementation of the first stage nuclear agreement in the months ahead.
Turning to Syria, a conflict that began nearly three years ago as an uprising against the Assad regime has since inflamed sectarian fault lines within the country and mutated into a proxy regional conflict, so delivering support to those most affected by the ongoing violence remains urgent and vital. Ahead of this week’s long-awaited second pledging conference in Kuwait, Baroness Amos has already stressed that the conference will need to raise much more than the $1.5 billion raised last year if it is to meet the scale of the humanitarian need.
The Opposition of course welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the UK Government have now allocated or delivered all our funding promises, but earlier today the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that contributions from others have so far fallen well short. Will he therefore tell the House what action the Government are taking to encourage other nations to meet their obligations on past pledges, before further pledges are made in the coming days? We also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s efforts, along with the Friends of Syria group, to encourage the Syrian National Coalition to commit to attending the Geneva talks.
In the light of experience of such conflicts, such as the 15-year Lebanese civil war, and the apparent intractability of the factions fighting within Syria today, we all recognise the scale of the challenge, of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, involved in securing a full transitional deal in Geneva in the coming days. Yet surely the first goal at Geneva II, between the main international and regional players, could and should be to aim to secure a stop to the escalation and fuelling of the conflict.
That is why the role of Iran in particular may yet be crucial. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran would take part in the Geneva II peace conference if invited without preconditions. He added:
“We support any initiative aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.”
It is of course right to acknowledge the role that Iran has so far played in deepening and inflaming this conflict. Yet with the need for resolution now so urgent, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Iran’s claimed resolve to be part of the solution should now be tested, and if so, does he agree that one way of doing so is to bring Iran to the table at Geneva to participate in the conference?
A key priority for the international community at that conference must surely be to minimise the problems of overspill across the region by working with allies in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what other steps, beyond humanitarian support, the UK Government are taking to help the Governments of Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to respond to the growing internal political and economic pressure that the Syrian conflict is placing on them?
The rise of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, such as those the Foreign Secretary mentioned, is not of course simply a concern for Syria; they form but part of a crescent of crisis that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon. Will the Foreign Secretary set out his assessment of the extent to which British citizens are playing a role in these conflicts, and will he assure the House today that our agencies are sufficiently focused on these deeply troubling developments?
The challenges to be addressed by the Geneva II conference are of course considerable, but the process under way to secure the peaceful destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile offers us a point of hope amid the death and destruction still being witnessed in the country. The Government will therefore have our support in the coming days in their effort to secure real and substantial progress in Geneva next week towards a political settlement that ends the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, including for the strong support across the House for our trying to do everything we can to make a success of the start of the Geneva II process. He is of course absolutely right to say that a beneficial early product of that could be measures that stop the fuelling and escalation of the conflict. That is why I have talked, as have Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov at their press conference today, about the great desirability of local ceasefires and improved access for humanitarian aid even before we all get to Geneva next week. These are of course things that could also be beneficial products of the process.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the role of Iran. He said correctly that Iran has done quite a bit to deepen and inflame the crisis, including through much direct support for the Assad regime and its brutal treatment of its people. Our position on Iran depends very much on its readiness to work with the outcome of Geneva I. The invitation letter of the UN Secretary-General is clear about the purpose of our invitation to Montreux and then to Geneva, where we will carry on next week, which is to implement the original Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012. Iran was not present at that conference, but all the other nations are united behind that communiqué. That includes Russia, which was represented there.
That is the basis of Geneva II. It is about bringing about a transitional governing body with full executive authority that is formed by mutual consent. A signal of support for that being our united purpose would be very helpful in getting Iran to Geneva II. There is no problem in principle in any quarter, and certainly not among western nations, with Iran coming, but there is the practical problem of whether it is prepared to play a constructive role if it gets there. We would welcome stronger signals of that from the Iranians.
On the questions about Jordan and Lebanon, a great deal of the help that I have described is humanitarian assistance. In the case of Lebanon, where there has been violence, we use our diplomatic presence in every possible way to help the authorities to calm the situation. We also give direct support to the Lebanese armed forces. We help to finance some of their border posts. I welcome the recently announced support from Saudi Arabia for the Lebanese armed forces. It is providing $3 billion of assistance to build up the Lebanese armed forces. We have assisted Jordan with a good deal of equipment, as well as with the support that I have mentioned.
It is clear that the number of British nationals who have travelled to the region to fight is into the hundreds. We are vigilant about that and all our security agencies are focused on it. It is important to make it clear that we are prepared to act to obstruct people from doing that. The Government have the right and the power to confiscate passports. When people are resident in the UK but are not British nationals, we can cancel their leave to remain in the UK on the basis of such activity. I stress, as I have stressed since April 2011, that we advise against all travel to Syria. We of course advise people against going to fight in Syria, but we advise against all travel to Syria even for those who go there for more laudable motives. We are very limited in what we can do to assist people once they have gone there.
Our work on the destruction of chemical weapons will, of course, continue.
Although I welcome unreservedly the Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic efforts, does he acknowledge that neither he nor his American counterparts have any real clout on the Syrian moderate opposition because of our collective inability to provide them with any of the material help that they need to press home their objectives? Does that not contrast with the Russian Government’s ability to influence the Assad regime, as was demonstrated by their ability to deliver the sacrifice of all the chemical weapons within days, once the Kremlin had decided that it was necessary? If the west cannot give material help to the Syrian moderate opposition, must we not swallow our pride and work with the Russians to find the minimum that is required to bring this ghastly conflict to an end and to enable the international community to help the Syrians get rid of the jihadi terrorists who are threatening the whole of the middle east?
Of course we work with the Russians. We discuss endlessly with the Russians, in any case, if there is any way in which we can together resolve the crisis. On chemical weapons, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, working together, have made the progress that we have described.
I think that my right hon. and learned Friend goes too far in saying that we have no clout with the Syrian opposition. What he says is not true, in that stark form, of the United States and the United Kingdom. I have many extensive discussions with the Syrian opposition. I was with the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition in Paris yesterday and they do listen carefully to what we say. They know, of course, that we have sent them assistance in the past. It is not the lethal assistance that my right hon. and learned Friend has consistently called for, but we have sent a great deal of other assistance to help to deal with chemical attacks and to save lives.
We have had to put on hold the delivery of that assistance because of what happened at the Bab al-Hawa border depot in December. To deliver assistance to the opposition we have to have confidence, and this House would expect us to have confidence, in its destination and in who will have control of it. We can resume and increase such assistance when we are satisfied on that point. That is of value to the opposition, and they are conscious of what the UK can do to provide that support.
I draw to the attention of the House the fact that, as co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran, I visited Tehran as a member of an all-party delegation last week at the invitation of the Iranian Parliament.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of Iran’s attendance at Geneva II? Iran was not present in June 2012, but the circumstances were very different, not least of which was that President Ahmadinejad was President of Iran at the time and not the much more moderate President, President Rouhani. Lakhdar Brahimi, the distinguished UN diplomat, has himself called for Iran to be allowed to attend Geneva II unconditionally. I plead with the Foreign Secretary to back Mr Brahimi, and to have a conversation with Mr Kerry who seems to be saying, according to news reports today, that the current Government in Iran have to sign up to a communiqué that is now 18 months old, Geneva I, and to which they were not a party and had no decision on whether to attend because they were not in that Government.
The 30 June 2012 communiqué is 18 months old, but it is also the basis of the Secretary-General’s invitation letter to the participants in Geneva II issued on 6 January—last week. That is the basis on which we are going to Geneva II. The Geneva I communiqué is the basis of that letter: that is what we will be there to implement. Geneva I is not, therefore, just an old thing from some time ago when not everybody was there; it is the Secretary-General’s basis for the conference. It is therefore not asking too much to ask those who participate to express their support for that and their readiness to engage in a conference on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government have changed in Iran, and what we have been able to do on the nuclear issue has changed in that time. Nevertheless, from everything we can see, the active support of the Iranians for the Assad regime, which is now carrying out some of the terrible crimes I have described, continues today, even with a change of Government in Iran. That is the background and we must not forget that. That is why we are putting the pressure on Iran to say, “If you want to come, show very clearly that you are going to engage on the same basis as the rest of us.”
Of the three groups in Syria—the regime, the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army—the weakest is the Free Syrian Army. As my right hon. Friend said, many have concluded that the choice is now coming down to one between the al-Qaeda-backed Islamists and the regime. Given that both are backed by Russia and Iran, however, is that not a false choice? The Islamists are happy to support the regime, which is why the regime is not attacking them. If the people of Syria are to get their country back, we should do all we can to support the moderate opposition in Syria and, if necessary, revisit the decision to supply only non-lethal weapons.
There is a three-way contest; my right hon. Friend is right. Of course, in reality it is even more complex, because many different groups make up the Free Syrian Army and the groups that are affiliated to al-Qaeda. I would never accuse Russia—or, indeed, Iran—of supporting the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. They draw their support in other ways. Nevertheless, he makes the case for giving more support to the moderate opposition. I say again: we are ready to resume and increase our support through important but non-lethal supplies, provided we are confident about what will happen to those supplies. That is a condition on which this House would always insist.
The situation in Syria is an indictment of the international community and our failure to take seriously the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Is it not time for this Government and, indeed, the international community together, alongside the process in Geneva, to look seriously again at all options of intervention to bring this horror to an end?
It is an indictment of the international community—I will readily agree with that—and I have often spoken myself of the failure of the UN Security Council and the international community. Nevertheless, that is a failure with which we have to work, because as we have found before, with the vetoing of resolutions at the UN Security Council, we are not able to win agreement in the UN Security Council for far less radical or interventionist measures than what the hon. Lady is calling for. Therefore, we have to tackle the situation in other ways: to relieve humanitarian suffering in all the ways I have described; to promote a political settlement, working with Russia wherever we can; and to ensure that the chemical weapons are disposed of. Yes, there would have been earlier solutions, but they were not practical at the Security Council, so they would not have been legal and would not have commanded international support.
If we cannot guarantee safe delivery of non-lethal supplies, would it not be particularly unwise and foolish to start delivering weapons into this cauldron? Is it not right to concentrate on diplomacy, which is not compatible with war?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are very much concentrating on the diplomacy. As my statement reflects, I am not proposing lethal supplies—I have always been clear that we would come to this House and have a vote if we were going to do that—but there is a role for non-lethal supplies, if they can be safely delivered and controlled, that save lives and help a moderate opposition to function, because without them diplomacy will not work. If it is only extremists and the Assad regime, diplomacy will never succeed, so there is a role for our support for the moderate opposition in that regard, but we must have confidence in how such supplies will be used.
All diplomatic progress involving Iran and Syria is welcome, but the Foreign Secretary is right to highlight the fact that the situation involving refugees in Syria is calamitous. It is also right to support refugees in situ in neighbouring countries, but there are thousands of refugees who have made it to Europe. Germany has accepted 80% of pledged places among Syrian refugees. Amnesty International has described the attitude of countries, including the UK, towards Syrian refugees as “shameful”. Why does the UK have such a poor record in not accepting Syrian refugees?
It is clear from what I have said that the UK has a strong record on the humanitarian side. Our donation, of £500 million so far, is the biggest ever in our history and one of the biggest in the world. We are the second most generous nation in the world in this regard, and we are trying to help people, as the hon. Gentleman says, in situ. On the question of refugees, last year between January and September, we accepted 1,100 Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom for asylum, treating them on their individual merits, as we do people from other nations. That fact is sometimes neglected and overlooked.[Official Report, 16 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 14MC.]
I support the Foreign Secretary’s plea to the Syrian moderate and peaceful opposition to vote on Friday to take part in the Geneva II talks. However, if they show that willingness to overcome their genuine qualms and participate, can we reward them by stepping up support, in practical and operational ways, for the peaceful opposition, as called for in the letter by many honourable colleagues in The Times today?
Yes, we can. I hope we can, and my hon. Friend will understand from what I am saying that I would like to be able to do so. I stress, however, that because of the difficulties that arose and the loss of control at the main depot in Bab al-Hawa, we had temporarily to put on hold the supplies of communications and logistics equipment we were sending in December. We will need to be assured that the restructuring of the supreme military council that is meant to be taking place over the coming days has satisfactorily addressed those problems, so that we can receive a high level of assurance in respect of the equipment we send.
Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn(Mr Straw), I was part of the all-party delegation to Iran last week, which I put on the record. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement about the tentative nuclear agreement with Iran. If there is to be a successful Geneva II process, however, I agree with the former Foreign Secretary that it must involve Iran. If other countries are involved in the Syria talks and themselves support jihadist forces in the country, questions need to be asked about the amount of resources they are putting in. Why is it that the Foreign Secretary and, apparently, the United States are still opposed to Iran being part of the process, which can bring about a permanent peace and save a lot of lives?
I can only reiterate what I said to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)who asked about the same point: it is not a dogmatic opposition in principle; we simply want those who attend Geneva II to be there on the same basis. Let me put the argument another way. If we think back to the Geneva I communiqué, which is now the basis of the peace talks to come, I do not believe that, had Iran been present at that time, we would have been able to arrive at that agreement on creating a transitional governing body in Syria. We all hope, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, that there will be a change of policy, but it is necessary to have a little more evidence of such a change than we have seen so far in order for Iran to play a constructive role at Geneva II. We would be very pleased to see in the coming days further signals of a readiness to play such a constructive role.
The House will welcome later today the spokesman for the president of the Syrian opposition coalition, and the moderate opposition could have had no more staunch supporter than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. If the negotiations in Geneva are to succeed, and if the imbalance of forces that my right hon. Friend described so graphically in his statement is not to be addressed by the Geneva process, how can some balance be made that will give the regime an incentive to negotiate as opposed to feeling that its position is particularly strong?
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to what some of the leading members of the National Coalition have achieved, in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, in helping to bring together, in a country without any free political institutions, a coalition of people committed to a democratic and pluralist future for Syria. For the reasons my right hon. Friend described, it is important for people in other countries to help keep a moderate opposition in being and in business. We have contributed to that in various ways and, as I mentioned, we are ready to do so again, but we need assurances about how our assistance will be used. If the opposition go to Geneva II and the regime is not prepared to work on the basis of creating a transitional governing body drawn from regime and opposition, I think many people across the world will draw the conclusion that they should give increased support to that moderate opposition in the face of diplomatic blockage from the Assad regime.
I am grateful for the update but so far I am still searching for a coherent British policy on Syria. If we want to be anything other than willing participants in the failure of the international community, would it not be a good start simply to say that the future of Syria will not include Assad?
We have been saying for a couple of years that Assad has no role in the future of Syria. After all, the proposition that will be before us at Geneva II is the establishment of a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent from regime and opposition. It is inconceivable that any opposition group, however moderate or extreme, would give its consent to Assad’s being part of that transitional governing body. Nor is it realistic, after the death of 125,000 people and years of torture, abuse and murder, to think that Assad could ever again unite the people of Syria. I think it is clear to us and to most observers that he has no role in the country’s future.
Our policy is very clear: to promote the political solution, to help keep a moderate opposition in being, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to assist with the destruction of chemical weapons stocks. On those things I think we are fairly united across the House.
My right hon. Friend has referred to a murderous regime on the one hand and extremists on the other, and to the 2.5 million displaced people in Syria who are receiving no aid whatsoever in terms of food or assistance. Within that 2.5 million, the Christian community is probably suffering disproportionately. Will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure through the United Nations at Geneva II that that community is not dismissed as a sideline?
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. This conflict has affected minorities in Syria, including Christians, particularly sharply and horribly. It is important for that point to be made, and it will be made strongly at Geneva II. It reinforces the case for seeking the political solution which alone can protect those minorities, including Christians, and for the National Coalition—the opposition—to be as broadly based as possible. I am pleased to say that there are leading Christians in the opposition ranks, and it is important for them to retain that broad support so that they do not fall into the trap of sectarianism into which so many have already fallen.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in recent weeks the jihadists—some of whom, as he conceded, are from these shores—have been promoting sectarian division between Sunni and Shi’a. Does he agree that any way forward must involve protecting not just the rights of Christians, but the rights of all people—of whatever faith—including their human rights? What guarantees does he think can be provided to ensure that that happens?
The right hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which adds to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). It must be stressed that the people of Syria, in the main, are not extreme, and have not been sectarian in their history. This is a country which, for a long time, has been able to combine happily alongside each other people of many different cultures and religions. Extremists are taking advantage of the conflict in Syria, rather than the conflict’s being a reflection of the true nature of the Syrian people, and we need a political solution to be arrived at as soon as possible so that they can return to their true nature. That is not for the benefit of any outside power; it is for them, so that they can go back to the happier solutions at which they had arrived together, living alongside each other.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on his answer to the question about refugees? The 1,500 figure that he gave referred to those who had been accepted for asylum, rather than those who had been accepted as part of a co-ordinated resettlement programme. Just before Christmas I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, and saw a project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service to support refugees living in host communities in Jordan. The situation is dire, particularly for those who are very vulnerable, which is why I want to urge the Foreign Secretary to think again. We could make a real contribution to a co-ordinated programme of resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees, who could benefit greatly from coming here.
There will of course be a variety of views about this, but I hope no one will think the United Kingdom has anything other than a strong record in trying to look after vulnerable people caught up in this conflict. We are currently providing food for 320,000 a month, medical consultations for 300,000 a month, and cooking sets and mattresses and blankets for 385,000 people. The United Kingdom is one of the most generous countries in the world in looking after vulnerable people affected by the conflict in Syria.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House who he thinks is arming the jihadist al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and what discussions has he had with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar about shifting their emphasis towards humanitarian assistance rather than arming al-Qaeda-linked groups?
Gulf states also provide humanitarian assistance. For instance, Saudi Arabia has provided $373 million to the UN appeals, and of course in Kuwait on Wednesday we will be looking to some of the Gulf states to make huge contributions to the humanitarian appeal so we will be reinforcing this point. At the meeting we had in Paris yesterday, those states—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were very clear about channelling their support through the National Coalition and making sure it is fighting for people who want a democratic and pluralist Syria, and that is what we always look to it to do.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s confirmation that the UK has made a substantial contribution to humanitarian aid and also in relation to chemical weapons decommissioning, but notwithstanding the strength of feeling we have heard across the House today, will he accept that it is the settled will of this House that there should be no military intervention by the UK in Syria?
As my hon. Friend can gather from what I have said, I am not proposing that. There was no mention in my statement of military intervention in Syria. We are addressing this crisis in many other ways. I do not want to anticipate what the settled will of the House will be months and years into the future, but the Government are not planning for, and are not proposing, any military intervention of our own in Syria; he can be assured of that.
Did not this House on 29 August beneficially influence world opinion and reduce substantially the threat to the world from both chemical and nuclear weapons? Will the Foreign Secretary continue to resist the cries to give war a chance, and insist on the most likely path to peace which is through diplomacy, not through military intervention?
I hope the hon. Gentleman heard the statement I gave a moment ago because I do not know how he could have got any impression that it was about anything other than diplomatic success and, through diplomacy, making sure the crisis is addressed as best we can. On the chemical weapons, I think we have had this disagreement before. There was a very important change of policy by Russia and by Damascus on chemical weapons in September, but I believe the origin of that was the fact that military action was being considered and debated in the United States, so sometimes diplomacy benefits from the soft power having some hard power behind it.
As the Foreign Secretary knows well, the reason the moderate opposition are weak is unfortunately not only that they lack weapons. It would be extremely difficult and very dangerous for the west to try to micro-manage the balance of forces on the ground. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore please concentrate on ensuring that our humanitarian assistance is more focused, in particular in relation to Jordan? Refugees in Jordan are currently unable to work. Could we work with the Jordanian Government to ensure employment and livelihoods for refugees in Jordan?
This is also a very good point because we are now seeing people who have been displaced for the long term: children who have been away from their schools for two or three years; people who have been without work for that amount of time. That is reflected in our redefinition of some of our aid priorities, so we are trying to help in more ways than just feeding people when they are in refugee camps. We will have to shift increasingly in that direction and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary can speak about this in greater detail and with greater authority when she returns from Kuwait, but I very much take on board the point my hon. Friend makes.
The news today that there have been serious discussions about localised ceasefires—particularly in places such as Aleppo, which has suffered badly over the past year—is obviously welcome. Does the Secretary of State accept that it must be a top priority for this Government and the international community to try to roll out those localised ceasefires as quickly and widely as possible? That would help to bring support to those who are suffering in the humanitarian crisis throughout Syria, and it would also provide a good foundation for the Geneva talks and for any settlement reached thereafter.
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was discussing that matter with the other delegations at the Paris meeting yesterday. These are very difficult things to bring about, and I do not want to heighten expectations too early. In such a complex and brutal conflict, even localised ceasefires are difficult to bring about. However, it is important to pursue discussions about that matter with Russia, and it could well be an important track to discuss at Geneva II.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the one area of progress, on chemical weapons, has been instructive? On that issue, western nations were able to agree to co-operate with Russia on a strategy. Until the parties to this conflict are no longer able to look to their respective international patrons for support because those patrons have agreed on a way forward, they will be pretty unlikely to come to an agreement in circumstances that Eugene Rogan has described not as “winner takes all” but as “loser must die”.
Yes, I think there is a lot in that as well. It is generally true to say that there is now a greater appetite among some of the outside powers for a political settlement in Syria than there might be among some of the people who are fighting each other in Syria. It was clear in our discussions yesterday that all 11 members of the core group of the Friends of Syria supported a political settlement and wanted the opposition to go to Geneva II. That included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, which have been mentioned in these questions. We also need Russia to assist in bringing the regime to Geneva II in the same spirit, and that is what Secretary Kerry has been pursuing with the Russians today. We will all be pursuing it with them over the coming days.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s acknowledgement of the impact on Christian and other religious minorities of the al-Qaeda depredations in northern Syria. I also welcome his assurances of focus in that respect. May I press him further and say that one of the key issues is humanitarian aid? Many of the people affected will require resettlement in areas in which their families have lived for hundreds of years. It will also be important to extend diplomatic assurances to those people so that President Assad does not try to recruit them as proxies to shore up his own power in Syria.
Yes, that is also true. The hon. Gentleman is looking ahead a bit, however. We are not yet in a situation where people can go back to their homes or be resettled, or where assurances can be given about the position of different communities in Syria. In a way, that would be a good problem to have. It is the next stage that we will need to move on to. Our overwhelming emphasis now is on staunching the bloodshed, but we will have to move on to those issues and he is quite right to raise them.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment not to provide any lethal support to the so-called moderate rebels. When thinking about a transitional Government, may I also urge him to learn the lessons from places such as Bangladesh? It had a transitional Government put in place but they did not consider the outcomes in regard to the delivery of democracy for those people who were not part of that Government.
A transitional governing body is no easy thing to bring about in any country, and, as I said in my statement, we must not underestimate the difficulty of doing that in a war-torn, divided country such as Syria. The provision to do so by mutual consent is very important, because through that a transitional governing body could just work, mutual consent being required for the membership on both sides. It is very important to uphold that commitment of our Geneva communiqué of 2012 as we go into the talks next week.
Will any democratic settlement at Geneva II include or preclude Assad? Will it include or preclude those around him—those who are culpable in what has gone on? In particular, will it include or preclude the jihadists and the fundamentalists?
I go back to what I have referred to before. What we are seeking—the basis of the invitation letter from the UN Secretary-General—is a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent. Such a thing, drawn from regime and opposition, would naturally guard against the extremes, as each side would have to agree to the representatives of the other. That would not be a recipe for Assad to continue, as I mentioned earlier, or for the al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists to have a role. Again, that shows the importance of our sticking to this principle and this formula in the forthcoming negotiations.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what support his Department is providing to individuals working for aid agencies, and their families, to ensure that they are getting all the information and support they need to keep as safe as possible while carrying out their vital work, for which I am sure the whole House will wish to thank them?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the people working for the aid agencies do an extraordinary job. They are often in danger, and quite a number have lost their lives in the Syria conflict. They are the unsung heroes, and she is right to refer to them in the House. Of course we do everything possible to provide the information and equipment they need, but if at any stage she or any other hon. Member thinks there is more we need to do on that, we are always open to ideas.