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Westminster Hall

Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2014

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 April 2014

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

Personal Independence Payments (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate on personal independence payments in Wales. It is an important debate for many of our constituents, including many of the most vulnerable, who are being failed by the system. I hope that hon. Members here today will share cases from their constituencies and that we will get some action from the Government.

I could, like other hon. Members, share with the House many accounts given to me by constituents of their experiences. I will begin with one told to me by a lady from Gwynfryn in my constituency, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on 22 August. After fighting through two rounds of surgery, and showing continued strength through chemotherapy, she approached me in January to see if there was any help that my staff and I could offer her. My constituent had applied for personal independence payments soon after her diagnosis. She knew she would be unfit to work and that she would need financial support through a difficult time. She received a response from Capita and waited her turn, hoping that the backlog would clear. My constituent is still not receiving PIP—or any financial support; and she is still undergoing chemotherapy.

Capita’s own information pack, given to applicants, states that assessments should be made within “approximately 28 days.” I think we can all agree that my constituent—like many other people in a similar position—has waited long enough. The Government have instituted a system in Wales that is meant to offer advice and assessment, and to provide support, but it is failing woefully. The absurd situation in my constituency is that Department for Work and Pensions staff are advising local people to get in touch with me to see whether I can help the process along with Capita. Government employees are advising my constituents to contact me, as their elected official, to put pressure on a body that was instituted by the Government and is paid for by taxpayers the length and breadth of the country.

Capita, of course, is an external body—a registered company that is independent in how it chooses to run itself. However, it is clearly failing to adhere to guidelines on processing dates and fulfilling contractual duties, and it is letting down those who desperately need support. That is not good enough. Dim digon da. The Tory-led Government decided to place Capita in charge of PIP assessments in Wales and allowed that system to be put in place without any serious pilot scheme. That cannot be right.

Last week, at our request, a senior representative of Capita met some Welsh Labour MPs. To our horror, in answer to our questions we were told that the company originally thought that assessments would take “around an hour”; in reality they take between two and two and a half hours. In the same meeting, again in answer to our questions, Members were told that Capita estimated it would need to assess 70% of applicants face to face. We were told that that figure is closer to 99%. How could those figures be so wrong? Where was that clarification from the Department for Work and Pensions before the contract—paid for by public money, I remind the House—was granted?

Like many other hon. Members I could cite cases to reinforce the point about MPs being used by the company to solve issues. Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will tear up the parts of his speech that may have been provided by officials about the general background to personal independence payments policy, and that he will focus instead on the failure of the past year, and the suffering that constituents have gone through because of that incompetence? He should explain what has happened and what will be done in future, and apologise to those constituents—who are often the most vulnerable—for the suffering inflicted on them.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.

The Minister may be heartened to hear me mention a previous Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, who used to say she believed we should run the national budget like a household budget. Leaving aside our views on the politics of the late Baroness, perhaps we can use that analogy here, to look at the scandal of the joint DWP and Capita mess that has been made with our money. We might imagine Capita as a firm of builders hired for a two-week job at an agreed daily rate, but which has already taken a month and is still nowhere near finishing. If I or many of my constituents had hired those builders, they would be out on their ear. What if Capita were a local charity, such as the type I used to manage before I became an MP: the local organisation that has to negotiate with a local authority or other body for a service level agreement? We can imagine the conversation: “We are not seeing the agreed number of clients; we are not getting things done on time,” and so on. If a small or medium-sized voluntary or community group, dealing with the council or another external body, was in that position, the agreement would be terminated.

Yet we are not talking about one household and an incompetent builder, or a small or medium-sized charity working with a council. We are talking about a failure, paid for by the tax-paying public and being subsidised massively on a multi-million pound basis. It is time that someone, somehow, somewhere—preferably the Government—carried the can for what has happened as the result of a deal between a private company and the Government, which is not working. Capita has not delivered on its contract with the Department for Work and Pensions. It has time and again displayed the fact that it is letting people down. At what point will the Government stand up, take notice of the constituents who are asking for help, and take action on an issue that is becoming more serious with every passing day?

In Penycae, another village in my constituency, a constituent suffers from terrible arthritis throughout her body, and is on lifelong medication as a result. Until last year, my constituent held a responsible, white-collar job. In June, her contract was terminated for reasons of medical capability. One would think that at that point she would receive support, but since she left her job in June she has been waiting on PIP. She has been waiting for Capita. She is completely unable to work and that has been confirmed by her GP and by hospital consultants. My constituent can provide personal reports, X-rays and supporting documents that make it crystal clear that she is entitled, in need and completely genuine; there is no doubt about it.

Why, then, is the system failing my constituent and so many others like her across Wales? The Government’s fact sheet on personal independence payments says:

“PIP is to help towards some of the extra costs arising from a health condition or disability.”

PIP, the replacement for disability living allowance put in place by the current Government, can be anything from £21 to £134 a week. It can be used to cover transport, care and all sorts of other costs that can be vital to those who are disabled or sick. By the Government’s own admission, PIP is support for people when they are unable to work because of a health condition or disability and need financial help. That is what the Government say PIP is, and that is what they claim Capita is providing.

The constituent I mentioned is still waiting for any kind of financial help. She is receiving no level of care from Capita or any other Government body. Since being forced to leave her job in June, she has been completely outside the system and is without any financial support. As a result, my constituent has lost her bank account and is experiencing the attention of debt recovery services. For Capita to tell someone like my constituent from Penycae that her case is in the queue, that a backlog is being experienced and that someone will “get to her when they can”—I believe those were the exact words—is absolutely not good enough. My constituent cannot wait another few months for money to come in. She needs it now. In fact, she has needed it since June, when she first applied. How many people can seriously be expected to live for nine or 10 months without any income? Yet that is what is happening in her case.

It is right and proper that this debate is taking place, but PIP is not the only form of benefit; it is a benefit on top of other benefits. No income at all, which is what the hon. Lady said, is ever so slightly—I respectfully say—misleading. I accept that there is an issue, which I will come on to in my response, but the lady to whom she referred would have been able to get other benefits.

I would be delighted to put the Minister in contact with my constituent or, indeed, with all the current cases I have, and they could rightfully have that debate. PIP is a huge issue. I am sure that he is rather sorry that there are absolutely no Government Members here to defend him, so he has to do a little of his own work on that score this morning.

I really hope that the debate this morning does not deteriorate. I am not that sort of Minister. I genuinely want to help. I do not really mind who is in the Chamber; it is a question of whether we can get PIP right. Of course I will take up any cases that are raised here today, as I do on a regular basis when constituents write to me; the hon. Lady has also written to me many times.

I assure the Minister that I want this issue sorted, and I am only sorry that it has not been sorted sooner.

I am of course aware that assessments are complicated. I am under no illusions that such systems are easy to run, and they are not simple to understand. I am clear, however, that Capita is being given public money to provide a service. I called for the debate today because my constituents are being left without any information about their cases; they are waiting on calls that are not returned; and they have no way of highlighting their situation, complaining or seeking help. That is why they are coming to me and to other Members of Parliament.

I was also shocked to learn that Capita has not even set up an official hotline for MPs. When constituents come to me about problems with other public bodies, I am able to contact someone quickly. That is part of our job as Members of Parliament, and the hotlines provided to MPs are an important part of the contact system. Capita, the company providing PIP assessments for the entirety of Wales, does not provide such a service. When it was pushed, I was given a number, but it was made clear to me that it was not an official hotline. I am loth to bring up Atos in this debate. The Government recently scrapped the contract with Atos because it was not delivering, but even Atos had an official hotline set up and working.

The debate is not simply about backlogged services and Capita not estimating correctly or preparing adequately. It is clear from Capita’s entire handling of PIP assessments that it was not the right company for the job. How much public money is being spent every single day by the Government on the service? How much public money is being spent on this company that is not returning calls? How much public money is being spent on this company that is forcing cancer sufferers to cross their fingers through massive delays? How much public money is being spent on this company while it forces those too sick to work into debt?

To return to our analogy with household economics, Capita is not the slow or dodgy builder, or the little charity worrying how it will see all the people it needs to see because it has two people off sick one month; Capita is supplying all the contracts for PIP assessment in Wales, which is a multi-million pound contract. Capita is the middleman, the company between the doctor and financial support—in many ways, it is the company between the hospital and the debt collector. At the moment, we are not seeing it provide such a bridge or, in many cases, any bridge at all.

Over and over again, the Government have said that they need to save money, and yet they are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a company that is not delivering on its contract. At what point do the Government step in to ensure that the service is being provided?

One of my disabled constituents was given a two-week assessment slot that had already elapsed. According to the media, civil servants are now helping Capita to deal with the backlog. Does my hon. Friend agree that this botched benefit is causing nothing but distress throughout the country, and that the implementation of PIP has been a total shambles?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Indeed, when the Prime Minister announced that the system would change to migrate those on disability living allowance to a personal independence payment, surely that was not part of the promises he made. When PIP was first introduced last year, surely the waiting times, the missed calls and the assessments for which staff have failed even to turn up were not part of the deal. In the debate today and whenever we discuss PIP in Wales, we are talking about real people—people with serious health conditions and real individuals with real families, who are desperately struggling.

I am certain that it is hard enough to fight cancer without having to fight Capita and, by extension, the Department for Work and Pensions. Capita is letting down people in real need. The Government are letting struggling people down by not stepping in and getting the mess sorted out. Waiting times for assessment have been so long that, in some cases, people with terminal conditions have died before receiving a penny—and yet Capita remains in place and the Department for Work and Pensions has not even imposed a fine. This is a scandal of national proportions.

Some of the most vulnerable people in Wales are being let down—and yet every single taxpayer throughout our land is being asked to foot the bill for a totally inadequate service. For the sake of my constituents in Gwynfryn and Penycae, and people everywhere in Wales, I urge the Government to take action now. It is time that the Department for Work and Pensions did its job. And it is time that the relationship with Capita was sorted out, or for that company to be given the boot.

Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Mr Owen. I apologise, but I will have to leave early because at 10 o’clock I have to chair a meeting on congenital heart disease in children.

There is no doubt that the Capita scheme for the personal independence payment is in total disarray and that the Government must shoulder the blame. They drew up the service level agreements and they need to fix the PIP—and quickly. When the Government were drawing up those agreements, did they estimate the correct average time that would be spent assessing each case? They said it would take one hour, but Capita—we spoke to the company last week—is taking two or three hours. Was the estimate realistic?

The travelling times experienced by our constituents in getting to the assessment centres and the number of face-to-face assessments set by the Government are all totally unrealistic. Did the Government show due diligence? Did they correctly assess Capita’s ability to deal with high volumes of cases? Were the service level agreements strict enough? Also, if my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) is correct, why have penalties not been imposed? The company has the carrot of profits, but it also needs the stick of enforcement. It has not had that so far.

The number of staff required was totally underestimated. Capita told us last week that it initially put in place 140, but it now needs to take that to 450—a tripling of staff. In fact, it cannot find the staff. I have an advert in my hand, placed in the Llandudno press: Capita is looking for

“qualified Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Paramedics, Physiotherapists …Disability Assessors”

to work in Llandudno. There is not one mention of staff who can deal with mental health issues. Fifty per cent. of the cases are musculo-skeletal, but 50% are mental health cases.

Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that those staff were not in place when Capita was awarded the contract?

Again, things come down to due diligence and to the assessment of the problem by the Government when awarding the contract. In addition, in the north Wales situation, there was no mention of staff who can deal with mental health issues.

We talk about the vast numbers of people affected, so let us consider who they are. One of my constituents who had mental health problems was told that she could not have an assessment in her own home. She lives in north Wales, but she was told to go to the nearest assessment centre—in Cardiff. It takes me two hours and 36 minutes to get from Rhyl to London, but I could almost have gone from Rhyl to London and back again in the time that it would take that lady simply to get down to Cardiff. Would the Minister send someone from London up to Cumbria for an assessment test, because those are the time scales that we are talking about? That shows total disregard for the individuals involved.

Another individual in my constituency, who is wheelchair-bound, waited for six months, but her case had still not been sorted out. In that time, there were knock-on effects to other benefits and funding was taken off her; she lost her mobility allowance and so she lost her car. There she was, with mental health issues, in a wheelchair and stuck in a house. Things that help people with mental health issues include visiting relatives, joining voluntary organisations, going to a place of worship and getting out in nature, none of which she could do because her car was taken away. All the things that could have helped her were taken away from her by Government action, or inaction.

The rules for the terminally ill suggest that if they have seven months left to live, they are pestered and hounded, but if they have six months left, they will be left alone. That should not be the case. We should prioritise the people—

I am sorry, Mr Owen; I am sure that was unintentional. This is rightly a passionate debate. I have referred in previous discussions to 28 days for terminal illness. That was completely unacceptable, and it was 10 days under disability living allowance. I told the Select Committee that the period would be below 10 days. That is where we are now, and that will continue.

The Minister talks about how things should happen; we are talking about how things are happening. Capita, which took the Government’s instructions, visited us last week and told us what I have just said. Perhaps the company got it wrong, but if it did the Minister should ask why the Government awarded a contract to a company that does not understand the basic rules of dealing with the dying.

I will move on. It is not just Labour Back Benchers from Wales who are raising the matter. The National Audit Office has said that

“the Department did not allow enough time to test whether the assessment process could handle large numbers of claims. As a result of this poor early operational performance, claimants face long and uncertain delays and the Department has had to delay the wider roll-out of the programme. Because it may take…time to resolve the delays, the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.”

The programme was introduced to cut costs by £2.6 billion. The National Audit Office is now saying that because of the terms and conditions and the fact that the rules were not set properly in the first place, value for money in the longer term—the whole raison d’être for the initiative—will be undermined. The NAO continued:

“A far higher proportion of new claims than was expected contained information that conflicted with existing data on the claimant held by DWP, leading to delays in processing new claims…Claimants were taking longer than expected to return claim forms”.

That should have been predicted and there should have been research before the contract was issued. The failings are the failings of this Government, and the Minister may have to fess up and say that he got it wrong. I ask him to be open, truthful and to sort out this terrible problem.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I apologise at the outset for having to leave immediately after I finish speaking, to undertake an official appointment relating to my duties as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I will not hear the Minister’s reply, but I will of course read it.

In the short time since personal independence payments have come into force, it has quickly become evident that the system is miserably failing people and leaving some of the most vulnerable in our communities in absolute desperation. My Neath constituency has one of the highest rates of take-up of the old disability living allowance, a legacy of the industrial heritage that once provided livelihoods for many of my constituents, but has now resulted in serious health problems—a heavy price to pay.

New applicants face a system of delay and despair. Many constituents have been waiting six months or longer, having had their face-to-face assessments and been told, frustratingly, that

“the report is in the final stages with a senior healthcare professional.”

For those six months they have been living off savings to help them to adapt to their conditions. The prospect of a backdated payment is of no comfort to them as they struggle with day-to-day tasks that many of us take for granted, while their families suffer under the stress and strain of caring for them.

In some of the cases processed by Capita, health care reports have not been up to standard and further information has been required. That involved going back to the assessor and requesting further information. In one case, a second face-to-face assessment was required, and in one astonishing instance it came to light in March 2014 that despite the assessment being carried out in November 2013, no assessment report had been prepared by the assessor. Those constituents’ misery and distress seems to have no end.

The protracted ordeal is just to get the assessment report from Capita to the Department for Work and Pensions. As the assessment reports start to trickle through to the Department, the emerging trend is of further delays in the final decision after the report has reached the Department. So after months of waiting with Capita, applicants face further delays, and that only adds to their misery.

I raised with Capita and the Department a case that encapsulates the ordeal. A constituent made his original application on 5 July 2013 after suffering a serious brain seizure, a stroke and several other seizures. He returned to work initially, but because of his mobility problems he could not continue. He underwent a home assessment on 15 October 2013, and made numerous calls to the Department for Work and Pensions to chase up the progress of his application. Every time, he was referred to Capita because the report had not been sent, but he was told that

“the report is in the final stages with a senior healthcare professional”.

One event epitomises his situation. He woke up one morning and asked his wife to leave him in bed as he was feeling unwell. Shortly after she left for work at 8 o’clock in the morning, he suffered a series of convulsions that lasted approximately 30 minutes. He had difficulty breathing and removing his continuous positive airway pressure mask, which he has to wear because of obstructive sleep apnoea and the danger of a stroke or heart attack. He was unable to get out of bed for the rest of the day until his wife came home at 4.30. He did not eat or drink all day and had to urinate into a bottle.

My constituent’s wife is caring for him but because he has no income from PIP she is at the point of utter exhaustion. The decision to award the benefit is vital to enable his wife to give him the proper care and supervision he needs. Until a decision is made, the couple cannot arrange that care, and their life is in limbo. In March, my constituent finally received his decision notice, only to be informed at the end of the month that a stop had been put on his payment—a decision that could not be explained when he phoned DWP. It has now been nine months and he has not received a payment. DWP’s decision notice states that he is owed a back payment of more than £5,000. He has been let down by Capita and the Department for Work and Pensions as his anguish goes on.

In another case, the application was made in June 2013. The report from Capita was eventually received by DWP on 13 February, but a decision has still not been made. The claimant told me:

“I have no confidence that the process will ever end, there is always one more stage, one more delay.”

That sentiment is felt by many who have lost faith, which is a dreadful stain on the Department for Work and Pensions, where I served as Secretary of State.

The excruciating stress and anxiety is hitting people seriously, including cancer sufferers and ex-servicemen with post traumatic stress disorder. Ministers should be ashamed of the system, which is punitive, nasty and causes abject despair to far too many people.

To emphasise the dilemma facing our constituents, I should say that in a similar case in my constituency a women who suffered a stroke made an application in June 2013, and has just received the benefit. Her husband elected to reduce his hours at work as a result of which they lost the tax credits that they were entitled to, so they went into even deeper problems as a result of the unacceptable delays.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not going to make personal attacks on Ministers because they probably believe they are doing a professional job, but I sometimes wonder whether they have any idea of what is happening on the ground as a result of their policies.

If the Atos debacle taught us anything, it is the importance of getting the decision right in the first place—in my constituency, the local welfare rights unit had an 80% success rate with its appeals against Atos’s decisions—but that should not mean waiting unacceptably long times such as six, seven or eight months for a decision that could dramatically affect somebody’s life and income. Action must be taken immediately to address this inexplicably lengthy and prolonged system that is causing misery and despair for applicants. The turnaround of applications must be drastically accelerated by both the assessment provider and the Department.

Order. Five Members are indicating that they wish to speak, three of whom have done so in writing. I need to call the Front-Bench Members at 10.40 am, so I ask Members to be disciplined with their time.

I will be brief, Mr Owen, because I think it is very important that the Minister hears from as many Members as possible. I have a list in front of me of cases involving my constituents who have come to me. I raised the issue initially with the Minister through written questions back in January, and I have raised it in the Chamber, too. This is a massive problem for those individuals. We have heard about a number of individual cases already, and rather than recounting individual cases in Wrexham, I will make a brief point about competence and responsibility.

The personal independence payment system was introduced by this Government—by the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies—and the system has failed. Individuals come to our constituency offices in great personal distress. They are the type of individuals whom we want to see supported by our tax system, and I know that that feeling goes across the House. The reason that we pay our taxes is to support vulnerable people.

The Government chose to change the system and they must take responsibility for that choice. They chose the company that would deliver the system, and they must take responsibility for that choice. The system does not work. We, as Members of Parliament, are representing constituents and making telephone calls to the Department for Work and Pensions and to Capita, and dealing with cases to give people their entitlement. It is not something that they do not deserve—it is their entitlement. We want a system, and they deserve a system, that is satisfactory and that works.

I have respect for the Minister. He has responded to the issues and individual cases that I have raised with him, but the Department has introduced a number of different systems that are causing enormous distress to vulnerable people in our constituencies. It must start taking responsibility, because the people whom we represent deserve to be supported. To date, there is no indication whatever that the situation is going to change. The strength of feeling expressed in this debate is clear and sets out to the Government and to the Minister the depth of anger that there is in our constituency offices.

Will the Minister please take on board the individual cases? We are working on behalf of those constituents and we hope he will, too. However, will he also look at the system? If the system continues to fail, and if it continues to fail those individuals, we will begin to doubt the Government’s motivation in supplying the system. We will begin to ask whether they actually want to support vulnerable people, or whether this is all about saving money in order to ensure that those individuals do not have support, and will wait and wait and eventually go away. They deserve our support, and I hope that the Government will change their approach and give it to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing this very important debate and on an excellent contribution that clearly laid out the difficulties that people in Wales are experiencing with PIPs.

The difficulties with the PIP process are all the more excruciating to witness—let alone go through—because in all the debates we had over the work capability assessments in the past, Ministers were repeatedly asked how they would ensure that the PIP process was fit for purpose. I certainly asked, and the reply from the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), was that we should not worry. She said that the Department was working with more than 50 disability organisations and that

“we will ensure that it is very much fit for purpose.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 22.]

Clearly, that is not the case.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) I want to say to the Minister, please do not underestimate the very real, palpable fear out there about the change from the disability living allowance to PIPs. That was brought home to me by a constituent called Richard, who has cerebral palsy. He has a range of care needs and has been fretting about this process for about a year. I know that he will get PIPs almost automatically, but although I have repeatedly tried to reassure him through my office and through the agencies that work with him, he is still extremely stressed about it. I say to the Minister that that is the backdrop we are working with. There have been repeated changes to the welfare system that are hitting people in multiple ways, and it is terrifying for people.

I am not alone in seeing constituents who are experiencing lengthy delays at every stage of the PIP process. They are waiting for the forms from the DWP following the part 1 process on the telephone. A lot of constituents are having difficulties with the part 2 forms. If those are not returned, it seems that people fall out of the system, which seems to be a particular problem for people with mental health issues. If they just cannot cope with the part 2 form, what happens to them? I know that they are supposed to be followed up by Capita, but that does not seem to be the case.

People are then waiting months for an assessment. When they finally have one, it takes an inordinate amount of time for Capita to process the assessment, generate a report and hand it over to the DWP for the decision. That was confirmed by Newport citizens advice bureau, which has had more than 30 cases waiting for about five months for a decision and two cases waiting for seven months. It also puts an extreme strain on advice workers, who are already struggling with cuts and struggling to be able to support people. They are finding that doing so is a great difficulty.

I saw a woman who had to wait seven months for her decision. We only got the decision after an intervention from my office, and I dread to think how long it might have taken otherwise. That was seven months of stress and anxiety—Capita apologises for the delays, but it is not good enough. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South, I saw another lady who applied in July and was not assessed until November, and in one phone call to Capita she was told that if she wanted to speed things up or wanted any progress to be made she should contact her MP, which is clearly ridiculous.

In addition to the delays, a lot of paperwork, including important reports, seems to be lost between Capita and the DWP. There are call centres with no named contact, so people are repeatedly calling back and are not able to get to anyone who understands their case, and there is poor communication. All in all, it is an infuriating experience for the constituent.

I know that the Government will say that there are teething problems, but as today’s debate shows, it is important that the Minister realises some of the consequences that the situation has on people’s lives. A constituent of mine had to rack up debt on credit cards and sell his car while waiting for his wife’s claim to be processed. He happened to be a taxi driver, so you can imagine the financial strain that has put the family under, Mr Owen. Another constituent was left in debt as she waited for her claim to be processed. She had direct debits and no money in her account, and she now has bank charges to cope with. We are not helping people to lead independent lives; they are often having to rely on other people to bail them out during the process.

As my hon. Friend said, a representative from Capita met Welsh MPs last week and admitted that the key assumptions in its business case had been wrong. They said that the face-to-face assessments took two and a half hours, not one hour. It took longer to train assessors than they thought, and to the Minister’s credit, he and other Ministers have admitted delays at their end, too. This week, we heard in Wales that DWP civil servants will be drafted in to help process the applications. I welcome both the fact that the Department will help out and the recommendations from the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that the Department closely examine its systems. I particularly urge the Minister to look for Wales to delay the roll-out until the backlog has been cleared. That is crucial, particularly in Wales, where we have so many DLA recipients.

I know that the Minister has admitted that all is not well, but it would be helpful if he could say in his winding-up speech how much of what has happened is the DWP and how much is Capita, because there are delays at both ends. What is the backlog in Wales currently? If we are moving to paper-based decisions in Wales in future, which perhaps might be piloted in Wales, can we at least understand that there will not be further difficulties with that process and get assurances from the Minister on that point?

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Owen. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) made a powerful case about some of the problems that people are facing. I am sure that all of us in this Chamber want to see people getting back to work if they are able to do so, but none of us wants to see whatever ill or disabled people suffer from being made worse because of all the stress and anguish of the process that we are discussing.

We have all heard of vital paperwork not being sent out, delays of up to six months and longer, medical assessments being cancelled at the drop of a hat and even people not being told that their assessment will not take place. Then, when the process has been gone through, some people are being told that they should never have gone through the process in the first place, because of what they suffer from.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber, touched on mental health. That is a particular area of concern. We are talking about people whose lives are already difficult enough without some of the problems that the Government are now forcing on them. We see people who are literally in tears. They do not understand what is happening to them and are worried at every stage of the process. People are even saying to me, “Mr Tami, if I attend the interview, will that be held against me?” I say no, but they are worried; they are scared. They do not understand why their money is being stopped, why this is happening to them. We are making people ill by doing this; there is no point in pretending otherwise. I have been seeing people who were not great the first time I saw them, but each time I see them they are in a worse state. They are in more debt. They are worried; they are scared, because of what is happening to them.

I saw one guy who was in a wheelchair most of the time. He had had two strokes recently. Clearly, that person will not enter the realm of work very easily. Why do we have to put through this process people who are suffering? Equally, another man, who was 64 years of age, had a long history of heart illness. With the best will in the world, how will he enter the realm of work? Who will employ him? [Interruption.] I know, but that is how people view it; they feel that they are being forced out to work.

This is a very difficult situation. I accept that. Colleagues have mentioned the meeting with Capita. It has helpfully sent us a note about that and some of the questions that were asked. I notice that it is entitled “Health and wellbeing”, which is a somewhat strange situation, but there we are. Let me go through some of the points that it raises in the note. The first question is:

“Why are claimants facing delays in the assessment process?”

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that it is probably the Minister’s fault:

“Referral volumes from the Department are higher than forecast.”

One of my hon. Friends mentioned this:

“More health professionals are needed. The planning assumption was 141. We have now trained over 250 and will have nearly 450 by July 2014.”

Why was the original figure so wrong? It was not just slightly out. There is a massive difference between those figures.

This is one of my favourites:

“Why was the reality of delivery different to the original assumptions?”

Capita states:

“The complexity of producing the new and detailed reports means that there are a number of interrelated factors that add to the assessment timescales. Critically, the assumptions we originally built our operating plan to have not proved to be accurate in live running.”

I presume that in English that means that they have cocked it up.

Would my hon. Friend, like me, like the Minister to explain exactly what specifications there were in the service level agreement between the DWP and Capita for time scales after the PIP2 form and the medical assessments have been received for Capita to produce its assessment? What were those specifications?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, because something has gone very badly wrong. As I said, some of these things are not just slightly out; there is a massive problem.

I will quote just one more paragraph from Capita’s note:

“What are the current timescales from applying for PIP to a decision being made?

The Department for Work and Pensions estimate that in total it may take around 21-26 weeks from the time a claimant first calls to initiate a claim to when they write to them with their decision. For most people this will include a face-to-face appointment which could take…12-16 weeks to arrange.”

I find that staggering. Then there is this very helpful comment:

“It may take less time than this or longer”.

There we are; there is our answer. Now we know that things are going very well!

As my hon. Friends have made clear, we have all dealt with such cases. I have details of one here. The person applied for PIP last November. They were chasing and chasing and finally got an assessment date for April, but they are still waiting to go through that process. Someone else applied for PIP in June. They had the assessment. However, they got an answer from the DWP only in March, and again that was after they had chased it. Someone else applied in September 2013. Three medical assessments were cancelled by Capita. Some were cancelled without the person being told. They chased for an appointment and finally got one in January. Again, they were having to chase all the time. My favourite is this one. Someone received a letter on 4 February this year informing them that a consultation would take place at their home sometime between 20 January and 25 January. They go back in time to have the assessment, back to the future, or perhaps it involves the use of a Tardis or there is some other new thing that the Department can use.

I do not think that this has been mentioned so far in the debate, but Capita did not only meet us last week; it met many of us before the introduction of PIPs and it made certain commitments and promises, based on the assumptions that it had been given by the DWP that none of these things would happen. We were given assurances that there would not be these kinds of delays, that it had the right plans in place, that it knew what it was doing and that there would be no repetition of the mistakes made by other private contractors such as Atos. It failed miserably on that, and ultimate responsibility does come to the Minister. I am sure he accepts that, and we respect his willingness to take it on board, so as the Minister responding to the debate today, he does not need to go through the history of the benefit. We know that.

Good, but I am just giving the Minister that warning not to go through the history of the benefit but, yes, to deal with his responsibility, who is responsible—

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) makes a powerful point. The situation is a mess. Whatever promises are given, it just seems to get worse, even to the point, as hon. Friends have said, that the Department is now having to send in civil servants to try to stem the tide of chaos that is overwhelming the whole system.

On the day on which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has decided to go, I am not calling for this Minister to go, but his Department needs to look at this situation. It is affecting, and destroying, real people’s lives. It is causing great suffering out there. I ask the Minister just to look at the Government Benches. There is not a single Tory or Liberal Democrat MP from Wales here today. Why is that? It is because they also know what a mess it is and they have run for the hills.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on a fine, eloquent and valuable speech.

Well, here we are again. Some hon. Members will recall our PIP debate with the now former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport when she was the Minister responsible for disability issues. We discussed the mobility needs of people in residential care, and eventually she performed a U-turn—eventually.

I like this Minister and think that he is sincere and conscientious. We can trust that he will take full account of the debate and make timely changes. We are here because of delays in dealing with our constituents’ cases, and we know about the concerns of the National Audit Office and the Work and Pensions Committee. Our particular concern is Wales, where there are higher levels of disability and long-term illness. I have had cases, but I will not go into them, because we have heard sufficient detail about how bad the situation is. I will, however, ask a number of questions. I have had a response from Capita, although it is not completely satisfactory. I worry about our constituents who do not think of going to see their MP, because there must be many of those—proportionately more than actually come through our doors.

As has been mentioned, there are delays. People are told that they will be paid from the date of their claim, but the problem is that people have current needs, and jam tomorrow, even if it is delivered, is no use. Where there are delays, are claimants given timely information about how long their cases will take? Knowing how long the case will take would at least be some comfort. It is a grim question, but I have also been looking for figures on how many claimants in Wales have died waiting for their claim. It would be useful to have the data sets as soon as possible, although I know that we are in the early stages, and I have had access to some of the management information. Too often, we have data sets for the UK in general, but we are concerned with Wales and it would be useful to have those data sets broken down as far as our country is concerned.

Another issue for Wales is rurality, which makes PIP particularly important for people’s mobility needs. There is a practical question of the travel time for people who are assessed in centres, or the extra travel time taken by Capita staff who have to go to remote locations in rural areas. Atos has chosen a slightly different emphasis from Capita, by doing more assessments in centres rather than home visits. Will the Department eventually conduct a compare and contrast exercise on Atos’s and Capita’s handling of the matter?

I had an interesting discussion with Dr Duckworth, the managing director for PIP at Capita, on the radio this morning. He reported, as we have heard, that Capita now thinks that face-to-face interviews take two hours rather than one. Will the Minister tell us, perhaps in writing, how the planning process worked and how such an alarming underestimate was reached? Any planning process must be somewhat speculative, but if one hour was planned for and the outturn is two hours, it seems to me to be a gross underestimate.

I understand that Capita is recruiting more staff, and I heard the other day that staff from the Department for Work and Pensions are helping out. That is good; in such a situation, it is all hands to the pump. However, are there additional costs, and who pays them? Given that the contract is with a private organisation, what penalties are being imposed on Capita? Has the Minister made any assessment of its willingness, or otherwise, to continue with the work? We saw what happened with Atos, which pulled out of a different sort of assessment because of the difficulties that it faced.

Furthermore, I understand that Capita is conducting more paper-based assessments. Initially, Capita planned to do 70% of assessments face to face, and then we heard that the figure was 99%, but I understand now that, to hurry matters along, some paper-based assessments are being made. That is where we came in when we discussed PIP in the first place. One of the unsatisfactory aspects of disability living allowance was that it was too often a paper-based exercise, which produced variable outcomes, to say the least. PIP was sold on the basis that it would involve a quality, individual, face-to-face assessment, that there would be reviews and that the system would be better all around, but I worry that we may be going back to where we started.

I referred earlier to the need for data sets. It would be useful if the Minister gave us a snapshot of claimant numbers in Wales—perhaps not now, because he may not have the figures to hand—and the number of claims outstanding. Usefully, the Department produced a document entitled “Personal Independence Payment: Management Information” in February 2014, which some hon. Members may have seen. The results for the UK are interesting and rather startling. I do not know whether the figures are still current, because they were published in February and we are now in April. I see from one of the tables that in December 2013, there were 229,700 new PIP claims, and 43,800 new claim decisions were made in respect of all new PIP claims. That is, as far as I can see, a rate of about 20%.

Perhaps I can help the Chamber. We estimate that 233,000 claims have been made, of which 50% have now been decided. Of the terminally ill, 99% have been concluded, which is still not high enough.

I am glad to hear that that is the rate. Of course, with people who are terminally ill, we want to see a rate of 100%. I also had a look at the figures from the PIP reassessment and impact report from December 2012, which gives a forecast for March 2014 of 87,000 reassessments, with 180,000 reassessments in the March 2012 strategy. Perhaps the Minister can give us further information.

A particular issue in Wales is assessment through the medium of Welsh. I put a question to the Department some time ago, and was told that the assessments would follow the Department’s Welsh language scheme.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that one of the ways in which Government and officialdom get it a bit wrong on the Welsh language is by assuming that the only people who need any sort of Welsh language provision are those who complete the forms in Welsh? As many of us know, there are people who are vastly more comfortable speaking Welsh but not necessarily writing it.

The hon. Lady makes a telling point. Many people would much prefer to speak in Welsh but write in English, even in my own constituency, where some 80% of people speak Welsh. We have to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that it is not only those who fill in the forms in Welsh who want the service. Departments in general, and perhaps the DWP in particular, assume a certain passivity in respect of the language issue. If people ask—if they bang the table—they might get it, but as with so many equality issues, Departments should take a more proactive stance. Does the Department keep a record of the number of claims made through the medium of Welsh on paper? I imagine that that number is vanishingly small, but I do not think that it corresponds to the number of people who would like to talk in Welsh. Even in my constituency, I am sure that very few send in the forms in Welsh, but the majority want to speak in Welsh.

It is incumbent on us to think of the Capita staff who are struggling to deal with all those matters, and the staff of the Department who are out there working with them. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents some of those people, has concerns. I draw that to the Minister’s attention, because we must support the staff, who do a difficult job under very trying circumstances. As a final flourish—I do not know whether the Minister will give me an answer—is he confident that the system is now fit for purpose?

I will be brief. We have heard much today about the replacement of the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment. I am not going to cite any personal examples from Swansea East, but I will be talking on behalf of a Swansea-wide organisation, the Maggie’s centre, which serves the south and south-west Wales area, providing very important cancer support services for anyone suffering with cancer. We have heard about the various problems and dissatisfaction, and how we all feel about the introduction of PIP and how Capita is proceeding. If I may say so to the Minister, through the Chair, it is not going very well.

Since January, I have written to Capita on 20 occasions. Last Friday was a red letter day, because I received my first answer. We got quite excited in the office that we had received a letter and rang the constituent concerned to inform her, only to find that she had received a telephone call from Capita with information that was diametrically opposed to everything we had been told in the letter. Capita totally contradicted itself. It was a case of the right hand definitely not knowing what the left hand was doing. There are a lot of examples like that, and we have heard about how the lack of a dedicated telephone line adds to people’s problems.

I want to turn to the stress and strain placed on people who are very unwell. It was sad that, when a group of local MPs were invited to Maggie’s centre last Friday to speak to its disability benefits adviser, who has huge experience working across the sector, I saw despair. In the briefing and facts and figures we were given, we saw despair. It was not the frustration that I feel as an MP, which we have heard expressed in this debate and is shared by my office staff; it was despair. It was a person who is working really hard on behalf of people going through the most dreadful experiences of their lives, and basically hitting their head against a rock. It was very sad.

There are many reports of hold-ups with PIP, but I have heard of and experienced cases in which people have been waiting for responses for several months. I have come across one case of someone waiting for more than a year for a decision on payments. Earlier, the Minister mentioned other benefits, but in many cases, the people we are discussing have had to give up really well-paid jobs. They have been managing to keep their heads above water, but suddenly, because decisions are taking so long, they are tumbling into debt and need. I have been told about people going through chemotherapy who are dependent on the local food bank. Can we imagine coping under such circumstances? It is very sad indeed.

The staff at Maggie’s are doing excellent work, as are my staff and those of the other MPs here, under really difficult circumstances. We are becoming more and more frustrated by the system. Capita must surely have internal systems to monitor and evaluate the length of time that assessments are taking—surely there must be internal safeguards. We are coming across staff who, although they are working under difficult circumstances, really do not seem to care that they are not meeting deadlines. They are not rushing things, and that is sad.

People were keen to tell me on Friday that—we all know this as constituency MPs—we are not talking about people trying to swing the lead. This is not a case of people trying to buck the system and get money to which they are not entitled; these are people in genuine need who have enough stresses and strains without additional problems with PIP. Many organisations, such as Hardest Hit, We Are Spartacus and the Disability Benefits Consortium, are expressing serious concerns about the Government’s introduction of PIP. We are even hearing noises of disquiet from health professions about the Government’s having failed to reform the work capability assessment. As I have said, there is little, if any, evidence of performance monitoring in organisations such as Atos and Capita. They are responsible for the assessments; how are we monitoring and assessing how they are achieving things?

I have many stories and examples that I could pass on to the Minister, just like those mentioned by many of my colleagues. I am confident that the fundamental problem with PIP is that it was introduced to save money. How mean. I understand that these are difficult times for the country and that finances are challenging for us all, but we are talking about the least able people. Many of them tell me, “If I could work, Mrs James, I would be there.”

The staff at Maggie’s asked me to ask the Minister one particular question: why does Capita not accept implied consent from a third party? They are ringing up and working on behalf of cancer sufferers, but they are hitting a brick wall. We do not mind as MPs—PIP is the biggest issue in my postbag and I have an increasing responsibility and work commitment to it—but accepting implied consent from a third party would save time for people who are having tremendous difficulties.

I am sure that the Minister and others have heard our dissatisfaction. PIP assessments must be reformed urgently, because people are suffering unnecessarily on top of all their other problems.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen, and it has been a pleasure to listen to the debate. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing a debate on a subject that is clearly of concern to many of her Welsh colleagues. Indeed, I am sure that those concerns would be replicated among colleagues throughout the UK. I am sure that the Minister will accept that what we have heard today is not just a matter of isolated cases that can be sorted out by the often very helpful interventions he makes when individual MPs take up issues with him and his Department; we are looking at a process of systemic failure and flaws.

The disability living allowance and the new personal independence payment are important benefits for the people who claim and need them, both in and out of work. Whether someone is working or not, if they are hit with a sudden, potentially catastrophic event—perhaps a stroke or a serious accident—they will start to face additional, often substantial, costs whatever their income situation. In some cases, their income will reduce or dry up. There will also be significant knock-on effects on that person’s family, who may also suffer a loss of income if they have to take time off to care for them. The importance of the personal independence payment in financially supporting the family in the round cannot therefore be exaggerated.

It is also worth noting that disabled people are particularly vulnerable to poverty. They face twice the risk that non-disabled people face, and research by Scope has shown that around half go into debt, using credit cards, overdrafts and so on simply to pay for essentials.

The personal independence payment is also an important benefit for those who suffer less catastrophically, as it enables them to continue to participate in, and often to take on and continue in, paid work. If people are unable to sustain the flow of personal independence payments, particularly those transferring from disability living allowance who previously qualified for mobility payments and find that those payments are not continued, they might lose their Motability vehicle and in many cases fall out of work.

In all cases, it is important that we get the assessment right, and that where people are entitled to the personal independence payment we get the money flowing fast. Yet what we have heard today is a catalogue of delays. While that is terrible for individuals and families, I want to ask the Minister first about the effect of such delays on the Government’s finances.

As colleagues have pointed out, the underlying policy intent of PIP was to make substantial savings in the benefits bill. Yet already the savings have been revised downwards for the current year from £750 million to £640 million. While I understand that the Government expect to get those savings back on track in due course, what will happen if they do not, or if the savings are further delayed? Will disabled people have to pay the price of the newly introduced annually managed expenditure cap?

There are also significant concerns about delivery, as we have heard this morning. Those concerns began to arise soon after the introduction of the benefit in late spring 2013—even as soon as early summer. My colleagues and I were picking up reports of delays and problems. As the National Audit Office pointed out in its report, once backlogs start to build up in the system, it is difficult to recover.

I understand, from a written answer from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) just yesterday, that the Minister has set an expectation—not a requirement—that assessments would be carried out within 30 days. Frankly, that is already much longer than what we were used to with the disability living allowance. The total end-to-end expectation for DLA was 37 days. We understand that, for PIP, we have reached 74 days, or 107 days if we exclude the terminally ill cases, which have been sped up. Typically that is a long period for people to go without financial support.

As colleagues have pointed out, the delays are attributable to problems with the forms—people not understanding them and having trouble returning them quickly—and with security questions that people cannot get through. Another problem is that every assessment is subject to audit, which may be desirable to improve quality, but builds in further delays. There are bottlenecks in getting assessments through to decision makers because assessors are getting cases back and cannot cope with the work load.

I understand from the most recent figures I have seen—from the end of October—that Capita is managing to carry out 67% of assessments within the time frame. What is the position today?

The discussion about home visits and people having to travel to assessment centres was interesting. One advantage of having two contractors—Atos in some parts of the country and Capita elsewhere, including Wales—is that we have been able to compare and contrast their different approaches.

First, unlike Atos, Capita employs its own health care professionals; it does not subcontract to others to carry out the assessments. Also, as I understand it, Capita is committed to a model predominantly built around assessing people in their own home. Home visits amount to around 60% of the assessments carried out by Capita. Yet we heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that his constituent has been required to make journeys of more than two and a half hours in each direction to attend an assessment centre. Will the Minister say a little more about exactly how the balance between having to travel to a centre and being able to have a home visit is working out in practice?

We heard many examples this morning of problems with dealing with Capita as an organisation, whether someone is an individual, a member of the individual’s family or, for that matter, the individual’s Member of Parliament, trying to sort out a particular case. There have been complaints about difficulties in booking appointments; appointments being cancelled at short notice; and problems booking another appointment. There has been confusion when people have tried to find out the status of their appointment or assessment. People have been told to ask the Department for Work and Pensions, only for the Department to refer them back to Capita. As a result there is uncertainty for claimants about where their claims stand.

As was also mentioned this morning, there is concern that there are simply not enough experienced and qualified health care professionals in the market to carry out the assessments. What is the Minister doing to stimulate the profession and to encourage more people to enter it? What discussions has he had with Capita about how it intends to ensure that it has an adequate staff base to carry out the assessments? Will he explain why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, Capita was not required to provide evidence that it had that staff team in place before the contract commenced?

We have also heard that the length of time to carry out an individual assessment is much longer than was envisaged. While the working assumption was that assessments would typically take one hour, two to two and a half hours is becoming the norm.

When PIP was first introduced by the Government and was being discussed during the passage of what became the Welfare Reform Act 2012, we were told that there would be no time limit on how long the assessments would last; if it took a long time to extract the information needed in a face-to-face interview with a claimant, all that time would be given. Capita seems to have honoured that and said, “We will take as long as it takes to get the information we need.” The difficulty is that that simply is not a financially or operationally sustainable model. It is building in delay and cost, and it would be interesting to hear how the Minister intends to resolve that policy conundrum, as it seems to be working with the best of intentions to very adverse effect.

We heard that plans were agreed in January 2014 for civil servants to be drafted in to help clear the backlog that has arisen in Capita, which has been welcomed by colleagues this morning. Will the Minister say a bit more about what those civil servants are doing? Presumably, they are not health care professionals carrying out the assessments themselves. Will he also tell us where they have come from? Will there now be a scarcity of civil servants in another part of the DWP’s operation? Who is bearing any additional cost of deploying the civil servants?

Can we also have clarity about the balance between paper-based and face-to-face assessments? I understand that Wales is now piloting increased used of paper-based assessments. Will the Minister say in what circumstances that is taking place? What percentage of assessments does he now expect to be paper-based or face-to-face? What is the situation now?

As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) pointed out, the Secretary of State himself seems a little confused about the Government’s intentions here, even as recently as last Sunday. On the “Marr” programme, he said:

“What we are introducing here is regular checks, face-to-face...This is much fairer for everybody, those face-to-face checks...Because of the face-to-face checks it’s much more likely that you will get a more accurate reading.”

I must tell the Secretary of State that people are not cars with speedometers; they are human beings with a set of conditions. The issue is not about accurate readings, but about understanding a condition in the round. None the less, there appears to be a discrepancy between the Secretary of State’s strong assertion on Sunday that face-to-face assessments were the direction of the travel, and my understanding that a considerable emphasis is now being given to piloting paper-based assessments in Wales.

I am pleased about the progress on terminal cases, and actually I have to offer my congratulations to the Minister for the speed with which he picked up that concern. I would like to ask the Minister about mental health, which was mentioned by a number of colleagues, and what he is doing to improve the expertise of assessors. I want to repeat the question asked by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) about whether Capita will have the opportunity to bid for the work capability assessment. Many in the Chamber would be rather horrified if it were. I also want to repeat the question asked by the hon. Member for Arfon about when we can expect to see proper audited statistics. The management information is useful, but it gives us only part of the story. Will the Minister also answer the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South about the lack of an MP hotline and the confusion about where complaints should be directed?

I have a few final questions for the Minister. We heard about the poor data matching between information already held on the benefits system about claimants and what was being uncovered when they went for a PIP assessment. Will the Minister say which he thinks is more reliable, and to what extent DLA information can be used as a possible means of clearing the backlog that we face? We would have expected many more cases where there is a dispute to be reaching the stage of appeals in tribunal, but the courts are sitting around with nothing to do. Who is bearing the cost in the court service of that lack of activity? Finally, can the Minister give us a little more information on his intentions for the independent review of PIP that has been promised for later this year?

Thank you very much indeed for calling me to speak, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this very important debate.

Let me say at the outset that it is very important that this type of debate takes place, not least because we can get better information on the record. I know that some hon. Members have not raised individual constituency cases during this debate; some have, but some have not. If they have not done so, please would they give us that information? We will be in contact with Members during the course of today and tomorrow, so that we can pick up on those cases.

I will start today by touching on the point that was raised in the debate about colleagues coming to me and getting responses. I think that it was raised by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and I thank her for her kind comments about how we have responded to colleagues, not only in Westminster Hall today but at other times. Actually, it is very useful for me as the Minister to see what goes through, because if individual MPs write to me then I—as Members probably know—write them an individual reply, and while I cannot deal with every individual case, it does give me a better feel for what is going on.

With that in mind, I will go back from Westminster Hall today and act; my officials have heard what hon. Members have said and they will now hear what I am about to say. The hotline will happen. It is not acceptable that there is not a hotline in place. We will get on and do that.

I will touch, quite rightly, on what was probably the most sensitive issue raised in the debate, which is that of the cases concerning the terminally ill. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for her kind comments about the actions that I have taken on such cases in the short time that I have been the Minister. I was appalled—I have said that before publicly as well as privately—at the length of time that it was taking for cases concerning the terminally ill to be assessed and for payments to be made. I think that when I arrived in this post, the period was around 28 days. Under the previous disability living allowance system, which was not strictly comparable, the period would have been about 10 days. I want it to come down; I have anecdotal evidence that it is around three to eight days now. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, an average of five days is perhaps where we need to be. We need to ensure that these people who so desperately need help get it quickly.

I have worked particularly closely with Macmillan Cancer Support to develop some new methodologies. For instance, it is very difficult for someone visiting a terminally ill person to be on the phone to someone else while they are talking to the person they are looking after; that is particularly difficult with Macmillan cases. So we are going to set up a pilot whereby we give Macmillan the forms there and then, so that they have them on file and we can get them back and through the system more quickly. Macmillan said that it did not like the call system; it kept their nurses and other health professionals waiting for too long. So we are going to work with Macmillan and pilot that new scheme. And we will move from that scheme to secure portable document format, or PDF. That is what most of our GPs use when they deal with insurance companies or anybody else. Hopefully we will continue to review matters and we can continue to reduce the time that it takes to deal with these cases.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said that he hoped I would not just read out the speech that had been prepared for me. He knows me better than that; I have never read a speech in this House that has been prepared for me. I will continue to respond to Members as best I can and, of course, if I am unable to answer the questions in the time that I am allowed, we will write to individual colleagues and ensure that they have the information they need for their constituents.

Do I, as the Minister of State responsible for this portfolio, take responsibility for it? Yes, I do. That is the way that Ministers should act. There was a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in Westminster Hall earlier, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). He is not in Westminster Hall at the moment, but I went to him when I was a Back-Bench MP and said to him, “You are the Secretary of State. You’ve got to take responsibility.” That is exactly what he did.

Whether I make the right decision or the wrong decision will be for others to decide. However, one of the reasons that I wanted this portfolio was to make a difference. The old DLA system was broken; that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Cardiff West. Under that system, less than 6% of claimants had face-to-face interviews; most people were given a paper-based assessment for life. In the case of some people, that was absolutely right and proper, but for an awful lot of people it was not. For instance, it was particularly bad for people with mental health issues, because they could not get the upper rate on the old DLA, really. With PIP, they will be able to.

The hon. Member for Newport East asked me about the roll-out of this system. It has been rolled out in Wales; it is out, in its entirety, for reconsiderations as well as for new claims. So, the one area that I can see the new system in its entirety is Wales. We will break down the data and ensure that it is available to Welsh MPs, so that we can provide feedback. It is too early to give the full basis of the data, and the Audit Commission has also said that.

I will just finish this point on the Audit Commission, because the Audit Commission was quoted several times. As I was saying, the commission also said that it was too early to see whether the new system would be value for money, because the information is not here yet. I just wanted to balance that argument a bit.

Before the Minister moves off the subject of mental health, one of the other important issues is that, depending on what is wrong with them, people have good days and bad days. It is important to get an all-round picture of their issues, rather than just an on-the-spot assessment—“Yes, they’re OK. Fine.”

I completely taken on board what the hon. Gentleman says. Indeed, what is just as important is that people with mental disabilities often have other disabilities as well and they need to be treated as an individual case, with all their disabilities considered in their entirety.

We are working very closely with Capita. The Capita model is different from the Atos model. As was alluded to by the shadow Minister, Capita is doing 60% of its work within the home and 40% in other assessments. It is completely unacceptable if someone is being asked to travel the distances that we have heard about today. The maximum time someone should travel is 90 minutes. In rural communities, which were referred to in the debate, even that length of time is really difficult, because travelling for 90 minutes in a big capital city is completely different from travelling for the same time in a rural community. I have asked my officials to begin a review today about the access issues that people are having. They will review not only the time that it takes for people to go to an assessment centre but the time it takes for Capita to come to a person’s home, because travelling time is not considered as part of the time for the assessment. I will come on to that in a moment.

Can the Minister tell us how bad Capita has to get before, in his estimation, any fine would be imposed upon it by the Government?

If the hon. Lady will be patient, I have another four minutes to speak and I will certainly address that issue.

With the contracts that were issued, there is not a change to a paper-based system. From day one, the perception was that the split should be 75:25 between face-to-face interviews and paper-based assessments. I have said that to the Work and Pensions Committee before. With the DLA, only 6% of claimants were interviewed face to face and nationally we are around about 97% for face-to-face interviews. So there is not a movement away from face-to-face interviews; actually, where we are trying to get to is where we were supposed to be in the first place, which is around 75% of interviews being conducted face to face and 25% of claimants being dealt with by paper-based assessments.

The contract with Capita allows for penalties and we are imposing financial penalties on it where it is not meeting its targets. That process is taking place now and we will continue with it. However, the best thing to do is for us to work with Capita to get accurate assessments.

The point about accuracy is the one that I will touch on for the remaining few minutes. One type of issue that we have is quality issues. We have been really tough, and previous Ministers were very tough, on both Capita and Atos about PIP regarding quality. Because of that, those companies have been very concerned—I have used the word “frightened” before, but they are certainly concerned—about ensuring they get things right, which is one of the reasons why we have nowhere near the number of appeals that we may have expected or that were made under previous benefit systems.

One reason for that is that we have put our staff into the offices of companies, particularly those of Capita, and we will probably do that elsewhere. It gives staff the confidence to make the decisions on the paper-based assessments. Very often, although staff feel they have the information in front of them, they are not sure about making a decision because they fear they will be hit on quality—“The audit will come down and say we should have done this”—so they have pushed the case through to a face-to-face interview. That is actually increasing the delays. We want to give people confidence; that is why our officials are there.

The question was asked, “Where do these officials come from?” Many of them are actually officials waiting for these decisions to come back, so I have a capacity of people sitting there and waiting for decisions to come back. That is why we are putting people at the right grade into the offices of Capita to ensure that we can get better movement and that we get the split down to a manageable one; I hope it will be a 75:25 split.

We will probably announce the review later on today, if not tomorrow, outlining who will do the review and how we move on from it.

The truth of the matter is that there will be people who benefit from PIP and there will be people who do not benefit from it. However, what they need is decisions and we need to communicate with them much better. We are introducing a text system so that people will be better informed as to where they are within the queue system. That is slightly more complicated in certain parts of the country than others. We can text—

Order. I am very grateful to the Minister, and to Members, for what was a full debate. The Minister has indicated that he will write to Members.

Shared Services Connected Ltd

It is a pleasure to open this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Owen.

I sought this debate on behalf of 239 Department for Work and Pensions staff at the Kings Court offices in the heart of my constituency, although the issue affects civil service staff more broadly.

I begin by citing the Prime Minister. Back in January, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos, he said that Britain had the potential to become the “reshore nation”. Talking about UK jobs lost abroad, through offshoring, he said,

“there is now an opportunity for the reverse…an opportunity for some of those jobs to come back.”

Should not the Government be taking a lead on this, setting the example through its own employment policies? Last week I received a letter from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General all but confirming that the work lost in my constituency was to be offshored to India, as I understand it.

Let me explain the background. Shared services are those parts of individual civil service departments, arm’s length bodies and agencies that provide corporate services for IT, human resources management, pay and payroll, procurement and finance to deliver their business outputs. In December 2012, the Cabinet Office set out its next generation shared services strategic plan to create five shared service centres. Two independent shared services centres, ISSC1 and ISSC2, would be formed for a number of departments and arm’s length bodies. The three remaining were to be stand-alone centres, based on the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The first of these independent shared service centres, ISSC1, based on the Department for Transport in Swansea, was outsourced to German multinational Arvato in June 2013. The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing the majority of staff, engaged positively in the transfer process to secure the best possible outcome. The consultation led to agreements, including one on no compulsory redundancy for at least a year and an agreement that staff would retain their civil service status.

ISSC2, which affects Sheffield, was to consist initially of the shared services functions of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. This was turned into a joint venture company called Shared Services Connected Ltd, in which the Government retained 25% of the shares, with the French multinational Steria’s UK subsidiary owning and controlling 75%. The creation of SSCL involved civil service shared services sites in York, Alnwick, Cardiff, Blackpool and Newcastle, as well as the one in my constituency in Sheffield. SSCL became live in November 2013 and 1,000 civil servants were privatised and TUPE-ed over.

The PCS secured agreements with the Government on this process, including a six-month no compulsory redundancy agreement and a one-year guarantee of no site closures. However, on 4 March 2014, SSCL announced 500 job cuts, office closures and the offshoring of work, quite cynically timed to the minute the one-year guarantee against site closures ran out.

As well as the closure in Sheffield, by October 2014, the DWP office in Cardiff will close, with a loss of 105 staff, and the Environment Agency office in Leeds will close, with a loss of 68 staff.

Can my hon. Friend understand the anxiety felt by staff at the Newport MOJ shared services centre—the situation is similar to the one in Sheffield that he is explaining—who understood that that was to be a stand-alone site, although it is now being considered for outsourcing to Arvato or Steria?

I can indeed, and I will come to that issue. Closer to Newport than Sheffield, I met some staff from Cardiff last week. Like the staff in Sheffield, these are loyal civil servants who have contributed years of public service and, frankly, they feel betrayed by the decision and by the way that the decisions are being executed.

As well as job losses in Sheffield and Cardiff, 122 staff will go in SSCL offices in Blackpool, Newcastle, Peterborough and York. The DEFRA site in Alnwick has a temporary reprieve, but only until June 2015. The Government have not conducted economic impact assessments of the closure of these offices, although the loss of jobs will have a significant impact on local communities and economies. Indeed, in June 2013, Lynn Phillips, head of service improvement for DEFRA, wrote to the then Minister, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), highlighting the plan’s

“incompatibility with UK growth objectives”

because of the

“loss of jobs in regional locations”.

Will the Minister assure us and say that the Government will conduct an economic impact assessment and, if so, when that is likely to happen?

Specifically, on the DEFRA issue, does not my hon. Friend think that the fact that the Secretary of State raised concerns and asked for a standstill period shows how serious this offshoring is and that it will lead to dire consequences?

My hon. Friend is right. I am coming to that point. Clearly, this issue has led to concerns being raised, even at Cabinet level. Yet, extraordinarily, the offshoring is being rushed through.

The speed at which SSCL intends to cut the 500 jobs is unprecedented. It aims to have all redundancies dealt with by the end of October. This does not allow enough time for staff to be re-employed or reinstated back into the civil service and means that compulsory redundancies are likely. Indeed, staff in Sheffield and in Cardiff, whom I met last week, told me that the redeployment opportunities have been limited, because there is no joined-up approach across Government. I find it extraordinary that most other Departments are not offering vacancies to those loyal civil servants who are losing their jobs. Do the Government think that this is the right way to treat any staff, particularly those who have given decades of public service? It sets a bad standard for employers throughout the country. I should like the Minister to reassure us on this issue. Will the Government commit to providing redeployment opportunities across all Departments? That would provide a lifeline for at least some staff. The limited opportunities that have been made available to date are inaccessible to many of those in Sheffield, and those at other sites, too.

SSCL is not acting in accordance with the special commitments given to staff before transfer, which stated that transformation would take place over two years and that everything would be done to avoid compulsory redundancies. The Government have a 25% stake in SSCL. At the very least, should they not use that position to challenge the speed of job cuts, to allow a thorough, ongoing programme of redeployment of staff? I should like the Minister to respond to that question.

There is also the issue of the data being handled. These sites handle the personal data of tens of thousands of civil servants. They also deal with commercially sensitive information relating to Government contracts and tendering. Despite the sensitivity of the data, when the Cabinet Office advertised for bidders to become majority partners in SSCL in April 2013, the selected bidders all had a significant element of offshoring functions as part of their bid.

Concerns about offshoring are not restricted to Opposition Members or their staff; they have, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) pointed out, been expressed at Cabinet level. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office last July, expressing concerns about DEFRA joining ISSC2 and a “possible staff exodus”. The Secretary of State asked specifically for a standstill period on “estates and off-shoring” and expressed concerns about data security. The head of service improvement for DEFRA wrote in her letter to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the DEFRA executive committee considered

“significant (or any) element of off-shoring”

to be unacceptable and that there was a

“significantly increased risk to service continuity from loss of current expertise”

on transfer. She also raised concerns about

“employee and detailed financial data transmitted, stored and processed outside the UK”.

Why are the Government sanctioning the offshoring of sensitive personal data and commercially sensitive information, on which objections have been raised at the highest level of the civil service and by members of the Cabinet?

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is breathtaking hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to have been talking just weeks ago about Britain becoming the reshoring nation while the Cabinet Office pursues contracts that are explicitly relaxed about offshoring jobs, such as those at the shared services centre in Newport?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and again anticipates a point I will make. Before I do, I make one point about the remaining three shared service centres. Originally, they were to stand alone, but I understand that the strategic plan has been fundamentally revised. Peter Swann, who heads the Crown oversight function of the shared services agenda, has confirmed that the Ministry of Justice is considering transferring its shared services to one of the outsourced ISSCs instead.

I understand the concerns of the staff involved. If the MOJ was to join one of the already outsourced ISSC contracts, the sensitive data the staff handle, including criminal records and details of the police, the judiciary and security service personnel, could also be privatised and offshored. Why has the strategic plan been changed?

Finally, taking on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I return to my opening point. What makes the cuts so much harder for the staff to swallow is that so much of the work for the three sites under threat of closure has been earmarked for offshoring. Indeed, the PCS told me that SSCL has explicitly said that a determining factor in deciding which sites are to close is the potential for the work to be offshored. Offshoring is the driver for decisions on closure and job losses.

As my hon. Friend said, how does that fit in with the Prime Minister’s assertion at the World Economic Forum that he wants the UK to become “the reshoring nation”? At Davos, he underlined that ambition by announcing the establishment of a new body, Reshore UK, which will sit within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Prime Minister clearly places great weight on that body in developing his reshoring strategy. Will the Minister commit to arranging for Reshore UK to meet with SSCL and the Cabinet Office with the aim of considering how the jobs they plan to offshore can stay in the UK? If not, does he accept that the Prime Minister’s statement at Davos will be seen as nothing more than empty words?

It is a great pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and on the sincerity with which he has presented his arguments on behalf of concerned constituents. I totally understand where that comes from; if I were in his shoes, I would probably utter similar sentiments.

The hon. Gentleman endeared himself to me by opening with a quote from the Prime Minister. Of course, the Prime Minister was right in saying that jobs are coming back. I do not have the statistics for Sheffield, Newport or other constituencies represented on the Opposition Benches, but it is undeniable that since the 2010 election, more than 1 million private sector jobs have been created in this country. We have record numbers of people in work.

I will not, because the hon. Gentleman was not here for the start of the debate. There are a record number of women in work and this country is creating jobs again.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not give way, because he was not here at the start of the debate.

I was putting the debate into a wider context, which I hope the hon. Member for Sheffield Central would welcome, of vibrant job generation in this country. It does not just matter for statistics; it offers hope and security for people across the country. When the Prime Minister talks about jobs coming back, he means it. The issue is about restoring the means by which this country can secure its long-term future and competitiveness. The fact that that was entirely absent from the debate is regrettable.

On that specific point, will the Minister note the regional imbalance in the creation of private sector jobs? He might have seen the report two or three weeks ago from the Centre for Cities, which pointed out that so many of the jobs being created are in London and the south-east, sucked away from the rest of the country. I think it said that there have been 217,000 new private sector jobs in London, with a net decline in private sector jobs of 7,500 in my city of Sheffield. The Government have a particular responsibility to address that regional imbalance and not take more jobs away.

That is a fair point, which the Chancellor has addressed directly by saying, “Yes, there is some very good news on job creation, but we still face a stubborn underlying challenge on the imbalance in the economy.” That is a fact, reality and challenge that the Government are addressing.

It would nice if we heard some voices from the Opposition Benches that recognised that these problems have been entrenched for a long time and were substantially not addressed by the previous Administration. I am trying to make the point that the broader context is one where the country is beginning to generate jobs again after some difficult years. Part of the reason why we have been able to create jobs is that at the core of the long-term economic plan is a plan to pay down the deficit. It would be nice to have a reality check on the Opposition Benches: that is the environment in which this Government have to work and in which the next Government will have to work, whatever their political colour.

Will the Minister not acknowledge that sustaining jobs is as important as creating jobs in a successful economy? Offshoring these jobs is not about sustaining work in this country. If there is to be job creation, offshoring jobs negates some of that.

I will come to the specific point about offshoring, because it was at the core of the speech made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central.

On a point of order, Mr Owen. Is it in order for a Minister to cast a slur over a Member by claiming that he was not present at the beginning of a debate without giving that Member an opportunity to explain that he was at a Select Committee meeting and that, had he left, it would not have been quorate?

The hon. Gentleman has been in Parliament an awfully long time and he knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair. It is up to the Minister whether he gives way to any Member in the Chamber. The Minister indicated that he would not give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he has since done so to other Members.

I am trying to stress to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) that the bigger context is job creation throughout the country, which I hope she welcomes and is evidenced in her constituency as well. She makes a valid point about offshoring, to which I will return, because it was at the core of the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central.

My point was that we are in the place where we are in terms of vibrant job creation around the country partly because of the confidence in the business community that there is a plan for economic recovery and that, at the heart of the plan, is a determination to get on top of the public finances. Simply put, that will be the reality for whoever is in power after the next general election, which is acknowledged by the people at the top of the Labour party. The Government therefore have to get serious about where they find savings and efficiencies. For a long time now, including under the previous Government, as highlighted in 2004 by the Gershon review, there has been consistent advocacy for the need and opportunity to consolidate back-office functions throughout government. The belief is that we can deliver between £400 million and £600 million per annum in savings for the taxpayer in such a process, while freeing the civil service to concentrate on its core role of delivering exceptional public services.

Significant public gain is to be had through the pursuit of efficiency, which the previous Administration did not pursue rigorously, despite the words. If any evidence were needed, the Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office last year was able to realise £10 billion in savings to the taxpayer through our process. That is £10 billion that does not have to come in cuts to front-line services. It tells us a lot about the attitude of the previous Government to efficiency in the public finances.

Does the Minister acknowledge that that is stretching the definition of efficiency a little? We are simply talking about taking jobs done in proper working conditions by loyal civil servants in the UK and putting them into a cheap labour market in India. That is not efficiency; that is exploiting the labour force.

I would like to see some recognition that it is not in the interests of the British taxpayer for there to be duplication or inefficiency in how services are delivered. For some time, and under the previous Administration, there has been widespread acceptance of the opportunity to share services such as HR, procurement, finance and payroll functions, and of the need to consolidate where those services are shared, given the number of centres that were in place. Obviously, in that process there is an ability to deliver efficiency, cost-effectiveness and, I hope, a better service.

There is no dispute about the opportunity—as I said, the debate has been going on for a long time—but the question is whether anyone is prepared to do something about it, and we are. We are delighted that the National Audit Office recognises our progress and, in a report of 31 March, considers that the programme is

“on track with the first shared service centre being outsourced by its target date of March 2013 and the second having a joint venture partner in place before its target date of March 2014.”

It also found

“no major issues with the services offered by”

either of the two independent shared service centres.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the second of the two centres was created in November 2013, when the Government signed an agreement with a private sector partner, Steria Ltd, to create a joint venture to deliver back-office services to 13 Government customers. The resulting company, known as Shared Services Connected Ltd, was formed from a consolidation of some existing shared service centres including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. In addition, in-scope services delivered by UK Shared Business Services Ltd are expected to move across by 2015.

It is important to keep in mind that the model is not a conventional outsourcing one. As the contracts are constructed, the bigger the volume, the lower the unit price goes, so it is in everyone’s interest, whether Government, private sector partners or employees, for the centres to win additional business from other Departments and from the private sector in the UK and overseas. If business grows, and there is an opportunity to grow the business and to recruit more jobs into it, public services can be delivered at lower cost. The taxpayer will share in the upside.

In order to develop SSCL as a world-class services organisation, it formally entered a transformation phase on 31 March 2014, which involves IT harmonisation, offshoring and the adoption of a centre of excellence model, which is considered good practice across the shared services sector. We believe that that will reduce costs, increase efficiency and deliver a consistent performance and an improved customer experience.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the centre of excellence consultation process commenced during March, and following discussions with employees, clients and trade unions, four of the existing eight core sites were selected as centres of excellence. Those are York, Peterborough, Blackpool and Newcastle. Initial proposals were to close the other five sites. However, after consultation and due diligence with clients and employees that was reduced to three—Sheffield, Cardiff and Leeds. Alnwick will remain open, although not as a centre of excellence. The sites selected as centres of excellence were the ones considered most likely to be able to serve existing customers, while also ensuring the sustainable future growth necessary to provide value for money to the taxpayer.

The core of the hon. Gentleman’s concern was exit and re-employment. I listened with concern to some of the points he made, and I undertake to write to those involved to make his concerns clear and seek assurances about the way in which some tough decisions on redundancy are being implemented. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman with my view on the quality of the information I get back.

We believe that SSCL has approached the centre of excellence strategy with some sensitivity to the impact that it will have across the business, sharing plans with employees at the earliest opportunity, undertaking roadshows to explain the implications directly, and briefing employees on the proposals for site closures and the associated consultation process. At the same time, SSCL launched a voluntary exit programme for affected employees. The window for expressions of interest closed on 24 March.

As part of the negotiations associated with the ISSC2 deal, the Cabinet Office and Steria agreed a re-employment protocol with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for those staff members who transferred to SSCL under TUPE arrangements from DWP and DEFRA. That was put in place to try to mitigate the impact of key redundancies associated with the move to the new target operating model. Although that was not mandatory, both parties felt it was important to try to support the staff with continued employment.

The Cabinet is also proactively negotiating re- employment protocols with further Departments and agencies, including the Department for Education and the Office for National Statistics, where there are suitable roles locally. We are confident that we are doing all that we can to support SSCL staff with re-employment, within the confines of TUPE law and Government policy. If I may, I should like to send the hon. Gentleman a follow-up letter with more detail about those processes, to put some assurances behind those words.

The next stage of the SSCL transformation programme is to establish the four centres of excellence. The Alnwick office, previously a DEFRA site, will not be a centre of excellence, but will remain open until June 2015. SSCL hopes to move some NHS shared business services actively to Alnwick, to retain it beyond 2015.

I thank the Minister for his assurances about letters and initiatives. Will the Cabinet Office extend the intentions he outlined across all Departments, and move quickly? There is a limited window, before people lose their jobs, to ensure that there are proper redeployment opportunities across government.

We are certainly negotiating re-employment protocols with other Departments and agencies, including DFE and ONS, but perhaps I may clarify the detail in the letter I shall be sending. As the hon. Gentleman said, we all know that any job loss is a personal tragedy for the individual concerned and their family. We want to minimise insecurity connected with that. The process is clearly difficult, and we are as confident as we can be that it is being handled with appropriate sensitivity. However, if the Members of Parliament for the affected constituencies have substantial evidence that that is not the case, we want to know. We will follow up such evidence, because we understand the sensitivities and want to test the assurances we are given.

In this context there is no black and white world; offshoring has been a feature of many successful Government contracts signed during this and the previous Administration, including a joint venture involving NHS shared business services, which created jobs and expanded the number of its offices from two to 13 in the past 10 years. Offshoring is not in itself an absolutely bad thing. I shall certainly contact Reshore UK to make it aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Sitting suspended.

Rural Crime

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Weir, for this important debate.

My constituency has a number of important industries, including paper making, brick making and pharmaceuticals, but it is also semi-rural, with an important farming industry. I want to highlight some of the worries about rural crime that people in my constituency have—in particular, my farming community and those who live in remote areas. First, however, I pay tribute to Kent police in general and my local officers in particular, who, within the constraints of continual pressure on their budgets, do what they can to protect those of us living in rural communities.

Do not get me wrong; I understand the need for the Government to bring down the deficit and know that the police force must do its bit to help. However, I want to see a rebalancing of how the Government grant is allocated, to ensure that rural areas and semi-rural areas such as my own receive a fairer share of the cake. That is the nub of our problem. We worry that, given the increasing pressure on police budgets, rural areas will continue to take second place in the allocation of resources.

The truth is that people in rural areas often feel that they are last in line for services: they sometimes have to put up with inferior roads; they often have no local school; they almost always have a poor internet connection; and they rarely have a police station. In short, they feel isolated, and that isolation increases their fear of crime.

A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that a quarter of rural crimes go unreported. Farmers take the view that reporting a crime is a waste of their time, in particular if that crime is considered by some other people as little more than a minor misdemeanour. The survey also showed that 50% of farmers said that the police failed to devote sufficient resources to tackling rural crime, while a further third felt that insufficient action was taken when crimes were reported. Some 38% of farmers have been victims of crime, including theft, arson, criminal damage, poaching and illegal fly-grazing. If 38% of people living in a city were victims of crime, it would be considered a crime blackspot. Why is such a high level of crime among farmers deemed acceptable in some quarters?

In Kent, it has been recognised that rural crime is a problem. Our police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes, has pledged to improve rural policing with the use of mobile police stations. We welcome any initiative that highlights the problem of rural crime, but many are sceptical about the worth of mobile police stations and would prefer the money to be spent on boosting the number of police officers dedicated to tackling rural crime.

In Kent, we have only six rural partnership police officers to cover the whole county. Two of those officers cover not only my constituency, but an area that stretches from Thanet in the east of Kent to Dartford in its extreme north-west. Special police constables have been used to support the rural partnership officers, but my understanding is that those specials rarely have access to a police vehicle, so they have no means of patrolling the area in which they are supposed to be helping. Perhaps it would be better to spend the money used for mobile police stations on more rural community officers and the vehicles that they need to get around Kent more quickly.

Rural crime cost the UK an estimated £42.3 million in 2012. Organised gangs are increasingly targeting high-value tractors and other farm vehicles, stealing them to order and shipping them overseas. One of the frustrations felt by farmers is that there appears to be no recognition from the Government or senior police officers that rural crime is often closely linked to serious criminal activity, much of it across international borders.

In isolation, rural crimes appear to be one-off, unrelated events; in fact, they are often interrelated and funded by the activities of criminal gangs and terrorist organisations. For example, despite the best efforts of farmers to store their supplies of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers in secure facilities, large amounts have been stolen. As hon. Members are probably aware, ammonium nitrate fertilisers are used to make home-made explosives and have been a component of some of the most devastating terrorist bomb blasts in the world.

Criminal gangs will steal anything that they can lay their hands on—from combine harvesters to quad bikes, from animal medicines to agricultural chemicals. One farmer in my constituency, who happens to be a good friend of mine, had a gate stolen from his field. Shortly afterwards, he installed a brand-new gate, which cost him several hundred pounds. The very next day, the second gate was stolen. That is rural crime. My farmer friend was pretty sure he knew who was responsible for stealing his gates, but he did not bother to contact the police, because he has no faith that they—or, more pertinently, the Crown Prosecution Service—would do anything. That, too, is a frustration for farmers.

Last year in my constituency, the police raided a farm that was believed to be owned by criminals—not farmers, I hasten to add. The police found 35 chassis removed from stolen Land Rovers, a stolen tractor unit and a 40-foot stolen trailer containing £50,000-worth of contraband alcohol smuggled in from the continent. They also recovered several thousand pounds in cash, diggers, fork-lifts trucks, quad bikes, car parts and drugs. All the goods were seized, but there were no convictions because the CPS felt it would be too difficult to prove that the occupiers of the farm were handling stolen goods.

Earlier this year, another serious incident in my constituency involved two women driving a Range Rover into another car, which they claimed had cut them up in traffic. The two women used their mobile phones to call their boyfriends, who arrived on the scene and beat up the driver of the car, hospitalising him. The police went to the Traveller site where the attackers lived and arrested two of the three suspects. At the same time, they discovered 200 fighting cocks, nine stolen dogs, a cock-fighting training wheel, drugs, several stolen cars and £50,000 in cash. The third suspect was traced to another Traveller site and was also arrested; at the same time, another £25,000 in cash was recovered.

Where do such large amounts of money come from? They are the proceeds of rural crime, including illegal betting on cock fighting and hare coursing, both of which activities see huge amounts of cash change hands. Hare coursing in particular is becoming an increasing problem. At this point, I will read from a letter that I received from the wife of a farmer in my constituency. It prompted me to apply for the debate. I have amended the letter slightly to protect the identity of the people concerned:

“Dear Sir,

The Isle of Sheppey has a population of over 36,000. During the summer this number is more than doubled. We have read in the local newspaper about yet another reorganisation, but the fact remains that police presence on the Island is inadequate.

On Saturday 2nd November 2013 we had cause to phone 999 as there were four men with dogs coursing hares on our farm. Only one patrol was available. No criticism is intended or implied of the individual officer, but he had no realistic chance of apprehending four experienced criminals who were playing ‘cat and mouse’. With assistance from my husband they were caught, but yet again have got away with it.

This incident was not an isolated one. There have been six incidents here since September 2013. We have witnessed them all and found numerous gates open on all six occasions. This is done deliberately so that the dogs have an unimpeded chase after the hares.

In 2012 we had twenty four incidents of this kind, all of which were reported. Some incidents were attended by the police and some were not. Of the twenty four incidents, arrests were made on only two occasions. In the first case the culprits received £250 fines and we are still waiting for the £15 victim cost.

In the second case the CPS abandoned the case only informing us the day before the hearing. This cost us money as we had already made arrangements for someone to care for our animals during our absence. The CPS claim there was insufficient evidence for the charge that was brought. Our view is that the case was dropped to save money. (It has been reported that the CPS drop 500 cases a week).

All this unsatisfactory state of affairs causes us much distress. We are not young and resilient like we used to be and we fear reprisals. My husband is in his seventies and not in the best of health. He has worked hard for twenty years in a government backed environmental scheme to improve wildlife on the farm. Now we suffer from people coursing hares—something it is illegal for us to do as owners of the property.

We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”

Let me read that last paragraph again:

“We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”

That is shocking, and it is why we must do something about spiralling rural crime.

Hares are in serious decline, despite being a key indicator species for conservation efforts funded by the EU through agricultural subsidies. The sad truth is that currently the only beneficiaries of the noble efforts by our farmers to conserve our hares are the criminals who are killing them as part of illegal gambling gangs who view the potential fines as an acceptable occupational hazard. If those who regularly attend hare coursing events attended 10 events and were arrested and caught at just one, resulting in a £250 fine, it would amount to £25 per event. Compared with the thousands of pounds that change hands through illegal gambling, £25 is nothing. If we are to protect people such as my constituents, farmers believe the fine for hare coursing should be increased substantially and I would like the Government to take that message on board. Hare coursing is rural crime.

Poaching is also a crime, yet there is evidence that criminals go out with dogs and snoop round farm buildings and fields in search of something to steal. If challenged, they admit to poaching because they are confident that the police regard poaching as a trivial matter and hardly a crime. We must make police officers who operate in rural locations understand that poaching is as serious as any other crime and often has links to more serious crimes.

In my constituency, three poachers recently killed 150 pheasants in one go. Those poachers ranged in age from 11 to 14 years. They were using an illegal, unregistered section 1 firearm—a .22 rifle. When it was recovered, there was a spent cartridge still in the breech and the individual carrying the rifle was found to have in his possession 200 rounds of illegally held .99 mm pistol ammunition and various other weapons. Those three boys were arrested again three weeks later after stealing a bicycle, and yet again shortly after that for breaking into a shed using tools from a robbery that had gone undetected.

The problem with poaching is that it is too often seen by the public, and sometimes the police, as being almost romantic—“one for the pot”—like boys scrumping. What they do not understand is that many poaching events are sponsored by criminal gangs operating from Traveller sites and pubs in Kent where competitions are held, again involving illegal gambling when the winner is the one with the highest number of dead animal heads.

Mike Bax, chairman of the crime rural advisory group that advises Kent police and the Kent police and crime commissioner on rural crime, gets over far better than I can the way in which poaching has wider implications than “just one for the pot”. He said that

“200 pheasants poached at the game dealers price of”

50p per head

“looks like a loss to the breeder of £100. However, it also probably means that a day’s legal shooting has to be cancelled with a gross loss of £6,000. 15 or 20 beaters lose a day’s work at £20 per head, the local pub loses the meal booking and possible accommodation booking. And other physical damage has probably been caused on the ground.

These multiplier effects on simple incidents illustrate the impact of even day to day rural crime with such events generally affecting the community at large rather than just an individual. Nevertheless, the events are so commonplace that the rural community consistently fails to report the original crime and somehow we have to change that mindset.

The police tackle the problem to the best of their ability, but they are thinly spread and intelligence is the key.”

I apologise for being a few minutes late for the hon. Gentleman’s debate. A problem in a rural part of my constituency has been people coming on to land pretending that they have hunting rights when in fact they are just there for criminality. What we found helpful, as the Minister will be aware, was that a group of local residents in Esclusham and Ponciau came together and worked on a digital mapping scheme so that land use was determined and put on that digital map. That is a good idea in such situations.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. I have heard about digital mapping. All the ways of helping to solve crime are about intelligence-led policing, which is what I am talking about at the moment. Mike Bax continued:

“With thousands of people spread across the rural areas people must learn that it is not a failure if the police do not make an arrest. The very fact that the incident has been reported to the police provides them with intelligence.

Perhaps the identity of the vehicle, a description of the clothes the offender was wearing or a boot print in the mud, might well prove vital on another occasion.

Further more regular reporting by the community provides the police with information on crime patterns. Using that they can make predictions and be in the right place at the right time more often, thereby responding more effectively.”

That is intelligence-led policing, which is what we are talking about.

Intelligence gathering and digital mapping are fine, but dedicated rural police officers must act on that intelligence. Rural dwellers are being subjected to increasing levels of intimidation and violence. The National Farmers Union is aware of gamekeepers waking up to find their dustbins and pheasant feeders stuffed with dead birds as a warning. One gamekeeper was shot at with 1.5 ounce lead balls—any shooters here will know that that is pretty hefty shot—while driving. Another narrowly escaped serious injury when bringing his daughter back from school. Two men stepped out into the road in front of him and deliberately shot his windscreen out with similar sized lead balls. The point is that poaching is rural crime.

We then have livestock rustling, which is also becoming an increasing problem. It is estimated that 60,000 sheep were stolen in 2011 alone. The broader implications of livestock theft are very serious, because once animals are stolen, they are no longer tracked by the movement databases in place, increasing the risk of another foot-and-mouth epidemic. In addition, meat entering the food chain through livestock theft cannot be traced from farm to fork and it may be subject to unhygienic slaughterhouse conditions and contamination that risks human health.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate; he is making some very good points. Where there is livestock rustling, whether it be sheep or cattle, does he agree that one of the curious factors is what is happening at the point of the slaughter of those animals, in terms of proof of identification? It is a real curiosity that the meat could find its way into the food supply chain.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; that is exactly the point I am making. If sheep are removed from a database system that tracks them from farm to fork and they are let into the black market, there is no way of ever tracing that, so yes, it is a problem. It is a problem because, again, livestock rustling is a rural crime, but one of those that people forget about.

My point is a continuation of that. If 60,000 sheep are disappearing through rustling, somehow or other they are washing up somewhere and entering the food supply chain, at a point where an abattoir owner, a slaughterhouse man or a processor is asking that individual, “Where did this shipment come from?” It is an interesting point, because the abattoirs in my area certainly know where every single animal has come from. Something is going wrong; perhaps the Minister could answer.

Or not—people might be taking it along to illegal, unlicensed or backstreet abattoirs. They might be cutting the animals’ throats in a back shed somewhere. That is the problem. We have the issue of not being able to trace from farm to fork, but also that of animal welfare and animals being slaughtered inhumanely.

Another rural crime that I want to touch on is fly-grazing. That is the unauthorised grazing of land by horses and ponies, whether or not the owner of the horses is in breach of a previous agreement or has simply placed the horses on the land without discussion with the owner or tenant of the land. Fly-grazing is becoming an increasing problem, with several thousand horses being grazed on land without permission. I understand that the problem has become worse in the past three years, particularly since the introduction of horse passports and microchipping, which were intended to increase the traceability of horses—particularly those likely to enter the food chain.

The NFU is calling for the following action, with which I have some sympathy. It wants fly-grazing to be made a criminal offence, so that action can be taken to bring offenders to justice swiftly. It wants the Horse Passports Regulations 2009 to be amended, so that they form a streamlined set of rules, meeting the minimum requirements of the relevant EC directive, thereby helping to improve traceability. It wants the Animals Act 1971 to be amended to bring it into line with the best of the private Acts of Parliament that enable local authorities to act when horses are left on private land; it wants it to be clear that the 1971 Act covers animals deliberately placed on land by their owners.

The NFU wants police forces to develop procedures for dealing with horses on the public highway that take account of bio-security in addition to respecting property rights. Police should be aware of the danger of spreading diseases such as African horse sickness when seizing or moving horses. The union also feels that local authorities should be prepared to offer surplus land for rental to horse owners, where appropriate and compatible with surrounding land use.

I have touched on fly-grazing because, again, it is a rural crime. However, there are many other rural crimes that cause problems for farmers, such as fuel theft, metal theft, vandalism, trespassing, arson, criminal damage, fly-tipping, illegal Traveller sites and illegal raves. There are too many and they are too varied to mention in depth today, but they are all rural crimes.

In conclusion, I want to relay to the Government the worries of those of my constituents who live in more isolated rural communities. They are worried that rural crime is increasing and that it is given a lower priority than urban crime. They are worried because they rarely see a member of the police force on duty in their community and because they feel forgotten by the Government, local authorities and the police. I very much hope that the Government will take steps to reassure my rural communities that they are just as important as urban communities, and ensure that they receive the policing to which they are entitled and they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I start by referring hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and by saying how glad I am to see the Minister in his place; I look forward to his addressing some of the points we are raising in this important debate. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on an issue that is of great importance to so many of our constituents.

It is for the Minister to answer on behalf of the Government, but the Government have made changes that devolve responsibility for much of these matters away from this place, away from the hands of Ministers and away from Government to police and crime commissioners. I confess to having been relatively agnostic about the creation of those posts when they were first mooted, but the more I look into it, the more I see what they are achieving, particularly in my area. I see the value of electoral accountability on such issues. If police and crime commissioners want to be re-elected by the large number of people who live in rural areas, they will have to address precisely the issues that my hon. Friend raised, if they are not doing so already.

I am pleased to say that Anthony Stansfeld, the police and crime commissioner in the Thames Valley, has made rural crime one of his top three priorities. I am also pleased that police and crime commissioners all across the country, working together on a number of issues, are developing a rural crime initiative. That surely is very welcome and a credit to them working across parties—of course, many of them are of no party at all—and making sure that they are joining up and sharing best practice and tackling rural crime.

My hon. Friend made a good speech, setting out precisely what rural crime is. He made the very good point that it does not accord with the quaint and slightly bucolic view that some might have—through some of our writers, painters and through other forms of culture—about historical areas of rural crime, such as how poaching may have happened for the pot in past years. This is a very serious area of criminality: it is often about the widespread stealing of plant and machinery; it can be about people trafficking; firearms can be involved; and there are many cases in which intimidation is used, not only of the victims or potential victims of crime, but to make people commit crimes. There is increasing evidence in the Traveller community that some people who are not willing participants in criminal activity are more or less forced, by a very few people in that community and elsewhere, into committing acts that they would not otherwise carry out.

It is also important that we understand that crimes that take place in towns are very often carried out by people who do not live in those towns and who travel a long way away from them, or that crimes committed in the countryside are carried out by people who live in towns. We should not assume that this is an isolated issue, or a niche area of criminality that we can deal with on its own. It has to be seen in the context of crime across the piece.

I mentioned Anthony Stansfeld, the police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley. I have been looking closely at how he, by making rural crime one of his top three priorities in the highly complex area of the Thames Valley, where there are many other pressures on his resources, has approached tackling it.

Little things can make a big difference. The first thing is ensuring that a police officer turns up and responds to every single incident. It sounds strange to say that police officers did not do that in the past, but there was a way of reporting rural crime that often made it seem much more trivial than it actually was. The term “theft from unoccupied premises” immediately makes one think of an allotment shed perhaps when in fact it could be, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a farmer’s store, with large amounts of ammonium nitrate, large pieces of machinery or livestock. Ensuring that we define rural crime is therefore very important.

There is very good news about rural crime. In my area, it has dropped by 20% in one year. That is through a clear reporting system, lots of very good work by police forces and the priority being given to rural crime by the leadership, both at chief constable level and at police and crime commissioner level. If everything else I say is forgotten, this is the really important point, and I am sure that it is one with which the Minister would agree. This is not just about the police tackling the problem; it is about all of us who live in rural areas playing our part. I think that educating landowners, farmers and rural managers about crime and what they can do is very important.

I am particularly interested in the CESAR system—the construction and agricultural equipment security and registration system—which puts transponders and indelible marking on large pieces of machinery or high-value pieces of equipment and ensures, for all the equipment that a farmer buys, whether it is a new pick-up, a large piece of machinery or just a chainsaw, that the serial numbers are gathered and recorded at the start of his ownership of that equipment and stored so that they can be traced. That is important because, as my hon. Friend relayed, there can be cases in which large amounts of equipment are found and the issue is not just returning the equipment to the person to whom it belonged before it was stolen, but establishing a pattern of criminality that can lead to convictions. What we know about many aspects of rural crime is that a very few people are committing a lot of crimes, and if we can feel their collars, crime rates plummet. That has been proved to be effective in my area.

Another way in which we can all play our part is by joining schemes such as the countryside alert system, which 10,000 people are now part of in the Thames Valley. Under that system, we can use technology to help to beat the criminal by keeping people informed about suspicious activity and crimes that are being committed. It is about instantly being able to mobilise a large number of people to be aware of a problem that may be occurring in their area.

I want to touch on the issues of animal welfare that my hon. Friend also mentioned. We should be under no illusions about the fact that many of the activities relating to the theft or killing of wild animals in the context of rural crime are really unpleasant stuff. No one should be under any illusions that there is anything attractive about that activity at all. Gangs of people have caused havoc at times in parts of my constituency by coursing deer. It affects farmers and landowners such as Kirsten Loyd, who informed me of recurring problems on several nights running that involved 4x4s driving on to land, gates being smashed and deer being pulled down by running dogs and often just left. In some cases, they had to be humanely dispatched as a result. On my own property, I have found people coursing hares, from 4x4s, with long dogs, and when they kill the hare, they just drive round it in circles, wrecking the crops and leaving the carcase of the animal. These are not nice people, and if they are challenged, it is very often by one person, and that person is at severe risk of assault. Indeed, we have had circumstances in which firearms have been used in a threatening way.

There is also some good news, however. My hon. Friend talked about the difficulty of getting a fine imposed that means anything—that is a true reflection of the damage, fear and uncertainty that these crimes are causing among rural people, but also of the on-costs from the effects of these crimes. I sometimes have to rack my brains to think of really good things to say about the last Government, but here is one. They passed section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which has given the police an invaluable tool in dealing with crimes that would otherwise attract a relatively cursory sentence. It allows them to seize a vehicle that has been used in connection with a crime. The vehicle can then be crushed or sold, but will not be returned to the perpetrator of the crime. It has had an enormous effect in allowing police to tackle some of the criminality in rural areas. I commend that legislation and hope that it is being used properly by police forces up and down the country.

My then neighbouring MP, just across the Thames in Oxford, Boris Johnson, and I, just after I had got elected, both identified a problem of dog theft. Sometimes when we raised it, people would smile or slightly roll their eyes as if that was not a big thing. It is a horrible crime. It deprives people of what are sometimes very valuable—they are certainly valuable to them—companions and working dogs. It particularly involves working dogs—sheepdogs, gundogs and so on—and it continues to be a problem. Dealing with it requires intelligence gathering, an understanding of how important the issue is to our constituents and a coherent approach, right across police forces; it cannot be governed just by the boundaries of the particular area. I am so impressed by the work that has been carried out by many people and organisations that encourage people to have their pets microchipped. There are all sorts of other methods that we can also use to take the battle to the criminal and reduce the risk of these very unpleasant crimes.

In conclusion, we can all play our part. I agree with my hon. Friend: the most depressing thing that we hear as MPs is people saying, “Well, there’s no point in my reporting this.” If people do not report crimes, however trivial—even if it has not been established that a crime has been committed, but there is a suspicion of a crime—we cannot then complain if the police say, “Well, we have no reports of serious criminality in that area. Therefore, we are putting our resources where we know that crimes are being committed.” Everyone has to report crimes.

There are small things that can be done. One might consider putting CCTV in farm buildings where there has been a persistent problem. We need to ensure that we put in the right quality of CCTV, so that it can be used as evidence to secure a conviction. People can spend a lot of money on anti-crime measures that are no good when we look at the product at the end of the day.

Much rural crime, as I have said, is down to a few—sometimes a very few—people who stalk the countryside prepared to steal anything that is not nailed down. They take advantage of the fact that many fewer people are working in the countryside and of the isolation of business premises and some of the places where high-value goods are stored. We need to ensure that rural crime is a priority at policing level, that we continue to offer support through our position in Parliament and the Government, and that we recognise the importance of this issue to our constituents. There can be a sense of siege if this activity is happening night after night in their areas. Only through a combined, partnership effort and this issue being a priority of elected politicians can we ensure that the problem of rural crime ceases to prey on the minds of people who live in rural communities.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate and on his wide-ranging contribution, stretching across the panoply of issues that cover rural crime. It is sometimes difficult to establish exactly what is rural crime, but I think the essence of it is that it is non-urban crime. There are some similarities between urban and rural crime—theft of oil, for example, often takes place in the heart of my urban communities, but it is a significant issue in rural areas—but there are some special areas of concern in rural communities. The hon. Gentleman covered a wide range of them, and I commend him for doing so.

Livestock rustling is a concerning and fascinating area. As I mentioned in my intervention, the fact that 60,000 sheep disappear is of great concern and has a significant effect on those who make their livelihood from the husbandry of livestock, but of equal concern is the question of where they are disappearing to. Where are they washing up within the food chain? How are they entering the food chain where there is no traceability whatsoever? That is a real issue. I hope that the Minister, in discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will address how we clamp down on that further without imposing additional burdens on the farming community. We have to make sure that when animals present at abattoirs and meat processors, they can be identified and traced back to the farm and the landowner.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to metal theft, another crime that affects urban areas but is of significant concern in sparsely populated rural areas. Many criminals, including perpetrators of quite serious organised crime, see rural areas as an easier target because they offer an opportunity to get away with criminality without the prying eyes of CCTV on every street corner.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fly-tipping, a long-running issue that has costs and is associated with criminality. It is not an incidental occurrence involving hard-pressed people; the perpetrators are criminals who are trying to get away with not paying their dues towards landfill by simply dumping in the countryside. Ultimately, landowners and local authorities pick up the cost for collecting and disposing of such waste, so we must constantly push forward with measures to tackle the problem.

I am interested in the shadow Minister’s view on whether the increased use of technology in urban and suburban areas is driving the practice out. Has the technology got so good in urban and suburban areas that the problem is simply being spread over a wider rural area?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Increased tightening up in urban areas displaces criminal activity. Curiously, that brings me to another issue raised by the hon. Gentleman where there has been displacement of activity, namely fly-grazing. At a well attended debate in this Chamber about six months ago, hon. Members from England and Wales discussed the matter. When we talk about fly-grazing, we are not talking about the individual pony or horse that we occasionally see on an estate, tethered by a rope to a peg in the ground, where we worry about the animal welfare considerations and wonder why the animal is there. Neither are we talking about some within the Traveller community who have a culture of keeping the odd horse and parking it somewhere temporarily. There is serious criminality behind fly-grazing, as we know in Wales, which is why, as I am sure the Minister is aware, the Welsh Government recently worked with local authorities to change the law in Wales.

The change in the law in Wales was designed to deal with the massive incidence of fly-grazing, in which hundreds of animals were being parked on environmentally sensitive areas, or in which landowners would find that their fences were demolished and animals appeared on their land. In such cases, the local authority would have to go through all the bureaucracy involved in seizing the animals, many of which were in very bad condition, and absorb the cost of looking after them. If no owner came forward to claim ownership of the animals, the local authority would be obliged to auction them off at a knock-down price after giving them a full veterinary overhaul and making sure that they were all okay; only to find that, lo and behold—what a surprise—the owner, although never declaring themselves as such, would turn up and buy the lot of them, and a couple of weeks later they would appear in another farmer’s field or in another area of environmental sensitivity.

The Labour Welsh Government have changed the law in Wales, but one direct outcome of the change has been to displace that activity; it has moved elsewhere. Let us be frank about this: it is serious, organised, large-scale criminal activity. We are not talking about the odd individual; the police have identified family concerns involved in such activity. Instead of just going over the border, the problem is starting to wash up in English counties such as Hampshire. It seems to have been quite well planned. What conversations has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues in DEFRA on the matter? Is he minded to consider a change in the law to ensure that such criminal activity is not displaced across the border into England, and that local authorities have the tools to deal with the problem, should it wash up on their borders?

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey raised the need for better collaboration to tackle serious and organised crime, and I agree entirely. Interestingly, there are good examples of predominantly urban police forces deploying their resources to assist predominantly rural areas. In my own area, South Wales police provides significant financial support, resources and expertise to deal with serious and organised crime in Dyfed-Powys, for example, which covers the largest rural area in Wales. We must ensure that police forces collaborate to deal with such issues.

The hon. Gentleman covered so many things in his speech that he did not have time to tackle one of the biggest areas of serious crime—illegitimate gangmaster activity. In a neighbouring constituency to the hon. Gentleman’s, within the past year a large group of Lithuanian workers were seized, found living in the most appalling portakabin-style accommodation. They were not being paid the minimum wage, deductions were being made from their pay left, right and centre, and they were being kept in the most appalling conditions by an illegal, illegitimate gangmaster. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority was a great innovation after the Morecambe bay tragedy. This shows that there the GLA is still needed, and I say to those present of all parties that it must still be adequately resourced so that it can be effective—lean, mean, efficient and nasty in dealing with illegitimate gangmasters. The people who suffer most from that aspect of what is predominantly rural crime are the legitimate operators—the food producers and farmers—who are undercut by those criminals. Gangmasters and trafficking are often linked to other serious crime such as drugs or money laundering, so they must be tackled.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has a great deal of experience as a former DEFRA Minister and a landowner. He mentioned the role of our new police and crime commissioners in influencing priorities on rural crime. There are good examples of best practice, and we must ensure that it is spread out to others so that they can choose whether to implement it in their own areas. We could argue that the old police authorities, if they had been so minded, always had the opportunity to deploy a rural focus on certain aspects of crime. Some PCCs have stood up and said publicly that they will focus on certain aspects of crime. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we all need to play a part, and because of the nature of the challenges in rural areas, landowners, farmers, neighbourhood watch, farm watch and farm contractors must come together to tackle the problem.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the section 59 reforms on the seizure, confiscation and destruction of vehicles, because it saves me from having to do so. The reform is a welcome innovation, because it hits those involved in such crime, hard and rapidly. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) made an intervention, which I will return to in a moment, following on from her recent excellent debate.

I would welcome the Minister’s response on whether he is minded to consider extending the fly-grazing enabling powers to local authorities in England. That would be a huge step forward. Why not do it? It would not impose costs on local authorities in England, but would save them money. At the moment there are huge costs to them for looking after the animals and getting them veterinary treatment, and for the enormous bureaucracy and delay before an owner suddenly pops up to take them off their hands at a knock-down price.

I wonder whether the Minister has recently met DEFRA Ministers to discuss the numbers of police and PCSOs in rural areas. Has he had any representations from those Ministers about the possible effect of those numbers on matters that have been referred to this afternoon, such as hare coursing, wildlife crime, the massive increase in fuel theft from rural homes as well as businesses, livestock rustling, fly-grazing, and organised crime in relation to heavy plant, farm equipment and agricultural machinery? If he has not met Ministers, does he plan to do so soon?

There is a contentious issue that we need to deal with. We have mentioned that police and crime commissioners have flexibility and public accountability in determining priorities for their areas. Setting aside for a moment the controversy about whether badger culling should be part of an overall TB eradication strategy, a fascinating aspect of recent discussions is the fact that there have been significant policing costs, but we are left to guess what they are. However, that involves a direct input; there is a displaced cost—a cost-benefit issue.

What is the effect on other aspects of policing of being forced to put significant amounts of restricted policing money from a finite resource into the policing of badger culls? The Minister shakes his head; I shall continue with the point. Those other policing issues include fly-grazing, hare coursing, the theft of oil from farm businesses, and poaching. At the moment, our best estimate, based on statements—or semi-statements—in the public domain by chief constables or police and crime commissioners is that the cost over nine weeks in Somerset was £740,000, and it was just short of £2 million over the extended duration in Gloucestershire.

In mentioning that he was not talking about whether there should be a badger cull, the shadow Minister made his point obliquely; but does he agree that the entire cost of policing the badger culls was for policing illegal harassment and activity by animal rights organisations? Should not that be the focus of our attention, and does not it support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) that if anything contributes to rural disillusionment it is the fact that rural people stand back and watch those things unfolding, while very little happens to deal with them? Perhaps there is now a good opportunity to deal with illegal harassment by animal rights activists, rather than to make an oblique point about the cull.

My point about the cull is far from oblique, because I am focusing on the costs. Today is not the time to rehearse again the debate about whether the tool of culling is integral to the eradication of bovine TB. The costs issue is paramount: there is a real cost-benefit analysis to be done. If the figures that I have given, such as the £2 million spent in Gloucester, are correct, that will raise an issue. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the figure is correct or in the right ballpark—perhaps he will say it is nothing like it and is way above the right figure. I agree that intimidation, bullying and harassment cannot be tolerated, but I hope that it is accepted that there is a role for legitimate protest in any sphere. There are regularly people protesting outside Parliament.

No one should condone illegitimate threats or intimidation from whatever angle they come, but my point is that if £2 million was spent in Gloucester, and if we are to continue the cull this summer in the reasonable expectation that those costs will continue, we cannot deny that that will mean a displacement of police activity, short of the Minister telling us he has found another £2 million to defray the costs. He may say so, and that would be fine—but let us hear it. At the moment we have no clarity about costs. I agree with all the points that have been made about stretched resources in rural areas, and if they are stretched even further in Gloucester and Somerset we should be honest with the public about the impact.

I take the shadow Minister’s point, but does he concede that there would be no cost to legitimate, lawful, peaceful protest? The only cost is for dealing with illegal elements. Legitimate protest comes at zero cost.

Absolutely—theoretically the hon. Gentleman is right. In practice, we have seen the reality; immense policing costs are absorbed so that the culls can happen. That is my point—not debating the culls but asking the Minister directly what the costs were, and what they will be. It is right for the electorate in the affected areas to know that. The Government said that police and crime commissioners would bring transparency, and with such transparency the electorate could debate the priorities in their area. Alternatively, it would be possible to go cap in hand to the Minister to say, “Give us some more money, because this has taken a fair bit out of our area.”

A positive and constructive part of the debate has concerned collaboration. I welcome the establishment of the national rural crime network, which has brought together many partners across the UK, including at the last count 18 police and crime commissioners—with more, I understand, to come. That has happened with the assistance of, among others, the Rural Services Network—to which we should pay tribute—with the purpose of increasing collaboration and sharing best practice on rural crime, in the face of continuing acknowledged budgetary pressures.

Collaborative work on rural crime is also being done in Wales, and that includes the rural crime mapping scheme which my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South mentioned today and discussed at length in a previous debate. It is an excellent initiative, in which rural crime is electronically mapped and is highly visible to all partners, making it possible to identify and share information about what is happening and what to watch out for. I applaud my hon. Friend for raising awareness of that.

I was recently in Suffolk where a dedicated team of special constables has been established, focusing on particular aspects of crime on farms and in rural communities. There is some flexibility to determine local priorities and collaboration. Established schemes such as country watch, farm watch, horse watch and so on, go from success to success—so there is good practice. These are difficult times for policing, because of stretched budgets, but collaboration is one way forward. I would welcome the Minister’s response to my queries—particularly about his collaboration with DEFRA Ministers.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my near constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), on securing the debate. His entirely reasonable final point was to request reassurance that the Government are aware of and sympathetic to people who fear rural crime. I can give him that assurance, not least because his constituency, as he described it, quite closely resembles mine—that is, it is mostly urban but has a huge rural area. I suspect that what he hears from farmers and others who live in villages in his constituency is exactly the same as what I hear.

I thank the Minister for giving way so early. I forgot to ask about something, but I am sure that he can give me some clarification. The issue of liaison with Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is interesting. I understood that a DEFRA Minister was originally going to respond to this debate. I am sure that there is a good reason why that is no longer the case and why the Minister, who is very capable, is present instead. Nevertheless, will he explain? A DEFRA Minister would be able to respond on issues such as hare coursing, wildlife crime and so on. Having said that, I am sure that the Minister will be an able replacement.

The hon. Gentleman will observe that when discussing rural crime we can take either the first or the second word to decide which Department is responsible. The subject falls neatly between the two, and I will happily discuss with DEFRA Ministers the points raised today. I will also discuss his specific point about fly-grazing with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government. He is correct to say that such issues inevitably fall between Departments, but one of the joys of government is ensuring that, just because something may affect more than one Department, it does not fall down a hole between two Departments.

I would like to put the debate into some kind of perspective. I was grateful to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey say that he accepted the context in which police funding is now operating. He was right to do so. When we came into office in May 2010, we inherited the largest peacetime deficit in history. Borrowing increased to unprecedented levels under the previous Government, without due consideration for the long-term economic health of the country. We are proud of the progress we have made in addressing this most fundamental of issues.

Borrowing as a percentage of GDP is down by a third, our economy is growing and unemployment is falling. However, we cannot rest there, because although we have made strong inroads into arresting the deficit, more must be done. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced earlier this year that further cuts will be required into the next Parliament. That will mean that difficult decisions will have to be made, and we should not shy away from that.

Despite all that, we have pushed to secure the best possible deal for the police and protected them again for 2014-15, this time from the further cuts to departmental budgets announced in December’s autumn statement. Central Government funding for the police will be reduced by 3.3% in cash terms in 2014-15, while overall funding will be reduced by even less, once the future police precept is factored in. We have also protected funding for counter-terrorism policing, owing to the ongoing threat of terrorism. By way of comparison with that 3.3%, the remaining Home Office budget will be cut by 7% in cash terms in 2014-15.

That was the overall context. I now turn specifically to Kent, because many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey were about God’s own county. I know that the funding settlement is challenging, but it is manageable. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that the proportion of officers on the front line is increasing, and we are supporting the police through a range of activities to help them to respond to the challenge and ultimately emerge stronger. I appreciate that funding reductions have meant that all forces have had to consider where savings need to be made in terms of officers and staff numbers, but, ultimately, decisions on the size and composition of the police work force are for the individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners.

Of course, Kent has particular rural policing challenges and the crime sets are different from those in other parts of the country. However, the police allocation formula, which distributes the majority of funding to the police, takes account of local circumstances to address the specific needs faced by rural forces. The point about specific needs has been made several times during the debate, and I am happy to assure the House that the formula is designed to recognise the extra difficulties caused by sparsity.

I also recognise the importance of ensuring that we update the formula to reflect the needs of modern policing. That is why the Government are currently conducting a fundamental review of how funding is allocated among police force areas. It will focus on the current police allocation formula and the process of damping, as well as looking at the funding landscape as a whole. Determining how funding should be allocated to the police in future is a complex and important matter that will require careful consideration and take time. It will not be completed before 2016, but the first phase of the work, an internal analytical review, is already under way. Obviously, we will consult the full range of partners at an appropriate point in the development of that work.

I should emphasise that how the money is spent by the forces and police and crime commissioners is at least as important as the amount that they have to spend. PCCs are key; my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey expressed his view about Kent PCC’s priorities in fighting rural crime.

Obviously, we can also do things at the national level to help the police to deal with rural crime. One of them is the police innovation fund, which is worth up to £50 million a year and represents a new step to incentivise innovation and collaboration, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I agree with him that it is an important way for forces, perhaps those in rural areas in particular, to become more efficient. The fund will also incentivise digitisation to drive efficiencies and improve policing over the long term.

There is already a £20 million precursor fund, which received 115 bids covering a wide range of activity. Indeed, Kent and Essex police were successful in a joint bid, showing that collaboration is alive and well in Kent. They will receive £440,000 from the precursor innovation fund to support their joint visual media evidence and investigation programme. That will allow video evidence to be captured at, for example, a public order event such as illegal hare coursing. That could quickly be made available to investigators and analysed using a range of innovative software techniques, enabling officers to focus in on offenders and increase the chance of successful prosecutions. I am well aware of the point, made by several Members, that thinking that a crime will lead to a successful prosecution is important. As I said, there is a £50 million fund for 2014-15, and I urge forces that feel they have a particular issue with rural crime to put together some good bids to the fund.

Against the background of the fund and the debate more widely, it is important to remember that crime is falling and police reforms are working. Overall crime has fallen under this Government by more than 10%, according to the crime survey for England and Wales, and that is mirrored by the fall in police-recorded crime. Nevertheless, I accept the fact that we must keep pace with the way crime, including rural crime, is changing.

The point has been made that much of what is regarded almost as traditional rural crime is now actually run by organised criminal gangs, and people must be reassured that the Government are treating it as such. The need to combat organised criminal gangs is precisely why we have set up the National Crime Agency, which allows us, for the first time, to tackle the growing threat of serious and organised criminality. It has been in full operation since October, and is already making inroads into criminal gangs. Some of the people who will benefit from that are those living in rural areas who are suffering from the effects of organised criminality in their neighbourhoods.

I turn to crime in rural areas specifically, rather than the general crime statistics. DEFRA’s statistical digest, based on data from police-recorded crime, shows that the average rates of all crime types for rural local authority areas are lower than for urban local authority areas. I think that that is intuitively what people would expect. The percentage decrease in crime over the past six years in rural areas is roughly on a par with the reduction rate in urban areas. The notion that urban crime is coming down because it is being displaced to rural areas, and therefore rural crime is going up, is simply wrong. Crime is going down in both areas, although I take the point about the potential for displacement.

Although crime rates in rural areas tend to be relatively low, rural communities should be able to know what crime looks like in their area and to hold someone to account for doing something about it. I echo the point made by both my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and the hon. Member for Ogmore: people need to report crime. It is in their own interests not to say, “It is not worth reporting it.” Inevitably, police chiefs will concentrate their resources on where they think they will have the most effect in fighting crime. If crime is not reported, an area may well appear more peaceful than its residents think it is.

As I said, people need someone to hold to account for doing something about crime, which is precisely why we have shifted power to local communities through locally elected police and crime commissioners. I am grateful that, since they have come into operation, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has been converted to the virtue of having that local accountability mechanism. I know that he has seen benefits for his constituents in the initiatives put forward by the police and crime commissioner for the Thames valley, Anthony Stansfeld. I also agree with my hon. Friend’s remarks about target hardening in rural areas for particular types of crime, often committed against farmers who have valuable machinery on their premises. We need to do exactly that.

Rather than talking about the overall levels of reported crime, hon. Members were saying that specific crimes, such as the theft of fuel oil, metals or plant and machinery, are easily displaced to rural areas. Will the Minister tell us whether he has any figures to say that those crimes are not increasing? Certainly, the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and others will say that they are increasing significantly—to the extent that fuel theft went up by 166% in one year. That is disproportionately within rural areas.

The figures I was citing from the DEFRA digest were, of course, aggregate figures. Within those figures, individual crime types go up for a number of reasons—not just in rural areas, but generally. Sometimes, the crime rate goes up because it is being better reported, as people think that it is worth doing something about it.

Perhaps now is a convenient time to deal with metal theft, as that is one of the points that the hon. Gentleman asked about. We recognise that it has a huge impact on communities, which is why we have taken a number of actions. We have increased the financial penalties and banned cash payments. We have supported targeted enforcement through the Government-funded national metal theft task force, which has led to a fall in metal theft. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 further tightened the net around rogue dealers who flout rules. The task force is funded until September 2014. We have spent £5 million supporting it to give sufficient time for the reforms to become well established.

The statistics show that there has been a decline in metal theft in each quarter of 2012-13. There was a 40% fall between April-June 2012 and January-March 2013. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others can take that as some reassurance that effective action can lead to falls in crimes that are often concentrated in rural areas.

Another important point is greater information and transparency. We have the police and crime commissioners who hold the forces to account, but the public need to be able, in an informed way, to hold PCCs to account and decide whether to re-elect them. That is why we are providing more local information about crime and what the police have done in response to it. That information is regularly updated on, the national crime and policing web portal, which provides the public, including those who live in rural communities, with local information about crime and antisocial behaviour. On, the information is presented clearly and concisely, allowing the public to access it in a useful way.

Hon. Members on both sides have made the point that some PCCs have prioritised rural crime, which is, of course, evidence of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—that having elected local officials means that they have to reflect what local people want. If they are representing an area with a significant rural population, it would be sensible for them to reflect that, and several of them have. For example, in north Wales the PCC has put in place a rural crime plan, which focuses on engaging with the rural community and addressing their concerns, including theft of equipment and livestock from rural areas. The force is providing a presence at farmers’ markets, and a rural crime team has been created.

As has already been mentioned, the PCC in Suffolk has introduced a dedicated team of special constables, which seems to be the sort of innovative response that we would all welcome. Similarly, we have already heard about the PCC in the Thames valley and the introduction of the Country Watch messaging system, which I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend is proving effective.

A lot is happening at the local level, but a lot is also happening at the national level. We have the UK national wildlife crime unit, a police unit that assists in the prevention and detection of wildlife crime by obtaining and disseminating intelligence from a wide range of organisations. It directly assists law enforcement agencies in investigating wildlife crime. Some of its priorities relate to international crime and the enforcement of the convention on international trade in endangered species, but other priorities are some of the things that we have been discussing today—including poaching, which is one of the specific priorities of the unit.

The unit is jointly funded; this goes back to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Ogmore at the start. The Home Office provides some funding for the NWCU and will continue to throughout the period of the spending settlement. DEFRA provides the same amount of funding for the unit over the next two years.

My message to the Minister is: long may both Departments continue to do so. Some of the crimes that a police constable comes across in the course of his work may be unusual. To have that centre of knowledge to whom he can go, who will say to him, “Yes, you can prosecute this person under this piece of legislation in this way” is absolutely invaluable. Also, it is what the unit does through the partnership against wildlife crime that is of such value to the whole wider aspect.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that tribute to the unit, of which I know he has much experience. As I said, it is an example of a particular problem not being allowed to fall between Departments. We have two Departments here working to support the unit.

As has also been mentioned, at the national level a rural crime network has been set up to tackle countryside crime. So far, it has been endorsed by 18 police and crime commissioners. It is good to see PCCs in rural areas coming together in that way. The idea originated with the Rural Services Network, a not-for-profit organisation that represents a diverse range of rural service providers in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

The PCCs have convened a good group—not just the network itself, but Farmers Weekly, the national community safety network, an online crime reporting system called Facewatch, the CLA and other rural stakeholders. One of the best things the network does is to ensure that best practice is shared, so that things can be co-ordinated and sustained effectively. The network wants to provide an online resource for the police, community safety practitioners and others precisely to share information, training and development, access to case studies and so on.

Altogether, the network is one of the more exciting developments, which will enable things to happen at a national level, although it is absolutely locally based and based on real world experiences. All those involved will be able to learn from one another and to work collaboratively on new ideas and solutions that will benefit local people.

There is clearly a lot that can be done with technology. I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) has come to this debate. She will remember that on 5 March I paid tribute to her constituents who have gathered information to provide the digital map that, as she explained earlier, is helping North Wales police to tackle rural crime in their local area. Her presence in Westminster Hall today allows me to pay that tribute once again. It is a good initiative and I am glad that the information is available; it can be accessed through a tablet, which will help the police get to grips with situations in real time. Again, that is an example of how something developed as a good idea at a local level can become a piece of best practice that is spread and can have a national effect.

Before I conclude, I will mention a group of people who have not been mentioned much—police community support officers. PCSOs play a huge part in effective neighbourhood policing. They provide a highly visible presence within communities and an invaluable link between the police and the communities they serve, with their focus on understanding and identifying local priorities over a long period, as well as on solving local problems, solving low-level crime and engaging with the community.

We need only to look at those aspects of the core PCSO work to see how relevant they are to rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said that people want more visible policing. It is inevitable that in sparsely populated areas people are less likely to see a police officer than if they are in an urban area; common sense would suggest that. Precisely because they have a smaller area to cover and they will not be hauled off somewhere else for response duties, and because they are often in post in a particular area for longer than police officers, PCSOs can develop that network of relationships in a rural area that not only does good things by itself but helps to promote confidence among people that there is somebody they can go to whom they know and who represents the forces of law and order.

I welcome the warm praise that the Minister has just given PCSOs. Back in the year dot, I sat on the long 13-week Committee that brought PCSOs into existence and I see now the massive change in the Minister’s party: it originally opposed PCSOs, but now supports them. That is hugely welcome, because PCSOs are a great asset.

In the seven minutes remaining—it is great when we have lots of time for a Minister to respond to a debate—can the Minister give us some of the details about the cost of the badger culls? Also, has he considered the extension of the fly-grazing legislation to England?

I shall repeat what I said earlier—perhaps I was not clear enough before—but I will happily take away the point about fly-grazing and I will discuss it with DEFRA Ministers. The hon. Gentleman will accept that this issue clearly requires input from a range of Departments, and I am happy to seek that input. Let me take this opportunity to deal with a number of issues; I will tease the hon. Gentleman by coming to the issue of badger culls last.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the process to stop stolen animals from entering the food chain. On 1 April, DEFRA launched the animal reporting and movement service, a new digital system to record and trace sheep movements. It gives farmers the option to report electronically. All markets and abattoirs are connected to the system, so anybody who has suspicions now has an easy and painless way to report them.

On the issue of badger culls, the policing costs are £2.3 million in Gloucestershire, £446,000 in West Mercia and £739,000 in Avon and Somerset. Those are indicative costs. We are yet to receive the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that reviews the resources deployed in respect of the badger culls; that report will obviously give the final figure. I should add that DEFRA has agreed to pay all the additional policing costs.

I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I thank the Minister for that response; it is great to have it accurately now on the record. Can he tell us whether those costs are for the year just gone, and does he have the costs for the year ahead? Based on the Government’s decision last week, the two culls in Gloucester and Somerset will continue for the year ahead. Does he have an estimated figure for the costs in the year ahead?

I do not, for the very good reason that we cannot possibly know what the policing requirements will be. The hon. Gentleman had an instructive exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) about the difference between peaceful protest, which we all recognise is acceptable, and illegal protest and obstruction. Clearly, the amount of extra policing cost is intimately related to the amount of illegality that may go on, so assessing costs in the future would simply be guesswork. I do not think it would be sensible for me to do that. However, those are the costs.

Is the Minister telling me that even though these costs are being met from DEFRA’s budget, DEFRA has made no estimate within its budget allocations for policing in the future? Surely not.

I am sure that DEFRA Ministers and officials are doing all that is necessary. I am just saying that it would be foolish if the hon. Gentleman tried to tie me down to detailed figures now, because until we make an assessment of the likely level of criminality it is impossible to make an assessment of the likely amount of police activity. I am sure that he recognises that.

In general, I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and others that, first, the Government attach huge importance to issues relating to policing crime in rural areas and that, in particular, we have taken a number of actions at national level that we can see are having beneficial effects. On top of that, the introduction of PCCs has meant that a new raft of innovative ideas are being introduced all over the country, and therefore being shared all over the country, in ways that will further benefit people who live in rural communities and who have as much right as people who live in urban areas to expect a decent police presence, decent policing and decent anti-crime activities.

What we see from all this activity is that the PCCs and the forces are bringing innovative ideas into reality, and they are creating modern forces that can meet, in particular, the ever-changing demands of modern policing. When people think of modern crime, they tend to think of online crime, fraud and so on, but the debate has been instructive in pointing out that the crimes that people who live in rural areas are facing are also changing. Consequently the police response and the response of the wider public need to change too, in aspects such as target-hardening. The point that fighting crime is, in a sense, the responsibility of all citizens—although we give specific powers to the police, PCSOs and other crimefighters to lead the charge—is a good one. We all have responsibilities.

I return to the first point made about the funding settlement. Of course that creates challenges for PCCs and forces, but those who are prepared to innovate, collaborate, transform their forces and use new technology to drive efficiencies will find that it is possible not only to beat their budgets but to police more effectively than before. I absolutely believe that that is as true in rural areas as it is anywhere else. There are many ways in which rural policing is improving and can continue to improve, so the fact that, as the crime survey shows, our streets are safer than ever—[Interruption.]

I am. I was about to say that those in rural areas will be as well treated as those in urban areas.

Order. We will suspend for the Division. If there is one vote, we will return at 4.15 pm. If there are two votes, we will return at 4.25 pm. If both the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury are here for the next debate before then, we can start earlier.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Income Distribution and Taxation

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who is having a double personality day. She started as Economic Secretary and ended as Financial Secretary. I congratulate her on her well-deserved promotion, and I am very pleased that she is still able to respond to this debate. I wrote to her earlier today to congratulate her on her innovative way of avoiding responding to my debate, but she is stuck with me for the next 29 minutes or so.

I secured the debate because, although I touched on the matter briefly in my short contribution to the Budget debate, it was, as you know, Mr Weir, time limited, and I did not have a chance to make all the points I wanted. In the debate running up to the Budget, there was a lot of discussion about “middle-income taxpayers” and what that meant. I want to set out what I think the Government’s priority should be and congratulate them on landing the income tax cuts in the right place on the income scale.

In the run-up to the Budget, a number of newspaper articles—there was one in The Guardian—referred to middle-income earners being dragged into the 40p tax bracket, but that is not a sensible use of “middle income”. Even the Leader of the Opposition used the phrase, saying that

“if you are in the middle, paying 40p, you should be pleased to pay more”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 797.]

He was referring to what he said was someone else’s argument.

In the Labour party’s list of 24 so-called Tory tax rises, four of them are changes to the higher rate threshold. It seemed slightly odd for the Labour party to complain about ensuring that those on higher incomes paid their fair share in dealing with the deficit. While I am touching on that list, it is interesting to note that the spare room subsidy, which is a housing benefit issue—the Opposition insist on calling it a tax—was not on it. That was a very good demonstration of the fact that even they accept in their heart of hearts that it is not really a tax, even though they keep trying to call it that.

That was an aside, but the point I wanted to make about 40p taxpayers is that I am not saying that they are rich; they are not. Equally, they are not in the middle. Looking at the 2013-14 tax year, someone would pay 40p tax only if they had £32,010 of taxable income, which is on top of a £9,440 personal allowance. They would have to earn a gross income of £41,450 to pay that tax rate. In 2011-12—the most recent year for which the detail is available—the income distribution figures show that a higher rate taxpayer is in the top 14% of income earners. For that year, the median income was £20,300. Some helpful projections have been done using the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook. They show that the median income was £21,000 in 2012-13 and £22,200 in 2013-14. That is only just more than half the income someone would have to earn to pay the 40p tax rate.

If I look at the level of income in my not untypical constituency—these figures are for 2011-12, the latest ones available that are broken down by parliamentary constituency—the mean income of all taxpayers is £24,300, and the median income is only £18,800. If the overall national figures have gone up by some 10% since 2011-12, we can use that assumption with the constituency figures, but that would take the median figure to only a little over £20,000. That figure is for total income. If we look at how that is split between the self-employed, the employed and pensioners, the figures present a different picture. However, it is clear that the median taxpayer is not earning anything like enough to pay the 40% tax rate; they are paying basic rate tax. That is why I thought the Chancellor’s Budget judgment was right.

I even looked at parliamentary constituencies that people would generally accept as having a higher than average number of people earning good incomes. A piece of data that is available from the Office for National Statistics shows that even in constituencies with a high level of mean income—Kensington, Cities of London and Westminster and Chelsea and Fulham—the numbers are clearly driven by a small number of well-remunerated people. The median income in those constituencies is: £37,900 in Cities of London and Westminster; £36,200 in Kensington, and £34,300 in Chelsea and Fulham. Even in those constituencies, the median taxpayer is not paying anything close to 40% tax.

The focus should be on delivering tax cuts for the lower paid and those on more modest incomes and that is what the Chancellor did in his Budget. He made it clear that the personal allowance was going to rise in this current tax year, which has just begun, to £10,000 and next year it rises to £10,500, which will lift more than 3 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. He also confirmed, rightly, that the higher rate threshold will rise a little bit as well, for the first time in this Parliament, which means that everyone on incomes up to £100,000 will benefit from some tax cut, but obviously the main benefit is for those on a lower rate.

The list of tax rises that the Labour party put out referred to the higher rate income tax threshold cuts earlier in this Parliament, which were equitable and made to ensure that those significant rises in the personal allowance did not disproportionately benefit higher rate taxpayers. Of course, if the personal allowance is increased and the higher rate threshold is not changed, someone on 40% tax has income moved out of that band into the basic rate band and gets a bigger benefit than someone on basic rate tax. That would be wrong. The judgments that we made earlier in this Parliament, when we had to make difficult financial decisions, to share the pain and have the burden on those with the broadest shoulders, were right. I am pleased that the Chancellor confirmed that.

By virtue of increasing the allowance, the Chancellor was able to show that, looking at this Government’s tax arrangements, compared with the previous Government’s policy, everybody earning up to £100,000 is better off. They have all had a tax cut, but the tax cuts are more focused and bigger for those on lower earnings.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an important issue. I resisted intervening on the bedroom tax and so on because I wanted to make this point. Does he share my concern, notwithstanding what he said about raising the allowance, that the impact of the tapers on people in receipt of universal credit will be such that, for somebody just above the tax threshold, the rate of withdrawal on both a first and second earner in a family will be as high as 76%? Is there not a danger that that gives people a perverse incentive to work fewer rather than more hours, because they do not reckon that they are being rewarded for the extra hours, or to do undeclared work?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to drawn attention to the tapers and the withdrawal of benefits as people earn income—of course, they are high—but this issue was raised during the Budget debates. However, the fact is that, under universal credit, the withdrawal rates and the tapering arrangements mean that there is a smaller rate of withdrawal of benefit than under the existing levels of benefit. I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong; this is not an area that I have studied in detail. The issue the right hon. Gentleman raises is important, but it is always a challenge to deal with the withdrawal of income-related benefits and to be careful that the effective marginal rate for people is such that it is always worth their while working. Ideally, we want to get that marginal rate as low as possible, but it is expensive to drive it down to a low level. My understanding is that, under universal credit, those withdrawal rates of benefit are lower and therefore more encouraging of people to work, either more hours or in the first place, than under the existing combinations of income-related benefits.

My understanding is that the rates are higher for people working more hours, for 35 hours or more. The hon. Gentleman is right in that the rates are lower for people working fewer hours. That is my worry—the perverse incentive for people to work less.

If I am picking that up correctly, the right hon. Gentleman is saying that at lower levels of earning, or for people who work fewer hours, the effect of universal credit is—

I should correct that. It is not that the rate is lower; it is that people will be better off working fewer hours, as compared with the position under tax credits, whereas those who are working 35 hours or more will be slightly worse off under universal credit than they would have been under tax credits. The withdrawal rate is 76%, just above the tax threshold, under universal credit.

I cannot answer the right hon. Gentleman’s detailed question, because I have not studied the matter, but the other thing that he needs to do—I am not sure whether he has incorporated this into his judgment—is look at the interaction of the tax changes that we have made with the benefit system. Over this Parliament, there will be a significant increase in the personal allowance from what it was in 2010-11 when we came to power, and what it will be when this Parliament finishes, from something in the order of £6,000 or £6,500 to £10,500. A lot of people on lower incomes, such as those on the minimum wage, are moved out of the taxation system altogether. Previously, people could be on a relatively modest income and paying tax, but at the same time getting various income-related benefits.

I think that I have set that out carefully, but if I have not, the Minister will do so in her response. Otherwise, because the debate is not about universal credit and she might not have all those facts at her fingertips, I am sure she is happy to write and to set it out in detail later. I am, however, grateful for the point made by the right hon. Gentleman.

I will be quick, as the hon. Gentleman does not have much time. I thank him for giving way, but when the present Government came to power basically someone did not start paying tax until just over £6,000. I do not have the exact figures with me, but if we take into account, for example, 6% inflation over the past four years, the value of the £10,000 threshold that has been introduced drops by £1,200. In other words, had the £6,000 been pushed up for inflation over the past four years, we might arrive at a different value for the benefits to be got out of £10,000 before paying tax.

The hon. Gentleman makes half a sensible point. He is right that the personal allowance would have gone up because of indexation in line with inflation—the statutory provision, unless the Chancellor decides not, in which case he has to set out why—but by only a relatively modest amount. The difference between what it would have gone up to had we simply indexed it and the great increase to £10,500 next year is a significant policy change and has made a real difference to people on lower incomes, many of whom will have been taken out of tax completely.

Finally, to look at the impact in my own constituency, under the tax changes this April a further 381 people are taken out of tax altogether, but 37,223 people benefit from the rise in the personal allowance. If we take the figures for the whole of the Parliament, 4,334 of my constituents will have been taken out of paying income tax entirely by the significant changes in the personal allowance. That significant benefit incentivises people, particularly at the lower end of the income spectrum, to work, and it is why there are several thousand more people in my constituency in work now than there were in 2010, when this Government were elected.

In the environment we are in, where we have a limited amount of money and we cannot cut taxes for everybody, we should focus our help on those who are lower paid and who are genuinely on middle incomes, which, as I said, are incomes of about £20,000, and not numbers beginning with threes or fours. In my constituency, I can see that that is where the benefit should be focused. It should be a priority both for this Government and for our party to make sure that we are delivering benefit to as many people as possible. I am pleased to say that the message I took from the Budget, after listening to the Chancellor’s speech very carefully, was that that was where he has aimed our tax changes.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) about the focus. The welfare changes that we are making, with the benefit cap and the changes to universal credit, which I think, overall, have increased the incentives for people to work, are the right messages. The very simple one is that work should always pay and that we are trying to use our changes to the tax system to benefit the many hard-working families who are trying to do the right thing, but who are finding things difficult—although with the improving economic news, they will see rises in their incomes above the rate of inflation, therefore making them better off in real terms. Those are the people we should focus on and I am pleased that, in my judgment, that is exactly where the Chancellor aimed his Budget. That is why I was very pleased, in my short speech in the Budget debate, to commend it to the House, and why I am very pleased to support the Finance Bill.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) both on securing the debate and on presenting his case so eloquently? I was also in the House when he spoke in the Budget debate, which I think was his first debate as a Back Bencher for a while. He spoke incredibly eloquently then and it is a pleasure to hear him again today on the same subject. I am delighted to be answering the debate, regardless of the title that I happen to hold in the Treasury. I have to get used to a new one as of this afternoon, and it is a pleasure to be here speaking on this important topic.

As my hon. Friend said, the message that the Government wanted to go out from the Budget was that we are on the side of hard-working people and that work should always pay. As I shall come on to show, the other message is that this Government very firmly believe that people should keep as much of their own money as possible, so that they spend it in the best way for themselves and for their families in order to provide security for their families—rather than the Government telling them how they should spend it.

In the time available to me this afternoon, I would like to speak about the impact that the Government have made on getting more people into work, and then about the impact of the personal allowance and the other steps we have taken and how they help those at the bottom of the income scale. Finally, I want to speak about the percentage of the tax burden taken on by those at the top of the income scale, which I think my hon. Friend also mentioned.

Before I do so, it is worth making hon. Members aware that the latest available statistics show that in 2011-12, UK income inequality was the lowest since 1986. As the Office for National Statistics noted, that was partly due to earnings falling more for those at the top of the income distribution than for those at the bottom, but it was also magnified by the changes that this Government have overseen, particularly in the tax and benefit system.

Of course, one of the best ways in which a Government can reduce inequality is by tackling unemployment, which will increase incomes for those at the bottom end of the scale. We have seen clear evidence that the labour market has continued to strengthen this year. Record numbers of people are in work. Employment increased by 396,000 over 2013 and was 574,000 above its pre-recession peak in the final quarter of last year.

Wage inequality for all employees is also reducing. In 2013, the 90:10 ratio, a common measure of inequality, showed that wages at the top were 3.9 times higher than wages at the bottom, a smaller difference than in any year of the previous Government.

This Government are by no means complacent and we continue to introduce reforms that will support employment and wages. From last Sunday, both businesses and charities have been able to claim the employment allowance to reduce employer national insurance contributions by up to £2,000 a year. From next April, national insurance contributions will be abolished for all under 21-year-olds who earn up to £813 a week. Those measures will make it easier to take on new employees, particularly young employees, and will therefore help get even more people into work. When we have got people into work, it is important that they keep as much of their money as possible, and the Government believe that raising the personal allowance is the most effective way to support those on low and middle incomes and to reduce inequality.

As all hon. Members will be aware, last month’s Budget announced that the personal allowance will increase to £10,500 in 12 months. This month, it increased to £10,000. That means that by next April, a person on median earnings will pay more than £800 less income tax per year than in 2010-11, and will be more than £570 better off than under the previous Government’s plans. It will also lift another 288,000 low earners out of income tax altogether, increasing the total number taken out of tax by our personal allowance increases to over 3.2 million.

It is worth noting that in addition to the personal allowance, those earning the October 2014 national minimum wage and working full time will have seen their income tax bill fall by more than two thirds since 2010-11, and someone working 31 hours a week on the national minimum wage will not pay income tax at all.

The Budget also helped people to save. As well as getting more people into work and allowing them to keep more of their income, we want to provide further support for the lowest earners by abolishing the 10% starting rate of tax on savings and extending the 0% rate to the first £5,000 above the personal allowance. That measure is expected to help 1.5 million people with low earnings and some savings, meaning that everyone with a total income of less than £15,500 will not have to pay any tax at all on their savings income.

I turn to the share of taxes and benefits within income distribution. As well as lowering the tax contribution of the poorest, it is worth noting that the Government have increased the percentage of tax paid by the wealthy. My hon. Friend mentioned that in his speech. This year, the top 1% of income tax payers will pay more than 28% of income tax revenue, so overall the wealthiest will pay more in tax in this Parliament than under the previous Government’s plans. If any hon. Members dispute that, I point them to the Treasury’s distributional analysis, which is published alongside the Budget, and was praised by no less than the Treasury Committee as an outstanding document, which clearly shows that the richest 20% of households continue to make the greatest contribution towards reducing the deficit. Before this Government took action to reduce the deficit, the richest 20% contributed around three and a half times as much in tax as they received from public spending. That has now increased to around four times as much.

I am conscious of time, and the following debate, which has been delayed because of Divisions, so I will conclude by saying that while repairing the broken economy we inherited, this Government have managed to oversee the development of a fairer tax and benefits system in which everyone contributes to reducing the deficit, and those with the most make the largest contribution.

In 2015-16, the net contribution from the richest 20% of households towards reducing the deficit will be larger than the contribution of the remaining 80% of households. Employment is increasing, taxes for the lowest-paid are decreasing and, as the International Monetary Fund forecasts confirmed yesterday, our economy is recovering. That is good news on all fronts, and I am sure it will be welcomed by all hon. Members present.

I thank my hon. Friend for organising such an important debate and for allowing me to make these points this afternoon.

Work Capability Assessment

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. My debate this afternoon is about an aspect of employment and support allowance. Since March 2012, I have managed to secure four debates on different aspects of employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment that underpins it. This is the fifth. Last week, I led a wide-ranging debate on the migration of incapacity benefit claimants on to employment and support allowance, but today I want to focus on something much more limited—the statistics that the Government publish on the number of decisions to refuse employment and support allowance that are subsequently successfully challenged. Before I do so, it might be useful to set out the journey of a typical ESA claimant, both before and after recent changes, to put this issue in context.

The claim process will generally start with a telephone call to Jobcentre Plus. Cases are passed to the Department for Work and Pensions contractor—currently Atos—which sends claimants a form to fill in. It is known as the ESA50 form. After that is returned, Atos can call in a claimant for a face-to-face assessment or submit advice to the Department on the basis of the evidence already available. The decision is made not by the contractor, but by someone in the DWP called a decision maker, who will either award the claimant ESA or declare them fit for work.

The claimant may think that the decision is wrong, either because it is a fit-for-work decision and they feel that they are not fit for work, or because of the group in which they have been placed. Even if they secure the benefit, they can be placed in one of two groups: the work-related activity group or the support group. They have different levels of conditionality and different financial implications, so that is another issue that people obviously have concerns about.

Up until October 2013, people in the situation that I have described had two options: they could lodge a written appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service or ask the decision maker to reconsider the original decision. Since October, however, a claimant who objects to the decision on their case has to go through reconsideration first. Only if the decision maker upholds the original decision is the appeal route available. That change, referred to as mandatory reconsideration, was one of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. For the purposes of today’s debate, I want to distinguish very clearly between what we might describe as the formal appeals to judges and the informal appeals to DWP civil servants who deal with mandatory reconsideration.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that one of my central concerns about ESA has been and is that too many sick and disabled people are wrongly being assessed as fit for work. In making that argument, I regularly refer to the quarterly statistical bulletin that the DWP prepares. It is called “Employment and Support Allowance: outcomes of Work Capability Assessments”, and two tables in it are of particular use to those of us who are monitoring and watching what is happening. Table 1a professes to set out the number of new claimants—people who are claiming ESA for the first time, not those who have previously been on incapacity benefit—who are either declared fit for work or awarded ESA immediately after the completion of an initial work capability assessment. Table 3 sets out the number of new claimants who appeal fit-for-work decisions and, of those decisions, how many are upheld or overturned.

In the most recent bulletin, published on 27 March, the two tables told us that between the introduction of ESA in October 2008 and December 2012, 1.89 million new claimants were assessed and 949,000 were declared fit for work. Of those—the fit-for-work group—339,700 appealed the decision and 125,600 were successful and were awarded ESA as the outcome of the appeal. In percentage terms, 36% of fit-for-work decisions were appealed and 13% of fit-for-work decisions were successfully appealed. Of the appeals that were made, 37% were successful. Eventually, we reach a figure of 7% of all decisions being successfully appealed. There appear to be signs that where people are represented at appeals, a higher proportion of appellants are successful.

The key point that I am trying to make is that I and many others had long assumed that the data in table 3 included both informal appeals to civil servants—those were always available, even before mandatory reconsideration—and formal appeals to judges. If that were the case, we would be able to work out an overall overturn rate and form a view on the effectiveness of the initial work capability assessment process. If that was felt not to be performing as well as it might, we would be able to support the case for improvements. In September last year, Nick Dilworth, a welfare rights specialist, contacted me to suggest that that might not be the case. He suggested that table 1a—the first table, which appears to be about decisions as they were first made—took account of the outcomes of applicants’ requests for reconsideration, or in other words their informal appeals. He suggested that table 3 looked only at appeals to tribunals, which is the formal stage of the process.

I raised that issue in a letter to the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), who was then the Minister responsible for ESA, on 27 September 2013. The reply I received, dated 2 November 2013, from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), suggested that I was correct and that table 1a included decisions on which there had been a reconsideration and an individual had been awarded the benefit. Table 1a is the initial decision as made by the DWP decision maker on the strength of the recommendation from Atos. Table 3 is only formal appeals.

I subsequently wrote to the UK Statistics Authority on 20 December 2013, and I received a reply from the chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot, on 21 February this year. He said:

“We have concluded that the title of Table 1a in the quarterly statistical release Employment and Support Allowance: outcomes of Work Capability Assessments, Great Britain is potentially misleading, as you suggest.”

As a result, we now know that table 1a does not give an accurate picture of the number of people declared fit for work and awarded ESA immediately after the initial work capability assessment, and table 3 does not include all forms of appeal.

Why is that important, and what might it not be showing? To use a simplified hypothetical example, imagine that 100 people claimed ESA, of which 50 were awarded benefit and 50 were declared fit for work. If we were subsequently told that 25 of those who had been declared fit for work successfully appealed their decision, we could say that the assessment process was getting one in four of the decisions wrong. If we then found out that of the 50 who had initially been awarded ESA, 25 got the benefit only after an informal appeal or mandatory reassessment, we would have to say that the assessment process was, in fact, getting one in two decisions wrong. Its level of performance would be significantly worse than we had previously thought. I use those figures for the purpose of debate, and I am not suggesting that the performance of the WCA is that bad in reality.

The fact is that without statistics on the number of successful reconsiderations, we simply do not know. That is particularly pertinent given that statistical bulletins published recently suggest that the number of successful appeals has fallen significantly in recent years. In 2009 there were 41,000 successful appeals, in 2010 there were 37,000 and in 2011 there were 28,900. In 2012, apparently, there were only 7,400, although the dates mean that at that stage, many of the processes might not have been completed. That may reflect improvements to the WCA, which mean that fewer people are incorrectly assessed as fit for work. The Government regularly claim to have implemented all the recommendations of the four independent reviews, although I would take issue with that if I had longer.

The Minister might well want to portray the drop as a positive consequence, but it could reflect delays in the claim process. The statistics identify how many people who started a claim in a particular year subsequently lodged an appeal and received a decision. It is not inconceivable that someone applying for ESA in late 2012 could still be awaiting the outcome of an appeal when the statistics are compiled.

The other possibility is that the drop in appeal numbers could suggest that the WCA process is still producing as many incorrect decisions as it was before, but that those are being addressed through requests for reconsideration. However, because there are no separate statistics published on reconsiderations, we just do not know. It is becoming much more of an issue than it was when a reconsideration was optional, rather than mandatory. People have to go through mandatory reconsideration if they want to contest the decision, which increases the number of reconsiderations and could skew the statistics even more. It might look as if the WCA is performing better than it actually is.

Why are overturned decisions a problem? If people eventually get the benefit they are entitled to, is there a problem? I think there are several problems. First, it is distressing for someone to be found fit for work when they know that they are not. It opens up the prospect of having to claim jobseeker’s allowance, under which claimants face the prospect of being sanctioned if they do not apply for a certain amount of jobs every week. Claimants are increasingly expected to spend a fixed number of hours looking for jobs and to take reasonable offers. While that might be appropriate for someone who is genuinely fit for work, it is understandable that someone who is not would be worried about having to put themselves through the process. Ministers have said on several occasions that staff should amend the conditionality that people are subject to if they have requested reconsideration of an ESA refusal, but in a number of cases that message does not seem to have found its way to Jobcentre Plus offices. The Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, has already received some written and oral evidence from witnesses suggesting that that is the case. They are encountering people found fit for work and going through the mandatory reconsideration process who have gone to the jobcentre to claim JSA because they no longer get ESA. They have been told that they are not fit, so cannot claim JSA. That is still happening.

Secondly, the distress resulting from the process could lead to deterioration in people’s mental health. Claimants with pre-existing mental health conditions and those who apply without them become stressed during the process. There is a risk that people who might have successfully overturned their fit-for-work decision simply give up at some point in the process. I have met a number of constituents with mental health issues who end up in that position, often in the context of their asking about access to a food bank or what they will do when they cannot get any benefit. While no system will ever be perfect, there should be a legitimate expectation that the decision is right first time. Everyone says that that is what they want, and there is no lack of suggestions on how it could be achieved. I have raised some in previous Adjournment debates, and I know that colleagues have, too. I am sure that the Minister will be interested to look at the information that has come to the Select Committee in written submissions to the current inquiry. They contain many suggested improvements.

Now that we have mandatory reconsideration and a lot more people going through the process, it is important that the Minister considers a change to how statistics are reported, and specifically to the WCA outcomes bulletin. First—this is a simple change—Sir Andrew Dilnot suggests in his letter of 21 February that table 1a should be relabelled to make it clear that it already accounts for reconsiderations. Specifically, he said:

“The Authority will review compliance with this request as part of following up on our recent statutory assessment of these statistics, and this will therefore inform in part our consequent decision as to whether to confirm the designation of this set of statistics as ‘National Statistics’.”

I hope that the Minister will simply say that he will be doing that; he has had Sir Andrew’s letter for nearly two months.

That simply labels things better, so people understand better what they are reading. Over and above that, I would submit that the format of the bulletin should be revised, so that the first table excludes not just appeals but reconsiderations, and simply sets out the number of people declared fit for work and awarded ESA immediately after the completion of the initial work capability assessment.

Effectively, there would be three tables: one for the people who are found fit for work initially, or initial decisions; one for reconsiderations; and one for formal appeals. What exactly is happening would be clear, and it would enable people to tell how each part of the process works. I am sure that the Department will have management information from which such tables could be constructed.

In conclusion, until the changes are made, the crucial statistical bulletin will continue to present informal appeals as being part of the initial process when that is not the case. The bulletin could understate the total number of overturns and overstate the effectiveness of and improvement in the WCA. Only once those changes have been made and we have separate figures for the outcomes of the initial process, the informal appeals and the formal appeals will we be able to produce an overall overturn rate and paint a more robust picture of the work capability assessment.

Now is a particularly important time for doing that and getting it right. The provider who has been providing such tests on behalf of and making recommendations to the DWP since the outset will be changing in, potentially, less than a year. Now is when the Department will be going out to procure a new provider for the tests. Hopefully, a new provider will be more successful in many aspects, one of which obviously is getting it right first time. A change to how the statistics are presented would assist the Department, the Select Committee, Parliament generally, members of the public who are interested in the matter and all the campaigning groups, who want to see a better system, in judging whether that has been achieved. That, in itself, will not change the system, but it will provide us with the data from which we can make those judgments.

As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing this short debate.

I have looked extensively at some of the correspondence that the hon. Lady has had with Sir Andrew Dilnot, who runs the UK Statistics Authority. She had let me see a copy of her speech—she has stuck rigidly to the letter of it—so that I could do some research. I was slightly surprised, as I believe that Sir Andrew has answered, in his letters to her, many of the questions that she raised today. However, I will try to elaborate on that a bit.

Mandatory reconsiderations were brought in for reasons that I think we would all agree with: to ensure that we get the decisions right before we go down the enormously costly and lengthy route of tribunals and appeals—costly to the taxpayer and to the individual. A mandatory reconsideration can produce the right decision earlier.

We have debated at length as to how we can get a shorter distance, so that we can get the right decision through. Tribunals and appeals are enormously stressful for claimants, and sometimes the length of time is unnecessary. If we can get the decision appraised before it goes down the tribunal route, which we are doing with mandatory reconsiderations, we can save a lot of time, and it would be unnecessary to go through the tribunal. It still leaves an opportunity for the individual, should they wish, to go through the appeals and tribunal process, but if we can get the decision right, there will be no need to do so, which I am sure is what we would all like to see.

The issue about reconsideration of the statistics, which is the main thrust of the hon. Lady’s speech, was something that I thought Sir Andrew Dilnot’s letters to her, copies of which I have seen, have extensively answered, particularly the one of 21 February 2014. She quoted extensively from the letter, but some other quotes from that letter are relevant. He stated,

“since the publication of the statistics is up to 10 months behind the application reference point, we expect it to take some time for the effects of such procedural changes to flow through into the published statistics.”

He went on to say that departmental statisticians

“will consider your request for more detailed presentations of the statistics”.

That is exactly what the letter said. He went on to look at that.

The hon. Lady will know, as will the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who is in the Chamber, that it is not possible for a Minister to instruct his departmental statisticians to do statistics in a certain way. We can look at something—that is exactly what we are doing—but I cannot instruct the statisticians to produce statistics in the way that the hon. Lady has asked. I think there is some merit in what she is asking to be done, but it will be for Sir Andrew Dilnot and his team and my statisticians to work together on that. I know that the hon. Lady corresponds extensively with Sir Andrew Dilnot and I am sure that he will confirm what I have said.

It is important that the statistics are right; all hon. Members would want that. The rationale behind mandatory reconsideration was to get the whole thing right. Sir Andrew Dilnot stated in his letter of 21 February that it was too early to have the sort of statistics that the hon. Lady mentioned. I am more than happy—and I have—in the light of the letters that I have seen, and in the light of the hon. Lady’s requests in correspondence with Sir Andrew Dilnot, and his comments, to ask my statisticians to look at this to see whether what she has asked for is possible. But I stress again that, as a Minister of the Crown, I cannot instruct statisticians in my Department to do what she asked. It was for them to make sure that we have a robust situation, but I can imagine the controversy that there would be in the House if a Minister was speaking in the House and it became public knowledge that statisticians had been instructed by a Minister to do things in a certain way.

I can understand why it would be a matter of concern if a Minister told statisticians not to record something, but surely a Minister will have a view about the form of statistics and the kind of information to be published; and presumably, these are bits of management information which are there anyway.

Certainly, Ministers have a view on lots of things, but there is a difference between having a view and instructing departmental statisticians to do their statistics in a certain way. I have asked whether I have the powers to do so, should I wish to do so, and I understand, having received advice, that I do not. It is for my statisticians to work on producing statistics on mandatory reconsideration in a way that is as informative as possible, working with the UK Statistics Authority.

Regarding the clarification of that point, and with regard to the very narrow title of this afternoon’s debate, I honestly thought that Sir Andrew Dilnot had answered the questions that the hon. Lady has asked in this debate, which is why I reiterate that I was slightly surprised that we had the debate. The hon. Lady knows that my door is always open. We could have openly discussed this matter, if she had had anything to clarify. I know that Sir Andrew Dilnot’s officials are listening to this debate and want to work with her.

At the moment the information is not ready. It is not in the format that she is asking for. As soon as it is ready it will be published. It may not be in the perfect format that the hon. Lady is looking for. I have asked for this matter to be reviewed, and Sir Andrew Dilnot is doing the same thing, and I look forward to the response. However, I cannot instruct the statisticians to do so and I would not do so.

I was not suggesting that a lot of the data would already be there, but we are expecting far more such decisions to be taken. It is important to start planning for that, as I am sure the Minister would agree.

That is exactly what the statisticians are planning for. Actually, with mandatory reconsideration we were trying to see whether we could get the decisions right before they went to appeal. It is early days yet—it is a bit like the early days with the personal independence payment, which we were discussing only this morning, where the early data reveal that the number of cases going to appeal is a lot less than expected. It does appear that the mandatory reconsideration work is working, but when the statistics come forward that will be for everybody to know.

I know that those in Sir Andrew Dilnot’s office are listening to this debate and I am sure that they will correspond with the hon. Lady on the points that I have raised in the debate and on points raised by her as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.