House of Commons
Monday 23 June 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work Capability Assessment
I am committed to continually improving the administration of the work capability assessment. I am pleased to say that since the announcement in the House during our last Question Time, the backlog has fallen from 766,000 to 712,000.
On 10 June, the Minister admitted to the Select Committee that 712,000 work capability assessments were outstanding. That number includes 234 recipients of incapacity benefit who are to be assessed for employment and support allowance, and 84,000 incapacity benefit recipients who have not yet been migrated. My constituents would like to know who is at fault, Atos or the Minister.
When the coalition Government came to office, the WCA backlog did not suddenly happen; the problem already existed. However, we take responsibility for what we are doing. [Interruption.] There is no point in Labour Members’ shouting us down. They have short memories, but their backlog existed. If they do not wish to admit that, perhaps we can see the documents, which will enable us to know the facts. We have carried out 1 million incapacity benefit assessments, and 700,000 people are currently being helped into work or are looking for work.
I entirely agree. If we had not assessed those 1 million incapacity benefit recipients, those people would have been left, as the Labour party left them for 13 years. At least they now have an opportunity to look for work, and those who are not capable of going to work, or seeking work, are receiving the assistance that they require.
There is no doubt that the Atos contract was taken out by the last Labour Administration. I would love to know exactly what the backlog was, but, as an incoming Minister, I am not allowed to see the figures. Perhaps Her Majesty’s Opposition would be happy to release them. If those documents were published, we would all know exactly what the backlog was before the present Administration came to power.
The backlog does not involve only ESA. There are also huge backlogs of decisions relating to personal independence payments and universal credit. Only 7,000 universal credit claimants have been dealt with, although at this stage the number should be about 1 million. In comparison with figures such as those, the passport fiasco pales into insignificance. Does the Minister not think that his Department has bitten off far more than it can chew?
No, I do not. As the Chair of the Select Committee knows, there is no universal credit backlog, so her statement about that is not particularly helpful. I think that we need to concentrate on ensuring that benefits go to the people who deserve them. That is what is most important.
There is no doubt that the contract was taken out by the last Labour Administration. Her Majesty’s Opposition called for me to sack Atos. If we had done so, we would have had to pay it a huge amount of compensation, but, instead, it will pay substantial damages to the Government when the contract is terminated.
20. Judge Robert Martin has said that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has seen a huge reduction in the number of work capability assessment appeals, not because of the quality of decisions, but because of the huge backlog and the quality of the service that is being provided. (904379)
I am afraid that that is factually incorrect. I read Judge Martin’s comments, and I do not think that that is quite what he said. There has been a reduction of more than 80% in the number of people who are appealing. That is because better decisions are being made, which is right and proper for everyone.
It is high time that Ministers took responsibility for their failings. It was their decision, after the election, to migrate all recipients of incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. That was the decision that triggered the delays and backlogs about which we have heard. Now, the memos that were leaked last week have revealed that ESA
“is not delivering more positive outcomes for claimants”
than incapacity benefit did, and the Work programme has proved hopeless, with a 94% failure rate. How long will Ministers allow this shambles to continue?
Clearly Her Majesty’s Opposition have a short memory as to what happened when they were in government. This problem started under Labour, Atos was in place under Labour—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers are saying “No, not us”; then they should release the documentation that proves what the backlog was before the last election.
Personal Independence Payments
Yet again I am committed to improving our performance and that of our contract providers. I want to make sure the right decisions are made as soon as possible. With that in mind, I have looked, particularly working with Macmillan, at how we can reduce waiting times for terminally ill people waiting for PIP. That stood at 28 days when I first met the Work and Pensions Committee, and I said that was unacceptable. It is inside 10 days now, and I want it to become lower.
As the Minister of State is aware, by his own Department’s statistics it will take 42 years to clear the current backlog. In the meantime people are running out money, and they are becoming more stressed and more ill as a result of his Department’s failure to get a grip on a payment which his Government introduced. When will the backlogs be reduced to a decent level, as people have a right to entitlements in this country?
It is really important that we get the decisions right and that the right people get those payments. I said before the Select Committee that I promise to do that within my own Department’s administration, and we are addressing that. There was a real performance issue as to how many people were coming through the schemes. I am addressing that now with the providers, and it will improve, and not in the length of time the hon. Lady mentions, which is scaremongering.
An awareness campaign last week by the MND Association and MND Scotland informed us that about half of people diagnosed with motor neurone disease die before 14 months. They do not fit into the Minister’s definition of “terminally ill”, so how long does he think those people should wait for their claim to be assessed?
Now I have addressed the issue of the terminally ill, we are particularly addressing progressive illnesses. We want to look at that very quickly. As soon as we can get that situation addressed, I will come before this House and say so, but the priority must be that the people who need it get it, and the people who do not need it, do not get it.
It is interesting that yet again a Labour Member uses the word “fiasco”, and I know the Public Accounts Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), made a similar comment. It was not actually in the PAC report, however, so this was a made-up comment that was not in the report. [Interruption.] Well, it was not in the report, and how on earth can we be talking about something that was not in the report? At the end of the day, we need to make sure we address this situation. I have admitted that the waiting time is too long, and we will get it down. We will do something about it; the previous Administration did not do so.
I was recently able to inform a constituent that they were about to receive a cheque for over £5,000—welcome news until we realise it is an arrears payment for a personal independence payment claim submitted some 300 days earlier. The Minister tells us he is addressing the matter; what is he doing to stop disabled people being out of pocket by so much for so long?
What we are doing is making sure we speed up the process on our side and the contractors doing the assessments speed up their side. As I have said before, if necessary there will be a cash incentive for them to make sure that they deliver, which will be paid only when they deliver faster.
The appeals process is a matter for my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, and I intend to write to them today, but fewer people are going to appeal, particularly on PIP—it is much lower than predicted—and there has been more than an 80% reduction on work capability assessment. There is more to be done, but if the judges have less work to do on appeals, I will be very happy about that.
One of the things we will look at very carefully is making sure that the contract bids are judged not just on the lowest price, but on whether the contractor can produce the capacity that is required. That is exactly what we are doing; when we release a new contract, we look at whether the contractor has the capacity and the skills to produce quality decisions.
What is the Government’s target for how long people will have to wait for these benefits by the time of the next general election? As the Minister tries to restore order from this chaos, will he be in a position soon to tell those in the queue how much longer they will have to wait?
One of the things we are trying to do is communicate much better with people who are waiting, which is the most important thing we can do. What we do not want to do is build up promises, so that people think they will be assessed quicker than they will be. On PIP in particular, we will make sure that the providers are doing the job we are asking them to do, and that we are acting as fast as we can and taking the correct decisions. On the first point, I cannot give a time scale at this time, and it would be wrong for any Minister to stand before the House and do so.
The Government did not bother to pilot PIP properly, Atos made misleading statements in its bid, Ministers have presided over a 42-year backlog in cases, and each decision costs £1,500—more than the benefit of some £1,120 that many receive. Reassessments have had to be postponed while sick and disabled people wait for a decision, including cancer patients, who according to Macmillan are experiencing anxiety, financial worries and worsening health. Is it not time that the Minister acknowledged that it is another catalogue of DWP chaos and that the £1 billion savings promised by 2015 will not be achieved, while sick and disabled people are living with the worry and hardship that he has caused?
I do not accept many of the points that the hon. Lady makes, but what I do accept is that it is unacceptable for people who are in desperate need to wait, which is why I acted with Macmillan really fast to bring the time down from 28 days to inside 10 days for people with terminal illness. We are now looking at the other cases and working with as many of the charity and other groups as we can to make sure that we get the figure down. If they work with us, we can work on this together. The Opposition keep moaning about the policy, but the previous Administration left people on the disability living allowance for years, with only 7% of them ever having a face-to-face assessment. That was an appalling situation.
15. What assessment he has made of recent trends in employment figures. (904374)
The recent trends are remarkable: there are more people in work than ever before, youth unemployment is down 91,000 since the election, the claimant count for 18 to 24 year-olds has fallen for 30 consecutive months, and we have seen the largest annual fall in long-term unemployment since late 1998. I also note that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), the claimant count is down 33% and the youth claimant count is down 41%.
As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, youth unemployment in my constituency is substantially down since the last election, not least due to his efforts to ensure that work always pays. However, does he agree with me that approaches to incentivising work are always best if they are universal, unlike the Opposition’s proposal for means-tested youth allowances, which would punish hard-working families and those people who do the right thing?
Yes, the reality of what we have been trying to do is to make sure that people can get into the jobs that are available. What they do not need—and what is quite ridiculous about the Opposition’s proposal—is to try to take everybody who is below level 2 up to a level 3 qualification. Some people who do not even have a GCSE in maths, for example, are expected now to do training courses to take them to level 3 before they go into work. The reality is that we are getting them work-ready and giving them the training they need. That is why there are record employment levels of some 30.5 million, which beats what we were left by the last Government.
It is worth noting that under the last Government, youth unemployment increased by nearly a half—up almost 300,000—and long-term youth unemployment increased by 74,000. Since then, excluding full-time students, youth unemployment has come down to 7.9%, which is the lowest figure since 2008. Youth unemployment is down 98,000 on the year, and down 91,000 since the election, and long-term youth unemployment is down 25,000 on the year. That is getting the job right.
Plymouth, as my right hon. Friend knows, is a low-wage, low-skills economy. Does he support the Government’s proposal to give Plymouth the city deal for a marine energy park, which will create more than 10,000 new jobs and help provide jobs for the young unemployed?
I absolutely agree with that; it is the right thing to do and it shows how this Government are investing in providing in an area the right kind of jobs for the right kind of people. Even in a difficult area such as my hon. Friend’s, the claimant count is down by 27% and the youth claimant count is down by 30% on the year. This kind of investment helps us to get people into real jobs, not jobs subsidised by the Opposition’s proposals.
Is the Secretary of State aware that a disabled unpaid voluntary worker has been told by the Department for Work and Pensions that as from now she will be in the same category as part-time workers who have a job? Is this a way of padding out the number of people in employment?
Well, I have not seen the letter, but I will once I have ferreted it out. We are not padding anything out—we do not need to, because there are about 600,000 vacancies now in jobcentres up and down the country and we are doing our level best to help people of all descriptions, including those who have disabilities, most of whom would genuinely like to seek and find work. We are working with them to help them get the kind of job that can change their lives, rather than parking them for many years in a row, as Labour did.
That is not true really, because young people can get help in further education. Under jobseeker’s allowance, traineeships allow up to 30 hours’ training per week—we have made that more generous, because under the previous Government the figure was only 16 hours. For others, two to eight weeks’ full-time training is allowed, depending on the duration of the jobseeker’s allowance. It is one thing to come up with a policy, but another to come up with a policy answering a question that nobody has ever asked.
Employment rates in Wales are about the same as elsewhere in the UK, which is very welcome, even if historically rather anomalous. However, we have a large number of people who are involuntarily employed part-time, because they cannot get the hours required. Is it fair or even reasonable for the Government to insist that people take on hours when those hours are just not available?
The jobcentres do not force anybody to take on something that is not there; the jobcentres are working will all those individuals. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the figures from Wales, because it has been particularly successful, having had some very difficult times, particularly in the valleys. I welcome that improvement in employment. Jobseekers go to the advisers, who help them to find those jobs and take the hours that are available. No one will be punished or penalised for trying to take a job or for working with the advisers and only taking the jobs that are there.
Universal Jobmatch revolutionises the way jobseekers look for work. Since it was launched in November 2012, we have seen 6.9 million jobseekers register on the site; 4.3 million average daily job searches; over 560,000 jobs available; and more than 550,000 companies set up an account. It has been a successful transformation.
My right hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that more than 5,500 jobs within 5 miles of Chester are being advertised at the moment, which is a massive testament to the number of new jobs that have been created under this Government. However, Universal Jobmatch depends on accurate data, so what steps is he taking to ensure that all the jobs on the site are described accurately, are real and are available for jobseekers?
We regularly talk to all the employers. New employers are seen by advisers in the jobcentres in the local area. Fraudulent jobs are rare on the site; it is estimated that fewer than 0.1% of these vacancies have been fraudulent since go-live, and those have been removed. We constantly monitor the Universal Jobmatch system and we crack down on abuse. In addition, employment advisers are meeting all those employers they are not aware of or who have just come up on the system for the first time.
The problem is that that is just not happening, and perhaps the Secretary of State should accept that. For example, I saw a job advertised in my constituency today for a care assistant in a care home that has just closed down. Jobs are being wrongly categorised. Among sales assistants, we find jobs for account executives, for which qualifications are needed. What exactly is happening with Universal Jobmatch?
The problem is not what the hon. Lady describes. It is with Labour Members, who cannot bear the idea that, when they were in government, they had an archaic system that worked only from 8am to 6pm. Our system works for 24 hours. It works while people’s computers are shut down. It nominates jobs, and advisers can offer advice online. This is a major success story. The problem is that Labour does not get it. We are getting more people into work, higher levels of employment and falling levels of unemployment. In fact, we have some of the lowest levels in the European Union.
7. What recent progress he has made on the universal credit programme; and if he will make a statement. (904364)
Universal credit is on track to roll out against the timetable set out last year. The claimant commitment is in place across all jobcentres. Universal credit is live in 14 sites, and from today further expansion is under way across the north-west, with couples and families joining at a later stage. Based on the case load projections, there are, at the moment, around 11,000 people making those claims on universal credit.
I am interested in the Secretary of State’s answer. In 2011 he announced that a million people would be claiming universal credit by April 2014, when the true figure was just 6,000. What went so badly wrong with his projections, and what are his current milestones for the delivery of universal credit?
I think I made that clear before, but I will repeat it again. Back in 2012, I was not happy with the plan for the roll-out, because it mirrored too much the roll-outs that used to happen under the previous Government—[Interruption.] We hit the bump. [Laughter.] It is interesting that Opposition Members sit there laughing, because I remember the tax credit fiasco. They launched tax credits and people suffered. People did not get their payments and were out of pocket. That has not happened with universal credit. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I simply say that we deliberately set a pathfinder and we are expanding it now, with 90 new sites. Universal credit is rolling out carefully, and we are ensuring that all those who are eligible get the money that is due to them when it is due. It is not the disaster that we had under the previous Government.
What progress is the Secretary of State making in his discussions with other Government Departments about the various forms of state support they give in the era of universal credit? I am thinking of free school meals, which could be considerably improved. Is the matter all sorted? If it is not, how is he getting on?
That is very interesting. In 2011, the then employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), said that the Department would consult on new eligibility criteria for passported benefits such as free school meals
“in good time to take decisions to meet our overall timetable to introduce universal credit by October 2013.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 66W.]
The Schools Minister has only just admitted that it would cost an extra £750 million to give free school meals to the children of all those whom he eventually expects to be on universal credit. Can we clear this up this afternoon? Do the Government intend to give free school meals to everyone on universal credit, or do they intend to introduce a new means test for free school meals? If the Secretary of State cannot give a proper answer this afternoon, as I suspect from the way he is performing, will he at least tell us when he will make up his mind?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman does this publicly—he was told the answer to this the other day when he came to my office to talk to me directly. Just in case he does not know how free school meals work, let me tell him that they are means-tested today: there is no change to that.
Yes, they are, because they are set against means-tested benefits. I wish the hon. Gentleman would get his facts right and learn something about the benefits system. We have a system that will enable us to deliver the free school meals to those who are eligible for them, and not to those who are not eligible for them. The reality is that the mess that the Opposition left us is being cleared up and they cannot bear it. They do not even know whether they support universal credit. They flip-flop more on every policy than any other Opposition ever have.
We estimate that around 2.7 million individuals, aged 22 to pension age, who have earnings below the earnings threshold for auto-enrolment are not saving in a qualifying workplace pension in the private sector. About 1.6 million of those individuals are earning between £5,772 and £10,000 and have the right to opt in. Employers must tell workers about this right.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but let me explain why I disagree with her. She would enrol people at, for example, £6,000 a year—that is the policy of the Labour Front-Bench team. At current contribution levels, someone earning £6,000 a year would be putting 8.8p a week into a pension. If they did that for 35 years, they would end up with a pension of £1.93 a week. That does not seem a sensible policy to me.
No, on the contrary, the people we are excluding from auto-enrolment are those for whom we think the default should be not to save in a pension, because they will get a state pension typically of £7,500. If they are earning £6,000 now, should the Government take money out of their pay packet, when they are earning £6,000, to top up a pension of £7,500? That does not make any sense.
The Pensions Minister has made some welcome changes to the way in which smaller pots will be managed, with aggregation, pensions following workers and so forth. If that works well, will there be scope in the future to review this limit?
We are keen to avoid discrediting automatic enrolment with trivially small amounts of money. My hon. Friend can imagine the newspaper headlines if we had required a firm to set up a pension scheme so that the employee and employer combined put 8p a week into a pension. We would have been laughed out of court. We have reformed auto-enrolment, and it is going extremely well. It has a good, strong reputation, and I want to protect it.
What the Minister does not tell the House, of course, is that Library figures show that someone earning just below the raised threshold for auto-enrolment could save up to £20,000 over a working lifetime—quite a decent nest egg, I am sure that we would all agree. So why have the Government deliberately removed 1.5 million people—the majority of whom are low-paid women—from auto-enrolment? Although that sum is not enough to buy a Lamborghini, does the Minister agree that millions of people are losing out?
On the contrary, the Pensions Commission—the hon. Gentleman often refers to the Pensions Commission, one of whose members is now a Labour peer—recommended that low earners needed an 80% replacement rate. Someone on the wage that he just gave gets an 80% replacement rate based on the state pension alone, so we are delivering—[Interruption.] That is after tax and national insurance. [Interruption.] They are paying national insurance at £10,000 a year, so they get about an 80% replacement rate without needing to be automatically enrolled. Setting up auto-enrolment for tiny amounts of saving is simply inappropriate.
Jobseeker’s Allowance: Sanctions
Sanctions have always been part of the benefits system and are imposed only where claimants fail to meet reasonable requirements. Sanctions play an important role in encouraging compliance: 70% of claimants say that sanctions are useful for them to follow the rules.
Can the Minister explain why more than 50% of benefit claimants in my constituency whose benefits have been sanctioned have had the decision overturned? In the meantime, they had to live for weeks on nothing—unlike that lot over there, who stuff their nests. Is it not true that this scheme is nothing more than a con? The Government say that they are cutting benefits. They are cutting benefits, but they are taking them off the most vulnerable people in the country and leaving them out for ever.
There are a couple of points I need to answer, because what was said was inaccurate. The figure for the overturns is 10%, not the high number the hon. Gentleman alluded to. At the same time, people on sanctions are still on benefits and have an underlying qualification to them. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. Perhaps he does not like the fact that the number of people in work has gone up significantly under this Government and the number needing to claim benefits has gone down significantly.
Sanctions as a principle are a very fine part of the benefits system. May I urge the Minister to maintain a system of sanctions and not to listen to the Labour party? It is clear that it is the Conservative party that has become the party of labourers and that Labour is the party of layabouts.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I have said, sanctions have always been a part of the benefits system, because it is about compliance. I would welcome an announcement today from Opposition Front Benchers on whether they would remove sanctions. That would be very interesting.
Benefits Claimants: Appeals
Appeals on all benefit decisions have dropped by 79% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year. The introduction of mandatory reconsideration and the decision assurance call is having a positive impact.
My right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am that some of the waits for first-tier tribunal appeal hearings for Kettering constituents have been up to 40 weeks, which is more than twice the national average. What success is he having with the Ministry of Justice to get the appeal waiting times down?
One of the first things we can do to get appeal waiting times down is to have fewer people needing to appeal. I accept that it is taking too long in Kettering and perhaps in other parts of the country. That is for another Department, but I will contact it today.
A constituent of mine has had an application for the personal independence payment refused—a decision that I regard as perverse. I wrote to the Minister personally to draw to his attention how bad the decision was, but received a reply from a civil servant. I wrote to the Minister because I thought he was interested in creating an efficient system. Will he please do me the courtesy of replying to my letter and addressing his mind to the case of my vulnerable constituent, who has been so badly affected?
I have a personal policy that I write to all Members of Parliament—from both Houses—if they write to me. If a civil servant wrote back, that is wrong. I will reply and perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to come to see me at his leisure to discuss his constituent’s case.
Employment Trends: Private Sector
There are more people in private sector jobs than ever before, up more than 2 million since the 2010 election.
Given the strong growth in self-employment in recent years and innovative schemes such as the Pop-Up Business School, which has helped people in Macclesfield start their own business, what steps are the Government taking to encourage the unemployed actively to explore opportunities in self-employment?
My hon. Friend, who is a Harvard graduate and has been a senior executive in many high-flying companies, has a huge interest in people setting up their own business. This Government introduced the new enterprise allowance, which has led to 2,000 people a month setting up new businesses. We have done videos with people such as Levi Roots to reach out into different communities, and the link-up, start-up programme enables employers to speak to people who hope to be able to set up their own business.
What is the right hon. Lady doing about the trends that show that more and more people are working in small and medium-sized companies in the service sector, which demands high skills? What are we doing to equip young people in particular with the right skills for a good life in the future?
I will be glad to answer that question for the hon. Gentleman. We are taking significant steps to allow more than 1 million young people to earn and learn through apprenticeships. Equally, through sector-based work academies, we are helping people to get a job and then to progress in that job. We have put in place work experience to help young people to find out what a business entails and then to get a job in it, so there is considerable support to get young people into work, which is why youth unemployment has fallen for nine consecutive months, with 100,000 fewer people in that group than at the election.
Roughly the same number who were employed on zero-hours contracts under the Labour Government in 2000. I know that Opposition Members like to say that the number has significantly increased, but I believe that they were taken to task for getting that information wrong. Local councils such as Doncaster, where the Leader of the Opposition resides, have the highest number of zero-hours contracts.
The Department has commissioned an independent review of the changes to local housing allowance, including the extension of the shared accommodation rate. The final report of that review is due to be published this summer.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The situation worries many of my constituents, and a recent study by Crisis showed that in many parts of the country such as Cambridge only a tiny fraction of shared houses are available for people to rent. When he considers the review, will he change the broad rental market areas and ensure that people can find somewhere to live if they wish to be in Cambridge, Blackpool or any other location?
My hon. Friend has made repeated representations about the broad rental market area for his constituency. We have used targeted funding to provide additional local housing allowance rates in areas of pressure, so although the general increase in the LHA rate is 1%, four of the five LHA rates for Cambridge, including that for shared accommodation, increased this April by 4%.
The hon. Gentleman raises the valuable work of foyer projects. My noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform, leads on housing benefit for the Department, and I will ensure that he is aware of those projects, if he has not already held specific meetings about them. If the hon. Gentleman would like to give us further details, we will be happy to look at them.
The under-35 shared accommodation rate is a particular problem for fathers who do not live with the mother of their children, but want their children to stay with them at weekends, when it is simply not suitable for children to be in the sort of accommodation with other young men that people get under the rate. Has the Minister examined that situation?
The hon. Lady will be aware that, in exceptional cases, housing benefit can be topped up, but she will also know that the same issue could arise under the shared accommodation rate for under-25s. However, if two single people choose accommodation together, the combined total of their shared accommodation rates is larger than one family’s standard rate for a two-bedroom flat, so two people coming together can rent a larger property than a family requiring two bedrooms.
Benefit Entitlement: Foreign Workers
Our reforms have ended a situation in which migrant workers had indefinite access to jobseeking benefits, which we inherited from the previous Labour Government. Since April, we have banned access to housing benefit. From July, migrant workers will have their claims to jobseeker’s allowance stopped if they have claimed for six months and cannot show that they have found employment. I intend to tighten this up further still.
I am grateful for that reply. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the tougher habitual residence test and the new minimum earnings guarantee. Has he received support from European partners for his tougher approach to curb benefit tourism, and are they taking further steps to move the approach forward?
I am in discussions with colleagues from various countries in the European Union. Many of them, including the Dutch and the Germans, have made it clear that they essentially support our direction of travel and that some kind of change must be made to the regulations. The German Chancellor made Germany’s position clear, saying that the EU is “not a social union” and there cannot be de facto immigration into other EU social systems.
From April 2015, we expect over 300,000 individuals who retire each year to be able to take advantage of the new pension flexibilities and access the offer of free guidance. The Government have recently consulted on the delivery framework for the guidance, to ensure that it is designed to give consumers the support they need to make informed choices in the way they choose to access it.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We already hear anecdotal examples of people getting cold-calls that say, “This is your Government guidance offer.” We want to make it clear that that is not based on Government guidance, because that has not started yet. We are trying to make sure that instead of people making retirement choices with no information or advice, which often happens, they will have a right to go to a reputable provider and get information and guidance from someone who does not have a commercial interest in selling them something.
Today I welcome the National Audit Office’s positive response to the report on the child maintenance scheme, which simplifies the system and helps parents work together in the best interests of their children. There will be further to come on this soon. Already we know that twice as many parents intend to pay direct, even before the second stage of our reforms and ahead of expectation.
I, along with the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), recently published the “Fuller Working Lives—A Framework for Action” document, which sets out the support that we are going to give to older workers. That includes a new health in work service, Jobcentre Plus tailored support, guidance and a toolkit for employees, and from next week the right to request flexible working hours.
At the start of this year 3,780 people were claiming universal credit. The most recent numbers show that 5,610 people are receiving the benefit. At this rate of progress, how long will it be until the 7.7 million households that are supposed to receive this Government’s flagship benefit, as the Secretary of State originally set out, are receiving it?
We have already made that clear. To date around 11,000 people are on the pathfinders. We have started a roll-out to another 90 sites beyond the 10 sites where the pathfinder took place. There will be further changes and enhancements, and we expect and believe, according to the plan that we laid out, that everybody eligible will be on the benefit by 2017.
I think that is the first time I have not heard the Secretary of State say that his project is on time and on budget, but we still hear total and utter complacency. At the present rate of progress, it will take a staggering 1,052 years before universal credit is fully rolled out. So what do we have? Universal credit delayed, personal independence payments delayed and employment and support allowance delayed. Does not the Secretary of State realise that his incompetence is not only wasting tens and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, but causing untold pain and hardship for some of the most vulnerable people in our country?
As I said, we are rolling out universal credit to 90 sites and we will deliver it safely and carefully, unlike what the Labour Government did with tax credits. To answer the hon. Lady’s general question about what we are doing, this Department and this Government have undertaken the biggest welfare reform programme ever and we are getting more people into work—there are record numbers in work and record falls in unemployment; and we are getting more young people into work and more young people who have been long-term unemployed back into work. The benefit cap means that 42,000 people have been capped, as a result of which 6,000 have moved into work.
On universal credit, 600,000 claimant commitments have been signed. There are 6.9 million people registered for Universal Jobmatch. The Work programme—[Interruption.] She does not want to hear this because these are all records of the success of welfare reform. Through the Work programme, 550,000 people whom the previous Government wrote off and who never got a job are now back in work, and through auto-enrolment under the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), 3.6 million people have moved into a workplace pension. This is a Government who are reforming welfare. The Opposition have no policies, no purpose and no prospects.
T5. This morning I was with the staff and students of Farleigh college of further education in my constituency, which offers excellent education and training opportunities to young people with autism and other complex conditions. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that we reach the goal of full employment by ensuring that increased opportunities exist for young people with learning disabilities and autism? (904387)
I think the whole House would agree that we need to give everyone the opportunity to live their dreams and have their aspirations, and that is exactly what this Government want to do. I would love to come and see the scheme that my hon. Friend is talking about, so that I can see for myself what it is delivering.
T2. In last week’s Westminster Hall debate, the Minister said of the closure of the independent living fund that “there really should not be concern.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 91WH.] How will he ensure that the concern being expressed by current ILF recipients that they will lose their independence is unfounded? (904384)
I also said during that Westminster Hall debate that, for nearly three years, new recipients of ILF have been dealt with by local authorities. There have not been any major problems. We are confident that this will roll out correctly and we intend to roll it out as soon as possible.
T7. Unemployment in Braintree between May 2010 and May 2014 has dropped from 3.4% to 2%, and youth unemployment in that same period has dropped from 6.3% to 3.8%. There remains a challenge, however, in that the unemployment rate is not falling as fast for young women as it is for young men. What are the Government’s policies doing to help young women to get back into work? (904390)
I am pleased to say that unemployment is falling right across the country and across all age groups. Employment is up as a consequence. We are doing significant things. We now have record numbers of women going into work, and at record rates. Our policies, more than anything, are supporting young girls.
T3. It is all very well for the Minister to say that, but more than 200,000 young people have been out of work for over a year, which has consequences for the possibility of their finding work in the future. Youth unemployment is falling more slowly than overall unemployment, so what is she doing to help the youth of this country get back into employment? (904385)
It is quite incredible that the hon. Gentleman should ask that question, considering that youth unemployment shot up by 45% under the Labour Government, and that we have managed to get more young people into work. As I have said, youth unemployment has fallen for nine consecutive months; it is 100,000 fewer than at the general election. He would be better off reading about what we have done, if he wants to know how to get young people into work.
I am really proud that the coalition Government have introduced this new scheme. It is now fully funded and it is rolling out on time. Payments will be made on time to the people who need those funds so much, through no fault of their own, and we are all very proud of that.
T4. My local citizens advice bureau has been contacted by a young single woman who has been hit by the bedroom tax. After paying her rent and utility bills, she has just 84p a day left to spend on food and toiletries. With eight households for each available one-bedroom property in my area, moving is simply not an option. How can the Secretary of State continue to try to justify a policy that results in such extreme poverty? (904386)
We have given local authorities between £300 million and £400 million for discretionary payments. It is their job to ensure that individuals with particularly difficult circumstances can be helped with that money. The overall policy is very simple. It is about people who are living in accommodation that they do not fully utilise, and about others, including the quarter of a million left by the last Government in overcrowded circumstances and the 1 million people on waiting lists. I do not think that the hon. Lady has ever got up and asked a question about those people. The reality is that this policy will help them to get the accommodation they need to improve their lives, and not waste it on people who do not need it.
I hear repeated concerns that there may be targets for benefit sanctions at jobcentres. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is not the case, and send a clear message to advisers that they should not be seeking to sanction people inappropriately to hit some sort of target? Their aim is to help people.
I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no target on benefit sanctions, that the advisers give benefit sanctions as a last resort, and that the system has a full set of checks and balances. There is a mandatory reconsideration almost immediately of that decision, and then there is the opportunity to appeal. The purpose of a sanction is to help to remind the individual that this taxpayers’ money comes with an obligation to co-operate; to find work by seeking work.
Let us pause and get this absolutely right. The reality is that what the Opposition are now saying is utterly illogical. [Interruption.] Let me give the hon. Lady the figures. What is fascinating is that 93% of cohabiting couples and 98% of married couples share their finances, so most of those people will reach a conclusion. The second point is that we have put safeguards in place within universal credit so that the payments can be nominated as an exception if the carer is to receive the money. Right now, this is about a household getting more money than under the existing systems. This is a benefit that benefits more people, and, honestly, the idea of micro-managing everybody’s lives from Westminster is the kind of absurdity that the Labour party tried when it was in government.
It is welcome that youth unemployment has fallen by some 59,000 in the past three months, but I understand that there has been an underspend of some £50 million on the Youth Contract budget. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that that money will be spent on supporting young people into work?
T8. It is a great shame that Tory Members of Parliament criticised the Trussell Trust and Oxfam—in fact, some might say threatened them—for daring to suggest a link between food poverty and the social security system: the cuts, the delays, the misapplied sanctions and the abolition of the social fund. Will the Secretary of State now accept his responsibility for what has been a 54% increase in the need for food aid in just one year, and commit to working positively with those organisations to see how his Department can help to address the root causes of food poverty? (904391)
Inequality is at its lowest since 1986. There are 500,000 fewer people in relative poverty than at the election; 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than at the election; 200,000 fewer pensioners in relative poverty than at the election; and 450,000 fewer workless households than at the end of 2010. We have done more to help people who are hard up than the hon. Lady’s Government ever did.
I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question because we have seen the biggest annual fall in long-term unemployment since 1998—108,000 fewer people on long-term benefits. That is a significant change. When we came into office we said that we would help those whom the Labour Government left behind and forgot about. We have set up the Work programme and other schemes, and the consequences are more of them in work.
T9. Last week I met a constituent who received her husband’s personal independence payment only after he had passed away. Will the Minister guarantee that no one else will suffer that deeply distressing situation in the future? (904392)
Of course I cannot guarantee that, but we need to do everything we possibly can on this. Perhaps the hon. Lady will pass on our thoughts to her constituent for her loss. It is very important that we get the scheme to run faster, but the quality needs to be right. I am very sad when that sort of thing happens, but I cannot possibly guarantee to the House that it will not happen again. We just have to make sure that it does not happen very often.
I have been here since the beginning of Question Time and may I tell the Secretary of State that I have been sickened—there is no other way to describe my feelings—by his complacent indifference to the agonising hardship suffered by the most vulnerable in our society? He should be ashamed of the policies he is pursuing.
After nine months, fewer than 200 people in Hammersmith and Fulham are on universal credit. This morning the shadow ministerial team visited Hammersmith’s citizens advice bureau to hear directly from my constituents about the catastrophic failure of the Secretary of State’s Department in every area of operation. Is his failure to roll out universal credit just a cover-up of another DWP crisis in the making?
Isn’t that interesting? What a revealing statement. We have endlessly offered the Opposition Front Bench team the opportunity to visit jobcentres where universal credit is rolling out, but only one spokesman went—[Interruption.] No, the shadow Secretary of State never went and is refusing to go. Now she would rather visit citizens advice bureaux than the people who are actually delivering universal credit. Surely that is the most pathetic excuse I have ever heard.
I have a number of very sick constituents who have been pushed into severe financial hardship as a result of unacceptable delays in the PIP process. Some of them are now dependent on food banks. I listened carefully to the Minister earlier, but will he set out a timetable for clearing the backlog for all applicants, not just the terminally ill? What interim support will he offer to those having to wait more than 28 days?
I repeat that it is taking too long. I accept that and am determined to get the time down. We are working with the providers to ensure that we get it down. I will look into individual cases if the hon. Lady wants to bring them to me, but we are doing everything we possibly can. I would rather see people being assessed than left without any assessment, as the previous Administration did, or with paper-based assessments.
Underlying the overly positive spin that Ministers have put on the employment figures is the fact that for the first time ever the majority of families living below the poverty line are in work. What are the Government going to do to make sure that work is always a route out of poverty?
Nothing is more revealing than when the Opposition start claiming that we somehow have to spin the fact that there are more people in work now than when we came into office. We will soon break through the barrier and have the highest proportion of people in work. Unemployment is falling, youth unemployment is falling, and adult unemployment is falling. We do not need to spin facts, because facts in this case tell us that our welfare reforms are working.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), contradicted my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) earlier when he asked about the sanctions rate. She said that the number of successful appeals was around only 10%. According to the Trussell Trust’s “Below the Breadline” report, the average success rate was 58% over the period from 22 October 2012 to 30 September 2013, and in the three months to 30 September 2013 it was 86%. How can we put on the record whether those figures cited by the Trussell Trust are correct and where the Minister managed to get the figure of 10% from?
On a day like today when such serious issues are being debated in Question Time, when so few Conservative Back Benchers are here, and when time for the business runs out and there are a number of pent-up questions from Labour Members about serious issues such as the fact that the students’ disability allowance is being taken away, what can we do to add to the length of the session so that Members in all parts of the House get a fair crack of the whip?
My appetite for hearing hon. and right hon. Members ask questions is insatiable. I would happily run the session on for longer, but I am afraid that it is not within my power. Not only is the hon. Gentleman here every day during working hours, but I sometimes fondly imagine that he probably sleeps here as well; I do not know. He knows that his request is unfortunately beyond my powers, but he has made his point with his usual alacrity, and it is on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Question Time, the disability Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), stated that he had inherited the current backlog in ESA claims from the previous Government. How can we put on record the fact that his predecessor told the Work and Pensions Committee that a small backlog in 2011 was going to be eliminated by the summer of 2011? The two statements clearly cannot be consistent.
[Relevant documents: Fourteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2013-14, on Legislative Scrutiny: (1) Criminal Justice and Courts and (2) Deregulation Bill, HC 1293; and Second Report of 2014 from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Work of the Committee in 2013, HC 1173 of Session 2013-14.]
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 4
Removal of restriction on investigation of tramway accidents in Scotland by RAIB
‘(1) The Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 14 (extent of Part 1: investigation of railway accidents by Rail Accident Investigation Branch), omit subsection (2) (which prevents the Part from applying to tramways in Scotland).
(3) In consequence of subsection (2), omit section 1(3).” —(Tom Brake.)
Part 1 of the Railways and Transport Safety 2003 does not currently apply to tramways in Scotland and so the Rail Accident Investigation Branch cannot investigate tramway accidents there. This amendment removes that restriction.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 25—Civil penalties for parking contraventions: enforcement.
Amendment 61, page 7, line 22, leave out clause 10, clause 11 and clause 12.
Government amendment 13.
Amendment 1, page 26, line 4, clause 35, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert “in paragraph (a) leave out from “if new and important evidence” to “discovered” and insert
“where secondary investigations have enabled more new, significant, or important evidence to become available, having particular regard to—
(i) enhancing and preserving the rights of those affected by a maritime accident to learn from the proceedings of such reinvestigations and conclusions drawn from them; and
(ii) future safety issues and measures.”.”
Government amendments 36 to 49, 51, 24 and 26.
This group of amendments covers accident investigation, parking contravention, driving, and private hire vehicle licensing.
New clause 4 and amendment 24 deal with rail accidents and, specifically, tram investigations in Scotland. They will remove a prohibition in the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 that prevents the Rail Accident Investigation Branch from investigating tram accidents in Scotland. The prohibition was originally included at the explicit request of the Scottish Executive because operation and safety matters on tramways are a devolved matter. Until now, this has not been an issue as there were no tramways in Scotland, and in practice the power would never have been exercised. However, now that the Edinburgh tramway has entered public service, the prohibition is no longer appropriate. This is a devolved matter, so the consent of the Scottish Parliament is needed. Scottish Ministers will support the legislative consent motion required to remove the prohibition.
The RAIB is already a UK-wide organisation. Its inspectors investigate accidents and incidents on all mainline services, including in Scotland, and currently undertake investigations of tramway accidents in England and Wales. RAIB inspectors already have the required investigative expertise and the necessary powers to conduct a thorough investigation and make recommendations to ensure that lessons are learned. Should there be an accident or incident on the Edinburgh tramway, it is therefore appropriate that RAIB inspectors should be able to undertake an investigation.
If the prohibition on undertaking investigations of tramway accidents or incidents in Scotland were not removed, RAIB inspectors would have no statutory power to investigate, so the safety implications of any accident or incident might not be fully exposed, and there might be repeat incidents if the root causes are not addressed. Although the new clause is only small, the implications for the continued safety of our rail network of perpetuating the prohibition are significant.
The RAIB has already shown its considerable value in contributing to our having one of the safest rail networks in the world. I of course hope that it will never be necessary for RAIB inspectors to be deployed, but we must not be complacent. This is an opportunity to remove a small legislative anomaly, enabling RAIB inspectors to apply their considerable experience and expertise consistently across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am afraid that I do not have figures to hand on accidents relating to trams in England and Wales, but I will write to my right hon. Friend on that subject. I assume that any investigation of an accident would assess its causes—for instance, if it involved a vehicle driving on to the tramlines—and would make recommendations about how to deal with such issues.
Government new clause 25 relates to changes in the use of CCTV for issuing parking tickets by post. The Government are concerned that the use of CCTV for on-street parking is no longer proportionate, and that local councils over-employ it to deal with contraventions when it would be more appropriate and fair for such contraventions to be handled by a civil enforcement officer. We have therefore committed ourselves to ban the use of CCTV for on-street parking enforcement. That was announced in September and re-stated in December 2013 as part of a package of measures designed to support high streets.
Under existing measures, when a CCTV camera is used by a civil enforcement officer to identify a parking offence, a penalty charge notice can be issued to the offender by post. In practice, that means that drivers may receive a parking ticket through the post several weeks after an incident, which makes it difficult to challenge the alleged contravention.
The Government are concerned that a proliferation of CCTV cameras for offences such as parking may undermine public acceptance of their wider beneficial use. To introduce the change, we need to amend legislation to prevent local authorities from relying so heavily on CCTV for parking enforcement.
The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that the new clause relates to parking, but will he confirm that CCTV cameras can still be used for issuing fines via the post for other offences, such as parking on zig-zag lines in front of schools?
I will come on to that point in a few moments.
New clause 25 will amend part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to prevent the automatic issuing by post of fines for parking offences, and instead require that notification of penalty charges is given by a notice attached to the vehicle.
The new clause includes a wider power to cater for an outright ban on CCTV if that is considered necessary in future. However, the Government intend to protect the use of CCTV cameras where there is a strong safety argument for doing so. Their use will therefore be banned in all but the following limited circumstances: when stopped in restricted areas outside a school; when stopped where prohibited on a red route or clearway; when parked where prohibited in a bus lane; or when stopped on a restricted bus stop or stand.
What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about his statement at the weekend that local authorities are not able to make a profit from CCTV cameras, and what does he think about that?
I have not had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government since his announcement at the weekend. It is very clear that local authorities cannot issue parking fines to raise funds for other purposes, but that they can use the money from parking fines to invest in transport and some environmental measures. The Government are concerned that the family of local authorities as a whole has a surplus of about £630 million in funds raised through parking tickets. We believe that we have taken a sensible and proportionate approach by ensuring the power has the ability to exempt key parts of the road network so that we reach the right balance of fair enforcement in the right places.
I now move on to amendment 61 on taxis and private hire vehicles.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is a very good point, which I think it would be more appropriate to respond to in writing. Clearly, there may well be contractual issues. If local authorities have entered into contracts for, say, a five-year period, there may be implications, so rather than giving him an off-the-cuff response, I will write to him on that point.
Amendment 61 would remove from the Bill the three clauses that relate to taxis and private hire vehicles. That is not a course of action that the Government intend to adopt. On the contrary, we consider that the taxi and private hire vehicle clauses will have significant benefits, both in terms of cost savings for the trade and convenience for passengers, and we are determined to see those benefits realised.
Will the Minister explain why he has not listened to what the travelling public want? There is huge concern about these clauses. He has not consulted the Local Government Association, nor has he listened to the public or the evidence, and as a result, he is going to put public safety at risk.
I cannot agree with that at all. We are not putting public safety at risk, and I think the people who have concerns about safety do at least have London to consider, where, of course, all the measures apply, and I am not aware of significant issues being raised in relation to safety in London.
Clause 10 concerns the circumstances in which a private hire vehicle driver’s licence is required. Its purpose is to allow people who do not hold a private hire vehicle driver’s licence outside London and Plymouth to drive a licensed private hire vehicle when the vehicle is off duty. At a stroke, that will lift the burden that many families currently face of having to run a second car so that other family members can drive for domestic purposes. I have heard arguments to the effect that this will be unsafe and that the Government are being reckless in taking forward the policy, but I do not agree with that.
There was a case in the local Slough magistrates court on these issues very recently, and those who were charged were found guilty and fined extensively. The comments from the magistracy are interesting. The court said that they regarded this as a very serious set of offences, putting the public at risk and depriving legitimate drivers of income. They were particularly concerned that the trigger incident involved a lone female being collected late at night from Wexham Park hospital. Is that not evidence that these sorts of changes are required?
I certainly agree with those organisations that we need to be concerned about rogue, unlicensed taxis, but I do not think that anything the Government are putting forward today will increase the likelihood of there being rogue, unlicensed taxi operators. For instance, a private hire operator passing on a job to another will be passing the job on to an operator who is, of course, licensed.
I will make some progress.
Safeguards will be in place, the main one being that the law will continue to prohibit people who do not hold a PHV driver’s licence from acting as a PHV driver. It was with safety in mind that we decided to alter the position in London by introducing the reverse burden of proof: where a driver without a PHV licence is caught driving a licensed PHV with a passenger on board, the Bill places the onus on the driver to show that the vehicle was not being used as a hire vehicle at the time. We believe that that approach will make the job of enforcement more straightforward for local authorities.
Clause 11 will standardise the duration of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers’ licences at three years, and private hire operator licences at five years. Shorter licence durations will be permitted, but only according to the circumstances of a given case and not on a blanket basis. That will apply in England and Wales, but not in London or Plymouth. I have heard arguments about the adverse safety implications of clause 11, and about licensing authorities losing their ability to monitor drivers sufficiently. The three-year licence duration applies to more than 50,000 taxi and PHV drivers in London, and outside London just under half of licensing authorities set that duration for their drivers, so that measure is already common. We recognise that local authorities take their taxi licensing responsibilities seriously, which is commendable.
The National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers, the National Taxi Association, and the National Private Hire Association are totally opposed to these clauses. Why is the Minister not listening to those who have to enforce the regulations or who are part of the delivery of our taxi services?
The Government have listened to and taken on board concerns expressed by a range of organisations, and have also heard support for the measures we are proposing. We think it important not to place a burden on private hire vehicle drivers that requires them to have a second vehicle in their family to enable them to get around. Safety is vital when licensing taxi and PHV drivers; that is why local authorities are allowed to take into account the criminal records of driver’s licence applicants. Best practice guidance advises licensing authorities to undertake formal criminal record checks every three years, and that facility will still be available. Moreover, the new Disclosure and Barring Service allows taxi and PHV drivers to sign up to an updating service that will allow licensing authorities to make inquiries about the drivers they licence, should they feel the need to do so.
Clause 12 allows private hire vehicle operators to subcontract bookings to operators licensed in a different district. It will apply in England and Wales, outside London and Plymouth. Once again, the clause has been opposed on safety grounds, with arguments that enforcement will be difficult. I stress that that measure already applies in London—I am not aware of any enforcement issues—and the principle of subcontracting, albeit to an operator in the same district, is already enshrined in provincial legislation. I cannot see how allowing PHV operators to subcontract journeys across borders will generate safety issues. Operators will be allowed to subcontract bookings only to other operators who are properly licensed, and those operators will have to fulfil their bookings using properly licensed drivers and vehicles.
The Minister says that he is not aware of any enforcement issues, but may I remind him that the real public safety concern is the number of bogus, unlicensed taxis that operate—particularly in London—and pose a threat to the welfare of women travelling home late in the evening? Last year there were 250 assaults and 56 rapes. Measures that will make that situation worse by making the system more difficult to enforce—that is what the Government propose—should surely concern the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House.
Again, I agree that the Government, local authorities, the police and campaigning organisations should do everything they can to ensure that women and other users of private hire vehicles use only licensed vehicles, and that there is a strong clampdown on those who are operating illegally. Again, I do not think that anything the Government are proposing in these clauses will have the effect that the hon. Gentleman seems to be saying they will.
As I have said, if, for instance, an operator cannot do a job in an outside area and passes on the responsibility to another licensed operator, that operator will be licensed, and there will be enforcement associated with that licence. Enforcement authorities will be able to check the operator’s records for any given booking to ensure that it has been undertaken lawfully.
To sum up, these are tried and tested measures. We believe there are adequate safeguards in place. We acknowledge, of course, that the Law Commission review is a significant landmark to those who have a keen or vested interest in the evolution of taxi licensing and regulation, but the key point is that that review will not deliver tangible change in the next year, whereas these measures will. They in no way undermine or nullify the Law Commission’s review; they are simply the first steps on a long deregulatory journey, which will continue when the Government find an opportunity to take forward the Bill that will arise from that review. The Government are firmly of the view that clauses 10 to 12 should remain part of the Bill, and that amendment 61 should be resisted.
The Minister says these measures will be helpful, but Hyndburn borough council currently cannot take enforcement action against taxis from another authority, such as Rossendale, and his proposals will only aggravate the situation. Will he confirm that that is the case?
At the risk of repeating myself, I do not think that any action the Government are taking will put people at risk.
Let me respond to a couple of earlier interventions. It was suggested, for instance, that we have not consulted. We have indeed consulted: we conducted a targeted consultation earlier this year and also tapped into the extensive consultation conducted by the Law Commission during its comprehensive review. Nor is it true that no one wants the measures we are proposing. For instance, the Private Hire Reform Campaign is highly supportive of all these measures, and after extensive consultation, the Law Commission recommended all three of them in its most recent comprehensive review of taxi legislation.
I am afraid that I will move on now to Government amendments 13 and 51, which deal with the duration of driving licences granted to drivers with relevant or prospective disabilities. The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 provides that drivers with relevant or prospective medical conditions may be issued only with time-limited driving licences with a maximum duration of three years. That means that drivers with relevant medical conditions need to reapply for their licence at least once every three years. In many cases, where a medical condition is well controlled or progressing only slowly, a three-yearly review is unnecessary. Our amendments will enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to issue licences with a duration of up to 10 years.
Every licence application will still be considered on a case-by-case basis, and licences will still be issued for shorter periods where that is appropriate. Only drivers with conditions that are considered low-risk and unlikely to progress quickly will get a licence of longer duration, so road safety will not be compromised. A driver will still have a legal duty to tell the DVLA of any condition that he or she has developed or that has deteriorated, and it is an offence to fail to do so. Doctors and other third parties, such as the police, can also notify the DVLA when patients or drivers who have a notifiable medical condition, or do not tell the DVLA about it, come to their attention.
When the DVLA consulted on this proposal, 81% of respondents said they supported it. Those expressing support included the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the RAC Foundation, the Epilepsy Society, Diabetes UK, the Royal College of Physicians and the Freight Transport Association. Our amendments will ease the burden on motorists who currently need to make unnecessary applications every three years. They will also ease the burden on GPs, who have to complete the administrative work, and the DVLA, where applications are processed.
Let me turn to marine investigations and the Opposition’s amendment 1. Hon. Members have referred to the campaign—which was supported by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—by the relatives of those lost in the sinking of the MV Derbyshire. I recognise that the amendment is intended to ensure that a future campaign of a similar type that uncovered new evidence would lead to the reopening of the formal investigation into the relevant accident. However, hard cases make bad law.
No one questions the valuable outcome of the reopening of the formal investigation into the Derbyshire, or the commitment of the campaigners to improving maritime safety, but the amendment would enable anyone who disagreed with the findings of an investigation to search for new evidence and, regardless of how trivial that evidence might be, compel the Secretary of State to reopen the investigation. In the Government’s view, that would do nothing to advance the cause of maritime safety.
Let me repeat the advice given in Committee about how the Secretary of State would approach the decision on whether to reopen an investigation. Each case for reopening would be considered on its merits. The points for consideration would include, but not be limited to: the likelihood of lessons being learned that would improve the safety of marine operations and ship design; the likelihood of being able to identify the true cause or causes of marine accidents, where those causes were particularly uncertain prior to the evidence being found; and the likelihood of uncovering information that would provide a deeper understanding of the causes of other marine accidents. Let me reassure hon. Members that I agree that the reopened formal investigation into the MV Derbyshire was valuable and led to real improvements in maritime safety. If similar circumstances applied again, I am convinced that the Secretary of State would reopen the investigation.
A more general point about marine accidents is relevant here. All of us who represent marine communities know just how hard it is for bereaved families to come to terms with their loss in the event of marine accidents, and that is made all the harder when they do not know what happened, and when unanswered questions remain. Anything that makes it harder, more costly and more bureaucratic for the families to get the answers they need must be a retrograde step. I ask the Minister to look more carefully at not just this single instance, but at the framework, and to think again about how he takes forward the regulations on this issue. It is a huge comfort to bereaved families to find out what actually happened to their loved ones.
Of course it is. I have just stated the parameters that will be used to establish whether it is appropriate to reopen an investigation. We would, of course, want to ensure that the families had the answers that they wanted and deserved, so that they could get closure. We are arguing only about whether there should be a mandatory requirement on the Secretary of State to reopen formal inquiries, irrespective of the value of any new evidence that comes forward, and however small it is.
I hope to catch the Speaker’s eye later and contribute to the debate. The Minister may be convinced, but it is the seafarers and their families who need convincing, and they are not convinced. Will he clarify the process from here onwards? Will there be detailed regulation and consultation? If the legislation is agreed to today, how do we go forward towards implementation?
I shall respond to that shortly, but let me restate that I do not believe that anything we are proposing would have got in the way of the MV Derbyshire inquiry. All the evidence surrounding that shows that under these proposals the Secretary of State would still have reopened the investigation. All we are talking about is whether there should be an automatic trigger, irrespective of the nature of the evidence that comes forward. That is the only point that is in dispute, and I am absolutely certain that if the current Secretary of State or any future Secretary of State felt that the evidence brought forward could, in any shape or form, lead to further safety improvements being identified, they would want to proceed with a formal inquiry. I think most Members would agree that if, 100 years from now, a formal investigation was automatically triggered under this legislation by something that happened today, that would not be likely to make a significant contribution to improving safety.
Amendments 36 to 49 make minor technical improvements to the drafting of schedule 2. Amendments 36, 37 and 39 make drafting changes to render the language more consistent. Amendments 40 and 43 relate to new section 128ZZA, which allows the registrar to cancel a requirement to undergo an emergency control assessment when it is appropriate to do so. The policy intention was to cover all ECAs, but cross-references were missed, so the Bill does not cover the ECAs that are required in relation to licences for trainee instructors. Amendments 40 and 43 simply extend the new section to cover ECAs in connection with licences.
Amendment 41 amends new section 133B(2A), which concerns the ability to retake failed ECAs. It inserts references to assessments required in relation to licences for trainee instructors, which will ensure that the ability to retake a failed assessment applies to all assessments, regardless of the stage at which they were originally ordered. New section 133B(5A) states that a person applying to undergo a further ECA cannot do so until after a further six months, or any other such period prescribed by regulations. Amendments 38 and 42 simply allow a person to retake an ECA before the end of the six-month period in cases in which that is appropriate. Amendments 44 to 49 make consequential amendments to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 to reflect amendments made to the Act by schedule 2 to the Bill.
Let me now conclude my remarks—
I rise to speak briefly on Government new clause 25 and more specifically to our amendments 61 and 1, which relate to taxis and maritime issues respectively.
First, I shall comment on what the Minister said about the CCTV measure. The short notice of the introduction of the amendment—it appeared only at the end of last week—suggests that it was a political hot potato, passed between the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. There have long been rumours that the DCLG intended to scrap the use of CCTV even in sensitive areas, in contrast to the wishes of DFT Ministers. Over the weekend, press coverage of the issue was almost entirely dominated by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on whether DFT Ministers decided to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has called a “pickled policy”, or whether this is simply an example of what the Government’s frequent use of the Alice in Wonderland principle of sentence first and trial afterwards.
It concerns us greatly that the measure was introduced so late in the day. It is at odds with the consultative approach adopted by the Department for Transport. A range of organisations, including Living Streets, the Local Government Association, the British Parking Association, the Freight Transport Association, Disabled Motorists UK, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and Guide Dogs for the Blind, have made their concerns known, yet the Government published the new measure before seeing those responses.
There are of course legitimate concerns that councils have been using cameras as a routine means of parking enforcement; that is wrong. There have also been problems where stickers, such as resident permits and blue badges, have not been visible and drivers have wrongly been issued with tickets; that is an occurrence that we should make as infrequent as possible. It is understandable that drivers become frustrated when the first they hear of an infringement is a letter through the post, without the opportunity to discuss the circumstances with an enforcement officer. So we agree with the Select Committee on Transport that there should be greater oversight of the way in which local authorities use cameras to institute penalty charges, but that could be done through statutory and operational guidance, which is exactly what the groups I just mentioned would have liked.
CCTV remains vital for parking and for traffic and safety enforcement in certain areas where the use of parking officers is not practical: schools, bus stops, bus lanes, junctions and pedestrian crossings all come into that category. We hear from the Government response to their consultation that those areas are to be exempted and that CCTV could still be used in these circumstances, but that is not on the face of the Bill and we would welcome confirmation that this is the case and that plans will be put into practice.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that there are times when a camera-based system can get the wrong end of the stick? A constituent of mine was prosecuted for moving into a bus lane; they did so to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle, but the council still went ahead with the prosecution.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an instance of which he has the full details but I do not. I will not comment on the particular point but will comment on the general point, which is as I have just said: these matters are best dealt with by discussions with the enforcement officer before the ticket is issued. To that extent, I think we are at one.
The reality is that if we relax legislation of this kind, especially when the exemptions are not on the face of the Bill, certain people will take advantage of the situation—drive in bus lanes because they think they might not get caught, for example. There were cases some years ago in which CCTV of cars in bus lanes picked up many vehicles that were driven by criminals on the run for other causes. Once a criminal, always a criminal, and such people will take advantage.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that underlines why the Government should have given much more careful consideration to the thoughtful proposals and sometimes quite detailed comments submitted by the various groups before bringing forward these measures as part of this rag-bag Bill.
We do not object to the Government’s amendments reining in the use of CCTV in place of everyday traffic enforcement but, as is obvious from the comments we have already heard today, the whole House would welcome answers from the Minister, so we can ensure that vital spots such as bus routes and school runs continue to be protected by CCTV and we know the details of how that will be assured in legislation.
Amendment 61 would remove clauses 10 to 12. The Deputy Leader of the House will not want to hear this, but we strongly oppose the Government proposals on changing taxi and minicab law simply and crucially because it will put passengers at risk. I listened carefully to his opening comments: he said the Government are determined to see the reforms implemented, which reminded me of the old speaker’s note, “Argument weak here, shout like mad”—although, to be fair, being a Liberal Democrat, he did not shout. He really ought to take note of what Members have said today, particularly the interventions from my hon. Friends the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) about the particular concerns that women have —my hon. Friend the Member for Slough referred to an awful case—and about the vital issue of enforcement. On the basis of the reassurances he has given today, the Minister cannot guarantee that the Government will be able to enforce the current safeguards. The issue is one of enforcement.
The Minister talked about the “targeted consultation”—a wonderful phrase. We were told by Harold Wilson some while ago that a week is a long time in politics. Perhaps the Minister, being a Liberal Democrat, thinks that 10 days is an eternity, but 10 days is in fact the amount of time that was allowed for this “targeted” consultation. I doubt whether many people listening today will be particularly impressed with that process.
I always tell my constituents not to believe everything that is in the papers, but Guido Fawkes carried a number of stories in an online blog about the unions lobbying on these issues and financial interconnections between members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the unions on this matter. Was there any evidence behind those rumours and is there anything to be declared?
Not on my part, I do not think; I think the only thing to be declared is the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to pursue something on a blog that, as various people know, may or may not have some foundation. In this case, it obviously does not have much foundation.
My hon. Friend makes the point for me.
The truth of the matter is that once again an ideological imperative to be seen to be cutting red tape is resulting in vital principles of good governance being relegated. Although we have rightly had a long drawn-out process from the Law Commission’s proposals to consider all the interests involved—I shall come on to some of those in due course and perhaps put the hon. Gentleman’s somewhat paranoid mind at rest—it has been marred by the Government’s rushed and risky proposals. These plans have been poorly drafted and badly consulted on and they could put the travelling public in danger.
Taxis and private hire vehicles play a vital part in connecting people’s lives. They provide a wide range of services—everything from trips to the airport to early morning trips back from nightclubs. They are an essential means of transport for a wide range of people without access to a car, particularly in cut off or rural locations. For young people—sometimes for recreation, but also for work, training or family commitments—and for older people, they are a lifeline, providing mobility and social cohesion.
Previous work, including that of the Transport Committee in 2011, showed that the regulation governing the trade is often complex and contentious. We, therefore, like so many organisations outside this House, hoped that the DFT would approach reform in an inclusive, comprehensive and balanced way, especially looking to use the expertise of users, taxi operators and local councils in piloting a new course. Sadly, that has not been the case. Opposition to these measures is widespread: the police, industry bodies and members of the trade themselves are warning that they have severe safety implications. Yet Ministers have introduced the specifics of the plans late in the passage of the Bill, leaving little opportunity for real engagement with industry stakeholders.
Despite the excellent speech made on 29 April in Westminster Hall by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield—he has been steadfast and vocal on the threat that this part of the Bill poses to vulnerable taxi drivers, and even today has been meeting delegations from a range of organisations concerned about the proposals—it is still not clear why these measures were not included in the Bill on Second Reading, so they could have been debated more fully. Is this a reflection of their on-the-hoof nature, or a conscious attempt to avoid the criticism that would inevitably follow?
The context of today’s discussion is important. We should consider the questions that the rise of new services such as Uber pose about the impact of new technologies on the trade. The Government must be clear about what priorities they set for private transport companies, and surely those should be safety and security. That is quite the opposite of the piecemeal reforms being introduced in the Bill. What is needed is a far more comprehensive look at the regulation and enforcement of the taxi and private hire trade. That is exactly what the Law Commission announcement about the need for a new national framework underlined, so why on earth are this Government cutting the ground from beneath the Law Commission’s feet with these ill-thought-through proposals?
In the detail of the clauses we are opposing, the Government plan to allow people without a licence for a minicab to drive one when it is off duty. That could or will greatly increase the potential for rogue minicab drivers, who appear no different from legal drivers on the streets and could threaten vulnerable passengers, including women, who enter their vehicles. It will be nearly impossible to enforce these rules; it will be difficult to monitor whether a minicab is in service or off duty, and whether the driver is a minicab licence holder or not. The Minister may respond, as he has before, by talking about London—several times in his speech I thought he was grasping at London like a drowning man grasping at straws—but other areas of the country do not have the same resources for enforcement, and the sad truth is that rapes and sexual assaults committed by people purporting to be private hire drivers are not uncommon. The changes to the law are rightly an issue of public concern.
As my hon. Friends ask from a sedentary position, “How do you know?” I could also talk about the transfer of these licences but, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this is about resources and enforcement. The truth is that we would not know.
The proposed measures might damage the entire legitimate taxi industry, too. Greater Manchester’s police and crime commissioner has said that there is a clear danger that they will lead to an increase in unlicensed private hire drivers taking business illegitimately and that the measures are a backward step for law enforcement. I say again that this move is unnecessary. Why have the Government not listened to the Law Commission, which led an extensive consultation on a complex issue, receiving 3,000 written responses from across the trade? The process involved a series of 84 meetings over four months, an industry survey and meetings—one of which I attended at Blackpool cricket club—where scores of taxi drivers all put useful points. Why have the Government ploughed ahead with these reforms? Was the review simply a waste of money?
My next point deals with the one made by the right hon. Gentleman. Ministers would also let minicab operators subcontract a job to firms in another area, which means the customer booking the taxi could not be sure of the individual or the firm picking them up. Customers would lose their right to select a firm based on a strong reputation for safety. Many vulnerable people may start to lose confidence in their travelling habits if they do not believe they have a safe cab company whose services they can rely on. These proposals also have implications further down the line, for the supply chain in taxis and cabs. We are talking about things being made in the UK, with jobs and livelihoods provided in the UK, and a valuable force for social cohesion. That force will be under threat if the general public lose confidence in the methods of regulation and licensing.
In Southend, I have a regular contract with AC Taxis, as it is convenient; the firm is a good supplier and well trusted in the area. If it had to outsource some of its work, I would expect it, as a reputable firm, to outsource to another reputable firm. It may well outsource to Rochford Taxis, also an excellent supplier, but I would not expect it to go to a random firm to contract out the work. The company would be protecting its reputation, and it would be in its interest to behave in a decent and good way.