House of Commons
Wednesday 9 July 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Effects of Fiscal Measures
We have announced significant measures to boost growth and support hard-working families. We have cut corporation tax, abolished national insurance contributions for the under-21s and by next April 155,000 people in Wales will have been taken out of income tax altogether.
Given that the Chancellor’s decision to cut Britain’s corporation tax rate to the lowest in the G7 is one of the major reasons for Britain’s economic recovery, will my right hon. Friend reject the advice from the shadow Secretary of State that
“reducing headline corporation tax rates does not work”?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Government analyses have shown that high corporate taxes have a negative impact on investment, jobs and growth, and that is why we are reducing the rate to 20% from next April, the joint lowest rate in the G20. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) would appear to be at odds with the shadow Chancellor, who has committed himself to low rates of corporate taxation.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that just 14,000 people have benefited from the tax cut to taxpayers on the highest rate, at an average of £40,000 each, at a time when 75,000 people in Wales are on zero-hours contracts? Does he think that is fair?
By increasing the income tax threshold, we are taking increasing numbers out of income tax altogether. As I said in my substantive answer, by next April 155,000 people in Wales will be out of income tax. I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed that.
Actions speak louder than words. The real answer to the question was provided by the Secretary of State at the weekend, when he was the only member of the Cabinet who volunteered, as many Opposition Members have done, at a local food bank. Was that because he now agrees with us that food banks have become a vital bulwark against the impact of his Government’s fiscal policies in Wales?
I am proud to have assisted those at the Ruthin food bank over the weekend—I spent four hours with them; they are doing essential work—but, frankly, rather than turning this issue into a political football, I would have thought that the hon. Lady would be far better off supporting the work of the Trussell Trust.
Devolution of Fiscal Responsibility
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on the Wales Bill, which devolves a significant package of tax and borrowing powers to the National Assembly and Welsh Ministers. The Bill completed its passage through this House on 24 June, and it will have its Second Reading in the Lords next Wednesday.
Being in the position to set tax rates and collect taxes will clearly bring a new-found fiscal responsibility, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales should take that as an encouragement to vote in a Government in Wales who will look after their best interests?
Is it not the case that people in Wales would be buying a pig in a poke if income tax were devolved without a proper floor being put underneath the Barnett formula? The failure to address that issue has resulted in Wales being short-changed, so if income tax were devolved without the Barnett formula being addressed, it would be a bad outcome for Wales.
I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has overlooked the arrangements that we put in place with the Welsh Government in October 2012, which ensure that if there is any danger of convergence, then the issue will be resolved. I believe that we should all be ambitious for Wales, and we should indeed be looking for a lower rate of income tax in Wales to give Wales the competitive advantage that it needs.
Is it the policy of the coalition parties fully to devolve income tax powers to Scotland, and if so, why does the Wales Bill still include a tax-sharing arrangement in relation to income tax powers, with the lockstep measure for safe measure? Why are the Tories treating Wales like a second-class nation?
We have made it clear that the Scottish powers would kick in only after the next general election and they will, of course, have to be the subject of a manifesto commitment. However, Wales is not Scotland. We believe that the arrangements that we are putting in place are right for Wales. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support them.
On devolution, in the last hour there has been an extremely important ruling by the Supreme Court. It found in favour of the Labour Welsh Government in their attempt to preserve an Agricultural Wages Board for Wales and to protect low-paid farm workers in Wales. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise for wasting court time and money on seeking unlawfully to get rid of an Agricultural Wages Board for Wales, and will he commend the Welsh Government on their actions?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the Supreme Court delivered a judgment this morning. We are still considering the consequences of that. Where a procedure exists and there is an issue of doubt, it is entirely right that we should go to the Supreme Court to have the position clarified, and the position has been clarified.
The Secretary of State is trying to present this as a score draw. To be clear, he has lost 2-0. This is the second time he has referred Welsh legislation to the Supreme Court and the second time he has lost. This time he was trying to stop the Welsh Government trying to protect agricultural wages in Wales. I ask him again: will he apologise for wasting time? Will he agree with me that his interference and this ruling show that we definitely need Labour’s proposal of a reserved powers model for the Assembly in Wales?
Household Disposable Incomes
Wales has had the largest increase in disposable household income of any region or nation of the United Kingdom since 2010. Many households continue to face financial pressures. That is why we continue to introduce practical measures to help people with the cost of living at this time.
I am not sure that the Minister shared many detailed statistics with the House in that answer. Perhaps he will say a little more. The economies of Merseyside and north Wales are inextricably linked, so what is bad for north Wales is bad for Merseyside. That is why I would like to know just how much damage the Government have done to the incomes of people in north Wales.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her participation at Wales Office questions. As I said, the truth is that disposable household income is increasing faster in Wales than in any other region or nation in the United Kingdom. Wages and incomes are not where we want them to be—they need to be higher—but that is because this country is still recovering from the economic trauma visited on it by the Labour party. I am sorry that she has used her question to paint Wales in such a negative light.
Would the Minister care to comment on the recent dramatic fall in the disposable household income of the former Welsh Minister for Natural Resources and Food? Does he agree that, in that instance, the fall in household income was absolutely justified, given the disgraceful dirty tricks the former Minister was employing against other Members of the Welsh Assembly?
Has my hon. Friend seen the evidence from the Office for National Statistics that, since the election in 2010, the gap between disposable incomes in Wales and in the rest of the UK has narrowed every year? That gap widened in each of the three years before the last election during the tenure of the Labour party.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There was a huge destruction of wealth in this nation during the last three years of the Labour Government and we are still recovering from that. He is right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the disposable income gap is narrowing. That is because we have a long-term economic plan that is working, and that is working for Wales.
Some 46% of the people who work in my constituency and some 33% of the workers who live in my constituency work in the public sector. The figure for the constituency of the Secretary of State is 45%. Today, it was announced that public sector workers have lost £2,500 a year since the last election. What is the Minister doing about that?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that his party’s Front Benchers are as committed as we are to the need for pay restraint across the public sector. That is one of the main ways in which we will fix the appalling record deficit that he and his party left the nation. Some 47,000 new private sector jobs have been created in Wales in the past 12 months, and he should stand up today and salute that.
Border Health Care Provision
The Wales Office continues to engage regularly with the Department of Health and the Welsh Government to discuss health care provision in Wales and along the border. Our focus is on ensuring that everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to high-quality health services that meet their needs.
Given that the NHS in Wales has had its budget cut by 8%, that waiting times are longer than in England and that it has missed its accident and emergency targets since 2009, does my right hon. Friend agree that the NHS is far from safe in the Opposition’s hands?
That is manifestly clear. While spending on the NHS has increased by £12.7 billion in England, it has been subjected to a cut of 8% by the Welsh Government. As my hon. Friend says, the consequence is that the health service in Wales is not safe in Labour’s hands.
A constituent of mine living in Chester but registered with a GP in Wales would have to wait up to 52 weeks for a hip operation. If that same constituent were registered with a GP in England, they would have to wait 18 weeks. Does my right hon. Friend think that is fair?
You really would not think the Secretary of State was the son of a north Walian chemist from listening to his answers.
Regardless of which side of the border people live on, obesity is a ticking time bomb in this country. Why do the UK Government not have cross-border talks with the Welsh Government to do something on the issue, rather than constantly talking Wales down? When will they deal with the serious issues?
I am glad to say that when my father was practising, we did not have the type of devolved health care that we are experiencing in Wales at the moment.
The hon. Lady is entirely right—it is necessary that discussions should take place, and they are taking place. I urge her to urge her friends in the Assembly to engage positively with the United Kingdom Government.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a clear relationship between levels of poverty and demand for health care? With 75,000 people in Wales now on zero-hours contracts and a higher number of people in poverty being in work than out of work, is it not time that he got a fair share for Wales by getting the £300 million by which we are under-supported by the Barnett formula and the capital investment needed to deliver the proper health service that we all need and demand in Wales?
At the moment, patients from Radnorshire and east Breconshire have to travel to Cheltenham for radiotherapy, which is a long and stressful journey at a time when they are particularly unwell. A radiotherapy facility called the Macmillan Renton unit will soon open at Hereford hospital, and it will be an excellent facility for Herefordshire and Powys. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is an example of cross-border health care at its best?
It is indeed, and it also illustrates the extent to which border communities such as those that my hon. Friend represents rely on health care provided in England—all the more reason for proper protocols to be put in place to ensure that that health care is adequate.
Wylfa Nuclear Power Station
Subject to final investment decisions, construction is expected to begin in late 2019. However, initial ground works have already begun and indications are that Wylfa Newydd remains on course to begin operating in the mid-2020s.
As someone who has supported new nuclear build in Wales since my arrival in the House in 2001, and this project since its inception in 2008-09, will the Secretary of State join me in stating that the priority now must be to get the skill base and supply chain right, so that we have the jobs and high-quality skills that we deserve in north-west Wales? That means the UK Government working with the Welsh Government, local governments and stakeholders. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to meet me to form a framework for that to happen?
I am happy to commend the efforts the hon. Gentleman has made, and I entirely agree that the new build at Wylfa offers exciting prospects for the supply chain and for education. I am particularly impressed with the work that Coleg Menai is putting in, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at some future date.
There is universal opposition across north Wales to building more pylons to carry the electricity, whether from Wylfa Newydd or wind production—that extends to the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and others. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that proper and full consideration will be given to under-sea methods of transmission of electricity from any new sources?
Of course, the difficulty with nuclear generation is that it requires the infrastructure to get it to the markets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that some concern has been expressed about this issue, and where possible underground cabling has distinct advantages. No final decisions have been made, and National Grid is carrying out further environmental and technical assessments.
The Superfast Cymru programme, which is jointly funded by the UK and Welsh Governments, is on track to deliver superfast speeds to 96% of premises by spring 2016, and more than 135,000 premises in Wales have already been connected. The Wales Office continues to be in close contact with BT, Ofcom and Broadband Delivery UK as the roll-out continues.
I thank the Minister for his response. Some £120 million of public money has been put into the roll-out of broadband in Wales, yet my constituency of Aberconwy has had no roll-out as yet. That is having a huge effect on businesses, not least in the tourism sector. Does the Minister agree that we need more accountability in the way that the spending of public money happens in the Welsh Government?
As I said, we are in close discussions with the Welsh Government, Ofcom, and Broadband Delivery UK about how public money is being spent on the roll-out in Wales. We are aware of concerns that my hon. Friend and colleagues have raised in recent months, and we communicate those to the Welsh Government and take them very seriously.
Further to that question, the roll-out in Wales is excruciatingly slow, and that is when connections are available. Is the Minister aware of the latest Ofcom data that show that 10 out of 22 local authority areas are category 5—the worst for broadband? What is he doing to work constructively with the Welsh Government to sort that out?
The right hon. Gentleman is right, and we face a significant infrastructure challenge in Wales for our digital connectivity. That is why we are putting in money from the UK Government, partnered with Welsh Government money, for the roll-out of the Superfast Cymru programme. If he has more specific concerns about the roll-out in his constituency, I would be grateful if he raised them with me so that I can take them up with the Welsh Government directly.
The Minister is a mind-reader. Last week, Dr Carole Jones of Aberangell rang me because she was completely unhappy about the situation. When she spoke to BT, she was informed that there is no likelihood of high-speed internet reaching Aberangell in my constituency—her area—because it will be too costly. What is the point of pumping in public money from this Government and the Welsh Government if they cannot commit to providing proper broadband services throughout Wales?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the main superfast programme deals with 96% of residences in Wales. We are putting in additional money to look at how we connect the last few per cent. of properties that are difficult to reach, and a Welsh pilot project will be taken forward as part of that £10 million scheme. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot underestimate some of the geographical and topographical challenges that Wales faces in rolling out superfast broadband.
Infrastructure Connectivity (North Wales and England)
As part of our long-term economic plan, we are currently investing in infrastructure at unprecedented levels. Last week, we announced £10 million of investment to upgrade the Halton curve, renewing north Wales’s direct link with Liverpool and improving connectivity across the north-west of England.
On Friday, I will visit Rossett to see the investment of £44 million by the Welsh Government in the dualling of the Wrexham-Chester line, which was made a single line by the Tories in the 1980s. I welcome the investment announced by the Chancellor last week, but will the Secretary of State tell us when that will happen and when the Halton curve work will be done?
It is clearly intended to proceed as quickly as possible. Connectivity between Wrexham and Merseyside is extremely important. I welcome, of course, the belated investment by the Welsh Government, but there is more to be done, and I think the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed on the need to look at electrification further north.
The funding of the northern hub in full and the many other transport announcements are incredibly welcome, and show an investment in the north’s transport infrastructure that was barely evident under the previous Government. Having taken four hours to get from Wrexham to Leeds, however, I would like the Secretary of State to make sure that north Wales will enjoy the benefits of that record investment.
The Halton curve is, of course, important in that it connects north Wales with the city of Liverpool, which is the most important economic centre in the region. My hon. Friend is also right that we need to make sure that connectivity is improved across the whole of the north of England.
Our long-term economic plan is working—and it is working in Wales. We are rebalancing the economy to give the private sector confidence to invest and create jobs. In the last year alone, we have seen more than 47,000 new private sector jobs created in Wales.
My hon. Friend is exactly right; he knows a lot about this issue. There was an appalling increase of more than 75% in youth unemployment on the watch of the last Labour Government. I am pleased to say that in the past four years, we have seen youth unemployment fall by 31% in Wales. We are bringing down unemployment among young people.
13. Will the Minister not just accept the success of Jobs Growth Wales—a scheme that actually works? Why will he not implement a similar scheme in England rather than carry on with the failed policies he is currently putting forward? (904691)
Jobs Growth Wales makes a contribution, and I am not going to knock anything that helps young people in our constituencies to get on the employment ladder. I am concerned, however, that the Welsh Government are still refusing to allow people on the Work programme to access the additional help of Jobs Growth Wales. We need to see the Welsh Government make more progress on tackling that.
14. Agriculture is a significant employment sector in Wales, and many people, including the Farmers Union of Wales, wanted the Agricultural Wages Board to be protected. Will the Minister say why he has twice challenged it in the High Court and in the Supreme Court, and how much that has cost the public and the taxpayer? (904692)
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the devolution settlement is a complicated one, and that it was entirely right for the UK Government to seek clarity from the Supreme Court on this issue. We welcome the fact that the Supreme Court has given its ruling and provided the clarification we needed.
Ministry of Justice Shared Services
The Wales Office remains in close contact with the Ministry of Justice on the future of its shared service centres. Central to our discussions is how we secure the future for the work force at Newport.
The Government reward the failure of the privatiser Steria, which lost £56 million of public money, in order to punish the success of the workers who have saved £120 million of public money. Will the Minister tell us who will decide whether those jobs will be offshored? Will it be the Ministry of Justice or the Cabinet Office?
My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has made it absolutely clear that he does not support the offshoring of those jobs at Newport. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that we will take no lessons from him or his party about the interaction of Government with the private sector. We are introducing far more discipline and rigour into our contracts with the private sector providers.
The aerospace sector is vital to the economy of Wales, providing more than 23,000 jobs in 130 companies. The aerospace sector strategy sets out how we will work with industry to maximise the opportunities for growth.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the NATO summit which will take place in Newport in September provides an ideal opportunity for Wales and the United Kingdom to showcase before a global audience our aerospace and defence industries, which are a vital part of our economy?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the Prime Minister’s key purposes in deciding to bring the NATO summit to Wales was to showcase all that is good about our nation of Wales. It is absolutely true that the defence and aerospace sectors are some of the jewels in the crown of the Welsh economy, and the NATO summit provides an excellent opportunity for us to showcase them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all who have been involved in the start of the Tour de France in Britain, from the event organisers to all the great cyclists I think that the event has showcased the best of Yorkshire and the whole of what Britain has to offer. I was delighted to see such incredible support throughout the race.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the news that he has just relayed.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is threatening legal action against a family-owned bakery because it would not print a political message on a cake. The requested message was completely at variance with the company’s Christian values. Does the Prime Minister agree that so-called equality is now being viewed by many as an oppressive threat to religious freedom, and that such freedoms should be protected by the introduction of a conscience clause?
I was not aware of the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I will of course go away and have a look at it. However, I think that a commitment to equality—whether we are talking about racial equality, equality between those of different sexes, equality in terms of people who have disabilities, or, indeed, tolerance of and equality for people with different sexualities—is a very important part of being British.
Will the Prime Minister welcome the President, MPs and choir of the German Parliament, who have come to sing in a joint concert with our parliamentary choir in Westminster Hall tonight to commemorate the centenary of the first world war and the tercentenary of the Hanoverian monarchy?
I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the German choir. I suspect that, after last night’s result, they will be in rather good voice.
On a serious note, let me say that we properly commemorate the outbreak of the first world war, the key battles of the first world war and, of course, Armistice day as we approach these vital 100th anniversaries. I am absolutely determined that, in Britain, we will mark them in appropriate ways. There will be a service in Glasgow, followed by a number of different events. I think it very important that we learn the lessons of that conflict, and commemorate those who fell.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the way in which the organisers, the cyclists and the millions of fans made the Tour de France such a brilliant success for Britain. I was proud to be watching it on the streets, as I know he was. I was in Leeds with the hundreds of thousands of people who were lining the streets.
All of us have been horrified by the instances of child abuse that have been uncovered, and the further allegations that have been made. All the victims of child abuse are not just owed justice, but owed an apology for the fact that it took so long for their cries to be heard. Does the Prime Minister agree that all inquiries, including those conducted by the police and those that he has set up, must go wherever the evidence leads them—in whatever institution in the country, including our own—to get at what happened?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Child abuse is a despicable crime, and the victims live with the horror for the rest of their lives. It is absolutely essential that—in the two inquiries announced by the Home Secretary, and, indeed, in the vital police inquiries that are being carried out—no stone is left unturned.
The horror of the Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris cases just shows what people were able to get away with. It was almost that on occasion they were committing crimes in plain sight, and it took far too long to get to the bottom of what happened and for justice to be done, and that is absolutely what this Government are committed to achieving.
On the issue of the 114 missing files at the Home Office, can the Prime Minister clarify when Ministers were first informed about this and what action they took? Does he agree that the review by Peter Wanless cannot be simply a review into the original review, but must seek to discover what happened to the files, who knew what about the files, and whether information was covered up, and that the Wanless review must also have full investigative powers?
It was a parliamentary question last October that revealed the points about the 2013 inquiry, but what I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is absolutely vital that Peter Wanless, who has an excellent record in this regard and will carry out the review in absolutely the right way, has all the powers he needs. Let us be absolutely clear: if he wants more powers, and if that inquiry wants greater powers and ability, they can absolutely ask for it. As the right hon. Gentleman says, the inquiry must go exactly where the evidence leads. We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened.
I agree that the most important thing is to clarify what actually happened to the files and why they went missing. I welcome the overarching inquiry that has also been set up by the Home Secretary. Can the Prime Minister say more about the terms of reference of that inquiry? Will he consider the very sensible recommendations made today by Peter Wanless around making the covering up of abuse a criminal offence and ensuring that there is an obligation on institutions to report abuse where it occurs?
Taking the right hon. Gentleman’s second point first: should we change the law so that there is a requirement to report and make it a criminal offence not to report? The Government are currently looking at that, and both reviews will be able to examine that point and advise us accordingly. I think it may well be time to take that sort of first step forward.
On the issue of the terms of reference of the wider lessons learned review, we are discussing those at the moment; we are very happy to take suggestions from other parties in this House. A number of inquiries are being carried out into specific hospitals, including the Savile inquiries; there is the inquiry taking place within the BBC; and there other inquiries, including into Welsh children’s homes. The main aim and what is vital, as I have said before, is that the Government learn all the lessons of this review. Where the Elizabeth Butler-Sloss review can really help is by having a panel of experts who can advise us about all the things that need to change in all these institutions—for instance the Church; for instance the BBC; for instance the NHS; but also, if necessary, in this place and in Government, too.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said and clearly cultural change in this is absolutely crucial in all institutions.
I want to turn to another matter: the health service. Last week the Prime Minister said that waiting times in accident and emergency had gone down, but within 24 hours the House of Commons Library had called him out. Average A and E waiting times have gone up. Will he now correct the record?
What I said last week at Prime Minister’s questions is absolutely right, and if the right hon. Gentleman goes on the website of the organisation I quoted from he will see that. Also, if you remember, Mr Speaker, at the end of Prime Minister’s questions there were some points of order and I said very specifically that
“the numbers waiting longer than 18, 26 and 52 weeks to start treatment are lower than they were at any time under the last Government.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 893.]
That was directly contradicted by the shadow Health Secretary, and I just want to give the figures to the House now so people can see that I got my facts right.
So, in April 2010 there were 217,000 people waiting over 18 weeks; it is now 186,000—lower. In March 2010 there were 92,000 people waiting 26 weeks for treatment; it is now 59,000—lower. And in terms of waiting 52 weeks —52 weeks!—for treatment, in April 2010 there were 21,000 people waiting that long; the figure now is 510—lower.
Let us go to the common-sense definition of a waiting time in A and E. It is not how long someone waits to be assessed; it is the time between arriving at the A and E and leaving it. The number of people waiting more than four hours is at its highest level in a decade. Why does the Prime Minister not just admit the truth, which everybody in the country knows? People are waiting longer in A and E.
The figures I gave last week are absolutely correct, and they are published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre: the average waiting time was 77 minutes when the shadow Health Secretary was Health Secretary and it is now 30 minutes. The fact is that we can trade statistics across the Floor of the House, but I am absolutely clear that the health service is getting better. There is a reason why it is getting better: we took two big strategic decisions. We said let us put more money into the NHS—the Opposition said that was irresponsible; and we said cut the bureaucracy in the NHS, which they wanted to keep. That is why there are 7,000 more doctors and 4,000 more nurses, and why the Leader of the Opposition has made a massive mistake by keeping a failing Health Secretary as the shadow health spokesman.
I would far rather have the shadow Health Secretary than the Government’s Health Secretary any day of the week. I will tell the Prime Minister what has happened in the health service. We had a top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for, and it has diverted billions of pounds away from patient care. The contrast we see is between the complacent claims of the Prime Minister and people’s everyday experience. People are spending longer in A and E, and hospital A and Es have missed their four-hour target for the last 50 weeks in a row. While he tries to pretend things are getting better, patients, NHS staff and the public can see it getting worse right before their eyes.
The right hon. Gentleman still has to defend the man who presided over the Mid Staffs disgrace, where standards of patient care were so bad that patients were drinking out of dirty vases because of standards in Labour’s NHS. The point is this: the reason we have been able to cut bureaucracy and the reason we have been able to put more money into the NHS is that we have taken difficult decisions, including having a 1% pay cap in the NHS. Of course, Labour said it would support that, but this week it has decided that it will back strikes instead. I have here the Labour briefing on strikes, which says, “Do we support strikes? No. Will we condemn strikes? No.” There we have it: that is his leadership summed up in one go. Have the Opposition got a plan for the NHS? No. Have they got a plan for our economy? No. Is he remotely up to the job? No.
Is the Prime Minister aware that British Airways is to cease the link between Aberdeen and London City in favour of increased services to the already well served airports of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin? Will he support the campaign to maintain the link, which is vital to the vibrant business economy of the north of Scotland?
Q2. Tomorrow, I will be in Carmarthen with striking teachers, nurses and firefighters—the backbone of local communities. Are the Prime Minister’s reported plans to ban public sector workers from withdrawing their labour not just a cynical attempt to silence opposition to his policies? (904734)
I am very clear that I do not think these strikes are right, I condemn them and I think that people should turn up for work. It is a pity we do not have so much clarity on that issue from the Labour party or, indeed, from the hon. Gentleman’s party. Let me give one example. The National Union of Teachers is proposing a strike based on a ballot it had almost two years ago, on a very small turnout of its members. Really, is it right to continue with this situation when the education of so many children is going to be so badly disrupted?
Speaking from the Opposition Back Benches on 9 December 2002, the Prime Minister said:
“I find the European arrest warrant highly objectionable”—[Official Report, 9 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 107.]
and my right hon. Friend voted accordingly. I still think the European arrest warrant is highly objectionable. Does the Prime Minister?
We have made a series of changes to the European arrest warrant so that we do not have the problem of people being arrested, for instance, for things that are not a crime in this country. But the question we all have to ask ourselves is, having achieved this vast opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs, which is the biggest return of power from Brussels to Britain, what are those few things that we go back into in order to fight crime and terrorism? On this I think the judgment of the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary has been absolutely right.
The budget for universal credit has been signed off in each and every year by the Treasury and I believe it will continue to do so. The good news on universal credit is that next year we will have one in eight jobcentres rolling out universal credit. I thought we would find that the Opposition were in favour of a system that makes work pay, but we can see today that they have gone back into the hole of being against every single welfare change and everything that is getting this country moving.
The Safer Internet Centre estimates that up to 30 websites host UK online revenge pornography images, another form of sexual abuse. Does the Prime Minister agree that posting such material must be recognised for what it is—a criminal sexual offence against its victims?
My right hon. Friend is right. This is an appalling offence and a dreadful thing for someone to do, and it clearly has criminal intent. I am very glad that she is championing this cause, and I hope that having looked in detail at the amendments she is suggesting, we can take up this cause. Part of what she achieved in government—the very good work that she did in office—is making sure that we do far more to deal with porn and internet porn.
Q4. If the business case for the right hon. Gentleman’s universal credit proposals is robust, why is the head of the home civil service saying that he has not signed it off? (904736)
What has happened is that universal credit has been signed off in each and every year by the Treasury. I make no apology for the fact that we are rolling it out slowly. We have learned the lesson of the previous Government, in which the right hon. Gentleman played a prominent part, where tax credits were introduced in one go and were a complete shambles.
Q5. North West Air Ambulance has three helicopters and has flown thousands of missions since 1999, one of which saved the life of a friend of mine after an horrific car crash on the M6. The service costs £4.2 million a year to run. There are 27 such air services throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and one of them may soon become a royal air ambulance service. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to those who man the helicopters, saving lives throughout the country, and heap praise on the thousands of people who raise funds every week on wet street corners throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that the helicopters carry on flying and saving lives? (904737)
My hon. Friend is right. Our air ambulances provide an invaluable service and we should all pay tribute to the men and women who staff and support them, who often have to undertake very difficult landings and take-offs in order to rescue and get people to hospitals. It is right that up and down the country people are giving charitably in order to fund these vital services.
I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that dealing with terrorism and violence, and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means were fundamental in moving Northern Ireland forward and in taking us from where we were to where we are today. Does he agree that in the Northern Ireland of 2014 republican threats of violence for political gain must not only be deplored, but everyone in government, in governmental bodies in Northern Ireland and in the community must stand up against such threats and commit themselves to fundamental freedoms, upholding democracy and the rule of law?
All threats of violence in Northern Ireland are unacceptable and should be condemned on all sides. I am very clear about that. What I hope we can achieve in the coming weeks—it will take compromise and brave decisions on all sides—is to get the Haass talks process ongoing again, with commitments from the right hon. Gentleman’s party, as well as from the Ulster Unionist party and from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to sit down and discuss these things so that we can make some progress. My fear is that if we do not make progress on these issues, we leave space open for extremists on all sides of the debate to start pushing their ideas, which would be deeply unhelpful for the future of Northern Ireland.
Q6. The long-term economic plan is working in my High Peak constituency. Unemployment is down a third in the past year. Summer approaches, and, as tourism supports so many jobs in the local economy, I am walking the boundary of my constituency to promote the area. I invite my right hon. Friend to consider joining me in August for part of the walk. As well as promoting High Peak, I will be raising money for High Peak Women’s Aid, which is a fantastic charity based in Glossop that operates across the whole of the High Peak. (904738)
I wish my hon. Friend well. He makes an enticing invitation. I am a big fan of the Peak district and what it has to offer and its very beautiful countryside. It is notable that in his constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 42% since the election, and the youth claimant count has come down by 39% in the past year. What we are seeing is an economic revival, and we need to stick to our plans to get the deficit down, help people with tax cuts, make it easier for firms to employ people, produce the schools and skills that we need and reform our welfare and immigration system. That is the plan that we will stick to, and it is the plan that is delivering for High Peak.
On GP appointments, a 62-year-old man in Eccles, who is a carer for his wife who has Alzheimer’s, sought an urgent GP appointment for her. He was told that it would be five weeks to see her GP, two weeks to see any GP, or he could take her to Salford Royal A and E. If that is the way that the NHS treats a carer of a person with dementia, does the Prime Minister not agree that it is time to support Labour’s plan to give such patients a right to a GP appointment within 48 hours?
There are 1,000 more GPs today than there were when I became Prime Minister. What we are doing is reintroducing the named GP for frail elderly people, which Labour got rid of. That is one reason, combined with the disastrous GP contract that Labour introduced, why there is so much pressure on our accident and emergency system. We need to learn from the mistakes that Labour made rather than repeat them.
Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that 16 to 18-year-olds in Northumberland who may live 50 miles from a further education college or 20 miles from a high school are facing charges ranging from £600 a year to several thousand pounds a year to get an education, because the Labour-controlled council has reversed the support given by the previous Liberal Democrat administration? Will he deplore that decision and see what central Government can do to promote fair access to education? (904739)
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, responsibility for transport for education and training rests with local authorities. Clearly, this local authority, now controlled by Labour, has made this decision. Of course we have introduced the £180 million bursary fund to support the most disadvantaged young people and perhaps that is something that his council and these families could make the most of. I certainly join him in agreeing that this is another example of the fact that Labour costs us more.
Q8. It is estimated that each day 179 British girls are at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation, joining a total of 170,000 in the United Kingdom who have been cut. Next week, the Prime Minister hosts a summit on this issue. Does he agree that FGM is not cultural; it is criminal. It is not tribal; it is torture. Will he please read the report of the Select Committee, which is published next Thursday, and implement it in full so that we can eradicate this horrendous abuse from our country? (904740)
I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the work that the Home Affairs Committee has done on that issue. He is absolutely right that this is a brutal and appalling practice that should have no place in the world, and certainly no place here in Britain and it is appalling that people living in our country are being subjected to it. I will study the report closely. The whole aim of the conference, which I am keen on us holding, is to ensure that the two practices of early forced marriage and female genital mutilation are wiped out from our planet.
Q9. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be totally unacceptable to have a statutory limitation on overseas aid without having a similar statutory provision covering defence expenditure to guarantee our NATO commitments? (904741)
We are in the happy position in this country of meeting the 2% spending on defence that NATO members are meant to undertake. When we hold the NATO conference in Wales in September we should be encouraging other countries to do the same and, indeed, to meet some of the new targets for spending on new equipment that can be used in NATO operations, which we certainly meet in this country. As well as doing that, we can also be proud of the fact that we are meeting the promise that we made of spending 0.7% on overseas aid, which is saving lives all over the world. I would not divorce that from our defence spending, because the money that we spend in places such as Somalia, Mali, Nigeria or, indeed, Pakistan is about reducing the pressures of asylum, immigration and terrorism, making our world safer. That is what our defence budget should be about, and I would argue that it is what our aid budget is about, as well.
Does the Prime Minister agree that with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, patients can be out of work for years if they do not get the right treatment? The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence should therefore look at the wider benefits rather than just the initial cost of that treatment.
Q10. Businesses across Lincolnshire report growing confidence and lengthy order books, highly skilled workers benefiting from the tax cuts that the Government have introduced and hard-working apprentices enjoying the sorts of opportunities that they could not have had just a few years ago. Does the Prime Minister share my assessment that the shadow Chancellor’s plans for borrowing yet more money while heaping tax on British businesses and making it more expensive for employers to hire young people are no more and no less than a long-term economic scam? (904742)
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We have to stick to the plan, which involves training young people. We are on track to hit 2 million apprentices trained under this Government, but the very worst thing to do would be to start spending, borrowing and taxing more, which are exactly the proposals made by the Opposition.
Every single health system right across the developed world is facing huge challenges and pressures. The pressures of an ageing population, the pressures of new drugs and treatments coming on stream and the pressures of children surviving with conditions that will need to be treated throughout their lives. The question is how we respond to those pressures. Our response has been to fund the health service and protect it from cuts, and to reform the health service, getting rid of £5 billion of bureaucracy so that there are more doctors and more nurses. The figures speak for themselves, because we can see more people being treated. One million more people are being treated every year in accident and emergency, and 40 million more people are getting GP appointments, but that is only because we have taken the difficult decisions that, frankly, Labour has not taken in Wales. That is why in Wales we see longer waiting lists and real problems with the NHS.
If my hon. Friend is referring to the situation that took place in the Welsh Assembly, which I was reading about overnight, it seems to be a very worrying development. If he is referring to something else, he might have to be a bit less delphic about it and write to me, and I will get back to him.
Q12. Will the Prime Minister look into the case of a young mum in my constituency who has a significant spinal injury that has left her unable to walk? Her GP has referred her for an urgent appointment with a neurosurgeon, so could the Prime Minister explain to her, and the whole country, why “urgent” on his watch means a four-week wait lying in pain? (904744)
I will absolutely look at the case that the hon. Gentleman raises. I am always happy to look at individual cases, but the figures I quoted earlier were to demonstrate that the numbers of people waiting 18 weeks, 26 weeks or, indeed, 52 weeks, are not just lower now than when the Government came to office but are lower now than at any time under the last Labour Government. I am very happy to look at the individual case he mentions.
Is the Prime Minister aware that since 2012, when he promised to increase patient access to innovative radiotherapy, particularly for cancer patients, the number of cancers treated by radiotherapy in some hospitals has actually decreased by 70% and state-of-the-art machines are lying idle because NHS England will not allow doctors to use them? Will he meet me and other cancer cure campaigners, such as Lawrence Dallaglio, to discuss this scandal before more patients are refused treatment?
I read the report that Lawrence Dallaglio referred to over the weekend and am very happy to meet the hon. Lady, and indeed him, to discuss this. We have introduced the cancer drugs fund, which is not only for drugs, but for innovative treatment. I know that there have also been changes in the way radiotherapy is carried out and in the way the new technology is being used, which might be part of the explanation for the figures she gives, but I am very happy to discuss them in more detail.
Q13. Jobs Growth Wales has been hugely successful in tackling youth unemployment, outperforming similar schemes across the United Kingdom. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in congratulating Welsh businesses and enterprises, the Welsh Government, and indeed the young people of Wales, who have made it a success? In doing so, he can end his agenda of attacking Wales at every opportunity. Who knows? He might even get a welcome in the hillside. (904745)
I want to do everything I can to support economic recovery in Wales. That is why, for instance, I think that in September, when the NATO conference comes to Wales—entirely an initiative launched by me—there will be a very strong welcome in the valleys. That will be the first time a serving American President has ever been to Wales, so I am looking forward to it. We are doing everything we can to help businesses in Wales to employ more people and grow the economy.
Economic Development (Birmingham and Lichfield)
I met the chair of the LEP board on Monday when I hosted a meeting in Birmingham to mark the agreement of the growth deal that will see over £350 million invested in Greater Birmingham and Solihull. The projects in the deal will help to create up to 19,000 jobs, allow up to 6,000 homes to be built and generate up to £110 million from local partners and private investment.
With unemployment at just 1.5% in Lichfield and Burntwood, and down by over 28,000 across the whole LEP region, does that not demonstrate that the LEP model, bolstered by the growth funds awarded on Monday, is working? How does my right hon. Friend plan to build on that success and encourage the most ambitious LEPs, including Greater Birmingham and Solihull, to promote the local economy still further?
As I said at the meeting with the LEP, I think that the growth deal is a very big step forward for Birmingham and the west midlands. It will result in more jobs, more investment and more houses. It will see new railway stations and transport links built. I think that we need to be more ambitious about the money we can find in central Government to support these schemes, but I also hope that local councils, including Birmingham city council, will look at every piece of unused brownfield land and every extra bit of development they can put on the table so that these growth deals get ever more ambitious.
I think that we can probably tell the difference between a ray of sunshine and the hon. Gentleman on this issue, as on so many others. This is an excellent deal for Birmingham and the west midlands. If he does not think so, he might want to explain why Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, said:
“This is good news for Birmingham. A number of major projects will now be accelerated. Transport routes across the city will be much improved… And other money will go into site development that will provide much needed jobs in the city.”
I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to spend a little more time with Sir Albert Bore.
Q15. Tomorrow Britain faces damage and disruption from strikes, none of which has been backed by a majority of union members. Since the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) became the leader of the Labour party, it has taken £13 million from Unite alone, so he will not stand up to the union barons. Will the Prime Minister make it clear that we are on the side of the public, who by 3:1 back a voting threshold for strikes to stop this licensed sabotage? (904747)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Frankly, I think the time has come to look at setting thresholds in strike ballots. I mentioned the NUT strike earlier. A ballot is taking place—[Interruption.] Look, I know Labour Members are paid for by the unions, but they might want to listen to this, because it is going to disrupt our children’s education. The strike ballot took place in 2012. It is based on a 27% turnout. How can it possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in this way? It is time to legislate, and that will be in the Conservative manifesto.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Employment Minister if she will make a statement on whether the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for the implementation of universal credit has been approved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In answering, let me lay out a couple of quick facts about where we are and then deal with the hon. Gentleman’s direct question.
Universal credit is a major reform that will transform the welfare state in Britain for the better, making 3 million people better off and bringing £35 billion of economic benefits to society. Rightly for a programme of this scale, the Government’s priority has been, and continues to be, its safe and secure delivery. This is demonstrated through our approach to date, which started with the successful launch of the pathfinder in April 2013 and has continued with the controlled expansion of universal credit.
On 5 December last year, I announced that universal credit would be rolled out to the north-west and expanded to couples from the summer of 2014, and would then expand to families later that year. That is exactly what is happening. A fortnight ago, we began our north-west expansion. Universal credit is now in 24 jobcentres and will reach 90 across the country by the end of the year. A week ago, we started taking claims from couples. This careful roll-out is allowing us, as we said we would, to learn as we go along, continuously improving the process—unlike so many of the programmes the previous Government instigated which crashed and burned.
In answer to the question, my Department has always worked, and will continue to work, closely with the Treasury on these roll-out plans. As we have made clear in a number of recent debates and answers to parliamentary questions, the Treasury has approved funding for the universal credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15, in line with the plan that I announced in December last year. These approvals are given by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—such matters are delegated to him by the Chancellor—and are subject to rigorous controls, in line with the recommendations made last year by the National Audit Office.
It has always been the plan, as I set out last year, to secure agreement for universal credit in carefully controlled stages: first for singles, where we have agreed funding with the Treasury and are already rolling out in line with that agreement; then for couples, where we have agreed funding with the Treasury and are already rolling out in line with that agreement; and then for families, where we have recently secured agreement from the Treasury and will begin roll-out later this year. All this was confirmed by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in an answer to a parliamentary question yesterday. That set of agreements confirms the approval of the strategic outline business case plans for this Parliament.
The final stage in this process, for which the logical point is now, has always been to approve and sign off the full business case covering the full, long lifetime of this programme, beyond this Parliament. We are in discussions over that, and it will eventually bring £35 billion of economic benefits to society. My right hon. Friend and I will, I am certain, approve that very soon.
That was a spectacular instance, as Sir Bob Kerslake might put it, of “beating about the bush”. It is a very simple question, to which the answer can only be yes or no: has the Department for Work and Pensions business case for the implementation of universal credit been approved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is depressing that this Tory Minister and the Tory Prime Minister cannot tell the difference between an annual budget and a business case. It is pretty straightforward.
On 30 June, the employment Minister—who is disgracefully not answering for herself today—answered that question by saying:
“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement”.—[Official Report, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 434W.]
She was referring to the ministerial statement of 5 December, which explicitly runs up to 2017. On Monday, however, she had the carpet pulled from under her feet, as Sir Bob Kerslake answered exactly the same question with gratifying honesty, saying that
“it has not been signed off.”
It got worse yesterday when the Financial Secretary, answering the same question, said that all the Treasury has done is approve funding for the programme for another eight months, while a DWP spokesperson said that the Treasury has
“approved all funding to date”,
as if that was some grand vindication.
The same simple question has now been answered in eight contradictory ways. Not everybody can be telling the truth. There has been so much beating about the bush that it feels as if this House has been misled by a Government engaged in a deliberate act of deception. [Interruption.] The truth is that the Department is relying month by month on handouts from the national food bank. How ironic!
On 5 December 2013, the Secretary of State told the House that universal credit would bring
“a £38 billion economic benefit to society”.—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 65WS.]
I notice that he has just amended that figure to £35 billion. That figure is part of the business case. Has it been signed off by the Treasury, or is he just making things up?
The Secretary of State has told this House on 28 occasions that universal credit has always been on time and on budget; yet Sir Jeremy Heywood said on Monday that the Treasury and the Major Projects Authority had to tell the Secretary of State that his own project was “way off track”. When was he told that? Why did the Secretary of State not tell this House?
I will be honest: we would love to help the Secretary of State implement universal credit, but confession comes before redemption, and as long as he remains in denial he remains beyond help. I ask him once again to be straight with the House: has the business case—the business case, not the budget—for universal credit, which he says will come to fruition in 2017, been signed off—yes or no? [Interruption.]
Order. Just before the Secretary of State replies, I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. He made no personal attack on any one individual. [Interruption.] Order. I will deal with this—the hon. Gentleman will have to accept my ruling, whether he likes it or not. The hon. Gentleman made no personal attack on any individual Minister, but my judgment, having heard him out, was that he went beyond the line in making an accusation of deliberate deception against a group of Ministers. [Interruption.] Order. I know what I am doing and I certainly do not require any help from the Education Secretary—that would be completely unimaginable. I ask Members to have regard to the way in which they express themselves. The point has been made, the situation is clear and the Secretary of State can now reply.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the most pompous, ludicrous statement I have ever heard. I know what he did: he wrote it down before he heard the answer. I have made it quite clear and I stand by what I said: the strategic outline business case plans for this Parliament have been approved. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made that clear the other day, and that is the statement that we stand by.
The next phase, as I said in my statement—the hon. Gentleman might like to listen to them in future—is approved. On the strategic outline business case for the overall lifetime of the programme, that is being discussed right now and we expect approval of that plan shortly. I have said categorically that all the expenditures and the work in this Parliament are approved. The reality is that it is approved. The point he needs to get round his head is that, on the figures he gave earlier—the billions—the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee agree that we need careful controls in place. It is therefore natural that we have sought that approval at each stage. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has approved all of those elements.
I know what this is all about. The truth is that this is about Labour’s failure to come to terms with welfare reform. We had a debate a week ago in which Labour crashed and burned, and we have an urgent question today. Labour Members want to avoid the reality that the Government’s welfare reforms are working and getting more people back to work. We have capped benefits so that no household can receive more than people who are in work. There are more people in work than ever before. Under Labour, youth unemployment increased by nearly a half; under this Government, the youth claimant count has fallen for the past 30 months. The rate of workless households is at its lowest since records began.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party that this is the best instance of a man in an ill-fitting anorak dancing on the head of a pin. It is quite pathetic. He needs to think again about welfare reform.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very worst example of how to change any tax and benefits system was the introduction of tax credits by the previous Government, when more than £6 billion of overpayments were made within just the first three years?
Absolutely. The Labour Government—the Labour party needs to own up to this—used to sign off business cases from day one, only to see the programme crash and burn. Tax credits left 400,000 people without money, and their reforms to the health service benefits system were an absolute disaster. We will take no lessons from Labour on how to manage a programme.
As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I support the intent of the policy, but I have repeatedly sought assurances on the status of universal credit. On Monday, I asked Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Nick Macpherson and Sir Bob Kerslake four times whether the business case had been signed off by the Treasury. There were a number of unscripted pauses, but Sir Jeremy told us:
“I cannot speak for the Treasury.”
Sir Nick Macpherson told us:
“It is signed up, up to a point”,
before Bob Kerslake finally admitted:
“I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off.”
I plead with the Secretary of State that he should be open and honest with hon. Members rather than hide behind smoke and mirrors to create a false impression that universal credit is on time, in budget and delivering in full its intended objectives.
I respect the right hon. Lady enormously for the job she does, but I say to her clearly that it was on the recommendations of her Committee and the NAO that we instigated—by the way, I think this is the way ahead for all future programmes—a programme in which, at every stage and in every separate part of development, we would have approvals from the Treasury and with the Cabinet Office, which is what is going on at the moment. My point is that the answer that Mr Kerslake, the head of the civil service, gave was correct in the sense, as I have said today, that the overall strategic business case for the full lifetime of the programme is in discussion right now for that completion. However, all the elements that are relevant—the strategic business plan for this Parliament, which includes all the roll-out, all the investments, of which the right hon. Lady will be aware, and the roll-out through to the north-west—have been approved. There will be no further need for approvals this Parliament, so the reality is quite clear: universal credit is on track and is rolling against the plan we set out last year. All those approvals are agreed, and we hope that the final element, which would logically come at the end of the process, will be agreed shortly with the Chief Secretary.
In April, the Work and Pensions Committee published a report on the progress of universal credit implementation, which said:
“DWP told us that it intended to clarify the impact of the changes to the implementation timetable on the overall costs and savings of the programme in the revised Business Case for Universal Credit, which it has now presented to the Treasury. We recommend that DWP makes its revised Business Case available to this Committee.”
Just two weeks ago, we got the Government response, which said that, no, they would not give us sight of the business case, but that some officials might talk us through it. For my Committee to be able to do our scrutiny role properly, that is not good enough. I join my colleague on the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) in making this plea: why will the Secretary of State not make the revised business case available to the Select Committee?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members today have focused on process because they do not want to confront the reality that the welfare reforms that we have implemented successfully have helped to tackle unemployment—they have got more people into work—and that universal credit is essential in making it clear to people that work pays?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reality is that our welfare reforms are working, and our pensions reforms are working. The truth is that the Opposition have absolutely nothing to say about any of this. Instead, they want to delve and delve into the detail, but that will not tell them anything. Universal credit—started by this Government—will be a great success: it will get more people into work, and it will secure more households with greater earnings.
The head of the home civil service clearly has reservations about the full business case for the roll- out of universal credit. Which of those reservations has he expressed to the right hon. Gentleman?
The head of the home civil service has expressed no reservations, and I do not believe that he has any reservations about these plans. As agreed, the plans will be signed off with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and when they are signed off, I hope that the hon. Member for Rhondda will write me a letter to say, “Thank you very much, indeed.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Opposition would do a better job if, rather than asking picky bureaucratic questions, they focused on whether universal credit will improve pay for low-paid people and ensure that work pays?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem for the hon. Member for Rhondda is that his Government left behind a shambles in welfare—people unemployed, long-term unemployment rising, and youth unemployment rising dramatically—and there has never been an apology about that, or about crashing the economy.
The Secretary of State’s problem is that on numerous occasions over the past three or four years he has given the House and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions different versions of events. He told us that the project was on track and on budget, and he stated to the Select Committee in February that the business case would be approved by April. What is actually going on with universal credit? In what sense is what people are claiming any different from jobseeker’s allowance? Does he know what happens to people whose circumstances change, and is this really universal credit at all?
I do know, actually. As we go along, we are developing universal credit correctly and stably, so that it rolls out properly. To repeat, we are rolling it out for singles in the whole of the north-west; couples development is now rolling out; and family developments are to come. Towards the end of this year, we will have rolled out universal credit to the north-west. I must say that that is the right way to do it: to make sure that what we produce is safe and delivers what we say it will, unlike tax credits and other problems that we got from the previous Government. I would like to know what the hon. Lady really thinks about the failure of her Government to deliver any programme correctly or safely.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a central contradiction in the figures from the Opposition? When the PAC last looked at this issue, the Labour Chair said:
“We believe strongly that meeting any specific timetable…is less important than delivering the programme successfully.”
Is it not right that we learn the lessons of the programmes that went wrong under the last Government, and that we get the programme right, rather than rush it?
That is exactly correct. That is why, when the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) stood up, I explained to her that we are now doing what the Committee asked for. We are rolling out universal credit carefully: at every check, we make sure with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office that what we are producing works, and the next phase is then approved. We have approved all the roll-out plans for this Parliament, as was said by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West. The strategic plan for this Parliament is exactly what the Chair of the PAC asked for, so we are giving her what she wants.
May I urge the Secretary of State to reject the representations of Labour Members? When it comes to universal credit, all they have done throughout is seek to promote welfare over work at every turn. What will be the savings to the Exchequer and the benefits to the UK when it has been fully rolled out?
The NAO has come out with the figure of £35 billion, which I cited earlier, but the point is that I believe that universal credit is worth more than that. As well as the planning and implementation process, the work we are currently doing will also evaluate the net benefit to the Exchequer and taxpayers, which I believe will be even higher.
The Secretary of State goes on about his record on benefits, but I remind him about the disaster of his PIP—the personal independent payment. Have Treasury Ministers or officials at any time expressed concerns about the financial viability of the business case to him, his Ministers or his civil servants?
The confusion around the business case will give succour to those in Northern Ireland who have blocked welfare reform and cost the Northern Ireland economy millions of pounds. Will the Secretary of State give us some indication of whether discussions on the business case to date have shown any reasons why there might not be a further roll-out of universal credit as he has planned, so that we can argue back against those in Northern Ireland who say that we should wait to see the full picture in England and Wales before doing anything in Northern Ireland?
There have not been any such discussions, and I hope that he will take that argument back to his counterparts in Northern Ireland and try again to persuade them that the full welfare reform package will benefit Northern Ireland dramatically, as will the universal credit part of that reform.
It is worth remembering that the tax credit disaster meant that £6 billion was overpaid in the first three years of its operation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when implementing so crucial a change, it is right and proper to take time and to implement it stage by stage?
What my hon. Friend says is exactly the point I have been making, but which Opposition Members just do not understand. There were too many disasters under their watch; we do not intend to repeat them. We are doing the implementation exactly as the PAC and the NAO recommended.
Once again, I am absolutely staggered at the Secretary of State’s hubris; there are more cover-ups, and everybody else is to blame apart from the Secretary of State. This has been an absolutely unmitigated disaster. UC is dead in the water, and he should go.
That is pretty much what the hon. Lady says whenever she stands up on any question to do with welfare. The reality is that she is opposed to absolutely everything that we have done. If it was left to her and some of her colleagues on the Select Committee, they would repeal everything we have done, and welfare would be in the sort of chaos that Labour Members left us when they left Government.
The Secretary of State may have seen Labour’s recent four-point plan for universal credit. Points 3 and 4 amount to significant uncosted scope increases, with no benefits applied to them. Given that, does he agree that it might be better for Labour to stay off the whole subject of business cases?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The truth is that the Opposition do not want to talk about any of their welfare proposals because all of them would cost more money and deliver less. If we were to apply a business case to the Opposition, they would not exist any more.
Will the Secretary of State look at the interesting report by Sheffield Hallam university on the state of the coalfields? It shows that although the welfare reforms might be working in some parts of the country, they are certainly not working in Wales. In the south Wales area that I represent, the share of pensioners living in poverty is about double that in the south-east of England. Welfare reform is anticipated to have a more substantial impact on the average financial loss per adult of working age in south Wales than across Britain as a whole. It is important to look at the variations within the UK, and I would be grateful if he gave them some attention.
The right hon. Lady knows that I respect her hugely. I am very happy to look at the points that she raises. In Wales, we inherited a peculiarly difficult problem. There were very high levels of unemployment and a very high number of people on incapacity benefit. I believe that our reforms are working. We have seen unemployment fall dramatically and employment levels rise in Wales. Is there more that we can do? Absolutely. My door is open and I would be very happy to discuss anything that she thinks we could do.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) suggesting that he would like to help the Secretary of State implement universal credit is a bit like his friend, President Putin, offering to help the Ukrainians with their elections—and, I should think, almost as welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the business case has been signed off, we can get back to what really matters, which is discussing how we can allow my constituents who are offered jobs to work as many hours as they like without having to worry about whether they will lose more in benefits than they will gain in salary?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is what universal credit will deliver, and that is why delivering universal credit safely and securely is the key to the plan. The approvals have been signed off. All the work that is being done in this Parliament is approved by the Treasury, and the long-term strategic business case should be approved very shortly as well.
Free school meals are an incredibly important part of the benefits system. A number of teachers have said that some children come back after the summer break noticeably thinner. The Secretary of State promised an announcement on which universal credit recipients would be entitled to free school meals by summer 2011. What is the reason for the long delay, and when will that announcement be made?
The Department for Education is making a decision about the best way to deliver free school meals. People who are eligible for free school meals will be eligible for them under the new arrangements. This is an opportunity to ensure that all those who really need free school meals actually get them. There are often problems in the existing system, so this is an opportunity to reform the system to improve the take-up and the accuracy.
We have seen Parliament at its best over the past two days. There were a couple of points of order yesterday and there is an urgent question today. I say gently to the shadow Minister, who is one of the best shadow Ministers, that he went over the top. The Secretary of State has come to the House and answered the question. It is a shame that the shadow Minister did not listen to the answer before commenting. Does the Secretary of State not think that he has one of the best teams in Parliament, and that his Ministers are of the highest integrity? If one of them had made a mistake, they would have come to the Dispatch Box and apologised.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West, and others have not made mistakes. We have been crystal clear about this matter. I stand by the words that have been used and the statements that have been made, as I said earlier. The hon. Member for Rhondda normally does not listen, but just says what he was going to say, regardless of the answer. I suspect that a conversation with him is a very one-way process.
I have been absolutely staggered to hear the Secretary of State defending a system that, as I have heard repeatedly at the Public Accounts Committee, has had very poor planning from day one and at subsequent stages. We are glad that there is a plan to get it back on track, but let us get back to the real question. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), came to this House and said that the business case had been signed off. Either she is not on top of her brief or she was misleading this House, neither of which inspires confidence.
I will give two answers. First, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West, stated what is factually correct: that the strategic business plans for this Parliament have all been approved. That is an absolute fact. Secondly, it was I who was not happy with the way the development was taking place nearly two years ago, and who instigated the first process through my red team report. That is correct and I stand by that. Working with the Cabinet Office, we changed the plan. The plan is now being delivered exactly as the Public Accounts Committee, on which the hon. Lady sits, wanted us to deliver it, with all the necessary checks and balances. I would have thought, therefore, that she would congratulate us.
Companies in the north-east provide some of the computer and IT support for universal credit, providing welcome jobs there. I have met the staff at those institutions, and they are committed to the project, which is getting people back into work and training, and they are supportive of the slow, careful and measured way in which we are rolling out universal credit, which, after all, is something that the whole House supports.
Again, we hear reason from the Government Benches. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is necessary to roll out the programme carefully so that it works, and so that we do not end up, as we did with tax credits, with 400,000 people not getting any money and going off to food banks and getting food parcels. That is the shambles that the Labour party created. We will not repeat it.
The Secretary of State said a moment ago from the Dispatch Box that we should be congratulating him. I remind him that only a few months ago his Cabinet colleague, the Paymaster General, was giving television interviews saying that the implementation of universal credit had been “lamentable” and that a lot of money had been “wasted”. We have also learned of friction between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions over the withdrawal of the Government Digital Service. Leaked documents at the time said that the DWP might not be
“able to obtain the skills required to replace GDS within the current market at affordable cost”.
Will the Secretary of State tell us how much additional taxpayers’ money has been spent on IT support systems since the GDS was withdrawn?
There is no additional money. All the money has been budgeted for. The hon. Gentleman said that we would not be able to hire people; we have hired a dramatic number of digital experts. They are working in the Department right now to develop the digital option. He is more than welcome to come and see them and talk to them if he likes. The door is open; we have nothing to hide. If he does accept that invitation, perhaps he will also persuade his hon. Friends to visit the IT. They do not want to visit it because they are pretending that it does not work.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and I went to the Harrogate jobcentre recently, universal credit recipients were passionate about the confidence that the new scheme is giving them to get a job, and recruiters were persuasive about how it is making it easier to place people in jobs. Will the Secretary of State ignore the hue and cry from the Labour party and focus on the benefits that universal credit is bringing to the lives of real people?
I always make it my priority to ignore the nonsense that comes from the other side. The Opposition live in la-la land when it comes to the welfare reforms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is about real people who are trying to get back to work. We are delivering for them right now, and we will deliver even more when universal credit arrives safely and securely.
On Monday, I received an e-mail from the Secretary of State’s office telling me that he would be visiting Wrexham on Monday afternoon. Every week, I meet constituents in Wrexham who are suffering from his incompetence. The only person who is running away from conversations about benefits is the Secretary of State. Will he meet me to hear what is happening in Wrexham in respect of personal independence payments, universal credit and all the other benefits that are falling apart?
I accept that the hon. Gentleman needed to plan that statement. I did visit Wrexham the other day and the jobcentre there. It has a phenomenally dedicated group of people who are doing brilliantly. As a result, unemployment levels in his area are falling. They are falling as a direct result of the welfare reforms that we have brought in. I only wish that he had said the same thing to the last Government. My door is always open. If he wants to come and talk to me about any problem, I will be very happy to see him.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for the open and frank way in which he has responded to questions about the business plan? Does he agree that the Opposition’s role in questioning business plans is important, and would he like to encourage them to be a bit more zealous in questioning the business plan for High Speed 2?
The Secretary of State needs to understand that when we ask questions in the House, we expect frank, honest and accurate answers from the Government, but that is not what we have had. He suggests that Sir Bob Kerslake did not know what he was talking about when he gave his answers to the Public Accounts Committee. Will Sir Bob Kerslake correct the record, or are we being misled again?
I have been absolutely clear—I do not think I could have been clearer—that the strategic business plans for this Parliament have all been approved. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Gentleman like to let me finish? What Sir Bob Kerslake was referring to was the overarching full roll-out, including the years beyond this Parliament. I have already said that I and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury are about to finalise that, as approved.
The Secretary of State has to accept that there have been valid concerns behind all the questions that have been asked about the feasible delivery of universal credit. There is also real confusion about the differing answers that have been given. Those concerns extend to Northern Ireland, where people are concerned about the implications for hard-pressed families and for local and regional economies. Given the question mark against the overall business case, is it right for the Assembly to be brow-beaten by the Treasury, through threats of cuts to other budgets, into passing the karaoke Bill that would legislate for universal credit?
I believe that the welfare reforms that the Assembly is being asked to pass, which include universal credit, are right. They are already delivering for the rest of the UK, and I believe that there will be net value to Northern Ireland when it rolls them out. I hope that it gets on and does it, and universal credit will be part of that.
Local Government (Independence) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Chris Ruane, on behalf of Mr Graham Allen, presented a Bill to define the independence of local government; to regulate the relationship between local and central government in England by means of a statutory Code; to require public authorities to act in compliance with the Code; to provide that the Code may only be amended by means of an Order under the super-affirmative procedure, approved unanimously by each House of Parliament or by a majority in each House equal to or greater than two-thirds of the number of seats in each House; to exclude any Bill to amend this Act from the provisions of the Parliament Act 1911; to make provision regarding the powers and finances of local government in England; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 September, and to be printed (Bill 72).
[4th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House notes that the Government has failed to tackle the acute housing shortage which is central to the cost of living crisis and over the last four years has presided over the lowest level of new homes being built in peacetime since the 1920s and the lowest number of homes for social rent being built in at least 20 years; further notes the recent reports that housing starts are forecast to fall this year with a large fall in affordable housing starts; and calls on the Government to tackle the housing shortage and commit to increasing house building to at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020, including by boosting housing supply by creating a Help to Build scheme for small and medium-sized builders alongside a reformed Help to Buy, by reforming the development industry and introducing measures to tackle land banking, by bringing forward plans to deliver a new generation of new towns and garden cities and by giving local authorities a new right to grow to deliver the homes their communities need.
We have called this debate because we are in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in a generation. We are not building even half the homes that we need to keep up with demand, and regrettably the current Government are presiding over the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s. The shortage just keeps on growing. According to figures that I obtained from the Library recently, the backlog of demand since the Government came to power is 500,000 homes, which is equivalent to Birmingham, England’s second biggest city. Individuals, couples and families are being priced out of home ownership, which has fallen to its lowest level since 1987. Average house prices are now eight times average incomes, and in some high-demand areas the ratio is even higher.
I recognise that there is a crisis in housing. I am therefore shocked by the lack of ambition in the motion. Not only does it commit to only 200,000 extra homes each year, but it gives no commitment whatever to a target for social homes. We should not be surprised, given that for 13 years the Labour Government presided over year-on-year decline in social housing and an overall decline of 200,000 social homes.
I was somewhat surprised by the intervention that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) made. Can my hon. Friend confirm that under the Labour Government, not only were there 2 million new homes, 1 million more mortgage holders and half a million more affordable homes, including 256,000 in the last five years of the Government, but 1.6 million social homes were brought up to standard through the decent homes standard, transforming the lives of millions of tenants?
The decent homes programme was one of the Labour Government’s proudest achievements. It transformed the homes and lives of millions of people in council houses. I say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) that in our last year in office, we started 39,000 social homes. In the past year, the current Government started 3,900. I will come later to the affordable homes cliff edge over which they are presiding.
Millions of people across the country face the insecurity of private renting, not knowing whether they will be evicted from one year to the next or even one month to the next. Young people and families are watching as their dream of home ownership, which their parents and grandparents were able to achieve, slips out of reach.
The housing shortage is central to the biggest challenge facing Britain today—the cost of living crisis. We know that on average, working people are more than £1,600 a year worse off under this out-of-touch Government, but the problem is about more than just the pound in people’s pocket. It is about the insecurity that people feel, often in their workplaces and sometimes in their homes, and about the prospects of the next generation, with many parents feeling that their children will be worse off than they are.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions the impact on families in the private rented sector. As the Education Secretary has slipped into the Chamber, I wish to make the point that another real problem is the effect on children now of the uncertainty that she describes. It has long-term consequences, because children need stability and they need to be able to stay in the same school. If their parents have to keep moving, that stability is undermined and so are their long-term prospects.