House of Commons
Monday 3 November 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—
Working Families (Benefits)
Since the financial crash of 2008, while average wages have risen by around 10%, working age benefits have risen by around 20%—a sign of our commitment to those who are most vulnerable, despite the black hole in the public finances that we inherited.
In their relentless demonisation of those on benefits, this Government forget to say that only 3% of welfare spending goes on benefits to the unemployed, and a half of all those in poverty are in working households. In the north-east, working people are £1,800 worse off per year since this Government came to power, and a quarter of a million of them do not even get the living wage. Now the Minister decides to freeze working tax credits. Why is he balancing the books on the backs of the working people?
It is difficult to know which of those dubious assertions to choose from that question. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks which one is dubious. She says that 3% of what she calls welfare spending goes to the unemployed—[Interruption]—goes on benefits to the unemployed, so she presumably counts state pensions as welfare spending. I do not.
I welcome the news that over the last 12 months we have seen the largest annual fall in unemployment since records began. Does the Minister share my view that the best way out of poverty is through sustainable employment and a regular pay packet—something enjoyed by an extra 847 of my constituents since January 2013?
My hon. Friend is quite right. We know that the risk of a child, for example, being in poverty is three times as great if they are in a workless household rather than a working household. We have almost become blasé about new record falls in unemployment month after month. That is the key to our drive to tackle poverty.
The right hon. Gentleman deserves great credit for his promotion of the living wage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State inherited a situation in which some of the Department’s employees were not receiving the living wage. Our Department has committed to it, and we have had that dialogue with our subcontractors as well.
I also welcome the rise in the living wage announced today. The Minister will be aware that jobseeker’s allowance claimant numbers are falling across the board in every single constituency in the north-east, and by 31% in my Hexham constituency over the last year. Does he agree with me that coming off JSA and into employment is surely the way forward?
According to the Government’s own figures, 20% of working people in my constituency earn less than the living wage, yet they will lose hundreds of pounds a year through this Government’s freeze in working tax credit. How does that possibly reward people who want to work, and how can the Minister justify that when the Government give tax cuts to the wealthy?
The largest number of people who have benefited most from tax cuts during this Government are those who are in work and paying income tax. Under this Government, a typical basic rate taxpayer is £800 a year better off in cash terms as a result of our changes to the personal income tax allowance, and over 3.2 million individuals will have been taken out of income tax altogether.
Harrogate borough is part of the roll-out of universal credit, and the feedback from jobseekers and employers has been universally positive. Will the Minister explain a bit more about the benefits to the UK economy as a whole when this roll-out is completed?
My hon. Friend is quite right that the early indications from those receiving universal credit have been positive, in line with the expectations of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are designing the system to be simpler for people and to make sure that when they take work, work pays. Already those on the front line who are working with unemployed people are welcoming the new freedoms universal credit gives them to support people back to work.
Welfare Reforms (Economy)
Our reforms are having a very positive impact on the economy, as my hon. Friend has seen. The deficit is down by more than a third, and we are at a record level of employment. Recent statistics have shown that both the number and rate of workless households is at a record low, too—the lowest since 1996.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on these reforms, which as he said have led to record falls in unemployment while also cutting the deficit? Does he agree with me that all of this is threatened by the policies suggested by Labour Members, who caused the financial chaos that we have had to deal with in the first place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth highlighting one particularly revealing set of figures. For workless households, both the number and the rate are at record lows: 3.3 million and 15.9% are the lowest since ’96. Children in workless households number 1.5 million, at a rate of 12.7%—again, the lowest on record. Under Labour, some 2 million children lived in workless households. That is now collapsing, thanks to the work we are doing. Labour’s plans would only return us to the bad old days.
I do not believe that that is correct. I have the highest respect for the people who man jobcentres all over the country, and who do a remarkable job in helping many of those who have fallen out of work to get back into it. Jobcentre staff now tell people that their own job is to help them to find and take work, but that they themselves have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to find work and take it. Their job is a combination of helping people and ensuring that they perform their task of seeking work and taking it. I am sure that, actually, the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is the right thing to do.
We do not need to go very far to see the country that the Opposition held up as the paragon of virtue in the European Union. It is, of course, France. I should point out that the French pursued the policies that the present Opposition think are right for the British economy. Adult unemployment in France is at record, scorchingly high levels, and youth unemployment is far higher than it has ever been in this country, while it is falling here.
As my right hon. Friend will know, the benefit cap is encouraging some people to move out of London, where rents are high, to areas such as Clacton and Thanet. Does he agree that local councils should be able to act to discourage benefit migration of that kind?
There has been very little movement of more than about five miles from people’s existing homes as a result of the benefit cap. Most people have settled, and many—two thirds—have either gone back to work or found alternative employment. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that there is something called the discretionary housing payment, and his local council, like any other, can make decisions about how it modifies the process. It is up to councils to do that, and we leave it with them.
The flagship of welfare reform was supposed to be universal credit. The Secretary of State’s former adviser told Radio 4 last week that the Secretary of State had known that the project was going badly wrong since May 2012, but he continued to tell the House that it was “exactly on track”. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee expects IT write-offs to exceed half a billion pounds after the election. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s estimate?
Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman has got his facts completely wrong. The reality is that, as was announced only a few weeks ago, universal credit is not only doing well, but is to be rolled out nationally. The right hon. Gentleman may be smiling because he has the idea that Labour might somehow get into government, and might inherit a success. I can tell him that Labour will not get into government, but universal credit will get more people back to work. It is already the case that it will give the economy net benefits of more than £30 billion, and there will be direct benefits of some £9 billion a year as a direct result of the roll-out that we are planning successfully.
According to page 34 of the “21st Century Welfare” Green Paper,
“The IT changes that would be necessary to deliver”
“would not constitute a major IT project.”
Is not the problem—as I pointed out to him at the time—that the Secretary of State failed to grasp the scale of the undertaking at the outset, and that hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted as a result?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. No money has been wasted. The roll-out means that, with all the work that we are doing, the vast majority is reusable through the digital system. I should be happy to invite him into my office to discuss the issue; the door has always been open to him.
Let me also say this, however. I wish that the Opposition would stop trying to play silly games and would recognise that this benefit, which is now being rolled out successfully and whose national roll-out has been announced, will be a massive benefit for those who are seeking work and those who are in work. It is time that the Opposition sat down with jobseekers and those who run the jobcentres, and got their story straight. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) spent about half an hour in a jobcentre, and then disappeared without talking to anyone there.
Under this Government, the number of children in relative poverty has fallen by 300,000. The Government have no plans to make any further assessment of this kind. Such an assessment would only be provided in reference to Government policy.
The End Child Poverty coalition recently found that almost half of all children in my constituency now live in poverty. Of the 2.6 million children living in poverty across the UK, two thirds rely on tax credits and in-work benefits. How does the Minister square that with the recent changes to benefits, which are going to make matters worse, and is he today redefining poverty?
I am interested in the hon. Lady’s question because in the report Alan Milburn brought out as part of his commission he recommended that we should
“supplement the existing child poverty targets with new measures to give a more rounded picture of those in poverty”,
and I agree with that. That is what we have set out to do. We took a consultation, and we are now considering that consultation and we will be bringing forward recommendations.
May I just say to the hon. Lady, however, that many of the forecasts about child poverty proved to be wrong? Child poverty has actually fallen, and, interestingly, I notice that the figures for her area show that Tower Hamlets has seen the largest fall of any local authority in England, down 7.1%, and down 9.6% since 2010 for those on tax credits and below the poverty line.
I am sure that when I voted for the welfare cap I was surrounded in the Division Lobby by large numbers of Labour Members of Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one can only have an effective welfare cap, and cap the welfare bill, if benefits do not rise faster than wages?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and he is approaching this from the logical perspective, which is that we have a responsibility to make sure that the economy is in balance, that we get the deficit down and that we are able to afford what we want to do to support the most vulnerable. What the Opposition fail to recognise time and again is that the economy that they left in a totally wrecked position has got to be sorted out; we cannot just go spending what we do not earn.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that children are also being pushed into poverty because his Department is not pursuing errant non-resident fathers vigorously enough? As he knows, my constituent Lisa Jones, a hard-working single mother, has been totally frustrated by the lackadaisical attitude of the Child Support Agency in tracking down the father, despite knowing his mother’s address, when he owes £23,000 and she has been struggling on tax credits and housing benefits to bring up a teenage boy while the father takes exotic holidays and avoids court orders. Will the right hon. Gentleman stop his weasel-worded replies to me and sort this matter out now?
I completely agree that in the right hon. Gentleman’s individual case, which I do know about and I recognise, that money should go to the parent with care. We fully agree with that and the CSA, part of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, is bearing down to try and get the details of this individual. As he knows, this case is a little complicated because the individual moves time and again before the agencies can get hold of him, but I have to say that I have already intervened by talking to them about this, and I promise the right hon. Gentleman this, and ask him to pass this on to his constituent: I personally will take direct interest in this because it is outrageous that this individual gets away with what he is doing. I have told the CMEC that it must bear down on these cases. The reforms we are bringing in will do just that, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman can reassure his constituent that we will sort this out.
Yes, and it is something the Opposition do not really want to talk about. The forecast was that it would rise. In fact, it has come down. It is also important to recognise that nearly 400,000 fewer children now live in workless households and that the proportion of children on free school meals getting five good GCSEs is up from 31% under the last Government to 38% as of a year ago.
Jobseeker’s Allowance (Bury North)
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that this fall in unemployment has not happened by accident? It has only happened because this Government have cut tax and red tape on businesses, giving them the confidence to grow and take on new employees?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The latest reports from the British Chambers of Commerce show that businesses are feeling more confident and are taking on more people. In the north-west, an additional 109,000 people are in work this year. He knows only too well how important it is to get a job that can lead to career progression. He is a working-class Tory who got himself into a job, did a correspondence course in law and then set up his own legal practice. We want those opportunities for everyone.
Employment and Support Allowance
Based on the latest published national statistics, as at February 2014 there were 2.46 million people on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefits, a fall of 98,000 from February 2012.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Since the incapacity benefits migration started, 250,000 IB claimants have been found fit for work, yet he is now telling us that the total number has fallen by only about 90,000. That might explain why the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting that spending on incapacity benefit alone will rise by £3 billion more than the Government expected in 2010. Is it not time that the Minister and his colleagues realised that, despite all the rhetoric, many people are not fit for work and that the necessary support is not there for those who do want to work?
I would point out to the hon. Lady that we have had some problems with the work capability assessment—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Before Opposition Members jeer, they should remember that this has happened under the provider that the previous Government appointed. We have taken action to sort the problems out, and Atos has agreed to exit from its contract. From 1 March next year, the new provider that I appointed last week, Maximus, will be taking over and will do a better job.
I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a new provider. The Minister has just confirmed that it was the previous Government who appointed Atos. Can he explain how the new provision will be materially different from the outgoing arrangements?
Yes, I can. I have taken a close interest in the contracting process, and we have learned from the previous experience. We are confident, given the bid that Maximus put together and the successful contracts that it has operated in Australia, Canada and the United States of America, that it will be able to deliver the assessments competently over the next three years.
Last week, the BBC reported that Ministers were considering cutting employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group—that is, those who have been assessed as being too severely disabled or too ill to be ready to work. I was grateful for the Minister’s letter, which I received this morning, assuring me that that did not reflect Government policy. I am sure he will want to place that on the record in the Chamber now. However, Ministers are in trouble with employment and support allowance. Over the course of this Parliament, it is likely to have a cumulative cost of £8 billion more than they had planned. The Office for Budget Responsibility has also sounded the alarm, saying that
“spending would remain higher…because of delays to the work capability assessment programme”,
which puts the Government’s own annually managed expenditure cap at risk. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no cut, now or in the future, to the benefits on which disabled people rely, in order to pay for the Government’s policy failures?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has referred to the letter I sent her, because it confirms that the BBC report
“does not reflect Government policy.”
It also makes the point that we have seen
“a fall in out of work benefit numbers of 832,000 since 2010—the total is now below 4 million, the lowest figure since 1990”,
that incapacity benefit numbers have fallen by 98,000, and that the spend on incapacity benefits has also fallen by £1 billion in real terms between 2009-10 and 2013-14.
I thank the Minister for his comment that the mooted cut was not Government policy. Can he reassure me and others that it will not become Government policy and that he will not consider making cuts in that area? People who are unwell or disabled often face additional costs to those faced by everyone else.
The hon. Gentleman talks about disabled people having higher costs; he is obviously talking about the personal independence payment, which is the help we give to people to help them to stay or become independent. The BBC report was talking about employment and support allowance, which is an out-of-work benefit.
Employment (Young People)
In the past 12 months, youth unemployment has fallen by a record-breaking 253,000. This Government have developed an array of support for young people including: work experience, sector-based work academies, traineeships, the Work programme and increasing apprenticeship numbers.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Youth unemployment in my constituency has halved since 2012. I recently visited my local Asda in Colne to see the work it is doing with local jobcentres. What more can my right hon. Friend offer to end youth unemployment in Pendle?
My hon. Friend is doing a lot locally to help people into work. He has had three job fairs so far, and is soon to have a fourth. It is by working with business, as he is doing in his constituency and we are doing nationally, that we have businesses and trade associations engaged in running programmes such as movement to work and feeding Britain’s future. All such initiatives are giving young people opportunities to move into work. We are not complacent, and recognise that there is more we can do. We are looking to create an extra 3 million apprenticeships in the next Parliament to ensure that we have full employment for young people.
The Minister sounds so plausible and she has oh so many skills learned in the television trade, but she should pick up the Local Government Association report that said that so many young people in this country are being badly served and that there will be 2 million of them unemployed or under-employed in the next few years because the model that we have for helping young people is not fit for purpose and that after four and a half years she has done very little about it.
It would have been better had the hon. Gentleman stopped after his first sentence. Not only am I plausible—I was giving the true statistics. Let us be honest: it was the Opposition who said that unemployment would be up by a million at this stage. How wrong they were. [Interruption.] We have unemployment up by 2 million. [Interruption.] Sorry, the Opposition said that it would be down by a million. Employment levels are at a record high: more than 30.7 million people are now in work, putting the figures on a par with pre-recession rates.
Youth unemployment in the Ribble Valley is relatively low. One of our great facilities, the jobcentre in Clitheroe, is currently under review and the suggestion is that it should close. Does the Minister accept that young people in rural areas have to travel large distances to get to a jobcentre? As these jobcentres are important, they should not be told to get on a bus to Blackburn.
My hon. Friend is right that jobcentres are important. The question is how we best support jobcentres and claimants. Can young people in rural areas make their claim on the phone or online, and can we align various other organisations so that they can come together and help support people in a fully rounded way? Obviously, what we are doing is right, because, as he says, in his area employment is up and unemployment is down.
The Minister budgeted for 160,000 young people to complete the Youth Contract wage incentive payments. When the Department pulled the plug on that scheme, fewer than 10,000 young people had actually completed the 26 weeks on the programme. Will she tell the House what went wrong?
What I will do is tell the House what went right, as that is what people want to know. We have a record number of young people in work. We had a £1 billion Youth Contract, within which was an array of different opportunities—work experience, sector-based work academies and wage incentives. Working with businesses, we found that work experience, sector-based work academies and apprenticeships were the things that they want, and they are the ones offering the jobs. We have seen 40,000 young people—not 10,000 young people—start in that way. We have redeployed the money from the Youth Contract to areas where it will be most effective. The situation is far from what the hon. Gentleman outlined, as what we are doing is working.
Personal Independence Payments
7. What the average waiting time is for an assessment for personal independence payment. (905809)
When I was asked this at the last departmental questions, I said that the straightforward answer was that PIP claimants were having to wait too long and we are putting that right. I am pleased to say that since I answered that question we have made considerable progress; both the assessment providers have significantly increased the number of claims they are processing. That is good, and we will meet the Secretary of State’s commitment that nobody would be waiting 16 weeks by the end of the year. On the statistics, we will pre-announce the publication in due course, in line with the UK Statistics Authority code of practice.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also thank the Minister for that answer, but I would like him to make something absolutely clear. If one of my constituents phones up the Department today to make a PIP claim, will that be dealt with within 16 weeks or will they hear what people are often hearing, which is that it could take up to six months?
Nobody will be waiting longer than 16 weeks by the end of the year. One area where we are performing better is Scotland; the contract Atos runs in Scotland has some of the best performance we are seeing, so I hope that if someone were to make that claim now they would get a decision much more quickly than the hon. Lady might expect.
My constituent Ian Want has severely painful osteoporosis. Having already waited three years for a decision on his claim for disability living allowance, he applied for PIP. Capita rang him at 10.30 pm on a Wednesday to tell him that his medical assessment appointment was at 8.10 the following morning— 50 miles away, in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Minister apologise to Ian and to the many other disabled people who are being let down by his Department?
I do not know the specific circumstances of that case. If what the hon. Lady describes is the case, it is clearly not acceptable to expect somebody to travel at such short notice and I will look into the matter for her. As I said, however, both the assessment providers are making considerable progress in the number of assessments they are making and communicating to the Department, and departmental decision makers are making considerable progress in making decisions.
We are looking at a number of options to help people. My hon. Friend will be aware that the national health service has made some announcements about the extra help it will be putting in place for people with mental health conditions from April—this will be a significant improvement. We are also running some pilots, examining access to psychological therapies and linking those up with support in getting into work. So she will see that more support is available for those with mental health problems, both now and going forward.
Personal Independence Payments
We have consistently said that we would take a controlled approach to introducing PIP, continuously learning lessons as we went along. That is why we have introduced reassessments of existing disability living allowance claimants in a phased way, beginning from last October.
Is it indeed quite an inheritance that the new Minister has on his plate in this area. In June, I told his predecessor about a constituent of mine who had received arrears of more than £5,000, having waited 10 months for his PIP assessment. Given the difficulties we have heard about this afternoon, will he consider the time frame for the transfer of existing DLA recipients to PIP and waiting until such a time as his Department is able to give them a timely decision about their entitlement?
I agree with what my hon. Friend says; we are conducting the further natural reassessment roll-out only in those areas where I am confident we have the capacity to undertake the claims in a timely way. We are doing it in a carefully controlled way. The majority of DLA claimants will not be invited to claim PIP until 2015 onwards under a programme of managed reassessment.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention discretionary housing payments. I looked into this matter quite carefully. We have been very generous in the amount of money that we have given to local authorities. Indeed, many local authorities have not spent the money we have made available to them. We also made available further funds for which local authorities could bid and, again, not all of that money was spent. So we have given local authorities the wherewithal to use discretionary housing payment to support those who they think have a good case following the removal of the spare room subsidy.
One of the advantages of having two assessment companies is that the Minister should be able to make performance comparisons between them. Has my hon. Friend assessed the performance of both companies, and is there any good practice that can be carried from one to the other?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I look at the performance of both providers, Atos and Capita, and he is right—where we see good practice and particular things that work with one, we want to make sure we share that information with the other. Having the two is helpful for the Department in assessing their performance.
I support the point made by the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames). Why are some of my constituents from Telford awaiting a PIP assessment being told that they will have to go to Stoke-on-Trent? It is an 80-mile round trip. One of the journey recommendations provided to one of my constituents involved sitting on a railway platform overnight waiting for a train. This is a disgrace. When is the Minister going to sort it out?
Under the guidance that we give assessment providers for journey times, no one should have to travel for more than 90 minutes on public transport to go to an assessment, so if that was what the hon. Gentleman’s constituent was told, that was clearly a mistake. Ninety minutes is the maximum time people are supposed to have to travel by public transport, and for no longer.
My Ministers, officials, and I are in regular dialogue with the European Commission and other member states about the co-ordination and reform of social security. The most recent meeting was at the October Employment and Social Policy Council.
Although I have not read the report, Open Europe has stated what we are already discussing with Ministers of many of the other countries concerned. They are all pretty much in agreement that the present system does not give them enough leeway, and there is a general sense that they want people to contribute more before they receive benefits. That is very much the tenor of the discussion, so what the think-tank writes is pretty much what I think is going to happen in Europe.
I thank the Minister for his decision to ensure that my constituents who fled Sierra Leone because of Ebola were able to claim benefits and were not affected by the habitual residence test. Will he therefore reinstate the old rule whereby people who were advised by British embassies and high commissions to come back to Britain will have the habitual residence rule waived?
The moment I heard the hon. Lady’s question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, I immediately said to the Department, “Let me have the news on this”, and I changed the policy on that specifically for Ebola. I am keeping the matter under review to look at whether it is necessary to make a wider exemption, depending on what the embassies say, and I will come back to her about that in due course. I was horrified to see what had happened to her constituents.
The latest published figures showed that, as a result of various actions, 65,000 people were no longer affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy. As at December 2013, around 22,000 had downsized or moved a year ago. New figures to be published in due course show that if that trend continues, up to 50,000 will have moved or downsized by now, with the total no longer affected even higher.
The justification for the cruel and heartless bedroom tax is that it would force people to move into smaller homes. As only about 5% of people hit by the tax have been able to move, not least because in areas such as mine there are no smaller properties to move to, does the Secretary of State accept that this policy has manifestly failed?
Actually, I do not, and by the way I think the hon. Lady’s figures are not correct. I gave her higher figures even for last December. The rationale for the policy was fairness. The previous Government left us with the situation where some on housing benefit in the private sector were not allowed to occupy houses that had extra rooms, so balancing that is fair. Getting housing benefit spending under control after it nearly doubled in cash terms under the previous Government, and helping those living in overcrowded accommodation while we build more houses, giving them a chance to move into houses where they can fit their families—that is decent and fair.
Given that, according to recent surveys by social landlords, more than half the people impacted by the bedroom tax are now in arrears, what advice would the Secretary of State give those social landlords, particularly housing associations, about the unsustainable financial position they now find themselves in?
Of course, we always keep in close contact with social landlords to ensure that they do what they are meant to do and do not overcharge. The Homes and Communities Agency’s latest figures show that arrears have fallen in the same period from last year and rent collection among housing associations is stable at around 98%, so I think that it is safe to assume that the under-occupancy penalty has had little effect on housing association arrears.
The bedroom tax surely has a claim to be the most wrong-headed and iniquitous policy introduced by any Government in recent memory. The Government’s justification for this cruel tax was that putting it on social housing tenants would incentivise families and individuals to move into smaller homes, but the policy has one fatal flaw: the absence of homes for those families and individuals to move into. Surely the Secretary of State must today concede that the policy has been an abject failure and scrap the tax immediately.
Apart from the rhetoric, the reality is that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. It was his Government who started the process in the first place. I remind him that when they introduced the local housing allowance, they refused to allow anybody who accepted that benefit to live in a house that had extra bedrooms, because that would be unfair on those who were in that accommodation. We have restored that fairness. That is the right thing to do, and it saves £500 million a year.
Relative child poverty is now at its lowest level since the mid-1980s, and there are now 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than in 2010. However, poverty projections are based on a number of factors that cannot be reliably predicted, including the median income.
According to the most recent figures published under this Government, 53% of children in the Orchard Park and Greenwood ward in my constituency are living in poverty, compared with 11% in the neighbouring constituency of Haltemprice and Howden. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that we do not end up with a permanently divided society?
The fall in unemployment has happened across the country, and the risk that a child will be living in poverty is three times greater for those living in workless households than for those living in a house in work. We now have over 300,000 fewer children living in workless households, with more falls since those figures were put together. That is the best antidote to child poverty.
Those same figures show that Manchester Central has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in the country. That comes on top of the finding by the Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that there are now 600,000 more children in working households living in absolute poverty. When will Ministers stop denying that that is a problem and do something about it?
I was very struck by the comments of the hon. Lady’s hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary. According to a recent article:
“Criticising the policies of the last Labour government, Mr Hunt said that the party had previously been too preoccupied with tax credits and not given enough thought to tackling social problems in families.”
We are tackling those social problems through the troubled families initiative and a whole range of initiatives, such as the pupil premium, free school meals and more help with child care for young children. Disadvantaged children will benefit from our measures.
Assuming that the Department for Work and Pensions supports the armed forces covenant, will the Minister indicate whether the children of any serving personnel might be brought into child poverty as a result of the Ministry of Defence’s decision in recent days, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, to jack up the rents for Army married housing?
I take a close interest in those matters, as vice-chair of the ministerial committee on the armed forces covenant, and know that my hon. Friend has a proud record in speaking for his constituents on these matters. We have sought to benefit the children of serving personnel—for example, with regard to education if they have to move around the country—but I will be happy to raise with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence his concern about the impact of the rent increase and ensure that he receives a written response.
Disabled People (Work)
12. What steps he is taking to help people with disabilities into work. (905814)
There is a range of provision to help disabled people, including the Work programme, Work Choice and Access to Work. We also launched our Disability Confident campaign to promote disabled people to employers.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Jobseekers with learning difficulties need support that jobcentres sometimes struggle to provide. They often do better when placed in social enterprises like Pack-IT Hereford in my constituency. Will he take steps to encourage such placements, and join me in congratulating Pack-IT Hereford on its work?
But the inconvenient truth for the Minister is that the Work programme has been a terrible failure, particularly for those on employment and support allowance. Last week, Ministers were boasting that things have improved: that 10% of people are being helped. That is fine—but what is he doing for the 90% who are not?
The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a glass-half-full person. The 10% of people being helped through the Work programme is a significant improvement, and a significant number of people who go through Work Choice get into work. That is a very considerable record, and 116,000 more disabled people are in work this year than last year.
13. The Minister is right that when it comes to getting a job, personalised support is as critical to people with a learning disability as it is to anyone else. Will he support Basingstoke’s Mencap, which provides training and a jobs club, and in February a jobs fair, to help people with learning disabilities to find the right work for them? (905815)
I very much support my right hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these matters, and congratulate Mencap in her constituency on its Aspire project. It strongly supports the work of the Disability Confident campaign in getting more disabled people, including those with learning disabilities, into work, and I commend it strongly.
The number of people in in-work poverty fell by 300,000, according to the latest figures. The rate is flat in general terms since the election, despite there being more people in work than ever before, and there are almost a million more people in working families and above the poverty line.
Tomorrow is equal pay day, which marks the day on which women effectively start working for free because they earn on average only 80p for every £1 a man earns. Does the Secretary of State agree that addressing the gender pay gap, which has got worse under his Government, is key to tackling in-work poverty, and what does he intend to do about it?
First, let us start from where we are: more women are now in work than ever before, which is a huge start. I also accept—[Interruption.] The rate is even better: it is a record rate. Of course, it is absolutely vital and right to ensure that women who go to work get paid a decent salary. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment has been leading the charge for the Department, doing a lot of campaigning. Universal credit, as it rolls out nationally, delivers for working women a far better deal, with higher wages, than they would get under the present system.
I have talked to employers endlessly about making sure that they pay a decent wage—first, making sure that people pay the minimum wage, which the last Government were rather slack about but we have done a lot on. My own Department pays our employees in London the London living wage, and we negotiated with the contractor to make sure everybody gets it, including all the cleaners.
Today, I welcome the tougher action my Department has taken to recoup debt and safeguard taxpayers’ money. Now, where overpayments result from benefit fraud, the Department will always recover the maximum amount in legislation, ending concessions that previously meant that people paid back less, and making exceptions only where children will be affected.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, on the latest official data, child poverty, elderly poverty, fuel poverty, inequality—using the Gini coefficient—the numbers of people not in education, employment or training, and the gender pay gap are all, every single one, lower under this Government than when Labour was in office?
This Government have dealt with huge problems that were left to us. First, we had a collapsed economy. We are now putting that right, and we are also getting more people back to work. The best way to get people out of poverty is to get their families into work. Under this Government, there is now the lowest number of households in poverty.
As others have remarked, this week is living wage week, when we celebrate the success of employers and campaigners in moving towards getting more workers paid a wage that they can afford to live on. Under this Government, the number of people paid less than a living wage has risen from 3.6 million to 4.9 million—more than one in five people. Does the Secretary of State agree that this Government’s failure to tackle low pay means that more people in work are living in poverty, which is a key reason why the Government are spending £400 million more on housing benefit for people in work than when they came into office?
It is good to see the hon. Lady; I know that she did not turn up and vote for her party’s own motion last week, and did not even sign it, but now we have her here. I answer her question by simply saying this: the reality is that we have seen the minimum wage rise faster under this Government than under the previous Government, with an increase of nearly 10% since the election. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing everything he can to pursue companies that do not pay the minimum wage, and we are prosecuting them.
First, I would like the Secretary of State to withdraw what he said about my not being here last week. He does not know the reasons why I was not here, and I expect him to withdraw those comments.
The truth is that the in-work benefits bill is rising in real terms because of this Government’s failure to build a recovery that benefits everyone, not just a few at the top. We have seen a historic squeeze on wages for the majority and the minimum wage falling behind the increase in inflation, with an increase of just 70p in five years. The reality is that taxpayers are footing the bill for the spread of low pay and insecurity under this Government. Is it not time that the Secretary of State adopted Labour’s plans to raise the minimum wage, to get more workers paid a living wage, to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, and to build an economy that works for all working people?
I remind the hon. Lady that it was under her Government that the minimum wage stalled. Under this Government, it has risen by nearly 10% to £6.50 from October 2014. As for those who are supposed to be worse off, it is calculated using real earnings. Labour Members use a very simplistic calculation, and it does not give the full picture. The reality is that this Government categorically have done more for low-paid people than the previous Government did in their whole time in office.
T2. The number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Warwick and Leamington has fallen by 70% since April 2010. Will the Minister join me in congratulating local businesses and the young people who work so hard to make this possible, and outline what measures are being taken to ensure that this trend continues? (905769)
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating not only the businesses that are supporting young people into work but the young people who have now got a job and are on their career journey, which we hope will be successful for them. Equally, I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a jobs fair in Leamington town hall and helping more people into work. It is Members on the Government Benches who are having jobs fair after jobs fair and really looking at ways to help people into work. [Interruption.] Rather than chuntering, it would be good if Opposition Members copied what we are doing.
T4. A couple of weeks ago, a very disturbing press report said that teachers are having to resort to spending their reserves, or even the pupil premium money, on providing food, clothes, transport, beds, and even ovens for children living in poverty because they take the view that if children are not fed and have nowhere to sleep, they will never be able to achieve educationally. Is it not an absolute disgrace that schools are having to resort to that because the safety net is not there to meet the fundamental needs of these children? (905771)
I have not seen that report, but I am happy to look at it. However, I believe that the work being done in schools under this Government to support people who come from low-income families is phenomenal. Introducing that support for those children means that more children are now staying in school. As I said earlier, they are getting better results directly as a result of that support provided for them in school.
T7. Casework in my constituency has shown that, although the Department for Work and Pensions does well in identifying and prioritising claims made by terminally ill patients, when those claims are passed to Atos there is a lack of monitoring. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that those claims are dealt with in a timely manner at every point in the system? (905774)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have introduced a range of improvements for claims from terminally ill people. We are already seeing claims at around the expected level of 10 days. The assessment providers treat these cases as a high priority: 99% are processed within two days and 100% within five days.
T5. One of the greatest failings of this Government is the high level of in-work poverty and the significant cost of in-work benefits. Therefore—this is a similar question to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), who stole my thunder a tad—is it not time for the Secretary of State to be a real advocate of the living wage, to help address this problem? (905772)
Under this Government, take-home pay rose last year by more than inflation for all but the richest 10%. Average annual pay growth is 3.7% for those who have stayed in work between 2012 and 2013, and disposable income last year was higher than in any year under the previous Government.
T8. Which Minister is responsible for worklessness? Will they get to their feet and accept the grateful thanks of the nation that the number of workless households is the lowest since records began, and will they explain to the House how it has been achieved? (905775)
T6. Will the Secretary of State confirm the rumours that the job fairs occurring up and down the country get a lot of assistance from his Department and that that assistance goes to Conservative MPs and even Conservative candidates, but that Labour and Opposition Members are not offered the same support when they run anything similar? (905773)
That allegation is without foundation. The jobcentres in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and all the others will give every bit of support to every Labour Member and any other Member, nationalist or otherwise, to get their job fairs going. I recommend that Labour Members do more to create job fairs in their own constituencies, to help people get back to work.
T9. Ministers will be aware that another first for this side of the House is the launch of the Enfield over-50s jobs forum, helping to break down the barriers of getting older people back into work. Will Ministers meet me and support the vast number of local and national companies that have got behind it and fully support it? (905776)
I will indeed meet my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on all the work he is doing, not just on job fairs in general but in supporting people over 50. He has developed something unique to help people have fuller working lives. I would be delighted to take forward what he is doing. In fact, I have looked at it, the Department now has a hold of it, and we are going to spread it right across the country.
In earlier questions on the bedroom tax, it was not mentioned that this unfair charge hits 60,000 unpaid family carers, many of whom are not able to move from adapted homes. They cannot move into work, they cannot take extra hours and they need those additional rooms, which are essential for getting enough sleep to enable them to carry on caring. Is it not about time that we accepted that they should be exempt from the bedroom tax?
We have already had court cases that leave this very clearly with the Department. Our view is that those who need to be exempted are exempted, and we have left discretionary payments of some £380 million with local authorities to make those local discretionary decisions themselves. The hon. Lady’s local authority can do just that.
It is all very well for Germany to lecture us on the importance of the free movement of workers in Europe, but that is what it is supposed to be about—workers. Because Germany has a contributory system, one cannot arrive there and claim benefits. Will the Secretary of State take action, sort this matter out, take on the European Commission and say that people have to contribute taxes for three years before they can claim benefits here?
We have already taken action. We have closed many of the loopholes and tightened things up. Come Monday next week, nobody will be able to claim out-of-work benefit for more than three months, and after that people will have to leave the country. They will not get housing benefit, they have to be able to speak English and they have to show that they are resident here. And that is only the beginning.
A research group from Oxford university has analysed the data from the Government’s new sanctions regime. It has identified that 4.5 million people on jobseeker’s allowance have been sanctioned, including young people. One in four of those who were sanctioned left JSA. More than half of those who left did so for reasons other than employment. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State apologise for his claim that his policies are getting people into work, when they clearly are not?
As far as I am concerned, jobcentres apply sanctions only as a last resort. With the new actions that we have taken to get mandatory reconsideration, the number of appeals has dropped. The truth is that when the hon. Lady’s party was in government, it accepted the need for sanctions when people did not do what they were expected to do. Only in opposition does it claim that it is opposed to sanctions. It would not implement that policy if it was in government.
I welcome the fall in the number of JSA claimants in my constituency from more than 1,500 to below 700 since 2010. However, one area in which we face significant recruitment problems is nursing. That is a problem not just in Staffordshire but across the country. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Secretary of State for Health to see whether we can increase the number of training places at universities across the country?
We will indeed speak to all the Departments to ensure that more people are recruited in different areas all the time. We speak to trade associations, national employers and other Departments. The wonderful news, which will be celebrated in all parts of the House, is that record numbers of people are in employment.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the middle of discussing devolution proposals that emanated in Scotland but that cover all other elements of the United Kingdom. The key point that I make to him again and again is that Northern Ireland has not implemented the welfare legislation. As a result of that, it is difficult for us to deal with Northern Ireland directly on these matters, but I am certainly willing to engage.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State criticised me for not turning up to vote on an Opposition day motion last week. He knows nothing of why I was not able to attend last week. I kindly ask him to withdraw his criticism and apologise for the aspersion that I could not be bothered to turn up to vote in the House of Commons.
I simply made the point that it was good to see the hon. Lady here because she did not turn up to vote in the last debate. I understand that she retweeted that she was in Rochester at the time. She was not put down as a signatory to the motion. Those are the points that I made.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was not in Rochester last week. I will give the Secretary of State one last opportunity to withdraw the aspersion and apologise. He knows nothing of the reason why I was not here last week, so I ask him to withdraw the aspersion and apologise.
Child Abuse Inquiry
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the independent panel inquiry into child abuse, which has been established to consider whether institutions in England and Wales have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.
The House will remember that in July, I made a statement in which I announced my intention to establish the panel inquiry. I did so because of the growing evidence of organised child sexual abuse, conducted over many years, and serious allegations about the failure of some of our most important institutions to protect children from this disgusting crime. I established a panel inquiry, because it is the best way of making sure that the inquiry is conducted by a team of experts with empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of the survivors of child abuse. The fact that it is a panel consisting of several people means that it has within it more expertise than any one person could offer. Importantly, the public can have extra confidence in the integrity of its work, because no one individual can take important decisions or come to judgments alone.
The members of the panel—Sharon Evans, Ivor Frank, Dame Moira Gibb, Barbara Hearn, Professor Jenny Pearce, Dru Sharpling, Professor Terence Stephenson and Graham Wilmer—are in place, and they are supported by Ben Emmerson QC, who is counsel to the inquiry, and Professor Alexis Jay, who is the panel’s expert adviser. The panel therefore consists of members with a broad range of experience and skills. They have backgrounds in social care, academia, law enforcement, health care, the media and voluntary sector, and some have experienced sexual abuse themselves as children. I believe that the panel can command the confidence of the public and—most importantly—of the survivors of child abuse.
The House will know, however, that on Friday, the panel’s chairman, Fiona Woolf, announced her intention to resign. She did so because, as she wrote in her letter to me,
“it has become clear that the inquir,”—
if she continued to chair it—
“would not have the widespread victim support it so desperately deserves and needs.”
Fiona Woolf’s resignation follows the resignation of the panel’s first chairman, the noble and learned Lady, Baroness Butler-Sloss. Both women, I believe, had strong credentials to chair the inquiry. Baroness Butler-Sloss was the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, president of the family division of the High Court, and she chaired the Cleveland child abuse inquiry. Fiona Woolf is a leading lawyer and a former president of the Law Society. However, for different—and in the end, understandable—reasons, both Baroness Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf concluded that they did not command the confidence of survivors.
Almost four months after I announced my intention to establish a panel inquiry, it is obviously very disappointing that we do not yet have a panel chairman, and for that I want to tell survivors that I am sorry. To put it bluntly, it will not be straightforward to find a chairman who has both the expertise to do this hugely important work, and has had no contact at all with an institution or an individual about whom people have concerns. I still believe, however, that it is possible to find somebody who is suitably qualified and can win the confidence of survivors, so I want to turn now to what I plan to do to recruit a new chairman.
I will hold meetings with representatives of the survivors of child abuse, starting next week. I have already had a number of discussions with Members of Parliament who have campaigned for an inquiry into child abuse—the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for Wells (Tessa Munt), for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), and my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)—and I will continue to have discussions with them. I will also discuss the appointment of the new panel chairman with the shadow Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I have already agreed with the right hon. Gentleman that the nominated panel chairman will attend a pre-confirmation hearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee.
In the meantime, the panel will go about its important work, and I can tell the House that it will hold its first meeting on Wednesday 12 November, and meet every Wednesday thereafter until Christmas. The panel will organise other meetings that will discuss the different themes and issues covered by the inquiry, and attendance for those meetings—for both panel members and expert witnesses—will be set accordingly. In addition, the panel secretariat is planning two regional events that will be held before Christmas, and another four that will be held in the new year. Those regional events will provide an early opportunity for survivors to give their views about how the panel should go about its work.
One matter that I know has been raised by some campaigners is whether the inquiry should become a statutory inquiry. The inquiry, as constituted at present, like the inquiries into Hillsborough and the murder of Daniel Morgan, is a non-statutory inquiry. I have already said that the panel will have access to all Government papers, reviews and reports that it requests, and subject to the constraints imposed by any criminal investigations, it will be free to call witnesses from any organisation it deems appropriate. However, as I said to the House in July, I want to make it clear that, if the panel chairman deems it necessary, the Government are prepared to convert it into a full statutory inquiry, in line with the Inquiries Act 2005.
Another matter that has been raised is the terms of reference for the inquiry. Some say the terms are too broad, while others say the terms are too narrow. I do not propose to narrow the terms of reference, because to do that would risk missing out, in a fairly arbitrary manner, some important institutions. Likewise, I do not propose to extend the terms of reference to include Northern Ireland, Scotland or the Crown dependencies. I will, however, discuss with the new panel chairman how the Hart inquiry in Northern Ireland and the Oldham inquiry in Jersey can feed in to the panel to make sure that no information, and no institutions or individuals with a case to answer, can fall through the cracks.
I can also tell the House that the Government are considering ways of trying to make the experience of giving evidence less traumatic for survivors. The panel will therefore take evidence not just in public and private meetings, but remotely, with witnesses able to speak to panel members from their homes. The secretariat to the inquiry is also in discussions with officials in the Department of Health and other organisations to ensure that counselling and support is available to survivors before and after they provide evidence to the inquiry. To ensure that there is an open channel of communication between survivors, the panel and the Government, I will establish a survivor liaison group, which will meet on a regular basis as long as the inquiry continues.
Some Members of the House have suggested that the Government should publish today the Wanless report about the Home Office permanent secretary’s investigation into the so-called Dickens dossier. I can tell the House that the Wanless report will be published next week. That is because it is about a separate but related matter to the work of the panel inquiry, and I want members of the public and the media to have time to scrutinise both this statement and the Wanless review properly.
In the midst of debate about names, structures and legal powers, we must always keep in mind the survivors of child abuse themselves. Let us remember the events that prompted me to announce this historic inquiry into child abuse in the first place. There was the systematic abuse of vulnerable young girls in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns and cities across the country; examples of celebrities abusing minors and getting away with it, apparently because of their fame; and evidence that some of the most important institutions in the country, from the BBC to the NHS, failed in their duty of care towards children.
Since I made my statement in July, the evidence has only mounted. We have seen the Alexis Jay report into abuse in Rotherham, and the report by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), which was commissioned by Tony Lloyd, the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester. Both reports exposed serious failings among the police, social services, schools and other institutions, and the obvious conclusion is that, if only we had learned from those appalling cases earlier, there would be fewer victims of abuse today. I believe the whole House will agree with me that we owe it to the survivors in all those cases to work together, to let the panel inquiry do its job as quickly as possible, and to start to learn the lessons of the many cases where undoubtedly too many things went horribly wrong.
I want to end my statement by issuing a direct message to the many survivors of child abuse and their representatives:
I know you have experienced terrible things. I know we cannot imagine what that must be like. And I know that, perhaps because of the identity of your abusers or the way you were treated when you needed help, many of you have lost trust in the authorities. I know some of you have questioned the legitimacy of this process. I know you are disappointed that the panel has no chairman. I understand that. I am listening, and to you, I say this: I am as determined as you are to get to the truth. That is why I set up this inquiry.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that is hugely important. Together, we can expose what has gone wrong in the past. We can prevent it going wrong in the future. We can make sure that people who thought they were beyond the reach of the law face justice. We can do everything possible to save vulnerable young children from the appalling abuse that you suffered and endured. Let us come together to make this process work and finally deliver justice for what you and too many others have suffered.
I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement to the House today.
Two years ago this month, the Home Secretary came to the House to announce investigations into abuse in north Wales care homes. I asked her then if she would set up an overarching inquiry into child abuse. In July this year, she rightly agreed to do so and said that she wanted it to start as quickly as possible. Four months later, that inquiry has not started and has been mired by confusion. I therefore welcome the changes she has announced today and her apology to survivors of abuse for the things that have gone wrong.
This House will be united in our determination that this inquiry should get back on track. For too long, children have not been listened to when they called for help. From the BBC to the national health service, from care homes to the police, from local councils to national Governments of all political parties, no institution or organisation should be complacent about how they may have failed in the past, or might be failing even now, to make sure that children are heard and protected, that criminals are brought to justice, that problems are not covered up, and that survivors get the support they need. No one should be in any doubt about the deep damage that abuse causes to those survivors for the rest of their lives. To get the inquiry back on track, we also need to recognise the things that went wrong, because it is vital that it does not fail again.
First, much more work is needed to involve survivors. I welcome the further announcements the Home Secretary has made today. The Home Secretary was specifically asked in July by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) how survivors would be involved. In July, she said that that was up to the chairman of the inquiry. However, I think that that approach from the Home Office has been what has caused some of the current problems. As she has recognised today, Ministers need to engage directly themselves with survivors on the impartiality of the chair and the work and purpose of the inquiry before it starts. I welcome her commitment now to meet survivors, in particular to develop additional support and counselling, and to establish a survivors’ forum or liaison group to ensure that their voices are heard. She will know how important it is that this liaison group or forum works effectively. Will she specifically consult survivors in those meetings on the terms of reference and on the issues the inquiry should focus on before it starts?
Secondly, on the choice of chair, I welcome the Home Secretary’s proposals to consult more widely. Will she ignore those siren voices who say it is not possible to find someone who is not a close contact of those whose decisions may be investigated by the inquiry? She will know that other sensitive inquiries have managed to do important work without going wrong and without being derailed, including the Hillsborough and Soham inquiries, and the current Northern Ireland inquiry into child abuse.
Thirdly, on transparency, the inquiry has to address concerns about whether there have been institutional cover-ups. Does the Home Secretary therefore agree that it was very unwise of Home Office officials to become involved in redrafting Fiona Woolf’s letters? Will she tell the House whether Ministers or special advisers saw those earlier letters, or were involved in redrafting? Will she make sure that no one in the Home Office is involved in drafting any disclosure letters for the next chair?
I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement that the Wanless review report will be published next week. Will she make a statement to the House on it? She will know that there will be considerable interest from all parties in the House. This is not just about the past. We know that abuse is happening now on an unacceptable scale. Will she therefore ensure that there is much greater transparency on child protection work today, particularly the work of the National Crime Agency, to make sure that we are not making the same mistakes again and are not storing up more problems for children in future?
Fourthly, on the progress of the inquiry, I welcome the Home Secretary’s agreement to getting the panel moving before the chair is appointed and to keeping open the need for it to be a statutory inquiry, because it is vital that it can get access to all the information and testimony it needs.
This is an extremely important inquiry. The Home Secretary has done the right thing to recognise that things have gone wrong, and we will support her in the action needed and whatever it takes to get things back on track and ensure that the inquiry works. However, let me also urge her not to forget the scale of the problem of child abuse and exploitation happening right now and the weaknesses in the child protection system today. We need a fearless and robust examination of how children have been let down, and we will support her in making sure that happens; but we also need strong action to protect children and make sure they are heard in future. She is right that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity; it is important, not just for survivors but for our children today, to make sure that this historic opportunity is not lost.
I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone and approach she has taken to this matter. As I said in my statement, across the House we all feel that we have an opportunity to do something that can deal with the terrible abuses and crimes that have taken place in the past and to learn the lessons that are necessary for the future. As we have seen with the recent reports into Rotherham and the report about Greater Manchester from the hon. Member for Stockport, these issues have not gone away. We continue to see abuse taking place and we continue to see failures, sadly, in our institutions—some of them the very institutions that children should expect to be able to trust to protect them from these sorts of crimes.
The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions. On engagement with survivors, as I indicated, I will be meeting with survivors groups. The secretariat to the panel inquiry has also started some separate meetings with survivors groups already. As I indicated, there will be further opportunities for such meetings and for some open forums in different parts of the country, where it will be possible for people to come forward. I recognise the importance of that process; it is an important part of the work that the panel inquiry will be undertaking.
I believe it will be possible to find an individual who is able to chair the inquiry. Of course, it is necessary that that individual has the confidence of the survivors and the skill set required to lead a team, which is what the panel inquiry is all about. This is not about one person as chairman making decisions; it is about a team of people with different expertise and experience—some on the panel are survivors of child abuse themselves, as I have said—coming together to ensure we can get to the truth.
The right hon. Lady asked a question about the drafting process for the letters and whether I was aware of it. I was not. I have checked with my special advisers; they were aware only that a letter was being written. They had no knowledge of its different iterations and had no part in drafting or redrafting the letter.
The right hon. Lady made reference to the need for transparency in a number of areas and in relation to the National Crime Agency as well. The work that the National Crime Agency has been doing—particularly the now over 700 arrests we have seen in Operation Notarise—is an important sign of the seriousness with which it takes these issues. As she will be aware, the director general of the National Crime Agency, Keith Bristow, has made a number of comments about the significance and the size of the potential problem we face in this country. It is shocking. I am sure every Member of this House is appalled by the scale and nature of these crimes. I believe the National Crime Agency is being open about the work it is undertaking on that.
We owe it to the survivors of historic child abuse, as well as to those who might be subject to child abuse today, to ensure not only that the panel inquiry is doing its work, but that those involved in criminal investigations today are bringing perpetrators to justice.
I commend the Home Secretary for the very measured way in which she has approached this issue, and I remind the House that it is only because of her that this inquiry is now taking place in response to Back Benchers’ requests. I remind my right hon. Friend that this is an overarching inquiry, encompassing everything from Savile to Rotherham, and not about individual children or individual people who may or may not have been implicated. This is not a one-woman show; it is a panel of experts open to scrutiny. Will she reiterate to me that to put survivors at the heart of this inquiry, it will be necessary to consult them about the possibilities for a future chairman and to have a sounding-board of survivors and victims, who have not been listened to for so many decades, so that they can continue to shape the inquiry as it goes forward and gain their confidence every step of the way? That is vital and I know she supports it.
My hon. Friend makes very important points, and I am grateful to him for the conversations we have had. As I indicated, I have spoken to a number of Members who have been campaigning on this issue over the years. He is absolutely right that the terms of reference mean that the panel inquiry will look at a period of 44 years—from 1970 to today—and that it is open to the panel to decide whether it wishes to go beyond that period. It is indeed overarching, looking at cases of historical abuse and more recent cases to find out what were the institutional failures when it came to protecting children, and what further lessons need to be learned. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must remember the survivors in this work; it is for them that we are trying to find the answers to what happened in the past and trying to ensure that in future people will not have to go through the terrible experiences that some did. I will set up a liaison group, whose aim will be exactly as my hon. Friend suggested—to ensure that the survivors are kept in touch and able to contribute as the inquiry goes along.
I commend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for the tone of the statement and the response. The emphasis on survivors and victims raises the issue, as the Home Secretary mentioned, of the scale of the problem. What immediate steps could be put in place not just to help the historical victims but to prepare for further revelations? It is beyond belief that this is not a nationwide problem rather than one confined to the areas that have already been identified. Given the enormity of the task confronting the panel, would it be reasonable in practical terms at least to consider having a joint chair, so that two people could address not only the historical lessons but where we need to go in changing the culture and altering the nature of how this country’s institutions have worked?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion, which was proposed to me by another Member this morning. The point of having a panel is that not just one individual or indeed potentially two co-chairs will be undertaking this work. The idea is to have a group of people coming together with different experience and different expertise. Unlike in simple judge-led inquiries where one person leads, it is very much the case that all the panel members will contribute. The chairman’s role is about the management of the inquiry, but the management in this case will be through a team of people brought together to ensure that the work is done properly.
The Home Secretary is to be commended for the tone in which she has delivered the statement. Is there not a problem, however? If the chairman asked for an Inquiries Act 2005 inquiry—I experienced this when I had to demand the public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire hospital, which proved to be a significant success—does the Home Secretary realise that she would have to disband the whole thing and go back to square one? Would it not be far better to start off with an Inquiries Act 2005 inquiry, which would allow evidence on oath, compulsion of witnesses and other matters to help us get to the bottom of this as we did with the Mid Staffs inquiry?
I hesitate to question my hon. Friend’s comments on such matters, but my advice is that it would be possible to turn the inquiry into a statutory one—namely, an inquiry with the powers of a statutory inquiry to compel witnesses—but for that to happen it would be necessary to have a request from the chairman. At the moment, it is not possible because we do not have a chairman. Once the chairman is in place, they will be able to make that judgment and come forward if they wish to turn this into a statutory inquiry.
Will the Home Secretary follow up the—in my view—very sensible suggestion from her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the former Attorney-General, that the net should be cast more widely on this occasion, and that the search for a chair should extend to jurisdictions abroad that are similar to ours?
Our initial consideration of potential candidates did involve looking more widely than the United Kingdom, and I should be happy to repeat that process. It should be borne in mind that it is not only the United Kingdom that has seen examples of child abuse of this sort. If we do look more widely, we must be careful to ensure that individuals will again be able to have the confidence of survivors.
Leah McGrath Goodman, an American journalist, was banned from entering the country by the UK Border Agency, as a result of which she was prevented from investigating child abuse in Jersey. The allegations involved a senior UK politician. I hear what the Home Secretary says about terms of reference, but the terms of reference would exclude investigation of an issue that falls into two jurisdictions. Why, for instance, was Leah McGrath Goodman arrested at Heathrow airport recently? Will the Home Secretary look carefully at such issues, which are evidence of the way in which things have been covered up during the present decade?
I know that my hon. Friend has long campaigned for events that took place in Jersey to be included in any inquiry that is held. As I explained earlier, I will take steps to ensure that no work that is done by the inquiry into matters in Jersey is lost to this inquiry, if it is relevant to this inquiry, and that no one falls through the cracks. As for the case of the journalist coming through the border, I was not aware of it, but if my hon. Friend writes to me about it, I will respond.
I welcome the tone and content of the Home Secretary’s statement, which drew a line under the flawed process that we have seen so far, and which will give hope to the victims who have been waiting for this inquiry. The Select Committee accepts her proposal that we should conduct pre-appointment hearings, which may well set a precedent for parliamentary scrutiny of future public inquiries. In the meantime, she has set a very ambitious programme for the panel, and it is right that it should begin its work by meeting every Wednesday until Christmas. Who will chair those proceedings, or will the chair rotate between the panel members?
I am glad that the Home Secretary will be publishing the Wanless-Whittam report. The Committee hopes to examine both gentlemen next week. Will the Home Secretary assure us that there are no other documents that are relevant to the inquiry and have not been published, and that, if there are any such documents, she will make them available to the Committee and to the panel?
It would be possible for me to appoint an existing member of the panel to chair it on an interim basis, but I think that that should be discussed with the panel members to ensure that they are comfortable with any arrangements that are made. They will have their own proposals about how they wish to conduct their work. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee for their willingness to take the process on board, and to hold a pre-confirmation meeting. I asked for that to be done because I think it important for the appointment to have a public element that can further guarantee the confidence of survivors in the process.
I certainly intend all Government documents to be made available to the inquiry, but I caution the right hon. Gentleman that it will be for the panel to consider the appropriateness of publishing some of the material that is put before it. The same process applied to the members of the Hillsborough inquiry panel. There were some matters that they considered, for a range of reasons, in relation to individuals with whom they discussed those matters, and it is possible that there are matters of that sort that this panel would not wish to be aired in public.
The whole House will welcome the Home Secretary’s determination to get to the truth. Can she reassure constituents who have been victims of child abuse and have contacted me that the inquiry will start its work as soon as possible, and that the appointment of the chair will not cause unnecessary delay? I think that the victims deserve answers, and they are concerned about the delay that they are seeing.
I can give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. We had previously been waiting for the chairman to be in place before the inquiry set forth on its work. I think it is important that it does start now. As I have said, it is possible for it to start without a chairman, because it is a panel of members. I think everybody in this House wants to see this work started, and to get it going so we can see results coming from the work of the inquiry, because that is what is due to survivors. I am sure that that sentiment will be supported across the whole House.
I also welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. One of the shocking facts in historical child abuse cases is that institutional and wider public attitudes at the time enabled abusers to prey on children at will because children were not listened to. Does the Home Secretary agree that part of this inquiry’s job in learning from the past must be to bring forward recommendations about how we tackle wider cultural attitudes that mean that vulnerable children are still too often blamed for their own abuse because of how they look or what they wear?
I absolutely agree. What has been shocking in the Rotherham case and in the hon. Lady’s report into Greater Manchester—and we have also seen this in the historical cases—is the fact that those who were being abused often raised their voices but were not heard because they were not believed, or because, and I think this is truly shocking, people felt that those young people were in a circumstance such that they should not be listened to. As the hon. Lady said, in some sense this was seen as just the sort of thing that happened to those sorts of young people. This is an appalling attitude. We have seen it, and, sadly, we see it still today, in the work that is being done out there, as the hon. Lady has revealed. We see police officers, people in social services and others almost casting to one side certain individuals and not being willing to take up their cases. It is time that people looked not at the credibility of the individual, but at the credibility of the allegation.
I welcome what the Home Secretary said about the panel proceeding with its work, but it does depend in part on the results of other inquiries into institutions, including those by Kate Lampard on the NHS and Dame Janet Smith on the BBC. Can the Home Secretary tell the House any more about the progress being made in the production of those reports? Clearly the panel will be able to access disclosure of documents, but I think we should assume that it will wish to go beyond that to independent investigations. Will she tell the House what kind of investigative resources would be available to the panel, should it seek them?
My right hon. Friend is right. I am not able to give him an absolute timeline on the other reports he referred to, but I am very happy to write to him, or for the Secretaries of State responsible for the Departments affected by those inquiries to write to him, to indicate where they are at the moment. It is important that all the evidence that is brought before this panel inquiry is available to it and it will obviously be looking at both historical cases and, as the reviews become available, looking into those reviews.
As for investigations taking place, it is not the task of the inquiry to determine criminal or civil liability for any individual. Where it is the case that allegations are made against an individual as a perpetrator, those allegations will be passed to the police. There will be an ability, through setting up various processes, to ensure allegations go to the police and are properly dealt with. So the investigation into specific allegations will be a matter for the police.
I also welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but does she agree that the role of the Home Office in the redrafting of Fiona Woolf’s letter in many ways displays the kind of self-preservation instincts held by the Home Office that got us into this mess in the first place? Who instructed the civil servants to assist Fiona Woolf in redrafting that letter?
The process, as I understand it, was that Fiona Woolf wanted to ensure that she was as transparent as possible in the information she gave in the letter she sent to me, and therefore went through a number of drafts in order to ensure that all information was available. As I have indicated, I was not aware of those iterations of drafts of the letter. I think it is important that we have ensured that there was transparency from Fiona Woolf, but, of course, other members of the panel were also asked to write to me to indicate whether there were any matters they felt should be known and people should be aware of before the panel started its work.
I welcome the tone adopted by the Home Secretary. It is absolutely right that survivors must have confidence in the work of the inquiry. May I press her on the matter of the Kincora boys home in Northern Ireland? In her statement, she has said that she will not expand the terms of reference to cover Kincora, but I understand that she wrote to the First Minister of Northern Ireland last week to say that if there was not enough co-operation from the security services, she would seek agreement to bring that matter inside the terms of reference. Will she make it clear what is likely to happen in that regard?
I am not able to look ahead and see how this is going to progress, but I am clear that we need to ensure that Sir Anthony Hart has all the information he needs to be able to undertake his investigation into Kincora. I have made it clear today that we need to ensure that nothing happens to allow any information or any individual to slip between the cracks in terms of the work of the two inquiries. We will be talking to the panel inquiry about what needs to be put in place to ensure that information can be exchanged where it is relevant to both inquiries, precisely so that people will not slip between the cracks as a result of there being two inquiries.
I thank the Home Secretary for putting survivors at the centre of this inquiry. She made a very personal statement today, which I am sure will be appreciated. In a previous statement, she said that a mechanism would be found to allow panel members to have access to intelligence service files, where relevant. Will she give us a little more detail on the progress on that front?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue on behalf of survivors. This is an issue that we have looked at in relation to Kincora boys home, and we are also looking at it in relation to this inquiry. It is my expectation and intention that all Government agencies will make information available to the inquiry when they are requested to do so. We are in the process of working out the protocol to ensure that that is possible between all agencies and the inquiry, so that no stone is left unturned.
I join others in commending the Home Secretary for her tone. I also commend the tone of those on the Opposition Front Bench. I particularly commend the Home Secretary for setting up the inquiry in the first place. By doing so, she has transcended the issues of the past, and we now hope to arrive at some important truths. What is often not mentioned is the vast expertise of the members of the inquiry panel. They bring with them a vast amount of experience, and two of the panel’s members are themselves survivors. Will she confirm her confidence in the panel as it stands? I commend her for factoring in the crucial importance of survivors being at the forefront of this exercise.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right: we brought the panel members together precisely because of the breadth of their experience and expertise. As he said, Graham Wilmer, who established the Lantern Project, is himself a survivor who has worked to help and support other survivors. Another member of the panel, Professor Pearce, has been working on these issues in an academic setting. There is representation from the health service, as well as from Dru Sharpling, an inspector of constabulary who brings the law enforcement angle to the panel. The members of the panel possess a significant amount of expertise and individual experience, and I believe that all of them coming together will lead to them being able to get to the truth.
I should like to add my voice to those who have expressed appreciation of the Home Secretary’s sincerity today. No one doubts her sincerity for a moment. However, most people do not get a second chance, never mind a third one, to get something right. Will she now listen carefully to the unanimous representations from the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly—it is a difficult enough task to get a unanimous view from the Assembly—that Kincora should be included in the inquiry? Will she now get this matter right as well?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the Kincora inquiry, and that there have been representations; indeed, the First Minister himself made representations to me about the inclusion of Kincora. As I have indicated, I want to ensure that the Hart inquiry can do its work and have access to all the information to which it needs to have access. I also want to ensure that there is no question of any problems, individuals or organisations in any sense escaping attention as a result of there being two inquiries. For a number of reasons, not least the fact that the panel inquiry currently covers England and Wales, any work undertaken here obviously could not require changes in Northern Ireland, because this is a devolved not a reserved matter. We are all at one in agreeing that we want to make sure that these inquiries get to the truth, and that nobody and no institution can slip through the net.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to think about the suggestion made by our hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) about setting up a statutory inquiry as soon as possible? I appreciate what she has said about waiting for the appointment of the chairman, but as soon as the chairman is appointed, will she consult him or her on transferring the inquiry across to the statutory system? It is much better to do that now, rather than when we are halfway through the process.
Will my right hon. Friend consider appointing, or urging the appointment, of a serving or recently retired senior judge who has experience of family law, children’s law and historical sex abuse, so that we can have an inquiry chairman who brings with them their authority and who commands respect?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his proposal. The process for a statutory inquiry is that it is for the chairman, once they are in place, to determine whether the inquiry should become a statutory one. I have made it absolutely clear—I do not think that I can be any clearer—that if they feel that that is necessary in order to compel witnesses and have the other powers of a statutory inquiry, the Government will respond to that.
On the sort individual who should be appointed, the important aspect is to have somebody in whom everybody dealing with the inquiry can have confidence and, crucially, in whom survivors can have confidence. When she wrote to me, Fiona Woolf said that it was that issue that led to her resignation.
In making the progress that we all want, will the Home Secretary consider the names I will send to her of two people who are sensitive and greatly experienced in this field, but who cannot in any way be classed with the metropolitan elite? We should not move away from this matter without considering the serious situation in which the first of the seven versions of the letter, which was not presented to the Home Affairs Committee, gave the impression of a close friendship between the Brittans and Fiona Woolf, while the final version suggested that they were almost strangers. Was that not an attempt by the civil service to mislead the Committee and, by doing so, to mislead the House? What is she going to do about that?
I do not believe that there was any attempt to mislead the House. The letter that I received was the letter that Fiona Woolf agreed. I believe that she intended in that letter to be as transparent as possible about the nature of her relationship with the noble Lord Brittan. I am sure that many Members of the House have proposals about individuals who would be appropriate for the chairmanship, and I will certainly look at the names that the hon. Gentleman wishes to send to me.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s desire for the committee’s work to start as soon as possible, but does she share my concern that the longer its work continues, the harder it will be for a chair to pick up that work and assert themselves? May I press her to explain a little further the extent to which she has considered asking a panel member to take the chair?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We will consider a variety of names for the chair. He and others have suggested that we should look at taking someone from within the panel itself, but as the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has said, there may be other suggestions that Members wish to make. It is a fine judgment, and I want to ensure that the person who is appointed has our full confidence and can carry on the work of the inquiry. But, as my hon. Friend has also said, that process must not take so long that it becomes difficult for the individual to pick up the work of the inquiry. We will be operating in the knowledge of both those aspects.
Whatever the distinguished legal experience was of the two people originally chosen, why did the Home Secretary decide to restrict her choice to a very small part of Westminster? On reflection, would it not have been better for her to have consulted on this serious issue—as she intends to do now, which I very much welcome—from the very start?
In joining in the welcome for the Home Secretary’s approach and tone, may I also ask her this: in the preparatory work and the taking of evidence that she has announced that the panel will be doing, can it be borne in mind that there may come a time when the chairman, having been appointed, wants to make a decision under the Inquiries Act 2005? Would it therefore be possible to ensure that the work of the panel is constructed in such a way that it avoids possible later duplication? That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) was making when he said that it might be necessary to recall witnesses and so on. If the panel had that in mind, it would be very useful.
The Home Secretary will be aware that very many survivors of sex abuse were genuinely frightened and upset at the notion of Fiona Woolf chairing the panel. Mr Alex Wheatle, who experienced child abuse in the Shirley Oaks home in Croydon, wrote in The Independent to that effect, so it is for the best that she has now withdrawn. On the question of security services, if the security services refuse to supply information, or if they supply information that is so heavily redacted that it is worse than useless, what recourse will the chair of the inquiry have?
As I said when I made the statement in July and as I have repeated here today, I have been very clear to all the agencies involved that it is the expectation and the intention that they should make evidence available to the inquiry. Of course, as has been mentioned, the chair will have to consider whether this is a non-statutory or a statutory inquiry with the powers to compel witnesses that a statutory inquiry would have. I wish to reiterate that, across the whole of Government, we have an opportunity to address this issue, find out what happened in the past, find out the failings and ensure that we learn the lessons for the future, and that is what I expect every part of Government to do.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and her support for this inquiry and look forward to the publication of the Wanless and Whittam report next week. Will she confirm that the reasons for the delay in the publication of that report are exclusively those that she gave in her statement and that officials in her Department are not engaged in redacting any material from that report that they do not consider suitable for placing in the public domain?
I can assure my hon. Friend that there are two reasons why the report has not yet been published. One is, as I said in my statement, that it is important that it is published separately and on its own, so that people can look at it and then look at this statement and what I have announced today and consider them both properly. Receiving a report of this sort is not just a formality. I have had to consider it and I have asked some questions to ensure that it has addressed the terms of reference that were given.
I particularly welcome the fact that the Home Secretary will be consulting the survivor groups before appointing a chair, but may I press her on the terms of reference a little further? Will she confirm that they can be amended and broadened as the inquiry progresses if new evidence comes to light suggesting new avenues to be covered, not just on Jersey, but in any other direction the evidence might suggest?
We were very clear in the terms of reference about one particular aspect: it would be open to the inquiry panel to come forward if it wished to extend the timeframe we have set. What I am keen to ensure, as I am sure are other Members, is that the terms of reference are such that the inquiry is able to do its work, and do it within a reasonable time scale, so that we can see some answers coming. We do not just owe that to survivors; if there are lessons to be learned and actions that need to be taken to protect children, currently and in the future, we need to see those lessons and be able to put those actions into place. If the chairman and the panel were to reach a point where they felt that their terms of reference were such that there was an important aspect they were not able to consider that was preventing them from getting to the truth, of course the Government would look at that.