House of Commons
Monday 8 December 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—
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Unemployment in my constituency has gone down by almost 60% since the general election. I am very pleased with the co-operation of my local Jobcentre Plus offices in the jobs fairs I operate. Most right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side of the House tend to organise and fund jobs fairs themselves or with sponsorship. What sort of support is available to the Jobcentre Plus scheme and to hon. Members, as we might be able to tempt one or two Opposition Members to get involved?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, because that is his fourth jobs fair, with over 400 jobs and 50 apprenticeships available. I understand why it is so important to him, because he left school at 17, got a job and was made redundant, so he set up his own business, on £20 a week with a Government enterprise scheme, and built the company up so much that he then sold it to a plc. That is why he wants to help more and more people into jobs and to set up businesses. Jobcentre Plus can offer practical support to publicise jobs fairs, help with getting in touch with claimants and, where possible, and on a case-by-case basis, there might also be financial support.
Those people on zero-hours contracts comprise 2% of all workers, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that the UK Statistics Authority called the Opposition to account for inflating the number of people on zero-hours contracts. What I can tell him is that the vast majority of jobs are full-time and permanent. That is what we should be celebrating now, with nearly 2 million more people in work since the general election.
I will indeed meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about that case. However, that is why the Secretary of State is leading the way in bringing in universal credit so that we do not have all those discrepancies in the system, with points and differentials and things that are preventing people who want to return to work from doing so. The Government should be supporting them, and that is what we are doing.
Employment and Support Allowance
I am afraid that I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. We are not going to change our policy in that way. When someone is found fit for work, they should claim jobseeker’s allowance and work with Jobcentre Plus to get back into the work force.
I think that the Work and Pensions Committee has also termed the policy illogical, but does the Minister not realise that, by virtue of the fact that he is not prepared to change it, he is driving more and more people into hardship and that they, in turn, are having to use food banks? The Government must hold some sort of record on food banks, because under this Government their use is the only thing that is increasing.
That was not the sort of question I normally expect from the hon. Gentleman. If someone is found fit for work, they should immediately apply for jobseeker’s allowance, which is paid at the same rate as the assessment rate of employment and support allowance, so there is no change in their income. They should then engage with their Jobcentre Plus contact so that they can be moved into work. That is the right way for someone to behave when they have been found fit for work, and there is no reason at all why their income should fall.
During my first couple of years in Parliament—2010-11 and 2011-12 —every week my constituency surgery seemed full of people concerned about appealing against ESA decisions. Recently, the number of appeals seems to have declined. Is that also the case nationally?
We have seen a significant reduction in the number of appeals. The mandatory reconsideration process is helpful, because it means that we can make sure that the right decision is made more quickly rather than having to force someone to go through a very lengthy appeals process within the tribunals service.
I am surprised by the Minister’s answer, because my Select Committee made exactly this recommendation and the Government have turned it down. The situation has got worse for people who are reapplying for employment and support allowance, because they think that their ill health has got worse. In future, they are to be denied getting ESA at the assessment rate. Why does the Minister think that is the right approach rather than allowing people to claim an out-of-work benefit because they are too ill to work?
The hon. Lady, notwithstanding her position as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, has not outlined the change correctly. If someone’s condition has significantly worsened or if they are claiming for a new condition, of course they can claim employment and support allowance. What they cannot do is to keep reclaiming employment and support allowance for the same condition when they have already been found to be fit for work.
I can confirm that that is right. In all other benefits, when someone is found not to be entitled to it and then chooses to appeal, they are not paid anything while the appeal is ongoing. My hon. Friend is right that employment and support allowance is rather odd in that regard.
Nevertheless, the position is that when people do appeal, their ESA will be reinstated. There is no financial saving to the Government unless they expect people not to claim JSA during this period. It is therefore not just hard for the claimant but administratively expensive for the Department to put people through that process.
This is about making sure that when someone goes for a work capability assessment and is found to be fit for work, the most important thing is that they then engage with the jobs market and get back into the workplace. It is not just about the benefits; it is about making sure that people are getting the benefit of getting into work. For most people with a mental health problem, it is very clear that working will not just be the right thing but will be better for their condition.
British Nationals Abroad (Pensions)
The policy of the Government on the uprating of UK state pensions paid to people living overseas is the same as that of successive post-war Governments—namely, to uprate such pensions where we are legally required to do so under the terms of EU law or a bilateral social security agreement.
I agree with my hon. Friend in the sense that if one were designing a system from scratch, one would not necessarily design the one that we have arrived at over the course of 50 years. He will be aware, however, that paying for this indexation would cost some half a billion pounds a year, and I do not believe that any party in this House has committed to such an increase in public spending.
The state pension and associated benefits are very important to UK pensioners. Will the Minister therefore explain why, following last week’s uprating statement, 1.6 million pensioners will see their state pension income rise by just 87p?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not raise this point last Thursday when I made an oral statement on this issue; perhaps he heard about it on “Money Box” on Saturday. As he knows, not all pensioners receive the full rate of the state pension. Many people—many women, particularly older women—receive a reduced rate, and, as has always been the case, the increase is proportionate to the rate of pension they receive. They get the same percentage increase; it is lower if they get a lower pension.
Heads of Household
In October we introduced the family test, putting the family at the heart of policy making across Whitehall. From April 2015, for the first time ever, shared parental leave will enable both parents to retain a strong link with the labour market, allowing fathers to play a greater role in raising their children and helping mothers to return to work at a time that is right for them.
The troubled families programme has turned around the lives of over 69,000 families in England, and 120,000 had been helped by August 2014. In Brighton and Hove, the programme has worked with 675 families, changing their lives, and 417 families were turned around by August 2014, giving them a new start in life.
Did the Secretary of State hear the wonderful Professor Elizabeth Dowler on the “Today” programme this morning, when she very articulately said that what poorer people—those on low wages, working hard—want is a decent job paying enough to put food on the table and to pay the bills that have been going up inexorably?
I heard that interesting debate between Professor Dowler and the head of the Oxford food bank, who talked about the wider ramifications of issues concerning access to food and food distribution, which is a matter for supermarkets. Of course, we want people to earn more. The key thing after the recession was to get people into work. We have got 2 million people back into work as a starting point, and we know that for every year in work a person’s salary rises on average by about 4%. Is there more to do? Yes, of course there is. We are looking carefully at that report and we will respond appropriately. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I take the report very seriously.
Personal Independence Payments
The delays that some people applying for PIP have experienced are unacceptable, as I have said a number of times in the House. Getting those delays down is my No. 1 priority. The hon. Lady will be aware of the Secretary of State’s very clear commitment, which the Department is working very hard to achieve.
My constituent Simon Brown waited seven months for his PIP application to be processed. That delay meant that he was unable to apply for other help—such as additional housing benefit—that a PIP award allows. Given that eventual backdated payments do not compensate for the hardship and misery that people experience while waiting for months, and given that benefit delays are one of the main reasons that people are accessing food banks and going to loan sharks, can the Minister say what specifically he is doing to make sure that other people do not suffer in the same way as my constituent?
Yes, I can. Overall, I accept there has been a problem with PIP and I have set that out in the House on a number of occasions. As far as benefits across the Department are concerned, the Department now pays benefits more quickly than when we came to office, so that has improved. Since the start of the year the assessment providers have trebled the number of health professionals they employ. Since April we have doubled the number of monthly assessments and tripled the number of decisions made, and by the beginning of next year we will have almost quadrupled the number of health professionals. That is making a real difference to making decisions on a timely basis for the hon. Lady’s constituents and mine.
Rearranging assessment appointments because of unrealistic expectations for the travel of disabled people has not helped with the timeliness of some decisions. Community transport providers in Wiltshire have a trusted reputation for assisting people with travel to medical appointments. Will the Minister consider opening discussions with volunteer community transport providers about the resources they would need to help people with travel to PIP assessments?
I am familiar with community travel providers; I have a number of excellent ones in my own constituency, including a couple of very good dial-a-ride services, namely Lydney Dial-a-Ride and Newent Dial-a-Ride. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We currently aim for a one-and-a-half hour maximum travel distance by public transport, and I will ask my officials to look at whether we could work more closely with those community providers. My hon. Friend makes a very good point that is worth further study.
It is no good the Minister coming here saying that he is very concerned about PIP and wants to do something about it. This has been going on for too long. Patients that suffer a downturn in their condition are suffering an extra 28-day delay and the Multiple Sclerosis Society says that that could lead to their missing out on up to £3,500. It is about time the Minister sorted this out, so what is he going to do about it?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman was listening very carefully to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I set out that the assessment providers have hired more staff, that we have significantly increased the number of decisions we are making, and that backlogs are being reduced. I also set out very clearly the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which I am working very hard to achieve.
One of my constituents—a British citizen—returned to the UK, having lived in New Zealand for five years, to look after her ill mother. She now has cancer, but she cannot claim PIP due to the habitual residence test. Does the Minister agree that she is falling foul of regulations that are really meant to stop benefit tourism by EU migrants? Will he meet me to discuss this particular constituent’s plight?
I do not know all the facts of that specific case, but I would be delighted to discuss it with my hon. Friend. The general position is that tests about habitual residence and past presence are meant to make sure that only people with a close connection to Britain are able to claim our benefits. I will, of course, meet my hon. Friend to discuss the specific case.
Last week’s economic and fiscal outlook from the Office for Budget Responsibility shows that, following the PIP delays under discussion, spending on the benefit will be £1.2 billion higher than the Government planned last December. At the same time, disabled people are having to wait months for a decision, with more than 300,000 stuck in the queue, according to the most recent figures. In a Westminster Hall debate on 25 November, the Minister said that the DWP was receiving between 30,000 and 40,000 claims per month, and the most recent figures show 35,000 decisions per month being taken. The Minister is therefore running to stand still, so will he say exactly how he is going to bring down the backlog?
Yes; obviously, I was talking about the figures that have been published so far. The hon. Lady will know, as she attended the debate in Westminster Hall, that I set out the timetable for publishing clearance statistics. Her general point is well made. I am very well aware of the delays—I have to reply to Members from across the House—and that is why we have put in a considerable amount of effort. Both the Department and providers are making considerable progress towards the Secretary of State’s commitment, and we will be able to say more about that in the new year.
Disabled people are being left, sometimes for months, without support. Some are very seriously ill, some have degenerative conditions, some are being hounded for a planned intervention—effectively, resubmitting their claim part way through their award—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) pointed out, some are losing their passported benefits. All that, alongside delays in processing employment and support allowance assessments and today’s decision on the closure of the independent living fund, mean that disabled people are facing huge anxiety and uncertainty. Does the Minister really think it is right that they should take the pain for the Government’s welfare failures?
I do not agree at all with the way the hon. Lady has set that out. Right at the beginning of my answer I said that I was seized of the delays to PIP, and we have made a lot of progress in dealing with them. She refers to today’s judgment on the independent living fund. She will know, of course, that that has nothing to do with saving money; it is about making sure that people are using the care and support system, which will be further improved by the Care Act 2014 in the new year. The judge was very clear and gave a very clear decision today about the proper, robust decision making in the Department. The ILF is working closely with local authorities to make sure that the transition from ILF to local authority support is as seamless as possible.
6. What comparative assessment he has made of unemployment rates in the UK and other European countries. (906478)
The UK’s unemployment rate of 6% is now the fifth lowest in the European Union. In France, Italy, Spain and across the euro area all unemployment rates remain in double figures. In the past year alone, the UK has seen a larger fall in its overall unemployment rate and its youth unemployment rate than Germany, France, Italy and all the major G7 countries.
Youth unemployment in my constituency of South Basildon and East Thurrock is down by 42%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this jobs revolution would not have happened if we had pursued the policies across the channel, which were supported by the Leader of the Opposition?
It is well worth reminding ourselves that when the present French President was elected, the Leader of the Opposition extolled his virtues and his plan for France. Right now, France’s unemployment rate is more than 75% higher than the UK’s and it has been rising faster, and its youth unemployment rate is 50% higher than the UK’s. If that is the prospect for the UK, I am sure I know what the result will be at the next election.
The fall in youth unemployment is very welcome, but it remains the case that our youth unemployment levels are much higher than many European countries, such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Why will the Government not sign the European Union’s youth jobs guarantee?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said earlier. The reality for us is that our youth unemployment is falling faster than anywhere else. Only a few countries in Europe actually have lower youth unemployment. I am determined to drive it down to the levels that other countries have. Our rate of youth unemployment is a success, and I honestly do not think that bogus schemes—they cost a lot of money, but do not get anybody into work—will do anything but instil a certain amount of apathy among young people.
It is true. Here is the long-term economic plan—a record employment level of 30.8 million, up 1.75 million since 2010; over three quarters of the rise in employment since 2010 in full-time work, and two thirds of the rise in employment in managerial, professional jobs; and the number of British people in work up by over 1 million in the past four years, two thirds of the total rise in employment.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in Bolsover and the village of Shirebrook, Mike Ashley has a different rule? Most of his employees at SportsDirect are on zero-hours contracts. It is time those contracts were abolished. That is what we will do if we get into power in May. Is he aware that the way in which employment agencies bring people over to work at SportsDirect resulted in one employee having a baby in the SportsDirect toilet on new year’s day? That proves that all the talk about the wonderful employment figures is totally wrong, because she should have been on maternity benefits and probably should not have been working on new year’s day. That is what is inflating the bogus employment figures. It is time he sorted it out.
The reality is different from what the hon. Gentleman describes. The personal circumstances of individuals may be appalling and that needs to be dealt with, but people on zero-hours contracts represent 2% of the work force. We are moving to get rid of the one excess that makes them a problem, which is when people are blocked from taking any other work. That will not be allowed, but it was allowed under his party’s Government. The last point I would make about zero-hours contracts is that nearly 70% of those who have them prefer them, because they give them flexibility. That comes from independent polling. Zero-hours contracts were never attacked by his party’s Government and I do not think that it is his party’s policy to get rid of them. We think that they add something to the economy.
The new enterprise allowance scheme offers mentoring support to help people on benefits develop a business plan and a weekly allowance that is payable over six months. That successful scheme has already supported 50,000 new start-up businesses.
My hon. Friend is correct that we need to extend the scheme, and we will do so. People can be referred to places through to March 2016. Not only are we extending the time limit for people to apply; we are extending eligibility to the partners of people who are on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance, and to those on income support. It is a successful scheme. We want to keep it that way and to expand it as much as we can.
Single parents in Darlington who are on the Work programme have been to see me because they are being told to leave their nine and 10-year-old children at home unsupervised during the school holidays so that they can attend the Work programme. Will the Minister look into that urgently and ensure that such foolish, dangerous, reckless advice is never given to parents?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. We work closely with charity groups such as Gingerbread to ensure that the hours that lone parents have to work and the commitments they have to live up to fit around their lives and the children they look after. That is key to offering the right support for lone parents.
We will be offering more support to the over-50s. I know how much work my hon. Friend does in this area, not only on jobs fairs, but especially to help people who are over 50. We are supporting people through our fuller working lives initiative and are looking at things such as sector-based work academies and work experience to give returners the extra skills they need to go into a second or third career.
It is one thing to get a job; it is quite another to get a job that pays enough to put food on the table. That is why the majority of people who use the food bank in the Rhondda are in work, which is surely a Dickensian-style disgrace. Is it not a particularly bitter irony that the Conservative club in Tylorstown in the Rhondda closed and is now a food bank?
What we know is that we provide £94 billion in working age benefits. We also know that, for the extra people we have got into work, in-work poverty has actually fallen by 300,000 since the election. The Government are getting more people into work so that they can have a job, a career and a progression—they can move forward. The hon. Gentleman does not want to hear independent statistics, but that is the case. We have more people in jobs than ever before.
Youth unemployment is continuing to fall. In this year alone, it has fallen by the biggest ever number: more than a quarter of a million. There are just more than 700,000 unemployed young people, but if we take out those in full-time education, the number is below half a million.
Since the Government came to office, youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 60%, helped in part by a near trebling in the number of apprenticeships. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the agencies and businesses that have delivered those figures? What plans does her Department have to ensure that we build on that success?
My hon. Friend is right: this has been an incredible success. The Government came forward with the Youth Contract. What could we do? Was it wage incentives, work experience or sector-based work academies? We have helped more than a quarter of a million young people through work experience and sector-based work academies. That is working: extra work experience seems to be what young people need and that is what we are going to do. My hon. Friend knows a lot about this. He was young executive of the year when he ran his own business and young director of the year. He helped his family business to grow, extending it and turning it into a plc. He wants real jobs for real people. He is all about social mobility.
It is interesting to see what the Welsh Government have been doing. We have made sure that what is happening in England is a huge success, but better value for money: work experience for young people costs £325, with 42% getting into work. The Welsh Government have chosen to spend £6,250 for children within six months, when we know that 80% of young people get a job within six months anyway.
In South Derbyshire, youth unemployment has dropped by 67% since May 2010. Does the Minister agree that that is because we have superb businesses—Nestlé, Rolls-Royce and Toyota—that are very keen on STEM subjects and encourage young women, in particular, to get into technical work?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on working closely with those magnificent businesses. She is right: government itself cannot give young people jobs. It can help with schemes and it can work with businesses, such as the ones she talks about. The Government are working with Movement To Work, 14 big organisations, and Feeding Britain’s Future—business working with government to support young people. That is what we are doing.
The unemployment figures for young people actually increased last month, with many still in long-term unemployment. They are not apathetic: they are frustrated and angry. Is it not time we gave them a decent youth guarantee of paid work, so they can enter the work force and not be left behind?
Youth unemployment is falling right across the country. There might well be a tiny difference in a single constituency, but from 2010 it has come down across every region and area. What we are doing is right. We are giving the right support to the right people, because we have had the biggest fall in youth unemployment since records began.
Legal Costs (Disabled People)
The Government have robustly defended their policies in relation to the closure of the independent living fund and the removal of the spare room subsidy. The total known legal costs to date, in respect of both policies where disability formed part of the grounds of the claim, are £415,000: £236,000 for the ILF and £178,000 for the removal of the spare room subsidy.
That is a part answer to a very direct question about the cost to the taxpayers of Government lawyers defending the indefensible—axing the ILF and introducing the hated bedroom tax. Will the Minister not recognise that many severely disabled people flourish with the fund but are now frightened of losing their independence when he shuts it down next year? He might have won the legal case this year, but he has lost the moral and policy arguments, so even at this eleventh hour will he rethink the protection available to ILF users?
No, I will not. I have talked to disability organisations about this matter, and they agree with the Government. More than 1 million people get social care through the mainstream social care system. The Government are not making any savings by moving the ILF to local authorities and devolved Administrations, and we are working closely with each local authority to ensure that the amount of money being transferred at the point of closure next year will be exactly what is needed and what is being spent by the ILF, meaning that disabled people will be protected.
Some £4.3 billion has been taken out of adult social care budgets over the past four years because of the Government’s cuts. If that funding transfers across, as is planned, it will plug only a very small part of the gap. If they will not rethink this policy, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) just suggested, will Ministers require that the funding be ring-fenced to ensure that 70 people in Salford and 18,000 people across the country with disabilities can look forward to keeping their independence and to this continuing support?
Of course local government has had to play its part in the savings, but local authorities can make choices. My local authority in Gloucestershire has protected the value of social care because it thinks that protecting older people—[Interruption.] No, my local authority has faced cuts, like all local authorities, but it has chosen to—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members want me to answer their hon. Friend’s question, they should stop yelling. My local authority has prioritised funding for older people and people of working age. Clearly, the hon. Lady’s local authority has made different decisions. If those on her local authority want to ring-fence the money transferred from the ILF, they are absolutely free to do so, so I suggest she take that up with them.
10. What estimate he made of the potential savings to the public purse that would arise from implementation of the under-occupancy penalty; and what estimate he has made of the amount saved to date by that implementation. (906482)
Before our reforms, the taxpayer had been paying for 820,000 spare rooms. To date, the policy has saved about £830 million from the housing benefit bill, and the estimated savings remain the same: approximately £500 million a year in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Those figures have been ratified by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Each local authority is dealing with this matter differently. We have given a huge amount of support, through the discretionary housing payments, so some will move, some will not, and some have had their rents dealt with and have stayed in place. We have trebled the support to £345 million, and more than 392,000 DHP awards were made last year. As I said, each authority is doing it differently. For example, Sheffield city council is using DHPs to pay removal costs and provide decorating, while Southwark and Islington councils are paying additional incentives through mutual exchanging with overcrowded households. They are all doing different things, but they are basically getting it right. We were warned that arrears would rise, but actually housing association arrears are lower than they were last year.
Research published last month by the Trussell Trust, Church Action on Poverty, the Church of England and another organisation—Oxfam—showed that more than half the rocketing demand at food banks was caused by problems in the benefits system, not least by the hated bedroom tax, but also by escalating payment delays, contrary to what the Minister for Disabled People, said a moment ago. Will the Tory welfare waste party now follow the U-turn its coalition partners took and realise that the bedroom tax has to go?
The right hon. Gentleman went a long way round to get to his usual comment, but most of his facts are incorrect. Let us get the facts right on benefit processing. Each year, we provide £94 billion in working age benefits, and benefits have been paid in arrears for the last 25 years, so there is not an unusual delay. People are often confused about whether or not there is a delay. On benefit processing times, 93% are processed absolutely on time, which is up seven percentage points since Labour left office. The vast majority of the delays are pre-decisions awaiting additional evidence. Of course there is more we can do. I am looking at a report today, and I am going to be positive about ensuring that we can do other things. I can thus announce today that we are looking to new measures committing the Department to raising much more awareness, as was asked for, of the short-term benefit advances. We are doing that through websites, on posters and by providing information in jobcentres. We are testing that and hoping to roll it out at the beginning of the new year. We are also issuing fresh guidance to advisers to make sure that they constantly advise those at risk of the availability, should they need them, of interim payments.
Personal Independence Payments
The hon. Gentleman will know from my earlier answer some of the things we have done, including increasing the number of health professionals employed by the providers and opening more assessment centres. He will know that the latest set of statistics published in September showed that from March to July we more than doubled the number of cases cleared, and our performance continues to improve.
Actually, the latest DWP figures show that of nearly 530,000 applications for the personal independence payment, only 206,000 decisions on eligibility have been made. That means 323,000 disabled people, with 1,000 in Liverpool, Walton alone, have been left in limbo, facing additional costs to cope with ill health or disability. Given his earlier answers, why is the Minister prepared to leave disabled people bottom of his list of priorities?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is listening. I very clearly said—and I have said it a number of times here—that fixing delays to the PIP process is not at the bottom of my list; I have been very clear that it is at the top of my list of priorities. I have said that from the time I started doing this job and we have made considerable progress. We will be able to set out the up-to-date position when I give evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee chaired by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Friend Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). I have been invited to give an update at the end of January and I will be delighted to do so.
Housing Benefit (Migrant Workers)
12. What estimate he has made of his Department’s expenditure on in-work housing benefit for migrant workers from the European economic area who have arrived in the UK within the last (a) six, (b) 12 and (c) 24 months. (906484)
The Government inherited a system that did not record the nationality of benefit recipients—we are changing that—and as a result local authorities currently hold limited data on housing benefit. However, based on the latest figures we have been able to glean, we estimate that some 420,000 EU families have been claiming child benefit at a cost of £650 million; and 317,000 EU citizens are claiming tax credits at a cost of £2.2 billion.
Many of my constituents express a real sense of grievance when people come to this country and claim benefits to which they have not contributed. It is now the policy of the Government—and, indeed, of the Opposition—that before people can claim unemployment-related benefits, they should have to work in this country for a longer period. Should a similar principle apply to the claiming of housing benefit?
In a sense, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have already introduced restrictions, right now, on access to benefits, tightening up the time scales so that people cannot get them for the first three months until they prove they are, in fact, resident here, and then only for three months after that. We have also stopped such people claiming housing benefit, but the hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced that we will want to go much further and ensure that people cannot claim benefits for four years until they can prove to have been resident here.
Unemployed Disabled People
13. What steps he is taking to help unemployed adults with disabilities to secure and sustain employment or self-employment. (906485)
The Government have published today a paper called “Disability Confident Britain” about some of our programmes. I know that brandishing documents here is generally deprecated, but because this is a copy of the House magazine of 28 November, I draw the attention of hon. Members to page 42, which featured an article about “Disability Confident Britain” and about the excellent event I attended in Gloucester hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I urge all hon. Members who have not already done so to hold such events in their own parliamentary constituencies.
The Minister will be aware of the excellent work done by the Royal National College for the Blind, which is based in Hereford, with blind and partially sighted people from all over the country. It has struggled in recent years with a series of annual contracts for residential training. Will the Minister provide a clear date by which a long-term solution will be in place?
I am familiar with this issue. We set out in the paper published today the fact that we have extended the contracts until next September. I am making every effort to make sure that we can announce a long-term solution before the general election next year, so that those colleges can have some confidence in the future. My hon. Friend can give my assurance to the college principal that I will strain every sinew to do so and will keep him fully informed.
Figures show that the Work programme is performing very badly when it comes to helping disabled people into work. Why are its contracts being extended for another year even though it is clearly not doing the job it was intended to do?
As the hon. Lady will see if she looks at the latest figures, the programme’s performance has improved considerably—indeed, it has been more successful than previous programmes—and Work Choice is also performing very well. I think that she should have a little more confidence. The document that I published today refers to a range of programmes initiated by Departments whose spending we have protected, at a time when difficult decisions are having to be made across Government to deal with the deficit.
Unemployment: North West Norfolk
As my right hon. Friend will know, unemployment has fallen by nearly 1,000 in my constituency since May 2010, and by 770 in the last year. Does she agree that we should look behind the headline statistics, and observe that a great many families now have a breadwinner and are hopeful and confident about the future?
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. Frequently, when I am out and about I find that we talk only about statistics and numbers and facts and figures, without making it clear that there are individuals who have found jobs, who are on the career ladder and who are making progress, sometimes while looking after a family or loved one. That is the real story behind the statistics: it is about individuals, their families and their local communities.
Long-term Unemployment (Older People)
We have taken a range of steps. Most recently, in last week’s autumn statement, we announced a new pilot that will test how we support older claimants to help them return to work. It will benefit 3,000 older claimants whose age is a barrier to their finding work.
On the contrary, the labour market performance of older workers has been among the best during the last four years. During a period of slow economic growth, older workers actually did the best. Nevertheless, we are not complacent, hence the new pilots that I announced last week.
When possible, our child maintenance options service and the £14 million investment in better support services help families to reach their own family-based arrangements in the best interests of their children. When that is not possible, the 2012 statutory scheme provides a more efficient service, including swifter action against the minority of parents who do not pay in full and on time.
The Government’s system is predicated on the idea that, on the whole, parents can negotiate, but we know that that is simply not possible for some families. What is the Department doing to ensure that women who have experienced domestic violence are aware of the application fee exemption, and what evidence has he that women who are unaware of it are not being deterred from applying for child maintenance?
I discussed this issue with my officials recently. We will publish the figures shortly, but we know that a significant proportion of women are applying successfully for the domestic violence exemption from the £20 fee. We have made the rules relating to access to the exemption as relaxed as possible, and the domestic violence charities with which we have worked believe that we have drawn the right definition for the purpose.
When the Pensions Regulator notifies employers of their automatic enrolment duties, that letter flags the National Employment Savings Trust, which was designed with small businesses in particular in mind, but the regulator is considering putting more information on its website about other potential providers. I shall be hosting an event in the House for all Members to help them to support small businesses in their constituencies.
Even with the employment record at a high this week, I welcome the autumn statement announcement of more help to enter work across the generations, for young or old. We are introducing intensive support for those not in education, employment or training claiming universal credit to prevent a wage scar developing any further, and we are piloting work placements for older workers, helping with the transition to a new job in later life.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I welcome the announcement that the compensation scheme for diffuse mesothelioma has paid out over £15 million in its first seven months. What plans do the Government have to ensure that all victims, such as those in the Medway towns linked to the Chatham dockyards, are made aware of their rights to this compensation?
I thank my hon. Friend who, with some of his colleagues, has put in a huge amount of effort to bring this to the Government’s attention. The new scheme is already making payments, with compensation averaging £125,000 for this desperate and terrible disease. We know that there are many more victims and families to be encouraged to come forward, and the Government are promoting that through the regional press and work in administrations to publish it further. Should the need arise—and should it be possible—we will keep this under review with a view to possibly raising that as well.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments that he takes today’s report on food banks seriously, especially after previously refusing to meet the Trussell Trust. However, does he recognise the reality depicted by the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that
“hunger stalks large parts of our country”,
often because of problems with the benefits system? Even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against extreme food poverty.
I do take this report seriously. We have met the Trussell Trust—I have never refused to meet it—and I have met many others from a number of food banks. The reality is that of course there are things that need doing. It is a wide-ranging report that deals with food distribution as well, as I said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), and with supermarkets and the amount of food that is disposed of and how we can distribute that. There was a very good debate on Radio 4 about that, but of course, as I said to her colleague the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), one of the areas that they and our own internal report highlighted was what we do to raise awareness. Today I have announced that we shall be doing much more to raise awareness of interim payments for people who need them, particularly those who are in difficulty.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but frankly it is not enough. The findings of this morning’s all-party report are clear: the rise in food poverty is the consequence of the failing safety net and the worsening cost of living crisis. Just a few weeks before Christmas, it is shocking that more and more families are worrying about where their next meal is going to come from. Food banks have become the shameful symbol of this Tory-led Government, and yet another example of Tory welfare waste. Is it not about time that the Government started to put this right by raising the minimum wage, ending the abuse of zero-hours contracts, getting a grip on benefit delays, scrapping targets for sanctions and cancelling the cruel and unfair bedroom tax? If they do not do these things, is it not about time we had a Labour Government who will?
The same old rubbish from the Opposition! May I just remind the hon. Lady that this Government have done a huge amount for the poorest? The tax allowance is up to £10,000 by April, saving £825 per year. Under this Government, the national minimum wage has gone up by 3%, more than earnings and more than inflation. There are free school meals for primary school pupils—1.5 million children will be getting them. The cost of living is coming down, too. Food prices are falling, and motor fuel prices are down. The hon. Lady wanted to make this a political issue, but I remind her of what the Archbishop of Canterbury said today: it would be wrong to play political games with such an important issue. Perhaps she should listen more and speak less.
T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as unemployment continues to fall, we have a golden opportunity to offer work to those with a learning or physical disability? Will he confirm that programmes such as Work Choice and Access to Work and the work of his Department’s disability employment advisers will continue to have top priority, so that we can make yet further progress? (906502)
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, the latest labour market statistics show that disabled people are sharing in the jobs that are being created, with more than 258,000 more disabled people in work over the last year, including 75,000 in the south-east, which will cover his constituency, and there are particularly sharp rises in the number of those with learning disabilities getting jobs, which he specifically asked about.
T3. The former Minister for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), repeatedly assured the House during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act 2014 that the planned 3% levy on insurers to fund pay-outs to victims was not “going anywhere”—in other words, it was not going to change. In a written ministerial statement on 28 November, however, the current Minister announced that the levy would amount to just 2.2%. A 3% levy could have funded more generous pay-outs, helped to fund research or covered more asbestos-related diseases. Is it not disgraceful that the Minister has put the interests of the insurance industry ahead of the interests of victims? (906501)
We have introduced a scheme, and introduced a levy to pay for it. This continues the work that we agreed on when the previous Government introduced a similar scheme under the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. I am proud of the scheme we have introduced. It will go a long way towards helping people who have been affected by this dreadful industrial disease.
T7. Last month, there was a debate in this Chamber on promoting the living wage. May I congratulate the Department for Work and Pensions on being the first Department in Whitehall to pay its staff and contractors the London living wage? Does the Secretary of State agree that we should encourage all Government Departments to follow suit? (906505)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We had discussions about this quite early on with the cleaners and with those who are keen on the living wage, and I took the decision with the contractor to ensure that the London living wage was paid here in London. I speak to my colleagues every day and discuss this with them.
T5. The South Ayrshire food bank is threatened with closure if it cannot find funding for premises for food storage and distribution by Christmas. Given today’s report on food banks, and given that the people involved are having to do this incredibly important work for the poorest in our society thanks to this Government’s nasty welfare policies, what practical support can the Government provide to those charities to support their important work? (906503)
The Government give huge support to charities up and down the country. I do not know the specific case that the hon. Lady has mentioned, but if she wants to drop me a note about it, I would be happy to look into it and see whether there is anything more we can do to help. I have to say, though, that the Opposition go on and on about what we are doing with welfare and how it has somehow driven everybody into this situation, but in Germany 1.5 million people a week go to food banks. It has nothing to do with our welfare reforms, and Germany is a wealthier country. Food banks have grown around the world, but the latest figures from the OECD show that, in the category of the “difficulty to afford food”, the UK is almost alone in having gone down from the position that we inherited from the last Government. This Government are doing more to help poor people to get by and to get jobs, rather than leaving them parked on unemployment benefit like the last Government did.
T8. Belper in my constituency won the Great British high street of year award recently. Like many of my colleagues, I spent Saturday visiting small businesses in my constituency to celebrate small business Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend outline the help that the Government are giving to small businesses to encourage them to employ more staff? (906506)
Many of us were on the high street celebrating small business Saturday and helping our local businesses, but of course this Government are doing even more to help them to take on more people. Whether through implementing a £2,000 cut in their national insurance bills, extending the business rate relief or putting £10 billion of financing into the British business bank, we have done a great deal to help our small businesses, which are the backbone of this country.
T6. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is sending letters to taxpayers detailing how their tax revenues are being allocated. This is being done in the name of transparency, but will the Minister tell his colleagues in the Treasury that teachers’ pensions are not welfare? (906504)
As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, the letters are sent by HMRC on behalf of the Treasury, and he is welcome to address his concern to our colleagues there. However, we clearly appreciate that there is a distinction between social security benefits and pensions paid to public servants in retirement.
T9. We have heard today about the use of food banks, and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) mentioned a recent report from the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust that highlighted the problems that arise when those who have been sanctioned lose all their benefits, including housing benefit. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is working on a fix to prevent housing benefit from being stopped when a claimant is sanctioned, but while that is being worked on, will the Minister consider sanctioning all but, say, 10p of jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance now so that other benefits are not automatically cancelled and claimants do not need to use a food bank and end up in rent arrears while they are being sanctioned? (906507)
I take all these reports seriously, and this one particularly. It is of huge interest. We want to do everything we can to make sure that people do not stumble into a process of sanctions. I am certainly willing to consider what the hon. Lady says, but the big thing that the Oakley review told us is that communications were critical, so advising claimants all the way along that they are about to be caught in this trap is vital to making sure that they do not get caught.
Absolutely. The Secretary of State has at last begun to recognise the problem, but I would like him to go a lot further on the issue of food banks and the fact that it is benefit sanctions, changes and delays that cause the majority of food bank users to have to go there. Will he do more and have a thorough review of all his Department’s responsibilities to make sure that nobody has to go to a food bank for those reasons?
Of course I take the matter seriously, but it is rather ridiculous to assume that every single person who goes to a food bank does so because of what the Department for Work and Pensions does. The report today and other reports are clear. They show that these are often people with dysfunctional lives—people who have been caught in drug addiction and family breakdown, people who have a serious illness and are not claiming benefits and get into difficulty. All these ultimately have to be dealt with by the Department, but we have had a number of reviews, which have told us that there are some things we need to improve and we are working on that. The one thing that we have improved dramatically is late payments. There are fewer late payments than there were under the previous Government.
Ministers promised to cut the waiting period for assessments for PIP to 16 weeks by the end of the year, but will they apologise to 900 people in my constituency and the hundreds of thousands more across the country who have been left to wait for months on end in severe financial hardship?
I am happy to do so. I have said before that that is not acceptable; I made it clear during my first time at the Dispatch Box. I am happy to say that the Government should have made sure that we did not make that mistake. People should not have had to wait that long. I am making sure that we are doing something about it, as has the Secretary of State, so that people will not have to wait for such a long time in the future.
My daughter is on a zero-hours contract as a care assistant, which suits both her and her employer as it allows her to choose when to work and when to study. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as long as there is no exclusivity clause, such flexibility in employment is helpful?
Yes. My hon. Friend is right. Some 2% of people in work are on zero-hours contracts and the vast majority of them choose to do it because it suits them. Many of them have caring responsibilities and cannot commit to a full period of work, and some of those are in very professional jobs. It has been a success.
Is the Secretary of State really telling us that the Government have no responsibility at all for the acute financial hardship affecting so many people in our country? If so, no one believes him except Tory MPs. No wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury is so shocked by what he sees in Britain today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury also said today that they should not play political games with a serious report. I agree. Of course, a Government take responsibility where that responsibility falls, but we do more than that. I am determined to do whatever it takes to make sure that far fewer people are in any kind of need and have to go to food banks. That is the vital issue. It is all very well, after four years in opposition, to lecture us sanctimoniously, as the hon. Gentleman does, when it was the Government whom he supported who crashed the economy and did not even take any responsibility for the disaster they brought to all the families who lost their jobs.
Yemen (British Nationals)
As the Foreign Secretary said on Saturday, the death of Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie at the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was a terrible crime. Both men had been held for considerable periods of time against their will. Hostage taking is a uniquely traumatic and deplorable crime, and we utterly condemn those responsible. Although Mr Somers was a US citizen, he had strong and important links to the UK. As the Foreign Secretary has said, his family and friends have spoken of Luke’s life and his work documenting the lives of ordinary people and the political upheaval in Yemen. Our most sincere condolences are with the families of both Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie.
We know from our own experience the difficulty of resolving hostage cases. In this case, the hostage takers had made a direct threat to Mr Somers’ life, with a three-day deadline. The threat to his life was very real. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have spoken about the extent of the efforts to bring Luke home safely and the decision to launch a rescue attempt. I have today spoken to the US deputy ambassador to relay my personal condolences on the murder of Luke Somers and to renew our commitment to work with our international and Yemeni partners to counter the threat from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Hostage taking and other forms of terrorism are a significant threat to British and other western nationals in Yemen, and to peace and security for the whole population of that country. As a result, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has since March 2011 advised against all travel to Yemen and that British nationals who are in the country should leave. Our advice on that could not be clearer.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I wish to join him in expressing deep sympathy to the families of Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie, the other hostage who was killed. This must be a devastating time for Mr Somers’ family, who only days ago made a desperate plea to his kidnappers for mercy.
Yemen is a country on the brink of a civil war. During the last year, thousands of people have died in sectarian violence, including the father of Abdullah al-Radhi, the Yemeni ambassador to London, who died after his home was bombed. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula bears responsibility for the death of Mr Somers. This group has been described by the CIA as one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations on the globe and it has now established control of part of this fractured country. When I last visited Yemen, the situation was extremely dangerous—so dangerous that the delegation was required to remain under guard in a fortified pod in the embassy grounds. The situation has deteriorated since then. Will the Minister confirm that the US embassy is considering withdrawing from Yemen? Is he satisfied that our embassy staff are being sufficiently protected? Will he also confirm how many of our staff, including locally engaged staff, still operate from there? We need to take all possible measures to stop more British citizens being killed. How many British citizens are still in Yemen? If he is able to tell the House, will he say how many of those are hostages?
On the raid itself, we can all understand why the US Government believed it was the right thing to do—there was a clear and imminent danger to Mr Somers. Were British security services involved in any aspect of this raid? Was the British Government consulted before the raid took place? Did we supply the Americans with any information? Could we have done any more to assist the US and Yemeni forces?
Finally, may I pay tribute both to the former Foreign Secretary and to the former International Development Minister, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), for the part they played in Yemen’s transition during the Arab spring? Luke Somers loved Yemen; his family speak of his love for the people and their culture, and his desire to do good. This was echoed in the life of Pierre Korkie. Yemen is one of the poorest, but one of the most beautiful countries on earth. As the House knows, I was born in Aden and for the past 20 years have chaired the all-party group on Yemen. Yemen is an easy country to fall in love with. It is special. It is also on the front line in our fight against terrorism. Yemen is worth fighting for.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone of his urgent question and subsequent questions. He speaks about the threat to security in Yemen and the wider region, and I could not agree more. The situation in Yemen is complex, not least because of the number of terrorist groups that now operate in the country. We are working extremely hard with our allies to bring the parties to the table to agree the UN resolution that was signed in September.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions, but, as he will appreciate, I am unable to answer many of them in this House owing to the operational complexity of the matter. As I understand it, the US embassy has no intention of withdrawing from the country. We have a good relationship with Ambassador Tueller, who works extremely closely with our own ambassador, Jane Marriott, to whom I spoke this morning.
The British embassy continues to work in extremely difficult circumstances. We are following the situation carefully, as the security of embassy staff is of paramount importance to us. The right hon. Gentleman asked about British hostages. Again, he will be aware that it is the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to discuss such matters.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of the region—our historical links with it and the need for us and other countries to invest in it. The Department for International Development has committed £4.4 million towards an orderly transition to peace and another £7 million to facilitate elections when they take place.
I echo the remarks of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). It is important that we offer our support to those members of the British embassy in Sana’a who work in extremely difficult circumstances. Questions have been raised in the press about the nature of the operation, and I know that the Minister will not be able to answer all of them, but will he stress from the Dispatch Box that there is no equivocation about the death of a hostage? On every occasion, the responsibility lies with the terrorist and those who have executed the hostage. It does not matter how difficult the circumstances are, how complex the decisions are that need to be taken to free a hostage or what the difficulties involved in an operation are, it should be absolutely clear that the responsibility lies with the terrorist and it is for the terrorist that justice will eventually come.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done in this particular area and for his ongoing commitment to that, working with British influence and support in the region. He is absolutely right to place the blame for this situation on the terrorists. In this particular case, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry issued statements on 6 December to illustrate why it was felt necessary to set in place a rescue attempt. Such operations are complex and dangerous, and we are sad about the outcome.
I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) in condemning the murder of the British-born American citizen, Luke Somers, and his fellow captive, Pierre Korkie, in the early hours of last Saturday morning by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
I offer our deepest condolences to the families of both men who, as victims of terrorists, lost their lives in the most terrible of circumstances—moments away from rescue. Mr Korkie’s family believed that Pierre was due to be released very soon. I pay tribute to the courage of US special forces soldiers who got so close to rescuing both men.
As has been suggested, concerns were raised by some of Mr Somers’ family about whether a rescue mission should have gone in at this particular point. Will the Minister set out in further detail his view of the intelligence that suggested that there was an imminent threat to the lives of the hostages, and what discussions there were with the family following the earlier unsuccessful rescue attempt?
Given that Mr Somers was originally kidnapped in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, what security advice is the Foreign Office now issuing to British citizens about travelling to, and working in, Yemen at the moment? Yemen has a turbulent recent past. What is the Minister’s view of the political and security situation, and does he think that there is a possibility of a more democratic future for the people of Yemen, to whom Mr Somers was clearly committed? How significant is the capacity of al-Qaeda in Yemen and what further action is being taken to limit such capacity? What concerns, if any, are there of possible links with ISIS? Lastly, Yemen remains a tragically poor country. How does its insecurity affect the ability of excellent organisations such as Islamic Relief, Save the Children and the Red Cross to tackle the hunger and poverty faced by too many Yemenis?
I am grateful that the House is united in condemning those acts of barbarism, and in its support on hostage matters.
The hon. Gentleman pays tribute to the US forces involved. The House should pay tribute to all special forces who put their lives in danger to attempt releases. They are successful in many cases. They do a huge amount of work behind the scenes of which the House is unaware. He is right to pay tribute to them. I should add that Yemeni special forces were also involved in the rescue attempt.
The hon. Gentleman asks for the greater intelligence picture. I am unable to provide the House with that information—he might have heard comments from a Government Member sitting behind me—and I hope he understands why. However, I would add that the video that was released made it clear that Mr Somers’ life was in danger, and it was apparent that he had three days to live. That gave the indication to the Americans that a decision had to made on launching a rescue attempt.
The hon. Gentleman asked about travel advice. I am not sure whether he heard me make it clear in my opening response that we have said since 2011 that no British citizen is advised to travel to Yemen. Indeed, any British citizens there now should leave.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the important question of the political landscape. Steps were taken at the UN General Assembly for the signing of the peace and national partnership agreement. It has been signed by all parties, including the Houthis, but has not been implemented. It is important that we get all stakeholders around the table to move the process forward. I should add that the Yemeni Government have issued a 100-day agreement, which will be put to Parliament in the next few days. I hope that will be the vehicle through which the stakeholders can come together. We look for a more federated model for governing Yemen.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was on the connection between ISIS and al-Qaeda. There is a lot of friction between the two groups and they challenge and rival each other for superiority, but he is right to say that, combined, they provide a difficult landscape in the middle east. It requires the UK to work with our international partners in the region to tackle the problem.
This is obviously a complicated and upsetting case, most of all for the families of Mr Somers and Mr Korkie. Our thoughts must be with them, and we should blame only the terrorists for their deaths. However, is the Minister satisfied that communications within the international community and between Governments are adequate, and could they be improved, especially given the apparent revelation that the South African Government were in the process of negotiating Mr Korkie’s imminent release when he was killed—there is no suggestion that people knew that he and Mr Somers were being held together?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence, which will be heard by the families. Information has come forward to suggest that, in Mr Korkie’s case, there was a consideration of a potential release. There are continual suggestions of potential releases and they had happened in the past. Again, it was for the Americans to make an operational judgment. It was decided that the threat to life was imminent, and therefore that action needed to be taken.
Will the Minister take the opportunity to place on the record the British Government’s position on negotiating and paying ransoms for hostages, so that the House can hear it again? Will he answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) asked on the number of British citizens still resident in Yemen, whom the Minister says should leave immediately?
The hon. Gentleman gives me licence to reiterate a point that all Members of the House need to reiterate: Britain does not negotiate on hostages. We very much encourage other countries to adopt the same policy—it makes it difficult for us if other countries pay ransoms. That came up at the NATO summit, when the Prime Minister made it very clear—he was very passionate on this to other countries—that we must be united, because paying ransoms makes things very difficult. It simply encourages the taking of more hostages.
I do not know the number of Britons in Yemen. I hope that it is extremely low, but if I may, I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.
These murders illustrate how increasingly dangerous more and more parts of the middle east are becoming. If Yemen is not to become wholly ungovernable, the House must give its full support to our efforts and those of other countries to underpin the legitimate Government of President Hadi and Prime Minister Bahah. As someone who has visited Yemen 10 times over the past few years, I urge the House to appreciate how important it is to hold that country together. Will the Minister reinforce the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to the future of Yemen through the Friends of Yemen, which we co-chair, and other means? Will he commend, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) did a moment ago, the dutiful courage of officials in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development who continue to work in Sana’a at considerable personal risk?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his work as special envoy to Yemen. I understand that he has visited the country three times since he undertook that important role, and I am grateful for the work and support that he gives to me and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Friends of Yemen was set up in London in 2010 and is an important organisation involving almost 40 countries, both internationally and regionally. It is designed to ensure that we provide what assistance we can, along with the Gulf Co-operation Council and other nations, to support Yemen through these difficult times.
Despite the sad outcome of this case, will the Minister say once again that we must support the Americans in refusing to pay ransoms, and that no blame whatsoever should be attached to those soldiers who bravely risked their lives to try to free that hostage?
Like the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I too lived in Yemen as a young man. It is a beautiful country but it is extremely dangerous—it was dangerous when I was there, and it remains so. I stress to the House that any decision to go for a hostage release is taken because those who make that decision have no choice. Going for a hostage release is not something that people want to do—one always wants to negotiate. In this case, however, I am sure that those who made that brave decision did so and went for it because they had no choice, as I assume the Minister will agree.
The House is aware of my hon. Friend’s military experience. He was perhaps closer to some of these matters when he served, so he is aware of the detail that goes into such operations when they are planned. It is very difficult for any leader, whether in Britain or the United States, to decide to send in troops. The decision was made and it was believed that the evidence showed that a life was in danger. That is why the decision was taken.
Some reports have suggested that President Hadi’s Government have lost effective control of the country to the Houthi rebels. Is the international community doing everything it can to bring about national dialogue between all the tribes in the country, backed by real incentives to engage in that dialogue?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sanctions against former President Saleh and other former leaders are acting as spoilers in preventing President Hadi from doing his work. He has now appointed a new Prime Minister who, as I mentioned, has a 100-day agreement that we are working towards. My hon. Friend is right to say that unfortunately other countries such as Iran, which is linked to the Houthi, have a responsibility and role to play. They can either be part of the solution, or they can continue to be part of the problem.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his answers and congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on successfully raising the matter, via you, Mr Speaker; he is a passionate advocate for Yemen and brings great knowledge of this issue to the House. Does the Minister agree that the United States special forces tried their valiant best in this incident and that, although on this occasion they did not succeed, they ought to be congratulated from every quarter on their courage and bravery? We wish them all the very best should they be needed in any future circumstances.
I, too, am grateful for the urgent question. I was not sure whether it would be granted, simply because it leans towards the operational, but it gives the House an opportunity to express our condolences, to underline the important message that we do not pay ransoms and to pay tribute to those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen who participate in special forces operations, on many occasions with their British counterparts.
May I condemn this foul murder by terrorists and record my condolences to my constituent Penny Bearman, Luke’s stepmother, and to all his family? It is perhaps inevitable that the family are left wondering whether Luke might still be with us today had this operation not taken place. What comfort can the Minister give the family that it would have been undertaken only in the most extreme circumstances in which there was no alternative?
I reiterate our condolences to the family. I know that police liaison officers have been in touch with those members of the family living in Britain. If there is anything more we can do, the Government stand ready to provide that support in this difficult time. In difficult and dangerous circumstances a call had to be made, but I know that it was made in the knowledge that Luke’s life was in danger.
Infrastructure Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: Fifteenth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2013-14, Better roads: Improving England’s Strategic Road Network, HC 850, and the Government Response, Session 2013-14, HC 715.]
I must inform the House that I have selected amendment (b)—[Interruption.] Quite why that prompts an “Ooh!” from the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) is yet to be explained. The fact is that I have selected amendment (b) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
What a joy to perform once again in this theatre of dreams. What an honour to speak for the Government introducing this important Bill. What a responsibility this House has to create the future our nation needs, to build a Britain fit for generations to come and to plant trees for those born later.
Governments of all persuasions tend to neglect the long term. Perhaps that is the legacy of the post-war preoccupation with Keynes, who after all wrote:
“In the long run we are all dead.”
Perhaps the necessity of popular payback within five years discourages public policy that looks sufficiently forward. To speak candidly, it is more likely that we—those of us with power—are frightened to anticipate what might be, fearful of misjudging what is to come. Sometimes, in respect of some things, that does not matter too much, because some of the business of government is necessarily reactive. But when it comes to infrastructure, failure to face the future is catastrophic and devastating.
Thinking for the long term widens an appreciation of consequence and deepens an understanding of effect. The absence of strategic vision not only leaves us with exclusively reactive responses to need, but reduces policy to piecemeal, tiny steps when giant leaps forward are needed. That reflects a small view of government. That is not your view, Mr Speaker, I hasten to add, and nor is it mine, but it is a pessimist’s view of politics—a politics reduced to dull, technocratic managerialism.
By contrast, the Bill that I introduce to the House today is urgent and ambitious about long-term plans and a bolder view of what Government can do: urgent because Britain sits uncomfortably low, at 27th, in the global infrastructure rankings; ambitious because, as this Bill demonstrates, the Government are focused on the future. This Government understand that the future of our country depends on investment for the long term that must and will be ambitious.
Does the Minister recall that we both fought on a Conservative manifesto that said that we should get rid of quangos and not create new ones, and that Ministers should be responsible and accountable—something that I entirely agree with? Why is he proposing two new quangos on highways instead of the excellent arrangements for accountability through him?
My right hon. Friend has made that point to me previously. Let me tell him, with a candour equal to that of my earlier expressions, that I am absolutely determined that the lines of accountability for the strategy we have in place should be clear and that Ministers’ lines of reporting in this House should be palpable and known. Indeed, I have missioned my Department to make sure that that happens.
I will make available in the Library of the House, not only for my right hon. Friend’s benefit but for that of the whole House, a description of precisely what those lines of accountability will look like. When he sees that clear description of how the House and Ministers are going to exercise their proper authority in the name of the people, I think he will be more than impressed and will feel that this Government and this Minister have gone further than even he expected us to.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it is good to see that he is on his usual courteous form. He talks about the importance of facing up to the future, but the question is what kind of future it is. Why does this Bill lock us into such a high-carbon future at exactly the time when we need to be shifting towards being able to meet our climate change objectives?
As the hon. Lady suggests, the kind of future that I anticipate is very different from the one that she sees, for my kind of future is ambitious for Britain and virtuous in its intent; I am not sure that that is true of hers. I do not mean to be unkind in any way. However, as I said, I will come to invasive species by those that are apparently ornamental when they first arrive but turn out to be nothing but a nuisance.
Hon. Members will see a virtuous pattern that demonstrates my and the Government’s unrelenting commitment to delivering better infrastructure. At the heart of the autumn statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week was the biggest and most far-reaching roads programme in decades, with over 100 improvements to our major roads. As the House knows, that extra capacity will be underpinned by £15 billion of investment. Better infrastructure means more jobs, more opportunities and more growth. Those things will ultimately help to build a better future, drive down the deficit and inspire our people.
On taking office, we produced the first ever national infrastructure plan. We have made big calls on HS2, on Crossrail—the biggest construction project in Europe—and on shale gas exploration. We have got Britain building, with over 500,000 new homes built since April 2010.
The broad sunlit uplands that the Minister is describing mean absolutely nothing to people in my constituency threatened with the untried technology of fracking without sufficient safeguards, which would wreck many of our villages and suburbs. Does he think that that is all right because it is going to happen in what his noble Friend Lord Howell calls the “desolate” north?
The hon. Lady is, of course, right to defend the interests of her constituents and to say that, when such innovations occur, it is vital that the communities affected understand what is going to happen and are involved in the decision-making process. When as Energy Minister I set up the office for unconventional gas and oil, part of my intention was for it to ensure that good information was provided, that some of the misinformation that prevails be put aside, and that local communities could be as engaged as much as possible in the process. I understand the hon. Lady’s championing of her community and she can be assured that this Government take exactly that kind of open-minded, generous, communitarian approach.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am on the same side as him when it comes to the potential development of unconventional oil and gas. With that in mind, and given his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), will he explain why the Government rejected Labour amendments in the other place that the industry are quite relaxed about?
The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to make that case as the Bill makes its passage through the House. I am not in the other place and it is not really for me to anticipate the amendments that he or other Members might table. Of course, we will listen—this is a Government who listen and learn, as I shall describe in a moment. Given the hon. Gentleman’s record in this House, I know that he would be the last person to turn his back on innovation and stand in the way of progress. Indeed, he has been one of this House’s greatest advocates of innovation and scientific progress.
My constituency includes the community of Barton Moss, where a six-month exploration for shale gas took place from November to May. That was dumped on frightened communities and people as a result of a 2012 planning application for coalbed methane gas. There was no reassurance.
Even worse, the Government have changed the planning process, shortened time scales, and taken some vital aspects of planning consideration away from local planning authorities and given them to the Environment Agency; that made it so much more difficult for communities such as mine to comment and be involved. They were not involved and they did not comment. The things the Minister has said about reassurance just did not happen.
I do not want to be unnecessarily partisan, because that is not my way, but I can say only that the hon. Lady has either misread the Bill or misunderstood the Government’s intention. After my explanation of that aspect of the Bill, I hope the hon. Lady will leave the Chamber if not convinced, at least with many of her worst fears assuaged. If I am imperfect in making the argument, so be it, but I will give it my best shot. I will say no more than that.
The hon. Lady and others know that, because of our commitment to long-term delivery, unemployment has dropped below 2 million for the first time since 2008 and we have produced the first ever road investment strategy, which has been warmly welcomed not only by Members of this House, but by the RAC Foundation director, Professor Stephen Glaister, by Richard Threlfall, the head of infrastructure at consultants KPMG, and by many others. I will not tire the House by listing the many supporters of the Government’s approach. That would not be entirely fair to the Opposition, either. I do not want them to start with such a profound disadvantage; I want to give them a fair shot on what is, after all, an extremely sticky wicket for them.
I genuinely believe that our impressive commitment to the long term, which stands in sharp contrast to the record of the previous Government, is one of the hallmarks of this Administration. According to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness survey, under the Labour party—as I have said, I do not want to dwell on this for too long—our roads and railways plummeted from seventh in the world to 33rd.
We know that if Labour had been re-elected in 2010, things would have only got worse. Mr Miliband admitted to the BBC after the election that Labour had planned to cut investment in rail and road by 50%, telling Radio 5 Live that
“we’re going to halve the share of national income going to capital spending.”
That was, of course, Mr David Miliband, Mr Speaker, as you probably remember.
The sharp contrast between anyone called Miliband and Benjamin Disraeli is of course clear to all in the House. That great Prime Minister once said:
“In a progressive country, change is constant;…change…is inevitable.”
The role of Government is to prepare for change, and to plan for the long term. The various measures in the Bill will help to bring about such changes and make a real difference to people’s lives and livelihoods. Let us look at the changes in turn.
First, on roads reform, the Government have announced hundreds of extra lane miles on motorways and trunk roads, and action to improve some of the most important arteries in our country, such as the A303 to the south-west and the A1 Newcastle-Gateshead western bypass. It is fair to say that our work at Stonehenge—the bold engineering work to be done—is probably the most ambitious scheme there since the stone age. It is totemic, as it were, or emblematic of this Government’s willingness to tackle matters that have been neglected for a long time by successive Governments.
Major roads run by the new strategic highways company will create better connectivity and minimise environmental impact. The new name for our strategic highways company will be Highways England. I intend to set it up as soon as possible. The Government have already committed more than £24 billion to upgrade England’s strategic road network through to 2021.
The people of Elkesley are going to be a little perplexed. The previous Government got rid of the six roundabouts on the A1 within three years of my taking the then Minister there to show him the problem; yet the Elkesley bridge on the A1—I agreed it with the Government in 2009, with the work to begin in 2010—has only just begun to be built during the past year. Why has there been a delay by this Government on a key part of the A1? Is it not because they have not been prepared to spend the money on our roads?
The hon. Gentleman knows that Nottinghamshire is dear to my heart, as it is to his. He says that the work has only just begun; well, I have only just become the Minister, haven’t I? I do not say that that coincidence is entirely a correlation between his desire and my effectiveness, but it is certainly true that our improvements to the A1—along its length, actually—will make an immense difference not only to motorists, but to hauliers from my constituency and many others who need to get their goods to market.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have added more than 1,300 new lane miles, and that we will fix some of the most notorious and long-standing problem areas on the network, such as the entire A303 and the A358 to the south-west, including the tunnel at Stonehenge. The 84 new road projects will improve connectivity across the UK. In addition, we are investing to improve the lives of local communities affected by road upgrades.
We considered all the options. My right hon. Friend will know that we undertook considerable research, discussion and consultation on that matter. The scheme we have ended up with has been welcomed by several environmental bodies, such as English Heritage. Of course, each option has pros and cons—I would not be straightforward with the House if I did not acknowledge that—but I think that we have got the right solution.
As with all such schemes, what characterises the Government, above and beyond the desire to think strategically and put funds behind the strategy, is a willingness to look empirically at a range of options. It is very important to be ambitious, but also to be precise, and the way in which we measure the effect of the money we spend has allowed us to allocate funds not only to areas of the road network that have the greatest need, but where we can make the most difference.
The fact that there is £100 million to improve cycling provision at 200 key locations across the network reflects our understanding that it is not just motorists and hauliers who count. There is a £300-million environmental fund to mitigate carbon emissions and reduce the number of people affected by serious noise by up to 250,000. There is £100 million to unlock growth and housing developments.
I have missioned my Department to look closely at the look and feel of what we build. It is absolutely right that the aesthetics are taken into account. If that was good enough for earlier generations, it should be good enough for ours. What we build does not have to be ugly. It can serve a purpose and have an edifying impact on the localities affected.
Having condemned the Transport Ministers of the last four years for failing to do the Elkesley bridge and taken all the credit for retrieving the situation, the Minister will know that it is the one bridge that will create a strategic cycle route across the A1 in Nottinghamshire—and, indeed, the east midlands. Will he, therefore, consider how funds can be allocated to ensure that that strategic cycle way is properly incorporated into the cycle path infrastructure of the future?
On the general point, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have instructed the Highways Agency to look at the impact that all new road schemes will have on the interests of cyclists. That had not been done previously. On the particular point, because I never want to neglect the opportunity or waste the chance of an interface with the hon. Gentleman, I would be delighted to invite him to my Department for a cup of tea and a biscuit—[Hon. Members: “What sort?”] A digestive biscuit. I invite him to the Department to discuss the precise matter that he raises.
May I return to the fundamentals of the Bill? Does the Minister agree that a key issue in the Bill is the implementation of the Wood review? That will have a huge impact on the recoverability of oil and gas—not only in Scotland, but in the north-east of England, which has an oil and gas sector that is growing tremendously.
Order. I simply note, in passing, that the Minister of State has not offered his hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) a cup of tea or a biscuit, which he proffered generously in the direction of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Whether the House will read anything into that, I do not know. Perhaps he has it in mind to present the hon. Member for Hexham with a copy of “Coningsby”, “Sybil”, “Tancred” or some other Disraelian creation. We do not know, but we will learn in due course.
I may have revealed a prejudice in favour of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, which, as you know, Mr Speaker, are deeply ingrained on my heart. I will seek to counter that when my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) next visits me.
Alongside the transformational investment, we propose to turn the Highways Agency into a Government-owned company, with the Secretary of State as its sole shareholder. The company will have stable, long-term funding that is set through a road investment strategy. Our ambitious programme of investment can be delivered only through a road operator that is fast and efficient and that provides a better service to road users. As a result, it will be able to plan ahead more effectively and deliver best value for money to the taxpayer. The changes are expected to save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years. Hon. Members will be familiar with the impact assessment that makes that clear.
The impact on the supply chain of creating a Government-owned company with greater certainty over funding and a clear relationship with Government will be positive. In the past, the construction industry has reacted to new spending on a case-by-case basis, and has not invested in the equipment and skills that would create long-term jobs in road construction.
If I may depart from my script at this point—although the Secretary of State will not worry about that, I can see that civil servants might, but I am going to do it anyway—I should say that I think there is a challenge in delivering this strategy. The Government can devise a strategy on the basis of the empiricism that I mentioned earlier. Bold Governments put money behind that, which is precisely what this brave and bold Government have done, but delivery will be a challenge and we will need to work with a whole range of organisations. The Highways Agency, of course, works with a number of private sector organisations. There are big issues relating to the supply chain and the skills necessary to make this happen. Those challenges would face any Government and they need to be considered carefully. They will require a new energy in respect of the acquisition and development of necessary skills. However, the Bill gives us the opportunity to do just that: the chance to give the construction industry the certainty it needs to invest in people and skills for the long term.
We have also listened and learned on a range of other issues. The British Transport police told us that the drafting of the Road Traffic Act 1988 did not allow it to require vehicle owners to disclose the identity of drivers who committed road traffic offences on the railway. We will change that. We have listened to calls to extend the BTP’s jurisdiction beyond the railway environment to help to protect people.
The provisions on invasive non-native species will allow our environmental officers to address the few cases each year where owners do not allow access to their land to eradicate new species that threaten to spread across the country. Invasive non-native species are estimated to cost the UK economy £1.8 billion a year. They are indiscriminate: they damage gardens, private land, public land, farmland and infrastructure sites.
We have introduced a number of measures designed to help to get Britain building. The small changes we are proposing speed up the approval of nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as the Thames tideway tunnel, road schemes and other major schemes, and will send a clear message to investors and developers that the steps to deliver transformational projects are as simple, sensible and straightforward as possible.
Those who believed that the coalition Government, with all the inevitable pressures and tensions, could not be bold, have been proved, wrong have they not? Among the many examples of boldness, some stand proud. Hinkley Point C, a scheme approved under the improved nationally significant infrastructure projects process, took 17 months to receive planning consent. That compares with more than six years for Sizewell B, including a public inquiry that lasted three years. We think we can do more and that we can improve on that. It is vital that we do so, because these schemes are hugely important. Hinkley Point C will deliver more than 900 skilled jobs for 60 years.
On deemed discharge, we have all seen a piece of land that has been bought, fenced off and ready to be developed, and felt a pang of frustration due to a seemingly inexplicable delay. The measures to discharge planning conditions will ensure that planning applications can get on and be delivered. The Government have already taken action. We have delivered a clear policy in the national planning policy framework and provided fresh guidance, but we need to go further. Recently, a major house builder identified that more than one third of its entire land bank was tied up in the planning system, awaiting reserved matters approval or the discharge of conditions. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to accept unnecessary delays to much-needed development that has already been subject to local scrutiny and granted planning permission.
The Minister talks about deemed discharges and refers to the national planning policy framework. Where a local authority has set a condition that is in conformity with the national planning policy framework, does he believe that it should be subject to deemed discharge?
That is a fair question, and one which has already been put to me by those in local government. I will look closely at that, but I am anxious—the right hon. Gentleman is a great expert, given his experience as a Minister and, beyond that, his understanding of house building—and keen to ensure that this does not create unnecessarily bureaucratic or over-regulatory delay. The point he makes is a good one and I will certainly go away and consider it during the passage of the Bill. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham—who has intervened twice and might have another go in a minute, who knows?—that this is a very good example of the Government taking action to make the system more straightforward and less bureaucratic, so that decisions can be made in a timely way and be acted on with appropriate promptness. Wise as they are on these things, I am sure the Opposition will not disagree. Likewise, when they reflect on much of the Bill, I suspect they will appreciate it is the right thing to do in the national interest—but we will hear from them in a few moments.
Public sector land is an important source of land for development, and we have already released land with the capacity for 90,000 new homes, but to make that happen we propose to allow a Government arm’s length body to transfer disused surplus land directly to the Homes and Communities Agency or the Greater London authority, rather than having first to transfer it back to the parent Department. This measure will once again reduce bureaucracy in the transfer of land, meaning that disused Government-owned land can be brought to the market more quickly to build homes and improve communities.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the Government are committed to England’s public forest estate remaining in public ownership—[Hon. Members: “They are now.”] I know Labour is in the woods, but we are committed to the past, present and future of our forests. Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), have raised their constituents’ interests several times in the House and have influenced the decision to amend the Bill to ensure the measure will not apply to them.
The move to digitise and centralise local land charges and free up the Land Registry to take a wider role will ultimately help people buying and selling their homes. The Government aim to make dealing with property quicker, cheaper and easier. The Land Registry is well placed to help achieve that aim because it is already at the centre of the conveyancing process and is the largest single source of property information. The changes in the Bill will stop the wider disparities in charging, currently ranging from approximately £3 to £76, and will lead to a more efficient service for searches as people access a single provider rather than one of 348 separate providers. We need modern systems to underpin the property market.
On zero-carbon homes, we have already tightened building regulations to make new homes more energy efficient. Today’s new homes save people about £200 on average—
Given the Minister’s concern for linguistic exactitude, will he reflect that he is talking about “zero-carbon homes”, yet he must be clear that the provisions in the Bill mean that no zero-carbon homes will be built now or in the future? Would he care to rephrase his contribution to something such as “slightly less energy leaky homes”, or some such locution, to make his language exact?
Even if I believed that, such an ugly turn of phrase would fit ill on my lips, and I could not possibly bring myself to issue it. To that end, I will stick with my own choice of words.
The hon. Gentleman knows, because he is a great expert on these matters—far more expert than I am, I have to acknowledge—today’s new homes save £200 on average on their energy bills compared with homes built before the coalition came to power. He knows that new homes are more energy efficient. I want that energy efficiency to grow, however, so new homes will have net zero-carbon emissions from energy used to heat and light them, and there will be a higher efficiency requirement that may be augmented by on-site renewable energy measures such as solar panels.
Where that is not possible, however, to abate all carbon emissions on-site, the Government will allow developers to offset remaining emissions through off- site carbon abatement measures known as “allowable solutions”—precisely what the hon. Gentleman was referring to—which is a cost effective and practical way of dealing with carbon. I know it does not appeal to the purists, but it is deliverable. Either we want to hit these targets and get to our destination, or we do not.
We are doing it on the grounds of practicality. The hon. Lady and I, during a recent session of the Committee she chairs, exchanged thoughts on the issue of emissions. She will know that there is always a balance to be struck. She refers in her intervention to the preferred threshold of 10 units, but as I say there is always a balance between inhibiting or even preventing development at all and achieving our desired outcomes on carbon. I am happy to hear representations on all these matters, as I want this Bill to be as good as it can be. We are trying to strike that balance, which is the frank answer to the hon. Lady—and I am known in this place for giving straightforward and frank answers.
The Minister speaks of striking a balance, but I wonder whether he will help us by saying what assessment has been made of the overall impact of the Bill in its entirety on the Government’s ability to meet their legal obligations under the fourth carbon budget?
The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the impact assessment. I have a copy here and I would be happy to let him read it. It is available and if he looks at that impact assessment he will be able to gauge how far we have performed the analysis he describes. If he feels that we have done so insufficiently, I shall be more than happy to correspond with him directly on the matter. I know that he always brings fresh thinking to the consideration of this House.
The Bill will enable communities to be offered the chance to buy a stake in new, commercial renewable electricity schemes in their local area, so that they can gain a greater share in the associated financial benefit. We would consider using this power only if the voluntary approach to community shared ownership in renewable energy did not bear fruit. A right to buy would give communities the opportunity to have a real stake and sense of ownership in projects happening in their area. The Shared Ownership Taskforce recently launched its voluntary framework, and we brought forward an amendment to the Bill in the other place in order to provide greater certainty on the minimum time scales for this voluntary approach to take effect. We are proposing, too, to allow changes to the renewable heat incentive to provide more flexibility in financing arrangements for renewable heating systems.
Let me come on now to what I described as the exciting part of my speech, which deals with the Wood review. We recognise that increasing renewable energy sources is important, but we realise that a dynamic and flourishing oil and gas industry remains important, too. It can contribute to our energy security and to the economy, supporting around 450,000 jobs and showing record capital expenditure in 2013 of around £14 billion.
The Government agreed with the findings of Sir Ian Wood’s independent report, which concluded that changes to the recovery and stewardship regime in the North sea could deliver around £200 billion of additional value to the UK economy. We intend to deliver all of Sir Ian’s recommendations, but further work is required with stakeholders on a number of detailed aspects and parliamentary time is scarce. We are therefore starting by introducing two measures: one will put into statute the principle of maximising economic recovery of petroleum from UK waters; and the second will introduce a power so that the costs of funding a larger, better resourced regulator can be paid for by the industry rather than through general taxation, as is currently the case.
We need to explore all our energy options. This is the age of increasing costs, uncertainty and insecurity in overseas energy suppliers. The shale gas industry in the UK is at an embryonic stage, and the changes in the Bill would simplify the procedure by which onshore gas and oil and deep geothermal developers can obtain underground drilling access, and are accompanied by the industry’s commitment to pay communities in return for the right to use deep-level land. We do not yet know what is commercially viable, but we are encouraging exploration. These provisions will help us to address this question to ensure that the regulation is compatible with these new methods of underground drilling.
There has been a great deal of unfounded scaremongering on the environmental impacts of shale gas, much of it based on examples from other jurisdictions. The Bill does not alter the involvement of local authority planners; nor does it erode in any way the strength of our regulatory regime, the effectiveness of which has been demonstrated over 50 years of development, which is one of the strictest and safest in the world.
I am sure that a number of Members are concerned about it; I am not the only one, although I may be one who has been disturbed most recently by this sort of development in my constituency. The Government should be determined to do the right and the safe thing by communities, but they are not doing so. They are determined to have this rushed through. Indeed, the Prime Minister is determined to win the debate on shale gas. My constituents suffered for the best part of six months from exploration for shale gas. Businesses lost money and people could not sell their homes, yet the whole issue of compensation was never dealt with, and it was the same with the policing of protests. The community in Greater Manchester suffered by having to pay for the policing of the protests, and local people were really damaged by what went on at Barton Moss.
The key point is that none of the arrangements up to now has helped to compensate people in that position by one jot. Random schemes that provide some funding here and there are not the answer; the compensation should go to the people who were hurt.
The House has had no greater advocate of the interests of communities in respect of shale gas exploration than my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who has brought their concerns to the notice of the House on at least two occasions. When I was Energy Minister, I debated those issues with him twice from the Dispatch Box. I made it clear then, and I repeat now, that I am absolu