House of Commons
Monday 9 March 2015
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—
Unemployment (North West Norfolk)
That is encouraging and unemployment in my constituency has come down by a staggering 908 in the past year, giving hope to a large number of families. Following the story in The Sunday Times last weekend, will the Minister tell the House what support her Department is giving to people seeking employment?
I read the article in The Sunday Times about an episode of “Dispatches” that is being filmed in contact centres. Contact centres do not handle emergency hardship payments, as those are dealt with by Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentre Plus staff are fully trained and no one is sanctioned without being told about hardship payments. Awareness about benefit advances is being raised at the moment, and new posters and leaflets will be coming out in March once claimants have passed on their opinions and worked with the Department to get them right.
Young People (Employment or Education)
2. What support his Department provides to young people seeking employment or education. (907908)
Work coaches offer all claimants tailored support from day one of their claim. Claimants in need of experience are guided towards work experience or sector-based work academies, and those who require more focused training are supported through traineeships and apprenticeships.
One barrier to young people seeking employment is that they do not necessarily have the correct skills required to take up the opportunities on offer. Will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues in the Department for Education and across the Jobcentre Plus network to ensure that local schools and colleges are aware of the skills that local employers need?
My hon. Friend is right and we must make sure that young people are properly equipped for the world of work. I know of an ex-business man who ran a family business in printing. He knew who came through his door, which included young people who he wanted to give a job to, but they needed what people call “soft skills” and I like to call “core skills” for employability. We are working with the Department for Education on a new careers and enterprise company, and through the Inspiring The Future initiative young people are meeting business people to get a feel for what business and employment is all about, and we must support them as best we can. As my hon. Friend will know, we have increased work experience considerably and introduced sector-based work academies to that end.
Will the Minister welcome the initiative that has been set up in my constituency with support from DWP and the local Gillingham football club, along with Medway Watersports, to provide young people with skills and positive experiences to assist them in securing employment or further training?
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend is working closely with Gillingham football club and its chairman, Paul Scally, who recently launched that help for young people, which is key. Various community and sports groups up and down the country are helping young people through the flexible support fund, and that should be highlighted. As many people as possible coming together to support young people into employment is key.
I would like to get the record straight for the right hon. Gentleman because youth unemployment has fallen on the year, and has fallen considerably since 2010 by nearly 200,000. That is down to the work of this Government. There was a small rise of 3,000 in the last month, but the trend for unemployment is consistently downwards and the claimant count has fallen every month for the past 38 months—the Opposition would die to be able to deliver youth unemployment like that.
This week, at an event in my constituency, young people will be talking about how the world can improve for them, especially in terms of access to work. Why does the Minister think that youth unemployment has been rising while overall unemployment has been falling in recent months?
Again, I need to correct the record. It would be helpful if Opposition Members looked at the true youth unemployment numbers, which are down on the year and down nearly a fifth since 2010. Opposition Members delivered an increase in youth unemployment of 45%. Please stop scaremongering, get the facts right and go and help young people into jobs.
I hope the Minister will at least take some note of her own UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which points out that the UK now has German levels of adult unemployment, but eurozone levels of youth unemployment. Some 40% of unemployed people in the UK are under 25. Youth Contract wage incentives failed and were scrapped eight months early last summer. Does she have any new plans to tackle the very high level of youth unemployment—nearly three times the level of adult unemployment—which, as my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out and contrary to what she has been telling us, has gone up in the past couple of months, not down?
What can I say to Opposition Members? They seem blind to the truth. The fact of the matter is that youth unemployment was going through the roof—there was an increase of 45%—and this Government have brought it down by nearly 200,000 since 2010. Working with businesses, we brought in an array of support, from work experience to sector-based work academies and wage incentives. We brought in a whole plethora of support. Some worked better than others—that is correct—but the aim and the outcome remains: youth unemployment is down by nearly 200,000 since Labour left office.
There is not much evidence of soft skills in that answer. The part of the UK where we have seen real progress on youth unemployment has been Wales. Youth unemployment used to be higher in Wales. Thanks to Jobs Growth Wales it is not higher any longer. Is it not now clear that for young people to benefit fully from the recovery that is under way, we need the young people’s job guarantee right across the UK?
I am afraid it is the right hon. Gentleman who has soft skills. I have core skills in telling the truth: youth unemployment is down 200,000 since he left office. We do not need a job guarantee scheme, which does not work and costs an incredible amount of money. The work experience scheme we brought in is delivering better results at a twentieth of the cost. You bring in Labour, you pay a lot more for a lot less results.
Benefit Cap (Employment)
The benefit cap is having a positive impact on people’s lives. I believe it is encouraging them to find work. The statistics show that. [Interruption.] Yes, they do. Those affected by the cap are 41% more likely to go into work than a similar uncapped group. It is under this Government that we are seeing long-term unemployment fall to its lowest level since 2009. The employment rate, at 73.2%, has never been higher.
I had good cause this weekend to reflect on where I grew up. It breaks my heart to think that so many people spend such a long time on long-term welfare and state handouts. In Windsor, the number of people claiming benefits for more than a year has fallen by almost two-thirds, to just 70 people. That lifts my heart. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a moral and social imperative to ensure that people are able to make their way from welfare to work and have a meaningful life?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a fairness element: before we introduced the cap, about £9 million a year was being spent on fewer than 300 families. When asked, 73% of the public support the benefit cap and 77% agree it is fair for no household to get more than the average working household after tax. It seems like the only group that absolutely opposes the cap is the Labour party.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our changes to benefits regulations have ensured that record numbers of people are now in work, and that this coalition Government are delivering jobs, prosperity and growth and that the only alternative from Labour Members is more debt, deficit and dole queues?
As ever, my hon. Friend puts it succinctly—but that does not stop me answering his question. He is right. There are three figures that are really important. The Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), talked about bringing down unemployment. Under this Government, the International Labour Organisation 12-month-plus employment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds—the hardest to help—is down 59,000 on the year and 16,000 on the election; the 24-month-plus rate is down 30,000 on the year and 2,000 on the quarter; and of those in social housing, never, since records began, have we had so many households in work. That is the real reason for the Government’s long-term economic plan.
Those on both sides of the House agree that it is important to encourage and support people into work, but under the new benefit cap announced by the Prime Minister, there is not a single three or four-bedroom property that somebody could rent when they need that safety net.
She is nodding, but that proposal only brings the benefit cap back in line with average earnings, which are £23,000.
Through the cap, the Government have delivered fairness to the system and an incentive to go back to work, and as a direct result, more people are going back to work than ever before. We are asking people to take responsibility for their lives, just as those who are working and are not within the cap take responsibility for their lives.
Would the right hon. Gentleman like to meet a constituent of mine whom I met last week? She has polio, she fell down the stairs and broke her leg, and now she has to have a knee replacement. She is on benefits and has two children. The rent on their property is £400, and the benefit cap is £500, which means they are living on £100 a week. Would he like to meet them?
I am happy to speak to anybody the hon. Lady wants me to speak to about this matter. I believe that the benefits system in the UK helps those in the greatest difficulty—there is plenty of access to things such as hardship funds if that lady is having difficulty temporarily after breaking her leg—but if it is the hon. Lady’s belief that a Labour Government would increase spending on welfare, perhaps she could encourage those on her Front Bench to be honest about it and say so.
Although the Department might not make estimates, outside experts do, and they now calculate that the amount of sanctions applied is greater than all the fines that magistrates courts in this country impose, but a fine in a magistrates court is imposed only after someone has been able to put their case. Might not the Government consider something like a yellow card system so that before a fine is exercised, people have the chance to bring in outside advisers to help them put their case more effectively?
The Government do not make estimates because they would be wildly inaccurate, like the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given. That is because only a maximum figure could be given that did not take into account hardship payments, which could be 80%, or that people already had a job, and there would be so many inconsistencies. The last Government—he was a Minister in the Department—did not make such estimates either.
Does the Minister agree that it is important for us to acknowledge the role that sanctions play as the ultimate backstop in support of our welfare system, particularly as 70% of claimants say that they are more likely to abide by the rules when they know that their benefits are at risk if they do not?
Sanctions have been around since the benefit came into being, to ensure compliance, to enable the Government to have a backdrop to the social security they provide, and to enable the support to be matched by work to enable people to go into a job. As the secretary-general of the OECD said:
“The United Kingdom is a textbook case of best-practice on how good labour and product markets can support growth and job creation.”
Freedom of information requests to the Department for Work and Pensions have revealed that of the reviews of 49 deaths of social security claimants, 33 called for improvements into how the DWP operates nationally and locally. What changes have been introduced, and how have they been associated with sanctions on claimants?
As the hon. Lady will know, we are always improving what we do and always making things better. We brought in the Matt Oakley review to look at better communications, and we work with claimants always to ensure that sanctions are applied only correctly. We know that the vast majority of people work within the system. For employment and support allowance claimants, over 99.4% work within the rules, and with jobseeker’s allowance claimants, it is over 94%. It has to work, but we always look to see how we can get it better.
Given how poorly served people with mental health problems are by the Work programme, and given the fact that the Minister told me in an answer that the Department does not currently have available to it information about the proportion of people with a mental health problem who are sanctioned, is it not time that the Government did that research and made sure that we had back-to-work programmes to help people with mental health problems?
We know that over 99.4% people on ESA and with a mental health condition are not sanctioned, so only 0.6% are. Again, we look to see how we work with people; and for very vulnerable people there is clear guidance on what counts as good cause, so they would know how and why they would not be sanctioned. We always know we need to do more. We have various pilots going on that seek better to understand people with mental health conditions.
Over 143,000 benefit sanctions were imposed in Scotland in the two years from October 2012, and one in four food bank users is using them because of delays in the benefit system. Yet today we read in the Financial Times that the Tories are planning to cut 30,000 jobs from the Department for Work and Pensions if they win the next election, most of them in the nations and regions. Is this not a recipe for further chaos and misery? Do not both claimants and DWP staff deserve better?
Child Support Agency
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the 2012 child maintenance scheme is now open to all applicants and is delivering a more efficient statutory service, including the option of direct payments, for those who cannot make a family-based arrangement. From January 2015, closure of existing CSA cases began.
I thank the Minister and want to ask him a further question. For most MPs starting in 2010, this issue provided a lot of constituency casework for us, and the agency in question was often felt not to be fit for purpose, despite the good intentions in setting it up. What progress have the Government made in dealing with the fraud and error that has been so well publicised as existing in the system?
We recognise that further incremental reform would not deal with the long and deep-seated problems with the Child Support Agency. That is why we are closing all the cases on the existing system and moving towards a much more streamlined system. To provide one example of the improvements, we now get data direct from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs rather than having to wait for non-resident parents to provide payslips, so we have prompt and accurate information to avoid arrears building up.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. We want to encourage people to sort things out for themselves whenever that is possible, but when they do use the new system, we offer a much better service than we did. For example, we now have what is known in the jargon as a web-based portal. People can log on and see how their accounts stand, and the system is so good that some have likened it to online banking.
Discretionary Housing Payments
We have actually increased the funding for discretionary housing payments to help those who are affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy, and, as the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, it will be protected in 2015-16.
Does the Minister agree with the Child Poverty Action Group, which has said that any degradation of discretionary housing payments will threaten to “cut the parachute cord” that keeps so many vulnerable families from the homelessness and destitution created by the foul bedroom tax? Will he give an absolute guarantee that the payments will be not only maintained in real terms, but possibly increased when necessary, and ring-fenced?
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would have heard me say that the level of discretionary housing payments relating to the removal of the spare room subsidy would be maintained in 2015-16, as the Chancellor said in the autumn statement. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order about questions and answers last week. I think that my answer did relate to his question, and perhaps he should have listened to it.
What happens when district councils do not use the whole discretionary housing payment fund? Is it carried over? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that authorities spend the full amount that they are entitled to spend?
25. What has the Minister got to say to my constituent Mr Cocks, who has not only lived in his two-bedroom house in Denton for more than six decades, but was born there? This is not a house; it is his home. Last year he qualified for a discretionary housing payment, but he has been refused one for next year. Is this not yet another example of how cruel the bedroom tax can be, given that in a few years my constituent will be exempt from it anyway? (907931)
As I have said, the Government have made discretionary housing payments available to local authorities so that they can take specific facts into account, because they are obviously better acquainted with what is happening on the ground. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is that he should talk to his local authority.
Will my hon. Friend and his Conservative ministerial colleagues stop blocking the Affordable Homes Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and allow it to be passed before the end of this Parliament, so that some of these issues can be resolved?
I am afraid that the estimated cost of the Affordable Homes Bill is about £1,000 million. As well as having to find the money to pay for it, the hon. Member for St Ives would have to identify the other benefits that would need to be cut to enable us to stay within the welfare cap to which both Government parties and the Opposition have signed up.
Each year, local authorities are spending nearly £200 million on adapting properties for disabled people. Then the Government come along and try to move them out of those properties by imposing the bedroom tax. Will the Minister now admit that that is a prime example of Tory welfare waste?
The hon. Lady still has not found anyone apart from herself to take up that slogan. She will know that £25 million of discretionary housing payment was made available specifically to support disabled people who are in adapted accommodation, so that the local authorities do not have to move them. That money is available, and local authorities should use it for the purpose for which it was intended.
Unemployment (UK and other European Countries)
The UK currently has the 3rd lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, and it has fallen faster than that of any other G7 economy in the past year. Thanks to welfare reform and our long-term economic plan, businesses are creating jobs, and 1.85 million more people are in work than in 2010. For interest, that is more than the total population of Estonia.
I do recall that the Opposition extolled the virtues of the French Government and what they were doing. It is worth bearing in mind therefore what would have happened if they had followed the French example—which I think they still plan to do. If the UK had the same employment rate as France, employment would be 3.5 million lower in this country. If the UK had the same unemployment rate as France, unemployment would be nearly 1.5 million higher. But there you go—the truth is that every time a Labour Government leave office, they leave unemployment higher than when they arrived.
I welcome the steps my right hon. Friend is taking to create jobs and reduce unemployment, which has fallen by 40% in Macclesfield over the last year. I have recently been on a delegation to Spain where we discussed the challenges they are facing of 25% unemployment and 50% youth unemployment, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital for the UK to stick to its current course for the years ahead?
Yes, I do. This Government—under the Conservative party—with our long-term economic plan, will stick to those plans, so we would continue to see unemployment fall. Spain has taken huge strides in trying to make changes, but they still have more to do, as they said to me, to deregulate the ways in which they work, but none the less they are at least making real efforts to do so, and they look to us for some examples. Our unemployment and employment rates are better, but I would like to think they are trying very hard to get there.
May I remind the Secretary of State that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which was set up by Ministers, has pointed out that 40% of unemployed people in Britain are under 25? There are 550 unemployed young people in my constituency. Is not the Secretary of State missing an opportunity to rebalance the regional economy, to address the skills shortages and to target resources at those areas that need it the most?
Absolutely, but the point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that I would love for somebody on his side to get up and say, “The economy under Labour crashed with a 6% fall in GDP.” Does he honestly think that had no effect on his constituents? [Interruption.] Since then, we have got unemployment down below 2010 levels and got employment levels up, and we are doing our best to reskill people through work experience and so forth—[Interruption.]—and for all the shouting on the Opposition Benches, they blame everybody else for the crash but they do not give us the credit for the changes and improvements.
Order. Mr Hopkins is on his feet, seeking to ask a question in his normally robust but courteous manner, and being shouted down by a Member on his own Benches. That is not satisfactory. I want to hear Mr Hopkins; the people of Luton North want to hear Mr Hopkins, the nation wants to hear Mr Hopkins.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for that help. Would the Secretary of State like to thank the former Labour Government for keeping Britain out of the euro, which is the principal cause of the devastation of the southern European members of the eurozone?
It is a very good thing that we are out of the euro—I am very happy about that. As far as credit is to be given, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been opposed to entry into the euro and my party was, under my leadership, absolutely opposed and continues to be so, and I am very pleased about that. May I finish by reminding the House of what even those in Europe say when they look at us? The OECD said of the UK that
“the performance of the labour market has been remarkable!”
That is the point: the rest of Europe says the UK has done better on employment and unemployment than anybody else, and that is down to the Government, thanks to their long-term economic plan. We have got it right; they have got it wrong.
“Not Just For Boys” Campaign
With record employment and vacancy levels, the “Not Just For Boys” campaign is intended to encourage young girls and women to consider a career in an industry where they are traditionally under-represented. After just under a month, some of the UK’s and the world’s leading businesses are on board, as are schools, business women, companies such as BT, Microsoft and Diageo and organisations including Opportunity Now, the Construction Industry Training Board and Be Onsite. I could continue, but for the sake of brevity, I will sit down.
A recent OECD report made it clear that gender differences among high-performing students remain stubbornly high in science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects. In 2012, only 12% of women entering university chose to study in science-related fields, compared with 39% of men, with all that that entails for women’s long-term job security and levels of pay. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this simply underlines how incredibly important it is that campaigns such as her “Not Just For Boys” campaign should succeed?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. The campaign came about after we looked at where the jobs were going to be over the next decade. There will be 12 million jobs in fields such as IT, engineering and manufacturing, yet only 7% of girls were going into those subjects, so we knew that we had to do more—hence the campaign. Businesses came on board, as did women wanting to be role models. The Department for Education should also take some credit here, because there are now 10,000 more girls studying STEM subjects at A-level than there were in 2010.
We have begun the national roll-out of universal credit. Those plans are on track, and universal credit is now available in nearly 150 jobcentre areas for single claimants and in nearly 100 areas for couples and families. Universal credit will be available in over 500 jobcentre areas—seven in 10—by the end of the year, and it will be rolled out to all our 714 jobcentres next year.
In contrast to some reports today, the staff in the jobcentres in my constituency are looking forward to the roll-out of universal credit because they know the advantages it will bring to local jobseekers. Has my right hon. Friend made a recent assessment of the benefits of universal credit following the roll-out so far?
We have indeed. From what I have read of the reports my hon. Friend mentions, every single point made in them is wrong and misleading. We will be making our position clear on that. The analysis that he asks for has shown that the benefits of universal credit are statistically significant. Findings now show that, compared with similar claimants on jobseeker’s allowance, universal credit claimants spend more time looking for work, enter work more quickly and spend more time in work. They also end up earning more.
The roll-out so far has been to specific groups of people with particular characteristics. That is partly because, to put it uncharitably, the original IT system does not work. If I were being charitable, I would say that it worked but with greatly reduced functionality compared with what was originally planned. However, the Department is piloting a digital solution in Sutton, Surrey, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State could tell us how that is going. When are we likely to get the results of that pilot? Can he tell us when the digital solution is going to be rolled out, given that it was meant to be the great white hope for saving universal credit?
The IT system is exactly the same system, and it works in all categories. The difference is that we have rightly decided, in accordance with the Public Accounts Committee’s request, to roll this out stage by stage—we have been told that this is the correct way to do it—rather than trying to rush it, as was done with the tax credit system, which crashed. The hon. Lady mentioned the digital solution. Digital development and the online service are merging together, because the live service has many elements that will be used by the digital service anyway. This is a merging of the two services, and we will be reporting on that as we go along. It is successfully rolling out at the moment and expanding at the same time. I would be very happy if the hon. Lady wanted to go and visit it.
22. I congratulate the Government on their agile approach to the roll-out of universal credit. Given that it is expected to come to Wycombe, along with every other constituency, in the course of the next year, will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the advantages that our constituents can expect from it? (907928)
Apart from the technical changes, the reality is that at the moment when someone falls unemployed then takes a part-time job they have to sign off and go through the whole rigmarole of claiming tax credits with no one talking to them. Under universal credit, they do not sign off. They stay with their adviser, who helps them enormously in negotiating their way through all their job applications. There is therefore a human interface, which is much better and which will help people who are unemployed and who have difficulties. People can look forward to that.
Work Programme (Over 50s)
12. What proportion of people over the age of 50 who have been referred to the Work programme have found work as a result. (907918)
The objective of the Work programme is to move more people into sustainable employment, and so the available data relate to people’s job outcomes, not starts, which means they have been in work for three or six months. To September 2014, there were 300,410 referrals of people aged 50 and over, resulting in 42,750 job outcomes.
The Work programme is failing older people, with the figures the Minister has just given meaning that only 13% of people aged 55 to 59 have found a lasting job as a result of the programme. What would she say to the constituents I meet, who are desperate to work and doing all that is asked of them yet feel badly let down by her Government?
With the Banbury and Bicester job clubs, we seek to help people who are out of work to get back into the world of work, irrespective of age. Am I not right in thinking that 50,000 over-50s who are in work now were not in work last year? So 50,000 over-50s have found work in just the past year, and it is right that we should not write anyone off simply because of their age.
My right hon. Friend is correct about that. We are seeing what extra support we can give to the over-50s, which is why, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions, we have brought together the “Fuller Working Lives” document. It is also why we are looking at: how we can do extra IT; how we can do extra CVs and résumés; and how we can have older worker champions going into business to really sell the benefits of older employees, because it is key that they should be there to share their experience.
Can the Minister explain why the Work programme works less well for women over 50 than for any other group in the community? According to her Department’s own figures, just over one in 10 women over 50 actually finds work as a result of the Work programme.
I am not really sure where the hon. Lady has got her figures from. I have the figures in front of me and the one in 10 would refer to the number of employment and support allowance new claimants who found lasting work—that compares to a figure of one in 25 when they first joined and is well above the expected average, which would have been about one in 14. But we must remember that these people are some of the most difficult and hardest to help into work, which is why we have put this in place to support them. [Laughter.]
When the Minister joins me on Wednesday in my constituency for her meeting with employers at my jobs fair, she will learn that many of them have started and wish to continue apprenticeships for the over-50s. Does she see a role for the Government in extending the programme to over-50s, with sufficient demand?
I do indeed, and what my hon. Friend is doing there is incredible, supporting people of all ages through job fairs. As there were peals of laughter from Opposition Members, they obviously do not understand how the Work programme works and who goes on it, because it is there specifically to help those who are the hardest to help into work and to give them extra help and support.
Work programme (Disabled People)
The objective of the Work programme is to move people into sustainable employment, and so the available data relate to people’s job outcomes, not starts, which means they have been in work for three or six months. As of September 2014, there were 596,640 referrals for people with a disability indicator and 78,480 job outcomes paid.
What does the Minister have to say in response to the recent Mind report, which stated:
“Current government back-to-work schemes are failing people with mental health problems because they are not built on a proper understanding of why people have ended up out of work and what support they will need to move closer to work.”?
Mind also looked at the fact that all previous job schemes did not do enough for those with mental health conditions, who are the hardest to help and support. The Work programme tailors support to the individual, looking at an individual’s barriers into work. We have helped thousands of people with mental health conditions into work, instead of writing them off. There is more to do, so we are working and doing extra pilots to see how we can better engage with people with mental health conditions.
I was very grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting Crawley last month to see how successfully the Work programme was operating. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Royal British Legion Industries who deliver the Work programme in my constituency for paying great attention to getting disabled people and people with mental health conditions back into work?
Indeed I will join my hon. Friend in celebrating the work of the Royal British Legion and all the other charities and voluntary groups up and down the country as they try to ensure that there is a personalised plan and support for people looking for work. They do an invaluable job, and the people who go into such a field have a passion for getting people into work.
19. One of the greatest disabilities that stops young people getting a job is autism. Is the Minister aware that autism is predicted to cost this country £32 billion a year? Will she stop for a moment being the “hard-hearted Hannah” of the Front Bench and be a little more compassionate about disabled young people looking for work? (907925)
I understand a lot about autism and the extra support, help and work that we need to do. That is why the Secretary of State and I introduced the campaign, Disability Confident, which reaches out to employers and says, “Listen to the needs of the people and find out what we can do and how we can best work with these people.” I do hope that the hon. Gentleman’s comment was not sexist, as I have had very many such comments from the Opposition Benches.
One highlight from my first term in Parliament was meeting a gentleman who had spent 10 years out of work on disability benefits because of depression. Through the Work programme, he got a full-time job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Work programme can give disabled people hope and opportunities for the future, whereas, in the past, they were left on benefits for life?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. What this is all about is understanding how we can help people, especially those with disabilities, and getting them into work. I am glad to say that, over the past year, employment for people with disabilities has risen by 141,000. Nearly half a million people with disabilities have set up their own business. That is what a Conservative Government and a coalition Government can do.
A moment ago, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), I heard the Minister say that the Work programme was exceeding all its targets. Just 7% of those on employment and support allowance in the Work programme have got into jobs, compared with the tender document that said that, by year two, a 15% success rate would be achieved. The programme is not achieving even half that. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in a queue waiting for a work capability assessment with no idea when they will be reassessed. The Access to Work programme, which should help people get into work and get on at work, is supporting fewer people today than when Labour left office in 2010. It is no wonder that the bill for disability benefits is set to be as much as £10 billion higher, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Is the Minister satisfied with that catalogue of failure and waste?
Once again, let me give the Opposition the latest and correct figures. One in 10 of ESA new claimants has found lasting work, which is above anything achieved in the past. What we expected was a level of one in 14, which was already there. Disability employment is up by 141,000 in the past year, and it now stands at more than 3.1 million. We are supporting disabled people into work and into education, and we are proud of our record.
Road Traffic Accidents at Work
The Department for Transport leads on specific legislation relating to road safety, but the Health and Safety Executive does work with the Department for Transport and its agencies to produce joint guidance on driving at work. I understand from statistics produced by the Department for Transport that, in comparison with other countries, the UK remains one of the road safety leaders in the world.
More than three times as many people die when they drive for a living as they do in any other workplace. It is estimated that 20% of accidents are caused by sleepiness. Is it not time to use the expertise that the HSE has used so well in other workplaces and apply it to people who drive for a living, and reduce the death toll from driving?
I know that the hon. Lady has been interested in this issue for a number of years following a tragic death in her constituency in 2006 involving a driver with undiagnosed sleep apnoea. The Health and Safety Executive works with the Department for Transport and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and their medical teams to ensure that people driving, particularly commercially, are safe. They will continue that valuable work and I know that she will continue to raise the issue.
Today I welcome regulations laid in this House to prevent migrant jobseekers from the EU from accessing universal credit if they have never worked in the UK. This is a clear reversal of the open door policy of the past under the previous Government and we are now delivering a fair system for those who work hard in Britain. It is also in line with the fact that more British people find jobs that ended under the previous Government. A higher proportion of the jobs are taken by British people, which means that more people are in work. With welfare having fallen in real terms and a fairer pension system, this Government, as we come to a close, have a record of which to be proud.
An undercover reporter from “Dispatches” has found that staff in the Bolton universal credit call centre, where the system crashed nine times in 20 days, have been told not to inform claimants about same-day advance payment, the flexible support fund or the hardship fund, even though payments are taking at least five weeks to arrive. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the correct way for staff to be told to behave and, if not, what is he going to do about it?
I did read the reports about that and they are wrong. The people the programme talked to are not responsible for talking to claimants about hardship funds. The people who talk about hardship funds are in the jobcentres and I can tell the hon. Lady categorically—she is more than welcome to look at it—that the advice given to them is explicit. They are meant to engage with people immediately if they have any suspicion or if they are asked about this. We are putting up posters in jobcentres to make sure that those people are aware of that and we are also ensuring that all letters on any sanction contain the elements that are relevant. The programme is wrong on this issue.
T4. Since 2010, unemployment has halved in Kettering. Which Minister is responsible month on month for announcing the big reductions in unemployment we have seen and will she step forward to the Dispatch Box to accept the thanks of a grateful nation? (907950)
Obviously, I would like to thank my lovely assistants, who are sitting behind me, in a bit of a role reversal. We are led by the Secretary of State, who 10 years ago wrote about “Breakdown Britain” and “Breakthrough Britain”, and about what a compassionate Conservative Government would want to do by providing a ladder to help people who might have been left in despair to come forward, get a job and prosper. So, to him!
Since our last oral questions, the time it will take fully to roll out universal credit on the basis of the latest figures has increased from 1,571 years to 1,605 years, an increase of 34 years in just 42 days. Let me ask about the effect of the policy. In its original impact assessment, the Department for Work and Pensions said that 2.8 million households would be worse off when the policy is fully rolled out. Will the Secretary of States give us his latest assessment of how many households will be entitled to less support under universal credit?
The hon. Lady is nothing if not persistent with a useless question, so I will now attempt to answer. Universal credit will benefit the vast majority of households in this country. They will be better off, they will be in work more quickly, they will have longer terms in work and they will earn more. The latest work that has been done, which is independently assessed, shows that universal credit is a net benefit to society. It saves money for the Treasury and helps people. I would have thought that she would say that she backs it, but every time she gets to the Dispatch Box she spends her time trying to attack it. Does she not think that if she wants to be elected to government she needs to stand a little taller and be a little more responsible rather than just playing cheap politics?
Instead of lecturing me, perhaps the Secretary of State would like to answer the question. The truth, revealed in a written answer by the Minister for Disabled People on 3 February, is that another 200,000 households are set to be worse off under universal credit, because to make up for all the waste and delays on universal credit, the Government are reducing the support that they provide to low-paid workers. Is not the truth that universal credit—the one policy that the Secretary of State had to build a better benefits system and make work pay—is being continually scaled down and pushed back because of his inability to deliver anything that remotely looks like being on time and on budget, and are not the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on universal credit so far just another example of his welfare waste?
So there we have it: an Opposition who think that they will govern by innuendo and clap-trap. What we have heard from them is a lot of nonsense from start to finish. Listening to the hon. Lady, I wonder whether she is even the slightest bit prepared for government—although she will not be lucky enough to get into government. We heard another little speech from the shadow Chancellor today, in which he did not lay out one single policy on welfare, the economy or anything else at all. What we have from the Opposition—this is why they will not get into government—is constant nonsense, cheap politics and a total waste of time.
T5. I think we must all welcome the Institute for Fiscal Studies report last week, which said that household median incomes are almost back to pre-recession levels. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that that demonstrates that sensible, competent economic policies in government make the difference to people on the street? (907951)
That is absolutely true. While the Opposition moan on about bits and pieces, the reality is that this Government have got on with getting more people into work, getting more stable incomes, and increasing incomes. The cost of living, petrol prices and food prices are falling, and people’s incomes are rising. This Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering a change and an improvement to people’s lives.
T3. Last week Maximus told me that a disabled constituent of mine, who had been waiting more than a year for her ESA claim to be processed, could not be given a date on which that would happen, because many more people had had to wait longer. That does not exactly fill us with confidence, given that Maximus is taking over the Atos contract for assessing personal independence payment claims, or could the Minister give us some meaningful assurance that things can only get better? (907949)
To be fair to Maximus, it took over the contract only eight days ago. I remind the hon. Lady that the company that it took it over from, which had well-published problems, was appointed by a Government of the party of whom she is a member. We have been sorting out that problem. Maximus has been in place for eight days and will improve the position, but the hon. Lady needs to give it a fair crack of the whip. It will not sort out all the problems in a week.
I am very happy to brief my hon. Friend. Tackling the poorer pension outcomes for women has been a long-term priority for him and for me. Our reformed state pension will come in during 2016 and will deliver a fairer pension for women. Millions of women have been automatically enrolled and so will have a pension of their own, on top of a decent state pension—the difference, dare I say it, that a Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister makes.
Responding on the issue of youth unemployment, the Minister for Employment painted a rosy picture, but she needs to take additional action in rural areas, especially those such as mine, where youth unemployment continues to rise month on month and the whole economy is based on agriculture and tourism. What additional support does she think she can genuinely give to areas such as mine?
We have provided a whole array of support. We measured what was working best and asked how we would roll that out. By working with businesses, we found that the answer was work experience, the sector-based work academies, and apprenticeships; we have introduced 2 million of those—and it is national apprenticeship week. Getting young people into a job is about skills, including employability skills, and we are doing as much as we can.
T8. My constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter welcome people coming to this country who want to work hard, pay their taxes and contribute, but they are concerned about those who come to take advantage of our benefits system. Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that this Government take that seriously, and will he outline what we will do about it? (907954)
My hon. Friend is right. When we came into office there was an open door policy—people could come in, be unemployed and claim benefits immediately. They could claim housing benefit. Since we have been in office, we have stopped people claiming housing benefit. They must be resident for three months before they can claim jobseeker’s allowance, and after three months, if they do not have a job or the prospect of a job, they will not be allowed to stay in this country. These changes introduced by this Government and the new ones on universal credit today mean that we are serious about this. Labour never was.
Has the Secretary of State seen the Citizens Advice report which shows that many ESA claimants are left with no money and are reliant on food banks after being told that they are too fit to claim ESA and not fit enough to claim JSA? Most have had to wait up to 10 weeks for a decision. Will the Minister look into this?
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to mandatory reconsideration when somebody is found fit for work, he will know that the average length of time taken to decide one of those is 13 days, not 13 weeks. He will also know that if someone is found fit for work, they are able to claim jobseeker’s allowance and they will receive support from the jobcentre to help them get back into work.
The record now for people moving from benefits into work is remarkable. Some 600,000 have moved back into work. Peak to peak, the figure is over 800,000, and we have many, many more people back in employment. There have never been as many people in work and that number is still growing, with some 700,000 vacancies in the jobcentres every week.
Some 35% of appellants succeed in overturning erroneously imposed JSA sanctions, yet the Minister denies setting sanction targets or expectations. If that is true, how does she explain such appalling performance statistics—a 35% failure rate that masks untold misery and grinding poverty for thousands of our fellow citizens?
I have repeatedly made it clear that there are no limits, no levels and no targets for sanctions. That is the case. We ensure that quality is correct so that people get this right. There will be quality assurance targets and measures that are put in place. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are not correct. Somebody might be told that they have a doubt raised against them, and from that doubt, though they have not been sanctioned, 50% will end up never having a sanction, less than 10% will go on to reconsiderations, and much less than that will go to appeal.
T10. Very good progress has been made both nationally and locally in getting unemployment and youth unemployment down. The answers today show that we should not stop there and put all that at risk. Instead, we should go further. Does the Minister agree that we should be doing even more to help, in particular, young people with disabilities or mental health conditions into work? (907956)
I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend. I know that she has held her Norwich for jobs initiative, which my right hon. Friend the Employment Minister has had the opportunity to go and see. We are keen to make sure that we improve performance in getting people on ESA back into work, and my hon. Friend will know particularly that we are trying a number of things in the area of mental health to make sure that we are more successful in that area.
For international women’s day I visited Westgate community college to see the fantastic work that it is doing to improve the skills of women of all ages and backgrounds, but I was told that this Government’s sanctioning policy means that many women cannot feed their children, and also that some women have to come to mandated courses within two weeks of giving birth for fear of losing benefits. Is this how the Government treat women?
I would like to meet the hon. Lady about these cases because I do not believe they are true. They certainly should not be true because if people had good reason, they would not be sanctioned. People have to take reasonable steps to get a job. We will need to get to the bottom of these cases because that would not be the case. We would not preside over a system where that was the case.
The jobless count among 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency is down 79% since 2010. Does the Employment Minister agree that a degree from a good university is one route into work—and someone who goes to the university of Winchester will be among the 92% who are in employment or further education six months after graduating—but just one route, because one of this Government’s great achievements has been to give young people hope that there are other routes?
My hon. Friend is quite right. University is one route into work, and if it works for people that is great, but apprenticeships are another route, and this Government have done more than any other to get young people into apprenticeships—there are now more than 2 million apprentices—and into work. I know that my hon. Friend works closely with his university and local businesses to make that happen.
Of course we want to ensure that every young person has a chance to get a job, none less so than we on the Government side and the hon. Gentleman, but he must remember that the reason they are unemployed is that the economy crashed and fell by 6% of GDP, and we have to put that right. What we are seeing now is more young people across the country getting back into work. I believe that this does and will affect his constituents for the better, which is exactly what it is all about.
Now that the roll-out of universal credit is beginning in Wiltshire, what effect will it have on the identification of children’s eligibility for free school meals, and what conversations has the Secretary of State had with Ministers in the Department for Education on how that will affect the allocation of the incredibly popular pupil premium?
In the first instance, we have already agreed with the Department for Education on how that will work. It is set on a series of moments when it will apply the free school meals eligibility. I think that it will actually be better than the present system. With regard to the pupil premium, which is in the coalition agreement and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, works successfully, this should have no direct effect on that, other than to improve it.
As Members will be aware, there was a serious breach of security over the weekend. An intruder gained access to the roofs of the Palace on Saturday evening and was arrested in the early hours of Sunday morning. The intruder did not gain access to the inside of the building. I am grateful to the emergency services for their careful handling of the incident. The security authorities expect to be able to produce a full written report tomorrow. The House will wish to know that immediate remedial actions have been and are being taken to address failings in our security arrangements revealed by early analysis of the incident.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am known to be a long-term champion of equality for women in our society and at work. During Question Time, only a few moments ago, I referred to the Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), as “hard-hearted Hannah”, which I think she thinks was a sexist remark. It was not meant as a sexist remark; it is actually the name of a famous song sung by Ella Fitzgerald. The Minister has a reputation for being a very hard champion of the welfare reforms that this Government have introduced, so I believe that it was a fair comment to make and that it was unfair to call me a sexist. [Interruption.]
Order. All I need say is twofold. First, the hon. Gentleman has put his point on the record. Secondly, the way I would prefer to characterise it—I am not arguing with the hon. Gentleman—is that the Minister of State is an extremely robust character who can make her own case with force and skill, as she has done on several occasions today, and indeed at all times. If the Minister, who felt aggressed against and to an extent aggrieved, wishes to speak briefly on the matter, I would of course give her that opportunity.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The reason I want this put on the record is that it is not the first time Opposition Members have been like this to me. John McDonnell came to my constituency and asked people—I know this is unparliamentary language—to “lynch the bitch” live in Wirral West. That is what Labour Members ask people to do in other people’s constituencies. The Opposition have form. [Interruption.]
Order. My role is to seek to defuse this. There are strongly held views on both sides. I asked the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to raise his point of order and he did, and I thought it right that the Minister of State should have a right of reply and she has had it. I understand there are strong feelings. Let us try to preserve the courtesies as best we can in the days and weeks ahead. In all sincerity, I thank—and I mean that—both Members for having made their contribution. We will leave it there.
Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 2 February 2015 (Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.—(Anna Soubry.)
Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, on the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, HC 508, and the Government response, HC 900.]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in Public Bill Committee
Creation of office of Service Complaints Commission
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 25, page 1, leave out line 10 and insert—
“(a) has been a member of the regular or reserve forces in the last five years ending with the day on which the appointment is to take effect, or”
Amendment 26, page 1, line 11, after “(b)”, insert “is”
Amendment 27, page 1, line 13, at end add—
“(4A) (a) The period for which a person is appointed shall be not less than five years and not more than seven years.
(b) A person who has been appointed as Ombudsman may not be re-appointed to the office.”
Amendment 28, in clause 2, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
“(5A) Before making regulations under this section the Defence Council must consult the Service Complaints Ombudsman.”
Amendment 23, page 5, line 15, at end insert—
“(2A) Regulations made under section 340E(1)(b) must specify that in relation to any service complaint which includes allegations of discrimination, harassment, or of being victimised as a result of making such allegations—
(a) where a person is appointed by the Defence Council for the purposes of section 340C(1)(a) or 340D(2)(d) that person must have a proven understanding of discrimination and harassment;
(b) where a panel is appointed by the Defence Council for the purposes of section 340C(1)(a) or 340D(2)(d) at least one member of the panel must have a proven understanding of discrimination and harassment.”
This amendment would require that any regulations made by the Secretary of State must specify that the person, or at least one of the panel members, involved in dealing with Service complaints involving allegations of discrimination or harassment should have a proven understanding of discrimination and harassment.
Amendment 29, page 7, line 32, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 30, page 7, line 34, leave out from “subject to subsection (2),”
Amendment 31, page 7, line 39, leave out subsection (5).
Amendment 32, page 9, line 25, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
“(c) provision for the imposition on those to whom reports are sent of obligations of confidentiality in the interests of—
(i) national security; or
(ii) the safety of any person.”
Amendment 33, page 9, line 30, at end insert—
“(aa) accept the findings and recommendations of the Service Complaints Ombudsman.”
Amendment 34, page 9, line 32, leave out “(if any)”
Amendment 35, page 9, leave out lines 35 to 37.
Amendment 36, page 12, line 14, at end add—
“( ) The Ombudsman may report to the Secretary of State on any matter relating to service complaints and the procedure for the handling of service complaints as the Ombudsman considers appropriate.”
These very important amendments were tabled by the Defence Committee. We shall not press them to a vote, but we want to explain crisply and clearly why we believe them to be very important. They focus above all on four things: the independence, freedom, power and scope of the ombudsman. I shall briefly go through each of the amendments in turn.
The principle on which the Defence Committee has acted is the need to get the balance right with regard to the very particular needs of military law and military discipline, which we accept are completely different from those in the civilian sphere. The kinds of things that soldiers are required to do are quite different from those required by a conventional employer. It is not necessary to lay those differences out in detail, but military discipline and military law have been quite different from civilian law in a series of important respects for 400 years.
It is important that, along with preserving the independence of the military and of military discipline and military law, we ensure that the ombudsman is genuinely trusted and respected. The first ingredient of that is, of course, the ombudsman’s independence and making sure there are no conflicts of interest, which is what the first set of amendments in this group—amendments 24 to 27—seek to ensure. They would make sure that the individual had not been in the military—either in the regular or the reserves—in the previous five years. That conflict of interest is obvious, so it is not worth trying the House’s patience. Put simply, if someone had been a senior general a month before they became the ombudsman, there would be a potential conflict of interest in the relationships they might have developed, so we think that a five year gap is sensible.
The second ingredient, which is in amendment 27, is to push for the term to be non-renewable. That is also about having no conflicts of interest: as the ombudsman do their job, they should not be perpetually thinking about how to get the job again. Our focus is on ensuring that they do the job clearly and crisply, without worrying about whether they will be reappointed—that is independence.
The second set of amendments, Nos. 28 to 32, deals with the freedom of the ombudsman. The Committee is pushing to ensure that the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Council do not put regulations or procedures in the way of the defence ombudsman or the Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces that prevent them from doing their job. We are trying to ensure that although the Ministry of Defence can set the parameters within which the ombudsman operates, it is not in a position to micromanage individual procedures. We believe that the Ministry of Defence should consult the ombudsman on regulations. Finally, on the question of power, we do not believe that the Ministry of Defence should be able to use confidentiality as a reason for denying access to the ombudsman, except in two particular cases: the personal safety of the individual and national security. Except in those cases, the ombudsman should have the scope to pursue an investigation.
The third conceptual issue for the Committee is about the power of the ombudsman. In amendments 33 to 35, we argue that the ombudsman’s recommendations should be binding on the Defence Council. The final conceptual issue is about scope, and amendment 36 touches on thematic reviews. In other words, should the ombudsman find a systemic issue—say, repeated examples of bullying—it may think it necessary to conduct a thematic review of the broader issues.
The Committee will not press the amendments to a vote because the Government have so far addressed them in a constructive fashion. We very much welcome the fact that they have accepted our major amendment to allow the ombudsman to look not simply at maladministration but at the substance of cases. We note that the Government, in appointing Nicola Williams, have already taken into account in practice many of the recommendations that the Committee wanted. We note that in the contract negotiations with her the Government have already ensured that the ombudsman appointed has not been in the armed forces during the previous five years—in fact, Nicola Williams has never been in the armed forces—which deals with our amendments 24 to 26. We note that the Government have said that the appointment will be non-renewable, which is our amendment 27. In practice, the appointment deals with the conflict of interests problem, and we understand that the Government will set out measures in regulations to deal with our anxieties about freedom, power and scope.
However, the Committee will of course watch the Government’s performance on such issues very carefully. Given that the Government do not want to agree to the amendments, that they assure us we can trust them and say that we should look at the precedent set by the appointment of Nicola Williams, and that they will introduce individual regulations to achieve all the measures that the Committee want, we will watch them very carefully. The Committee reserves the right to reintroduce the amendments, particularly in the Armed Forces Bill to be introduced in the next Parliament, if we believe the Government have reneged on what at the moment appears to be a commitment made in good faith, to ensure that the ombudsman’s principles are upheld.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for the way in which he is setting out its views. Will he expand a little more on the concerns expressed in some quarters about the ombudsman not having any military knowledge and experience? How will she address that problem, if it is a problem?
My hon. Friend raised that central question during the Defence Committee’s pre-appointment hearing. We were very pleased that the Committee had an opportunity to meet Nicola Williams and to conduct a pre-appointment hearing with her. We focused very heavily on whether, without military experience, she would feel comfortable in the role. We were very impressed by Nicola Williams. Her arguments and explanations were extremely convincing, she displayed real independence in her role in the Cayman Islands, and she seemed to have the right balance of independence and respect for the institution. We were very happy, as a Committee, to approve her appointment.
To conclude, this matter is very important to the Defence Committee. We are not conventionally a Committee that looks at legislation. The nature of our work is not usually to scrutinise individual Bills, because a great deal of the work of the Ministry of Defence is not connected with legislation. However, we feel that it is very important in the setting up of the ombudsman that Parliament, and the Defence Committee in particular, is carefully involved.
We accept that it is a step in the right direction that the post of ombudsman has gone from thee days a week to a full-time job, and from having five employees to having more than 20. We accept that it is a good move that the Defence Committee has the power to hold an appointment hearing on the ombudsman. We also think it is good that the Government have accepted amendments from the Defence Committee. Aside from the inherent merits of those amendments, it is simply good procedure that in setting up an ombudsman, the Executive listen to the legislative branch and give Parliament and the Defence Committee the chance to influence the procedure. The ombudsman will have trust only if they bring not just the Ministry of Defence but Parliament, the public and institutions such as the Defence Committee with them. On those grounds, I move the amendment, but will not press it to a vote.
I shall speak briefly to the amendments tabled by the Defence Committee and to amendment 23, which I tabled.
The armed forces, as I frequently tell my constituents, are a closed institution with their own language, dress code and standards. Most personnel live a closed life that is mostly unobserved by society, but which represents the highest values of our society. The armed forces also have their own internal disciplinary system and legal system—AGAI 67. Abuses of the system can remain hidden and have done, as seen in the double jeopardy cases I have discussed in the House and in the Public Bill Committee. Those cases were revealed only because of whistleblowers.
One of the most important things we must accept about the armed forces is that innate to them is a huge desire for justice. Armed forces personnel have a huge recognition of the importance of justice and the importance of people being dealt with fairly. However, papers frequently come through my office that demonstrate that the service complaints system to date has not necessarily been working fairly.
I welcome the changes that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), accepted in Committee. I also welcomed her intervention on Second Reading when she revealed that the issue of double jeopardy would be addressed. I hope we shall have regular updates on the efforts to access the 587 ex-employees, 194 of whom had their service terminated and five of whom had their rank reduced.
Armed forces personnel have limited access to employment tribunals. It is therefore critical that the internal system operates well and gives a sense of confidence to armed forces personnel. We know that the delays are growing. As the number of armed forces personnel decreases, the pressure on personnel increases. The number of people who investigate and adjudicate in the matter of service complaints is also decreasing. As I have said, the creation of the service complaints ombudsman and the changes that were introduced in Committee are the last chance for the armed forces to maintain the current closed system.
In Committee, the delays for serving soldiers and those employed by the Ministry of Defence in getting their complaints heard concerned me greatly. There are also people who have lost their jobs or who have been suspended—one of my constituents has been suspended for four years on full pay. Will the proposed changes restore much-needed confidence in the process?
In many respects that is the critical issue, and I hope the Defence Committee will take an active role in monitoring and adjudicating on whether we need to come back to the Bill and decide whether further changes are necessary. Papers that I received this morning tell me that 74% of the Army’s open service complaints exceed the 24-week deadline—six months—and only 51% of new service complaints in the RAF were resolved in 24 weeks during 2014. In January 2015, the Army had 724 service complaints outstanding from 2013 and previous years. The Navy had 144, and the RAF 165. Those figures are deeply worrying—we are about to introduce a new, complex system with opportunities for the ombudsman to be much more proactive in intervening in service complaints, yet we already have a huge backlog of complaints. I would like the Minister to address whether those outstanding complaints will be subject to the new rules introduced by the Bill, and whether they will be assessed under rules of maladministration. That will be one of the critical deciders as to whether there is confidence for those who have been held in the system and experienced horrendous delays.
Parliament sets the standards that it expects our armed forces to operate to, and it must have confidence that the internal military system works. As I said, Parliament has the opportunity in 2015 to review further the operation of the service complaints system, and to remove control of the system from the chain of command unless we see the changes that we want and our armed forces deserve. Internal papers that come our way suggest that, increasingly, reserves will be used to help to deal with complaints. Will the Minister say how often reserves will be used to sit on panels and change the way that complaints are dealt with?
There are positives to using reserves, because they come with a wider perspective of life outside the armed forces and know how some of the bullying and harassment, and some of the horrendous cases that have come to public attention, would be dealt with in a wider employment setting. That could be a constructive move forward, but it is important at least to be clear about what is happening, whether reserves are being used in that way, and what skills they are bringing to the complaints system and its operation.
There are a number of complaints within the current system such as poor quality entry of complaints into the joint personnel administration system, which is where complaints are held. Indeed, in December 2014 the service complaints wing identified more than 70 service complaints that had not been notified through the unit as a service complaint, and had not been entered on to the system. We therefore do not even know whether we are still getting accurate figures for service complaints. On delay, as I have said, the numbers are growing. It is important that people feel confidence in the system, and that the system is seen as robust and working.
I wish to speak briefly to my amendment 23, which deals with the training of armed forces personnel in matters of discrimination and harassment. The amendment requires that regulations made by the Secretary of State must specify that the person, or at least one of the panel members, dealing with service complaints involving allegations of discrimination or harassment should have a proven understanding of discrimination and harassment. The amendment is welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Parliamentary questions I asked last year revealed the military’s lack of understanding on these issues. When I raised the question of how many people in the armed forces had had equality and diversity training, I was told that Royal Navy serving personnel receive two hours of training every two years. In the Army there is half an hour of training every year, and in the RAF there is two hours every three years. For new entrants to the armed forces, the Royal Navy provides three hours, the Army two hours and the RAF two and a half hours of equality and diversity training.
Armed forces personnel go to employment tribunals in very few cases involving discrimination. At the same time as I was receiving that answer from the Minister, the Ministry of Defence was being taken to an employment tribunal. In the judgment for Williams v. Ministry of Defence, the employment tribunal stated that the
“cavalier and abject failure to follow the clear guidelines provided by the Code of Practice under the Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor legislation is shocking as too is the seeming lack of knowledge of and education in issues of equality by those in higher ranks within the organisation”.
The tribunal found the claimant, the most senior ranking nurse in the Royal Navy, had suffered sex discrimination in relation to promotion. It made 13 wide-ranging recommendations, including equality and diversity training for those involved in assignment, promotion and recruitment decisions.
In another case, Boswell v. MOD, from 2013, we find yet more evidence of the impact that this lack of basic understanding can have. The employment tribunal commented that in dealing with Mr Boswell’s complaints of discrimination, the MOD had
“very much let down a distinguished and long serving member of the armed forces”
and that a
“lack of proper appreciation of the importance of addressing discrimination complaints have been a very real barrier to any clear thinking on the part of the respondent in addressing the discrimination that the claimant has sought to complain of internally.”
I do not intend to press amendment 23 to a Division, but I hope that this issue will be dealt with in regulation. The Minister knows me well and knows that I will continue to monitor and pursue this matter. It is only right that the serving members of our armed forces should not face bullying, harassment and discrimination in serving their country and placing their lives on the line.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and the Defence Committee for their work on the Bill. The Committee produced an excellent report covering some major concerns about the system of redress for members of our armed forces which, I have to say, have been raised for many years. The amendments tabled in Committee and on Report today show how effective a Select Committee can be when it does its job. We covered many of the amendments in Committee, and as the hon. Gentleman said, he is not going to press his to a vote, but some of these issues will need to be looked at in regulations. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said that she would keep a close eye on the regulations, and I am sure that the Committee will as well.
The issue that amendments 24 to 28 deal with has followed me throughout my time in Parliament—I was on the Committee that discussed similar matters when we set up the Service Complaints Commissioner—so I am pleased today that we are moving to where we should have been back then, with an ombudsman with the powers and effectiveness that our armed forces require. On the commissioner’s length of service, the suggestion, which we supported in Committee, is between five and seven years, to give the person time to establish themselves and avoid the situation that we see with many public appointments where the person spends more time in the last few years trying to ensure their reappointment than doing an effective job. For that reason, we will have to consider the time limits for the ombudsman.
When we set up the commissioner, it was argued vociferously, especially by Conservative Back Benchers, that they had to have military experience, but I think the present commissioner has shown otherwise. She has done a very effective job without a service background and has earned the respect of the members of the armed forces she has worked with, and I look forward to the new armed forces ombudsman carrying on that tradition. It is important that the position be seen to be independent and that it gives complainants confidence that individuals cannot use the old boys’ network, as it was called in Committee, to influence the ombudsman or commissioner. Much strength has been gained from having someone, in Susan Atkins, who has done a forensic job and taken the trouble, time and effort to understand how our armed forces work and the cultural differences between them. As those who have dealt with them know, they are very different, have their individual cultures and in the past have differed in their implementation of various forms of discipline.
Under the amendments, the Defence Council would consult the ombudsman before making regulations, which, again, I do not see as a threat; it could help the council and the MOD ensure that regulations have an independent eye cast over them. Just as the Defence Committee has played a role in developing the Bill, so I see a role for it in scrutinising regulations and how it is put into practice. It might be a good idea for it to look back, perhaps in a year or so, to see how it has worked in practice.
My hon. Friend was a signatory to the 2003 report that followed the Deepcut barracks incidents, when the Committee started work on such a system. I pay tribute to him and other Committee members who have worked consistently to get to this situation, and I am sure that the next Committee will be equally diligent in ensuring we go further. Would he agree?
What—praise myself? Surely not, so modest as I am! I wish to put on the record, however, my thanks to my hon. Friend, who is retiring at the election, for his service on the Committee. I think he has been a member for most of his time in Parliament. He has not only shown a keen interest in the subject, but cares about the issues.
I will develop the point further on Third Reading, but it is good to see this legislation coming into being. Should it have happened earlier? Yes. Do the inerrant conservatisms within the system work? Yes, I think they do. When the idea of having an armed forces Service Complaints Commissioner was brought forward, to hear some people talking about it one would have thought that the earth would stop spinning on its axis if such a person were created—but it has not: it has helped the chain of command and provided greater transparency over the tough decisions that we recognise have to be made. When this Bill comes into force, the same question will arise again—why did we not do this many years before?
Amendments 32 to 36 deal with the issue of whether the ombudsman will have teeth and whether the decisions she takes should be accepted and then enforced on the Defence Council. I said in Committee that we would support the amendments. Time will tell, but I think it would be a brave Defence Councillor or Minister who turned round and rejected a recommendation from the armed services ombudsman. What the Defence Committee wanted to achieve through these amendments will in practice become simply a part of the normal system and the Defence Council will accept the ombudsman’s recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend makes a good point in her amendment 23, and I pay tribute to her tenacity in pursuing this Bill and to her broader support for ensuring that when things go wrong in our armed forces, individuals get the justice they deserve. Her amendment refers to discrimination and harassment. She makes a good point that it is important for at least one of the individuals on the board to have full knowledge and training in relevant areas. The new ombudsman can look at the issues raised today and assist the armed forces by ensuring that the personnel on the panels have the necessary training and expertise.
We shall not press for a vote on the amendments, but many of the issues that have arisen from them today will be dealt with through regulations. It is important that, in drawing them up, the Ministry of Defence takes into account the clear concerns raised by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and the Defence Committee. I would not want regulations somehow to limit or put a straitjacket on the operations of the new armed services ombudsman.
I said the same thing when the Service Complaints Commissioner was appointed, and I shall say it again. Our armed forces and the military generally have nothing to fear from this new appointment. It will enhance the transparency we expect and, if it is done properly, it will improve the problem identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend—that complaints are taking far too long to resolve. In any other walk of life, it would be unacceptable to allow such long delays. As I say, this will help the armed forces. Anyone who has ever dealt with a complaints system or disciplinary procedures knows that the quicker they are resolved the better. This helps to ensure that the system is fair and that, even if individuals do not like the outcome of the disciplinary procedures, they will at least know that their cases will be dealt with quickly and effectively.
I think that the Defence Committee has done a great job, and that the Bill has been vastly improved. I hope that some of the issues that have been raised here can be dealt with in regulations.
I pay tribute to the Defence Committee for its work, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for his sensible comments. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for her long-standing work, and thank her for her contribution today. I am afraid I cannot thank her for everything, because she came to see me last week and gave me part of her very filthy cold; but, as ever, she spoke with great force, and rightly made it clear—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border—that Members would be watching the ombudsman’s progress very carefully.
While I am confident that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend will be back here on 10 May, I do not necessarily have the same confidence in my own return. However, I can tell them that, should I be in such a fortunate position thanks to the support of the people of Broxtowe, I too will be keeping an eye on the progress of the ombudsman, regardless of the Bench on which I find myself sitting. Of course, in an ideal world the ombudsman would not have to do any work at all. Would it not be marvellous if she had no work to do? Unfortunately, however, she will have a great deal of work to do, because we have a system that, as we know, is not performing as it should be.
When I had the great pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland and meeting my hon. Friend—as I now consider him to be—the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we spoke about the Bill and about the complaints system. He reminded me earlier today of the genuine concern that he feels about delay. Under the existing system, we hear all too often from members of all three services that there is too much delay, and that there is no excuse for it.
There are sometimes good reasons for delay. It is in the nature of service life that it may not be possible to find a witness—or even a complainant—for some time, because members of the armed forces may be on operations for at least six months. Someone who is serving on a submarine will be literally out of contact for those six months, or longer. Delay may also be caused by the complexity of a case, especially if it relates to allowances or pensions. However, all too often it is clearly due to the attitude that is taken. Complainants may be told, “I am very busy. I have a lot of other things on my plate. We are putting together a group of people to build a hospital in Sierra Leone. It is a crisis. It is an emergency and it is not going to wait, but your complaint can wait.”
We must change that attitude. A good, expeditious system will deliver justice. I know many people fear that false complaints will be lodged, but an effective system will ensure that only right and just complaints are dealt with, and people will then begin to have confidence in the system.
I thank the Minister for accepting what we said in Committee, and for responding to it so positively. We felt that the delays were untenable and unfair, and were creating problems. Does the Minister think that the new system will enable people to have confidence in it, and to believe that, at long last, the delays will be reduced and they will be helped to secure the satisfaction that they seek?
I believe that if the Bill passes through all its remaining stages, of which there are not too many, and if we extend the remit of Nicola Williams, in whom we all have confidence, to create the role of the ombudsman—following the passing of amendments in Committee that the Government did not oppose—the system will be hugely improved, and people will have more confidence in it. It also sends out a very clear message to our armed forces that they have got to sharpen up now and absolutely make sure that when somebody makes a complaint, whether it is a more serious and more appalling bullying and harassment complaint—which mercifully are rare; we know there is nothing peculiar about our armed forces that means we have more such complaints than other professions or fields of work—or complaints about allowances or pay or whatever, it is taken seriously and is acted upon not only fairly and justly, but with all due diligence and expeditiously, so we do not have these delays.
Does the hon. Lady agree that what we are talking about this evening is a continuation of the good work done by the last two Governments through their respective Armed Forces Bills—the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I are, I think, the only two Members who served on both occasions?
Yes, I do. Both the hon. Member for North Durham and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border have said that we have seen a progression to where we are today, and we must understand and recognise that some think this is a step too far. They think we have gone too far and perceive some threat to the chain of command. I absolutely do not believe that, but things often take time to develop in the ways we want. I am absolutely confident that we have struck the right balance.
The question of whether this is a fundamental threat to the chain of command is a central point. Although people are very polite and do not put this about, I know a lot of colleagues and people in the armed forces are concerned that this is going too far. Will the Minister lay out more clearly why this is not a threat to the chain of command?
This Bill—it has now been amended and we have accepted the amendments—changes the ombudsman’s remit but not her powers. Somebody who brings a complaint to Nicola Williams can be absolutely confident that it will be thoroughly and properly dealt with, and that she will be in a position to make her recommendations. She has access to Ministers and to others in the chain of command, and can go to them at any time. That chain of command is not under threat because of her. Indeed, I am confident that the creation of the ombudsman will give the chain of command the understanding—the hon. Member for Bridgend or the hon. Member for North Durham made this point—that it has nothing to fear from the ombudsman, nor from a better system, because if complaints are dealt with properly and expeditiously, and fairly and justly, we will have a better team and group of people. This will only strengthen the chain of command’s ability to conduct its business.
Although we have heard a lot about complaints, may I put it on the record that the chain of command deals very properly with most of the problems in the units for which it has responsibility and that we are talking about only a relatively small percentage of people? I just wanted to make that point, because all we have heard is complaints, complaints, complaints. There are not many complaints from the vast number of people who are dealt with properly by the officers in charge of them.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I thought I had made it, but there is no harm in his repeating and endorsing it. Of course the majority serve without any complaint, but sometimes, as my hon. Friend knows, in any organisation there are bad apples, and even in a modern world there are times when people are undoubtedly bullied, and are undoubtedly the subject of discrimination and harassment; there are times when we get it wrong. The hon. Member for Bridgend knows of a very good example of not bullying or harassment but what she called double jeopardy, where something has been done wrong. That may well be to the detriment of certain people, in which case they are right to raise that complaint and we need good, strong systems. No organisation gets things 100% right, and when they go wrong people must have confidence that their complaint will be dealt with fairly and justly, and that if it is not they can go somewhere else—to the ombudsman, in this instance. Now that we have agreed to the amendments tabled in Committee, it will not only be maladministration that can be taken into account. The merits of the case and the matter of delay will also be considered.
I know that we are not going to vote on the amendments, but I should like to tell the House why the Government resist them. Amendment 23 would require anyone appointed to decide on a complaint or on an appeal that related to harassment, discrimination or victimisation to have a proven understanding of such matters. We all acknowledge that these can be among the more complex complaints, as they involve relationships that have gone wrong in one way or another. However, no record is or could reasonably be kept of those who may have an understanding of such matters so that they could be called upon when required, as the amendment proposes. I understand the principle behind the amendment, and there is no doubt that it is entirely well intentioned, but I cannot agree to it—certainly at this stage—for the reasons I have just stated.
Amendments 24 to 26 would require there to be a gap of five years between a person ending their service in the regular or reserve forces and becoming eligible to be appointed to the post of service complaints ombudsman. The provision in the Bill simply requires that the individual to be appointed to the post should not currently be a member of the regular or reserve forces or of the civil service. Our people will rightly expect the ombudsman to carry out the role with impartiality and professionalism. That person should also of course be demonstrably independent of those whom they seek to hold to account for the way in which complaints have been handled. For that reason, the ombudsman will be outside the chain of command and will have access to Ministers and to all levels of the chain of command whenever he or she deems it necessary. I make no apology for repeating that the ombudsman will be able to approach the chain of command and Ministers at any time, at any level and on any issue, should they need to do so.
Being in offices that are outside the defence estate and recruiting their own staff in line with civil service recruitment guidelines will further reinforce the ombudsman’s independence from the services and from the Ministry of Defence. A further mark of the role’s independence and the security of the post holder’s tenure is the fact that the Bill provides that the post holder’s appointment will be subject to approval by Her Majesty the Queen. Yet another measure of their independence is that the House of Commons Defence Committee will conduct a pre-appointment hearing with the MOD’s preferred candidate.
Our aim is to attract high quality candidates and to get the best person for this important job. These amendments would restrict the field of possible candidates and exclude those who might have recent, relevant experience. We want therefore to retain the flexibility provided under the Bill’s current provisions, and I must stress that any previous armed forces experience can and will be scrutinised and fully assessed for any impact it might have on perceptions of the candidate’s independence. For those reasons, these proposals are resisted.
Amendment 27 would require the length of the ombudsman’s term in office, and a statement that it was non-renewable, to be set out in the legislation. It would require that the ombudsman not be appointed for fewer than five years or longer than seven, and that the term could not be renewed. The amendment’s aim is to ensure that the person appointed to be the ombudsman would not be influenced in their assessment of how the complaints system was operating or, in their investigation of maladministration claims, by concerns about whether they would be reappointed. It also aims to give the ombudsman, and those whom they serve, some certainty about the length of time they would be in post and to make that term of office a reasonable enough length for the post holder to get to grips with the role and to see through changes.
I fully acknowledge all those aims, but I do not accept that those provisions need to be set out on the face of the Bill in order for those matters to be enforced or to give certainty and confidence. The matters have been set out in the letter of appointment for the current commissioner, and we believe that to be the right approach. We want to retain the flexibility to amend those terms of appointment if experience suggests that that might be necessary. The amendment is therefore resisted.
Amendments 29 to 31 would remove the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations about the ombudsman’s procedure for investigations in new section 340I, leaving it to the ombudsman to determine its own procedure. The Secretary of State is responsible to Parliament for the effective operation of the whole service complaints system, including the ombudsman stage, so it is right that certain basic matters are prescribed in regulations. One or two matters, such as time limits, are required to be in regulations in order for the ombudsman to be able to enforce them. The ombudsman is a creature of statute and so only has the powers Parliament provides him or her with. It is up to the ombudsman in each case to determine the procedure for carrying out any investigation. The published draft Armed Forces (Service Complaints Ombudsman Investigations) regulations make it clear that there is no intention unduly to restrict the ombudsman in how it investigates matters. Rather than restrict the ombudsman, we encourage the ombudsman to set her own details of procedural rules. The Secretary of State’s powers through regulations are supplementing powers, rather than limiting ones, in that they enable the ombudsman to have the powers she requires to be effective.
We do believe that some of those details are best set out in regulations, making clear the parameters for the ombudsman’s investigative process. Those include, for example, the ability to hold oral hearings and to provide individuals with the right to be represented at any such hearing. As this is a new ombudsman, we would like to retain the flexibility—again—to amend the procedures based on experience of the system as it develops, which is why we have not set out detailed procedural rules in the Bill. That flexibility enables the system to be more efficient, effective and independent. For those reasons, these amendments are resisted.
Amendment 32 would amend the Bill so that confidentiality obligations that could be imposed by the ombudsman on those to whom she sends investigation reports would be limited to issues of national security and the personal safety of individuals. The amendment would remove the ability to reflect any wider issues about the protection of sensitive information that is currently provided for in the Bill and in regulations. That current provision is important and should be retained. The ombudsman may need to see some sensitive information in order to be able fully to investigate whether maladministration has occurred. The ombudsman will be expected to act in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 in the handling and processing of personal data.
Under the Bill, the ombudsman may send an investigation report to any person she considers appropriate. We would expect the ombudsman to place confidentiality obligations on the recipient where the report contains sensitive personal data or other information confidential to the Department, including for reasons of national security. In addition, regulations may make further provision about these obligations, as specified in new section 340L(7)(c). These regulations are not aimed at curtailing freedom of speech; rather they are to ensure that sensitive information is properly protected. For those reasons, amendment 32 is resisted.
Amendments 33 to 35 seek to make the ombudsman’s findings and recommendations binding on the Defence Council. The Government have made clear in the other place and in Committee in this House their intention that the findings of the ombudsman will be binding on the Defence Council, and the services accept this. The legal effect of ombudsman findings is not specified in other legislation, and the courts have had no difficulty in determining, in those contexts, that they are binding on the receiving organisation. We simply do not regard it as necessary to specify the legal effect of findings in the Bill.
Our position in relation to the ombudsman’s recommendations is slightly different. First, as was explained in the other place and again in Committee in this House, our view is that the recommendations will clearly have some legal effect. The Defence Council will not be free simply to reject the recommendations because it disagrees with them. It would need to have very good, cogent, written reasons to do so, such as where the implementation of the recommendations in full was simply unworkable or where significant resource implications may be involved. It is right that the Defence Council should be able to reach the final decision on matters covered in any recommendations made by the ombudsman. The focus of the Defence Council will therefore be, in most cases where the ombudsman has made recommendations, to decide precisely how it will respond. That may simply be a matter of implementing the recommendation, whether it is for an appropriate apology to be made or for a part of the process to be rerun. For those reasons, the legal effect of findings and recommendations will not be specified in the Bill, and these amendments must be resisted.
Amendment 36 widens the scope of matters on which the ombudsman can make a report beyond those already provided for in the ombudsman’s annual report. They are the operation of the complaints process, the execution of their role and any other matters that the ombudsman considers necessary, or that the Secretary of State may direct. The existing provisions at proposed new section 340O are sufficient to cover what the amendment seeks to provide, and for that reason I must resist it.
I wish now to deal with the questions of the hon. Member for Bridgend. In relation to outstanding complaints to be dealt with under the new system, I hope that she will be pleased to hear that we are still looking to put in place transitional arrangements. We are not ruling the matter out on the grounds of retrospection, but we recognise that there would be a benefit in existing complaints having access to the ombudsman; we get that. Our plans will be clear in the regulations, which will be published later on this year.
On the question about reserves, we are already making sensible use of reservists in the existing process. The Army and the RAF already use reservist officers to complement complaint panels, and there is no reason why that should not continue. As is ever the case with reservists, they bring from their civilian life huge amounts of experience. That other side of their life will no doubt enhance their ability to look at complaints with a different eye and a bit of freshness that others sitting on panels may not have—I mean no criticism here—by virtue of being in service for a long time.
As I have said before during the passage of the Bill, there is no bar in this Bill to the ombudsman raising matters that concern them with whoever they wish and whenever they wish, but that does not need to be set out in legislation. The previous service complaints commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins—we pay tribute to her for her work—raised a wide range of matters with the chain of command during her tenure, and, if I can put it in this way, she took no prisoners. She also made mention of whatever matters she so chose to in her annual reports with provisions that were the same as those provided for in this Bill, so we have no reason to think that the ombudsman will not do exactly the same. For all the reasons that I have outlined, these amendments are resisted.
I reiterate what the Defence Committee said, which is that the amendments are extremely important conceptual points relating to the independence of the ombudsman and conflict of interest; the power of the ombudsman; the freedom of the ombudsman to operate; and the scope of the ombudsman. We will not press the amendment to a vote at this time. That is a good will gesture to the Government, who have made a concession on an important amendment.
I also wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has been the guiding spirit and soul of this process from the beginning to the end. She has kept the Defence Committee focused and she has kept it honest. I hope that she feels a real sense of achievement at having got through this extremely important amendment.
I beg to move amendment 1, page 6, line 28, after “may”, insert “, on an application to the Ombudsman by a person within subsection (1A),”
This amendment clarifies the provision made in new section 340H(1) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (inserted by clause 2 of the Bill) about the making of applications to the Service Complaints Ombudsman. See also amendment 5.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 2 to 6
Amendment 22, page 6, line 37 at end insert—
“() for the purposes of subsection (1)(c)—
“Undue delay” should be considered any length of time longer than one calendar year, or a length of time that the Ombudsman determines constitutes an undue delay in relation to a given complaint.”
This amendment defines “undue delay” for the purposes of paragraph (c) of new section 340H(1) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (see Government amendment 4).
Government amendments 7 to 21
The amendments make the changes to the Bill agreed in Committee and ensure that they work correctly from a drafting point of view. I do not mean to insult or to criticise anyone, but we had to ensure that these amendments had the effect that the majority of the Committee wanted. I also want to make it clear that the Government accept the changes made in Committee and that nothing in these amendments seeks to row back on what the Committee agreed. I hope that hon. Members will accept that, because I have seen all the key players—I now see that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is sitting at the back. He might take offence at that, but I hope that he does not. We have done that quite deliberately so that everybody knows why the amendments have been proposed. They fill in significant gaps left by the amendments agreed in Committee and, in particular, ensure that the ombudsman can make recommendations following an investigation into a service complaint, giving her decisions the necessary teeth.
The amendments agreed in Committee reflect some of the recommendations made by the Defence Committee in its report on the Bill, which was published last October. I am grateful for the Defence Committee’s work on the Bill and it is clear that the changes agreed in Committee now have cross-party support, as they did in the Defence Committee. The Government have listened to the arguments made in Committee and by others on Second Reading and have accepted them. I therefore hope that the amendments will be supported across the House.
The Public Bill Committee agreed that the role of the ombudsman should be extended in three ways. The first was that the ombudsman should be allowed to look at the substance or merits of an individual complaint and not just whether it had been handled correctly by the services. In other words, she should be able to consider not just maladministration. The second was that the ombudsman should look for any maladministration that had occurred, not just that alleged by the complainant. If during the course of examining that complaint she comes across any other maladministration, she should be able to consider that.
Those are changes to the ombudsman’s remit, but it is important to emphasise a point that has sometimes been lost in our debates. The ombudsman will ordinarily become involved in individual complaints only once the consideration of them by the services has finished. It is important to reiterate that if an individual makes a complaint it should go through all the necessary stages and processes and if there is no finding in the complainant’s favour, meaning that he or she feels that the grievance has not been met—that they have not won, if you like—they can go to the ombudsman. If complaints are successfully dealt with by the services, there is no need for those complaints to go to the ombudsman. Most complaints are satisfactorily resolved, as one might imagine they would be in any complaints system.
It is important to make a point because the third change agreed in Committee is to allow the ombudsman to investigate allegations of undue delay, as I said to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) earlier, in three different respects: as part of a maladministration investigation, in relation to an ongoing “live” complaint, and pre-complaint. As I am sure you have worked out, Mr Speaker, I mean that when somebody has made a complaint that has got stuck and has not been got on with, even though it has not been completed, that person can go to the ombudsman. Even before a complaint has got into the system, if it is thought that there has been some prevarication or undue delay, the complainant can go to the ombudsman to unstick whatever is gluing things up.
It is in everyone’s interests to have a complaints process in which roles and powers are clear so that there is no confusion. It is also important that the wishes of the individual remain at the heart of the process, given that this is an individual’s grievance procedure. It is about that individual and his or her grievance. It remains the case that the services will in every case still be left to decide how to respond to any findings or recommendations made by the ombudsman, even in relation to the extended remit that the ombudsman will now have.
We have dealt with the amendments made in Committee with those points firmly in mind and the Government’s amendments today make the necessary additional changes to the rest of the Bill’s provisions, which were left untouched by the amendments in Committee, so that there can be no doubt about the precise scope of the ombudsman’s powers. That is why proposed new section 340H(1), as amended by our amendments, will set out in good strong terms that the ombudsman can investigate the following: a service complaint when that complaint has completed the internal system, making it clear that the ombudsman can look into the merits of a complaint; an allegation of a mishandling of service complaints, including undue delay, when that complaint has completed the internal system, which deals with maladministration; and allegations that a service complaint has been unduly delayed before the complaint has completed the internal system or, as I have explained, that there was undue delay before a service complaint was made.
Do I assume that if the Service Complaints Commissioner looks at a matter and says that there is no case to answer, it can finish there, rather than there being a long process? Can the commissioner say, “There is no case to answer; this matter is finished”?
If somebody says that there has been undue delay, but the commissioner finds that there has not, she can certainly say so, though at that stage, of course, she would not be looking at the merits of the case. If somebody makes a complaint and goes through the system, and there is no finding in their favour, and then says, “I will now go to the ombudsman on the question of the merits of the case”, it is absolutely the ombudsman’s role to look at whether there is any merit to the case. If she thinks that there is no merit to it, she will not flinch from saying so. I hope that satisfies my hon. Friend.
It is now possible to apply to the ombudsman alleging undue delay when a complaint in the internal system has not been concluded, or indeed when a complaint has not even been made, so it is important that the Bill sets out for the avoidance of doubt what is meant by the internal process having been completed. That is effected by putting the phrase “finally determined” in proposed new section 340H(1); an explanation of the term is provided in proposed new subsection (5). Several hon. Members raised that issue with me before the debate in private—I mean nothing untoward by that. I want to make it clear for the Hansard record that the phrase “finally determined” does not in any way preclude the ombudsman’s looking into the merits or maladministration of a complaint. It is simply there to make it clear that she can do that only once consideration of the complaint by the services through the internal system has been completed, and only when the applicant has asked the ombudsman to investigate in accordance with the requirements of the Bill. The phrase brings clarity.
It remains important for the ombudsman to have a reasonably clear idea of what the applicant wants them to look into, and for investigations to remain focused and proportionate. One of the amendments would insert a new subsection (4)(b) in section 340H, requiring the applicant to specify which type or types of investigation the complainant wants the ombudsman to carry out. This is not an onerous obligation, and it will help to focus the efforts of the ombudsman on what is most important to the applicant. That is connected with the amendment that would insert new subsection (1)(b) in new section 340I, giving the ombudsman the discretion to decide whether to investigate the whole service complaint or allegation, or just part of it.
New section 340H also reflects the change to the ombudsman’s ability to report on any maladministration identified during an investigation of a complainant’s allegation of maladministration. We want the ombudsman to be free to report on any other aspect of mishandling that she may come across, and have amended the Bill accordingly to make this clear throughout the relevant provisions. Our changes provide an essential clarification to the amendments agreed in Committee; those amendments would have required the ombudsman to look for any maladministration in every investigation, whether or not it had been alleged by the complainant. The amendment that we propose to new section 340H(6) clarifies the scope of this new aspect of the ombudsman’s investigative power.
It is equally important for everyone that it is clear what the ombudsman can do on completing an investigation. Her ability to produce a report with findings and recommendations is fundamental to the view that many will rightly have about whether this new role really does have teeth. The Government amendments will also fill a gap that was left when amendments were made in Committee. We would amend new section 340L to make it clear that the ombudsman must, after carrying out an investigation, prepare a report setting out her findings and recommendations. After an investigation of a service complaint, the ombudsman will need to issue findings stating whether the complaint was well founded, and will need to make any recommendations to ensure appropriate redress. The Defence Council retains responsibility for responding to those findings and recommendations, in accordance with new section 340M. The Government amendments also clarify that the ombudsman must set out any recommendations as a result of a finding of maladministration or undue delay.
This group of amendments is a relatively large one, but it is necessary to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are clear. The amendments also ensure that the drafting is coherent and complete, while giving full effect to the amendments agreed to in Committee, which had cross-party support. In a couple of important respects, which I have outlined, they also improve the amendments which were agreed to in Committee.
We could have been, shall I say, a little bit naughty. When we saw what had been voted for, we could have left it there, knowing that it did not do the job that we knew the Committee wanted it to do. We accordingly went to our draftsmen and draftswomen and we have made sure that the spirit of the Committee is now being put into law.
Without being too pedantic or too pompous at this point, there is an important procedural point here when we discuss being naughty or otherwise. There is an important conceptual element in setting up an ombudsman, which is showing respect to Parliament, respect to the Committee system—respect to both the Bill Committee and the Select Committee. Rather than getting into the ins and outs of politics, I encourage the Minister to see this as a great success and a great model for the way such things can go forward in the future.
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. We could have played politics, but I absolutely was not going to do that. My officials would not dream of such a thing, of course, but we could have done that because the amendments were not clear. I took the firm view that it was clear what the Committee wanted and that we should do everything we could to put it into effect. There was a good argument for waiting until the next armed forces Bill, but I took the view that that would not be right. It was clear what the Defence Committee wanted and what the Public Bill Committee wanted. That is why the Government have tabled the amendments. We know that that is, in effect, the will of the legislature. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) nodding.
The amendments will give us a Bill and a process that will help our people understand when they can approach the ombudsman, on what matters and at what stage of the process, and they will give the ombudsman the teeth needed to hold the services and the MOD to account. I therefore commend amendments 1 to 21 to the House.
Amendment 22, which is in my name, seeks to define “undue delay”. I pay respect to the Minister, who has taken time to meet everyone involved with the Bill. We had considerable discussion on the issue of undue delay and how it could be defined, and we agreed that, although I would not press the amendment today, it was important that there was a dialogue about delay.
There are two things that one can say for certain about the current complaints system: delay is an endemic problem within the system, and everyone is aware of it. It came to the attention of the Committee many times that only 25% of cases are resolved within a 24-week target, and only 26% of complaints made in 2013 were closed during that year. The internal risk register looking at the implementation of the service ombudsman Bill within the MOD stated that there was a high risk that the system would lose further internal credibility if there was continuing media exposure of how powerless the ombudsman is. Rather than media exposure taking place, it is important that the system operates well so that there can be internal confidence.
There is a high risk that the system will continue to fail and that current delays will continue. There is a high risk that service personnel will be let down, damaging their mental health and leading to suicide attempts. None of us wants to see any of that, which is why the Defence Committee has worked as closely as possibly with the Minister to ensure that we move forward in a constructive and productive manner.
In January 2013, 325 complaints had a red flag. By December 2013 that figure had swelled by over 50% to 500. We have seen repeatedly how delay has been used to wear down complainants so that they go away. It is also used as a punishment for complaints being made in the first place.
Members have raised concerns about this being an attack on the chain of command. Let me say that, since the Bill Committee, I have taken time—I have spoken to the Minister about this—to talk to people in the chain of command and to ask them how they feel about the changes introduced by the Defence Committee. Every person I have spoken to has welcomed the changes and not felt threatened by them. They all felt that the changes were right and that they would focus people’s minds and attentions on complaints so that they are not put in a cupboard and regarded as an annoyance, but are seen as one of the parts of the job to be dealt with first, so that the unit operates efficiently and effectively. The bad pennies that exist would be dealt with quickly and a clear message would be sent that bullying and harassment, in particular, would not be tolerated anywhere in the chain of command.
Delay is caused in part by the labyrinthine system that was initially set up by the Ministry to process complaints. In his evidence to the Defence Committee, retired Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Field railed against the masses of paperwork involved. The abuse of process by those in the chain of command either to propel a dubious complaint or to hold up a legitimate but inconvenient one is also a worrisome cause of delay. Such abuses can have a devastating impact on individual complainants and on their mental health and well-being. When such cases come into the public domain, the system and confidence in it are undermined.
I raised the case of Tom Neathway on Second Reading and in Committee. Another concerning case that I would like to mention briefly is that of Sergeant Major Michael Booley, who was Prince Harry’s flying instructor. He accused the Army of gross mistreatment after a four-year dispute that ended his distinguished career. When reading about the case, it is very worrying to see that the service complaints panel found that Major Graham, who Sergeant Major Booley claimed had been acting deliberately and maliciously against him, was an unreliable witness and that his conduct not only wronged the complainant, but acted against the interests of his employers in the Army. I think that that is the big issue. Where there is bullying and harassment, it is against the interests of the Army, the RAF or the Navy. We must always keep that central to our thinking and our focus when looking at complaints. That is why the changes set out today are so important.
I think that it is important to have some sort of definition of undue delay, but I accept that it might not necessarily need to be in the Bill, or even in regulations. It can be something that the ombudsman sets out herself when setting out the definitions that will guide her judgments. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider and discuss with the ombudsman how we can move that forward.
I give the Minister 10 out of 10 for her brass neck, because these amendments were tabled subsequent to her losing the vote in Committee, and the Government do not want to press them to a vote tonight for fear that she might lose again. The amendments are consequential to the major change that took place in Committee, namely that to the nature of the ombudsman. What the Minister originally proposed was a dry institution that would have dealt only with maladministration, but the ombudsman’s role has now been opened up to cover a wider range of complaints. I have been arguing for that for a long time, and the Defence Committee also argued effectively for it in its report.
The Minister said that she could have left out the amendments, but, knowing her civil servants as I do, I do not think they would have thought highly of her if she had attempted to put through legislation that was not appropriately drafted, or if the amendments that were made in Committee resulted in bad law. Based on my experience, I think they would have taken a very dim view of the Minister if she had not tabled the amendments.
These amendments clarify the two major amendments that changed the nature of the Bill in Committee. Government amendments 1 to 6 make it clear that the ombudsman can only investigate a complaint received from an applicant, and they also address the issue of delays. One of the major frustrations for many of those who have made a complaint is that they have faced delays. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) has championed their rights, and she and the Defence Committee have highlighted their concerns. I think that the amendments will lead to a change in culture, particularly in the Army. The length of delays in some cases has frankly been ridiculous and that, as my hon. Friend has said, has caused huge grief to some individuals. The amendments may speed up the process and mean that some of the complaints will not end up before the service complaints ombudsman.
Amendments 7 to 15 ensure that it needs to be specified whether an investigation relates to maladministration, a service complaint or another type of complaint. They also make it clear that an investigation should recommend redress in cases of maladministration or delay. The ombudsman will be allowed to investigate any maladministration, not just that which is being complained about. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and his Committee wanted the ombudsman to have those wider powers. I therefore welcome the amendments, which will put into effect the amendments we agreed in Committee.
The amendments will also allow the ombudsman to decide whether to investigate service complaints as a whole or whether to look at only part of a complaint. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) asked about frivolous and vexatious cases, but the ombudsman will strike out those that will not go anywhere. The amendments put in place ground rules similar to those that are already in place for the local government ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman, whereby we expect the internal processes to be exhaustive in themselves. The amendments will help address cases that are unduly delayed, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend.
I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s amendment 22, but it is really difficult to define what is meant by a delay. The amendment would clarify that a delay meant longer than a year or any length of time that the ombudsman thought appropriate. I know why she has tabled it and it is good to discuss it, but I would prefer the matter to be left to the ombudsman.
A very simple issue should be dealt with very quickly—in a matter of weeks or months—so even if we specified one year, we would ask why it had taken so long. However, I understand the spirit behind my hon. Friend’s amendment. As I have said, the overall framework means that the Army will look at the way it deals with service complaints. In local government and other areas, performance indicators mean that deadlines for internal disciplinary procedures have to be met. I hope that such a culture will be driven within the armed forces to ensure that complaints are dealt with quickly and expeditiously, although I accept that in some cases investigations may take a long time, not only because of the complexity of the complaint but because of the nature of armed forces operations.
We support the Government amendments, which give credence to the amendment made in Committee. The recommendations for redress are covered in amendments 16 to 21. Findings on maladministration and the ombudsman’s recommendations will be brought forward within a certain time, which will give some comfort to many members of the armed forces who deal with these issues. If the internal chain of command takes an undue time over what should be a simple inquiry, they will know that there is another avenue available. The ombudsman may well need to highlight some of the complaints to the chain of command to ensure that the logjam in such cases is dealt with more quickly. I support the amendments to ensure that we have a system that will not only address the issue of undue delays, but, as we have hoped for a number of years, provide an ombudsman whose remit is wider than just maladministration.
I must say that I thought I had been rather gracious in defeat, so it was a little churlish of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—[Interruption.] He shouts louder than I do from a sedentary position. I have to say that it is to the coalition’s credit that all we are doing in the Bill, with the creation of the ombudsman, has been done in just over four years, while the Labour party did not do it in 13 years.
I want to address amendment 22. I know it is an awful expression, but the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and I are absolutely on the same page. We know that undue delays are the absolute devil of any system. It is not a widespread problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has moved to a different place, has quite clearly and properly said, but when it happens, it is a real problem. The attitude is, “Oh, let’s prevaricate. Let’s put up some device. They’ll just go away, or they’ll give up in the end.” We must stop such an attitude, so I completely and totally understand what the hon. Lady is seeking to do. In that respect we are absolutely at one, but not on how we achieve it. I obviously accept the good intentions behind amendment 22, but I shall it because it is not the device to achieve what we both want.
The time taken in progressing a complaint can be affected by any number of events, such as illness, deployment, which I have mentioned, and training. Sometimes the complainant shows a lack of interest, even though the complaint is valued and should be pursued. A complainant might decide not to pursue it for a period but then come back to it, or they might not be going to pursue it and then realise that they should do so for reasons that we can imagine, but often because others have given them support. Of course, the need to find relevant information can also delay things.
It is important for all concerned that no strict definition is applied. If one were, it might deter worthy cases from being raised or constrain the ombudsman’s discretion as to what is in scope. I am one who looks for discretion as opposed to fixed, determined dates or targets. It should be for the ombudsman to set out guidance on what individuals might need to consider if they believe that they have suffered undue delay in progressing their complaint.
This is not a matter for legislation. Putting the advice in the ombudsman’s guidance will ensure that there is the necessary flexibility to adapt it to reflect real experiences. With some complaints, undue delay might be six or nine months. We need that flexibility. That is why it is right to leave it to the ombudsman to set out her—or, in time, his—guidance.
To use the horrible expression that the hon. Lady used, we are on the same page. As of 26 January 2015, 1,033 complaints that had been open since 2013 were still unresolved. We are on the same page in that neither of us wants to see that continue. Let us hope that the ombudsman finds a way to deal with such undue delays.
Absolutely. I hope that the hon. Lady is comforted by the fact that we are looking at whether the complaints that are already in the system can be brought into the new system. I imagine that long delay is a matter that we will want to bring to the ombudsman’s attention. Again, it all depends on the nature of the complaint and what the circumstances are. The Second Sea Lord, Sir David Steel, made the point to me that he had seen some cases in the Navy that were huge because they were about complicated allowances and so on and so forth.
However, it struck me that the cases that the hon. Lady referred to were not particularly complicated. Those delays were absolutely unacceptable. It is often the person-to-person complaints or grievances that must be dealt with expeditiously. That is in everybody’s interests, not just the complainant’s. The person against whom the complaint is made also wants determination and justice. Not every complaint is well founded; there are cases in which false allegations are made. It is therefore in the interests of the person against whom the complaint is made that it is dealt with fairly, justly and with all due diligence and expedition.
For all the reasons that I have given, I resist amendment 22 and urge everyone to accept the other amendments.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendments made: 2, page 6, line 29, after “complaint”, insert
“, where the Ombudsman is satisfied that the complaint has been finally determined”.
This amendment makes a drafting change in consequence of amendment 9. It clarifies that the Service Complaints Ombudsman may not investigate a service complaint unless satisfied that the complaint has been finally determined.
Amendment 3, page 6, line 31, leave out from “complaint” to end of line 32 and insert
“(including an allegation of undue delay), where the Ombudsman is satisfied that the complaint has been finally determined;”.
This amendment makes minor drafting changes, including a change in consequence of amendment 9. It clarifies that the Service Complaints Ombudsman may not investigate an allegation of maladministration unless satisfied that the service complaint to which the allegation relates has been finally determined.
Amendment 4, page 6, leave out lines 33 to 37 and insert—
“(c) an allegation of undue delay in the handling of a service complaint which has not been finally determined;
(d) an allegation of undue delay in the handling of a relevant service matter.”
This amendment clarifies when the Service Complaints Ombudsman may investigate an allegation of undue delay in the handling of a service complaint or a relevant service matter (as to which, see amendment 6).
Amendment 5, page 6, line 37, at end insert—
“(1A) The following persons are within this subsection—
(a) in a case relating to a service complaint, the complainant;
(b) in a case relating to a matter in respect of which a service complaint has not been made, the person who raised the matter,
and, in relation to a case mentioned in paragraph (b), references in the remainder of this Part to the complainant and to a service complaint are to be read respectively as references to the person and the matter mentioned in that paragraph.”
This amendment makes provision about who may make an application to the Service Complaints Ombudsman for an investigation under new section 340H(1) of the Armed Forces Act 2006.
Amendment 6, page 6, line 37, at end insert—
“( ) For the purposes of subsection (1)(d)—
(a) “relevant service matter” means a matter of a kind about which a service complaint—
(i) may be made, whether or not at the time of the application to the Ombudsman such a complaint has been made, or
(ii) could have been made (but for provision made by virtue of section 340B(2)(c));
(b) the reference to the handling of a matter is to its handling before the making of a service complaint (if any) about the matter.”
This amendment defines “relevant service matter” for the purposes of paragraph (d) of new section 340H(1) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (see amendment 4) and makes provision about the reference to the handling of such a matter.
Amendment 7, page 6, line 39, after “writing,”, insert—
“() must specify the kind (or kinds) of investigation which the complainant wishes the Ombudsman to carry out (an investigation under a particular paragraph of subsection (1) being a “kind” of investigation for this purpose),”.
This amendment provides that an application to the Service Complaints Ombudsman must specify which type or types of investigation the applicant wants the Ombudsman to carry out.
Amendment 8, page 6, line 40, leave out “the” and insert “any other”.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 7.
Amendment 9, page 6, line 42, leave out from beginning to “a” in line 44 and insert—
“( ) For the purposes of this section, a service complaint has been finally determined where—
This amendment converts new section 340H(3) for the Armed Forces Act 2006 into a general proposition about when a service complaint is to be treated for the purposes of new section 340H as having been finally determined.
Amendment 10, page 7, line 5, leave out “that”.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 9.
Amendment 11, page 7, leave out lines 7 to 11 and insert—
“( ) The purpose of an investigation is—
(a) in the case of an investigation under subsection (1)(a), to decide whether the complaint is well-founded and, if so, to consider what redress (if any) would be appropriate;
(b) in the case of an investigation under subsection (1)(b), (c) or (d), to decide—
(i) whether the allegation is well-founded, and
(ii) if so, whether the maladministration or undue delay to which the allegation relates has or could have resulted in injustice being sustained by the complainant.”
This amendment clarifies the purpose of an investigation under each paragraph of new section 340H(1) for the Armed Forces Act 2006.
Amendment 12, page 7, line 11, at end insert—
“(4A) The power to carry out an investigation under subsection (1)(a) or (b) includes power to investigate any maladministration in the handling of the service complaint where it becomes apparent to the Ombudsman during the course of an investigation that any such maladministration may have occurred.”
This amendment provides for the circumstances in which the Service Complaints Ombudsman has power to investigate maladministration in the handling of a service complaint (other than any maladministration that the complainant has specifically alleged).
Amendment 13, page 7, line 12, after “application”, insert
“in respect of a service complaint that has been finally determined”.
This amendment is consequential on the amendments to new section 340H(1) for the Armed Forces Act 2006 (in particular amendments 2 to 4).
Amendment 14, page 7, line 25, leave out “investigated an application relating to” and insert
“carried out an investigation under subsection (1)(a) or (b) in relation to”.
This amendment confines new section 340H(8), which prevents the Service Complaints Ombudsman from investigating subsequent applications relating to a service complaint that the Ombudsman has already investigated, to cases where the Ombudsman has carried out an investigation under new section 340H(1)(a) or (b) in relation to the complaint.
Amendment 15, page 7, line 31, at end insert “;
(b) whether to investigate a service complaint, or an allegation, as a whole or only in particular respects.”
This amendment provides that the Service Complaints Ombudsman may investigate a service complaint, or an allegation, in whole or in part.
Amendment 16, page 7, line 44, after “investigation”, insert “under section 340H(1)(b)”.
This amendment is consequential on amendments to new section 340H(1) of the Armed Forces Act 2006.
Amendment 17, page 8, line 43, at end insert
(b) any recommendations referred to in subsection (2A).”
This amendment requires the Service Complaints Ombudsman to include, in a report under new section 340L, any recommendations required by subsection (2A) (see amendment 18).
Amendment 18, page 9, leave out lines 1 to 4 and insert—
“(2A) Those recommendations are—
(a) on an investigation under section 340H(1)(a) where the Ombudsman finds that the =-service complaint to which the investigation relates is well-founded, the Ombudsman’s recommendations (if any) on what redress would be appropriate;
(b) on an investigation under section 340H(1)(b), (c) or (d) where the Ombudsman finds that the allegation to which the investigation relates is well-founded, the Ombudsman’s recommendations (if any) as a result of that finding;
(c) where, by virtue of section 340H(4A), the Ombudsman finds maladministration in the handling of a service complaint, the Ombudsman’s recommendations (if any) as a result of that finding.”
This amendment provides for the recommendations which the Service Complaints Ombudsman can make as a result of findings on an investigation under any paragraph of new section 340H(1) or by virtue of new section 340H(6).
Amendment 19, page 9, line 5, leave out “(2)” and insert “(2A)(b) or (c)”.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 18.
Amendment 20, page 9, line 8, after “maladministration”, insert
“or undue delay to which the finding relates”.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 18.
Amendment 21, page 9, line 10, after “maladministration”, insert “or undue delay”. —(Anna Soubry.)
This amendment is consequential on amendment 18.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank the members of the Public Bill Committee, who did an excellent job of ensuring that the issues covered by the Bill were thoroughly looked at. The service complaints system is not one of which many Members of this House have first-hand experience. It is therefore to the credit of the members of the Committee that they quickly grasped the key issues behind the Bill. I am very grateful for the contributions that were made from both sides.
In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for her involvement in these issues over a number of years. She played a key role in Committee and our debates this afternoon, and I know she feels strongly about the issues she raises. I commend her for her tenacity and for the passion with which she makes her case. I am delighted that she will continue to pursue all those matters and to scrutinise the Bill should it have the good fortune of reaching the statute book. She will not give up on her campaign to ensure that things are done properly by all those who serve in our armed forces, and the Bill is undoubtedly better because of her involvement.
I also thank the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). There is some rivalry between us, because we went to opposing schools—although not at the same time; he is much younger than I am. I like to think that that is the reason for some of our rivalry in our discourse in the House and Committee. He has approached these matters in a constructive and knowledgeable way. I wish to emphasise that, because he speaks on the basis of knowledge having served as a Defence Minister, and he therefore knows what he is talking about even if we do not always agree. He has done much to ensure that the Bill has been properly scrutinised, which is important in these proceedings.
I thank the Defence Committee and its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). He is no longer in his place, but I am sure he is about somewhere and hopefully he will read this debate. The Committee produced an excellent and detailed report on the Bill last year, which has done much to focus our debates on the most significant issues. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has made it clear that his Committee will continue to do the job that it has been doing over a number of years, to ensure that we have a good, fair, robust complaints system in the way we have identified. In that respect we are absolutely in agreement.
The Bill does two important things: it improves the system for handling service complaints, and—we seem to have forgotten this because it is not contentious, although it is incredibly important—it ensures that we can provide funding anywhere in the world to organisations, notably our great military charities, that support our armed forces community. It is clear from debates on the Bill that there is general agreement about the need to reform the services complaints system, and we all agree on the importance of having a system that is fair, effective, swift when it has to be, and efficient.
Having a robust complaints system is a key part of maintaining morale and therefore ensuring operational effectiveness—a happy crew, ship, team or whatever will work better. That is pretty obvious; unfortunately, it is not always obvious to some, although I hope it will be from now on. It is not a “nice to have” but an essential part of the covenant between our society and those who are willing to lay down their lives to defend it.
As I said, clause 4 has attracted less interest because it is not contentious, although it is important. It will allow us to support organisations that help our armed forces community anywhere in the world, which we all agree is a good thing. The amendments will mean that the proposed service complaints ombudsman will have a wider role than first envisaged. He or she will be able to look at the substance of complaints and at any maladministration in the way it has been handled, not just that alleged by the complainant. The ombudsman will also be able to investigate allegations of undue delay at earlier stages in the process, whether or not a complaint has been made, and that is a good thing.
I will not pretend that this is what the Government initially wanted, but we have listened to arguments from all sides and we have accepted them. I emphasise that on balance I believe that the changes have left us with a stronger and more robust system of oversight with more protections for the individual. The Bill now delivers the right complaints system for our servicemen and women, and on that basis I commend it to the House.
We at Portland were always better at snowball fighting than Hartland, Mr Speaker.
This is a very important day. The Bill brings into being an armed forces ombudsman, something that is long overdue. I have been involved in this issue since I came to Parliament, both as a member of the Defence Committee and as a Defence Minister in the previous Government. This day will be pleasing to those who have campaigned over many years for a system of oversight and redress for our armed forces. I am thinking of the families of those involved in Deepcut and the recommendations of Mr Justice Blake’s report. People have campaigned over many years to get to this point today.
The Minister asked why the previous Government did not introduce this measure during our 13 years in office. We did: we set up the Armed Forces Service Complaints Commissioner. Did some of us at the time want to go further? Yes, we did. I argued for that very strongly, along with other members of the Defence Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) who was on the Opposition Whip’s Bench a moment ago. He made very strong representations to try to get to this point in 2006. I have to say that the people who argued against it were the conservative elements of the chain of command and the Conservative Front-Bench team of the time, who said that it would be the end of the world if we even had a Service Complaints Commissioner.
Those same voices thought that this next step would be a step too far, which is possibly why the Government were initially resistant in Committee to the changes. I said in Committee and I say it again now: I do not think there is anything in the Bill that senior members of the chain of command in our armed forces should be fearful of. If we look back to when we introduced the Service Complaints Commissioner, there was an argument that people would be interfering with the chain of command. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, what has happened is that senior military personnel now see that the way in which Susan Atkins has carried out the function of Service Complaints Commissioner has added not only to the process of accountability and transparency, but with the recommendations that she has brought forward. I put on record my thanks to her for how she has carried out the job. She saw the limitations that she was acting under right from the start, but like any good regulator she pushed where she could and brought about change within the system.
Just to back up what the hon. Gentleman is saying, it is the way Dr Atkins has carried out her duties that has encouraged everyone—even dinosaurs like me—to think that this is a seriously good thing and a step forward. I am delighted to say that the people who, like myself, were against the idea to start with, have been totally converted by the work of Susan Atkins.
That is the change. I am glad to see dinosaurs still alive and kicking on the Conservative Back Benches, and long may they live.
I wish Nicola Williams all the best in the job she has before her. The Bill sets out a new era, but I think it will be very rewarding for her to ensure that the issues we have raised during the passage of the Bill are addressed.
One of the issues to be addressed, and which the armed forces have to wake up to, was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon): the delay in dealing with complaints. Most organisations, whether companies, local councils or even central Government these days, would not put up with the delay in dealing with complaints. The armed forces need a performance mechanism to enable complaints to be dealt with simply, quickly and effectively, and the nearer to the source of the complaint the better. Even if they do not like the outcome, at least early resolution avoids the added injustice of people thinking they are being messed around by the system. I just hope that the armed forces, particularly the Army, will take that on board and that we can ensure the speedy resolution of some complaints.
Of course, the perfect position would be if the ombudsman did not have anything to do, but that is not going to happen—there is already a backlog. Over time, however, not only will she be able to suggest improvements to the system, but I hope that slowly we can educate people in the chain of command that a more effective way of dealing with complaints and disciplinary action in general would be a better way forward.
I thank the Defence Committee for its work on the Bill. As I said, it is a good example of a Select Committee—the current Committee and its predecessors over several years—taking a keen interest in a subject, ensuring parliamentary scrutiny and not letting go of an issue. It has kept on pressing for this type of redress system. I also think that the changes made in the Bill Committee have improved the Bill—the Government were wise to accept the amendments, because had we not done that now, we would have had to return to the issue in four or five years’ time—and I wish the Bill Godspeed through its remaining stages. We must support our armed forces not only with our words in the House, but with an effective system that supports armed forces personnel on the rare occasions—as the Minister said, they are rare—when things go wrong and which gives them the justice and support they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Third time and passed, with amendments.
Consumer Rights Bill
Consideration of Lords message (Order, 28 January)
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 12M and 12S. If the House agrees to those amendments, I shall cause the appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
I have selected amendment (a) to Lords amendment 12Q, which stands in the name of Philip Davies.
After clause 32
Secondary ticketing platforms
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 12J.
It is a veritable alphabet soup of amendments, Mr Speaker.
On 24 February in the other place, the Government agreed with amendments tabled by Lord Moynihan to introduce light-touch regulation of the online secondary ticketing market, alongside a statutory review of the market. The Bill has therefore returned to us for further consideration. It sets out a simple, modern framework of consumer rights that will promote growth through confident consumers driving innovation and more competitive markets. Consumers, knowing their rights are protected if things go wrong, will have greater confidence to take up new products and switch suppliers, which will help to create a competitive and thriving economy.
The Bill contains important new protections for consumers alongside measures to lower regulatory burdens for business. All this together will make markets work better, which is good for consumers, good for business and therefore good for growth. It will have an impact across all sectors of the economy and address many of the concerns we hear daily in our own constituencies.
Chapter 1 gives consumers a new right to a refund on faulty goods within 30 days. Chapter 2 protects consumers in law for the first time when they buy digital content, while schedule 5 means business will get more notice of routine inspections by trading standards. These represent an important package of reforms that businesses and consumer groups have been waiting for and preparing for. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will alert business to the forthcoming changes well ahead of the Act coming into force.
Since December, there has been one outstanding issue to resolve before the Bill can be sent for Royal Assent—how to address issues in the online secondary ticketing market. This is the market where fans sell tickets they can no longer use to fans who missed out on tickets the first time round. It is a much safer and more convenient environment for fans to buy and sell tickets than dealing with shady individuals in the backstreets around venues.
There are some concerns, however, about how this relatively young market is working, as I explained when we last considered this issue in January. I know that many hon. Members have been following this area very closely, and I appreciate the keen interest in this issue. I know that several members of the all-party parliamentary group and of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport are in their places today, and I pay tribute to their extensive work on this issue over a number of years.
The Competition and Markets Authority has also been active in this area. I warmly welcome its announcement last week that it has secured further protection for consumers. This work makes an important contribution to our parliamentary debates. To deal with them, there has been general agreement across the House on two central points: we agree on the importance of a safe and secure environment for fans to buy and sell tickets; and we agree on the need for event organisers, the marketplaces themselves and enforcers to play their part in combating fraudulent practices in the resale market.
We were not, however, able to support an amendment made by the House of Lords in November. While that amendment aimed to increase transparency in the market, we were concerned about privacy and unintended consequences for the secondary market. We did not think that that amendment would allow the secondary market to continue to thrive or to be a proportionate and appropriate response to concerns that had been raised. Since December, we have been working intensively with all the relevant stakeholders to see if a compromise could be reached—a compromise that allows fans to resell tickets they cannot use, but one that also tackles some of the known issues in the market.