House of Commons
Monday 7 December 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—
With your permission, Mr Speaker, given the weekend’s events in my borough, may I take the opportunity, on behalf of myself and colleagues in all parts of the House, to wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured by the tragic events at the tube station in Leytonstone?
When we took office, almost one in five households had no one in work and around 1.4 million people had been on benefits for most of the previous decade. Since 2010 the number of workless households has fallen by over 680,000 to its lowest level since records began.
My constituency covers the major part of Bracknell Forest. In 2014 it had the second highest percentage of working households in the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that continuing to encourage households into work is one of the most effective ways of improving the life chances of everyone in that family?
My hon. Friend is right that growing up in a working family is crucial for the life chances of children. When this Government took office, there were more than 2.5 million children growing up in workless households. That has fallen by nearly half a million since 2010. By targeting worklessness, the five new life chance measures that we have introduced will make an enormous difference to children’s lives. I understand that there are now almost no workless households in the south-east.
I ask the Secretary of State to be a little careful—none of us should get complacent about worklessness. Has he seen the research in the United States on the Uberisation of work, when people cease to have good employers with pensions, rights and contracts, and are increasingly pushed into self-employment, where they have no rights?
By the way, I welcome the hon. Gentleman back. It is good to see him back in his place; I understand he has had some difficulties with health treatments.
The hon. Gentleman would be right, if that were the trend and the direction in which we were going. It is interesting that there is a difference between us and the United States. The vast majority of the jobs that have been created here are white-collar and full-time. That is important. Although we think that people being self-employed is excellent for those who choose to do it, we are seeing a huge trend in supported jobs with full pay and full-time work.
The selling point of the Government’s universal credit scheme was that it was supposed to increase work incentives. However, the reduction in work allowances in universal credit due to take effect in April next year will leave around 35,000 working households with no transitional protection and thousands of pounds worse off. Does the Secretary of State accept that these changes will actively disincentivise people to go into work, particularly lone parents?
I do not. Universal credit is acting as a huge incentive to go back to work. Even the statistics published over the weekend show that universal credit means that people are 8% more likely to go into work than was the case with jobseeker’s allowance. I remind the hon. Lady that jobseeker’s allowance has been seen by many in the western world as one of the most successful back-to-work benefits. Universal credit performs even better than jobseeker’s allowance by some considerable degree.
With respect, the Secretary of State did not answer the question about the 35,000 households and about transitional relief coming into effect for April 2016, so I ask him again: what about those people who stand to be thousands of pounds worse off in April?
As I said before, first, people are getting back to work. Secondly, those who are on universal credit at present will be fully supported through the flexible support fund, which will provide all the resources necessary to ensure that their situation remains exactly the same as it is today.
I wonder whether the Minister has seen the figures that I have. May I take him from rhetoric back to reality? The figures show that although there has been a rise in employment in the past three months, the number of hours that we have worked as a country has fallen. It is a good thing that unemployment has gone down, but surely we need to address under-employment, particularly when there are 3 million people who say they are under-employed. I saw that over the weekend his Minister for Employment was flogging temporary part-time jobs for people to dress up as Santa Claus, but perhaps it would be better if his Department spent a bit more time trying to ensure full-time permanent well paid work for people.
It is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to get up and start attacking the Government’s record of getting more people back to work, more people in full-time work and more people in managerial positions. When we took over from the Labour Government, there was a complete collapse of the economy, with people lucky to get a job and even lucky to get part-time work. Two thirds of the rise in employment since 2010 has been in managerial, professional jobs, and permanent jobs are up over 476,000. That is not rhetoric; those are realities.
Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by over a third over the past year, and our goal is to make sure that all young people are either earning or learning. We continue to provide extra support for young people on benefits and will introduce the new youth obligation in 2017.
With the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is before the House today, will the Minister do more to devolve greater control of the Work programme to councils and more to empower local managers? When universal credit comes in, will she ensure that the DWP works closely with councils on that support in order to transform the delivery of services to vulnerable people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and congratulate him on the work he has being doing locally in his community with the DWP and other partners, and the local authority too. He is absolutely right. Through the Work programme, and under devolution, we are working with communities, local authorities, jobcentres and other partners and stakeholders—the specialist organisations that can provide the right kind of support to support employment and to help to get more people back to work. He is absolutely right to hold up his area as a good local example.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we can never stand still in relation to employment and young people. I mentioned the youth obligation that we will bring in in 2017, but we are also developing skills and work experience. Supporting young people through work experience and traineeships is absolutely vital, and I know that she has promoted that in her constituency.
As the Minister will be aware, we are now coming to the festive period, meaning that many people will find temporary jobs. Last year, from October to December, the number of young people in work in my constituency increased by about 15%, and after Christmas it dropped by 10%. What measures is her Department taking to ensure that people are not trapped in a cycle of temporary work?
The hon. Lady is right that this is obviously the time of year when there is more seasonal employment in the run-up to Christmas, but support is provided to continue employment after such seasons. Jobcentre Plus will be supporting those who may be in part-time jobs to secure longer-term jobs. I come back to the fundamental principle that it is better to be in work, and have the experience of being in work, so as to develop long-term career and employment opportunities afterwards.
I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind invitation. We are only getting these new jobs created because we have a secure and sound economy owing to our long-term economic plan. Importantly, employers such as Primark and many other retailers are creating great employment opportunities for our young people. I would be delighted to come to open the centre in his constituency with him next year.
Work and Health Programme
The Department is developing new provision to support people with health conditions and disabilities and those who are very long-term unemployed. We are currently developing the design of the programme, including the conditionality that will be a feature of it.
A survey by mental health charity Mind revealed that a shocking 83% of employment and support allowance claimants referred to the Work programme found that it made their mental health state worse. Will the Government’s new Work and Health programme end the utterly shameful sanctions regime which often leaves those with mental illnesses less likely to access work?
I am sure the hon. Lady will also recognise that more than 60% of individuals who are on the employment and support allowance say that they want to work as well. That is why we will launch the new Work and Health programme, to look at how we can deliver vital employment support, which I am sure the hon. Lady and all other Members will welcome, to those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market but who want to work. We will do that in conjunction with our stakeholders and better target the accompanying support to get them back into work. Additional funding was made available in the summer Budget for support for those who are furthest away from the labour market, particularly those with health conditions.
Of course, my hon. Friend raises a valid point about what the Labour party is now clearly saying, despite the fact that sanctions have been in place for a considerable time, including under previous Labour Governments. The purpose of sanctions is to support claimants and to encourage them back to work. Let us also remember that the sanctions are there for claimants to comply with reasonable requirements, which are developed with the claimant as well as the work coach.
In the Work programme, extra help has been given to jobseekers who have been out of work for 12 months, but under the new programme it will not be until two years have passed. Will Jobcentre Plus get extra resources to support people who have been out of work for between one and two years, given that the Work programme’s successor will not be doing that?
The new programme will be accompanied by a structural reform that will better target support for those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market. On top of that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has emphasised again today, universal credit in particular will provide support and engagement for those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market but who are looking for work. Alongside that, the new Work and Health programme will integrate services, particularly for those with mental health conditions or health barriers, to help them get closer to the labour market and back into work.
Shockingly, a number of people have died after being sanctioned and we are still waiting for the Government to publish the data on them. We do know, however, following the recent publication of an academic report, that between 2010 and 2013 the Government’s work capability assessment process was associated with an additional 590 suicides. Given that Maximus, the company the Government contracted to deliver work capability assessments, has reported
“not being able to meet certain performance metrics”,
when will the Secretary of State admit not only that his work capability assessment reforms are a danger to claimants’ health, but that they are not fit for purpose and need a complete overhaul?
Let me remind the hon. Lady that it was her party in government that introduced the work capability assessment—[Interruption.] Let me also point out, as she makes remarks from a sedentary position, that we have brought in a number of reforms, of which she and all other Members will be aware. We are very clear that sanctions are constantly under review, hence the five reviews we have had. Finally, on the data the hon. Lady has just presented to the House, she cannot justifiably or credibly extrapolate those figures and apply them to sanctions and this Government’s policies, because they are completely incorrect.
Jobcentre Advisers: Food Banks
Jobcentre work coaches undertake outreach work every day in local communities and have recently been helping people with back-to-work support and advice at the Lalley Welcome Centre in Manchester, where a food bank sits alongside other support services. The test is at an early stage and the Department will make the findings public in due course.
Despite the fall in unemployment, many working families across the country will be relying on food banks this Christmas. I pay tribute to Sarah Sidwell and her staff at the food bank in Hull. Is putting jobcentre staff in food banks not actually an acknowledgement of the shambolic nature of the benefits system, which is affecting people? Should the Minister not think very long and hard about sorting out the system rather than applying a plaster and putting jobcentre staff in food banks?
May I gently remind the hon. Lady that we were invited, at the request of Sister Rita, to go to Lalley Welcome Centre, which also hosts other agencies? I might also say to the hon. Lady that that particular centre has a job club, which makes eminent sense. I presume she does not object to that. If she is happy to have a job club there, why on earth does she object to our going there to help people when we have been invited to go there?
Will the Minister confirm whether Lord Prior will join in the evaluation of services at that job centre and food bank? As the Minister will know, Lord Prior has indicated that obesity seems to be a problem, rather than poverty. Will the Minister confirm whether the evaluation will include an examination of the reasons why sanctions and benefit delays cause problems for those going to food banks?
From my point of view, there is great potential in co-siting jobcentres and food banks if it is done in the right way. On a related subject, can the Minister envisage a future in which jobcentres and councils are co-located across the country?
In relation to this trial, has the Minister noticed today’s report in the Western Morning News, which says that food bank usage has dropped by 25% in Devon and Cornwall? Does he agree with the Trussell Trust that that is
“a sign that economic recovery is giving more people access to secure work”?
May I report to the Minister the progress in Birkenhead? A benefits adviser has been working in the food bank there, and the number of people having to come back for a second bag of food has dropped by 65%. Whenever the Secretary of State refers to this experiment, he talks about “benefit advisers”, while other senior people in the Department talk about “work coaches”. Might the Minister persuade the Secretary of State to say that his phrase is not an offensive one? If someone who is hungry thinks that the person at the food bank is a work coach, it might put them off going to the food bank in the first place?
Both terms are applicable. May I just say that we should not get bogged down in the terminology? The important thing is to make sure that people actually have support to get them back to work. As we just heard in the quote from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), our long-term plan is working. We want to make sure that as many people as possible are in work so that they do not have to resort to food banks.
Is the Minister surprised that the Secretary of State has never bothered to visit a food bank? Presumably, people in his Department have spoken to people in food banks. The message we get loud and clear from people in food banks is that the most important thing the Department can do is to fix its broken system of sanctions and stop benefit delays.
It is always helpful if, when Front Benchers say things at the Dispatch Box, they are accurate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited food banks. As far as sanctions are concerned, may I just tell the hon. Lady that the Oakley review said that 71% of people found sanctions helpful in encouraging them to find jobs?
Low Pay and Training
For the first time, universal credit will support claimants in work to earn more. Work coaches will provide tailored support to claimants on low wages to improve their pay. To help to develop our package of support for people in work, we are implementing a comprehensive test and learn strategy to understand better the impact that labour market policies can have on helping people on low incomes to get jobs in which they earn more.
Low pay and training needs affect many disabled people. Two years ago, almost to the day, the Department announced the extension of the Access to Work programme to disabled people seeking training, internships and apprenticeships. How many people have benefited from that scheme and when will we hear about its progress?
We are very close to record levels as far as that initiative is concerned. As I said earlier, our long-term economic plan is continuing. While I am at the Dispatch Box, may I say that the House has considerable sympathy with all that the hon. Gentleman and a lot of his colleagues are going through?
May I pay tribute to your office, Mr Speaker, for the way in which it has combated exploitative internships, which are often unpaid and are used to exploit many young people? Many people begin their career progression with an internship. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that young people are not exploited through long-term unpaid internships?
We are fundamentally reforming the welfare system to ensure that the benefits of work are always clear for all. As part of that, we are supporting working families who are on benefits to progress in work, increase their earnings and move away from welfare dependency.
The Government’s humiliating U-turn on tax credits is to be welcomed, but the Chancellor has confirmed that another £12 billion of welfare cuts will take place. Is it not a fact that those cuts will affect the poorest, the most vulnerable and those who are struggling to survive in society, like families?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it was made clear at the Budget by the Chancellor that the total package of changes includes changes to the welfare budget of £12 billion, but that other Departments are also involved in the process of getting rid of the deficit. I thought that the Labour party had said it was in favour of getting rid of the deficit, so the question is what it plans to do. I remind him that a huge amount of the savings are being made because more people are going back to work and fewer people are therefore claiming benefits.
Following on from what the Secretary of State has just said, if the British people vote to come out of the EU, we will not be giving £350 million a week or more than £1 billion every three weeks to the EU. Would he welcome some of that money for his Department?
My hon. Friend must not dare tempt me in that direction. What is really important is that we run our economy here in the UK for the benefit of citizens of the UK. We have made our position clear: we want to ensure that those who have not been here for a certain period of time and have not contributed are not able to draw upon our benefits system.
On the whole, because the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is dextrous, he was just about within order, but I counsel colleagues that they should take great care, as a general principle, not to shoehorn their personal preoccupations into questions to which they do not obviously relate.
The Government’s forced U-turn on tax credits is very welcome to the families in my constituency who were set to be affected by the cut, but many people are being moved on to the universal credit system and will be similarly impacted. Young people will not qualify for the Government’s so-called national living wage. How do the Government reconcile that with the aim of making work pay?
The key thing is that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, there is nothing new in the spending review when compared with the Budget. It said that
“the long term generosity of the welfare system will be cut just as much as was ever intended”.
In other words, the £12 billion of savings is pretty much exactly as was announced in the Budget. I say to the hon. Gentleman that universal credit has a huge effect. We published figures this week to show that universal credit means that more people go into work faster, stay in work longer and are likely to earn more money. That is a huge change and it will affect young people dramatically, as much as it will anybody else.
The reforms to benefits, whereby work should always pay more than welfare, are welcome in Louth and Horncastle. As we roll out universal credit across my constituency, will the Secretary of State join me in my constituency to see the changes for himself, including the 40 new jobs just created in Louth at the supermarket Aldi?
I know how hard my hon. Friend campaigns to get employment up in her constituency. I am more than happy to come and support her to show that more people are getting jobs as a result of our welfare changes. Unlike the previous Government who spent money and changed very few lives, we are spending less money but changing more lives for the better.
The Secretary of State said yesterday that “nobody will lose a penny” under his changes to universal credit, which was a surprise to me. On Friday, the Office for Budget Responsibility published a report showing that the Government intend to cut £100 million from the universal credit work allowance next year, £1.2 billion the year after that, and then £2.2 billion, £2.9 billion and £3.2 billion by 2020. By my count, that is a trillion pennies. Will the Secretary of State clarify his remarks and tell us precisely which workers are going to lose them?
I just wish the hon. Gentleman would actually go and visit a universal credit site to see the huge difference it is making. In answer to his question, as the IFS said
“no family will take an immediate…hit”
from being moved on to universal credit. [Interruption.] Hold on a second. I remember that it was the Labour party that got rid of the 10p tax starting rate and did not cash protect anybody at all. We are transitionally protecting those who are moving on to universal credit. Maybe the hon. Gentleman is against that. If so, would he like to say why?
Again, the Secretary of State says this Budget made no changes. He is right, because the changes had already been passed in the summer Budget and in the statutory instrument. The truth is that the Chancellor bailed himself out of the hole he dug on tax credits by raiding the universal credit system, creating a deeply unfair two-tier system. A working mother on universal credit will next year be £3,000 worse off than her equivalent on tax credits. In all, 2.6 million families will be £1,600 on average worse off. It is the new IDS postcode lottery: it is arbitrary, it is unfair, and if you are a low-wage working mother, it could be you.
The hon. Gentleman’s party, which opposed universal credit from the outset, can hardly say that it is the slightest bit interested in how it works. The reality is that all those calculations for lone parents do not take into consideration—[Interruption.] No, they don’t. The childcare package that comes with universal credit is dramatic. Unlike tax credit—[Interruption.] Perhaps he would like to just keep quiet and listen for once to somebody who knows what they are talking about. I say to him very simply that the childcare package for universal credit gives parents with children childcare support every single hour while they are in work. Under tax credit, they got next to nothing.
Universal credit is rolling out as planned: on track and on time. I can announce today that it will be in every jobcentre by April next year. Estimates of the total cost of implementation have fallen from £2.4 billion to £1.7 billion, with £0.6 billion having been spent to date. Over a quarter of a million people have now made claims to universal credit.
I recently visited my local jobcentre in Sittingbourne. Job coaches told me how well universal credit is working, giving claimants more flexibility to work and coaches more time to support them. Does the Secretary of State agree that universal credit is helping people into work and making work pay? Will he press on with the roll-out so more people can benefit?
Even on the figures we have published in the past 24 hours, it is a reality that people on universal credit are much more likely to get into work, work longer and earn more money—that is the key bit. Rolling out universal credit has a massive effect on the likelihood of people entering into decent work. I also remind my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) obviously did not want to listen to this fact—that under universal credit the childcare package is for every hour they work all the way up until the moment they leave the benefits system.
The cost of universal credit implementation has fallen: it was originally forecast to cost £2.4 billion but is now due to cost £1.7 billion. To give Labour Members a concept of what value for money looks like—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has no idea about value for money because he has been on the Labour Benches for too long.
I welcome the fact that universal credit reached my constituency about five weeks ago, but for the benefit of constituents concerned about what will happen when they move from tax credits to universal credit, will the Secretary of State confirm when that move will now take place?
It does not suit the Opposition to know it, but all those who transfer from tax credits, through the legacy system, into universal credit will be transitionally protected. That is critical. They do not want to know that, because, as I said, they are the party who failed to transitionally protect anybody when they abolished the 10p tax rate.
We welcome the apparent tax credits U-turn, but it appears that the cuts to the work allowance, which will still go ahead under universal credit, will hit families just as hard. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the tax credits U-turn will also apply to the corresponding elements of universal credit, or will he confirm our suspicions that this so-called U-turn is merely a delaying tactic?
The universal credit position is exactly as set out at the time of the summer Budget, which means, as we understand it and calculate it, and as figures released in the last 24 hours show categorically, there will be a huge improvement in the numbers of people going back to work, working full time and earning more money. I absolutely believe that, in the next few years, the hon. Gentleman will be one of the first to say, “Thank God we introduced universal credit.”
Universal Credit (Payment Arrangements)
For a minority of claimants, including women who may be victims of financial abuse, alternative payment arrangements can be made. We can split payments to members of the household, where necessary, under universal credit. Furthermore, jobcentre staff are trained to identify vulnerable claimants and can signpost individuals, at their request, to local domestic abuse support organisations for further help and support.
Research carried out earlier this year by the Trade Union Congress and Women’s Aid, “Unequal, Trapped and Controlled”, found that universal credit had far-reaching implications for women experiencing financial abuse and, in particular, that the single household payment could leave women and their children in financial hardship. Current arrangements could make it difficult for victims to declare the need for a single household payment for fear of their abuser finding out. Will the Secretary of State commit to asking all claimants automatically if they require an alternative payment arrangement, including the choice of paying their landlord directly, to ensure that women and children are protected from destitution and homelessness?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I think we all agree that there is no room for domestic violence or abuse in a civilised society in the 21st century. Advisers are well trained and look out for victims. They look at who has care and responsibility for children and, where appropriate, can split payments or make them more often than once a month—certainly they can be treated differently from those in normal circumstances.
The way earnings are treated is different across the benefits, but the majority of benefits do not have an earnings limit. Individuals can find general information on benefit eligibility at gov.uk, or they can speak to their local jobcentre staff and work coaches.
My constituent, a dedicated carer for a member of her family, was awarded carer’s allowance. She took on two small jobs to make up her earnings and to allow her to contribute to the community, while being careful to stay within the weekly and four-weekly earnings limits she had been advised of, so she was shocked to get a call telling her she had breached a monthly limit that she knew nothing about. Does the Minister think that laying that kind of tripwire for claimants is an appropriate way to deal with someone such as my constituent, who is trying her best to make a contribution to both her family and the community?
I would make two points. I am happy to look at the case, but when it comes to the carer’s allowance, we increased the earnings threshold in April 2015 by 8%. Importantly, this is about providing the right structured approach to support carers who want to work and get the balance right regarding their caring responsibilities.
The Secretary of State has a duty to protect public funds and to ensure, wherever possible, that a benefit overpayment is recovered. Discretion is exercised where it is not cost-effective to recover an overpayment, or where recovery would cause undue hardship, and is subject to guidelines from Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Yes, I accept that completely, but since April it has been possible to recover benefit at a rate of 40% from jobseeker’s allowance. There is much evidence that that is becoming the normal figure. There is no appeal, and on review, people are being told that even if they do not have enough money to eat, that is not a sufficient reason to be able to appeal against the benefit recovery. Will the Minister ask his officials to look seriously at this issue and how it is affecting the poorest people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know he has been tenacious in working in this area, particularly on behalf of a number of his residents. There is discretion in the system applied to repayment rates, but the claimant must prove that there is genuine hardship and talk to the debt management team. There is an appeals process, but I will look further into it further.
The Wheatsheaf Trust runs an employment access centre, helping young people off benefit and into work in my Havant constituency. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the trust on its work on the ground and confirm that the Government will continue to put young people at the heart of their aspiration for full employment and their long-term economic plan?
Of course I congratulate the Wheatsheaf Trust on the work it does, and I know that my hon. Friend has made youth unemployment and getting young people back into work a priority in his own constituency. He is, of course, right that as a Government we are committed to helping more young people to secure employment opportunities, which is why we will continue to support work experience programmes and traineeships and will introduce a new youth obligation.
But too many of the apprenticeships have been going to older people who are already in jobs. Does the Minister agree that what is really needed is apprenticeships that provide intermediate and advanced high-level skills and qualifications that are valuable both for young people and the success of our economy?
I view all apprenticeship skills as providing value-added to our economy. Let me provide the example of my visit to Pimlico Plumbers last Thursday. They are investing in young people and taking on young apprentices—[Interruption.] I hear Labour Members being disparaging about the employer organisation, but it is creating employment and career opportunities for young people, as does every other business and employer organisation that takes young people on at an apprenticeship level. Those organisations are the future; they are the ones investing in our young people, creating great career opportunities and passing on skills for our economy.
The hon. Lady says, “Grow up”. Perhaps Labour Members should put aside the disparaging comments they make every time we speak about employment opportunities and growth in the economy. Unemployment is now at its lowest level for over seven years. In addition, the number of people in work has risen by over 2.1 million since 2010.
Unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 50% since 2010, which has given a lot of security to a lot of people in my constituency. Does she agree that some individuals who might be suffering from long-term mental health conditions want to work, but encounter considerable barriers preventing them from getting back into employment? Does she therefore agree that we need to redouble our efforts to enable those people to get back into work because it is critical to their cure that they do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has drawn attention to two important facts: the fact that unemployment has fallen in his constituency and there are more people in work there, and the barriers—particularly mental health conditions—that prevent people from working. We will be launching a new Work and Health programme, and looking into how we can integrate services to provide the right kind of support to help such people to return to work.
Between June 2011 and June 2015 there were 10,920 referrals to the Work programme in my constituency, 21% of which resulted in jobs. Those figures would improve, and employment would be further reduced, if the assessment of claimants that is carried out at the beginning of the process were more adequate and consistent, and ensured that crucial characteristics such as drug problems were not missed. When will the Government introduce changes to the assessment process?
The Select Committee and many others have said that the Work programme has been one of the most successful employment programmes that the country has seen. Naturally, we constantly review our work in respect of assessments, but we are focusing on targeted support for individuals, because we all want the right outcomes for them. We all want to help them to return to work, and to give them the tailor-made support that they need. Rather than adopting the hon. Lady’s disparaging approach, we are saying that those people need help, and that we will give them help so that they can get back into work.
Work Capability Assessments: Veterans
I raise this matter on behalf of my constituent Private Troy Watkins, an ex-serviceman who receives payments from the war pensions scheme and who was also awarded a lifetime disability living allowance. Private Watkins is excluded from access to the armed forces independent payment scheme, which, unlike the war pensions scheme, requires just one assessment. Does the Minister agree that what we have at present is a two-tier system which discriminates against service personnel such as Private Watkins, and will she meet me to discuss the way in which it affects him?
People with Disabilities in Work
In the last two years the number of disabled people in work has increased by 339,000, but we recognise that the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people remains too large, which is why our ambition is to halve it.
May I invite the Minister to a Disability Confident event in my constituency, which will take place next spring? He will meet some brilliant charities, such as Independent Options and ARC, which provide work for, and teach life skills to, people with a range of disabilities.
I should be delighted to accept that kind invitation. Our reforms of the support that is given to people with disabilities who want to work will give local organisations great opportunities. On Friday I visited Foxes Academy, which has a success rate of more than 50% in providing work for people with learning disabilities; that contrasts with the national average of 6%. Local flexibility is vital.
Work Capability Assessments
That is a source of great regret. A recent study by Liverpool and Oxford Universities concluded that 590 suicides were linked to work capability assessments. When will the Department stop hiding behind excuses and publish the information that we seek, so that we can examine the effect of the claimant system on suicide rates?
To introduce fairness, we will cap housing benefit at the appropriate local housing allowance rate for the area from April 2018 when a new tenancy is taken out or a tenancy is renewed after April 2016. That means that the housing benefit of single claimants under 35 who take on a new tenancy or renew a tenancy will be restricted to the local housing allowance shared accommodation rate.
Research shows that it is fairly unusual for people under 35 without children to be given social housing, but the exception to that is care leavers. Can the Minister let the House know whether there will be any safeguards or exemptions for vulnerable care leavers?
I am pleased to be able to update the House today on the next stage of universal credit roll-out. Universal credit is available now in three quarters of all jobcentres, and by April next year will be available nationally. Building on that, the digital service is already in a number of jobcentres, and I can announce that it is being extended to a further five jobcentres as early as next year—to Hounslow, Musselburgh, Purley, Thornton Heath and Great Yarmouth prior to May 2016, when the digital service will be rolled out nationally.
I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that current claimants of universal credit will face losses next April as a result of cuts to the work allowance. Can he explain to the House why there is no transitional protection for universal credit, as there is for tax credit recipients?
I thought I had made this clear, but I will make it clear again. For those already on universal credit, advisers will support them through the additional resources and the flexible support fund to ensure that their status remains the same. Those moving from tax credit to universal credit are transitionally protected, as has already been stated.
We fully recognise the devastating impact that a diagnosis such as early onset dementia can have on individuals and their families. That is why we have the work capability assessment, which is designed to ensure that any claimant who is severely affected can be identified at the earliest possible stages and is supported. They will of course be placed on to the highest rate of benefit, where there has been such a diagnosis, and they will be free from any conditionality.
At the election, the Conservative party promised to exempt pensioners from their proposed benefit freeze, yet as a consequence of the autumn statement some 400,000 of those on pension credit will see their benefits cut, and 800,000 will see it frozen. [Interruption.] There is no point in Ministers looking puzzled; I would have thought they would learn to read the small print of the Chancellor’s economic statements by now. How can it be right, when three quarters of pensioners are facing a choice between heating and eating this Christmas, to be taking more than £100 a year away from so many older people?
The hon. Gentleman really must move away from student politics. This Government have done more for pensioners than any other Government. They are benefiting more now than they would have under any system introduced by the Labour party. The triple lock is making sure they have more money. We have also maintained a lot of the universal benefits, so we on this side of the House will take no lectures from those on that side of the House.
T6. I recently visited UK Interactive Entertainment to learn more about the work of Special Effect, a charity working with disabled people to make video games accessible to all. How can we further utilise technology to assist those with disabilities? (902553)
I was delighted to join my hon. Friend on the visit to that fantastic charity, which has widespread support including from the Prime Minister and the deputy leader of the Labour party. Technology is key to removing barriers and I am delighted that we have the innovative technology prize—we will be announcing the winner in March—which shows that creating innovation and creating more opportunities will reduce more barriers.
T3. I have a constituent, a single mother of three, who was declared fit for work despite having ongoing complex mental and physical health problems. Since the verdict, she has phoned my office and she says she cannot take any more. Her doctor has also increased her medication for depression. Will the Government admit that in this instance and many others they are pushing the fit for work test too far and it is having an adverse effect on people’s health? (902550)
T7. Since 2010, unemployment in Weaver Vale has decreased by 54%. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the hard-working staff of Jobcentre Plus who have helped to make that happen? Is it not an example of this Government’s long-term economic plan delivering for hard-working taxpayers in Weaver Vale? (902554)
As my hon. Friend knows, I visited him the other day in his constituency, where he is doing an exemplary job, as is the jobcentre. Employment is improving and unemployment is falling, and that is happening nationally as well as with him. I would be very happy to visit him again.
T4. Hounslow Community FoodBox in my constituency is a food bank service that is, sadly, growing. A recent worrying trend has been the police bringing people into the FoodBox who have been caught shoplifting because they have no way of affording food. They have fallen through the net. Will the Secretary of State review past decisions to withdraw DWP emergency funds in the case of people who would otherwise be left destitute? (902551)
We have actually gone in exactly the opposite direction. We are making sure that in all jobcentres, and in all correspondence, individuals are notified that if they have difficulty they will have full access to crisis loans and advance payments. There is no reason for anybody in the benefits system to find that they have no money. They need to go and speak to the jobcentre advisers or ring them on the telephone and they will find themselves supported.
As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, I welcome the unemployment figures in my constituency, but will the Minister tell me what more can be done to help the hardest-to-reach young people into work?
I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing through the APPG. We recognise that we can never stand still in this area. There is always more to be done to support young people through work experience, traineeships and, importantly, working with employers to encourage them to take on more young people and get them into the labour market, invest in them and train them so that they have skills for the future.
T5. A devastating announcement has been made in the days before Christmas by Shop Direct, which covers the Littlewoods and Very brands, and its partner, Webhelp, that 400 call centre jobs in my constituency are to be lost. Those jobs are to be transferred 6,000 miles away to South Africa. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me that the people affected by those redundancies will get all the support and help they need from his Department? (902552)
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. All support will be given by Jobcentre Plus. If it has not already done so, I will ensure that it puts a specialist team in to make sure that all those people are seen as a priority, that all their skills are assessed and that they are got into jobs as quickly as possible. If, however, he would like to come and see me about this or if he can think of anything else we can do, I can assure him we will do everything we can to help his constituents at this time.
I know that my hon. Friend is doing a great deal of work locally in the employment space through apprenticeship fairs and things of that nature. When it comes to supporting people who are suffering long-term unemployment, we are working with our jobcentres and employers and, importantly, Work programme providers to get people closer to the labour market, to support them through training schemes and to nurture them so that they have an easier, smoother journey into work.
T8. I was delighted to hear from the Minister about all the work that the Government are doing for pensioners. In the light of the Pensions Minister’s announcement that they have finally conceded and announced a review of how rises in the state pension age should progress, will they now right the wrong that has been done to hundreds of thousands of women in this country? Does he recognise that this issue has to be addressed, as the Women Against State Pension Inequality—WASPI—campaign has said, to ensure that women are not pushed into poverty? (902555)
When the Pensions Act 2011 was passing through Parliament, the Government made a concession worth £1.1 billion that reduced the period concerned from two years to 18 months. For 81% of the women concerned, the period will not be extended, and will be a maximum of 12 months. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government have no plans to make any further concessions.
Does the Under-Secretary of State responsible for disabled people agree that, at a time when we are doing so much to encourage people with disabilities to participate in sport, it is a huge missed opportunity that not one of our inspirational disabled athletes is being honoured by the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I thought that decision was a disgrace. I was at the Barclays power of sport event on Thursday—on international day for people with disabilities—and there was collective disbelief among the great representatives of disability sport at that decision. We are not saying that people should always be guaranteed a win, but they should have been included as a consideration, because that is really important for inspiring the next generation.
I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say earlier that my party never supported universal credit. If that were the case, why would we have spent the past five years harassing him about how slowly he was going with it? However, that does not stop me worrying about the fortunes of the 30,000 lone-parent families in work in Merseyside. Is the Secretary of State for real: can he confirm that not a single one of those families will be a penny worse off?
Universal credit actually improves the lot of lone parents dramatically, because the first person into work gets a huge amount more than they would have done under tax credits. Here is the key: I have already said that those who are on universal credit at the moment will be supported by their advisers through the flexible support fund, to ensure that their status does not change.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on protecting the winter fuel payment, but although hundreds of thousands of letters are dropping through people’s letterboxes, figures also show that those who are retired are disproportionately less likely to switch their energy supplier. Will he commit to work with colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to look at how energy switching details can be included with the winter fuel payment?
The latest figures from the Department show that a clear majority of the JSA sanctions imposed in April to June, and about half of the ESA sanctions, were on claimants who had already been sanctioned within the previous two and a half years. Why does the Minister think the sanctions process is failing to change the behaviour of so many benefit claimants, and why does she not accept the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee and instigate a full and independent inquiry forthwith?
We know that sanctions are having a positive effect on securing employment, and the figures actually show that. In addition, the claimant commitment clearly outlines to the claimants and the work coach the requirements on supporting the individual back into work. As we are seeing, JSA sanctions have halved and ESA sanctions are down, and they are supporting more people in getting back to work.
I have a brief question on universal credit, as we continue to roll it out. Is there an opportunity to extend the dedicated telephone line that housing associations enjoy direct to universal credit to citizens advice bureaux, which do an incredible amount of work but are struggling to make contact with the people who can help them?
Under universal support, which is delivered locally, we are talking hugely to local authorities and all the local organisations in the area, and my hon. Friend will find that this will be swept up as part of that process; it is a dramatic improvement on where tax credits are right now, because it brings in all those other benefits as well.
The latest projections show that universal credit is running about four years behind the timetable that the Secretary of State originally set out. He has told us today that the new digital IT solution is to be rolled out from next April. How will he merge that with the prior IT system, which is already in use in quite a lot of jobcentres?
The universal programme is on track and has been approved by the Major Projects Authority, which has said that it is delisted. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been here long enough to remember, that I will take no lessons from a Labour Government who gave us a tax credit debacle—they rolled it out and more than three quarters of a million people failed to receive any benefit on the day it was launched. He should come to see this system; the live service and the digital service are merged because a lot of the digital service will use elements of the live service. They are therefore merging in the run-up to May and will then be rolled out together at the same time.
The Minister said earlier that there is no place for domestic violence in our country, and I firmly agree with him. When will he confirm how his Department intends to make women prove that they have had their third child by rape?
My apologies to the hon. Lady. May I say to her that we will come back with our exact reasons and rationale for how we will decide that? The reality remains, however—and this is, I believe, popular among the public—that those who make choices and take responsibility for them want everyone else to do the same as well.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the impact of Storm Desmond and flooding in the north of England.
As the House knows, this weekend has brought some enormously difficult and extreme weather conditions, and I begin by expressing my deepest sympathy to those who have been affected in all parts of the UK. I also wish to commend the Environment Agency, the emergency responders and volunteers who have been working tirelessly throughout the weekend, often in horrific conditions. People have come from all over the country—from as far as south Wales, Lincolnshire and Somerset—to help. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to them for their work, and to those who have shown such generous community spirit in offering food, transport and even beds to neighbours.
Over the course of Friday 4 December, it became clear that Storm Desmond would bring an exceptionally high volume of rainfall across the UK. The Environment Agency responded by mobilising its people and assets, moving temporary defences and pumps to north-west England. On Saturday morning, it became clearer which counties would be affected and that we would see very high levels of rainfall that evening.
The Government mobilised a full national emergency response. At midday on Saturday, I held a cross-departmental meeting to assess the projected impacts, which was shortly followed by the mobilisation of 200 military personnel and supporting assets, including making available a Chinook helicopter.
Local commanders were able to call on more than 50 high-volume pumps as well as specialist tactical advisers and rescue boats from around the UK, adding to more than 200 emergency responders already on the ground. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), travelled to Cumbria on Saturday to ensure that the emergency responders on the ground got all they needed. He has remained in the north-west throughout.
On Saturday night, we saw an unprecedented amount of rainfall. More than a month’s rain fell in one day. During Saturday night, main rivers all across Cumbria exceeded the highest levels ever recorded. There is a mark on the bridge in Carlisle showing the flood level in 1853. The 2005 flood was half a metre higher than that of 1853, which was the highest on record until then. This flood was half a metre higher again. It was 0.6 metres higher than previous records in Kendal, 0.7 metres higher in Keswick and 0.3 metres higher in Appleby.
Although more than 8,000 properties were protected by our flood defences, by Sunday morning, more than 3,500 properties had flooded across the country, the majority of which were in Cumbria. In Carlisle, more than 1,300 properties flooded. More than 600 properties flooded in both Kendal and Keswick, with more than 200 in Appleby. Flooding was also seen in Northumberland, with more than 60 properties flooded at Hexham. Some 55,000 properties lost power in Lancaster following the flooding of the electricity substation. Transport was severely disrupted, with roads closed across the north-west and bridges damaged. The west coast main line was suspended.
Tragically, I also confirm that there were a number of weather-related fatalities, with a number of incidents caused or exacerbated by flooding or poor weather. I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to their families and friends. It is a tragic reminder of how dangerous these conditions can be.
On Sunday morning, I chaired a cross-Government Cabinet Office briefing room meeting to ensure that the emergency responders on the ground had all the resources that they needed and to address immediate issues, including the threat to the power supply in Lancaster and Carlisle. I spoke with gold commanders in the worst affected areas during the day to ensure they had sufficient national resources to deliver their emergency plans.
The Prime Minister chaired a further Cobra meeting this morning and is visiting the affected areas today. I am pleased to confirm to the House that progress is being made on recovering from some of the impacts. The number of homes affected by power outages has been reduced to fewer than 5,000 following the restoration of power at Lancaster substation. Electricity companies are working round the clock to restore power as soon as possible.
Transport remains disrupted across much of the area. Many roads remain closed and will need to be repaired. The west coast main line remains suspended to Scotland and service is unlikely to be restored until Wednesday at the earliest. The Government will continue to ensure that all resources are made available to support recovery from this flooding. Cobra will continue to meet daily to oversee recovery efforts and I will be travelling to Cumbria and Lancashire after this statement to continue to ensure that we are doing all we can to help those affected.
I know that local communities will want to know what action Government will be taking to support the recovery phase. I am pleased to confirm to the House that my colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will shortly be opening the Bellwin scheme for local authorities affected by floods, and that 100% of eligible costs will be met by the Government. We will announce further support schemes over the coming days.
Since 2009 we have invested £45 million in new defences in Cumbria, but we will need to reflect on lessons that we can learn from this extreme weather event. In the last Parliament there was a real-terms increase in the investment in flood defences and in this Parliament there will be another real-terms increase in spending. We are investing £2.3 billion in 1,500 schemes throughout the country that will better protect 300,000 homes. The spending review has also confirmed that we are protecting flood maintenance spending throughout this Parliament as well as capital spending.
I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our sincere sympathy to those who have been affected by this weekend’s extreme weather conditions. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to do everything we can to support those affected and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I have spoken this morning to my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Sue Hayman), for Copeland (Mr Reed) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for an update on what is happening in their constituencies. Understandably, they cannot be here this afternoon as they are with their constituents, and I appreciate that the floods Minister is, rightly, in his constituency too.
Our thoughts are with all the communities in Cumbria and Lancashire that have once again been devastated by flooding. Tragically, it now seems that a number of people have lost their lives; their friends and family have our deepest sympathy and condolences. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services and the Army, who have once again responded superbly.
The immediate priority of course has to be help for all those who have been forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, and making sure that everyone is safe, warm and well. Communities such as those in Cumbria are getting used to rallying round and helping those who need shelter, food and clothing while they contemplate the state of their homes, and they have been magnificent this time, too. They are desperately worried that further rain is predicted for tomorrow, and I hope that the emergency response of which the Secretary of State spoke is geared up to respond to further bad weather.
With the last major floods of 2013-14, the Prime Minister declared that
“money is no object in this relief effort”,
yet it was months before residents, business owners and farmers received support from the Government, and much longer before they could return home. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say today that we must
“make sure everything is done to help in this vital phase of dealing with the floods”,
but it is not enough for the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary to pledge to deal with the devastation and damage caused. We need a commitment from them to do all they can to try to prevent this from happening again.
It was just six years ago that Cumbria was hit by “unprecedented” flooding, described then as a once in a lifetime or a once in a century event, but it has already happened again. This time, as the Environment Secretary said, it is even worse. Her predecessor was, as we know, not someone who was prepared to acknowledge the risks posed by climate change. Does this Secretary of State agree that extreme weather events are unfortunately increasingly a feature of British weather and that Government policy has to adapt accordingly? World leaders in Paris are negotiating what, we hope, is an historic agreement on climate change right now, yet domestically the Government have repeatedly abandoned measures to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, and climate adaptation appears to be a worryingly low priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When the Secretary of State travels to the north-west later today I hope that she will see that that cannot continue.
Until the 2013-14 winter floods in the south-west, DEFRA had downgraded flood defence as a priority, despite the fact that the Committee on Climate Change warned that flooding represented the greatest climate change risk to the UK. Flood defence maintenance was cut by 20% in 2010. In one year alone, the coalition slashed flood spending by more than £100 million. Does the Secretary of State accept that that left the UK unprepared for extreme weather events? I know that capital expenditure has been announced and is protected, but DEFRA has said that it cannot tell us about the resource funding for flood defence maintenance from 2016-17 to 2019-20 until next summer. I should be grateful if she elaborated on that and gave us a bit more information.
Will the Secretary of State heed the warnings from experts that we need year-on- year investment in flood defences to meet the increased threat of flooding? Given that this year’s flood defence budget is £115 million lower than last year, and lower than flood defence expenditure in 2009-10, can she honestly reassure the communities affected by flooding that the Government are doing enough?
After the last floods in Cumbria, insurance pay-outs took months and, in some cases, years. Flood Re is not due to become operational until next year, so will the Secretary of State update us on her discussions with the insurance companies since the weekend? Has she managed to secure assurances that householders and businesses will be paid promptly and in full? Local people are finding it impossible to meet the cost of insurance premiums. What reassurance can she offer to people who fear that their premiums will increase even more?
The Secretary of State spoke, rightly, about the need for a cross-departmental approach, with issues such as road and school closures, and the role of hospitals. The point has been made by my colleagues in Copeland and Workington that it would be absolute folly to downgrade the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven, given that power shortages and the sheer distance that people had to travel meant that the hospital in Carlisle was not geared up to deal with the floods this time round. I am more than happy to confirm that we want a cross-party approach to the problem, working with communities and Government Departments to try to ensure that people in Cumbria and Lancashire are, wherever possible, back home, safe and well with a roof over their head, and as dry as possible before Christmas strikes. I offer the Secretary of State my support in that.
I can assure the hon. Lady that we have an absolute focus on making sure that gold commanders on the ground have every support they need to make sure that people are safe and homes are protected, and to aid the recovery effort. We have seen that in efforts to restore the power supply and to report issues on road and transport systems. We are vigilant about the weather outlook. Cobra will meet daily to make sure that we have all those forecasts, that they are taken into account and that we put our resources where they are needed. We remain vigilant on that at all times. We began the recovery and response effort on Friday by making sure that those resources were in place in Cumbria. We can do all we can by mobilising resources such as the Army to ensure that support is on the ground where it is needed.
We have seen an unprecedented weather event. The hon. Lady referred to previous flooding in Cumbria, but this flooding was more extreme—levels were exceeded by half a metre in some key towns and cities in Cumbria. Of course, it was absolutely devastating for people previously affected by flooding who believed that things would be better but who have been affected by flooding again. My huge sympathy goes to those business owners and local residents, and I hope to meet them later today and tomorrow.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the extreme weather patterns that we are seeing. As we say, that is consistent with climate change trends. Climate change is factored into all the modelling work that the Environmental Agency does, but in the light of this extreme weather we must look at that modelling and ensure that it is fit for purpose for future decisions. We constantly review investment in flood defences. It is important that we remain fair to people across the country, and that the people of Cumbria understand why decisions have been made and get the proper protection they deserve.
On flood defence spending, over the last Parliament we spent £1.7 billion in capital spending—a real-terms increase on the £1.5 billion spent between 2005 and 2010. Our next six-year programme is £2.3 billion, which again represents a real-terms increase. It is the first time a Government have laid out a six-year programme so that we do not have lumpy bits of flood spending, but commit to a long-term programme that helps to protect the country better. Including the impact of climate change, that is forecast to reduce flood risk by 5% over the next six years.
The hon. Lady asked about the maintenance budget. We spent £171 million last year on flood maintenance. In the autumn statement the Chancellor confirmed that that will be protected in real terms for the duration of this Parliament.
The hon. Lady also asked about the help that people will get from insurance and support schemes. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and I are keen to see support schemes that are flexible and simple to operate, so we will work on that in the coming days. My right hon. Friend will host a discussion with the insurance companies to make sure that that support is provided.
These issues are all very important, but the immediate priority must be the rescue and response effort to make sure that we protect lives and families. It is such a terrible time of year, just before Christmas, for people to be out of their homes. Our absolute priority as a Government is making sure that we restore power supplies to homes, restore transport systems and protect lives.
Parts of my constituency have been affected by the floods that have wrought so much damage throughout the north-west. May I reinforce the point about insurance claims? They should be met speedily, not in six or nine months’ time. People’s needs are now, not in six or nine months. Will my right hon. Friend also make it clear to insurance companies that they will be looked at very carefully if they start to withdraw cover from people who have been affected by these floods? Withdrawing cover blights people’s homes, following the devastation that they have just suffered.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement this afternoon and, with my colleagues on the Scottish National party Benches, send our condolences to families that have been affected over the weekend. Normally my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) would speak on behalf of the SNP, but he is in his constituency assisting with the work there.
We feel for the devastation across the north of England and for the clear-up that is under way across the borders in Scotland as well, after some of the worst flooding that the region has seen. At its height about 700 people were evacuated from their homes. Hundreds of houses and business premises have been flood-damaged. There was extensive flood damage across other parts of Scotland, including the most significant flooding on the River Tay in 12 years. Today flood alerts have been issued for Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish borders again.
I note that David Shukman, the respected BBC science editor, wrote:
“Scientists always shy away from blaming any particular weather event on climate change. But they also point to a basic physical property of the atmosphere: that warmer air can hold more moisture. That means that rising temperatures are likely to lead to storms that may drop more rain—and in more intense bursts.”
In 2009 the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed world-leading climate change legislation. Using 1990 as a baseline, it committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 42% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050. In Scotland, we are doing what we can to foster renewable energy. It is a pity that this Government are removing support for onshore wind. Will the Secretary of State liaise with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to revisit this? We need to do more to protect our environment.
There is potential for extreme weather systems to continue to plague the UK. We are lucky in the UK that we have the resources to help as much as we can in preparing for them and helping communities in the aftermath, and I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s comments on that. However, across the world, smaller and poorer countries are going to be far worse hit by the effects of climate change. Today the Scottish Government announced that they will double their climate justice fund by pledging a further £12 million for developing countries to lessen the impact of climate change. What are the UK Government doing to help in poorer countries?
I express my sympathy for the people affected in Scotland. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government on our response.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is currently in Paris working to secure a good international deal so that we can deal with climate change on an international level. Of course, we have a very clear carbon budget system in place in the UK.
I pay tribute to my local Environment Agency team in Lancashire and Cumbria, who worked all weekend keeping me up to date. My residents in Banks and Rufford are very concerned that in less than two years the flooding pumps at Alt Crossens are going to move away from the Environment Agency to another, as yet unnamed, body. Most of this water gives on to farmland. What is the Department doing to protect farmland?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s tribute to the fantastic emergency service and Environment Agency staff who have been working round the clock to support people in the area. Our six-year programme will mean that an additional 420,000 acres of farmland will be protected. In the specific case of the flooding in the north over the weekend, we will look at what more can be done to help farmers.
Over the weekend and this morning I have been in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who remains in her constituency, and she has given me some thoughts on the situation in that part of Cumbria. She is extremely grateful, as are her constituents, for the response of the emergency services. There is concern that an unintended consequence of reductions in front-line services, as well as cuts to local authorities and the Environment Agency, is that those emergency responses may not be possible in future. Will the Government give some thought to whether cutting local authority and Environment Agency budgets might damage the ability to respond to these events in future?
The response efforts over the weekend and the preparations put in place by the Environment Agency, the emergency services and Army personnel have been fantastic. They have been working their socks off on the ground to protect people, and we are all very grateful for what they have done. My role is to make sure that we are co-ordinating those efforts and giving the local teams all the support they need. On Saturday and Sunday I spoke to the gold command to ask whether they needed any additional support and resources, and whether all those resources have been made available. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that the resources are available on the ground.
May I put on record my thanks to the emergency services and to officials at DEFRA and the Department of Transport for the work they have put in over the weekend? Will the Secretary of State assure me that she will continue to work with farmers in my constituency to ensure that the devastation that some of them have suffered over recent days will be looked at with sympathy?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As well as making sure that farmland is protected as part of our six-year flood defence programme, we will look at the specific impacts on farmers. The farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), will do more work on that.
This morning I met businesses in York who are over 4 metres under water. This is the second flooding they have had within a month. Will the Secretary of State ensure that basics like sandbags and pumps are available free for businesses, because they pay a heavy price when flooding occurs?
My North Yorkshire constituency has also been affected this weekend, so I welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments and pay tribute to those working hard in my area. My thoughts are with those affected elsewhere. I recently visited the village of Brompton, where the community has come together to create a set of natural flood defences, including a leaky dam and a series of holding ponds. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such schemes have a role to play in preventing floods, and will she urge the drainage boards and the Environment Agency to support them where appropriate?
I have great sympathy for those constituents of my hon. Friend who have been affected. I completely agree that natural defence schemes can play a very strong part in flood prevention. Indeed, I recently visited the Slow the Flow project in Pickering in Yorkshire, which is doing just that. Not only does it help to reduce flooding; it also contributes to the natural environment and biodiversity.
It is at times like these that we begin to worry about the cuts that local government and the fire service have suffered for the last five years. Is there any opportunity for the Secretary of State to say from the Dispatch Box today that she will ensure that the fire service will have those cuts reversed and that it will be able to carry on without losing men and machinery from this day forward?
We have seen fantastic support from the fire service and other emergency services, and the co-ordination on the ground has been superb. We have kept in regular touch with the gold command in those local areas. On flood protection, I have confirmed today that we are seeing an increase in real terms in capital spending over this Parliament, and we are also seeing a protection in real terms of our flood maintenance budget. That is really important in preventing and reducing the impact of flooding.
In the light of the floods in Cumbria and elsewhere, I am pleased to say that flood defences provided security and protection, as they were supposed to, in north Northumberland. Will the Secretary of State consider, as a matter of urgency, increasing the number of trees we plan to plant during this Parliament from 11 million, which equates to only one tree for every five people, to some 200 million, which equates to five trees for every person? They would cover some 50,000 hectares, much of which could be in the upland areas of river basins, to help nature to hold water and to reduce the risk of flooding in the long term.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the number of houses that were protected. Although my thoughts are with those who were flooded, 8,000 houses in the north of England were protected by our flood defences. I completely agree with her about looking at the environment on a catchment level and making sure that we put in place tree-planting programmes that can both reduce flood risk and improve the environment at the same time.
May I put on the record my heartfelt sympathies for the people of Cumbria and elsewhere, and for the friends and families of all those who died as a result of the weekend’s events? My constituency was badly flooded in 2007, and one has to live through such an event to be able to understand the devastation it visits on communities and families alike. The Secretary of State has made a great deal of play of the real terms increase in flood maintenance spending, but can she reassure the House that the flood maintenance budget has adequate funding to start with and that the Environment Agency is adequately funded to discharge its role in relation to flood prevention and flood response?
I know the hon. Lady has a lot of experience in this area. I have had such a discussion with the Environment Agency, and the budget is effective for the level of our plans at the moment. As I have mentioned, we saw an extreme weather event with the incidents in Cumbria, so although the flood defences in Cumbria delayed the impact, giving the emergency services an opportunity to operate and to evacuate people, and also reduced the impact, we clearly need to look at that area.
With uncanny timeliness, a publication entitled “Responding to Major Floods” arrived in my postbox today from the Association of British Insurers. It is a useful guide to help those affected by flooding. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the ABI and ensure that copies of the booklet are distributed to everyone affected by this weekend’s flooding?
Like everybody in the House, I pay tribute to all our emergency services for the magnificent work they have done and continue to do. At present, however, there is no formal expectation that fire and rescue services will actually attend floods in England and Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree that, to ensure an effective, safe and robust response to flooding, we should follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and make it a statutory duty for firefighters in England and Wales to respond to flooding?
My view is that our procedures are working, with the gathering of Departments on Saturday to make sure that we had the right preparations in place for the emergency services, the Environment Agency and the Army. The Cobra system that we have to co-ordinate them when we have an emergency, as we have had for the past few days, has worked very effectively, and we have been able to mobilise people on the ground. I am interested in what works, in what is effective and in how we protect the maximum number of people and the maximum number of homes from this extreme event.
I, too, pay tribute to the emergency services. As an officer of the all-party groups on mountain rescue and on mountaineering, I pay particular tribute to the mountain rescue workers who have put in a huge amount of work to support the communities affected.
Given that tourism is such a vital part of the local economy, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every effort will be made to support local businesses and communities in the run-up to Christmas and during the Christmas season in these very difficult circumstances?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Mountain Rescue has been a fantastic support, particularly in some of the remoter villagers across the north of England, especially in Cumbria. I pay tribute to it for its round-the-clock work. It has been absolutely fantastic.
I agree with my hon. Friend about rural tourism, which is already worth £10 billion to the economy. It is really important to get things up and running again, which is why I am working with my colleagues the Transport Secretary and the Energy Secretary to make sure we get transport and power up and running, not only so that residents can enjoy the area, but so that people can visit it.
I echo both the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State and her commendations of the emergency services and the volunteers for the invaluable work they are doing. Thousands of people across the north of England and Wales have been affected, including the leader of my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He has suffered the relatively minor inconvenience, compared with what other people have experienced, of having his car written off as a result of the floods. He cannot be in the Chamber today.
The Secretary of State is clearly focusing on the emergency. After the emergency, however, does she intend to apply to the EU solidarity fund to help rebuild the communities devastated by floods once the immediate emergency has been dealt with?
My understanding is that there is quite a high threshold to obtain that funding, but we will of course look at all potential sources of funding. As I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will open the Bellwin fund, and we are also looking at specific schemes.
Floods, as we have seen, can have a devastating impact on businesses, homes and individuals. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected. My right hon. Friend’s Department has had a clear commitment to date to investing in flood prevention schemes. Will she reaffirm her continued commitment to investing in such schemes and to continuing the vital work that she has begun, which has spared many people from the plight of flooding—although, sadly, by no means all—and which has the potential to protect many more?
It is an absolute priority for my Department to improve our flood defences as much as possible, to reduce the flood risk and to make sure that we are constantly prepared for these extreme situations. That is why we acted early on Saturday by bringing the Departments together to prepare the response and why we held a Cobra meeting on Sunday to make sure that the Army was deployed to deal with the situation and protect as many lives and homes as possible.
Much of my immediate family, including my parents, live in the Carlisle area. Thankfully, they are safe, but my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected by this dreadful situation. Obviously, I thank the emergency services and the community volunteers.
Just six years after unprecedented flooding, Cumbria has once again been hit by unprecedented rainfall. Does the Secretary of State agree that, unfortunately, such extreme weather events are increasingly a feature of the British weather and that Government policy has to adapt accordingly?
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Lady’s family are safe and well. The events in Carlisle were not just extreme weather events, but were significantly worse than those on the previous occasion. There was an additional half metre of water, which has had a huge impact on local communities. Of course, as with all major incidents, we will look at this one and see what lessons can be learned for the future.
May I pass on my sympathy to all those who have been affected and my commendation to all those in the emergency services who, as always, have done a fantastic job? Given the pressure on housing, will my right hon. Friend ensure that she and the Government note the new levels of water that are arising around the country and ensure that no new housing is built in those locations?
Like other hon. Members, my prayers and thoughts are with all those who have been impacted by these appalling scenes. The word “unprecedented” has been used time and again today, and we seem to be coming back to the House again and again to discuss these issues. Is it not time that we sat down as a nation and looked at all the infrastructure, at where the substations, roads and bridges are, and at the drainage systems—looked at everything—and involved the public in a national consultation, so that we can have a proper plan for how these so-called unprecedented events, which I am sure will become more and more frequent, can be dealt with once and for all?
We do have very clear national resilience plans to ensure that our key assets are protected. Of course, after every major incident, we review them to see what could be improved. We constantly review the modelling on our flood defences to make sure that it is as good as possible. Each time something different happens, we need to be able to adjust it. Our models are open and transparent. The public can look at the methodology the Environment Agency uses. We use sophisticated data from the Met Office. Of course, we will look at this issue and see what more can be done.
I send my sympathies to everybody who has been affected by the flooding. Cumbria is in the recovery phase. Will the Secretary of State review the flood defence modelling for the lower Thames region, in which many of my residents have no confidence? In particular, will she consider Thames barrier 2, which civil engineers were calling for even before the high floods in 2013-14?
I would be very happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and to meet the people who are working on the proposed scheme. It is helpful to have an open and transparent discussion about why decisions on flood investment are made. I would be happy to share the data and the modelling with her.
The people of Hull, who know only too well the devastation flooding causes, extend their sympathies to all those affected by flooding this weekend. We pay tribute to the emergency services and to local BBC radio, which has an important role to play when we face such situations. Has the Secretary of State given any consideration to increasing support to the National Flood Forum, which does so much, through practical support and good advice, to help families and households affected by flooding? Additional resources would really help at this time.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the National Flood Forum and local radio: we were able to ensure that people were evacuated from their homes and given adequate warning to keep them safe. It is also worth mentioning that the Environment Agency website has been a very useful resource. It has gone from having 400 hits on an average day to 650,000 hits on one day alone, so the public are able to access information. We have also been communicating on social media, enabling early evacuation to keep people safe.
According to the Association of British Insurers, my constituency is the most likely to flood in the entirety of the UK. The tidal surge of 2013 flooded hundreds of homes and my constituents are still living with the consequences. Will the Secretary of State go back and double-check that the coming Boston barrier is not only up to the job but will provide the much needed economic benefits of flood defences after devastating floods, such as those that we are seeing in Cumbria and saw in Boston?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Boston barrier is an extremely important scheme not just for local businesses in Boston but for farmers in the surrounding area. I met a group of local internal drainage boards to discuss what more can be done in Lincolnshire. I am very happy to update him on the modelling we have done and the forecasts we have made.
I join the Secretary of State and hon. Members in sending condolences to the families affected and in paying tribute to the extraordinary response of the emergency services. What message are the Government sending to the fire and rescue service personnel who are giving their all right now, and to the people so badly affected right now, when 40 firefighters face job losses and five stations face closure in Cumbria alone under the latest round of emergency service cuts? How will this affect the Government’s ability to respond to future extreme weather conditions that the Secretary of State said we must expect?
Apart from the national interest in ensuring that Cumbria receives the support it needs, my researcher Nicholas Altham lives at Yanwath near Penrith and raised with me the collapse of nearby Pooley bridge. Will the Secretary of State look at having a commitment not just to rapid repair but to the provision of transport infrastructure in this area in future?