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Westminster Hall

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 February 2016

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Under-occupancy Penalty

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regional effects of the under-occupancy penalty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Dorries.

Our debate today on the regional impact of the bedroom tax is important and comes on the back of the Government’s recent judicial review defeat in the Court of Appeal, where it was determined that the bedroom tax discriminates against victims of domestic violence and the families of severely disabled children. I pay tribute to campaigners throughout the country who have put considerable energy and effort into challenging this iniquitous tax and raising public awareness of the Government’s continuing attempt to defend the indefensible. People such as Paul and Susan Rutherford have led the charge in one of the Court of Appeal cases on behalf of their severely disabled grandson, Warren, and Alan Lloyd of Cardiff Against the Bedroom Tax gives voluntary help to victims of the bedroom tax in my constituency of Cardiff Central and across south Wales by preparing and presenting appeals. I spoke to Alan Lloyd yesterday as he was on his way to appear at yet another tribunal to present an appeal on behalf of a woman whose long-time home is at risk because of the tax.

It is clear from the number of hon. Members present here today that the impact of the tax remains an important issue to many people and is not limited to those who pay the tax itself. The Opposition have opposed the bedroom tax since its introduction. Since this grossly unpopular Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy was forced on the public, exactly what we warned would happen has happened. The bedroom tax is not working; it is not achieving the aims that the Government set out to implement; and it is hurting some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and giving them a problem that is absolutely no fault of their own.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a lawyer for many years, for bringing this important issue to the Floor of the House. Normally, people adhere to Court of Appeal judgments, but in the case of the bedroom tax, the Government are once again ignoring what the court said. In what way—the right, decent and honourable way—should the Government deal with the Court of Appeal judgment and listen to what is happening to the thousands of people out there who are suffering as a consequence of this now unlawful and illegal tax?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The honourable thing would be to accept the decision of the Court of Appeal, but instead the Government are proceeding to the Supreme Court, where a decision is expected at the end of this month or early next month.

The bedroom tax and the tripling of tuition fees for students are two of the most painful scars left by five years of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, and I will take every opportunity to continue to remind the House that the bedroom tax would never have been introduced without the eager help of the Liberal Democrats, including my predecessor. Nearly 500,000 households and almost 750,000 people have been hit by this cruel policy. Two thirds of the households affected by the bedroom tax include a person with a disability. The tax impacts on 60,000 carers—people who undertake demanding and challenging responsibilities and are punished for doing so. Some 57% of those who have to pay the tax have had to cut back on household basics such as food and heating—things that we all take for granted. The bedroom tax has had a corrosive effect on many different households, including the single parent who needs a spare room for when their children visit as part of agreed contact visit arrangements following separation or divorce; grandparents who help with looking after their grandchildren, allowing parents to manage shift working and other working patterns, or following family breakdown; and people with severe disabilities who use their spare room for their medical equipment or care, such as kidney dialysis.

This issue is big in my constituency of Hackney South and Shoreditch. There is an invidious part to this tax. If two children are of an age when they are supposed to share a bedroom, but one is within reach of their next birthday, when they would qualify for their own bedroom, the family are hit by the bedroom tax. So it is a fluctuating tax that hits people particularly hard.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point; the tax increases uncertainty. People cannot budget. Their circumstances change and the fluctuating nature of the tax impacts on them more heavily at different times. Then there are victims of domestic violence and rape whose lives are at risk and need the protection of a panic room.

The particular focus of this debate is the regional impact of the bedroom tax, and I want to outline its impact on my constituents in Cardiff Central and more broadly within the nation of Wales, where 31,217 people are affected by the tax. Across Wales, just under 500,000 people live in social rented accommodation. The tax has had a huge impact, affecting proportionally more housing benefit claimants than anywhere else in Great Britain. Some 46% of claimants in Wales pay the tax, compared with 31% for the UK as a whole. In Cardiff, 3,015 households currently pay the tax, and nearly 500 of those live in my constituency of Cardiff Central.

The cost of the bedroom tax to each household affected will be £3,500 during this Parliament. I am sure I do not need to explain to most hon. Members what £3,500 means to the families in our constituencies, especially the poorest families who visit our surgeries every week. That £3,500 would otherwise be spent on basic necessities such as food, heating, clothes and shoes. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions claimed that the bedroom tax would encourage societal movement. However, when the bedroom tax was introduced, it affected about 3,500 households in Cardiff, and only just over 100 smaller properties were available for people to move into. I readily admit that maths is not my strong point, but even I can work out that that sum does not work.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She knows that Northern Ireland did not implement the bedroom tax, although it has cost us financially not to do so. We looked at the issues that she has rightly highlighted, especially those affecting our older generation. In the first place, we did not have the housing stock, but, from a moral point of view, we felt that the hardship was simply too great to impose on older people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which again shows the iniquitous nature of the bedroom tax.

Therein lies the truth about the bedroom tax and its impact and the number of properties that are available for people to move to. The Government knew before they introduced the policy that insufficient smaller properties were available for people to move to. That was the picture right across the country. Even if we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt about their motives before implementation, their own interim report on the bedroom tax after implementation revealed that the policy was not meeting its key aim of freeing up larger council properties. Only 4.5% of affected tenants have been able to move to smaller accommodation. At the same time, with just 4.5% of people able to move and be rehoused, 60% of people affected were in arrears within the first six months of the introduction of the tax. The policy is simply not working. People are not able to move to smaller accommodation because that accommodation simply does not exist, so long-standing, reliable tenants who were previously able to budget and pay their rent regularly now cannot pay it and have built up significant arrears.

In parts of London we are seeing people pushing to get two-bedroom properties because they are frightened they will be hit by the bedroom tax, but that also reduces, if there was availability, the stock for people to move down to, if they have the extra bedroom, so it causes a squeeze in both directions.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

The most vulnerable have been hit the hardest and, in the words of the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues just a few weeks ago, the Government’s “admitted discrimination” in the judicial review cases to which I referred earlier

“has not been justified by the Secretary of State”.

We now have a farcical situation in which the Government have appealed that decision and the legal costs of pursuing the appeal are likely to be greater than the amount it would cost them to exempt all victims of rape and domestic violence with panic rooms who are paying the bedroom tax. I can conclude only that the Government would rather pay money to lawyers than to rape victims. I challenge the Minister to justify that action.

I think I can predict that, when he responds to the debate, the Minister will say that the Government have made additional funding available to local authorities in the regions and in Wales in the form of discretionary housing payments, but my local authority, City of Cardiff Council, has had its DHP funding cut by more than 26% between 2013-14 and 2015-16. The regional impact of Cardiff losing more than a quarter of its DHP funding has been hard, so it is disingenuous to argue that the DHP system justifies the bedroom tax.

At the same time as imposing the tax and relying on DHP as justification, the Government are cutting DHP funding. Their own report, which they sneaked out in a huge data dump on the very last day of the parliamentary term in December 2015—obviously in the hope that no one would notice—admitted that 75% of bedroom tax victims did not get DHP; that three quarters of those hit by bedroom tax were cutting back on food; that only 5% had been able to move; and that 80% regularly ran out of money.

The policy implementation of DHP has also been called into question. Evidence on its use has raised serious questions about local authorities adopting different practices, leading to allegations of a postcode lottery. There are references to disabled tenants—particularly those living in specially adapted properties—struggling to get DHP in some areas, and needing to submit repeated applications, with the consequential uncertainty and anxiety. That is not to mention the exclusion of people with lower levels of literacy.

This debate is not the first time that DHP and its impact on disabled people has been raised here. As long ago as 9 April 2014, five Welsh Government Ministers wrote to Lord Freud to call for an exemption from the bedroom tax for disabled tenants who had had adaptations made to their homes. They cited issues with DHP as one reason why such a broad exemption was necessary. They said:

“Disabled tenants cannot easily up sticks and move home. They should be exempt from these reforms and should not be left to rely on help from the discretionary housing benefit system…Our analysis of the discretionary housing payments system shows that demand far outweighs the number of applications being approved. In the first half of the financial year 2013/14 demand increased by around 260 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier in 15 Welsh local authorities.”

Cardiff’s 26%-plus cut in DHP funding, coupled with the increase in applications, presents another one of those stark sums that even I can work out. It simply does not add up to have households with disabled tenants having to pay the bedroom tax if that cannot be offset through DHP because DHP funding has been cut. It is another example of the Government’s policy hitting hardest those who can least afford it.

Tomorrow, we have an Opposition day debate on another of the policy responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: the adverse impact on around 2.6 million women of the speeding up of the state pension age. I know from discussions with constituents that many of those being advised and represented in bedroom tax appeals in my constituency are those very same women who are adversely affected by the changes to the state pension age. They are also women who are disabled or carers, so there is a double, triple or quadruple whammy on women. As with so many of the Government’s policies, it seems that women are bearing the brunt yet again.

It is time for the Government finally to accept that the bedroom tax is a bad policy. In the words of David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, it is:

“an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families”.

It does not work, it causes severe hardship and it hits the most vulnerable, so I say to the Minister: please, listen to the public. It is time for the bedroom tax to be binned.

I welcome this debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens).

We already know that the bedroom tax is nothing more than an ideological attempt to reduce the housing benefit bill and make better use of social housing stock by penalising low-income households deemed to be under-occupying their homes, but the problem of under-occupation will not be solved by shuffling people around. That will do absolutely nothing to resolve the underlying problems, which we all know are related to the supply of affordable housing.

A house is not just somewhere we live: it is a home. For all the people it affects, the bedroom tax can mean having to move out of the place that they have lived in for many years, where they raised their children. They have to move away from friends, family, schools, work and, in some cases, their support networks. Each and every one of us is emotionally attached to our homes, and people in social rented accommodation are no different. Just because someone does not own their house, that does not mean that it is not theirs.

The reality is that the under-occupancy penalty affects thousands and will hit the most disadvantaged members of the community. Is it really working? The Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York tested the Department for Work and Pensions’ assessment of the impact on housing benefit costs and found that the expected savings might have been overestimated. The increased post-implementation costs faced by local authorities and the third sector should be taken into account in the overall assessment. Research carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the National Housing Federation concluded that housing associations would spend, on average, an additional £109,000 in 2013-14 to address the implications of the under-occupation deduction.

We must consider not only the effects of the bedroom tax but the associated impacts, such as tenants being unable to move to smaller properties because of rent arrears; an estimated 46% of tenants reporting having to cut back on heating; landlords stating that some tenants face severe poverty and are unable to pay the shortfall; and the risk of homelessness. All that causes stress and worry and affects tenants’ health and wellbeing.

The hon. Lady touched on the issue of arrears. Thankfully, Northern Ireland is exempt from this policy—at some considerable cost to us—but in many instances elsewhere there are vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, who find themselves in a very difficult situation, with minimal arrears, which are going to be compounded if this policy is continued over the next year and the year beyond.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. People find themselves in a vicious circle and can never see the end. That is the problem. In other words, we are putting people through absolute misery for nothing.

As we have heard, the Government tell us that discretionary housing payments are available to tackle the shortfall, but Shelter says that that provision is already overstretched. With such extensive reforms to welfare, a shortage of affordable housing and drastically rising rents in the private sector, the reality is that there is only so much that discretionary housing payments can cover. They are a mere sticking plaster and will not solve the problem. Even the House of Lords has deemed the welfare reforms a step too far, causing the Government embarrassment. Worse still, the UK is, shamefully, the first country ever to be investigated by the UN in relation to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The UN is currently looking at our welfare policies for the disabled.

Before the Scottish Government invested millions of pounds to alleviate the bedroom tax in Scotland, many people in my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock were a thrown into turmoil by the policy, with some tenants receiving eviction letters that caused unnecessary anxiety and worry. We should not be spending our already diminishing budget on mitigating Westminster austerity policies. That money should be spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will ensure that housing continues to be a priority by building affordable housing, creating jobs and boosting our economy. I am pleased that the Scottish Government have committed to abolishing the bedroom tax as soon as they have the powers to do so. I ask the Tory Government to think again and to put the needs of people back at the centre of their welfare policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), a fellow Welshwoman, on securing this debate.

This is a contentious issue of great concern to many people in my consistency. The bedroom tax is discriminatory and punishing. I want to share two short stories. The first is of Megan Wheatland from Bonymaen in my constituency, whose husband passed away in January 2013. He was of pensionable age and Megan was not; therefore, she was liable for the bedroom tax on the three-bedroom house she shares with her teenage daughter. Megan pays £11.85 a week for a small box room. Because of this, she is unable to pay for the extracurricular activities her daughter would like to take part in. She worries greatly that her daughter is missing out on all the other things that her teenage friends do. It really is an issue for Megan.

Then there is Sarah, a single mother with two children. She suffers from severe depression and has an arched spine. She struggles to engage socially and has suicidal thoughts. Because of this, her two children have been taken into care. Now Sarah is paying the under-occupancy penalty for a house that she should be sharing with her two children. It is an absolutely appalling situation.

We have heard about DHP, but it only kicks in after tenants have taken steps to downsize or—God forbid—take in a lodger. Some people who take in a lodger lose out on other benefits, because the rent on that room is classed as extra income. I am worried that taking in a lodger when there are children in the house is potentially dangerous, because it means that people are effectively taking a stranger into their home.

If disabled people have to move to smaller properties to avoid paying the bedroom tax, there is the inevitable cost of making adaptations. Surely supporting those who pay the bedroom tax—or, better still, scrapping it—would be a better use of public funds. It is estimated that 10% of disabled people renting properties live in homes specifically adapted to their needs. The cost of adapting a smaller property—or, potentially, a larger property—to suit the personal requirements of the new tenants surely outweighs any income gain from charging for the extra room in the first place. Of course, people can always move to the private sector. In Swansea, an above average number of homes were built between 1919 and 1944, but 15% of those old houses contain category 1 hazards, meaning that they have failed basic health and safety standards.

The Government do not hold data on how many disabled people are affected by the bedroom tax, so I contacted my local authority. I knew the number would be high, but I was shocked by just how high it is. In Swansea, the bedroom tax is paid on a total of 2,467 homes, of which 1,138 are in my constituency. Of the total number, 1,129 people paying bedroom tax are in receipt of at least one of the following benefits: attendance allowance, disability living allowance, personal independence payments or severe disability living allowance. That means that in Swansea a staggering 45.7% of the people paying the bedroom tax are considered to be disabled. The DWP’s evaluation of the removal of the spare room subsidy, which it published in December 2015, estimated that 75% of claimants have either a long-term illness or a disability, and they are living in homes to which the bedroom tax applies.

Historically, social housing policy in Wales has focused on creating sustainable communities and enabling families to become established, so there is a shortfall of one and two-bedroom homes. The Welsh Government’s pattern book for new social housing development requires landlords to build lifetime homes, so social landlords generally see one-bedroom homes as an inflexible and ineffective housing solution. The bedroom tax contravenes the principle of a lifetime home. Those in social housing at the start of their tenancy will have very different commitments and requirements from those they will have further down the road. The bedroom tax therefore creates a transient housing pattern, forcing continual relocation to suit housing needs. That is in direct contradiction to the concept of lifetime homes. The effect will be to damage communities, as they lose the momentum to develop as communities. If a resident is short term, they will not be there long enough to engage with the community and get active in social groups.

I go back to my original point: the bedroom tax is discriminatory and punishing. It financially punishes those forced to pay it and it discriminates—

On the point about the bedroom tax financially punishing people, does my hon. Friend think that it causes people to go to payday lenders such as Wonga and take out loans with extortionate interest rates to survive?

I certainly do. I have casework involving people who have taken out payday loans from Wonga and other organisations and have been unable to repay them without not paying their bedroom tax. It is a Catch-22.

The bedroom tax financially punishes those forced to pay it. It discriminates against communities and individuals, and makes them unable to gel and enjoy stable, sustainable and adequate housing in a community where they can nurture and mutually support each other, and be part of a productive citizenship and community enterprise.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this debate.

The spare room subsidy, or the bedroom tax as it is more commonly known, is causing stress and hardship across the country. It is the most unfair and pernicious tax since Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. We are here to debate the regional impact of the tax, so I will outline some of the issues it is causing in my consistency and in the south Wales valleys more generally.

The principle of providing larger properties for families and smaller properties for single people and couples is understandable. People often decide for themselves to move to a smaller property when their children leave home or their circumstances change, but that is a choice. Unfortunately, there are not many one and two-bedroom properties in many communities in my constituency, so people affected by the bedroom tax must decide either to stay in their property—thereby incurring a financial penalty that places great strain on their ability to manage—or move to a smaller property in a village or community some miles away.

Before being elected to this place, I was cabinet member for housing at Caerphilly Council, which covers a third of my constituency. In that role, I met a number of people who wished to remain in the homes they had lived in for many years. They did not want to move to a smaller property miles from their family and friends. Unfortunately, the strain of paying the bedroom tax in addition to their utility costs and household bills meant that they often had little money left to put food on the table.

My hon. Friend is rightly highlighting the practical difficulties and the unfairness of the policy. Does he think that the fact that there is not a single Government Back Bencher present suggests that there is not widespread support for its implementation, even if it is Government policy?

As my hon. Friend says, the vacant chairs on the Government side of the Chamber speak volumes.

I know that the Government will say that they have provided discretionary housing payments, but that is only a temporary fix to an ongoing problem. I would like to reiterate the practical difficulties of moving miles away from family and friends. Many communities in the south Wales valleys are geographically isolated, which, coupled with public transport challenges in semi-rural areas, means that people often feel very lonely and isolated if they are moved to unfamiliar surroundings away from their families.

Last week I spoke to representatives of voluntary organisations that work with people affected by poverty and the welfare changes. I was told the story of a lady who, after being affected by the bedroom tax, was forced to move from her home village to another village some miles away. The isolation caused her to become depressed, which led to her taking her life. Tragically, that is not an isolated case. It is the reality of what can happen and is happening as a result of this unfair tax.

I have talked to the local authorities and housing agencies in my constituency, and I have heard about a number of situations that are causing great concern, not least to the tenants themselves. In one such case, a couple who are joint tenants of a two-bedroom house are under-occupying by one room and are thus affected by the bedroom tax, which reduces their housing benefit entitlement by 14%. They are on the transfer list and are eager to move to any one-bedroom property. They both have health issues and have lived in the same close-knit community all their lives. Staff at the council housing department have visited and have applied for discretionary housing payments to assist the tenants in the short term. The tenants are concerned about how they will pay the charge, because they are trying to repay rent arrears that have accrued on their account. They would like to stay in the same area, but, as I outlined earlier, the local authority have few one-bedroom properties in their areas of choice.

I recently spoke to staff at my local citizens advice bureau in Merthyr Tydfil who told me about the many people who come through their doors on a regular basis. People have nowhere else to turn. Such clients often have several other significant issues going on in their lives and, to add to that, they are now in rent arrears due to the bedroom tax. These people could lose their homes, leading to massive consequences. For those who are physically or mentally disabled, it could bring about even more severe issues, such as homelessness, suicidal thoughts, substance misuse or further debt. It just becomes a downward spiral.

In parts of my constituency, the demand for three-bedroom properties is not great. The local authority often advertises them for rent in the hope of getting tenants, yet people are being forced out of these properties and into smaller homes, creating more vacancies. I appreciate that that is not the case everywhere—certainly not in larger cities—but today we are considering the regional impact of the bedroom tax, and that is the reality in parts of my constituency. Of particular concern in my area is the view that the disability living allowance and personal independence payments should be disregarded when considering DHP applications. A recent court case resulted in a ruling of indirect discrimination when DLA or PIP is taken into account as income. It specifically quoted section 29(6) of the Equality Act 2010 and article 14 of European convention on human rights. The DWP’s discretionary housing payment guidance manual of February 2016 also refers to the court case. My local citizens advice bureau feels strongly that DLA and PIP should not be treated as income for DHP applications.

Another example involves a single tenant living alone. The tenant does not want to move, as he has lived in the property all his life and classes it as not only a council house, but a home. The property has three bedrooms and the tenant is affected by the spare room subsidy charge, which reduces his housing benefit by 25%. The tenant has to pay an additional £23 a week out of his welfare benefits to cover the charge, leaving him with £50 a week to buy food and pay for all other essentials, including utility bills. The tenant also has support needs, which are provided by his family, who live in the same area. Staff from the council have visited and applied for discretionary housing payments to assist the tenant in the short term. They also arranged for a food parcel to be delivered because the tenant was cutting back on food to pay the shortfall. The property was cold when the visit took place in late December because the tenant could not afford money for the prepayment meter. That is the reality of what is happening across our country.

Organisations such as Citizens Advice and others want to make a difference to their clients’ lives. There is a feeling that people are being penalised unfairly. With further reforms in the pipeline, many people’s ability to cope will become increasingly uncertain. I urge the Minister to take on board the real concerns about the bedroom tax policy and to recognise the hardship that this pernicious charge is causing. This charge—or tax; whatever you want to call it—is discredited, indefensible and should be abolished.

It was not my intention to speak, but today’s debate really brought back to me the reality of the Government’s merciless attack on the most vulnerable people in our society. It must be said and reinforced that the attack is mainly on disabled people. Of the 600,000 who initially suffered as a result of bedroom tax, 400,000 were disabled. I wonder whether the Minister, who is shaking his head, can clarify or indicate whether those figures are correct. If he can, it will be the first time that anybody has ever challenged them. I am sure that he will want to comment.

The bedroom tax is about ideology. It is nothing else than an attack on those who can least afford it. I wish the room was full of Government Members listening to my hon. Friends’ contributions, but that is unfortunately not the case. The Minister should be ashamed of what the Government have done. Those affected are disabled people and people who are already in poverty. They are not living a life of luxury; they are on benefits. The policy is increasing child poverty and pushing more ordinary people into poverty. I will say it again: the Minister should be ashamed of himself and of the Government for continuing with the policy. A court judgment only a matter of weeks ago stated that the bedroom tax was illegal and unlawful, yet the Government still pursue the matter through the courts. The policy represents a concerted attack on communities. The slashing of benefits does not help people at all.

I am unsure whether the Minister has seen the video, which formed part of the Daily Mirror’s campaign, about a 47-year-old individual who used to live with his elderly mother and then his 49-year-old brother in a four-bedroom property that had been adapted for his cerebral palsy. The local authority paid £70,000 for the changes so that the man could wash in a walk-in shower, but the tenants fell foul of the bedroom tax, which they could not afford to pay. They ended up in a bungalow, where the man has to be bathed by his brother in an inflatable paddling pool in the sitting room. That is the sort of thing that the bedroom tax has reduced tens of thousands of people to. Treating disabled people like that is not something that a society such as ours should be proud of, but that is what the bedroom tax is about.

This debate is about what is happening regionally, and the situation in my constituency is pretty bleak. Even the Conservative MPs in my area have suggested that the bedroom tax is not working. Almost 40,000 people are affected by the deduction, and the £454,000 discretionary housing payment fund for 2015-16 has been totally used up and is no longer available, which is causing huge problems. In the past few months, 442,000 homes across the country have seen an increase in the bedroom tax from £14 two years ago to £15.27 this year. That is up more than 9% for people who can barely afford to put bread on the table—£66 more per year—and hitting those who are already suffering even harder than the Tory Government thought would be the case back when the bedroom tax was introduced. It is an absolute outrage that the tax was introduced in the first place.

As a politician, I sometimes wonder where that emanates from, where it comes from. Someone has sat down somewhere and thought, “Well, we could claim money back from people who are disabled”—people who most need the money and who need the finances even to live. We are not talking about a life of luxury, but simply existence. Someone has sat there and developed the spare bedroom policy, “Oh, we’ll charge disabled people. There are 600,000 people out there who are living in a house or a bungalow or a property where they might have an extra bedroom. Why don’t we tax them?” Where does that come from? It is ideology.

Before people suggest that the Government were unaware of the consequences, they should please bite their tongues, because it is the finest brains in this country that devise policies on behalf of whichever Government, and they have been to the finest universities. They understand absolutely who will suffer as a consequence of whatever they put in place. That is the reality. This is a pernicious tax, which is focused on those less well off in society, mainly disabled people, and those who cannot afford it. That is the reason why it was introduced in the first place.

The situation in my area is exactly the same as that described by my hon. Friends. We have people who are looking to move because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax, but not enough properties are available. We have people now in rent arrears who have never been in arrears in their life, because of the bedroom tax. One of the big housing companies in my area has had an increase of 42% in rent arrears. These are proud people who are suffering. They have always made their way, but the burden of the bedroom tax has meant that lots of them are now in arrears. Latterly, rent arrears in the sector have increased to somewhere in the region of 50%.

All in all it is not a great picture—it really is not. At times we have got to tell it as it is, not pussyfoot around and talk about looking at different ways of doing things. The bedroom tax needs to be scrapped. If the Minister has anything about him, he would agree with the court judgment and scrap it as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I had not expected to speak today, but I felt moved to do so because of the huge impact of the bedroom tax on my constituents. In Hoxton, on the Wenlock Barn estate alone, 74 households out of several hundred are affected.

We have heard from colleagues about the practical issues, so I will touch on some of those. Any policy that starts life with discretionary money provided by the Government as a workaround fund clearly does not stack up in the first place. The invidiousness of a discretionary housing payment when local government budgets are being slashed, and are expected to be slashed further in coming years, is an extra burden on the people affected. People speak to me about the bedroom tax with uncertainty and fear. Even if it does not affect them now, they worry that it will affect them in future.

In my constituency there is no housing stock to move to and no smaller homes that do not already have a huge waiting list. I have been elected in different roles for more than 20 years, and now is the worst time that I have ever seen for housing. My surgeries and those of my council colleagues are full of people desperate to find a home, but unable to afford one in the private rented sector in Hackney. Private rents are now unaffordable. In fact, in the private sector in my constituency, not a single three or four-bedroom property can be rented to meet the housing benefit cap. There is no alternative, and there is a huge waiting list for all social housing. The likelihood of being able to move to a smaller property in the same area, even through mutual exchange, is very slim.

While we are on the subject, will the Minister clarify an issue that came up in a Public Accounts Committee hearing a couple of years ago? Apparently, income from lodgers has no negative impact on universal credit and is completely disregarded. Will he clarify whether that is the case? On Wenlock Barn estate, were people minded or able to have a lodger—this might shock my colleagues from south Wales—they could charge £200 for a room on an estate so close to Old Street and the City of London. Having a lodger might be a solution for some of my constituents, but it is invidious for them to be able to do that because they are in Hoxton, close to Old Street and Silicon Roundabout—I suspect there is not the same opportunity for people in Swansea, Merthyr Tydfil or Cardiff. I am interested in the Minister responding on that point in particular.

As I said, the private sector provides no alternative, and even paying some social housing rents is impossible for many of my constituents on the minimum wage, even with the increases due in it. I remember a man who was a kitchen porter coming to one of my surgeries. He was not very skilled—we all want to see people more skilled up in their jobs, but let us face it and be honest, a kitchen porter will probably not have an employer who gives someone a significant amount of training and development opportunity. He was on the minimum wage and was asked by the Department for Work and Pensions to look for work in zones 5 and 6. That is not unreasonable, and he was certainly willing to work. His wife worked part time to help support the bringing up of their two young children. His extra journey time, however, meant difficulties with childcare times, and the extra cost of travel outside zone 2 to zones 5 or 6 was beyond him.

That grown man, who found dignity in work and wanted to find work again, was in tears in front of me in my surgery. He is only one example of the many others who have come to me hugely distressed. At the time he was not hit by the bedroom tax, which can be another worry for such people, but my point in mentioning him is to hammer home to the Minister that the Government need to see all their policies in the round. Many of my constituents have no financial resilience and do not have the opportunity to turn to friends and family for it, because their friends and family are in a similarly difficult position. They have nowhere to turn. They might be poor, but there is no poverty of ambition in my constituency. Many people want to do well, to get jobs and to improve their lot, but those sorts of things keep them down, hammering them into difficult roles.

People who get jobs in local supermarkets, for example, are often restricted to 15 or 16-hour contracts. A number of them have expressed the concern to me, which I have passed on to one of the Minister’s colleagues, that they can never increase their hours to full time, although more people are being recruited part time. Many were pleased, some in their first job, and excited to be able to say to their children, “I’m off to work now”—real pride, doing all the right things and doing all the things that Government want them to do and that we know work for people—but then they could not get the extra hours. That causes real problems for them, including paying their housing bills, which is certainly completely impossible in the private sector anyway.

I have practical examples to show how the bedroom tax is simply not working. One constituent who came to see me was temporarily unemployed. Her eldest son had left home, so her three-bedroom social rented property was deemed too large. Her landlord was an active manager in trying to get her to reduce the size of her property, persuading her to move to a nearby two-bedroom property with a different social landlord. She thought that that was the right thing to do to avoid the bedroom tax. What she had not really clocked until she started thinking about work again was that the rent for the two-bedroom property is higher than that for the three-bedroom property, which is not unusual in the sector. She has struggled to find work that can cover the rent. She does not want to be reliant on housing benefit, but she will be costing the taxpayer in housing benefit partly because she has moved house. Had she stayed in the other property, it would have been cheaper for the taxpayer and better for her.

Another constituent, a single mother, is ambitious to get into work and training and to improve herself, but is at the moment unemployed. She has 15-year-old and 10-year-old boys. Under the rules, they are deemed to share a bedroom, so her three-bedroom property is considered too large. What does she do? Does she wait six months for the 15-year-old to reach his 16th birthday and accrue the arrears, or does she try to downsize in that time?

Those are the choices—if we can call them that—that people are having to consider day in and day out. They are not good choices. I have worked and campaigned on housing for more than 20 years and one thing I am passionate about is that a stable, secure home is the absolute basis for getting on in life. Without that it is hard to concentrate on studies or securing a job and that causes stress and strain to the individual and family’s mental and physical health. I suspect that those of us in the Chamber do not have that worry. I know that I can go home to my flat and that it will not be ripped away from me. I am not reliant on anyone but me to ensure that I can keep my home, but that is not the case for so many of my constituents.

An additional factor in London is that many households are reluctant to move into properties that meet their needs. Over the years I have had an increasing number of overcrowded families, but increasingly people, even those in two-bedroom properties, do not seek to get a three-bedroom property. It is true that it is hard to get one, but they know that if they got such a property and a child leaves home or their circumstances change, the threat is that they will be hit by the bedroom tax and that fear stops people from looking to move into the right sized property. There is not a hope of doing that in the private sector and the risks in moving to a larger property in the social housing sector are also an issue.

The Minister must remember that fluctuating employment is a real concern. Many of my constituents are on zero-hours or short contracts and their work and pay fluctuate. Many of them are in arrears because while they have been working, they cannot be sure that every week they will get the hours they need to pay the rent. They are so delighted when they do get a job. I had one woman at a surgery on Monday who had got a good job, but she was still paying off a couple of thousand pounds of arrears from when she had uncertain employment.

That is the reality of people’s lives. If the Government are really keen to promote social mobility, they need to give people at that moment in their lives a leg up to help them fulfil their proper ambitions of wanting to work and support themselves, but instead the Government are pulling the rug out from under people’s feet. I hope the Minister has considered the bedroom tax’s value for money and practicality and that he has asked his officials to look at the cost to the Exchequer, let alone the human cost. My fear is that the bedroom tax is ideological, dog-whistle-based politics that appeals to certain people in parts of the country where it is a distant, remote and probably unheard-of policy, but I am stopped on the streets of my constituency by people who want to talk about it, both those directly affected and those whose children are at school with people affected by it or those who live next door to people affected by it. There is general concern overall.

The poorest and most vulnerable are being hit from all directions and those without the financial resilience to cope have nowhere to go. The despair and depression that comes through my surgery door is the worst it has ever been. I hope the Minister is really listening and that he will go back with the concerns of hon. Members, which were made in a measured way. This is about not just ideological party politics but people’s lives, futures and opportunities. If he believes in opportunity, he needs to have a radical relook at this invidious tax.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries, and to sum up the debate for the Scottish National party. Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on both securing the debate and speaking so powerfully about the policy’s human cost and impact. I know that she has worked hard on that in her constituency.

Many pertinent points were made by the six Back Benchers who spoke in the debate. It has been referred to that no one from the Government Back Benches cared enough to come along and participate. That tells us everything about the Government’s priorities and how they look on this issue. For the record, nine Opposition Back Benchers have been present, but where are the Government Members? Why are they not taking this seriously? Where is their concern for the ordinary people up and down the country who have been affected?

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central talked about the legal costs of the appeal. The Government are quite happy to spend ridiculous sums of money defending an indefensible policy rather than doing the right thing. As she put it, it is money for lawyers rather than for the rent victims. She and others talked about problems with DHP. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) made the point that that is not working, a theme that came across from numerous speakers, so the Government must take the opportunity given by the debate to reflect on what happened at the Court of Appeal and stop this nonsense.

My hon. Friend and others talked about the policy’s impact on the health and wellbeing of many people and, when we are talking about that, we are talking about people with disability. The most vulnerable in our society have been put under pressure. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke movingly about the human cost to people in her constituency. We should listen to the stories of the people who have been affected so disgracefully. She said that it was both “discriminatory and punishing”, which is exactly the point. That is why the Government must listen.

We had a moving speech from the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). Again, the point is that there is a lack of one and two-bedroom properties. Where in the name of heaven are people supposed to move to? If the Government in the rest of the UK had done what they should be doing and ensured a supply of affordable housing and social housing, perhaps that could have been addressed, but they certainly have not addressed that. We end up in a situation where so many people up and down the country—proud people, as was said—are in rent arrears. That is what the Government have done through their actions.

We heard from the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) who talked powerfully about the attack on the vulnerable in our society. We keep hearing the same stories—we would have heard others if other Members were in the debate—about the impact that the policy has had in constituencies up and down the country. Lastly, we heard the story from London, because this is a story about the impact on not just Wales, the north of England and Scotland but urban centres such as London.

I hope that the debate presents an opportunity to focus on what is a mean-spirited piece of legislation, which has ultimately led to the Government’s defeat in the Court of Appeal. I say that it is mean-spirited, but it is worse than that. It is cruel. It seeks to demonise folk and those who are the most vulnerable in our society. That should shame us all, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, yet sadly it does not seem to shame this Conservative Government.

We can all reflect on the policy’s results, but perhaps there is a clue in its name: the spare room subsidy. Here is the nub of the problem. We in Scotland see social security as providing a safety net, accepting society’s obligation to look after the vulnerable among us, while we seek to deliver policies that are aspirational and deliver a road out of poverty. The Government take a very different view, with necessary support for the vulnerable seen as providing a subsidy. Who has ever heard the like? With that kind of approach, the problem is that the wrong decisions are made, just as has been done.

It is not about subsidy; it is about cutting the entitlement to benefits of people who desperately need them. What mentality sees a problem in that? It is little wonder that the Government are deaf to the cries about the impact of their policy on so many people. They should stop using such language as “spare room subsidy” and just come clean on what this is: a reduction in the incomes of some of the poorest in our society. That is all it is.

The Government want to fix the deficit and they are doing so by putting their hands in the pockets of the poor at the same time as doing a cosy, cut-price deal with the likes of Google. As we would say in Scotland, “It’s the same old Tories.” Thank heavens the Court of Appeal has intervened, but, for now at least, the Government still refuse to see sense. Even their own report, “Evaluation of Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy”, in December 2015 found that the tax is a failing policy, hitting the most disadvantaged in society. It found that 55% of tenants affected by the legislation were in arrears. Where is the sense in a policy that creates such outcomes? Why will they not accept that it is wrong? They have made a mistake, so reverse it today—do the right thing! The effect of the policy is to push folk into ever greater debt, with all the difficulties that that causes. To many of the rest of us that is no surprise. The bedroom tax is after all a direct assault on the incomes of the disabled, the poorest and the most vulnerable.

The Prime Minister said at his party conference that he wanted a war on poverty— fine words. However, what we actually have is a war on the poor. In Scotland we have an SNP Government committed to abolishing the bedroom tax; and when the powers are passed to us we will take that responsibility. In the meantime, the Scottish Government have been mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax. We have a Scottish Government on the side of ordinary folk and a Tory Westminster Government punishing the poor, ignoring the social consequences of their actions and turning a blind eye to the Court of Appeal.

One of the major flaws in the Government’s thinking was that those with spare bedrooms would move to smaller properties—a point that many have made in this debate. That would be a big enough challenge in any part of the UK, but in a large rural constituency such as mine it is almost impossible. What are people supposed to do? Are people in Skye who have an extra bedroom, for example, supposed to move elsewhere in the highlands, and uproot themselves from family and friends? We have been revisited by Tebbit and his “on your bike” philosophy. Caring compassionate Conservatives? Give us a break. It is little wonder that the Tories are so decisively rejected by the people of Scotland. Of course, at the root of the issue is the austerity agenda, but in their lemming-like rush to reduce the deficit they refuse to acknowledge the pain and suffering inflicted through actions such as the introduction of the bedroom tax. Tory ideology is a cover for them to do their worst, and never mind the consequences. To use a saying of the Thatcher period, “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.” Well, what the Government are doing is not working, but it is certainly hurting. It is time to make a change.

We all want to restore the country’s finances and we all want to reduce the deficit, but the question is what path we take. There is no argument based on economic literacy that suggests there is a need to get to a fiscal surplus in the current Parliament. Yes, progress has to be made, and the SNP demonstrated that the UK Government could increase spending by £140 billion in this Parliament and still have the deficit fall to around 2% of national income. That would be a balanced, sensible approach, which would allow for the removal of the bedroom tax and a more meaningful house building programme, for example. The issue is leadership, or in this case a failure of leadership, from the Government.

The Court of Appeal said that the policy was discriminatory and unlawful. I urge the Government to accept that judgment: show leadership and for once, Minister, do the right thing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and everyone who has participated in today’s debate. The speeches have been exceptional. As has already been mentioned, the lack of participation from the Government side is notable, and is hopefully a sign of embarrassment at a policy that is clearly not working.

The Government’s policy of reducing the amount of housing benefit payment to current social housing tenants who are deemed to have superfluous bedrooms—the bedroom tax as the Opposition call it—is deeply unfair, discriminatory and divisive. The fact that the policy was introduced for existing tenants who took out their tenancies based on the knowledge of how much they could afford, only to be told that their income was to be reduced, is unjust and unfair. Added to that, the Government’s inept handling of the housing market, with the lowest level of house building since the 1920s, means that there are not properties for people to move into. That just adds insult to the injury that people feel.

The latest figures for 2015 show that approximately 443,000 people are affected, with an average weekly income reduction of £15.27; that is more than £61 a month or £800 a year—up about 10% from what the Government originally estimated. As many people today have said, those figures are significant for families on low incomes. The bedroom tax is discriminatory because the Government failed to listen to claims that it would affect many older people, disabled people and their carers. As we have heard, two thirds of those affected are disabled, and more than 60,000 carers are also affected. It is also divisive, as it splits families and hits regions that have historically high levels of social housing. The effect in Wales is significant, as we have heard, but in England the National Federation of ALMOs found a distinct north-south divide in relation to the percentage of tenants affected. One year after the bedroom tax was introduced, 13% of tenants in the north were affected, compared with 7% in the south. I wonder if that is really what we call the northern powerhouse.

The Work and Pensions Committee investigated what was happening with housing benefit and raised concerns about the reduction in the number of households affected. At the time there were few data on what was happening. As the Select Committee said in its report, the reduction

“could be related to changes in household structure, moving house, entering work, or increasing hours”


“a result of claimants ceasing to claim because their entitlement was reduced to zero, or to such a low level…or because they were already in the process of moving.”

I must note the fact that that report was produced in 2014 and the Government have still not responded to it.

Professor Steve Wilcox indicated in his analysis that tenant moves prior to the introduction of the policy may have accounted for some of the reduction in the number of claims—in addition to the reclassification of bedrooms by landlords—but urged caution in interpreting the decline in relation to social sector tenants. However, the Government’s own evaluation which, as has been mentioned, was slipped out on the last day before the Christmas recess, gives an insight of the impact on people of the bedroom tax. It revealed that the majority of people originally affected by the bedroom tax were still affected nine months later. Of those still affected, only 5% had found work. Claimants were using savings, borrowing from family or friends or accruing debt to pay rent. The implication of accruing such debt is a downward spiral. It is impossible to overestimate the effect of having debt hanging round family’s necks. Three out of four families are having to cut back on essentials such as heating and food.

We have heard poignant constituency case studies in the debate, and I want to mention an example from a Barnardo’s project. A dad asked the staff for some nappies, and when the project worker attended the house to see how things were going she discovered that there were only biscuits and crisps in the cupboard and that the parents were missing meals to feed the children. They had not asked for help because they were too proud. That family’s example is a window into the reality of life for many people. We could see that situation replicated across the country.

The Government’s evaluation also reported that 55% of tenants were in arrears, contrasting with the National Housing Federation’s figure of 59%. The important thing is that the arrears of two thirds of them were attributed directly to the bedroom tax. It has been mentioned that for some people, in some local authority areas, discretionary housing payments have helped where there has been a shortfall between rent and housing benefit, but the clue is in the name—it is a discretionary payment, not an entitlement. It is certainly seen as something for the short term, within a wider context where local authorities face significant cuts. Seventy-five per cent. have not had support in the form of discretionary housing payments. Their availability is a postcode lottery.

The recent Court of Appeal judgment agreed that the bedroom tax was indeed discriminatory against a domestic violence victim and the family of a disabled teenager. It was ruled that, in the two cases, the Government’s policy amounted to unlawful discrimination. Although other Members have referred to them, I too want to mention Susan and Paul Rutherford, who argued that they needed a specially adapted spare room in their Pembrokeshire home to care for their disabled grandson Warren. Ms A, who is a single mother living in a three-bedroom council house fitted with a secure panic room to protect her from her violent ex-partner, also argued that that room was needed. We await the outcome of the Government’s appeal to the Supreme Court at the end of this month.

The discriminatory, unfair and divisive nature of the bedroom tax is why Labour has consistently called for it to be abolished. I hope the Minister will recognise that and comment on why the Government continue to pursue this policy, which, as we have heard, is not delivering what it is meant to. It is not making the savings that were anticipated and it is certainly not freeing up family accommodation.

The Government have tried to regenerate the economy on the backs of the poor and disabled. Their modus operandi is about division and blame. Instead of denigrating claimants and our social security system, we should be recognising the importance and value of that system. Like the NHS, our social security system is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life, should any one of us become ill, disabled or fall on hard times. The Government need to remember that and stop their attacks on the poor and vulnerable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who made a passionate, informed and determined speech that was well received by her colleagues supporting her today. Some measured and well thought-out speeches have been made, and cases have been strongly put forward on behalf of each Member’s constituents. I have worked closely with the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on a number of measures, and we have been able to find a lot of common ground and ways to move forward in a number of Westminster Hall debates, but I am afraid I am a little way from her arguments on this issue. I will try my best to answer as many of the points made as I can.

Let us first look at the history of this. One of the main thrusts of the opposition to this policy is that it is ideological and was dreamed up by the finest brains of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. To be clear, it was the previous Labour Government who introduced this policy in the private sector. When challenged in the House in January 2004 on whether the policy would be introduced more widely than the private sector, the Minister then responsible said:

“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector to enable people in that sector to benefit from the choice and flexibility that the reforms can provide.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]

Does the Minister recognise the point I tried to make in my opening remarks about this being a retrospective tax? It applies to tenants already in existence. There was a very different application for private sector tenants. The policy applies to current, existing tenants who had already budgeted for what they could afford.

I will cover in detail some of those points, but I can tell the hon. Lady that a significant difference was that no additional discretionary housing payment was provided when the policy was implemented in the private sector. It was very much a case of, “Cross your fingers and hope for the best. You will not be getting any support.”

The legal case mentioned is ongoing, so I cannot dwell on it too much. The Court of Appeal previously said that discretionary housing payments were appropriate support. Crucially, it was not about the wider policy; it was about just these very specific categories. In that particular case, those people were in receipt of discretionary housing payments, but that is an ongoing legal dispute.

In relation to the receipt of discretionary housing payments, is it not the case that the Rutherfords had been denied DHP in the first instance?

My understanding is that that is right, but they then got the money on appeal. This comes down to whether we should have discretion in the powers of local authorities or an exhaustive list of those who should be exempted. My view is that if we try to set strict categories, we will not be able to ensure with 100% certainty that everyone will be covered, because people—particularly those with unique issues—do not neatly conform to tidy boxes. If an individual falls just below the line, they will miss out; that is a crucial point. If it is black and white, there will be winners and losers.

Discretionary housing payments allow for everybody’s individual circumstances to be considered and for a flexible multi-agency approach. For example, that approach could involve working with the police, social services and medical professionals. Underlying all those decisions is the public sector equality duty to ensure that the vulnerable in society are protected.

A number of speakers talked about support for the disabled, victims and those who are homeless. I will reel off some of the measures we have introduced to provide support in those areas: £400 million to deliver 8,000 specialist homes for the vulnerable, elderly and those with disabilities; a 79% increase, from £220 million to £394 million, in the disabled facilities grant, which helps about 40,000 people; £40 million for victims of domestic abuse, which triples the support previously in place, so that no one is turned away; £500 million to tackle homelessness since 2010; and £25 million a year to support disabled people living in significantly adapted accommodation.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being generous with his time. What he is outlining is what the Government are having to put into place because the policy is quite simply wrong. How does he respond to the Court of Appeal saying that this policy is discriminatory and unlawful? Those are the words he must reflect on, and that is why he must do the right thing and scrap the policy.

I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that I have not yet finished my remarks, in which I will set out why I think trusting local authorities with discretion is far better than having an exhaustive list of exemptions. The people who would come up with that list may have the finest minds, but I am sure they would never cover all the people who should be covered. I do not wish to see people who should be protected being missed because of some sort of arbitrary winners and losers line. I will cover more of those points as I progress.

We must remember that it was the former Labour Government who first dreamed up this policy. The pretext for our introduction of this policy is that we had a quarter of a million households living in overcrowded accommodation and 1.7 million people on waiting lists in England alone. Members have talked about the casework they deal with as constituency MPs. I, too, have dealt with a number of similar cases, but I have also been into the properties of families in overcrowded accommodation who are every bit as angry as those whom Opposition Members have mentioned. Those people are in overcrowded accommodation while their neighbours have spare rooms in their family houses because their children have grown up and gone.

I will make some progress and then take more interventions.

Members ask whether this is a popular policy. I can tell them that it is a very popular policy with the people on waiting lists. Some 820,000 bedrooms in social housing were sitting empty while being paid for by the taxpayer. Those rooms were being looked at enviously by families in overcrowded accommodation.

I promise I will take more interventions, but let me make some other points first.

A small issue that will not generally have to trouble Opposition parties—that is the advantage of not being in government—is the financial aspect. Members asked whether this policy is saving money. It has saved about half a billion pounds a year, which is a significant amount of money.

Research has shown that social landlords are altering their allocation policies and are no longer putting single people into family-sized homes. In the first six months of the policy, around one third of developing landlords altered their build plans, and that figure is now up to 51%. There has been a reduction of more than 100,000 in the number of households seeing a reduction in their housing benefit award due to the policy since May 2013. There are a number of possible reasons for that. Landlords are not wrongly allocating single people to family homes. There are more one-bedroom properties—I will come on to the numbers on that—and there are people who have downsized. There are also more people either increasing their hours of work or finding work, and we are seeing around 200 people a week come off housing benefit as they are able to do that.

The evaluation report published last December showed that 20% of people affected by the policy had, as a result, looked to earn more through work. Some 63% of unemployed people affected said they were looking for work as a result of the policy, and 20% of people no longer affected said that that was because someone in their household had found work or increased their earnings. As I said, 200 people a week are coming off housing benefit completely.

We believe—I say this as someone who was a local councillor for 10 years—that local authorities remain best placed to ensure that discretionary housing payments are targeted at those most in need, based on local circumstances and working with a number of other agencies, so that there is a multi-pronged approach to providing support.

Since 2011, we have provided £560 million to local authorities and have already committed a further £870 million for the next five years. Since 2013-14, we have also allocated £5 million each year to help the 21 least densely populated areas across Great Britain, which addresses a point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). This additional funding aims to avoid any disproportionate impact on those affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy in remote and isolated communities.

Of the £150 million of discretionary housing payment funding that is being allocated to local authorities for 2016-17, £60 million is allocated by reference to the removal of the spare room subsidy. Local authorities are able to top up the Government’s contribution by an additional 150% in England and Wales, and there is no limit in Scotland.

The title of the debate on the Order Paper refers to regional effects, and there is clear evidence that regional areas are now adjusting to the removal of the spare room subsidy. Across all regions of England and Wales, the number of households subject to a reduction has fallen by between 14% and 26% since May 2013. In both the north-west and London, where the biggest change can be seen, there has been a 26% fall in the number of households subject to a reduction since May 2013. However, in Scotland, where discretionary housing payments have been used to buy out the policy, only an 8% reduction has been seen over the same period, and over the past year it has been the only region to see an increase in caseloads.

The Minister talks about Opposition Members opposing the measure. Actually, the Scottish National party is in government in Scotland and we are committed to getting rid of it, but at the same time, we are building more houses, because that is exactly what is required. The rate of social house building in Scotland is far in excess of what is happening in this country. This Government have a housing crisis, and that is what they should be addressing. What they should not be doing is punishing the poor. Why do they not do what Scotland is doing, and abolish this measure and make sure that enough social houses are built?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, because it links nicely to the next part of my speech, which is about housing numbers. However, I gently remind him that Scotland is the only region that has seen an increase in caseloads this year. That is hardly a record of success. I urge him to think very carefully about that, because those are the people who are on the waiting list looking to get appropriate family homes, and the ones who support this policy.

On the supply of housing numbers, 700,000 new homes have been built in the past five years, including 270,000 affordable homes. Housing starts are at their highest annual level since 2007. More council housing has been built since 2010 than in the previous 13 years. The number of empty homes across England is at its lowest since records began and, crucially, we are broadening opportunities for people to access housing through schemes such as Help to Buy and the right to buy, along with a number of other measures.

The Minister made a point earlier about people being allocated oversized properties to start with. He has also talked about under-occupying by people whose children have left home. However, they are different from people whose life circumstances are fluctuating—their income has fluctuated; their children’s ages are changing. They are living in the home that they will want to continue to live in, and yet they have to go cap in hand to the council for these discretionary housing payments, which in my area are severely squeezed. Does the Minister not acknowledge that this policy really hits people at a point in their lives when they are trying to move out of that situation and get stability?

That was exactly the same thought process and debate that went on when the Labour Government introduced the policy in the private sector. They faced exactly the same challenges, and it was intended, had there been a general election win for Labour in 2010, for this to be done under that Labour Government. We have done it, but the difference is that when the Labour Government introduced the policy in the private sector, they did not give any additional discretionary housing payments. We are providing £870 million over the next five years and entrusting local authorities and local communities to shape and deliver what they feel is the appropriate support. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, it could be that the local authority wishes to support those with fluctuating conditions, or they may wish to target the money on other areas, but £870 million is being provided.

A number of points were raised, and I shall do my best to go through as many of those as I can. The hon. Lady asked about how income from lodgers would have an impact. Income from lodgers is fully disregarded in universal credit, so there is certainly an opportunity there. I accept that that is an easier way to generate additional income in certain parts of the country than in others.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central raised an important point about payday loans. I am very proud to have served as part of an incredibly important cross-party campaign that delivered significant changes in the regulations protecting vulnerable consumers. In summary, we secured the delivery of financial education and support through parts of the national curriculum. All loans have to be displayed fully in cost rather than with complex annual percentage rates, which I discovered even Treasury Ministers could not calculate. Crucially, there has been the capping of costs, the ending of rip-off rates and relentless roll-overs, the freezing of debt and compulsory credit checking to protect vulnerable consumers who should never be lent the money in the first place, as well as signposting to external and, crucially, independent advice for those consumers. It was something that we all welcomed.

As good as all the initiatives that the Minister has outlined are, is not the point that this Government policy is requiring people to go to payday lenders to keep their heads above water and stay in their family home, regardless of the additional security that may have been introduced?

This is a Government policy continuing the initial good work of the former Labour Government to make sure that the 1.7 million people left on the housing waiting list, which is now down to 1.2 million in England—a significant reduction—

The hon. Lady can shake her head, but we cannot turn a blind eye and ignore the people who are angry that they are unable to access appropriate housing for their families, whereas others who have the benefit of a family home and whose circumstances have changed no longer have the same need as families who are in overcrowded accommodation.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) discussed the impact on people receiving attendance allowance. They would be pensioners, and pensioners are exempt.

The hon. Member for Swansea East raised a point about discretionary housing payments not kicking in until a tenant has downsized. That is not correct: they can kick in from day one if the local authority feels that it wishes to support that individual. It is very much down to the discretion of local authorities.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central raised a point about Cardiff’s discretionary housing payments being cut. The overall funding will be £870 million over the five years, but that reflects the level of caseload. In Cardiff’s case, as the numbers have fallen, the funding will follow accordingly.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised a point about housing associations and their rent collection. The reports we have had back from housing associations are that rent collection is 99% on average, and 92% of housing association providers continue to report that, in terms of current levels of arrears in rent collection and voids, they are within or outperforming their business plans. Of those that are in rent arrears, over 50% already were prior to the introduction of the spare room subsidy, although again we will continue to work with housing association providers and local authorities to look at what further support might help to break that cycle.

A specific point was made about the impact relating to PIP and DLA. To quote the guidance:

“When deciding how to treat income from disability-related benefits such as Disability Living Allowance or the Personal Independence Payment, you should have regard to the decision of the High Court in R v. Sandwell MBC…In particular, you should consider each DHP claim on a case by case basis having regard to the purpose of those benefits and whether the money from those benefits has been committed to other liabilities associated with disability.”

In effect, therefore, that still remains part of the discretion.

In conclusion, the Government have taken action to protect the public purse and bring a spiralling housing benefit bill under control. The removal of the spare room subsidy has already saved over £1 billion since its introduction. We are protecting the most vulnerable by giving them access to direct housing payments if they need extra help to meet housing costs. The policy is encouraging people to enter work and increase their earnings and we are seeing better use of our housing stock. This is a welcome measure for those who are on the housing waiting list or in overcrowded accommodation.

I thank the Minister for his response and all my Opposition colleagues for their contributions to today’s debate. It is very disappointing that no Government Back Benchers were here to participate. Although I have listened to the Minister’s points, I do not recognise what he has said in the impact of the bedroom tax that I see every day in my constituency and which I am sure my hon. Friends do too. I ask him to take away the case studies, stories and points that we have made, and to review the policy again. It is iniquitous, unfair and discriminatory, and it really needs to go.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the regional effects of the under-occupancy penalty.

Canary Wharf Bombing: Compensation

I beg to move,

That this House has considered compensation for victims of the Canary Wharf bombing.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate, Ms Dorries. It is also very good to see the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, in his place. I know that the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice have been passing or sharing responsibility for this issue among them. I am grateful that a Treasury Minister is here, because I think that this is a financial question. Some issues of compensation are an MOJ responsibility and some issues are a Foreign Office responsibility, but a number of the key questions that I want to ask relate to British financial policy, as I hope to make clear. I am grateful that the Treasury is represented here today to respond to the debate. To be honest, I do not really care which Department takes responsibility and responds. What the victims and I want to see is action.

Two weeks and 20 years ago today, the Canary Wharf bomb detonated. The bombing marked the end of a 17-month IRA ceasefire. It was recently the subject of an excellent BBC Four documentary, broadcast to commemorate the event, entitled “Executing the Peace”. The half-tonne bomb was left in a small lorry about 80 yards from South Quay station on the docklands light railway. It exploded at 19:02 GMT 90 minutes after coded warnings were telephoned to Dublin and Belfast media. Inam Bashir and John Jeffries died when the bomb went off outside their shop on 9 February 1996. Many more people were injured, a number seriously.

I have been trying for a number of years to assist the Docklands Victims Association to secure compensation for the victims who suffered, and are still suffering in many cases, and for the families of those who were killed. The Docklands Victims Association is not alone in seeking justice; many other victims are also trying to do so.

The starting point for all this seems easy enough. Semtex explosive was sold by the Czechs to the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi. It then supplied that Semtex to various terrorist organisations, including the IRA. That Semtex killed and maimed people. But from there things get much less clear. To its credit, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs—I am pleased to see its Chair, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), in his place—is engaged in an inquiry trying to get to the bottom of this. I cannot do justice, in my brief remarks, to the evidence that it has already heard or the conclusions and recommendations that it will deliver, but its report, I suspect, will not be kind to successive British Governments over the last almost 20 years. I simply wish to ask the Minister why UK citizens have not been compensated, unlike citizens in the United States, Germany and France who were also victims of Semtex supplied by Gaddafi.

One of the most powerful statements that I heard in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee sessions was from Mr Jason McCue, representing victims in Northern Ireland. He said:

“Victims…are front-line troops in the war on terror...We have a duty of care to them, and yet we do not seem to value them in our society, like others do—like the French or the Americans do. We do not give them that value; we do not give them that respect. We do not see the humanity in them, and their strength in the war on terror. There is no stronger counter-terrorism measure than a victim standing up”.

The question for me and many colleagues—a number are in the Chamber today—is not whether the victims should be compensated but how. There are several possible ways, and all have been mentioned in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearings, in which members are examining those ways and have suggested a number of parliamentary questions to tease out even more information on this very difficult issue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this very important issue again on behalf of his constituents. The Docklands Victims Association is doing tremendous work and working with victims elsewhere whose victimhood came about as a result of Semtex supplied by Gaddafi. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that Members from Northern Ireland fully support the campaign for compensation in this case, because it will mean compensation right across the board for many other victims as well. We fully support the case and wish him well.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that expression of support. He, too, has campaigned strongly on this issue for many years. This is a more general case; it is not exclusively about the Docklands Victims Association. Obviously, those victims are in my constituency, but many others across the country are also involved, and what we want to see is justice for them all.

I was exploring the possible ways forward. The first way forward would have been for the British Government to join a class action with the US Government in their claim for compensation. I would like to quote Mr McCue again. He said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans):

“There was no reason why the British Government could not have, first of all, petitioned for the British citizens to be in it. There is nothing in American law preventing them from espousing a claim, which is the technical term for it, with another state to bring compensation for a class action. The Americans could have done it.”

A Mr Jury, another witness at the Northern Ireland hearings who was also representing victims, said:

“Can I add to that that the Libya Claims Settlement Agreement is a court-accepted statement of liability towards the UK victims? Under US law, there has been an acceptance of liability, and under judicial international comity, the UK courts would accept that anyway.”

Therefore there is, or at least was, the possibility of an international legal route to compensation, but my main question to the Government is why is there not, or why can there not be, a UK domestic route?

There have been reports that the UK Government have frozen Gaddafi or Libyan assets in UK banks. I suspect that the Treasury was behind that, which is why I have targeted the question in this debate at Treasury Ministers. The amount of funds is not clear. Some commentators suggest £900 million; others suggest that it runs into billions of pounds. That raises a number of questions for the Minister, of which I gave his office notice last evening. I must congratulate the Minister’s private office, because it was still emailing me at half-past 8 last night to try to get to the bottom of some of this.

First, do such frozen accounts exist and, secondly, what are they worth if they do exist? More importantly, there are international legal precedents that enable frozen assets of a terrorist or dictator—in this case, Gaddafi—to be used to pay compensation to victims, so my third and most important question, to which I will return at the end of my remarks, is why do the UK Government not go down that route?

A third route is now apparently being explored. An article in The Daily Telegraph on 16 January quoted the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who, to his credit, attended the memorial service in my constituency two weeks ago, on 9 February. He did not tell me that he was coming, but it was good to see him there anyway, and other parliamentary colleagues. The article stated:

“Tobias Ellwood, a Foreign Office minister, told The Telegraph that he had met new Prime Minister designate of Libya, Fayez el-Sarraj, and raised the case for compensation with him in person.”

The hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:

“We will certainly make the case with the Libyan government in order to pursue this as best we can.

As soon as there is a government to work with I am planning to facilitate bringing the victims’ groups and the Libyan authorities together. It is for the Libyans themselves to say whether or not there would be a case for a request for compensation.”

There are, therefore, three possible ways to compensate victims: join a class action in the US, use interest from frozen assets in the UK or get the new Libyan Government to cough up.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating this debate, because it enables me to raise the case of Charles Arbuthnot, who is a constituent of mine in Holbrook and whose sister Jane, a 22-year-old WPC, was murdered in the Harrods bombing. I have had extensive correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and it seems to me that there is still not explicit acceptance that American citizens were compensated by the Libyan Government. Previously, there would be reference only to direct compensation, for example for the Lockerbie bombing, and not to compensation for those cases in which the Semtex was supplied.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know that this is one of the key issues that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is looking at, because evidence was given about the way the Americans secured compensation. That is why I am raising with the Treasury the question whether the frozen assets and the interest on them could be used to compensate the docklands victims, as well as the Harrods bomb victims and others from Northern Ireland. It is a key question.

The Canary Wharf bombing victims do not care which is best. All they want is to secure the justice that they have been denied for more than 20 years for them and for other victims. Victims are represented by other colleagues, a number of whom are here today. Just yesterday I had two emails about this. One was from the office of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on behalf of Felicity Prazak, whose husband died on flight LN1103. The other email was from my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), who raised the case of Mina Jadeja, a victim of the Harrods bomb.

This is not, and has never been, about the money. However, media accounts of payouts for IRA members—for example, the reports on 30 January that £1.6 million was paid to a republican kidnap gang—can only add to and intensify the sense of injustice and frustration for the victims of the Gaddafi Semtex. Successive UK Governments have failed victims. I was a Minister in both the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Administrations, and evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggests that the Blair Government were more interested in the glory of bringing Libya in from the cold, closing down its support for and sponsorship of international terrorism, opening up economic ties and securing UK business contracts.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound disappointment in the evidence given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on 11 December by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that he did not pursue compensation because, clearly, compensation was available? There was a scheme in Northern Ireland, but the same provisions were not available for the hundreds of victims in mainland Great Britain.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and I am sure that will be a focus of the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a respected member. I am not able to develop the powerful point as much as I would like to, but I am sure that the Committee will do so in due course.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I was at the memorial service last week with him and a number of other people. On the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we find it frustrating that former Prime Ministers Blair and Brown seem reluctant to give evidence on this very point. If we have to go to America to speak to people there to find out the truth, we certainly will.

The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes a powerful point that reinforces the concern I raised about the way the Blair Administration dealt with the situation. The Committee was also told that the Brown Government only became interested when the flak started flying over the Megrahi case, when he was being released back to Libya. The Foreign Office then set up the dedicated unit for victims, which, initially, was very enthusiastic, and the current Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), made some very positive statements about helping the victims when he was Leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding all the reluctance, tokenism and lack of a conclusion, the victims just want results.

To return to the original question I asked a few minutes ago, I obtained this debate to ask a Minister from the Treasury whether there is a route, through frozen assets in the UK, to end the misery and delay. In my view, that is a Treasury question. If there is not a route, why not and when will the victims see justice? My final quote is from Mrs Hamida Bashir, whose son, Inam, was killed aged 29 at Canary Wharf. She wrote in correspondence:

“we do not require or will not accept any financial compensation for the loss of my Inam. However, due to the murder of Inam and John”—

John Jeffries—

“we do feel a tremendous moral obligation to support all those who have been left severely disabled. A victim such as Mr Zaoui Berezag who desperately needs your help as he is blind, paralysed, has the mental age of a small child and is an amputee. He is cared for by his wife Gemma within a modest council home in East London.”

What further eloquence do the Government need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. From the evidence received by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, it seems that we do not actually care about the victims. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is about time that we sat down and started looking at those who really need help?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because his intervention brings me to my concluding comments. This is not a party political issue, as is demonstrated by the fact that members of various parties are here expressing concerns about the issue. We all want the Government to address the issue and to come up with a solution, which successive Governments have not done over the past 20 years. The question affects constituencies across the country, including in Northern Ireland, which I have not really mentioned. The victims have been waiting too long.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will require a formal Government response to its report when it is published. Today, the Government have a chance to signal further commitment not only to the victims, who they have failed, but to the country, by acknowledging that the frontline troops fighting against terrorism are innocent civilians and by assuring us that when those civilians suffer at the hands of terrorists, their Government are ready to ensure that the sacrifice is acknowledged and the debt paid. So far, after 20 years, that sacrifice has not been acknowledged and the debt has not been paid. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and commend him for securing this important debate on a subject that is of particular importance to his constituents and on which he has campaigned consistently. I also commend the hon. Members from four different political parties who are attending this debate.

The docklands bombing of February 1996 was an horrific event—a black day for London and the United Kingdom. I add my condolences to all those whose lives were affected by the terrible events that day. The horror will not be forgotten. Two people died and 39 were injured, some permanently. It was a breaking of the IRA ceasefire and a failure of humanity. The involvement and support of the Gaddafi regime in this and other events marks a low point even in Gaddafi’s reign of terror. It is right that those whose lives were affected by these senseless bombings seek redress and compensation, and we will do what we can to ensure they get it. I know how important this issue is to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members who are here today.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about the Libyan assets frozen in the UK, and the potential use of those to compensate victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. To answer that, it is important to set out the background of how those assets came to be frozen in the UK, and to explain the limits on the use to which they can be put.

In 2011, the United Nations took action against those involved in, or complicit in, ordering, controlling or otherwise directing the commission of serious human rights abuses against persons in Libya. This included, among other measures, the imposition of an asset freeze against a number of individuals and entities, including Muammar Gaddafi and some members of his family. On 2 March 2011, the European Union implemented these asset-freezing measures through regulation 204/2011, which has direct effect in the UK. The UK Government have no additional domestic freezing measures under the Libyan sanctions regime.

The approximate aggregate value of funds frozen in the UK under the Libyan financial sanctions regime is just under £9.5 billion. It is very important, for the purposes in which the hon. Gentleman is interested, to recognize that the whole Libyan Government are not subject to sanctions. A small number of entities associated with the Libyan Government are subject to asset freezes. The names of those entities are published in the Treasury’s consolidated list of financial sanctions. They include the Libyan Investment Authority and the Libyan African Investment Portfolio, which are subject to partial asset freezes, which means they are free to deal with new funds generated after 16 September 2011. The Libyan Government additionally hold further unfrozen funds in the UK and elsewhere. Therefore, existing financial sanctions would not prevent the Libyan Government from agreeing compensation with victims and making payments to them from unfrozen funds.

Given that it could be some time before there is a genuinely workable Libyan Government, why could this Parliament not—the Minister will tell me if this would not be legal—decide to unfreeze a certain proportion of those frozen assets so that we can sort out the issue of compensation to victims in the UK?

I will come to that. As for the financial sanctions that are in place, an asset freeze means that the assets of the individual or entity must be frozen where those assets are. The funds continue to belong to the individuals and entities listed under the sanctions regime and are not seized or held by the United Kingdom Government. The funds remain frozen in the bank account they were in at the time of designation and, for individuals and entities subject to a full asset freeze, interest may be credited to those accounts provided that the interest is also frozen. The sanctions prevent any person from dealing with those funds or making funds available to the individuals or entities listed under the sanctions regime without a licence from the competent authority—in the United Kingdom, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, the competent authority is Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Access to frozen funds can only be licensed in accordance with the grounds set out by the United Nations and the European Union, and there are seven licensing grounds applicable to this sanctions regime. To summarise, the grounds allow for payments in the following categories: first, for the basic needs of the designated person; secondly, for the legal fees of that person; thirdly, for fees for the routine maintenance of frozen assets; fourthly, for the extraordinary expenses of the designated person; fifthly, for the satisfaction of judicial or administrative orders enforceable in the EU; sixthly, for humanitarian purposes; and seventhly, for obligations arising under contracts prior to the imposition of sanctions.

To clarify further, a Treasury licence would not compel a payment to be made, but would simply provide that the payment would not be a breach of financial sanctions. It is clear that none of the licensing grounds would allow the Treasury to select a frozen account at will and require that funds be paid from it to a third party.

I am conscience of the time, so if all three hon. Members will allow me, I want to ensure that I get through what I need to say. If time allows, I will of course be happy to give way.

Although the entities designated under the Libyan financial sanctions are generally ultimately owned by the Libyan Government, they are entities in their own right and are governed by boards of directors who make decisions about the use of their assets. If the Libyan Government came to an agreement with victims to pay compensation, and came to an agreement with individuals or entities that their frozen funds should be used to pay that compensation, the Treasury would be in a position to consider such an application for a licence under the current framework. However, depending on the licensing ground that applies, approval for granting the licence would also need to be obtained from the United Nations.

Although I very much understand and share the concern of hon. Members for the victims of the docklands bombing and other Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism, I am afraid that the legal framework relating to financial sanctions is focused on preserving the funds for the benefit of the Libyan people and does not allow the UK Government to use them as we wish, no matter how worthy or how important to us and to all hon. Members a cause may be. Indeed, the UN Security Council has repeatedly made clear its determination that, when sanctions are lifted, frozen assets must be made available to, and for the benefit of, the people of Libya. The Security Council has held that position in a series of resolutions going back a number of years.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked about the 2008 US-Libya compensation settlement. In May 2008, it became clear that the US and Libya were proceeding on a bilateral agreement to settle outstanding claims. The then Government made representations to the US and Libyan authorities to include UK claimants on the list of recipients. Unfortunately that proved not to be possible, mainly because international and US law does not allow the US to espouse the claims of foreign nationals. Furthermore, the Libyans made it clear that they had answered questions about their support for the IRA in 1995 and that they considered the matter to be closed.

Important questions have also been raised about the similarities and differences between this case and the case of the Lockerbie bombing, in which victims were paid compensation. I stress that there are important differences between the two cases. First, the Lockerbie bombing was an act of terrorism directly committed by agents of the Libyan state, not indirectly through IRA terrorists with Libyan supply.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will continue.

Secondly, in the case of Lockerbie, the Libyans approached the US Government tacitly acknowledging their guilt for the atrocity. Thirdly, Gaddafi wanted something in return from the United States, namely readmission to the international fold, from which his actions had excluded him. Finally, the Lockerbie claims were supported by a UN Security Council resolution. Above all—this is important—it is highly unlikely that a future Libyan Government would acknowledge themselves as guilty in the same way as Gaddafi, the individual. The Libyans see themselves as victims of Gaddafi, not the bearers of his legacy.

We believe that the best approach in these difficult cases is to support and facilitate contact between victims and the relevant Libyan authorities so that claims can ultimately be settled directly. Unfortunately, the current political and security situation in Libya makes it difficult for victims, their families and representatives to pursue their claims. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office already provides facilitation support to victims, their families, legal representatives and campaign groups where it has been requested and is appropriate. However, it is a long-standing decision for the Government not to espouse private claims, so we do not provide funding for victims’ campaigns. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse may be aware, there has recently been important progress towards the establishment of a new Libyan Government. The Presidency Council has announced a revised list of Government Ministers, and the next step is for the House of Representatives to endorse that list and the Government programme. We urge the House of Representatives to do that without delay.

The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister with responsibility for the middle east, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), raised the issue of redress for UK victims when he met the Prime Minister-designate in November 2015. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Minister will continue to raise that issue in our engagement with the new Libyan Government, and he will encourage the Libyan authorities to engage with UK victims, their families and representatives, including those seeking compensation, once stability returns and our embassy reopens. The Minister will also meet UK victims in March, and I know that he will also be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue in greater detail, if the hon. Gentleman would like to do so.

There is going to be time, so I will happily give way to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson).

I thank the Minister for giving way, which I greatly appreciate. He has fairly outlined the restrictions associated with the asset-freezing sanctions. One issue with which the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has wrestled is the representations made, at either EU or UN level, when the sanctions were imposed to advocate on behalf of victims, recognising that there were outstanding requests for compensation. I know he is not a Foreign Office Minister, so if he is unaware of the representations that were made, perhaps he could ask those questions and report back to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), or to me.

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail in answer to that question, but of course the sanctions regimes are not unique to the UK and are governed by international law and UN and EU conventions.

A great wrong was inflicted on innocent victims on that day in 1996, and a key part—

I want to make sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has brief time at the end.

A great wrong was inflicted on that day, and clearly part of the responsibility lies with the Libyan dictator, Gaddafi. At some stage, the Libyan people will want to come to terms with what was done in their name and consider the issue of reconciliation and compensation for victims, both Libyans and foreigners. When they do, we will have something to offer from our experience in Northern Ireland, and we will of course also push for the inclusion of Gaddafi’s UK victims in any compensation scheme.

I am grateful for this opportunity to wind up the debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, and I am grateful for the attendance of a number of colleagues, including my former colleague from Thurrock, Andrew MacKinlay, who has been supporting the victims for many years. I am grateful to the Minister for supplying new information on the £9.5 billion in frozen assets—that figure was not previously clear to me. I hope that information is of assistance to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

I did not expect today’s debate to provide a conclusion; I sought another little piece of the jigsaw to create a bigger picture and to help the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to produce a report that will get the Government to a position where, hopefully, they can bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. The victims have been waiting too long, and it is time to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. This debate has not concluded the matter, but I hope it is another step towards a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Community Pharmacies

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered community pharmacies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. In a letter to community pharmacies on 17 December, the Department of Health discussed the potential for far greater use of community pharmacies and pharmacists. The letter refers to the role of community pharmacists in preventive health, support for healthy living, support for self-care for minor ailments and long-term conditions and medication reviews in care homes, and as part of a more integrated local care model. That is exactly the right direction. As an MP representing a Cornish seat where every effort is being made to integrate health and social care, I see community pharmacists as essential players in a new national health service equipped to meet the demands placed on it by modern society.

Westminster Hall debates are rarely secured in order to praise the Government and celebrate all that is good. I would love to be able to do so, but—wait for it—in the same letter to which I just referred, the Department set out its plans to reduce its funding commitment to community pharmacists by £170 million. Therein lies the problem. We have a front-line NHS service that is valued and depended on and able to embrace new clinical responsibilities and meet the demands of an ageing population, but it is unsure about its future.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern? As Members of Parliament, we all, I suspect, refer constituents to pharmacy services, because we know the impact that that has on reducing the pressure on the NHS. If we cannot refer them to smoking cessation services, cholesterol testing and blood pressure testing, the NHS and hospitals will have to pick up the burden.

I welcome that intervention. That is exactly the point that I hope to make, particularly for independent pharmacists in rural areas, where it is much more difficult to access acute services and GP practices.

The hon. Gentleman ought to see that that is true across the whole country. In urban areas, people are finding it more and more difficult to get appointments with their GPs and are going to accident and emergency. The best way to relieve that pressure is to encourage more people to go to our well-resourced local community pharmacies, maybe even rather than chain pharmacies.

That is absolutely right. The community pharmacist is part of the solution, not part of the problem, in what we want to do for the NHS. I hope to make the point in my speech that we need to do all we can to support the development of community pharmacists rather than take away money that they need.

Urban and rural areas share those problems. It is because people will only wait for so long for GP appointments—my hospital has exceeded waiting times for more than a year—that there is pressure is on community pharmacists. They are stepping up to the plate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they are being let down by this cut, when they are trying to do their best?

I hope to make the point that we need clarity about how the money will be found, if it must be found. I believe that there are other ways to save money, particularly involving the use and waste of drugs.

Community pharmacists are unsure about their future and unclear what support they can expect from the Government. The letter sets out the £170 million reduction in support for community pharmacists and asks them to prepare for the cut, but gives little detail about where the money will be cut, who will lose and what services can no longer be funded.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that local pharmacies are part of the fabric of local communities? That is particularly the case for independent pharmacies, which are embedded in communities and whose owners and staff often come from those communities. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what impact assessments have been undertaken in terms of health and economic and social wellbeing by individual constituency.

I welcome that intervention, but I am concerned that the hon. Lady might have read my speech, and I have not yet put it on my Facebook page. In my constituency, I have several community pharmacists, and I am not sure that I have too many. It is simply that my patch is large and includes areas of social deprivation, which has an inherent impact on health. A car journey from the north to the south of my constituency takes an hour. The journey from the most westerly point to the most southerly point takes an hour and nine minutes. In a rural area such as mine, community pharmacists provide invaluable access to the NHS and invaluable support to vulnerable people.

To follow on from the hon. Lady’s helpful intervention, over and above their obvious healthcare roles, I see community pharmacies’ input into society as comparable to that of post offices, police community support officers, libraries, local churches or chapels, local pubs, village shops and our postmen and women. They all play an important part in local communities. They are the glue that holds communities together, the people and organisations that know when things are not as they should be, and the people who look out for our elderly, the sick and the vulnerable. Although it is difficult to put a price on the work they do, without those people and institutions, society would be a poorer place and the added strain on public services would be significant. It is perverse that we judge reducing support for services such as community pharmacists to be a saving.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The loss of pharmacists’ expertise and experience and their knowledge of the people who come in and out could be enormous if pharmacies such as the Whitworth family pharmacy in my constituency are forced to close as a result of this initiative.

I think we all share those concerns. I am pleased to have secured this debate, so as to give people an opportunity to share their experiences in their own constituencies.

Reform of community pharmacies is not something that we can afford to get wrong. Many of the community pharmacies in my constituency are independent businesses that have been established for decades. A wrong move by the Government now might make those community resources unviable. We all know that community pharmacists provide important services, including the safe dispensing of medicines. They are often the first port of call for people with minor ailments and health concerns, and are a key support for elderly and vulnerable patients in the community.

General practitioners in my constituency are under significant strain. Although no one is against sensible savings, does my hon. Friend agree that nothing should be done to undermine the excellent job done by community pharmacists in diverting patients from primary care, or to add to the burden on hard-pressed GPs?

That is absolutely superb—my next line is: “Community pharmacies have a vital role in giving advice and in diverting patients from GPs and emergency departments,” exactly as my hon. Friend said. In tourist areas such as Cornwall, they take their share of the extra demand during the height of the season. Most recently, my local community pharmacists administered flu jabs to increase uptake. Pharmacies regularly get prescriptions to patients out of hours when no alternative is otherwise available, and Cornwall has led the way, with ground-breaking work in enhanced services. That is an example of how community pharmacists are very much part of the solution to integrated community health provision.

Healthwatch Cornwall recently surveyed Cornish residents about access to community pharmacies. Some 69% of participants said that they regularly visit their pharmacy, and 74% of those felt comfortable talking to the pharmacist about their health, while 78% felt well informed by their pharmacists when taking new drugs and 93% said that the pharmacist was polite and helpful.

One constituent of mine, a retired doctor, Professor Dancy, wrote to me as follows:

“I am a warm supporter of Nigel, our local pharmacist, and proud to be so. He is always ready to help when I forget (as one does at the age of 95) to re-order a medicament, and when my doctor is unavailable, or just pushed for time, I do not hesitate to ask Nigel for advice, which I follow with a confidence that is always rewarded.”

Community pharmacists are highly trained and trusted healthcare professionals, qualified to masters level and beyond. Their knowledge base covers far more than just drugs, making them the ideal healthcare professionals to relieve pressure on GPs and other areas of the NHS. Equally importantly—perhaps even more importantly—community pharmacists are welcoming change and embracing new clinical opportunities.

However, the proposed funding cut will not sustain the transition from a supply-based service to the more clinically focused service that the Government desire and our patients deserve. Cuts will discourage progress and can only result in small, independent and much-loved businesses failing, at the expense of patients, the public and the wider NHS.

In York, the local authority has made cuts to smoking cessation services, as well as NHS health checks, and the community pharmacists I have spoken to have said that they see their future role as filling some of those gaps. However, with further cuts to community pharmacy itself, where are people meant to go—back to queues in GP surgeries?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That is exactly why we are having this debate. I want the Government to examine the value of community pharmacists and to consider how they can do some of the work—in fact, a large part of the work—that would save money for NHS acute services.

I am well aware that there is a need to secure better value for money in areas of the NHS. Over the weekend, I met four community pharmacists and they all talked of the opportunities to make savings that they have identified. They are willing and able to see more patients. Pharmacists give free, over-the-counter advice to thousands of people every day, promoting self-care and diverting patients from GP and urgent care services. However, it is estimated that £2 billion-worth of GP consultations a year are still being taken by patients with symptoms that pharmacists could treat.

Pharmacists want to have a greater role in prescribing drugs, so as to reduce waste. Last year in Cornwall alone, £2 million-worth of unused drugs were returned to community pharmacists to be destroyed. Pharmacists are best placed to reduce this waste. They want to do more to support people with mental illnesses; they are keen to provide continued care of people with diabetes and other long-term conditions; and my local community pharmacists want to work with the Department of Health to improve services, engage in health and social care integration, reduce drug waste and improve access to records, in order to support the giving of prescriptions.

On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is needed is a joint, co-ordinated approach to planning investment and implementing change, in partnership with national and community pharmacy bodies, rather than pushing things through at a great pace?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In my experience so far of looking at this subject, I have found that those in the pharmacist community do not feel that they have been properly consulted or engaged with. Pharmacists believe that they have many of the solutions that the Government wish to see.

Before I conclude, I will read one final letter that I received on Monday from a GP in my constituency. Dr Rebecca Osbourne writes:

“As you will no doubt be aware, General Practice is facing a crisis with too few GPs managing an ever-growing demand. Demand for appointments outstrips availability of doctors and allied surgery staff, and patient needs are increasingly complex with an ageing population with multi-morbidity.

A good Pharmacist helps to take some of the pressure off a local surgery—offering advice about self-limiting conditions, and prescribing over the counter medications for presentations that do not need to be taken as ‘on the day’ appointments with a GP; patients who are on complex medications can receive education and advice from their pharmacist regarding their regime, including the importance of compliance, which can further reduce the burden elsewhere in the system; vulnerable patients, whether elderly or experiencing mental ill-health, have an extra professional keeping watch over them, and a pharmacist may be better placed than a GP”—

it was a GP who wrote this—

“to see a trend developing or a change that requires further attention.”

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware from the conversations he has had with pharmacists that they often do things that are outside the terms of their contract. A couple of examples were cited to me. First, a pharmacist was involved in spotting someone who was having a cardiac arrest in their pharmacy, and then in helping someone else who had fallen outside the pharmacy and damaged their face quite severely. If we lost pharmacists and their extra input, that would have a significant impact on patients in a way that has really not been explained so far.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What I have learned from many patients and from the pharmacists themselves is that patients see pharmacists as the first port of call for health, so there is no doubt that there will be times when pharmacists are picking up things that otherwise would have to be picked up in A&E.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important not to confuse the role of pharmacists with the number of pharmacies? It is vital that we protect the pharmacists, who are very important in delivering in the national health service.

That is exactly right: it is pharmacists’ skills that we must be careful to maintain and develop.

I know that you have concerns about this matter as well, Mr Streeter, especially concerning the pharmacy in Modbury in your constituency, so I appreciate your support on this issue and the way you are chairing this wonderful Westminster Hall debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The letter that he read out hits a lot of the points. Removing the funding will make waiting lists longer, when GPs are already under pressure; in fact, we are losing hundreds of GPs every year, as they go to other countries. Pharmacies can see people at the point in time that they would usually see GPs; sometimes people have to wait two or three weeks to get an appointment with the GP. So this proposed cut seems to defeat the purpose of the planned change.

I am pleased that we are so supportive of the community pharmacists, and hopefully we will get a good result from this debate.

I have three straightforward questions and a personal plea to put to the Minister, if you will bear with me, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Gary Streeter. [Laughter.]

Have the Government made any impact assessment in relation to their position of reducing community pharmacy numbers and the impact that this change might have on the health, and economic and social wellbeing of people living in our area? What assessment have the Government made of the impact that such a reduction would have on the workload of GPs, those in A&E and those providing out-of-hours services, if patients cannot access their regular pharmacy and then visit these other services?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate on an important issue that could have far-reaching consequences, should the decision go through. Equally, I join him in urging the Minister to ensure that during the consultation—we understand that there is still to be consultation with patient groups—we will take, to echo a comment by a former Member, a constituency-by-constituency approach. I am sure that everybody will bring to the fore the particular characteristics of their own constituency. My constituency has the record number of octogenarians in the country and the fastest growing town in the south-east, and it routinely hosts tourism-driven events such as Airbourne, when 600,000 people come into the town. Pharmacies are a sometimes uncelebrated and unseen force that we rely on.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and she is absolutely right to say that in a tourist area, where the population increases dramatically at times, we need to be careful that the core services are available for everyone who needs them.

My second question is: what assurances can the Government give to independent community pharmacists? The third question is: what consultation has been conducted with pharmacy patients, and what would their concerns be if community pharmacies were to close?

My personal plea to the Minister is please not to write pharmacies off until they have been given the resources to realise their full potential in society. I feel excited about the potential opportunity that exists for the NHS through the proper use of community pharmacists. While reforms to NHS services are essential and the way that community pharmacists are utilised needs to be reviewed, a blanket removal of funds to pharmacies will only hinder progress and limit this opportunity.

Order. We have six colleagues trying to catch my eye and roughly 40 minutes. If they could show self-restraint and limit themselves to seven minutes each, that should see us through.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate.

I am the chair of the all-party group on pharmacy in Parliament and I have been for more than five years. I have a keen interest in public health and lifestyle issues, and I have quite enjoyed chairing the group. After the letter of 17 December, the all-party group—three Members of this House and one from the other place—met the Minister, on 13 January. We had what I described afterwards as “straightforward talking” about the letter—a letter that posed more questions about the future of pharmacy than it gave answers. The Minister was straightforward, and he said that one issue was that, in October of this year—so just for the second half of the financial year—£170 million will be taken out of the community pharmacy budget. That leaves a number of questions to be answered, including that of what will happen in a full financial year.

The Government make great claims about putting an extra £8 billion into the national health service, but the truth is that that £170 million, which is part of the £22 billion of efficiency savings, is being taken out of the NHS, so it is hardly new money. It is not the £8 billion—that comes in a few years’ time. We are talking here about major cuts to vital services.

Since the publication of that letter, it has become clear that as many as 3,000 community pharmacies could close in England alone—a quarter of them. How would that happen? Would it be by stealth, which is suggested in the letter and in the consultation currently coming out of the Department, or is there some sort of plan? We have seen in the letter, and in others, that if there is a 10-minute walk between pharmacies, that might be looked into, but there seems to be no plan whatsoever.

What we have to accept—I put to this to the Minister in that meeting on 13 January—is that pharmacists do not work for the national health service, yet more than 90% of community pharmacies’ income comes from the NHS. The idea that we could change that mechanism and close community pharmacies is outrageous. The pharmacists may not work for the national health service, but their income depends massively on it—I wish it did not.

For many years I have been promoting lifestyle issues and the idea of pharmacists getting paid for doing things other than just turning scrips over, but that is how it works at the moment and there needs to be some serious talking. What happens if someone who has a 10-year lease on a property they took over to run the local pharmacy is forced out of business? All those questions remain unanswered, yet there is the threat of up to 3,000 pharmacies in England closing.

I am following the argument that my right hon. Friend is putting forward. Does he agree that, instead of cutting services, we should be looking at opportunities for community pharmacies to extend healthcare further into their communities? It should be about investment at this time, particularly in prevention, which is all about saving money further down the line.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the reasons I took over as chair of the all-party group more than five years ago. I believe that our pharmaceutical services should be taking that route of travel.

It would help if the Government provided details of how they will ensure access to pharmacy services in remote or deprived communities. If the market will drive closures, there will be chaos, and something substantial needs to be in place.

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case. He mentioned the market. Does he agree that one difficulty that smaller independent pharmacies, such as John Davey in my constituency, have is that unlike the big chains they are unable to negotiate favourable deals on the drugs they dispense and, therefore, they are already at a disadvantage in market terms? Before the Government go any further with the programme they need to address that important issue.

I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend. I will not use the name of the company, but I can go into the store of one of the major chains, which is not in my constituency but not far away, and it takes me a minute to walk to the prescription counter, whereas in most of the pharmacies in my constituency I can get there in two or three seconds. We must recognise that, at constituency level, we are not comparing like with like.

Another thing is that key payments for pharmacies will be phased out, and there might be a drive towards a commoditised medicine supply service with an increased focus on warehouse dispensing and online services. Again, the possibility of added value in a local pharmacy regarding lifestyle issues potentially goes out of the window, and we really need to look at that. I have no direct experience, but I am told that they have that in the United States.

As well as dispensing medicines, community pharmacy teams help people to stay well and out of GP surgeries, to get the most benefit from their medicines and to manage their health conditions. The NHS spends £2 billion a year on GP consultations for conditions that pharmacy teams could treat. Community pharmacy can and should do more. A national community pharmacy minor ailments service could save the national health service some £1 billion a year. In some of the pharmacies in my constituency, there is already a minor ailments service. I understand that the Government recently changed their mind about developing such a service at a national level, and I would like to know why. Such a service makes great sense to me. It keeps pressure off not only GP surgeries but the local A&E.

In 2014-15, pharmacies delivered more than 3.17 million medicines use reviews, to increase people’s understanding and help them to take their medicines correctly. We get a lot more from our pharmacies than their just turning scrips over. Our communities and our constituencies need that, and if there are to be any changes, they should be carried out in a sensible and planned way, and not in the chaotic way of some of the suggestions of recent weeks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on introducing this important debate.

Some 28% of my constituents, across our 200 square miles of East Sussex, are over the age of 65. Losing our pharmacies would affect all my constituents, but I am particularly concerned about the impact on the elderly and vulnerable. I spoke today with a pharmacist in the village of Ticehurst in my constituency, who told me about his concerns. First, he is concerned that the Government might cut 6% from his dispensing fees. Secondly, he is concerned that they might withdraw the £2,500 that all pharmacists are paid annually. Thirdly, he is concerned that the Government might impose a clawback, meaning that if a budget is overspent, pharmacists might be required to reimburse their fees. Fourthly, he is concerned that the pharmacy will have to cover the welcome introduction of the national living wage and the cost of new pension arrangements.

I understand that it is essential for the NHS to make savings—£22 billion over this term—and it therefore seems reasonable to expect the £2.8 billion pharmacy budget to contribute to that. The Government rightly point out that many of our pharmacies are situated in walking distance clusters, but I am concerned that the proposed funding changes, if not sensibly targeted, could affect not just pharmacies in clusters but the rural pharmacy that is miles from another one and more than just a dispensing chemist. Because a pharmacist knows his or her customers, he or she is able to advise them on solutions more cost-effectively than if they were to utilise the wider NHS, including GPs and A&E.

In an unscientific Twitter survey, which I kicked off at the beginning of the debate, 62% of respondents say they would prefer to see a community pharmacist first. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should be clear when making their funding allocation about the extent to which people would prefer to make use of community pharmacists before they see GPs?

Much as I prefer to disagree with everything that is said on Twitter, I could not disagree with that particular scientific survey.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about rural pharmacies. A pharmacist in my constituency contacted me. He said that, if the proposed cuts go through, he will have to cut staff and the apprentices he is training, as well as reduce opening hours and stop the free services, such as the deliveries to housebound patients. The cuts would not just stop the important services that my constituents and many others get from rural pharmacies; it would also deeply impact on skills, and on skills going back into the services that we have to protect.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s point, and I can give another two reasons why pharmacists are so important. Like the post offices, our pharmacists also act as the eyes and ears for the welfare of certain vulnerable constituents. As a staple part of our village and town centres, pharmacies provide the footfall that allows our pubs, restaurants and shops to survive in an increasingly difficult environment.

I am not a deficit denier, and it would be hypocritical to be elected on the platform of balancing the Government books by 2020 and then to refuse to countenance savings in this area. It strikes me, however, that a better focus for efficiency is not the fees for dispensing, but the volume of drugs wasted by over-dispensing. For example, some drugs may be dispensed for a period of three months, only for the individual to change a course of treatment or stop treatment altogether. As soon as those drugs leave the pharmacy, they have to be used or destroyed. I wonder exactly how much money could be saved by dispensing for shorter periods of time.

Additionally, I find it extraordinary that pharmacists deliver NHS prescriptions free of charge to all who want that service. I understand why those who cannot collect their prescriptions should get them delivered, but to provide free delivery, effectively on the NHS, appears to be an area that is ripe for efficiency savings. I welcome the Government’s proposal for a pharmacy access scheme. That would provide more NHS funds to certain pharmacies based on factors such as location and the health needs of the population. To that end, I ask the Government to distinguish and make a special case for rural pharmacies and to focus their efficiencies on those pharmacies that are within closer proximity to each other. If difficult choices are to be made, let us ensure that our constituents can still access a pharmacy within their locality.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve beneath your firm but benevolent eye, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on bringing this important, relevant and timely matter before us. It is similar to an Adjournment debate I secured in the previous Parliament, to which the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) responded, and to a question I put to the Minister the week before last on this very subject. In both cases, the response I received was one of warm words but few concrete proposals and little reassurance for the community pharmacies.

Like everyone else in this Chamber, I happen to believe that the Minister is a good and decent man, but I fear I can see the handcuffs of the Treasury holding him tight. I feel that he is beneath the terrifying thrall of the Treasury. The proposals are nothing to do with improving patient service. They are nothing other than a pathetic attempt to balance the books on the backs of one of the most productive, hard-working, positive and excellent groups of people in our society: the modern community pharmacist. Every day, they perform a miracle on the high street. They have changed from the old-fashioned world of the dispensing retail chemist to the modern world of preventive medicine. In fact, in many ways pharmacies are multi-speciality community providers. It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Streeter, that we have here Members representing the highlands and islands, the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Wight, Southend-on-Sea, and Members from Armagh to Ealing. This issue is one that the whole nation is concerned about.

I am sure it was an oversight by my hon. Friend that he did not include Knowsley in that long list. I hope that the high street pharmacies are not depending on miracles. I rather hope that they are dependent on science.

Not for the first time in my life, I have been corrected by my right hon. Friend. When I referred to a miracle on the high street, I was referring to the contrast between the traditional chemist that we have known in the past and the modern community pharmacist. To go into the modern community pharmacy is to see a treatment room or an interview room, to get a blood pressure test or travel advice or to get advice on smoking cessation, healthy eating or obesity. Those are all things that we would never have thought of before with a pharmacy. To my mind, that is miraculous, mostly because it has been organic and has not come about by Government diktat. As a great believer in state centralism, I find that quite shocking, but that is all the more reason for this area to be nurtured, supported and not threatened.

The point that greatly concerns me is that the proposals go against the grain of all current thinking—not just the Carter review and the “Five Year Forward View”, which is the NHS document that talks about an enhanced role for the community pharmacist—and against every single professional body. That is not just Pharmacy Voice and the royal colleges. Everyone seems to feel that the proposals are a retrogressive step that will not only make the situation worse, but that cannot be justified because the knock-on costs to overcrowded GPs, A&E departments and urgent care centres will ultimately end up costing us so much more.

This issue concerns me greatly. One cannot imagine a more different constituency from that of the hon. Member for St Ives than mine in west London. I represent a tightly knit urban community. People are close together and tightly packed, as opposed to the great rural beauty of the Isles of Scilly. We are, however, what is known as an under-doctored area, which is typical of the big cities. The typical GP in my constituency is a single-handed elderly practitioner, often operating out of a terraced house. That is changing, but as it is changing there is a period in which a great many of my constituents—many of them are transient constituents who are moving in and moving out, and cannot register with a GP nor wait two or three weeks to see a GP, and they queue up at the A&E department or the urgent care centre and cannot be treated—are asking, “Where can we go?” The answer is that they can go to a source of good, sound advice that is both responsive and preventive. They can go to a person who is qualified and skilled. In many cases in my part of the world, we have community pharmacies with two or three pharmacists who are experts in their area. We can even do minor injuries. There is no reason why we should not expand the community pharmacies.

There is much talk of the seven-day NHS, and the model exists before our eyes. The NHS can be a seven-day service in the community pharmacies and, I profoundly hope, everywhere else. The opening hours of the community pharmacies—they are sometimes found in hospitals and supermarkets—are a great model that we should be working to support. I know that the Minister’s heart is in the right place. I know that he wants to stand up and say, “I will resist the Treasury diktat and support the community pharmacists for the sake not just of all our constituents, but of future generations, too.” Community pharmacists deserve that, and they are certainly entitled to it.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I have been involved in the whole business of pharmacies since 10 to 15 years ago, when I worked commercially on the campaign for resale price maintenance. Members may remember that the then Government were seeking to get rid of resale price maintenance on many prescription medicines. So I have been following the area closely.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. Members should be aware that I am the Government’s pharmacy champion, as well as the vice-chairman of the all-party pharmacy group. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) is the chairman.

Just before Christmas, the Government announced that they wanted to review community pharmacies, and I very much welcomed that. The Government’s consultation process on community pharmacies needs to ensure that health service money is targeted better on where it can deliver the best results. The consultation process has highlighted that there is an oversupply or clustering of pharmacies in specific locations. The other day, I was driving back to London from my constituency, and I noticed that there were three or four pharmacies within two or three minutes’ walk of each other. To my mind, that has to be looked at.

The issue is how we ensure that the changes to the funding mechanism ensure the desired results, namely, the reduction of clusters while ensuring that we do not damage key parts of the pharmacy network. Using funding to make the changes is potentially a blunt instrument, and it will impact on smaller volume pharmacies in rural areas in particular. They are a part of the network that is desperately needed. What mechanisms are envisaged to achieve those goals? I understand that some large pharmacy groups might be willing to give up the leases on some of their shops, but they want to know whether the Government will give them an assurance that the leases will not be handed over to another chain of pharmacies. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will explain what approach the Government will take to ensure that that does not happen.

Pharmacies, particularly community pharmacies, are undergoing unprecedented changes. They want to expand and to assist in meeting primary care demand, diverting activity from A&E to support more patients with self-care and in the prevention of ill health. Pharmacy is increasingly seen as a large part of the solution to the shortage of doctors and nurses in primary care. We are watching the spiralling demand for practices and community pharmacies, which are about delivering that patient care.

We need to support the innovation in roles to facilitate change in the infrastructure: information exchange, organisation, and working practices. Current investment in the innovation fund will probably not provide the level of investment needed, and access to transformation funds for this purpose seems unlikely. The change is needed to manage demand more effectively, but, unless supported, we place the system and the patients it serves at high risk. Can we therefore ensure that higher priority is given to ensuring that the changes are effectively supported?

On the subject of changes, and bearing in mind that the increase in prescribing is about 2.5% per annum, does the hon. Gentleman honestly believe that the Government’s proposal for a hub-and-spoke prescribing model, breaking the link between the patient and the pharmacist, represents value for money, or even sanity?

There are two things. First, it is important that the consultation process reaches a conclusion. For us to try to premeditate on that would be unhelpful. Secondly, there are examples of where the Government have been able to make sure that money is better focused and better used. They can make budgets sweat quite well, and we should certainly take that into account.

I very much welcome the review, as I believe that community pharmacies should have a much wider role than simply dispensing prescriptions. They can take the pressure off hectic GP surgeries and our hard-pressed accident and emergency units. Such venues should provide alternative services such as help with mental health conditions, smoking cessation and suchlike. The Government need to ensure that pharmacies are the first point of contact when patients are looking for minor help, such as flu jabs. We also need to make sure that patients in our rural villages have access to pharmacies, although in urban conurbations, such as my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport inner city constituency, there should not be a plethora of chemists just for the sake of having them. We need to make sure that patients’ safety is paramount when pharmacies are dispensing medicines.

Over the past five years I have consistently campaigned for the Government to decriminalise dispensing errors made by pharmacies. At present, GPs can only be struck off if they make a prescription error, whereas pharmacists can be sent to prison for exactly the same thing. We need a level playing field. Despite being the Government’s pharmacy champion, I am going to be slightly critical of the Government over this issue. We hoped that it would be sorted through secondary legislation before the general election. During a debate on the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), I questioned the Department of Health’s decision to delay the necessary legislation until after the devolved Assembly elections and the new Executives and Governments had had a chance to introduce their own legislation. This means it is unlikely to be introduced before the summer, so English pharmacists are now dependent on legislation being passed for other pharmacists. So much for fair devolution. When my right hon. Friend the Minister sums up, will he explain why English pharmacies have to wait until the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Assemblies have passed the necessary legislation?

I understand that the Government are keen for pharmacies to be able to share summary care records to ensure that they are fully informed of patients’ medical history when giving medical advice. What progress is my right hon. Friend’s Department making?

Yesterday, I met the General Pharmaceutical Council, the pharmacy regulator since 2010. Various issues were raised by the GPC, especially the Pharmacy (Premises Standards, Information Obligations, etc.) Order 2016, which was in its Grand Committee stage in the House of Lords yesterday. I welcome this section 60 order, as it will bring much-needed transparency to the GPC’s reporting on inspections. There must be transparency. The section 60 would also allow the GPC to take proportionate action when pharmacies fail to meet essential standards. This is just one of the reasons why I support the section 60 order.

Pharmacy has the potential to play a huge part in community healthcare in Britain. However, we need to address the fundamental flaws in the system so that our communities are better served by pharmacy and our healthcare system is used responsibly.

I note the time, Mr Streeter, and your stipulation about when Front-Bench speeches will start. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for initiating this important debate. As I look around the Chamber today, I see that Members from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are outnumbered, which is appropriate, given the letter that was sent and the cuts that pharmacists might endure. In Wales, the issue of health is almost entirely devolved, so much of what is being discussed today will be different in Wales from in England. However, the community pharmacy contractual framework is an England and Wales arrangement, so what happens in England could impact on Wales.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) mentioned the issue of devolved Administrations and delays. Our understanding is that the consultation will conclude, the Minister will reflect, and an announcement will be made during the Assembly election campaign period. We will not have a health Minister in Wales if decisions made in Whitehall impact on the delivery of services in Wales. I think that it has something to do with the respect agenda and waiting for a health Minister to be in place.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that if there were delays in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, the English pharmacies would end up waiting behind that queue?

The hon. Gentleman should address that question to the Minister. The timing represents an unfortunate mismatch, for which pharmacists in England might pay the price. The timetable is of the Government’s making, not mine, so the Minister needs to reflect on that.

I want to talk about two facets of this debate that have been touched on by the hon. Members for St Ives and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman): the issue of rurality and the impact of the cuts. The consultation document stated:

“40% of pharmacies are in clusters of 3 or more meaning that two-fifths of pharmacies are within 10 minutes walk of 2 or more other pharmacies”.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is going to make an excellent point about rural pharmacies, but there is another element in my constituency, where I met my local pharmacist, Mike Maguire of Marton Pharmacy. Two of our minor injury units have closed and there is a proposal to close another walk-in centre, after the last one was closed. The collateral impact of the withdrawal of those services reduces the ability of the average patient and customer to access services. There is not only the rural aspect but the specific need at the time.

The hon. Gentleman is right. That has been the message of many contributions. The work of our community pharmacies complements the work of the national health service. When the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is hit in the way that it has been, that represents the proverbial nail in the coffin of decent community-based services for his constituents.

On the urban point, to reiterate the point made by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron), we are talking about well-established community businesses that impact on many people in the locality. Two or three businesses clustered in the same area doing a generally good job will have an impact on the local economy, but the rural point is fundamental. We have heard about the pressures on GPs and the difficulties in getting appointments. In my vast rural constituency of Ceredigion, we have a district general hospital in Aberystwyth: Bronglais hospital. We have a good many GPs throughout the county. We also have a network of very effective pharmacists, and it is a jigsaw that works in providing good services. There are 716 community pharmacies in Wales—in high streets, villages and towns—with 50,000 people visiting those facilities every single day, proving the efficiency of the much-maligned Welsh national health service and bridging the real difficulty that people have in visiting the closest hospital or a GP for something as routine as blood pressure or cholesterol checks. It is really important that the outcome of the debate is that we support community pharmacies. That is fundamental.

In Wales we have developed our services. I visited the pioneering pharmacy of Mr Richard Evans in the town of Llandysul 11 years ago. He was clearly of the view that we could develop services much more, to relieve pressure on the national health service, and he achieved that. In Wales pharmacies have offered NHS flu jabs for at-risk groups for the fourth winter running. Almost 20,000 people in Wales benefited from that last winter. After four years of that provision in Wales, the NHS in England introduced the same service for the first time. Community pharmacies in Wales can treat about 30% of the common ailments that people would normally go to a GP for. That is a huge saving for the national health service. Pharmacies also promote meaningful public health campaigns. I visited the pharmacy in Borth, where there is a campaign on Parkinson’s disease. The staff are doing a good job talking with victims of Parkinson’s disease about their medication, and promoting awareness in the community.

Finally, having praised what is being done in Wales, in a rural area, I want to seek an assurance from the Minister that if his consultation has an effect on the three levels of services in the framework, there will be meaningful consultation with Assembly Ministers in Cardiff, and that any negotiations on changes to the contract will involve Welsh Government officials at the negotiating table. This is one of the small areas where health is not devolved, and that is particularly relevant on the Welsh border; it requires the respect agenda, on anything that the Minister concludes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. It is somewhat of a rerun of the post offices debate mentioned earlier. Post offices provide a commercial service, but the key point is that they also provide a public service. My view is that the UK’s pharmacy network must be protected. They are vital because they are accessible and have good geographical coverage: 95% of the population can currently get to a pharmacy on foot within 20 minutes. For deprived populations, the elderly and young families whose car may be taken to work, such services that can be reached by walking are essential.

Local pharmacies provide advice and reassurance.

No, I will not; I am sorry, but there is not enough time.

Pharmacies are also vital because they are beginning to be part of a better national health service, providing a first point of contact; 1.8 million people visit a pharmacy each day. They are an essential part of the pyramid of care that has been mentioned. Accident and emergency departments are stretched, and the solutions that will bring about better healthcare must start further upstream, with pharmacies. A pharmacist wrote to me:

“Pharmacies need to evolve and we have always engaged with the governments in the past to deliver the targets, and greater use of pharmacies must be made to reduce the hospital attendances in the AE”.

There are 36,000 patient visits to my local walk-in centre, which is a fraction of the number of visits to GPs. Yet A&E, the walk-in centre and GPs are all stretched. Local pharmacies are vital for access and as part of a model of healthcare delivery in the UK that relieves some of the current pressures and dispenses advice that puts prevention rather than cure at the heart of healthcare.

My local pharmacy in Baxenden is part of an innovative model of care: the healthy living pharmacy framework is a tiered commissioning framework, aimed at achieving consistent delivery of a broad range of high-quality services through community pharmacies to meet local health needs, improving the health and wellbeing of the local population, and helping to reduce health inequalities. What that means in plain English is that those pharmacies are the first point at which healthcare and health advice is delivered. That includes workforce and workplace development—developing a skilled team who can proactively support and promote behaviour change and improve health and wellbeing. Work done by the healthy living pharmacy initiative has shown that 70% of people who visit pharmacies do not regularly access other healthcare services. Those pharmacies are well placed to support the health and wellbeing of people in the community by, as has been mentioned, providing improved choice, and access to early interventions on such issues as optimal use of medicines, obesity, alcohol and smoking. That should improve outcomes in the short and long term, and have an impact on the cost of care in the future.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee evaluations of HLPs to date found that they

“demonstrate an increase in successful smoking quits, extensive delivery of alcohol brief interventions and advice, emergency contraception, targeted seasonal flu vaccinations, common ailments, NHS Health Checks, healthy diet, physical activity, healthy weight and pharmaceutical care services.”

The report also indicates that the HLP model is working in areas with different demography and geography. I cannot vouch for the PSNC evaluations, but I welcome the actions taken by my local pharmacy to be available to local people and offer better health advice.

Across Lancashire, pharmacists such as Linda Bracewell at Baxenden pharmacy are keen to see HLP rolled out across Lancashire. That requires support from the Government and the NHS. All pharmacies, including HLPs, are a vital part of the healthier Lancashire agenda. Yet today pharmacies are under threat from two directions. Those threats are the reductions in Government support—the 6.1% cut by the Department of Health in community pharmacy funding, which comes to a total reduction in funding of £170 million—and market forces. I want to move on to consider that other threat.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) mentioned changes in the market, such as the growth of warehouse pharmacies that seek profit—this is the Amazon model—at the expense of both the public service element and geographical access points. That is a cause for concern. Not everyone is online, or comfortable with such remote arrangements. There is no guarantee that such a method of providing pharmacy services has a role in a healthy living environment, or a better healthcare delivery system. Will it engage with hard-to-reach communities?

Over Christmas I was shown a letter by Linda Bracewell that was sent to a constituent by Pharmacy4U, a mail order pharmacist. Worryingly, it was passed off as an official letter. People would feel obliged to fill it in and send it off. It was personalised, and, crucially, it redirected customers with repeat prescriptions to Pharmacy4U. Worse, Pharmacy4U is just one of several emerging online mail order warehouse companies—box shifters. It was not clear that the letter was not official but a marketing ploy. It is a matter of great concern that the letter was part of a mass mailing, sent specifically to people with existing prescriptions. Their GP practice was named on the letter as though it came from that practice. That is a worry for pharmacies.

How did Pharmacy4U get access to patient practice details? Is it right that the letter I saw was allowed to look like an official document and a request for detail, when in fact it was simply permission to transfer existing prescriptions—a huge business for local pharmacies—to a warehouse pharmacy? Even more worrying was the fact that all the patients of GP practices with electronic data systems had been mailed, while patients of GP practices without such electronic patient systems had not been mailed. Does Pharmacy4U have business connections to the data company that provides GPs with electronic patient data systems, and the patients of those practices? The Minister should be aware that those issues are serious, and that such sharp business practices and models threaten existing pharmacies. The presence of warehouse pharmacies operating on an Amazon model is of concern to me and, I am sure, our constituents, because it erodes the public service element of the current pharmacy network—particularly the healthy living pharmacies.

In conclusion, does the Minister recognise the public service element of pharmacies? Does he want to preserve the current pharmacy network? Does he see pharmacies as having an increasing role in healthcare delivery? Does he think that there will be more or fewer pharmacies after his review is implemented?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. As this is a health debate, I hope you will not consider it inappropriate if I start by saying that my thoughts are very much with Pauline Cafferkey. Earlier today she was hospitalised in Glasgow for the third time after contracting the Ebola virus. She is being flown to London for treatment at the Royal Free hospital. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her the very best.

The debate has been extraordinarily good, so I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for this timely initiative on his part. I had a standard speech prepared, but such has been the debate that I would like instead to reflect on the contributions we have heard so far. Some might be wondering why a Scot representing a Scottish constituency is here at all. At least some people present have emailed me to say, “Even though this debate is not about Scotland, we would very much appreciate hearing a Scottish voice.” What I bring to the debate is shared by everybody present: a concern to maintain community pharmacies because they are a vital part of all our communities.

When making his compelling case, the hon. Member for St Ives said that patients see pharmacists as the first port of call. They do indeed. My own wife, Barbara, has a condition known as post-polio syndrome, which means that she has to take a wide variety of medicines that often vary. It is essential for her that she is able to go along and talk to a pharmacist as her condition varies over time. If she always had to burden a GP when she needed such advice, that would put an unnecessary strain on local GP services.

A lot of people who go to community pharmacies in my constituency such as Bharat Patel’s and Asif’s go there with problems that they would not wish to burden their GP with, but that are a burden to themselves, so it is a great relief for them to be able to talk things through with someone. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that sometimes people go to a pharmacist because they would be uncomfortable or embarrassed to go to their local, perhaps single-handed, GP? They might want to ask for alcohol advice or about something that they find embarrassing, or perhaps a young girl might want to ask for emergency contraceptive but not wish to see the receptionist, who is her mother’s friend whom she has known all her life.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s point. Moving on a little, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) described very clearly the long-term funding consequences of the Government’s proposals. As he indicated, they are planning to insert £8 billion more into the NHS while at the same time seeking to cut £170 million from pharmacies. The use of market forces to cull pharmacies does not really make any sense. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) made a telling point that relates to the intervention that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) just made: he said that pharmacists can act as the eyes and ears of the vulnerable in our communities. That is the other side of the coin to the point she made about people who feel under stress or strain in their immediate circumstances very often seeing the pharmacist as their first port of call.

The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in his typical style, with quiet presentation, pointed out that the proposals will affect every community, whether up in the highlands and islands or down in Ealing North. Indeed, he said that they will affect every community in terms of both the science and the magic that is involved. Everybody here is, I think, as one in our desire to develop pharmacies, yet, as he pointed out, the Treasury is seeking to put on the shackles for the sake of a £170 million saving. As I have previously spoken in Treasury debates, I made a note to point out that that saving would amount to less than half of what the Government could save if they simply closed the so-called Mayfair loophole. Pharmacists provide a service far beyond that supplied by many financial advisers in our society.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) discussed the need to reduce clusters. When he was talking, I immediately thought of the hon. Member for Ealing North, who would no doubt advise him that perhaps we would do better by going back to some old-fashioned central planning to do things more coherently, rather than using market forces. If we use only market forces, the people who are going to be served least well are those in the large rural communities, whether in Wales or many parts of England. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made an excellent case about the importance of such far-flung rural communities and the critical services provided by community pharmacies.

Finally, I was very taken by one of the statistics cited by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) early in his speech. I have to say I was not aware that 1.8 million people visit pharmacies each day, not merely for the dispensing of drugs but to see someone from whom they can get advice and in whom they can place their trust. Everybody who has contributed to the debate has pointed out that pharmacists supply a service to our communities that goes far beyond that provided by what we used to call in the old days the local chemist. They are highly qualified people who can provide a range of expertise. As the hon. Member for St Ives pointed out, many have masters degrees in specialist areas. In all honesty, in some areas of medicine they can provide advice that goes beyond the expertise of a GP. To lose that in any way, particularly in the most vulnerable communities, would be a sad loss indeed. I am very aware of wanting to leave some time for the hon. Gentleman to say a few words at the end, so I simply congratulate him again on an excellent debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. I join the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), in sending good wishes to Pauline Cafferkey, which I am sure we all wish to do. It is very disturbing to hear that she has become ill again.

In what has been a wide-ranging debate, we have had heard from Members about the importance of community pharmacies to their constituents. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for not only giving us an impressive list of the additional services available from community pharmacies but, importantly, discussing the role that they can play in under-doctored areas, which is an issue in my constituency. We must of course consider rural areas, but urban areas can also be very short of services. In my constituency, we have lost walk-in centres and other forms of community support, such as active case-management pilots. It is a pity that such excellent services that keep people away from GPs and hospitals are being cut.

As we have heard again and again in the debate, community pharmacies provide an essential service in dispensing both medication and the essential information and advice that can prevent people from having to visit their GP for common health problems. On 17 December, the day the House rose for the Christmas recess, the Government announced a £170 million cut to community pharmacy services, with further cuts to follow. That initial 6% cut in the funding for community pharmacies will put significant financial pressure on many of them and will result in closures and job losses. Can the Minister assure us that the service offered to patients will not suffer due to the cuts? It is hard to see how there will not be a loss to patients. Will he comment on the additional pressures that will be placed back on the NHS as a result of that loss?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) said, the Minister had a meeting with members of the all-party parliamentary group on pharmacy. I understand from the note of that meeting that he estimated that between 1,000 and 3,000 pharmacies, out of the overall total of 11,700, could close. He also recognised that smaller pharmacies are likely to be squeezed. Such a significant number of pharmacy closures will have a substantial impact on the way that the pharmacy sector operates. The sector called the cuts a “profoundly damaging move”, so it is important that the Minister updates us on the number of pharmacies at risk of closure. The Government failed to outline funding plans for subsequent years, raising concerns that there could be even deeper cuts later in this Parliament. Will the Minister tell us what further cuts are planned?

Despite the cuts, the Government say they want

“greater use of community pharmacy and pharmacists: in prevention of ill health; support for healthy living; support for self-care for minor ailments and long term conditions; medication reviews in care homes; and as part of more integrated local care models.”

As with everything else to do with care, a letter from the Department for Health suggests that the reforms can be carried out by integrating community pharmacies into a range of primary care settings. Integration is fine in itself, but it will not be achieved through funding such as the pharmacy integration fund, which is set at £20 million and will rise to £100 million by year five. I understand that the majority of the funding will focus on providing pharmacy services at GP practices, but that overlooks the wider role that community pharmacies play, which hon. Members have talked about in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) passed me a note about the Windmill Pharmacy in his constituency. In a couple of hours on Saturday, its pharmacists dressed an elderly man’s superficial wound, gave advice on a fungal infection, advised on vaccines and malaria tablets for people travelling abroad, counted and sorted the tablets for many patients with multiple conditions, gave an antibiotic eye drop for a child with an infected eye, gave repeat blood pressure tablets to a patient whose GP was away, and, of course, had their technicians set up the dosette boxes for patients, including those with dementia, who rely on that service. All those services are freely provided in pharmacies. That is an excellent example from my hon. Friend’s constituency. How does the Minister expect community pharmacies to improve their services and continue to do all of those things when they face a significant decrease in funding and are simultaneously being asked to provide greater support to GP practices, care homes and accident and emergency units?

It has been suggested that we should facilitate hub-and-spoke arrangements, but there are real concerns about that system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said:

“Warehouse dispensing, or ‘hub and spoke’, raises questions around safety, quality and access. The supply of prescription medicines cannot be treated like buying clothes and DVDs. High quality, safe dispensing depends on the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion between the pharmacist and the patient. I don’t see how that can be done in a warehouse.”

I share those worries, which were expressed very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who asked some important questions about warehouse chemists’ practices and the data security implications of what they do. Most importantly, the Government must tell us how they will ensure that the essential face-to-face contact between pharmacists and patients is maintained.

Pharmacy Voice outlined the negative consequences of the cuts to community pharmacy services. It is concerned that the funding cuts will increase the risks to patient safety and will decrease patient access to medicines and vital support. The cuts risk job losses and will diminish community assets and the long-term potential of community pharmacies. Pharmacy Voice also warned that the cuts are likely to undermine existing health improvement plans and recent initiatives to integrate and develop community pharmacy services. We heard about some wonderful examples of integration and new ways of working in this debate, but all of that will be dashed.

Sue Sharpe, the chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said that the plans

“can only impair pharmacies’ contribution to keeping people well and out of GP and urgent care settings.”

The Government are, in her words,

“proposing to drive ahead to radically change the market with a real paucity of knowledge essential for good decision making.”

We want decisions to be based on better information than we have heard about here.

In my constituency, I have been in contact with the chair of the Salford and Trafford local pharmaceutical committee, Varun Jairath, who is a board member of Community Pharmacy Greater Manchester. He believes that patient safety and welfare are at risk from the planned funding cuts, which means that the community pharmacy network will have to reduce staffing levels and the services it offers for free, such as the home delivery of medication, which has been referred to again and again. I went with a delivery driver from a local pharmacy to hand out information to carers in homes who receive medication. Vital extra things such as that can be done, but only with the existing service levels.

The additional services provided by community pharmacies are at risk from the funding cuts. The minor ailments scheme, which was piloted in Eccles in my constituency, was shown to free up capacity and cash for other areas of primary care by allowing GPs to focus on the more complex patients. That service can continue at £3 per consultation only if community pharmacies continue to be funded at current levels. Such services, which improve quality and save cash, are under threat due to the proposed cuts.

As a number of right hon. and hon. Members said, one of the most worrying effects of the cuts is the potential reduction in rural pharmacy services. Access to pharmacy services should not be reduced for people who live in areas with widely dispersed populations. I ask the Minister—he has been asked this question already—what his assessment is of the impact that the funding cuts will have on rural pharmacies.

To reduce pressure on NHS services, the Government have repeatedly suggested that people should visit their local pharmacy for advice and the extra services we have talked about in the debate. Putting extra pressure on GPs through these funding cuts to community pharmacies is risky. GPs have warned that their workload is becoming unmanageable, which is likely to have an impact on patient safety. In a recent survey of about 3,000 GPs, 55% said that the quality of the service they provide has deteriorated in the past year, and 70% said they feel that their workload is unmanageable some or all of the time. I spoke to a local GP in my constituency recently in a practice whose list size had just been increased by 15%. The GPs at that practice cannot cope with that increase plus any extra that they gain from the losses that have been outlined in the debate.

We recognise the need to integrate pharmacy services better with the rest of primary care, but introducing cuts on this scale to community pharmacy services will not improve primary care outcomes. It will do the opposite. I fear that pharmacies will struggle to provide safe, good-quality services to patients. In proposing the cuts, the Government failed to recognise the value of community pharmacies and to put patients at the heart of their plans for pharmacy services. Patients will bear the brunt of these inappropriate cuts to an essential community service. A joint co-ordinated approach to planning and investment is needed across primary care to ensure that the pharmacy sector can play the important role it could fulfil, and, as I know from all the contacts I have had, wants to fulfil, and ensure that patients get the most out of both the NHS and pharmacies.

As others have said, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Thank you for chairing this debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall and giving colleagues the opportunity to make such a range of comments. They all have a good knowledge of things in their areas, and some have more specialised knowledge. We heard from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron), my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and, not least, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), in whose constituency I have spent many happy hours—my father was born in Auchterderran, so I know the area very well. Although the hon. Gentleman is from Scotland, his contribution was welcome, and he made some pertinent points.

Before I make some prepared remarks, I want to put some things on the record. I would be foolish if I did not understand the widespread interest in this debate. I would also be naive if I believed that this is the last time we will discuss this issue. Many questions were asked, so this will run for a while. Let me set out the background before I make my prepared remarks.

First, we are having this debate at a relatively early stage of the negotiations between the Government and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which is handling matters on behalf of the pharmacy profession. Many of the questions and issues raised by colleagues on both sides are at the heart of those discussions. What sort of services will there be? Where is pharmacy going? How exactly will the reduction in finance be handled and distributed? Not all the answers are available at this stage because a proper negotiation process is being undertaken. Understandably, colleagues will look at the most adverse potential consequences to make a point when representing their constituents. I understand that, and the points have been perfectly fair. We are at that point in the process. We think we know what the worst may be, but we do not know the outcome or what changes there will be for the better.

Secondly, on finance, we are all realists here. We would love to work in a world where the status quo is not changed except for improvements, where the only issue with money is where more can be spent and where change, if there is to be any, takes forever to bring in. Life is not like that. The Government’s spending commitment for the national health service—an extra £10 billion a year by 2020—has to start being found early. It is not only about extra money, but about the efficiencies that the NHS chief executive identified, which are to be found across the board and could partly come from the pharmacy sector’s £2.8 billion of funding, which the Government propose to reduce. It may be an appropriate place. Again, we often approach such matters with the view that no possible reduction could ever improve services anywhere. That is not true, as we know from the experience of successive Governments.

The third bit of the background is where we are in relation to where pharmacy is going. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s November 2013 report, “Now or never: shaping pharmacy for the future”, states that the traditional model of community pharmacy needs to change due to

“economic austerity…a crowded market of local pharmacies, increasing use of…automated technology to undertake dispensing, and the use of online and e-prescribing”.

The Nuffield Trust’s report, “Now more than ever: Why pharmacy needs to act”, states:

“Community pharmacy is subject to a particularly complex set of commissioning arrangements, which appear to support the status quo and inhibit innovation at scale.”

We would love to be in a situation where, as the hon. Member for Ealing North described, everything is absolutely great and every pharmacy offers all the services and delivers them marvellously, but that is not necessarily the case. Accordingly, change is sometimes inspired by necessity and can be for the better. That is part of the background to where we are.

The Minister makes the point that, to pay for the £10 billion increase in NHS funding, funds are being shifted from other sources, including the £2.8 billion spent on pharmacies. However, the principle should not be to shift funding from primary care to secondary care. Our fundamental principle should be to shift—if we have to—money from secondary care to primary care, which is preventive and will cut costs in the long term.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and that is indeed being done in the NHS, but we are looking at where efficiencies can be made and at what different parts of the health sector can contribute. In doing so, we can see what changes are inspired in the service provided to patients.

To emphasise where we are with pharmacy, there are 11,674 pharmacies in England, which has risen from 9,758 in 2003—a 20% increase—while 99% of the population can get to a pharmacy within 20 minutes by car and 96% by walking or using public transport. The average pharmacy receives £220,000 a year in NHS funding. On clusters, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, the Government contend that money can perhaps be saved in one place and used elsewhere for the delivery of new services. That is the reality of life. It would be great if new money was always coming from somewhere, but bearing in mind that the Government are dealing with an Opposition who could not commit to the extra £8 billion that the NHS was looking for, we have to make the changes that others were not prepared to make and still deliver services.

Let me move on to where we are going. Everyone in this room, Government Members included, recognises the quality of the best pharmacy services around the country. We are familiar with the valued role that community pharmacy plays in our lives and those of our constituents. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives for giving me the opportunity to put on public record the high esteem that we hold them in and to set out our plans for the future.

I am a firm believer that the community pharmacy sector already plays a vital role in the NHS. I have seen at first hand quite recently the fantastic work that some community pharmacies are doing across a wide range of health services that can be accessed without appointment. Many people rely on them to provide advice on the prevention of ill health, support for healthy living, support for self-care for minor ailments and long-term conditions, and medication reviews. There is also real potential for us to make far greater use of community pharmacy and pharmacists in England. For example, I am due to speak at an event tomorrow that is looking at the role that pharmacy can play in the commissioning of person-centred care for vulnerable groups.

Our vision is to bring pharmacy into the heart of the NHS. We want to see a high quality community pharmacy service that is properly integrated into primary care and public health in line with the “Five Year Forward View”. I cannot answer all the questions that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) asked, but she did at least mention the integration fund for the first time in the debate.

There is a difficulty, in that funding for integration should recognise that the extra work needs to be done. The point of today’s debate has been about the Government using blunt instruments, such as a 6% cut in funding, reducing the number of pharmacies in clusters, changing dispensing charges, and the warehouse pharmacy that my hon. Friends mentioned. It is the use of those blunt instruments, not the working with the sector, that is the fault.

That working with the sector is ongoing. That is what the negotiations with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee are all about. I take the hon. Lady’s point, but those discussions are under way. We are consulting with a wide range of groups, not just the PSNC, including patients and patient bodies.

As part of what we are doing for the future of pharmacy, we want pharmacists and their teams to practise in a range of primary care settings to ensure better use of medicines and better patient outcomes and to contribute to delivering our goal of truly seven-day health and care services. As part of that, I want to work with NHS England to promote local commissioning of community pharmacy within the health community, so that we can ensure the best use of this valuable resource. That is why we are consulting on how best to introduce a pharmacy integration fund to help to transform the way pharmacists and community pharmacy will operate in the NHS of the future. By 2020-21, we will have invested £300 million in the fund.

While it is understandable that the focus of most colleagues’ comments today was access to existing services, little was said about where pharmacy might be going and what new opportunities there will be. That is part of the overall development that we are hoping to achieve, which will include the work not only of the access fund, but of the integration fund.

Colleagues asked several questions about access. I want to provide some reassurance. We recognise that some of the Government’s proposals have caused concern, and that will take some time to distil as the negotiations are worked through. We are committed to maintaining access to pharmacies and pharmacy services. We are consulting on the introduction of a pharmacy access scheme, which will provide more NHS funds to certain pharmacies compared with others, considering factors such as location and the health needs of the local population, both of which were raised today. Qualifying pharmacies will be required to make fewer efficiencies than the rest of the sector. We certainly recognise that rural pharmacies will need to be considered in that, and we want to ensure that location matters in areas of sparsity. That work is ongoing.

In conclusion, the process has some way to run. I simply put it to colleagues that, in relation to good community services on the high street, there is more for modern pharmacy to do. Looking at the proposals of the past, we hope that the profession shares the Government’s determination to move pharmacy into a new future, and I am convinced that the future will be good.

Thank you, Mr Streeter, and I thank Members for their contributions, which have been really helpful. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for seeking to tackle the many issues that have been raised. We all agree that the NHS is a fantastic institution. Community pharmacists hold some of the keys to improving patient care in the community and reducing pressure on GPs and other NHS services. I hope that the debate has gone some way to empower pharmacists to offer the solutions that the Government are seeking in order to secure a modern-day NHS, but this is all about the best care for patients, which we all agree is what really matters.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Will those who are not staying for the next debate please leave quickly and quietly? We now come to a very important subject to be addressed by the Member for the sunniest place in the United Kingdom, Caroline Ansell.

Military Training: Mental Health Resilience

I beg to move,

That this House has considered opportunities for mental health resilience in military training.

All of us in this place realise the debt we owe to our armed forces personnel and to their families for the sacrifices they make to keep us safe. It has to be acknowledged that unless we, too, have seen active service, faced danger and death, witnessed carnage and experienced loss we cannot fully appreciate or understand the impact and the price that some pay.

I had second-hand experience of such sacrifice when working in a boarding school. I was in loco parentis to 25 teenage girls whose fathers were serving in Bosnia. I saw something of the impact of protracted periods of lives lived apart and of relationships stretched. I saw something of the fear and anxiety of children for their father, and the loneliness and challenge for the parent left behind. Boarding school often provided the continuity that families need and, for the overwhelming majority, service life is one of purpose, identity and fulfilment, with men and women going on to lead successful lives thereafter. For the estimated one in five who bear the unseen scars, however, every opportunity to build resilience or mental toughness needs to be recognised.

The Ministry of Defence recognises mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, as a serious disabling condition, but—importantly—as one that can be treated. My question today is, can it be prevented? In the US Battlemind programme, mental resilience training has been dubbed “armour for your mind”. Can we put mental health resilience on the same footing as physical fitness or, indeed, physical armour?

This is an important debate and I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees with the importance of having full implementation of the military covenant throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. I am sure she shares my frustration that in Northern Ireland we cannot achieve that. The points she is making are very important.

I absolutely subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s passionate support for the military covenant. I will say more about that later.

The new and growing recognition for mental health and veterans’ care on returning home is very welcome, and I pay tribute to the work of charities, of hon. and gallant and hon. Members and of the Government for their unswerving commitment to the military covenant. We are living amid a sea change in our understanding and recognition of mental health issues as we strive for parity of esteem between physical and mental health in our NHS. Times are changing.

Our commemorations of the centenary of the first world war remind us of a different time, when mental health issues bore a stigma and the social view was that wounds that could not be seen could not really be there. Veterans did not seek help and many could not even speak of their experience. Henry Allingham, God rest his soul, was an Eastbourne resident and a supercentenarian. He only started to share his story at the age of 105, but between his 110th and 111th birthdays he is reported to have made more than 60 public appearances. I met him the once.

“It’s good to talk”—the time-honoured role of the padre reflects that and initiatives such as the armed forces’ mental health first aid programme recognise it. After operational deployment, decompression is another hugely valuable opportunity to safeguard resilience. Furthermore, the stress and resilience training centre within the Defence Academy at Shrivenham runs a course called “START Taking Control”. Perhaps the Minister will elaborate on whether such training, which was designed for postgraduate and leadership roles, might soon be extended to initial training.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on a subject that is incredibly important, in particular to someone who has a close relative serving in the armed forces. Alcohol misuse is one of the most frequently reported mental health problems for deployed UK troops. It is the only mental disorder to have increased in prevalence. Comparison of alcohol misuse in the same age and gender group shows that armed forces personnel are more likely to misuse alcohol than the rest of the population. Does she agree that the dangers of alcohol misuse must be incorporated into any training to improve the resilience of personnel?

I acknowledge the great wisdom of what my hon. Friend says. It has been recognised for some time that alcohol abuse has too long been part of a work-hard, play-hard culture. Alcohol has also evidently been used to some extent to cope with the inevitable strains of conflict and combat. It is worth noting that young soldiers between the ages of 18 and 24 are three times more likely than their civilian counterparts to be consuming harmful levels of alcohol. The problem is a serious cultural issue that we must consider, in particular in connection with mental health.

Along with the many good things that the Government are doing to support mental health—I have touched on only some of those—I urge us not to overlook the most effective support system of all, which is the family. The UK Government implemented an operational mental health needs evaluation for those serving in the field during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite obvious operational difficulties in ensuring a full rate of participation, evaluation of a statistically significant 15% of all serving personnel in Iraq and 16% in Afghanistan greatly aided our understanding of the mental health challenges faced by our servicemen and women. The fact that 99% of those asked to participate did so suggests to me that the military has been successful in breaking down barriers to the point that armed forces personnel want to share their experiences, albeit anonymously.

The results of the survey, as broken down in The British Journal of Psychiatry, also showed the prevalence of the most common mental health disorders, with an incidence rate of about 20%. That, too, is significant. The results were used to match the correlations between family stress and the development of mental health disorders, further underlining how vital it is for us to support military families.

The past 15 years have been a time of strain for many armed forces personnel, given the extended interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that the mental scars of conflict can emerge many years after people are relieved of active duty. Many trigger points can be completely unrelated events that take place in the home, far from the field of battle. Problems at home such as financial trouble, relationship breakdown or even child-related stress can all trigger mental health issues. It is therefore imperative that we equip our soldiers and, crucially, their families with all the mental resilience skills necessary to hurdle the challenges of military life and beyond. Family is the best support system, as soldiers themselves testify. How we promote and protect the military family will be defining for mental health outcomes.

Mental health is likely to be a ticking time bomb. According to Combat Stress, the veterans’ mental health charity, 13 years is the average length of time between service discharge and a veteran seeking help. Next month marks the 13th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, so the demand for mental health services for veterans is likely to increase in the short term. Combat Stress has already seen a 28% increase on 2013-14 in the number of veterans seeking assistance in 2014-15.

I am pleased that we are making it easier for our armed forces personnel to get the support that they need and to come forward in the first place, although a report this week suggests that a significant number of them—perhaps up to 40%—are still not seeking such support. Is there a case for more training, particularly in initial training? The received wisdom is still that prevention is better than cure. Do we need to offer more specific training and dedicate time to building mental resilience, just as we push physical speed, strength and stamina? Does that need to be universally rolled out and not hostage to self-awareness, self-selection or self-referral?

I am a patron to the Military Preparation College. As I shake those graduates’ hands and see them walking off into the sunset, I need to know that we are doing everything in our power to mitigate what is certain occupational hazard, looking overseas for best practice, looking at initial training and training at every stage of military service and beyond. We are looking to change culture by lifting up mental health awareness and we will need to have that as a focus for the foreseeable future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I remind the House of my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate to discuss mental health resilience in military training.

The Government are committed to maintaining and improving the mental health of members of our armed forces. According to research, the armed forces generally show similar rates of common mental health disorders to the civilian population. Deployment on operations does not in itself appear to be a factor in mental health problems overall, although exposure to combat is associated with an increased risk of more serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

We are extremely grateful to our armed forces for the work that they do. It is our duty in return to provide care and treatment for them if they become ill. Evidence shows that most mental health disorders can be successfully treated and we have a range of trained medical personnel and facilities to do that, but it is clearly much better to provide our people with the knowledge, training and support that will enable them to build up both their physical and mental resilience before they deploy on operations.

It is important to look at health and wellbeing together, because overall they involve both the mind and the body. Mental wellbeing is very much enhanced by feelings of self-esteem and people having belief in their ability to do the things that they want to do. Good relationships—confidence in leaders and trust in friends and colleagues—are also vital. Good mental health does not mean never experiencing difficult feelings or situations, but it does mean having the strength and resilience to cope when things become difficult.

To that extent, building resilience is one of the principles that underlies all our training programmes, which are designed to be robust, challenging and realistic enough to prepare our people to carry out their operational roles effectively and efficiently, under inspirational and caring leadership. The Defence Academy is a world leader in the provision of military training. It has its own stress and resilience training centre, which is responsible for managing stress and resilience training and educational requirements within the armed forces. Its aim is to build psychological resilience in defence personnel and ensure that compatible training is delivered across the three services.

The stress and residence training centre has developed an all-inclusive stress and resilience training package called “START taking control”. Its purpose is to assist students in gaining the knowledge and practical skills to manage everyday experiences of mild to moderate stress and build psychological reliance to prepare them better to meet the physical, emotional and psychological challenges in defence.

In addition to the stresses encountered in everyday life, service personnel are often required to undertake extremely hazardous duties, which potentially expose them to traumatic and life-threatening situations, risking both physical and psychological damage. Psychological resilience is considered to be an essential component of military fitness. Personnel are taught how to spot potential indicators of a problem both in themselves and in their colleagues such as changed behaviour patterns, isolation and increased use of alcohol.

In particular, concerted efforts are being made to de-stigmatise the issues around mental health and to promote awareness of the professional care and support available. Stigma is one of the biggest obstacles facing those with a mental illness. It prevents many people from seeking help, which results in a worsening of the symptoms to a point where significant damage can be caused to their health, wellbeing and relationships. In many ways, the stigma associated with mental illness can be more disabling than the condition itself. The Army has been running a major campaign called “Don’t bottle it up”, which aims to break down stigma and encourage personnel to seek help earlier as well as signposting the support and treatment available.

A specially designed project known as mental health first aid has been developed for the armed forces community, which provides the basis for increased mental health resilience among serving personnel and their families. It trains individuals to recognise the signs of problems and offer non-judgmental listening as well as offering help in accessing professional assistance. By making all personnel aware of the services available and by making clear to them that no stigma will be attached to them owing to their illness, we hope to encourage them to seek help as soon as they feel that they might have a problem. That will enable us to provide rapid diagnosis followed by appropriate and effective treatment.

One programme that has proved to be successful, both in the operational environment and back in the UK, is TRiM, which stands for trauma risk management. It is a method of peer-group assessment, mentoring and support for use in the aftermath of traumatic events. Trained TRiM practitioners are usually non-medical staff who are given the skills to enable them to identify those who might have been affected by traumatic events. That enables people’s comrades and leaders to provide them with appropriate support and refer them for specialist help if necessary. A key element of TRiM is that it aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems and its roll-out across the services has certainly made people more aware of the importance of nurturing the mental wellbeing of those on deployment.

Personnel returning from operations normally go through a process known as decompression. Indeed, I experienced it on my return from Afghanistan. It consists of a short period—usually a couple of days—between leaving the operational theatre and return to the UK in which personnel can begin to unwind mentally and physically and talk to their colleagues and superiors about their experiences. That can give them an opportunity to discuss any issues of concern about their mental health and those of their colleagues, which can be followed up as appropriate. People are also provided with a stress brief, which aims to highlight normal reactions to traumatic events and give some strategies to help with readjustment. They are also given advice about risk-taking behaviours and the homecoming experience in general.

To sum up, the overall aim of those training, educational and support packages is to ensure that our personnel are ready both mentally and physically to carry out their duties, however potentially hazardous and traumatic they may be. Our personnel can be confident that any concerns will be treated seriously and sensitively and that a high quality of medical treatment will be provided if required.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the family and the support we should offer service families so that they in turn can support service personnel. She may be aware that, over the next two years, we will allocate £4 million of covenant funding to support families in stress, which is a major step forward. Equally, she will be aware that, at the end of last year, we launched our family strategy, which is specifically designed to begin to address some of the concerns that families face, while they are spouses of serving personnel, in an effort to support them so that they in turn can support members of our armed forces.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing the debate. We are proud of the work that we have done to date, but we are equally mindful that much more work needs to be done in the future. I assure her and hon. Members across the House that this subject is at the forefront of my mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Motability Car Scheme

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to be able to bring this motion forward and to have secured the debate, but—

Apologies. I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Motability car scheme.

I am glad to bring the motion before the House today, but in truth it would be much better if this topic did not require consideration at all. The origins of this stem back to the previous Parliament and the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment in April 2013. At the time, some of the changes were dressed up as fairness and giving people more control, but there is no doubt that there were concerns that DLA self-assessment, the automatic qualification process and, sometimes, the fact that there was no follow-up could possibly be abused.

That was the thought process that definitely drove the Tory ideology, and that has overshadowed how best to manage the system to help people with disabilities. Throw in a projected £2.5 billion saving and the fact that an estimated 600,000 fewer people would end up on PIP compared with DLA and we can see that this was just another assault on the disadvantaged. For me, the key change in assessing enhanced mobility was the reduction in the distance of the walking assessment from 50 metres down to 20 metres. Imagine it: somebody can go into an assessment centre and sit down and possibly be at risk of already meeting the walking test.

The enhanced rate is critical. The Motability scheme allows those receiving the highest rate of DLA or PIP to lease a suitable adapted vehicle, powered wheelchair or mobility scooter, in return for their weekly award. The Motability scheme is particularly important for enabling disabled people to be independent and to manage their condition. It allows users to participate in social activities and do the things that many of us take for granted, such as being able to continue to care for their children.

If we look back at the history, the Motability scheme was founded in 1977. It started out with a single car and has grown into a scheme that operates on a completely UK-wide basis, with nearly 650,000 users at present, which includes 15,000 using electric scooters and wheelchairs. It is a massively respected scheme, it is a charitable body and it has been praised by the National Audit Office for providing good value for money.

The Motability scheme plays a vital role for many disabled people across the country. Restricting access to Motability vehicles for those who have relied on them will undoubtedly increase the isolation that many disabled people feel.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. As he develops his speech, will he reflect on the particularly bad impact that the loss of Motability vehicles has had on people living in rural areas, to the extent that when constituents are waiting for an appeal to a tribunal decision, they cannot get to the meetings because there is no alternative transport? There is no public transport and they do not have a vehicle any more.

That is a fine intervention, and I agree with the point the hon. Gentleman makes. I was not going to focus particularly on rural issues, but he is absolutely right. I live in a rural area and I know that, particularly in England and Wales, the cuts to public transport and dial-a-bus services have compounded the problem of people being unable to manage when they lose their Motability vehicle, so I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. My constituent, Claire Ross, is 15 years old. She lives in a rural area and has a brain tumour, meaning that she becomes tired easily. Her Motability vehicle was used to take her to school and to hospital appointments. A recent reassessment removed the component from Claire and now the vehicle sits, unable to be used, at her parents’ house. Does my hon. Friend share my concern for Claire now that the Motability component has been taken away from her, and does he agree that it is shameful of the Government not to respond to my numerous representations on her behalf?

I wholeheartedly agree, and I find it incredible that nobody has responded following my hon. Friend’s inquiries. I think most hon. Members here will have very similar examples from their constituencies, which highlights how unfair the measures are. I will come back to that, which is something the Government really need to take stock of. They should be working tirelessly to support the independence and inclusion of disabled people, using all means possible through Government channels.

An example of the concerns we have heard is highlighted in a briefing paper from Muscular Dystrophy UK. Trailblazers, which comes under the umbrella of that organisation, is a group of young disabled campaigners aiming to tackle the social issues affecting young disabled people, such as their access to higher education, employment, and social and leisure opportunities. These are young people who fully understand the difficulties they face in life. They are campaigning to raise awareness of this issue and to support others. They also know the possible consequences of the new PIP assessment.

One trailblazer commented:

“I suffer from muscular dystrophy and I am still able to walk, although it is difficult. I frequently push myself to live my life as much as I can, despite fatigue and anxiety that comes with it. I am absolutely terrified that one day, be it tomorrow or in a year, I will receive the letter that tells me I need to be reassessed for PIP. As someone who can stand and does not ‘look’ disabled at times, I believe I will have no chance of retaining my car.”

They added:

“If I don’t have my car, I simply would not go out.”

This is a young person who knows how independent they have become since being able to access a car through the Motability scheme. Imagine being aware of the life transformation that they went through and the absolute dread of being forced to return to the pre-car state.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for bringing this extremely important debate to the Chamber today. Does he agree that, given the impact on people’s mental health, including depression and anxiety—at some points, due to social exclusion—as well as the fact that people feel very isolated and the possible risk of suicide, we are at risk of creating an increased call on the NHS through co-morbid mental health problems, as well as physical disability in this case?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s expertise and agree with her point, which touches on what I was saying. In some cases, it is not even about the stress of losing the Motability vehicle; it is about the stress and panic about getting to that stage, so we are talking about an ongoing mental condition.

On the point about increased cost, I would like to make the Chamber aware of my constituent, Lorna George. She lost her higher rate mobility component of DLA when she transferred to PIP and, as a result, lost her vehicle. Because she is in full-time employment, she was entitled to the Access to Work scheme, which meant that she received £150 a week from the public purse to get to and from work, as a result of losing her DLA mobility component of £54 a week. How is that saving anybody money?

That was another fine intervention. These examples are what make it real for everybody, and I will touch on what I think is the madness of the financials later.

To be clear, we have heard some personal examples, but the statistics back up the concerns that I highlighted from the young person with muscular dystrophy. To date, of the 31,200 people on the Motability scheme via the higher rate DLA who have subsequently been reassessed for PIP, some 14,000 have lost the higher PIP mobility rate and, therefore, their car as well.

Going back to the stress and trauma of losing a car, we are lucky that Motability takes its duties seriously and goes above and beyond to support people in that position. It supports them with financial assistance—for example, through a transitional lump sum that might aid in the purchase of a car. Motability also provides advice packs for customers and advises on insurance, maintenance, adaptation services and even local transport options. We should be clear that Motability should not be filling in these gaps for people who are effectively left stranded.

It is no wonder that 91% of those who left the scheme were satisfied with the support that they had received from Motability. I commend the organisation, but that does not mask the fact that we are still only at the early stages of the PIP reassessment, with the reality that nearly one in two people lose their higher mobility access. I put this to the Minister: are we really to believe that almost half the people on enhanced DLA either exaggerated or fabricated their conditions to access Motability or, at best, suddenly no longer need that support?

In Scotland, 70,000 people are using the Motability scheme, so, using statistical analysis, we know that up to 31,500 people could lose out—I accept that some people beyond working age will not be reassessed. If we take that down to the level of my constituency, 1,500 people are using the Motability scheme at present, so up to 670 people are possibly at risk.

I will give the example of one of my constituents. Lynne Paton has written to me to say:

“I am due a new car in July. I haven’t been assessed for 2 years. I have the higher rate at present and I have”

had it

“since my 2 strokes. I have been in the hospital 3 times lately with chest infections. I am now struggling to get up and down my stairs because of the difficulties trying to get a breath. I am now using my electric Scooter again because I now can’t walk very far because of my breathing. The car we have just now was picked because the scooter can go in the car. I don’t know if I will get assessed again in the near future but if we were to lose the car I wouldn’t be able to get out and about. Also John is due to retire so our income will drop and we won’t be able to buy a new car suitable…I hope you can fight for people like me who need their cars. I know you will do your best for disabled people”.

That should be a clear case. If Lynne goes to be reassessed, there should not be a problem, but we all know that there are problems. She could go through a wee bout of better health and suddenly be deemed not to meet the requirements for the higher mobility rate. I should also say that I know Lynne as a fantastic community volunteer, who understandably has had to scale back recently, but with what she has put into the community over the years, there is no way she should have this worry hanging over her head. I dread having to go back to her and say, “You know what? I raised this in a debate at Westminster, but as usual the Government didn’t listen.”

I have already touched on the fact that this is not about giving disabled people greater flexibility and control over their budgets and lifestyle choices; it is part of the austerity agenda. The original suggested saving of £2.5 billion by 2018 confirms that, but it is also worth noting that the Government were willing to give assessment contracts worth some half a billion pounds to be able to get those savings. That is not value for money, and by the way, it can be no coincidence that the previous Minister for the disabled was one of the few Tories who lost their seat last year.

When it comes to the overall PIP strategy, the money has been so well spent and the strategy so well managed that the timescales have been a disaster, with the High Court ruling in June 2015 that the delays were unacceptable and unlawful. At the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted that

“costings associated with structural changes to the welfare system…are subject to even greater uncertainty.”

It highlighted that its previous “Welfare trends report” had

“noted that our latest forecasts suggested higher than expected success rates for new claims to PIP across the forecast, which had in effect reduced the savings originally expected for this reform”.

It is not achieving the savings that were anticipated and, worryingly, with 45% of people who have been reassessed losing access to the Motability scheme, we have to wonder what the real purpose of the original target was. Let us consider the irony of the Tories’ manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap and support disabled people. Perhaps it is just me, but I simply cannot connect the dots. How does the Conservative party strip the freedom that a Motability vehicle brings to a disabled person from them and still aim to break down the barriers to work?

The Multiple Sclerosis Society, for example, has said that the Motability scheme can have positive impacts in terms of employment for users and their families. It claims that use of a Motability vehicle has enabled many of its members to gain employment, enabling disabled people to have a much more rounded, independent life. The recent Mencap review, “Halving The Gap?”, proved that the Tory policies are driving disabled people away from work rather than into work. That is why access to Motability vehicles is so important.

On a more positive note, the disability charity Scope undertook a report to assess the economic impact of getting more disabled people into employment, which was published in April 2015. It found that the impact on the economy of a rise in the disability employment rate would be significant. Indeed, a 10 percentage point rise would result in a £12 billion gain for the Exchequer by 2030. When we hear Tories in the main Chamber announcing that unemployment in their constituency is down by 50%, we should compare and contrast those statistics with the benefits of small increases in the employment rate for disabled adults. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to express concern that a lack of access to the Motability scheme will prevent disabled people from getting to work. It is clear that the Government should focus on that, rather than on savings.

Not content with one failure, the Government also have a proposal to cut the employment and support allowance work-related activity group payment, taking £30 of benefit a week from those in need and taking sick people even further away from getting back into work.

We in the Scottish National party are committed to supporting disabled people, which means opposing the regressive and punitive measures deployed by the Tories, not just for those eligible for DLA or PIP, but for the disabled people who rely on ESA and have been subjected to the unfair and failing work capability assessments. The SNP in Scotland are doing all we can, within the resources and powers that we have, to help disabled people, who are disproportionately affected by welfare reform. New powers over disability benefits in the Scotland Bill will provide opportunities to develop different policies for Scotland. In the Scottish Government, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, wants policies that are

“fairer and ensure people are treated with dignity and respect.”

We must remember that this comes against the backdrop of the UK trying to cut the Scottish budget through the fiscal framework agreement and the fact that, due to the Tory austerity agenda and ideological cuts, the Scottish Government are currently spending £104 million to mitigate the worst aspects of welfare reform.

It is my contention that the Government should think again. All of us here, as lawmakers, owe it to those we represent to protect the most disadvantaged. The SNP has already demonstrated our commitment in that regard and will do so again with new powers over disability benefits, but I repeat: I urge the UK Government to think again.

Order. The debate finishes at 5.30 pm. I will start to call the Front Benchers at eight minutes past 5, with five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for Labour, 10 minutes for the Minister and two minutes for Alan Brown to sum up at the end. There are six hon. Members standing. We have just less than 20 minutes. I am a bear of little brain, but I reckon that is three and a half minutes each, so I will impose that time limit, starting with Ben Howlett.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this debate on a subject that I care about a great deal. I should declare an interest, in that my mother has benefited from a Motability vehicle for more than 10 years.

I want to make it clear that I agree with the Government about ensuring that everyone who needs a Motability vehicle should have access to one. However, for decades, the system has not been reformed and it must be changed in a fair and cost-effective way if we are to ensure its future effectiveness. To ensure that the most vulnerable receive the support that they need, those who no longer have a medical condition need to be told that reform must occur to ensure the future viability of the system. That is only fair to people such as my mother who really depend on the Motability scheme.

Before I move on to my substantive points about improvements to data sharing between the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and the NHS, I would like to seek assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister that the high volume of appeals that are currently being seen are constantly being reviewed. Although I understand that new systems take a while to embed, as we know from what happened when the previous Labour Government introduced the Atos system to handle work capability assessments, these things should be constantly reviewed.

Ever since I began to work alongside the NHS eight years ago, the UK has had a significant problem with data. Although I freely admit that it is not the most interesting subject in the world, it certainly is the most important when it comes to producing evidence-based policy. While I sadly do not have time to discuss the problems with evidence-based data collection and information governance, I want to focus for the last couple of minutes on the need for improved data sharing. All too often constituents come to my surgeries and ask why it is so complicated in today’s digital age to ensure that patient information is shared with the Department for Work and Pensions.

I will not give way because I have very limited time.

Sharing information would make a huge difference to all disabled people as well as people on the Motability scheme. It would save so much time and money if there were one joined-up system to enable a GP to identify a disability and to refer that person directly to a DWP contact in a joined-up and efficient way. Currently, it takes two sets of paperwork and a vast amount of time and communication, which can only be described as lacklustre at best. I completely back the Government in getting this sorted.

For too long, the most vulnerable have been let down. If there were a joined-up system, the GP could notify the DWP quite effectively if someone was no longer in need of a Motability vehicle. The efficiency savings that would be made could be driven into increasing support for those who desperately need it and would also help disabled people feel that the process is much more joined up when they probably need as smooth a process as possible to get through those tough experiences.

How can the Government achieve this? The Government have to identify weaknesses in the law that prevent data sharing between the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. As the Government look to produce a Green Paper on the impact of welfare on health and wellbeing, it is important for the DWP to formalise discussions with the Department of Health and consider the benefits of direct and indirect data sharing. Although I appreciate the sensitivities around data protection, charities are screaming out for changes and we should be doing everything that we can to help facilitate that.

I specifically ask for the Minister to work with his counterpart in the Department of Health to look into the Health and Social Care Act 2012 to understand why there is a problem with data sharing. Under that Act, the law allows personal data to be shared between those offering care directly to patients, but it protects patients’ confidentiality when data about them are used for other purposes. While I agree that these secondary uses of data are essential if we are to run a safe, efficient and equitable health service, we should consider new legislation that will further enable swift and effective data sharing between the NHS and the DWP.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this important debate.

I want to tell hon. Members about Lisa, who I recently met in my constituency. After a stroke left Lisa paralysed on one side of her body, she was thrown a lifeline and received a Motability car. For the past 10 years, the specialist car has helped keep her independent and active, meaning that she was able to remain motivated, to fulfil her ambitions and to go to university to study graphic design. Now, after a decade of working hard to maintain her freedom despite the hand she was dealt and the severity of her condition, her car has been torn away from her by the Government. Why did the Government sever her vital lifeline? Because Lisa was two points short under the new disability benefit rules, which are seeing disability living allowance replaced by the personal independence payment. Although she was awarded the enhanced rate of the care component of PIP, she was awarded only the standard rate of the mobility component. When I visited her, Lisa had trouble even walking to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

We have heard anecdotally in the media, as well as in this Chamber, about other vulnerable people denied the enhanced rate of the mobility component under PIP—those affected by spina bifida, those who have had a leg amputated and those who struggle to walk a few metres. Whether those cases are the exception or the rule, it is unacceptable. If such people are not qualifying, it has to be accepted that either there is a problem with the criteria for the enhanced rate of the mobility component or the assessments are not being carried out appropriately.

Lisa’s mother described how it took almost eight hours to fill in the 40-page benefit claim, only to be told that Lisa was two points short. Lisa told me that she does not feel physically able or safe to use the bus. Despite having a decent support network and people who care about her, she worries that now she will be trapped at home.

The Government keep telling us that it is possible to appeal if one disagrees with their assessment. Well, I would appreciate some information from the Minister about the proportion of those appeals that are successful. I fear that for those undergoing that process, the appeals will all too often seem to be little more than kangaroo courts. Furthermore, the length of the appeals process is such that too many disabled people are forced to return their vehicles before the outcome of their appeal.

The Minister has assured us that the appeals process

“enables disputes to be addressed more quickly”—[Official Report, 2 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 712.]

However, in answer to a written question recently, he stated:

“The Department does not routinely collect information on the numbers of people who have had to return a Motability vehicle nor on whether they were successful on appeal.”

It appears that the Government really do not know about the impact of their policies, so let me tell them a little bit about what we know. In March last year, Motability told us that more than 100 disabled people every week are losing their Motability vehicles. We have now heard that, of those previously on the higher rate of DLA who have so far been reassessed for PIP, almost half—almost 14,000 people so far—have lost their car. Motability has estimated that if three out of every eight of their customers lose their eligibility for a Motability vehicle, the number forced to hand them back could reach 135,000. That estimate looks accurate, if not a little low. Figures show that 45% of those reassessed so far did not secure the enhanced rate of the mobility component under PIP.

It is fair to conclude that we are facing a hidden crisis. For Lisa and for all others across the country like her, I hope that the Minister will—to use a well-known, worn phrase—pause the policy and think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

Everybody in this room knows that the removal of the Motability vehicles will cause huge difficulties and distress for those who currently benefit from this scheme. With PIP replacing DLA, we know that the eligibility criteria will increase. It is estimated that the Government expect to save £2 billion. How much will this really cost? It will cost the taxpayer more than it will ever save. What will it cost in social isolation? There is a clear correlation between social isolation and loneliness and poor health. Even the Prime Minister has recognised that. What cost in terms of social justice? DWP figures suggest that the number who will lose out could be in the region of 428,000 people. Are we really to assume that all of those people do not really face challenges with their mobility?

Those currently in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of DLA face real and pressing challenges to their mobility every single day. Are these the people the Government wish to remove support from and on whose backs the Government wish to balance the books? We have all heard that those with disabilities must be given all the support they need to access the jobs market. I participated in a debate on that issue in this very room. How will removing the Motability vehicle scheme from those who rely upon it help people to access the jobs market more readily and easily?

Disabled members of our community who are able to work want to do so. Again, even the Prime Minister has recognised that. However, they must be supported into employment. Research has shown that a rise in the employment of disabled people would give significant economic benefit to the whole UK, but this is not just an economic argument and nor should it be. It is an argument, ultimately, about social justice. If we do not address the barriers to employment that exist for disabled people—and they do exist and are very real—we are simply turning our back on whole swathes of people in our communities, the contributions they can make, the skills they have, and the fulfilment that work can offer them.

Many disabled people already work and changing the criteria for the Motability scheme could actually lock disabled people currently in work out of the jobs market. Furthermore, it could slam the door of the jobs market in the face of those who currently qualify for the scheme and are actively looking for work. This cannot be the outcome the Government seek. Surely they must be alive to those dangers?

With PIP replacing DLA, eligibility will change, with the reduction of employment and support allowance by £30 a week for those in the work-related activity group. We now also have the widely discredited work capability assessments. There is a danger that this Government are rapidly showing themselves to be no friend of those who need support due to illness or disability. I urge the Minister to stand up for people who are disabled and to reflect not on how much money it will save the taxpayers, but on how much it will ultimately cost.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing the debate. I am here today to raise the issue of my constituent Cathy Walsh, though her case is representative of many others. She suffers from severe generalised dystonia, a condition that results in uncontrolled spasms, affecting her limbs and speech. She has been disabled since birth and has tremendous difficulty moving unaided. With a seriously disabling disability, she has been on disability living allowance for 23 years. On Friday 18 December, Ms Walsh was notified that her application for the advanced-rate mobility component of PIP had been turned down, and she was distraught—her car, which had been invaluable in allowing her to lead an independent life, would be taken from her. That life-changing decision was based on one assessment conducted over an hour. It took the Atos consultant longer to write the report than it took to undertake the assessment. Ms Walsh’s neurological consultant has

“strong reservations about the value of this assessment.”

I agree. Atos said that Ms Walsh was able to walk between 50 and 200 metres, but her consultant has

“no idea how ATOS’ assessment could have been made, it is clearly incorrect… At best she can walk up to 20 metres and on a bad day significantly less.”

On those terms, it is obvious that Ms Walsh has a very strong case to qualify for the higher-rate mobility allowance. Instead, she has had to go down the extremely stressful route of a mandatory reconsideration and an appeal to a tribunal, which is making her condition worse. Her independence has been severely curtailed, at least until the tribunal decision is known, which could be months away.

Ms Walsh will have to rely on others even to help her cash the £2,000 transitional support cheque from Motability, as she cannot get to the bank on her own. That raises another issue: why cannot this money be transferred directly into her account? Even when the £2,000 has been deposited, Ms Walsh will be in a state of financial limbo. If she wins her appeal but decides to keep the money, she would not be able to return to the Motability scheme for six months.

Let us assume that Ms Walsh wins her case and wants to return to the scheme as quickly as possible, which she is keen to do. She would then have to return most of the £2,000. I do not disagree with that in principle. However, if the tribunal drags on for several months, Ms Walsh will inevitably need to use some, if not all, of the transitional payment to pay for other forms of assistance and transport. She would then be in debt while having to go through the process of reapplying for the scheme when her car should never have been taken from her in the first place. The Government say that what we have now is a “fairer assessment process.” Well, it does not feel fair to Ms Walsh. She is deeply distressed. I do not think it is fair; her friends do not think it is fair; and, more to the point, her consultant, who understands her condition as well as anyone, thinks it is very unfair. If her treatment is typical of the way in which thousands of other cases have been dealt with, the process has not been fair to them, either. The Government must be willing to conduct a thorough review of the process, which is not fit for purpose in its current state. I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to resolve these issues.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this important debate. I represent the neighbouring constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, which is not only a beautiful part of the world but is populated by many inspiring and talented people, such as Kayleigh Haggo.

Kayleigh is an exceptional young lady who, through hard work and dedication, has achieved much for someone only 17 years of age. She holds 13 world records and four national age group records and has a real chance of representing Britain in Tokyo in 2020. She was a Commonwealth games baton bearer in 2014, and she won three gold medals at the European Paralympic youth games.

Members are probably wondering what that has to do with today’s topic. Well, Kayleigh has a form of cerebral palsy that affects her balance and motor skills, and she is largely wheelchair-bound, which makes her achievements all the more incredible. Although she is still at school, she keeps up a strict training regime that is only possible because of the mobility car—driven by her mum—that she receives as part of her disability living allowance. The car has allowed her to become one of the country’s most promising young disabled athletes, and it is only through her tough training that she is able to walk as far as 20 metres.

Last July, Kayleigh was moved from disability living allowance on to PIP and was informed that she was no longer considered disabled enough. Without her mobility allowance, she would not be able to benefit from her participation in sport. It took a 10,000-signature petition and intense media interest before the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to reverse its decision on Kayleigh’s entitlement to a mobility car. Yes, she can walk 20 metres, but she cannot walk 50 metres. Yes, she has the mental capacity to plan and follow a journey, but she does not have the physical capacity to undertake that journey—she is physically unable to navigate public transport. The withdrawal of her mobility car would have seen Kayleigh’s Paralympic dreams in tatters. It would also have destroyed her dreams of going to university and her hopes of a meaningful career. Where is the benefit to the state of withdrawing that support and leaving people such as Kayleigh confined to their homes, with resultant impacts on their health, their employment prospects and their ability to contribute to the community?

From the outset, the Government made it clear that the aim of PIP was to make savings. Of those previously on higher-rate DLA, more than 30,000 have been reassessed for PIP, and of those 50% have kept their car. PIP should ensure a level of independence for disabled people, and Kayleigh is just one example of many constituents who have contacted me after having their mobility car removed and their independence shattered. I am proud to represent people such as Kayleigh, and the Government should be ashamed of what they are doing to people just like her.

I thank the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this debate and for giving me the opportunity to have a quick “round the office” look at some of the anomalies affecting people as they transfer to PIP and its higher-rate mobility component.

I have already spoken about Ms George, who was in work and lost her higher-rate mobility payment only now to receive £150 a week from the Access to Work programme—tripling the amount of money paid to help her mobility, yet causing greater problems for her 13-year-old daughter, who is her main carer and now has to do even more tasks for her mother.

Looking at Ms George’s case for this debate allowed me to follow on to the case of Mr Abrahams, who is also in full-time employment. He suffers from spina bifida and cannot walk more than 20 yards. He had a specially adapted car with hand controls, which is about to be removed on Tuesday, so it would be great if the Minister could help us while Mr Abrahams’ appeal is being considered, as he lost his mandatory reconsideration. We are going to get him to apply to the Access to Work programme, so he will probably cost the Government a lot more money than if he had just retained his higher-rate mobility payment.

Patrina Ross suffered a stroke in 2014 and was awarded the lower-rate care component and higher-rate mobility component of DLA. When she was reassessed for PIP, the rates were swapped, so she got higher-rate care and lower-rate mobility. Her car was taken away, but she was paid £25 a week more. She does not want more money; she wants the adapted car.

Daisy Tadros was shifted from DLA to PIP without being informed. The first she knew of the transfer was when she got a letter from Motability saying that her car was going to be taken away. There had been no assessment of her case, yet there is a date for the removal of her car. We discovered that the Atos database does not work with the DWP database, so when Motability was trying to find out the status of Ms Tadros’ claim for PIP, the DWP could not tell Motability her status because the DWP does not have a system that works with Atos’s system. The only way the DWP, Motability and Atos could talk to one another was through the involvement of Ross in my office. He spoke to each of them so that they could co-ordinate and consult each other. The hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) spoke about swapping information and access to information, which is clearly a problem within the system. The Minister might find that lots of people who are entitled to PIP but who are not getting it because of administrative error will have their car taken away without their ever getting as far as Atos or a decision.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this important debate. Time does not allow me to reflect on all the speeches, but I thank everyone who has spoken so passionately about the casework they have come across showing that people have been disadvantaged by the changes. I hope the Minister has listened and will respond to what has been said this afternoon.

Restricting access to mobility vehicles will increase the institutionalisation and isolation of disabled people, when we should be focusing on promoting their integration and inclusion in communities. The Scottish National party is extremely concerned that taking transport away from disabled people will make it extremely difficult for them to travel to and from work. The Government have pledged to halve disability unemployment, but their policies for disabled people fundamentally fly in the face of that aim. The Motability scheme provided independence for disabled people and helped them to live as normal a life as possible. As has been said, almost 14,000 disabled people’s specialist cars have already been taken away from them following reassessment. According to Motability’s 2014-15 annual report, 70,000 people in Scotland use the service. If the current level of loss continues, 31,500 people in Scotland will no longer be able to access this vital scheme, which should shame us all.

We know that we are facing these challenges because of the Tory obsession with reforming welfare. People are losing their Motability vehicles because the eligibility criteria in PIP assessments are different from the eligibility criteria for DLA, as many hon. Members have said. The Government should listen to those who have pointed out the consequences of the changes. For example, the MS Society has condemned them, stating that the Motability scheme plays a vital role for many people with multiple sclerosis. They conducted a survey of MS sufferers and found that the Motability scheme was particularly important to sufferers, enabling them to manage their condition and live more independently, which is something that we should all support. It also helped users participate in family and social activities.

Let us look at a typical case of someone who is being reassessed. Mrs C has been in receipt of DLA since 2014, after being hospitalised for five months, and she still has serious health problems. She got her Motability car in October 2014. As DLA is being phased out, she was asked to claim PIP instead. She did so, and received a decision letter dated 1 January 2016, which told her that her entitlement to DLA would end on 26 January. It also told her that, although she qualified for the daily living component at the enhanced rate, she scored only eight points for the mobility component, four less than the number required for the enhanced rate. Because her award does not include the enhanced rate mobility component, she will no longer be eligible for a Motability car. The letter told her that she had until 1 February to ask for a reconsideration of the decision.

She submitted a letter asking for reconsideration on 20 January, and on following up, she was told that it could take up to nine weeks—until 21 March—for a decision to be made. She had been told that she needed to return the car by 16 February: that is, nearly five weeks before she was likely to know the result of the reconsideration. Mrs C did not know how she was supposed to bridge that five-week gap and was unable to make any proper plans to meet her transport needs beyond 16 February. Should she buy a wee cheap car for just a few weeks? Did she need to find the money to replace her Motability car? Can the rules be changed so that Motability vehicles remain with the claimant pending their appeal? That would be the right thing for the Government to do.

The SNP in Scotland is doing all that we can to help disabled people, who are disproportionately affected by welfare reform. New powers over disability benefits in the Scotland Bill will provide opportunities to develop different policies for Scotland that are fairer and ensure that people are treated with the dignity and respect that are lacking from this Government.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this important debate, and I welcome to his place the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People. We have heard passionate speeches from many Members here about the devastating impact of the changes to mobility criteria on the lives of many people who are already struggling with everyday tasks. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate.

The purpose of Motability is to help those who would otherwise be unable to afford full mobility. As many hon. Members have outlined, the recent change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment for people of working age has had various damaging effects on those with disabilities.

Is my hon. Friend aware of any action taken by the Government to ensure that the most vulnerable people with disabilities are protected from being isolated in their communities if they lose their eligibility for mobility service under the changes from DLA to PIP? I do not know of any, and neither do many disability organisations, including Muscular Dystrophy UK.

Many Members have also raised that concern. I hope that the Minister will respond to it when he sums up.

Many speakers in this debate have given examples involving their constituents and told us of the devastating impact on their needs and self-esteem. Significant numbers of people who currently benefit from the higher rate DLA mobility component will fail to qualify for the enhanced rate mobility component in PIP. That is a deliberate outcome; it is what the Government said up front that they wanted to do. They wanted to cut those benefits. It is not based on need; it is based on making cuts and financial savings.

Many people have had the adapted vehicles that are vital to their lives and livelihoods withdrawn as a result. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for raising the need for joined-up services, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who told us the story of Lisa’s experience and the impact of the cuts on her life. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke passionately about the responsibilities of society and community, and the cuts to the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) spoke of her concerns about the quality of the PIP assessment and the conflict with medical experts who know the person’s needs. It is simply not fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) discussed Kayleigh’s experience and how only 50% of people get to keep the car after being assessed for PIP, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) discussed the devastating impact of the removal of the cars before an appeal has been heard.

The reality is that £24 billion in support will be removed from nearly 4 million disabled people by 2018. The policy will hinder disabled people, not help them. It is about removing support, not providing it, for people to live and work independently. The Extra Costs Commission has shown that disabled people face an average of £550 in extra living costs a month as a result of their disability, which is the main reason why disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. PIP is meant to help with those extra costs. The Government’s determination to maintain such a flawed rule is a direct assault on independent living for many, and it greatly hinders opportunities for those with disabilities to contribute to society.

Any one of us is likely at some time to be affected by disability, either directly or in caring for a disabled friend or relative. I know; my son is registered disabled. I urge the Government to rethink this policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown); he is clearly passionate about this important subject and gave a well thought-out and well delivered speech. I also pay tribute to all the other Members who contributed, particularly those who raised concerns on behalf of their constituents, showing that they will always champion the people they represent.

I will pick up on a few of the questions raised before going into my speech, which will cover the rest of them. There are a few points that are slightly away from the subject of Motability. First, we are committed to halving the disability employment gap. We all welcome the fact that, in the last 12 months, 152,000 more disabled people were in work, and the number is 292,000 over the last two years. There is still a long way to go, but we are making considerable progress in that area.

Numerous speakers mentioned a 50-metre rule becoming a 20-metre rule. There never was a 50-metre rule. It is not that if someone can walk 20 metres and 1 cm, they get no benefit, but if they can walk only 19 metres, then they get the full benefit; it is about moving safely to an acceptable standard repeatedly and in a reasonable time period. The rule is a bit of an urban myth, and I wanted to flag that up.

I will make some progress, and then we will see how much time is left.

On the wider issue of the money that we spend on disability support, we are increasing it year on year, all the way to 2020, compared with 2010. It is about £50 billion a year. We are also spending 14.6% more on supporting disabled people and people with long-term health conditions than those out of work for more than two years who are trying to find work.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned a specific case involving three Departments. I have never heard of that before, which suggests that it is an isolated case. We will talk further on that and try to get to the bottom of it. Also, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said that a decision was reversed on the back of a petition. That had no bearing on the reversal. I will discuss how the appeals process works later, but a petition would have no bearing on it. A decision is either right or it is wrong, and it will go through appeal. Individuals do not need to secure a petition. They may feel that it is an important part of their campaign, but it does not influence how things are done.

Motability is a fantastic scheme that was founded in 1977, following the introduction of mobility allowance in 1976. The scheme was founded by Lord Sterling, who I have had the great pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions, and the late Lord Goodman, with cross-party support that still continues today. Before Motability, there was the invalid carriage, which was a small, blue, motorised trike. It had a poor safety record and was unable to carry passengers, so it was of no use for the most severely disabled, who needed carers to drive them, or for those with children. As well as being unsociable, it was—frankly—awful-looking.

Today the Motability scheme helps about 600,000 people and they can choose from 2,600 vehicles. It comes as a “worry-free” package, with insurance and repairs included, and its average cost is more than 40% less than that of the equivalent commercial lease. I have had the pleasure of handing the keys to a Motability vehicle to one of my constituents, so, like many Members who have spoken today, I have seen what a difference the scheme makes to people’s everyday lives.

Most Motability users qualify through enhanced-rate personal independence payment mobility or higher-rate disability living allowance. A small number of people qualify through the armed forces independence payment and the war pensioners’ mobility supplement schemes, which are run by the Ministry of Defence.

DLA was inconsistent, subjective and out of step with the needs of a 21st century welfare system. The reality was that more than 70% of people on DLA had received a lifetime award, yet the conditions of one in three people on DLA significantly changed every year. Because people were on lifetime awards, time and time again those people who might not have been on the highest rate and whose conditions had worsened were not being reassessed, and so were missing out on benefits. It is no surprise that under PIP the percentage of those people who qualify for the highest rate of benefit is about 22.5%, whereas under DLA the figure was only 16%. Therefore, it is wrong to try to convey the impression that DLA was the utopian benefit; there was widespread support for its reform.

There are still things that need to be done and those things are part of our ongoing work. PIP is designed to determine awards consistently and objectively, with most people having a face-to-face consultation with an independent health professional to help them to build their case. Members should remember that the assessors are not awarding benefit; that is done by us in the Department and we set the rules and the levels of benefit. The assessors are there to help people to build their cases. So, rather than being presented under DLA with a complex 50-page self-assessment form, which many people could not do justice to, PIP is there. I have sat through PIP assessments and I have seen how the assessors help to support people, particularly when individuals have a mental health condition or a learning disability and therefore need to be guided through the process, to ensure that their case is as strong as possible.

The Government are committed to delivering PIP in a safe and secure way. Full roll-out of PIP started in July in a controlled way, allowing us to test and improve the service before scaling it up. From October, and in line with previously published plans, we began the full national roll-out of PIP. I look at the statistics twice a week. We control PIP and it has been in a settled state for about nine months now, which is widely reflected among all the stakeholder groups that I engage with. That process and the claimant journey will continue to improve. We continue to work with stakeholder groups and claimants, looking at ways to improve communication and the process. Nevertheless, it is widely recognised that the process is now in a settled state. Claims are now taking an average of 11 weeks from start to finish, which is much quicker than we anticipated when we produced PIP. As of October 2015, 611,000 are receiving PIP and new applicants to Motability are now split 50:50 between PIP and DLA.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) talked about mental health. Unlike DLA, PIP considers the impact of someone’s condition on them and not just what condition they have, and it treats all impairment types equally. So, 21% of PIP claimants with a mental health condition get an enhanced rate of mobility, compared with just 10% of such DLA claimants, and 68% of PIP claimants with a mental health condition get enhanced-rate daily living, compared with just 22% of such DLA claimants. That is an example of how the improved assessment process is getting people to the right level of benefit—the level they should be receiving. We considered mental health at every stage of the design process, and that awareness has been built in to the activities that are examined.

A number of hon. Members have highlighted individual cases. Without all the evidence, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a specific case. However, it is important to point something out. Many people have talked about a figure of 14,000 people; actually, there are now 24,000 more people using the Motability scheme than there were at the start of 2013, when we began introducing PIP. So, there are many, many more winners now, which is an important point to remember.

If people in individual cases, like those set out today, believe that an assessment is wrong, they have the option of a mandatory reconsideration, which looks at evidence afresh and allows for a late submission of evidence—

I am just tight on time, but if I can give way, I will. If people are still unsatisfied, they can go to an independent appeal that is separate from our Department. Those who lose an appeal, which is a relatively small proportion of the total number of claimants, have had that opportunity to present their case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) made a brilliant point when he said that in a utopian world, and former Governments have tried this, as a Department we would have all the relevant information at our fingertips. However, the “supercomputer” did not quite work, which is a shame as it could have helped hugely. A lot of the appeals that are won are not won because we made the wrong decision. We made the right decision on the evidence that was presented. However, when we send out the letter explaining why an applicant has not been unsuccessful and has not received what they believe they are entitled to, it sets out why. A lot of people then go, “Oh, actually, while I submitted my GP’s”—