House of Commons
Monday 9 May 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Food Banks: Work Coaches
Work coaches in Manchester have been working with a food bank since October last year, and feedback shows that this service helps to signpost support for people to move into work and navigate the welfare system. I am particularly keen for all jobcentres to explore how they work with local initiatives in their communities.
My local food bank, the West Cheshire Foodbank, has seen a 6% increase in usage in the past 12 months, including a disgraceful 13% more children coming to use the food bank over that period. Why has there been such an increase? Is that due to welfare benefit cuts, or does the Minister believe there is another explanation?
I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in his constituency, but the Trussell Trust recently found that there has been no overall increase in the use of food banks over the past 12 months. Indeed, the average price of food has fallen by 2.5% over the past 12 months, and average wages have gone up. We continue to spend more than £80 billion on working-age benefits to support those in need.
When I visited my food bank in Rugby I saw advisers who were meeting people’s individual needs and making a big effort to understand the circumstances of the people there, and to provide help, support and some direction. Is it not entirely right that that should happen?
My hon. Friend is right. I have been a trustee of a food bank, and I know a bit about how they work on the ground. Effective food banks are those that partner other organisations, such as Citizens Advice and Christians Against Poverty, to provide debt advice and other support to help tackle the underlying causes of why somebody might be at a point of crisis and dependency and need to use a food bank.
The Government take this issue very seriously, and one thing I am proud of is that we are spending more than £80 billion on working-age benefits, which is the mark of a decent, compassionate society. At the same time, we are working hard to improve the benefit system, precisely to help those who are most disadvantaged and at the greatest distance from the labour market, to give them a much better chance of leading fulfilling lives.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to Department for Work and Pensions questions for, I believe, the first time. I am sure he will make a huge impact. He certainly did when I worked with him—[Interruption.] I do not know what Labour Members are shouting about. Does the Secretary of State recall that when the Labour Government were in power, the existence of food banks was more or less covered up? Since the coalition Government, and now this Administration, came into office, we have advertised and helped food banks to exist and to help those most in need.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am not interested in playing politics. I am encouraging more than 700 jobcentres around the UK to explore fully how they work in partnership with local community initiatives, so that the third sector, working with work coaches, can provide the best possible support and advice to those who need it.
When the Trussell Trust published the figures last month showing record food bank demand over the past year, it stated:
“In some areas foodbanks report increased referrals due to delays and arrears in Universal Credit payments.”
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the introduction of universal credit does not drive food bank demand even higher?
That is one reason why we are using such a careful and controlled timetable for rolling out universal credit. I am much more interested in it being rolled out safely and in a secure way, so as to avoid the kinds of problems that we had under the previous Labour Government, when tax credits were blasted out and huge numbers of people received overpayments and were required to pay back thousands of pounds.
What is the average length of time that a benefit recipient makes use of a food bank? Are we asking individuals who have successfully moved away from food banks what advice they would like to have received when they attended them?
My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion, and peer support and advice is one of the most effective things that can be provided for those who are making that transition from worklessness into work. Using some of the experiences and insights of people who have had to rely on food banks is important.
Disabled People: Benefits
The Government set out on 20 July 2015 our assessment of the impact of the welfare policies in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, with similar assessments for previous changes. Spending to support people with disabilities and health conditions will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than in 2012.
Once universal credit has been fully implemented, severely disabled people with no adult to assist them will be entitled to about £58 less per week than under the current system. Is the Minister concerned that young carers are likely to face considerable additional burdens as a result of the loss of the severe disability premium from about 25,000 disabled single parents?
I did not quite pick up all the hon. Gentleman’s points, but a number of exemptions are in place. We continue to review the best way to protect vulnerable people. Universal credit will be a far better, far simpler and far more supportive benefit. It will help people.
The fact is that analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that £1.2 billion of support to disabled people is set to be cut in this Parliament. Is this what the Secretary of State means about having a new conversation with disabled people?
Let me challenge the hon. Gentleman back on that. In my area, spending on personal independence payment and disability living allowance will be £16.6 billion, as compared with £12.7 billion under the previous Government. Overall, we spend nearly £50 billion a year on benefits to support people with disabilities and health conditions. That is rising every year to 2020. Record amounts of money are being spent.
I recently met Nick Gregory and his team at Grimsby Jobcentre, which serves my constituency. They are doing excellent work in getting disabled people and those with learning difficulties back into work. Will the Minister enlighten us on what further initiatives are planned?
It is great to hear about the fantastic work in my hon. Friend’s constituency and I would like to meet him to discuss it further. We continue to upskill staff across the jobcentre network, increasing the number of disability advisers and making improvements to our Work programme and Work Choice programme.
The Children’s Society and Citizens Advice report that the families of about 100,000 disabled children, who currently receive support through DLA, are set to see that support halved under universal credit. That will have a real impact on their quality of life and longer-term life chances. With a new Secretary of State at the helm, Ministers have a chance to step back from the universal credit debacle. Will they look again at the impact on disabled children and look for fairer alternatives?
Again, I challenge the hon. Lady back on that. Any analysis of universal credit has to take into account the introduction of the national living wage, the extension of childcare, support for working parents and increases to the personal tax allowance. It is a simpler system. More generous childcare provision supports those who work for just a few hours and there will be a named contact. As we have previously set out, the PIP benefit system is far more generous than the old DLA system.
The research of reputable organisations simply does not bear that out. The reality is that disabled children are not the only ones who will lose out under universal credit. A devastating report by the Resolution Foundation published just last week found that, even with tax allowances and the increase in the minimum wage, under universal credit half a million working families will be significantly worse off. Disabled people, disabled children and low-income working families—are these really the people the Tories want to target to pay for austerity cuts and tax cuts for the rich?
We are doing more to support working households. The proportion of people in relative poverty who live in a family with someone who is disabled has fallen since 2010. There are a number of exemptions to all our benefit cap and freeze announcements, including for those on PIP, DLA, industrial injuries benefit, attendance allowance and employment and support allowance. Following further talks, we will include carer’s allowance and guardian’s allowance.
Does the Minister agree that Disability Confident events can be crucial in this regard? I am holding my own event in Mid Dorset and North Poole, to which the Minister would be more than welcome to attend. Will he join me in encouraging all Members from both sides of the House to get involved?
So far, 22 MPs have held Disability Confident events, including a joint event between a Conservative MP and a Labour MP—there’s a future coalition for you. Some 515 employers have registered an interest in Disability Confident, up 169 since 23 March. We are getting over 100 registrations a month. This is all about creating additional opportunities for disabled people who are looking for work.
When that was announced, a cumulative distributional analysis was also published that included the impacts of welfare spending, health spending, employment support and infrastructure investment, but let us not forget that only 1% of those on ESA were coming off that benefit—that was the case under our Government, the coalition Government and the former Labour Government. We have all tried to make changes but fundamental reform is needed, and that is what the Government will deliver.
Pension Schemes: Younger Workers
The Government continue to roll out the programme of automatic enrolment of all eligible workers into workplace pensions. Of those eligible workers, approximately half are under 40, and the largest increase in pension membership in 2015 was among those aged 22 to 29.
I welcome the progress the Minister has outlined. Now that we have announced the lifetime ISA, will he consider allowing people, especially young people, to be auto-enrolled into a lifetime ISA, rather than a pension, to give them a chance to save for a house and have improved financial resilience while they are young?
Will my hon. Friend agree that the new state pension provides clarity for younger workers, who will now know what to expect from their state pension when they reach pensionable age? Will that not have a positive impact on how much they choose to save in a private pension, because, with this clarity, will come understanding and an ability to plan?
I most certainly agree with my hon. Friend. The previous state pension system was extremely complex—it was difficult for people to know how much state pension they would get before they reached the state pension age—whereas the new state pension provides clarity from an early age as to what they can expect. In future, they will know that they can expect over £8,000 a year from the state—a solid foundation upon which to plan their own retirement savings.
Having spent time with charities and high street banks in Kingston, I have been surprised by the low level of financial literacy they report, even among people with secondary and tertiary education. What steps will the Government take to ensure that young people receive the high-quality information and guidance they need, particularly on pension planning, which often feels a long way off to younger people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very good question. He will be aware that last October the Department and the Pensions Regulator jointly launched a refreshed communications campaign entitled “Don’t Ignore the Workplace Pension”, to help build on and maintain the success of the previous campaign in raising awareness of automatic enrolment. The campaign includes digital and social media advertising, as well as television and radio, and has helped to raise awareness and guide people towards further information.
The younger generation are more likely to be self-employed, and 15% of the workforce are now self-employed, yet only one third are saving into a pension pot. Will the Minister look at the recommendations from the Federation of Small Businesses, which is calling for incentives and support for self-employed pension provision?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point about a particularly important sector of our economy, and we will certainly look at anything put forward. I emphasise that the Government are keen to ensure that people, including the self-employed, think about and prepare for a better future in terms of their pension.
Pension saving has been undermined by the new lifetime ISA, a new gimmick from the Chancellor, which will promote ISA saving from taxed income over pension saving from pre-tax income—in other words, it is a convenient tool to increase tax receipts today. No employee will be better off saving into an ISA than through workplace pension saving. The Association of British Insurers has forecast that someone saving 4% of an income of £25,000 in an ISA would be £53,000 worse off by age 60. Will the Minister tell the Chancellor to stop his gimmicks, stop this nonsense and get back to pension savings? We need no more con tricks from this Government.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes his usual hostile view to anything, without doing his research. Because of the auto-enrolment scheme pushed forward by this Government, there will be between £14 billion and £16 billion more in pension savings by 2020.
Long-term Youth Unemployment
Since 2010, long-term youth unemployment has halved, falling in the last year alone by 90,000. This Government are determined to support young people to improve their life chances and make sure that they do not slip into a life on benefits; rather, we will support them so that they are either earning or learning when they leave school.
Since March 2010, with the help of organisations such as N-Gaged, a training provider that recently helped me find my first apprentice, long-term youth unemployment has fallen in Kingswood by 60%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that companies such as N-Gaged deserve congratulations on getting young people back into work? What more can be done to help training providers?
That is a very good question, for which I thank my hon. Friend. He highlights the important role of training providers. They are the ones providing opportunities for young people to get their foot on the employment ladder and, importantly, to gain the skills and experience that employers are looking for. My message to him and to other employers is that I hope they will work in partnership with us so that we can encourage more of this activity.
A young autistic constituent of mine was asked by his DWP work adviser what he enjoyed doing. He replied that he enjoyed being a DJ as a hobby. His reward was to have a demand for repayment of £7,000 in benefits, having been accused of working when he did the DJing as a hobby. Is that the type of understanding approach for autistic people that this Minister likes to see from people working for the DWP?
First, I would be happy to look at the particular constituency case that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I would also say that our work coaches do a tremendous amount of work, supporting people in our jobcentres when it comes to employment and providing advice. I understand that he highlights a particular case, and as I have said, I would happy to look at the details of it, and perhaps give some guidance and advice to his constituent to support him in securing an employment outcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Our work coaches have a range of tools at their disposal, but they work with the individual and the young person to look at the skills they may not have but which they need to secure employment outcomes. Of course, we have extra adviser time to improve job-search skills, for example, as well as sector-based work academies and support to get people on to apprenticeship schemes. As I highlighted in an earlier answer, that means working with providers.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor regularly tell us that the EU is good for jobs and prosperity. Will the Minister tell us about youth unemployment rates in the rest of the EU and whether or not the Government can learn anything from those other EU countries?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He will be aware, as will all Members, of the ongoing economic turmoil in the eurozone and the double-digit unemployment, which is really where the European Union is right now. The employment challenges that they face serve as a warning to us. I am delighted to say that the UK is a bright spot when it comes to employment, which is thanks to the long-term economic plan of this Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way in which Members can help young people to find work is by hosting jobs and apprenticeships fairs? Does she look forward to the first-ever jobs and apprenticeships fairs in my Louth and Horncastle constituency on 2 September?
I commend my hon. Friend for hosting that jobs and apprenticeships fair. She is absolutely right: such fairs provide a gateway for young people who are looking for work. I know that many Members on both sides of the House have been doing exactly the same, but I encourage all Members to bring employers together in their constituencies, and to give young people the opportunities that they are seeking.
The number of workless households has reached its lowest level since records began, and the latest figures show that it has fallen by more than three quarters of a million since 2010. That demonstrates that not only is our approach to the economy working, but, crucially, more families are benefiting from the security and dignity that work brings.
Does the Secretary of State agree that too many people are suffering as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, which is preventing them from returning to work? Does he agree that helping those people to become drug and alcohol-free is essential, and will he visit the Burton Addiction Centre to see how we can transform lives, help people to become free of addiction, and get them back into work?
My hon. Friend has asked an excellent question. As he probably knows, I visited the BAC O’Connor Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme two weeks ago, and saw for myself a group of addicts in recovery who were making that difficult journey back into work. Many of those people are motivated by voluntary work placements and the goal of achieving a paid job when they finish. Their dream is getting into paid work, and the work of rehabilitation and recovery centres like BAC O’Connor Centre is crucial in that regard.
Does the Secretary of State accept that even in areas where unemployment levels are lower than they have been recently, high levels persist in some wards? Will he agree to work with Labour’s newly elected Welsh Assembly, and to note the position in the Flint Castle ward in my constituency? The level of unemployment there is still high, but Welsh Assembly policies have helped to reduce it over many years, and Labour was rewarded with a good victory last Thursday.
The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that I have a pretty good track record of working with the Welsh Government, whoever is in power. As for his important point about entrenched and persistent poverty, it is absolutely right for us to take account of that. We will shortly be launching a life chances strategy in which, for the very first time, the complex underlying factors that lead to persistent pockets of entrenched poverty in wards such as those to which he has referred will be genuinely addressed.
Older People: Employment
There are now 9.6 million workers aged 50 and over in the United Kingdom, an increase of 1.3 million over the last five years. The Government are, of course, doing much to support older workers. We have, for instance, removed the default retirement age, allowing people to choose when to retire.
Bearing in mind that the Leader of the Opposition and I both have a vested interest in the future of older workers, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that the number of unemployed people in Southend has fallen by 37%, and will she ensure that we maintain policies to secure that downward trend?
Statistics published last month show that more than 600,000 people in their 50s and 60s are helped into work through the tax credit system, which provides vital in-work support. How many of those 600,000 will be eligible to receive in-work support under universal credit?
As the hon. Gentleman will know—because we have discussed the issue, and because it has already been raised in questions today—universal credit is a simpler benefit, which provides much more targeted support to help people into work while also securing long-term job outcomes. As I have said, when it comes to older workers, we are committed to delivering first-class support for people of all ages, including older workers, and working closely with them to secure employment in the long run.
On the basis of that answer, it would seem that the Minister has as good a grasp of numbers as the Minister for Schools has of words. Let me try to give the right hon. Lady some assistance. Perhaps it would help if she read the Resolution Foundation report. The answer is that one third of working families on tax credits—that is 200,000—will not be eligible for any support under universal credit, and another 200,000 will lose £2,000 a year. Will the Minister tell us why this Government are so intent on attacking older people in work?
The hon. Gentleman is now speaking about older workers as well as working families. We need to look at universal credit in the context of the support that it provides. He also mentioned the Resolution Foundation report, which failed to take on board various factors such as childcare support for working families and the ongoing support that universal credit and our work coaches provide to working families.
Work and Health Programme
Development of the Work and Health programme design is well under way, including engagement with a wide range of stakeholders. The Department has commenced the commercial process for the programme by releasing the prior information notice for potential providers on 28 April.
A constituent of mine was volunteering last year at Green Futures, a social enterprise. That was directly related to his degree subject. While he was applying for work, the jobcentre put him on the community work placement scheme, saying that a voluntary placement would be better for him if arranged through the jobcentre. A private company paid by the jobcentre then arranged a six-month unpaid placement at the very organisation he was already volunteering with. Does the Minister agree that this is an utter waste of taxpayers’ money? How can she guarantee that this sort of incompetence will not be repeated under the new scheme?
I would be very happy to look into that particular example. The hon. Lady has highlighted a practice that clearly needs to change. The Work and Health programme will be designed to support claimants with health conditions and disabilities who have been unemployed for at least two years, but, as I have said, I shall be very happy to look at the case that she has raised.
My right hon. Friend knows that one of the key challenges in supporting autistic people into work is ensuring that we identify what works. There are very few data on work outcomes for autistic adults. Can she assure me that the new Work and Health programme will record whether someone on the programme is on the autism spectrum, so that we can track whether the programme has been successful for this very important group?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I would like to assure her that, in designing the new provision, we are working at local level on harnessing expertise as well as engaging with a wide range of stakeholders. By doing that, we shall be taking on board important lessons from the overall Work programme and Work Choice as well as looking at how we can achieve sustained long-term employment outcomes.
State Pension Reform: Gender Inequality
Last month, we introduced a new simpler state pension as part of our wider package of pension reform. The combination of the new state pension, automatic enrolment, the triple lock, the protection of benefits and giving people power over their pension pots will ensure that pensioners, male and female, will have greater protection, security and choice in retirement.
Protection is all very well, but introducing the new state pension in 2016 means that 350,000 women who were born between 1951 and 1953 will retire on the old system just before the new provisions come into force, whereas a man born on exactly the same day will retire slightly later but receive a pension under the new arrangements. Will the Minister please heed the Scottish National party’s calls to establish a pensions commission in order to end these inequalities?
The hon. Lady was not here in the last Parliament when we debated and voted on these changes. We debated them at enormous length and a clear decision was made by Parliament. As part of that, a concession of more than £1.1 billion was introduced to limit the impact of the rising state pension age on those women who would be most affected. Let us be clear: there is no party in this Chamber that has a clear and coherent proposal for unwinding the changes that have been made since 1995 to equalise the state pension ages. I therefore have no plans to bring forward further concessions or changes.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has just said. State pension equalisation has left 500,000 women born between 1953 and 1955 much worse off, with some facing a financial loss of up to £30,000. When will this Government take responsibility for the severe financial impact on those women and, in the interests of justice, do the decent thing, relent and put in place transitional arrangements?
In the last Parliament, we were clear about the reasons why the changes were happening, which included addressing the long-term, serious fiscal impacts of life expectancy increasing. Developed nations all around the world are having to take exactly the same kind of decisions. Let us be clear: unwinding any of the decisions that were taken would involve people of working age—younger people—having to bear an even greater share of the burden of getting this country back to living within its means. We need to take a broader perspective than that taken by the hon. Lady and her SNP colleagues.
Two weeks ago, the Labour Front-Bench team held constructive talks with the co-founders of the Women Against State Pension Inequality, or WASPI, campaign. We will work together to find a fair solution to the injustice that they and hundreds of thousands of women face as a result of the Government’s state pension reforms, and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has suggested six of them. The Secretary of State said that he would meet the WASPI women, but he also said that there were no plans to change the policy. Why is the Secretary of State going into that meeting with a closed mind? By doing so, will he not just repeat the mistakes of his predecessor?
I have to say to the hon. Lady and to Members across the Opposition Benches that there is a question here of responsible opposition. If they do not have a plan that is clear and fully costed—the Labour party’s policies were not—they are simply playing those women along, pretending that they are in a position to unwind the changes while sitting there knowing full well that they have no serious proposal for doing so.
Personal Independence Payments
The Department has set clear requirements regarding the professions, skills, experience and training of the health professionals that providers can use to carry out PIP assessments. We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out assessments on our behalf, and measure their performance against several targets, including quality and customer experience.
My constituents have reported huge inaccuracies between the information that they provide against PIP descriptors and the conclusions drawn by Capita’s staff, which causes great stress for people already in difficult circumstances. What is the Department doing to ensure that Capita’s staff are trained to take the appropriate time and care over assessments, so that they are as accurate and as fair as possible?
All health professionals must be registered practitioners and must have met the requirements for training competence. They must also use their expertise in disability to provide advice on people’s level of functional ability and the impact on their day-to-day lives. A team of experts provides additional support. We also work regularly with a wide range of stakeholders to help to advise on where further improvements can be made.
The Minister will be aware of the recent Public Accounts Committee report on the process of contracting out disability assessments. Does he agree that the recommendation to publish regular contractor performance data is one way of ensuring that assessments are professional and effective?
The Minister’s response to my letter and that of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State following the shocking revelations of last month’s “Dispatches” on personal independent payment assessments was complacent to say the least. Given the evidence not only from “Dispatches” but from the Public Accounts Committee in March and from the National Audit Office in January, all of which raised concerns about the quality of PIP assessments, when will the Minister investigate the matter and review Capita’s contract?
I gave a crystal clear, comprehensive response in the Westminster Hall debate, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady was obviously somewhat distracted. It is crystal clear that the individual in that film, who acted disgracefully, has rightly been removed. Progress in training and policies is being reviewed weekly. We have zero tolerance of such behaviour.
People with Autism: Work
Working with the Autism Alliance, we are training a network of over 1,000 autism leads in Jobcentre Plus and developing an autism passport to record condition details and reasonable adjustments. In addition, Access to Work now has a hidden impairments specialist team to support people better, including those on the autistic spectrum.
Will the Minister wake up and shake up his Department, because autistic people have a great deal of talent that gets wasted in this country? Only 15% of children on the autism scale end up working in a full-time job, so is it not about time that we took this seriously? I am a member of the newly formed Autism Commission, and we will help the Government, on a cross-party basis. Let us wake up to this tremendous potential, which is unexploited.
I agree 100% with the hon. Gentleman, who has a formidable track record of work in this area. The Department has put in place the Think Autism strategy and the autism taskforce, and we are working with the leading organisations. Only two weeks ago, I attended a constructive round-table meeting with the National Autistic Society, where there was a real focus on getting more employers to offer opportunities to take advantage of the huge wealth of talent that these individuals offer.
The independent review stated that that move needed to be made. Through our specialist employment training programme, we will be offering twice as many job outcomes, which is what we need to do, as part of our commitment to halving the disability employment gap.
Following the success of national autism awareness month, it was good to see the Government announce a taskforce to explore access to apprenticeships for those with learning disabilities, which will be led by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I am aware that there is not a formal consultation period, but the British Association for Supported Employment has been asked to provide evidence to the taskforce by 13 May. Does the Minister agree that as many people and organisations as possible should feed into the taskforce’s work, to ensure that everyone has access to a life-changing apprenticeship?
I thank the hon. Lady for the constructive engagement. I am keen to listen to as many experiences from different organisations as possible. This is an incredibly important area of work for me, and I would be very happy to have a meeting with her if she would like to contribute.
State Pension Age: Women
Women affected by changes made in 2011 face a maximum increase in state pension age of 18 months, rather than two years, as a result of a Government concession, and will retire under the new state pension, which will be more generous for many than the previous system. No further transitional arrangements are planned.
Why has the Minister not used the opportunity of a majority Conservative Government to put right the wrongs of the last Government, which have had an impact on some 4,290 women in my constituency, by introducing proper transitional arrangements—or is this just compassionate Conservatism in action?
During the debates in 2011, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the then Pensions Minister said on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill that they would go away, consider and reflect, and they did precisely that: on Report, they made a concession worth £1.1 billion and reduced the timeframe from two years to 18 months. Transitional arrangements were put in place, and at a substantial and significant cost, notwithstanding the very tough economic climate at the time.
Recently, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise talked about how
“people have been working…for up to 30 years and paying into a pension fund in the expectation that…they will have a certain amount of money on which to live”.
She went on to say that
“there is an increasingly good case to be made for the right thing to be done by people”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1183.]
Given the sudden change in the retirement age for women, how can the Government justify this rank hypocrisy from one Minister to another? Will the Secretary of State bring fairness for those women? In his new role, he has an opportunity to show that he will consider things fairly and support the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will take the hon. Lady’s reference, “from one Minister to another” slightly broadly and remind her that, following the passing of the Pensions Act in 1995 there were 13 years of Labour government during which a succession of Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and pensions Ministers did absolutely nothing to try to alter the system that she and her colleagues now seek to change.
While Ministers do nothing, my constituents and other people are really suffering. My constituent, a woman born in the 1950s, told me:
“I feel anxious and distressed about how I am going to manage without an income in what has been, for my generation, the expected retirement age.”
It is six months since we had our first debate on this, so will the Minister and the Secretary of State now commit that civil servants will assist with costing the various options for transitional arrangements that have been put forward by Labour?
Does the Minister accept that there were significant failures from his own Department to communicate the changes to the state pension age, and does he think it unacceptable that some women found out about the changes only months before they expected to retire?
In 2012, a survey compiled by the Department for Work and Pensions found that only 6% of women who were due to retire within 10 years thought that the pension age was still 60. Moreover, in 1995, people were able to ask for an estimate of when they were likely to retire, and in 2011 more than 5 million people were sent a letter to the address that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs then had informing them of the changes.
14. With an all-party group on the WASPI campaign being set up later this week, will the Secretary of State confirm that he is willing to meet a cross-party group of MPs and some members of the campaign to discuss the matter further and to open up some good communication? (904892)
Disabled People: Work
Last year, Access to Work supported record numbers of young disabled people to start or retain work. In partnership with Volunteering Matters, the DWP has supported the implementation of job-shadowing work-placement opportunities for young disabled people. The programme encourages employers to see the many benefits of employing disabled talent.
Following my visit to Foxes in Bridgwater, where a staggering 45.6% of its young adults get into paid sustainable employment, I now recognise that vocational pathways are important for many young disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities. Therefore, I and the Minister for Skills have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) to lead a joint Department for Work and Pensions/Department for Business, Innovation and Skills taskforce to increase access to apprenticeships for young people with learning disabilities. In addition, in recognition of what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, the taskforce will in future look at opportunities in apprenticeships for people with autism and other hidden impairments.
My constituent has had her higher rate of disability living allowance removed, leaving her effectively housebound, which makes it almost impossible for her to find work. Until she exhausts all her appeal rights, she has had her Motability car taken away. Will the Minister agree to meet her to discuss what transitional support may be available to her and to the many people whom this will affect across the country?
We have seen 22,000 more people access the Motability scheme since PIP was introduced. There is an opportunity for a mandatory reconsideration and then an independent appeal. Those who are not successful do get to keep the car for a further seven weeks and have up to £2,000 to put towards buying that car or making alternative arrangements.
Universal credit is transforming the welfare system so that work always pays. For the first time, we are providing tailored support to help people to get into, and make progress in, work. Anyone being moved to universal credit from tax credits will receive transitional protection, so that they are not a cash loser.
A single parent on universal credit who works full time will be up to £3,000 worse off than someone in the same situation on tax credits, as a result of cuts that are taking effect from April next year. How many single parents working full time—doing the right thing, in the Government’s vernacular—in Bermondsey and Old Southwark does the Secretary of State expect his cuts to affect, and by how much does he intend to make them worse off?
I will repeat the point that people being moved from tax credits to universal credit will have transitional protections. The hon. Gentleman is making the mistake that so many of his colleagues have made of trying to compare the present position, falsely, with the previous situation under tax credits. Let us not forget that when tax credits were set up, there was no national living wage, child care support was not at the same level, and there were not higher rates of personal allowance. We are transforming the landscape of support for people on lower incomes.
The Department has a range of quality measures to drive improvements in the accuracy of decision making. Of course, we are committed to getting our decisions right. There will always be more opportunities to learn when decisions are overturned on appeal. We feed back on every single case.
The latest figures show that 75%—75%—of PIP appeals heard by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service were decided in favour of the appellant in Coventry. These figures clearly demonstrate the flawed and draconian nature of the original refusal decisions made by the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister assure me that further improvements will be made to the DWP decision-making process to increase accuracy and prevent more vulnerable people from being forced to go through the appeals process needlessly?
I would make two points to the hon. Lady. First, the Department has a range of quality measures to drive improvements in the accuracy of decision making. Secondly, I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People that only 2% of decisions on PIP claims are changed, and that is on the basis of new evidence being submitted.
As part of our reforms to give people greater confidence and certainty about what they will receive in retirement, we are improving the help on offer to people with keeping track of their previous workplace pension pots. I can inform the House that our new online Pension Tracing Service goes live today. This new service will make it simpler and quicker to reunite people with information about their lost pension pots; it will take a matter of seconds, rather than days, as under the old system.
My hon. Friend asks a good question. Many of our reforms of the state pension are designed to make things simpler and less confusing for people. Since the new state pension was introduced in April, everyone has been able to get a personalised state pension statement, based on the new rules, and there is a new online service, “Check your State Pension”, which offers a quick and accessible way for people to access information about their state pension.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his first DWP questions. He has started today by trying very hard to strike a different tone from his predecessor. He said in an interview last week that he wanted his Department and his Ministers to understand the “human impact” of their policies. What does he think the human impact will be of his plans to cut £1.2 billion from disabled people throughout the next Parliament? What does he think the impact is for the 500,000 people who are set to lose £1,500 a year in employment and support allowance?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind words with which he started his question. He obviously was not listening to the earlier questions on this subject, because at the end of this Parliament we will be spending more than at the beginning of this Parliament on supporting disabled people. We will be spending around £50 billion supporting disabled people—far more than was ever spent under the previous Labour Government.
The Secretary of State seems to have forgotten already that in his very first speech he said that behind all those statistics are human beings. Disabled people will be disappointed that today he hid behind statistics once more and that he will not reverse the ESA cuts. Others will be disappointed that he refused today to address the concerns of women born in the 1950s, and still others that he has refused to address the cuts to in-work benefits under universal credit. In what way is the Secretary of State different from his predecessor?
We are a Government who have helped deliver the changes that have seen a huge fall in workless households. Nearly half a million more children are growing up in a home seeing a mum or a dad go out to work. There is no reason to change policies that are changing things for the better for those who have least in our society.
T4. Last week I had the honour of attending the national Young Enterprise tenner challenge final where two students from my local school, Mangotsfield school in my constituency, Archie Kenway and Joel Vadhyanath, received an award for turning £10 into a staggering profit of £3,289. Does my right hon. Friend agree that initiatives for young people such as the tenner challenge could help ensure that young people acquire valuable skills for the future in the workplace? (904905)
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who highlights not only the entrepreneurial spirit of those two young people but what we are doing in government through, for example, the new enterprise allowance, which has seen more than 80,000 businesses start up over the past five years.
T2. Changes to the walking assessment have led to nearly 14,000 disabled people across the country losing access to their Motability vehicles. That has caused some of my constituents to lose their jobs and their independence. Why is the Secretary of State punishing disabled people in this way? (904903)
Since PIP was introduced 22,000 more people have accessed the Motability scheme, so I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s account.
T6. The business case for universal credit identifies savings of £80 million a week in steady state after implementation. These come both from IT simplification and from the removal of barriers to getting back into work quickly. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is a focus not just on delivering the technology, but on ensuring that those benefits will be delivered when the time comes? (904907)
Since I was made Secretary of State for Work and Pensions I have made a number of changes to the way in which the roll-out of universal credit is overseen in the Department, stressing the importance of a careful and controlled roll-out. The one outcome that matters for everyone is that people get their benefits paid on time and correctly, and our approach is making sure that that happens.
T3. The Resolution Foundation has calculated that universal credit could leave 2.5 million families on low pay worse off by more than £3,000 a year. Does the Minister agree that universal credit is abjectly failing to provide incentives to work and lift families out of low pay, which we were told was its intention? (904904)
As I said to David Willetts from the Resolution Foundation, the author of the report, and as I say to every Member who seeks to criticise universal credit, “Go to your local Jobcentre Plus, go and sit with the teams of work coaches who are rolling out universal credit, and you will see the enthusiasm and the motivation as they see universal credit transforming people’s lives for the better.”
T5. I recently asked a written question about the equality analysis that was carried out on the PIP consultation documents, and I was astounded to find out that the Department has only to pay due regard to the equality aspects of decisions, and that it was up to the Department to decide whether to publish that analysis. Does the Secretary of State agree that in the spirit of full transparency equality analyses must be published and made publicly available? (904906)
We also have the independent reviews. The previous one was carried out by Dr Paul Gray and we will be looking to do a further review. Let us not forget that under PIP 22% of claimants access the highest rate of benefit, compared with just 16% under disability living allowance.
A constituent of mine has multiple sclerosis and, for the past nine years, acting on the advice of her council, she has used her disability living allowance to pay the mortgage on the family’s adapted bungalow. She has now been informed that, with PIP, she will no longer be able to do that, and she and her family risk losing their home. The change could have a devastating impact on many families up and down the country. Will the Minister look into the matter and ensure that this scenario does not happen?
T8. The Government intend to replace the current statutory child poverty measures with new measures of life chances. Researchers at the London School of Economics analysed responses to the Government consultation on child poverty measurement and found that 99% of respondents believed income and deprivation should be included. Does the Minister agree or disagree with them? (904909)
What we are focused on—more than any previous Government—is tackling the underlying causes of poverty. One of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues talked earlier about entrenched poverty; if we are going to tackle entrenched poverty, we need a coherent, integrated life chances strategy that focuses on the underlying causes and on some of the measures and indicators that track them.
Rugby was in the first group of jobcentres to introduce universal credit for single people, and it is now introducing the benefit for families. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to staff at Rugby jobcentre for their hard work and flexibility in implementing this important change?
The latest analysis shows that the young people referred to in Question 3 stand to lose between £30,000 and £20,000 over their retirement, as a direct result of Government policy. Will the Minister explain how that contributes to intergenerational fairness?
The whole purpose of the auto-enrolment system is to make sure that people can supplement the state pension. At the moment, 10 million people are eligible for auto-enrolment, and we expect 9 million of them to take up that offer. Those 9 million people will end up saving and, in many cases, saving more than they do at present.
Is the Secretary of State aware that he will be assessed on how far he is willing to stand up to the Chancellor over cuts that hit the most vulnerable? His predecessor was not willing to do that until the last moment. Has the Secretary of State got more courage and guts than his predecessor?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to try to focus on divisions between the Treasury and the DWP. When a Department such as the DWP spends between a quarter and a third of all taxpayers’ money, we need to make sure that it is working closely aligned with the Treasury to achieve the things we want to achieve as a Government.
I have a constituent, Lisa, who has spina bifida; she suffers constant pain and balance problems, and she needs a walking stick. She was forced to struggle 25 metres from the reception area to an assessment room for PIP. Surprise, surprise, she was then classed as mobile enough to walk more than 20 metres. How can the Minister convince us that that was a fair and just assessment? When will he end this ridiculous 20-metre rule?
First, any claimant who has difficulty attending an assessment centre can request a face-to-face assessment in their own home. Secondly, with regard to how far somebody can travel in an assessment, this is not just a black-and-white issue of 20 metres; it is about whether they can do that safely, repeatedly, to an assessable standard and in a reasonable time. If a claimant is unhappy with a decision, they can ask for a mandatory reconsideration or an independent appeal.
One of my constituents who works 16 hours a week and is a carer for a disabled relative has discovered that because of the living wage she no longer qualifies for carer’s allowance, leaving her with a substantial shortfall. Why on earth have this Government forced her and thousands of others into this desperate situation?
One hundred and forty thousand pensioners who paid into occupational pension schemes, including those of Allied Steel and Wire in my constituency, have been done a historical injustice by losing out on the full amount they paid in and are entitled to. Will the new Secretary of State meet the Pensions Action Group and representatives of those pensioners to discuss their concerns?
Physical inactivity costs the UK some £8 billion. I had an excellent meeting with the Secretary of State’s predecessor before he decided to leave the job. May representatives from Leeds Beckett University, which does wonderful work in this area, and I have a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss this?
The Secretary of State is reportedly set to reduce the benefits cap by up to £6,000 per year. Who does he think will miss out most from this? Does he think that private landlords with out-of-control rents will just accept £500 a month less, or that children, who have no control over any aspect of their lives, will be the ones to suffer yet again?
The changes to the benefit cap have already been legislated on and passed by this Parliament. I urge the hon. Lady to look at the results of the earlier changes to the benefit cap, which have had really positive outcomes in encouraging and supporting more people into work.
The following Members took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Gillian Furniss, for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough
Christopher Philip Elmore, for Ogmore.
Safety in Custody and Violence in Prisons
Before I move on to the substance of the question, I would like to update the House on events that occurred at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs over the weekend. On the morning of Friday 6 May, prison officers refused to enter the prison, citing health and safety grounds. Later that day, an agreement was reached between the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association. All officers have returned to work, and the prison is running a normal regime. The National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association are jointly committed to resolving any outstanding health and safety concerns at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. On Sunday 8 May, two members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs were assaulted and taken to hospital for treatment. We do not tolerate any violence against our hard-working officers. The alleged perpetrator now faces a police investigation that could lead to criminal charges.
Moving on to the wider question, I take safety in prisons very seriously. Reducing the harm that prisoners may cause to themselves or to others is the Government’s top priority in prisons. The most recent statistics on safety in custody show that levels of self-inflicted death, self-harm and violence in prison are too high. The figures demonstrate the very serious challenges facing the prison service. There is no single, simple solution to the increase in deaths and violence in prisons. Those trends have been seen across the prison estate, in both public and private prisons and in prisons both praised and criticised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons.
We have already taken a number of steps to address the problems. We have recruited 2,830 prison officers since January 2015; that is a net increase of 530. We are trialling the use of body-worn cameras in prisons. We are strengthening the case management of individuals who risk harming others. We have introduced tough new laws under which those who smuggle packages, including packages containing new psychoactive substances, over prison walls will face up to two years in prison. We have reviewed the case management process for prisoners who are assessed as being at risk of harm to themselves, and we are implementing the recommendations.
It is, however, clear that we must do more. We need to reduce violence and prevent drugs from entering prison. We must do better at helping prisoners with mental health problems. We must ensure that prisoners can be rehabilitated so that they are no longer a danger to others. That is why the Government are committed to fundamental reform of our prisons. We have secured £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate, and we will give greater autonomy to governors so that they are truly in charge. I look forward to setting out our plans in greater detail shortly.
The problems are deep-seated, and there are no easy answers. However, I assure the House that the Government will not waver in their determination to reform our prisons, so that they become places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.
I thank the Minister for that response, but I fear that it was exactly what we have heard time and time again at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will concede that the situation in our prisons on the youth estate is very serious, and that the recent incidents are part of a pattern of unacceptable conditions and unacceptable violent behaviour. It cannot be right that prisoners, staff and, ultimately, the public are at risk from the Government’s failure to get a grip on the crisis in our prisons. That makes it all the more surprising that the Secretary of State is not here today. We are all, whatever our view, engaged in the referendum campaign; that is no reason for him to neglect his responsibility as Secretary of State.
Yesterday, as the Minister said, two prison officers were hospitalised after being assaulted while they were on duty at Wormwood Scrubs prison in my constituency. Our thoughts are with them and their families. That is a reminder of the difficult and dangerous job that officers do every day, often hidden from the public gaze and without the acknowledgement that they deserve. The attack was entirely predictable—so much so that two days earlier, as the Minister acknowledged, 70 members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs had walked out because they did not feel safe. Although Tornado officers were sent into the prison on Saturday, they were withdrawn on Sunday, which was when the attacks happened. What specific steps are being taken to ensure safety in HMP Wormwood Scrubs? I am told that drugs, phones and even knives are being thrown over the walls because of insufficient patrolling of the grounds and cell searches caused by insufficient staffing numbers. Will additional officers be provided to undertake these basic tasks until order is restored and a review of staffing at this and similar prisons is undertaken?
What happened at Wormwood Scrubs is not an isolated incident; it is typical of the dangers and problems across the prison and youth estate. In the past few days, reports on Lewes and Leeds prisons have told a similar story. Last week, it was revealed that the Department is about to take over the management of Medway secure training centre following the “Panorama” exposé of the appalling conduct of G4S and some of its staff in running that institution, including allegations of serious violence against children.
Fourteen prison staff are assaulted every day. There were 4,963 assaults on staff by prisoners in 2015, compared with 3,640 in 2014, which is a 36% increase in attacks. Prisons are now violent and dangerous places. Serious self-harm and suicides are at record levels. We have heard for a year that the Government wish to transform our prisons, but words are no longer enough. Now is the time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and there are more serious injuries or—God forbid—the death of an officer on duty.
This Government are not in denial about the situation, we have not been idle in seeking to address it and we do not lack vision or political will on the issues that the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly raised. I assure him that the Secretary of State takes this issue extremely seriously, and it is our top priority as far as prisons are concerned.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the work that prison officers do—day in, day out—across our country is, by its very nature, hidden from public view. They are outstanding public servants who do amazingly good work, which, unfortunately, is not seen or perhaps not as fully appreciated by most of us as it should be.
The nature of the offenders in custody has changed. Today, about 30% more people are sentenced to prison for violent offences, and prisoners often act more spontaneously and more violently to achieve their objectives than they did in the past.
On recruitment, I repeat what I said: we have been recruiting at full strength for the past two years. We have recruited an extra 2,830 officers since 2015, and we are continuing to recruit at that level to make sure that our prisons are adequately staffed.
The Minister knows that we are gradually understanding more and more about the violence that affects our prisons. Violence can sometimes be due to the inappropriate handling of prisoners with mental health problems or, indeed, those on the autism spectrum, and just small changes can make a difference to the behaviour of such individuals. Does the Minister welcome the National Autistic Society’s initiative for some of our prisons to have autism awareness accreditation, particularly Feltham young offenders institution, where it is making a difference, and will he assure me that he will look at fully rolling out this programme across the prison and custody system?
First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her extensive knowledge of this issue and, indeed, for the legislation that she initiated in this House. It was a great pleasure to visit HMP Feltham with her. I can tell the House that Feltham is now the first autism accredited prison in the whole world, which is something I am extremely proud of. This good work must not stop at Feltham: we need to spread it across the prison estate. She is absolutely right that this is one part of reducing violence across the estate.
Inspectors have warned of “Dickensian squalor” inside Wormwood Scrubs, following a scathing report that revealed that the jail is rat-infested and overcrowded, with inmates spending up to 22 hours a day locked in very squalid cells. Overcrowding and poor conditions exacerbate the risk of violence not only to staff but to other prisoners. It is clear from a recent statement from the Prison Governors Association that understaffing is still an issue. Will the Minister assure us that the ideological drive to cut public services and to shift to private sector provision will not further jeopardise staff and prison safety?
Will the Minister also look to the example of the Scottish Government? Their approach of recommending a presumption against shorter sentences of three months or under has led to the numbers of such sentences plummeting, and the reconviction rate is at a 16-year low. Will he take steps to follow their lead in creating a presumption against short sentences and investing instead in robust community sentences in order to address the underlying causes of crime more effectively?
I visited HMP Wormwood Scrubs a week or so ago. We have an excellent new governor in the prison, who has a good record and I believe has the best possible chance of making sure that it improves on those issues. There are 15 officers over and above the benchmark level within Wormwood Scrubs. The drive to greater governor autonomy will help to deal with a number of the issues. The Government are currently consulting on sentencing issues.
I thank my hon. Friend for the interest he has in prison security, and, indeed, for the action he has taken on it; the Justice Committee shares his interest. Today I met the prisons and probation ombudsman, who told me that on current estimates 61% of inmates take psychoactive substances. What consideration has my hon. Friend given to enlarging smoke-free zones in prisons, and to what extent does he feel that that might help with the problems?
My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable on these issues as a member of the Select Committee, is absolutely right to point the finger at the terrible damage caused by new psychoactive substances. I agree that rolling out smoke-free prisons across England and Wales will help us to reduce that damage—we know that those psychoactive substances are sometimes smoked openly, with prisoners pretending that they are smoking tobacco. I am with her in wanting to see the roll-out progress, but we will only do that in a measured and safe way.
The independent monitoring board for Leicester prison published a damning report about conditions there this morning. The report pointed to all the matters that the Minister has raised—rising levels of violence, use of drugs and mental health issues. This issue is about increasing staffing. Although the Government have increased the number of prison officers, there are clearly not enough. What further steps can be taken to help the officers at Leicester prison?
My commitment to the House is to carry on recruiting at the increased level of activity that there has been for the past few years. It is proving successful. It is a challenge, at some specific sites in London and the south-east more than at others, but we are managing to make progress. There is the budget to carry on employing prison officers and I am determined to carry on with our recruitment objectives.
The Minister mentioned the importance of dealing with mental health in prisons. On Friday I met a justice of the peace in my constituency who talked about the good work done by the liaison and diversion services. He encouraged me to encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to extend those services and ensure that more community orders have as a condition that people get the help they need.
My hon. and learned Friend, who is also extremely knowledgeable on these issues, is absolutely right. The Government are committed to making sure that there is universal access to a mental health assessment from the moment that anyone encounters the criminal justice system. I also point her to the co-commissioning that is going to happen between governors and NHS England on mental health and drug abuse services. That will also be very beneficial.
I have no doubt that the Minister wants to sort this problem out, and his account of a passion for reform, decency and hope was compelling, except for the fact that it has not worked. Since 2012, the number of assaults in prisons has doubled, as have the number of assaults on staff. Although he talked about recruiting more staff recently, total numbers of staff have fallen. Those staff are frightened—brave prison officers are scared to go to work. What can the Minister say to stop them feeling frightened?
The right hon. Lady is right to say that confidence is an extremely important commodity as far as the day-to-day work of prison officers is concerned. She has been involved with these issues for many years, and she will know that the Prison Service has been affected in a major way by waves of drugs. In the early 1990s, and before that, such things had serious implications for prisons, and led to riots and serious assaults in high numbers. We have a two-year violence reduction project. It would not be helpful now to give the House a shopping list of individual measures, but detailed, serious work is taking place across the estate, including the violence diagnostic tool and many other measures to help back up hard-working prison officers. The body-worn camera initiative is also proving valuable, and we hope to say more about that soon.
Does the Minister agree that the prevalent use of lethal highs, in particular “spice”, in HMP Northumberland in my constituency, is one clear cause of the increase in violence and unpredictable behaviour among our prison population? What are we doing to try to reduce dramatically the numbers of those goods?
It was a great pleasure to go round HMP Northumberland with my hon. Friend not long ago, and I commend her for calling these terrible drugs “lethal” highs. From 26 May they will all be completely illegal when the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is enforced. That is very welcome, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not waver in our determination to crack down on those substances.
I thank the Minister for an amicable meeting last week about HMP Northumberland. The common denominator throughout the whole prison estate across the country is simply a lack of manpower. That is causing the violence—whether it be prisoner on prisoner or prisoner on staff—mental health issues and the problems with alcohol, “spice” or whatever. The Minister has said that this issue is challenging. What extra measures can he take to ensure that plenty of staff are employed in prisons to maintain a safe environment for everybody on the prison estate?
My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman, and if he has further concerns about HMP Northumberland, he is welcome to come and see me again. If we analyse what has happened across the prison estate, we see that the increase in violence has taken place in prisons where there has been an increase in the number of officers and in prisons where numbers have stayed the same, and where there have been reductions. He is right to say that we need adequate levels of staff, which is why I give him the commitment that I have already given the House that we will carry on recruiting at our current level, which included a net increase of 530 officers last year.
I have asked the Minister to come and visit young offenders at Portland, and I hope he will do so shortly. There was an unpleasant riot the other day, and prison officers were put in danger. I pay credit to all prison officers who work like a forgotten army behind the scenes. Portland is a fairly old structure, and the number of floors—there are four or five—is a particular concern because there are not enough officers to man them all at the same time. That puts those officers at risk, and allows prisoner free rein where they perhaps should not have it. Will my hon. Friend look at that issue and increase the number of prison officers at the young offenders institution as fast as we can?
It would be a pleasure to visit HMP-YOI Portland with my hon. Friend in due course and I note what he says about the design of that particular prison. The £1.3 billion commitment provides the Government with the opportunity to get the best design knowledge from around the world to ensure that the new prisons we build are as safe as possible. That will also enable us to cease to operate some prisons where assaults and bullying take place in part because of poor design.
In the first five years of this Government, the number of prison officers fell by 41%. In the sixth year of this Government, assaults on prison officers rose by the same percentage—41%. The Minister mentions that prison officer numbers are increasing, but he uses a figure based on the past couple of years. Will he tell me how many prison officers there were in 2010 and how many there are today?
I do not have those particular figures to hand for the right hon. Gentleman, although my memory is that he has asked me that question before and that I have written to him with the answer. I will dig out the letter I sent to him; maybe it went astray. Speaking as a current prisons Minister to a former prisons Minister—I know he cares as deeply about these issues as I do—he will know that these issues are not easy. He knows that his own Government faced considerable difficulties on exactly the same issues. What is not in doubt is this Government’s utter determination, through the prison reform programme, to get on top of them.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work as prisons Minister. He takes his role extremely seriously. I think my constituents will be very surprised to hear quite how much stuff is being thrown over prison walls: mobile phones, drugs, lethal highs and knives. Surely in 2016 we have the ability to stop this happening, or at least to minimise it? What plans does the Minister have to tackle this issue?
These issues are not easy. Our prisons are not like the Eden Project: they do not have a dome over the top of them. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get things over a prison wall, as I saw when I went around HMP Rochester last Thursday morning. My hon. Friend raises an important issue. All of us, particularly as Members of Parliament, have a role in getting the message out in our communities that new psychoactive substances are lethal. They do terrible harm to the loved ones of families who inadvertently bring them into prisons. We need local communities to work with us and the police to try to stop the terrible flow of evil drugs over prison walls.
The Minister is absolutely right: prison officers do an exceptionally difficult job. They need and deserve our fullest possible support. That has to be more than a platitude. For that to be the case, staffing levels have to be addressed. The other issue that has to be addressed is prison overcrowding. The prison population is now in excess of 90,000 inmates. In the past 15 years, the length of sentences has gone up by 33%. Can the Minister assure me that, as he tackles this issue, he will look at it in the round; that he will look not just at prisons in isolation but at how they interact with police, prosecution and court authorities?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his praise for the work of our outstanding prison officers. We are consulting on sentencing issues, which have a bearing on overcrowding. We are also determined to bring down reoffending. Our success in reducing reoffending will help to reduce overcrowding.
I thank the Minister for his comments today and for his support with regard to our concerns about HMP Rochester and the Medway Secure Training Centre. I also thank him for his very speedy meeting with me and the governor of HMP Rochester earlier this year. The Minister will know that Medway Secure Training Centre was at the centre of abuse allegations. Will he confirm when the Medway improvement board report will be published? My constituents want reassurance that action and improvements have taken place, so that young people are safe in Medway.
I commend my hon. Friend for her serious interest in and support for the three prisons in her constituency. I was in HMP Rochester on Thursday morning, and I commend, in particular, the outstanding work of its governor and head of security to combat the constant pressure of drugs coming into the prison. On Medway STC, about which we will be saying more shortly, the Secretary of State and I have met Dr Gary Holden and the Medway improvement board, which was appointed by the Secretary of State. We will be making further announcements on its findings in due course.