House of Commons
Wednesday 14 September 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Violence against Women and Girls
It is an honour to stand here today as the International Development Secretary. I believe passionately in my Department’s mission to end extreme poverty. Violence against women and girls is a global scandal that the Department for International Development is working to end. We invest in hundreds of organisations to improve the lives of millions of women and girls globally. I pay tribute to the leadership of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on the issue. I am determined to continue our work on this agenda.
Only 1% of gender-specific funds are spent on women’s rights organisations. Does the Secretary of State not think she could do more, and will she align with ActionAid, whose campaign “Fearless” has really taken off?
I pay tribute to those involved in championing that campaign. There are more than 40 existing mechanisms through which funding is channelled to women’s rights organisations. I believe—rightly so—that we channel our funding in the right way to support the right objectives and outcomes for women and girls around the world.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. Women refugees often suffer violence on their journeys to safety, and the practice of registering only the head of the family in asylum processes often leaves their needs neglected. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that at the UN summit on refugees next week the voice of women refugees will get a proper hearing?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her very important and significant question. She is right to point out that there is a conference at the UN General Assembly next week specifically on refugees, on which our Prime Minister and President Obama will be leading. Those are the very issues and challenges that will be reflected in the summit, and Britain will lead the way in standing up for the rights of women refugees and doing the responsible thing for them.
During the summer holidays many girls are taken from the UK to developing countries, where they are subjected to the brutality of female genital mutilation. What is the Secretary of State doing to prevent those girls from being taken out of the country in that way?
The hon. Lady rightly highlights the abhorrent practice of FGM and that vulnerable girls are abused in that way. I am working with colleagues across Government on a strategy to ensure not just that we do more but that we end that practice and, importantly, bring the perpetrators of that abhorrent crime to justice.
As I said in my opening remarks, I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, who has led the way on women’s rights and rights for girls. The hon. Lady is right to point to the SDGs. DFID is doing a great deal. We recognise the critical role of women’s rights and the organisations that we partner and work with. We will continue to do exactly that.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. What programmes does her Department provide to counter the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war and subjugation?
The hon. Lady raises the abuse and the abhorrent crimes that take place against women and girls in conflict and conflict zones. We work with a whole range of organisations, and civil society also plays a part in achieving the right outcomes. We work with Governments around the world and through our multilateral relationships through the United Nations not only to work with countries and organisations to try to stop that practice but to deal with the perpetrators of those appalling crimes.
My Department has funded the United Nations and non-governmental organisations to provide food, water, healthcare and nutritional supplies to Aleppo. We have allocated £561 million to support vulnerable people inside Syria, including in Aleppo and other besieged areas, where access is possible.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response but, despite the ceasefire this week, we are hearing from the UN special envoys that the Syrian regime is continuing to restrict aid to eastern Aleppo. We have also heard reports that two barrels of chlorine gas were dropped by helicopter on civilian neighbourhoods, injuring many people including children. What will the Secretary of State do to facilitate access for humanitarian aid?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Syria crisis is appalling in every single aspect we see and experience. The point about aid is significant because we have had significant access problems. The ceasefire has just come into being and, obviously, we are working with the UN and our partners to look at getting much needed aid and supplies into the besieged areas, which have not seen aid for a considerable time. All colleagues in the House recognise this, but it is worth pointing out again that this is an appalling crisis and conflict. On the perpetrator—Assad—we are working on the wider conflict resolution, but our priority is to ensure that we can get humanitarian supplies in.
The UK led the way with the Syria conference. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region. We have the UN General Assembly next week, where we will again make the case for the donors to do more to raise more money, and for greater partnership working, to alleviate many of the hardships that we see in the crisis in Syria.
All hon. Members hope that the ceasefire will mean safer passage for the convoys to reach the besieged cities. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence on potential airdrops, if deemed necessary, to ensure that support gets to those who need it so desperately?
The hon. Lady recognises and reflects upon the severity of the situation. I am working with colleagues in both Departments she mentioned. Obviously, the ceasefire has only just come into being. We are looking at all avenues to get humanitarian and support in, and at how we can help the affected populations. Delivering aid by road by our trusted partners ensures that it gets to the most vulnerable. Airdrops come with a greater risk but, as I have said, with the ceasefire coming into fruition at the beginning of the week, we are looking at all avenues for aid delivery.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am speaking to all our partners—global donors, global partners and other Governments—importantly recognising that humanitarian aid is essential, as is protecting and safeguarding vulnerable people. That is part of our ongoing work with multilateral organisations, and an ongoing area of our work in the Government.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. To be clear, about 300,000 people are believed to be in east Aleppo; civilians are trapped inside the city’s eastern neighbourhoods and are experiencing bombing; and children have been left crippled and dead. This is a humanitarian crisis and we need to work together to ensure there is help where help is needed. Many questions have been asked today. I thank the House, because we are standing together, but will the Secretary of State elaborate on what mechanisms are in place at this point in time and what mechanisms she will explore?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome and look forward to working with her on many such global challenges and crises. She is right to highlight the extent of humanitarian suffering in Aleppo we are comprehending. I was in Brussels on Monday meeting my development counterparts, and I speak on a near-daily basis to my opposite numbers around the world. The focus for us is the humanitarian crisis, and on getting aid into the besieged areas, and to the people who desperately need aid but who have not been receiving it. I will continue the work we are undertaking and continue to update the House.
Nepal Earthquake: Aid
On behalf of the Department, I express our great condolences on the impact of the earthquake. Some 700,000 people lost their homes and 9,000 people were killed. Specifically in relation to Dolakha, we have provided a great deal of support, including housing grants for 40,000 houses, and cooking equipment, blankets and tarpaulins for 7,000 people.
I warmly welcome the Minister to his place. A Must for Dolakha is a charity based in Farnworth in my constituency. Mr Heslop, who represents the charity, visited the region recently and found that a number of people did not have any food or shelter. There was a feeling that aid had not reached a number of people in need. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the charity to discuss how we can best help the people affected in those areas?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and to her constituent for the work he does. We need to understand the scale of this catastrophe. DFID is spending £100 million this year. Even so, with 700,000 people having lost their homes, the situation is extremely challenging. The response in Dolakha is led by USAID and the World Bank. I am very happy to sit down with the hon. Lady and her constituent to discuss our forthcoming work on roads, police stations and health clinics in Dolakha itself.
DFID is engaged in tackling some of the great global challenges of our time. The Department has in place rigorous systems and processes to ensure that the money we spend gets to those for whom it is intended.
Does the Minister agree that UK taxpayers need to be considered at every single step of the way when it comes to our aid spending?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. He may have seen the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the Daily Mail only today setting out her vision for the future direction of the Department’s spending. We need rigorous accountability. We need proper business cases. We need a clear sense of what we want to achieve. That is exactly what this ministerial team will bring and what this Government will deliver.
The UK has been a key contributor to the global health fund, which has made a real difference. I met only yesterday the chairs of the all-party groups on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to discuss the contribution the UK intends to make. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making an announcement in Montreal in the coming days to set out just what the UK will be doing.
As always, my hon. Friend has an eye for value for money in the interests of the British taxpayer. We are, of course, looking at what DFID does. DFID delivers a huge amount of difference: it changes lives and helps people across the globe. We want to ensure that every penny we spend is spent wisely. The comments he makes are very important, as part of that debate and discussion.
There are grave concerns about the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay reward payments to convicted terrorists and the possible misappropriation of international aid from the UK to the Palestinian Authority. Will the Minister look carefully at that once again in the light of the grave concerns that are being expressed?
It is vital that the money that UK taxpayers spend on aid is spent on the right things and the right priorities. Where concerns are raised, they will of course be looked into in detail. If there are issues found to be arising, they will be addressed and tackled. The UK also believes in its commitment to helping the poorest in the world. Every penny spent on the purposes for which it is intended is a penny well spent. Any penny that goes missing is a life that may go unsaved.
Aid Budget: Value for Money
My predecessors in Government have made huge progress in improving British aid by creating an independent aid watchdog, introducing much tougher value-for-money controls and making DFID’s spending even more transparent.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that in seeking value for money she will also ensure that British companies and organisations are able to tender competitively for all DFID contracts at home and abroad, and are not in any way disadvantaged when bidding against overseas companies?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know of, and be familiar with, the regulations on procurement, but I want to assure him and the House that British firms and British small and medium-sized enterprises win a significant proportion of our work. In the last financial year, 74% of our supplier spend was with UK firms.
The Secretary of State has clearly been very busy briefing The Mail on Sunday, along with her anti-aid special adviser. She mentioned transparency, so can she explain why funding for South Sudan, an area of great interest not only to our security forces but to our development needs, is to receive a cut in its budget next year from her Department? Will she continue to fund crucial humanitarian causes such as that one?
I hope, Mr Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman heard my words earlier about the tremendous work of our Department when it comes to humanitarian aid, support and saving lives. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we will continue to champion those individuals whose lives need saving where support is required in many countries around the world. That includes a lot of the institutional reform and the support that we bring.
I always hear the Secretary of State’s words. I have been hearing them for at least 20 years.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and assure her that I, too, enjoyed reading the Daily Mail this morning. As part of getting proper value, would it not make sense to reward those organisations that are working for peace within the middle east rather than to have money going to those who seek to encourage terrorism?
My right hon. Friend raises important points. As I have said a number of times today, DFID is focused on value for money, but, as he has rightly pointed out, we will work with organisations in the right way to make sure that we are delivering the right outcomes that meet our Government priorities—both peace and stability, as well as humanitarian causes.
I, too, would like to welcome the Secretary of State and her Ministers to their places, but in doing I wish to remind her of her predecessor’s commitment to transparency and scrutiny of the development budget to ensure value for money. Why, then, with the replenishment of the global health fund, which should be one of the biggest multilateral commitments, just days away, have we not seen the publication of the multilateral and bilateral reviews?
If I may repeat again, we are very focused, and my predecessors quite rightly worked hard and assiduously on value for money and greater transparency. I want to go even further by making the entire global aid system more transparent, more focused on results and more accountable to those we are trying to help. The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the global fund replenishment. A conference is taking place this weekend, and I will be making an announcement over the course of it. I shall also be making sure with that replenishment that we push the agenda of greater transparency and value for money.
Aid Budget: Government Departments
We will honour our commitment to the 0.7%. Based on the spending review settlement of 2015, other Government Departments will spend 14% of UK official development assistance in this financial year, including 4% spent through cross-government departmental funds such as the Conflict Stability and Security Fund and the prosperity fund.
Did the international aid transparency initiative not establish that the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office are “poor” and “very poor” at dispensing aid? Should not all of the 0.7% therefore be distributed through DFID?
We have a cross-government strategy on how to spend ODA money on Government priorities. We want to address the challenges across the world—there are obviously many global threats—which is why the MOD and other Government Departments have oversight and spend in this area. I am leading, but I work with my colleagues across Government to ensure that the money is spent in the right way on those strategic priorities.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and her Ministers to their new roles. As a member of the International Development Committee, I look forward to seeing them in that Committee. Can she reassure me that the non-DFID ODA will continue to see the same amount of scrutiny as the DFID ODA?
I thank my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. We have the watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. As the lead Government Department, leading on overspend, we ensure that the money going across Government Departments through this cross-government strategy is spent on the right priorities. It will be spent in the right way.
I welcome both the Government and the Opposition spokespersons to their posts. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, contrary to what the Defence Secretary told the “Today” programme, it does matter what budget conflict and security spending comes from? Will she guarantee that the Ministry of Defence will not raid the DFID budget, which should be spent on helping the poorest people around the world?
As the world is changing, so must our approach to aid. That is why we have a cross-Government strategy to ensure that official development assistance meets Government priorities while also recognising and tackling the global challenges that we face. DFID will continue to be a leader when it comes to accountability and transparency, and that will, of course, apply to my colleagues throughout the Government as well.
Order. These are extremely important matters affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the face of the planet. They really do deserve—[Interruption.] Order. They really do deserve a more attentive audience. It would show some respect to very vulnerable people if we listened to the questions and to Ministers’ answers.
It was reported in The Guardian today that the Secretary of State has plans for a drastic overhaul in the direction of foreign aid, which will be based on “core Tory values”. Can she explain to us what the overhaul will look like, and how it will affect the most vulnerable?
As I have already said today, my Department will be a champion of British taxpayers when it comes to the rightful spending of UK aid. My predecessors worked assiduously to ensure that aid was spent in the right way, and I will continue to build on that.
As for Conservative values, I am speaking very clearly about economic development, prosperity, jobs and empowerment in many of the poorest parts of the world. That is what my Department and I will focus on as we work on the transparency agenda, while also ensuring that those in the poorest countries can look to the future more positively and with more prosperity.
Since my appointment I have visited India, where I called for the delivery of an ambitious UK-India partnership. I have also visited Lebanon and Jordan, where I saw at first hand how UK-funded programmes are delivering education and humanitarian support to the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp. I look forward to working with all our partners throughout the world where British leadership and experience are valued.
Given that a 20% increase in funding for the global fund from Britain is perfectly affordable in the context of Britain’s rising aid budget, and given that such an increase would trigger further sizeable increases in contributions from the United States and from Gates, why can the Secretary of State not tell the House now whether she will meet that 20% request?
I have already said that I will be doing that, along with my colleagues. I spoke to my Canadian counterpart yesterday about our replenishment of the global fund, and other support. The global fund does amazing work in meeting global objectives. I shall make an announcement about our replenishment this weekend, at the Replenishment conference.
I only just heard my hon. Friend’s question, but I picked up his reference to global goals, which represent a comprehensive plan when it comes to fighting poverty and meeting our strategic objectives. I assure him that my Department is focusing on delivering on those goals, and on meeting our manifesto pledges on aid.
Again, I only just heard the question, but I think it was based on the need for positive dialogue with colleagues in the Scottish National party. If it was, absolutely: that is exactly what I shall be doing.
Of course, international assessments of Venezuela note that it is suffering a deep economic crisis and not just with inflation, but also because there is a health emergency there—a shortage of medicines and a humanitarian crisis. Strangely enough, Venezuela’s economic and political policy models have of course been championed by the Labour party, and we can now see what those policies have led to, with the economic catastrophe in Venezuela.
I look forward to publishing both of the reviews, and since they were draft reviews when I came into the Department, I am looking at them to make sure they meet not just the Government’s priorities, but also DFID’s new priorities. I look forward to publishing them later this year.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The UK is the largest donor to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, which protects children from rubella through measles and rubella vaccinations, and of course GAVI has been set up very much to do exactly what my hon. Friend says. We have the UK aid match scheme, and Sense International has received over £200,000 for this very purpose in Uganda and Kenya in particular. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend about his findings from his visit.
Yesterday, the all-party group on Syria—[Interruption.]—met so that we could, with friends from Syria, remember our colleague Jo Cox—[Interruption.]
Order. I really do think that this question in respect of the seriousness of the situation in Syria, and in deference to our late colleague Jo Cox, should be heard in silence.
Yesterday, the all-party group on Syria met so that we could, with our friends from Syria, remember our colleague Jo Cox. May I ask the Secretary of State, further to answers she gave a moment ago with regard to besieged areas, what discussions she has had with colleagues in the region about making sure that sufficient resources are stockpiled in nearby areas so that as soon as that humanitarian window opens we can make sure those areas get the help they need?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right once again to highlight the appalling crisis and the conflict we see in Syria right now. Further to the points I made earlier, with the new cessation of hostilities coming into force we are of course focused on all avenues of access to get humanitarian aid and support into many parts of Syria that have not seen aid or any humanitarian support for a considerable time. With regard to the discussions I have been having, I have been speaking to colleagues in the region and colleagues across government, and I have also been speaking to our international partners about how we can get that aid through to these critical locations.
Thank you, colleagues.
Let me start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the former Member of Parliament for Witney, David Cameron. He has been a tremendous public servant both for his Witney constituency and the country as a whole, and under his leadership we saw the economy being stabilised, more people in work than ever before, and people on low incomes being taken out of paying tax altogether, and this Government will build on that legacy by extending opportunity to all parts of the country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Last week, the Prime Minister could not tell us whether she was in favour of staying in the single market. As an Edinburgh MP, may I tell her how important the financial sector is to Scotland’s economy? Will she tell us whether she agrees with her Foreign Secretary that passporting for financial services is guaranteed to continue after the UK leaves the European Union?
I am not going to give the hon. Lady a different answer from the one I gave the House on many occasions last week, which is that this Government will be working to ensure the right deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services. That includes listening to the concerns that the Scottish Government and the Governments in Northern Ireland and Wales might wish to raise with us. We will be fully engaged with the devolved Administrations. As I said last week, the best thing for the financial sector in Edinburgh and for the economy of Scotland is to be part of the United Kingdom.
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the very good employment figures that we have seen today. As he has said, unemployment in his constituency has halved since 2010. That is because we have had an economic plan and built a strong economy. He is absolutely right to say that as we look to provide opportunities for young people, we must ensure that we consider those for whom technical skills and a vocational education are the right route, because what we want is an education that is right for every child so that they can get as far as their talents will take them.
I am sure that the whole House will join me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside, in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed several times yesterday in the line of duty while trying to arrest a rape suspect in Huyton. We all wish him well and a speedy recovery. I also wish the former Prime Minister well on his departure from this House and in his future life. I hope that the by-election in Witney will concentrate on the issues of education and on his views on selection in education.
I want to congratulate the Prime Minister. She has brought about unity between Ofsted and the teaching unions. She has united former Education Secretaries on both sides of the House. She has truly brought about a new era of unity in education thinking. I wonder if it is possible for her this morning, within the quiet confines of this House, to name any education experts who back her proposals on new grammar schools and more selection.
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed in Knowsley? One of the events that I used to look forward to going to every year as Home Secretary was the Police Bravery Awards, because at that event we saw police officers who never knew, when they started their shift, what was going to happen to them. They run towards danger when other people would run away from it, and we owe them a great tribute and our gratitude.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of education, because it enables me to point out that over the past six years we have seen 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools. That is because of the changes that this Government introduced: free schools and academies, head teachers being put in charge of schools, and more choice for parents. I note that the right hon. Gentleman has opposed all those changes. What I want to see is more good school places and a diversity of provision of education in this country so that we really see opportunity for all and young people going as far as their talents will take them.
I asked the Prime Minister whether she could name any experts who could help her with this policy. Sadly, she was not able to, so may I quote one expert at her? His name is John and he is a teacher. He wrote to me:
“The education system and teachers have made great strides forward to improve the quality and delivery of the curriculum. Why not fund all schools properly and let us do our job.”
The evidence of the effects of selection is this: in Kent, which has a grammar school system, 27% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 45% in London. We are all for spreading good practice, but why does the Prime Minister want to expand a system that can only let children down?
The right hon. Gentleman needs to stop casting his mind back to the 1950s. We will ensure that we are able to provide good school places for the 1.25 million children in schools that are failing or inadequate or that need improvement. Those children and their parents know that they are not getting the education that is right for them and the opportunities that they need.
Let us consider the impact of grammar schools. If we look at the attainment of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children, we see that the attainment gap in grammar schools is virtually zero, which it is not in other schools. It is an opportunity for young people to go where their talents will take them. The right hon. Gentleman believes in equality of outcome; I believe in equality of opportunity. He believes in levelling down; we believe in levelling up.
Equality of opportunity is not segregating children at the age of 11. Let me quote the Institute for Fiscal Studies:
“those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensive system.”
The Secretary of State for Education suggested on Monday that new grammar schools may be required to set up feeder primary schools in poorer areas. Will the children in those feeder primaries get automatic places at grammar school or will they be subject to selection?
We are setting up a more diverse education system that provides more opportunities. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be defending the situation we have at the moment, where there is selection in our school system, but it is selection by house price. We want to ensure that children have the ability to go where their talents take them. I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman that he went to a grammar school and I went to a grammar school, and it is what got us to where we are today—but my side might be rather happier about that than his.
The two things that the Prime Minister and I have in common are that we can both remember the 1950s and can both remember going to a grammar school. My point is this: every child should have the best possible education. We do not need to and never should divide children at the age of 11—a life-changing division where the majority end up losing out.
I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer my question about feeder primary schools. The Secretary of State for Education said on Monday that the Government
“have not engaged much in the reform of grammars”—[Official Report, 12 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 614.]
but that they would now start the process. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether existing grammars, such as those in Kent and Buckinghamshire, will now be instructed to widen their admissions policies?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that what we are looking at and consulting on is a diversity of provision in education. We want to make sure that all grammar schools actually do the job that we believe is important—providing opportunities for a wide range of pupils—and there are many examples across the country of different ways in which that is done through selective education. He talks about a good education for every child, and that is exactly what our policy is about. There are 1.25 million children today who are in schools that are not good or outstanding. There are parents today who fear that their children are not getting the good education that enables them to get on in life. I believe in the education that is right for every child. It is the Labour party that has stifled opportunity and stifled ambition in this country. Members of the Labour party will take the advantages of a good education for themselves and pull up the ladder behind them for other people.
I am sorry that the Prime Minister was unable to help anyone in Kent or Buckinghamshire in the answer to my question—presumably, she will have to return to it. This is not about pulling up ladders; it is about providing a ladder for every child. Let me quote to her what a critic of grammar schools said:
“There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to ‘bring back’ grammars, an assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few.”
He goes on to say:
“I want the Conservative Party to rise above that attitude”.
Those are not my words, but those of the former right hon. Member for Witney. Is he not correct that what we need is investment in all of our schools and a good school for every child, not this selection at the age of 11?
What we need is a good school for every child, and that is precisely what we will be delivering with the policy that we have announced. With that policy, we will see: universities expanding their support for schools; more faith schools being set up; and independent schools increasing their support for schools in the state sector. A diversity of provision of education is what we need to ensure good school places for every child. That good school place is important so that young people can take opportunities and get into the workplace.
I notice that this is the right hon. Gentleman’s fifth question and he has not yet welcomed the employment figures today, which show more people in work than ever before; and wages rising above inflation. That is more people with a pay packet and more money in those pay packets. What would Labour offer? It would offer more taxation and misery for working families. It is only the Conservative party that knows you can build an economy that works for everyone only when everyone has an opportunity for work.
Of course I welcome anyone who has managed to get a job; I welcome those people who have managed to get jobs, and keep themselves and their families together. The problem is that there are now almost a million of them on zero-hours contracts who do not know what they are going to be paid from one week to the other.
In order to help the Prime Minister with the expertise on the reform of secondary schools, may I quote to her what Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has said? He said quite simply this:
“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense”.
Is not all this proof that the Conservative party’s Green Paper addresses none of the actual crises facing our schools system: a real-terms cut in the schools budget; half a million pupils in supersize schools; a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention; a rising number of unqualified teachers in classrooms; and vital teaching assistants losing their jobs? Is this not a Government heading backwards, to a failed segregation for the few and second-class schooling for the many? Can we not do better than this?
The right hon. Gentleman has got some of his facts wrong—plain and simple. We have more teachers in our schools today than in 2010. We have more teachers joining the profession than leaving it. We have fewer pupils in supersize classes than there have been previously. I simply say this to him: he has opposed every measure that we have introduced to improve the quality of education in this country. He has opposed measures that increase parental choice, measures that increase the freedom of head teachers to run their schools, and the opportunity for people to set up free schools. Those are all changes that are leading to improvements in our education system, and we will build on them with our new policies.
I recognise that this may very well be the last time that the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to face me across the Dispatch Box—certainly if his MPs have anything to do with it. I accept that he and I do not agree on everything—well, we probably do not agree on anything—but I must say that he has made his mark. Let us think of some of the things he has introduced. He wants coal mines without mining them, submarines without sailing them, and he wants to be Labour leader without leading them. One thing we know is that whoever is Labour leader after the leadership election, it will be the country that loses.
Order. May I just point out to the House that progress today at this Question Time session has been absurdly slow? I ask the House on behalf of our constituents to show some respect for those colleagues who want to question the Prime Minister, and I am determined to get down the list. I call Craig Williams.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we never forget the horrors of the holocaust and the lessons that must be learned from that. It is right that we have agreed to this national memorial next to Parliament on Victoria Gardens, which is an important place for it to be. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will today launch an international competition for the design of that memorial. The design may include a learning centre, which will ensure that there will be opportunities for young people and others truly to learn the lessons from the holocaust and to learn about the appalling atrocities that took place.
Last week, the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to give any assurances about remaining in the single European market. Today, she has been unwilling or unable to give any assurances to the financial sector about protecting the passporting of financial services. Meanwhile, millions of people from across the United Kingdom depend on freedom of movement across the EU for business and for pleasure. They face the prospect of having to apply and possibly pay for visas. Is the Prime Minister in favour of protecting visa-free travel—yes, or no?
There was a very clear message from the British people at the time of the referendum vote on 23 June that they wanted to see an end to free movement as it operated and control of the movement of people from the European Union into the UK, and that is what we will deliver.
The Prime Minister and the UK Government are totally unwilling to tell us the true cost of Brexit and what their negotiating position will be. In contrast, there is a different tune from the European Union. The new EU negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, has said:
“It’s wrong that Scotland might be taken out of the EU when it voted to stay.”
Does she agree with Mr Verhofstadt and the Scottish Government who want to protect Scotland’s place in Europe?
It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to ask that question, but only two years ago he did not want to protect Scotland’s place in the European Union, because he wanted Scotland to leave the UK. On all of those questions, whether it is on the referendum for leaving the European Union, the referendum on independence in Scotland, or those in this House, he seems to think that if he asks the question all the time, he will get a different answer. Well, it will not work for me and it will not work for the Scottish people.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We want our universities not just to be places of learning, but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged and people can get involved in that. I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary. We want to see that innovation of thought taking place in our universities; that is how we develop as a country, as a society and as an economy, and I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Obviously, I am not as aware of the details of the individual case as the hon. Gentleman is. The Home Secretary has heard him, and if he would like to write to her with the details, I am sure this case will be looked at. Of course, there are rules that do enable family reunion to take place, and we as a country have committed to take a number of children who are particularly vulnerable—potentially vulnerable—to sexual violence from the region around Syria to ensure that we can resettle them in the UK and take them out of that fear that they are experiencing. But my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will look at the case if he cares to write to her.
As I mentioned earlier in response to a question, one aspect of the vote on 23 June was that people want us to control movement from the European Union into the UK, and, of course, we are already able to control movement from outside the European Union into the United Kingdom. The details of the system we will introduce for EU citizens are currently being worked on, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will have the ability to control movement from the EU and movement from outside the EU, and therefore bring that greater degree of fairness that I think people were looking for.
Of course, the House of Commons voted for that reduction in the number of Members of Parliament—I think people wanted to see that. I would gently remind him that, when he refers to the House of Lords and changes in the House of Lords, it is actually this Government who have introduced the retirement procedures for the House of Lords that have seen a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Lords.
My hon. Friend is right: the five-year plan does include that proposal for more local input in care at a local level. It is absolutely right that in looking at, for example, the future of minor injuries units, local people are considered and local concerns taken into account. I understand that there is due to be a meeting in Ely later this month to consider this. I hope that she and her constituents will be able to make their views known at that meeting.
I am of course happy to commend the company that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. Of course, the west midlands is an important driver in terms of engineering skills in this country. But I simply do not recognise the situation that he has set out in relation to apprenticeships. We have seen 2 million apprenticeships created over the last six years, and we are committed as a Government to seeing more apprenticeships being created. That is giving young people, like the young people I met when I went to Jaguar Land Rover, opportunities to learn a skill to get into a job, to get into the workplace, and to get on where their talents will take them.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in the all-party parliamentary group. The stable family background that young people are brought up in is obviously important, and she has been a champion for families and for family life. I have set up a policy group led by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). I will ask him to look very carefully at the report that has come out of the all-party parliamentary group to see what we can take from it.
The issues of climate change, reducing emissions, and our energy policy are very important to this Government. We have a fine record in this area, and we will be continuing with that. The issue of carbon capture and storage has been looked at carefully in the past. One of the key issues is the cost. We will continue to invest in the development of CCS. We are investing over £130 million to develop the technology, through innovation support, with the aim of reducing its costs, and so we will continue to look at the role that it can play.
I commend my hon. Friend and others in this House who play a role as school governors—a very important role. She is right that schools need to think carefully about how they are using their resources. The approach taken by water companies does vary. However, we are looking at the guidance to water companies in relation to how they can deal with schools and whether they could be looking at using more concessionary rates for schools.
On the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, I will come back to him on the details. As he knows, the National Crime Agency operates in Northern Ireland on a slightly different basis from that on which it operates elsewhere across the United Kingdom. Where issues are being looked into, it will be necessary to ensure that the appropriate skills and capabilities are brought to bear. If I may, I will write to him with a detailed answer to his question.
Will the Prime Minister give her full and enthusiastic support to President Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci as they reach a crucial stage of their negotiations, which we hope will deliver a negotiated settlement for a free and united Cyprus?
I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in doing that. It is important. I think that everybody across this House will wish those talks well and hope that they will have a successful conclusion.
On the process point, it is not for the Prime Minister to insist who attends before a Committee of this House. I understand that Dame Lowell Goddard has been invited to attend the Committee. I think that the hon. Lady and I share, as do many hon. Members across this House, a desire to see the issues of these appalling crimes of child abuse being properly looked into. That is important. Dame Lowell Goddard has set up the inquiry and the truth project. Many aspects of it are already in place and operating, and I am very pleased that Alexis Jay has taken on the role of chairman of the inquiry. She chaired the Rotherham work, and I think that she will do this work extremely well and we will have answers to questions that so many have been asking for so long.
Child sexual exploitation is an issue that affects many communities. Does the Prime Minister agree that shining a light on the events of the past is the best way to learn lessons for the future, and will she agree to an independent review of child sexual exploitation in Telford?
My hon. Friend has just shown the cross-party concern that there is on the issue of child abuse and child sexual exploitation. It is absolutely right, as she says, that we are able to look into the abuses and crimes of the past. We will need to learn important lessons from that as to why institutions that were supposed to protect children failed to do so. It is for the authorities in Telford to look specifically at how they wish to address those issues in Telford, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has heard my hon. Friend’s comments and that she will want to take that up with her.
The hon. Lady obviously raises a very important point in relation to contaminated blood. I will take it away and consider it. Obviously, she will know the reasons and background that led to the Hillsborough independent panel, but I recognise people’s concerns about contaminated blood and will consider the point that she has made.
The Prime Minister will be aware of coverage regarding a report to be published by Dame Louise Casey, the Government’s integration tsar. The report will speak of British laws, culture, values and traditions, such as Christmas, being threatened by political correctness from council officials. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to send a loud and clear message that the best way to secure a harmonious society is not only for mainstream Britain to respect minority traditions, such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, but for council officials to appreciate that minority communities should respect the views and traditions of mainstream Britain, which means that Christmas is not “Winterval” and that Christmas trees are not “festive” trees?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will not comment on or pre-empt the findings of Louise Casey’s review, which is an important piece of work. I will simply join my hon. Friend by saying that what we want to see in our society is tolerance and understanding. We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.
Will the Prime Minister look carefully at the calls from the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland for new questions to be added to the next census so that we can better meet the needs of our serving personnel in the armed forces, our veterans and their families? In relation to Northern Ireland, where such a massive contribution is made to the armed forces through recruitment and service, will she look carefully at the distribution of funding under the armed forces covenant so that there is equitable funding across all regions and countries of the United Kingdom?
Of course, I am pleased that it was this Government who introduced the military covenant, and who have recognised the importance of that bond and that link with those who are serving in our armed forces and with veterans of our armed forces. I have not seen the specific request from the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland, but that will certainly be looked at by the Cabinet Office when considering the next census.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the co-operation between Russia and the United States in respect of Aleppo sets a very important precedent, and that it is in the British national interest to redevelop our links with Russia? We may then be able to solve many more problems in that region.
My hon. Friend is right that the agreement that has been reached between Russia and the United States about Syria is an important agreement, and I think everybody in this House will want to see that being put into practice and working on the ground. There have been a number of occasions when we have seen what appear to be steps forward, and sadly it has not been possible to implement them, but I hope that it will be different this time. It would mark an important step. We should have no doubt about the relationship that we should have with Russia. It is not a business as usual relationship. I made that very clear when I was responding to the report on the murder of Litvinenko, and we should continue with that position.
May I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner on Merseyside, in commending the tremendous bravery of the police officers involved in the stabbing incident in my constituency yesterday, who nevertheless apprehended the suspect? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, often in very dangerous circumstances, the police are being asked to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in recognising once again the work of the individual police constable—[Interruption.] I apologise—the three police constables who apprehended the suspect while being under attack. As I said earlier, our police officers bravely go where others would not go in order to protect the public. They do so much in the line of duty and, for some, when they are off duty as well. They are prepared to go and face danger in order to protect us.
On the issue of resources, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we have protected police budgets over the period of the comprehensive spending review settlement, in the face of a proposal from his Front Benchers that we should cut them by 5% to 10%.
Order. I had hoped to be able to announce today the timetable for the elections to vacant Chairs of Select Committees. It is my understanding—I may, of course, be wrong—that discussions on these matters in the usual channels have concluded, but the Government have still to table the various motions required. I very much hope that they will be tabled very soon. It may be helpful to Members to know that if the House agrees to those motions, it is my fervent hope and expectation that the elections for Chairs may take place on Wednesday 19 October.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Not now. I will come to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] It may be on that matter, but there is something else that I want to say first. It is always good to keep the hon. Gentleman in reserve; it builds up a sense of eager anticipation in the House.
Michael Carpenter, Speaker’s counsel, retires from the House service at the end of September. Michael was seconded to the House of Commons from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department in October 2000 as counsel for European legislation, and he subsequently became an employee of the House. Michael became Speaker’s counsel in October 2008. He has served this House and, if I may say so, colleagues, he has served me, magnificently. I shall always be grateful to him, and the House should be thankful for his sense of duty, for his immense ability and for his stoicism and fortitude under pressure. I am sure that the House would wish to send its best wishes to Michael and to his family following his retirement. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I am pleased to announce that, following fair and open competition, Saira Salimi will take on the role of Speaker’s counsel in October. Saira is currently the deputy official solicitor to the Church Commissioners, a role that she has held for the last five years. Before that, Saira was a member of the office of the parliamentary counsel for eight years, and she comes to us with a detailed knowledge of the legislative process. I am sure that the House will want to wish Saira well in her new and important role. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I will take points of order now, before we come to the urgent question. I saw the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) first, and I am slightly anxious that he will burst if he does not have his opportunity ere long.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing a point of order at this stage. On the issue that you raised—I thank you for bringing it to the attention of the House—obviously the two Whips Offices will be working very hard to ensure that this House has the opportunity to set up Select Committees to scrutinise the Government. But as they are having some sort of trouble, is there any possibility that we can do something in this House to ensure that it happens before we go into recess? It would be really useful if we could have the election on the day that you specified, because that is my birthday.
It seemed to me, I must say to the House, that there was very good reason to make expeditious progress on this matter in any case. I am sure that there was absolutely no hint of underlying sarcasm in the hon. Gentleman’s observation when he expressed the confident expectation that the Whips on both sides would want to make progress in the establishment of the new Committee and in the election of the vacant Chairs of all the Committees, because of course they will want the Government to be subject to proper and thorough scrutiny. There is very good reason to proceed expeditiously anyway, but the fact that 19 October is also the hon. Gentleman’s birthday provides an added incentive.
The hon. Gentleman asks what can be done. The short answer, as I think he knows, is that I am doing what I can, not very subtly, to indicate that the usual channels really ought to progress this matter sooner rather than later. So far as I am concerned, that means by tomorrow. I hope we are clear.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for allowing me to raise this point at this stage. I add my best wishes to Michael, and to Saira as she takes up her new role.
With the changes to the Select Committees, the old Business, Innovation and Skills Committee will probably change to a new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the BIS Committee is one of the constituent Committees of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Is it your view that the new Committee will take over the role of the old BIS Committee as one of the constituent Committees, and that it would not be correct, as has been suggested in some quarters, for a new International Trade Committee to take over sole responsibility for scrutinising our arms exports controls?
It has to be said that the hon. Gentleman is an ingenious fellow, and he has regularly demonstrated his ingenuity since his election to the House. I do not blame him for seeking to shoehorn in his current preoccupation when we are discussing the timetable for elections to the vacant Chairs of Committees. However, the proper answer for me to give him is that it is not a matter for the Chair. It will be a matter for the Committee concerned to decide. If the hon. Gentleman were afflicted with a sudden bout of self-doubt or reticence, causing him to be reluctant or unable to express his view on this matter, I would be concerned, but he will not be, and therefore I am not.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I notice that the Leader of the House is in his place. Would it be in order, for the benefit of the House, for him to rise at the Dispatch Box and put the House out of its misery on the Government’s plan for the dates of the election of Select Committee Chairs?
The Leader of the House is not under any such obligation. It has to be said that normally—I speak with some authority on this matter, as I have known him for 30 years, and we have been next-door constituency neighbours for the best part of 20 years—he is the most accommodating of colleagues.
I have a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman is about to prove the point.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If it will help the House, let me say that, as you rightly said, agreement was reached through the usual channels earlier this week about the reconstitution of Select Committees following the changes to Departments. It was clearly right for us to seek full cross-party endorsement for the changes, and that has now been obtained. I have therefore given instructions for the necessary resolutions and changes to Standing Orders to be drafted immediately, and we shall certainly table them as rapidly as we can get them to the House authorities.
I think that is very encouraging. I do not want to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman, but may I just say that he is in some danger, if he is not careful, of being held aloft by Members from all parts of the House? We will leave the matter there for now. I thank the Leader of the House for what he has said, which is encouraging.
Tax Credits: Concentrix
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on Concentrix’s activities in relation to tax credit investigations made on behalf of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
I want to be very clear: the Government recognise the importance of tax credits to individuals and families. We all recognise that it is important for this support to reach the people who really need it. That is why HMRC works hard to check that it is making the correct payments, and to tackle any fraudulent claims. We must acknowledge that error and fraud exist in the system, and should be addressed to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent correctly. As part of this work, HMRC engaged Synnex-Concentrix Ltd in 2014 to help check people’s eligibility. As a result, almost £300 million of incorrect payments have been avoided.
I want to reassure the House on two key points. First, Concentrix has been paid only for making the right decisions; it has not received payment for taking someone’s money away wrongly. Secondly, Concentrix has not been allowed to engage in fishing expeditions or to pick on vulnerable claimants at random. Where there has been evidence to suggest a claim might not be correct, Concentrix has written to claimants to seek further information and confirm their eligibility. I realise—I know this as a constituency Member myself—that it can be stressful for someone to receive such a letter, but it is right that we investigate the full picture, with contributions from claimants themselves, to ensure we make the right payments. That is why both Concentrix and HMRC, where it does the same work, always send a letter and give claimants 30 days to provide information before taking any further action. It is important that people do indeed respond, and that they get in touch if they are struggling to respond to any of the questions.
Despite the best efforts of the staff manning the phones, Concentrix, with the high volume of calls in recent weeks, has not been providing the high levels of customer service that the public expect and which are required in its contract. HMRC has therefore given notice that this contract will not be renewed beyond its end date in May 2017. HMRC is also no longer passing new cases to Concentrix, but is instead working with it as a matter of urgency to improve the service it provides to claimants and to resolve outstanding cases. I can confirm to the House that 150 HMRC staff have been redeployed with immediate effect to help it to resolve any issues people are having with their claims as quickly as possible.
I realise that colleagues on both sides of the House are concerned to get difficult cases resolved and to assist vulnerable constituents appropriately. In addition to the extra resources I have mentioned, I have arranged a drop-in for Members in Room B, 1 Parliament Street between 9.30 and 11 am tomorrow, at which HMRC officials will be available to offer guidance to colleagues, should that be helpful.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been contacted, as she has been, by distressed and anxious constituents—often hard-working individuals who have had their tax credits cut unfairly, in many cases pushing them into extreme hardship. Although Labour Members certainly welcome the fact that HMRC has finally taken action by announcing that the Concentrix contract will not be renewed, it is most regrettable that the Government undertook such action only when events were dramatically exposed by the media and, indeed, by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field).
It remains the case that Synnex-Concentrix will be carrying out these services for another eight months. There is therefore a risk that, without radical amendments to the contract itself, service failures will continue. Of most concern is the fact that the payment model arguably creates a conflict of interest, as has been noted by the Social Security Advisory Committee. Will the Minister therefore confirm what arrangements she will make urgently to revise the contract to preserve justice for the claimants?
As the Minister stated, I understand that HMRC will redeploy 150 staff so that claimants can get through to advisers and resolve their claims. Will she confirm how the Government will monitor that? Will the Government now commit to an official investigation into Concentrix’s conduct since it was awarded the contract in 2014, so that we can determine how this situation was allowed to arise? Finally, has she given any consideration to the real prospect of bringing this service back in-house?
I will try to answer those questions, but it is worth commenting that this Government, and indeed their predecessors, inherited a very complicated system. In the long term, the right answer is to replace tax credits, as is our intention, because we were bequeathed an unnecessarily complex system. However, we must make the system work while it is in operation, and that is now the focus of our activities.
On HMRC’s decision about the contract, I want to reassure the House that monitoring has taken place regularly throughout the contract. Indeed, HMRC has worked closely with Concentrix. It is the case that, as has been documented, performance has not been good in recent weeks. That has clearly been noted, and we are now taking action on it.
On the contract going forward, as I mentioned in my response to the urgent question, Concentrix will focus on resolving outstanding claims, not opening new ones. In other words, it will deal with those already open in an orderly and appropriate manner. HMRC is putting in additional resource. In particular, I have asked it to focus on the difficult cases—there have been some high-profile examples in recent days—to ensure that we resolve them as quickly as possible so that all our vulnerable constituents are helped and supported.
That is the key focus as we go forward. There is no need to go into inquiries and so on. We have a contract that is monitored on a regular basis. It will not be renewed when it comes to an end in May next year. The focus for all of us in the coming days and weeks—and for me and for HMRC in particular—is on making sure that the outstanding cases are resolved, especially those of the most vulnerable, and that people have the money to which they are correctly entitled.
I have cases of women who have had their tax credits stopped because, they have been told, they are living with a man of whom they have never heard or, indeed, with the tenant of the property prior to them occupying it. Their benefits have been withdrawn. I am not sure that I need advice tomorrow morning in 1 Parliament Street—when, incidentally, the House is sitting. We need to know how quickly those cases can be reviewed.
I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s point. The drop-in is there as a facility should Members wish to use it, but it is not an alternative to the HMRC lines already in place. We encourage anyone affected to call the HMRC number on the letters they have received. We are putting significant additional resources into those helplines, with immediate effect, to make sure we can resolve the situation. I am reassured—although obviously I will be talking to HMRC consistently about this—that as soon as the facts of a case are resolved we can get money into people’s accounts in a short number of days.
I am delighted that the Concentrix contract is not to be renewed. It will come as some comfort, at least, to those who have been affected by its activity. That contract was designed to save £1 billion in fraud and overpayment. The Minister tells us some £300 million has been saved. How much of those so-called savings was as a result of false accusations by Concentrix against tax credit recipients? If somewhere between 120 and perhaps many thousands of people were affected, why was the contract not cancelled sooner? The cost of the contract was reputed to be some £75 million. How much do the Government intend to claw back to directly compensate those affected? The Minister tells us, and I am pleased to hear, that HMRC civil servants have been drafted in to clean up the mess, but how much will that cost the taxpayer in additional pay, and will the Government be seeking payment from Concentrix to fund that remedial action?
I am not able to respond immediately from the Dispatch Box to one or two of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. My clear priority and that of HMRC at the moment is to make sure that we resolve the outstanding cases, and in particular the difficult cases for vulnerable constituents. We will then turn our mind to some of the other points that he made. We are not renewing the contract, but we intend to continue to bear down on error and fraud. That is important, as there is a lot in the system, but we have had a great deal of success in recent years in reducing it—the amount of fraud in the system has halved from £800 million to £400 million. We need to continue to bear down on that, because money that is fraudulently obtained is money that is not available to taxpayers. It remains vital that we address that matter. But for the moment, my primary consideration is resolving the difficult cases to make sure that we look after our most vulnerable citizens.
I am a big fan of supporting those people who are trying very hard to get on in life and who depend on tax credits. One of my concerns is that over the next eight months those people will still be dealt with by Concentrix and will still have that fear of being falsely accused and prosecuted, almost, as they go forward. What reassurance can the Minister give that those people will be looked after, and will HMRC carry on with the contract in the future or will it issue it for new tender?
I have laid out the arrangements we are putting in place. The contract ends next spring. In the meantime, HMRC will support Concentrix on the outstanding cases—in particular, looking at more complex cases and supporting back-office functions while Concentrix staff focus on resolving already open cases. It is important to have a bit of perspective. Concentrix has assisted the Government and, indeed, the taxpayer in correctly identifying a lot of claims as either erroneous or fraudulent. It is important to keep the matter in perspective, but HMRC has made clear its operational intention not to continue the contract beyond the spring.
I thank the Minister and HMRC for reacting so quickly to issues and concerns raised in the House, but several questions remain. What estimate has been made of the current backlog needing to be dealt with by Concentrix and HMRC? How should those people currently being dealt with contact Concentrix—through the current helpline or by contacting HMRC directly? Why were these appalling failures not acted on before they were revealed in parliamentary questions, if HMRC was monitoring the contract so closely? Will HMRC bring the contract back in-house in May next year? Will the Minister today commit to a review of all payment-by-results contracts, which are completely inappropriate in our welfare system?
I am aware that the hon. Lady has been very active on this—she has asked a number of parliamentary questions and has shown considerable interest in the issue. It is important to note, and the performance figures support this, that it is only really in recent weeks that performance has not been acceptable. It is not that this has been an acute problem for a considerable length of time. However, performance has not been acceptable in recent weeks.
People should contact the number on the letters they have received. I am aware that there have been problems getting through on the phone in recent weeks, and have tested it out for myself. We are putting in additional resources to allow Concentrix to focus on answering the phones and dealing with outstanding cases while additional HMRC staff resolve some of the back-office issues and some of the complexities, so that people can focus on the immediate issue.
Some more mandatory considerations are coming in, but we think there are around 2,500 cases in the system still to be dealt with at the moment. We expect more to come in because it is that time of year, after people who have not supplied additional information as they were requested to have seen their tax credits stopped. We feel that, with that additional resource, we can resolve that quickly, and that is my focus.
Now that the position is that Concentrix is not going to deal with any new claims or cases, will my hon. Friend clarify for the House who, from HMRC or wherever, will deal with claims of errors, fraud and other problems, so that we send a strong signal to people that that will not be acceptable and that we want to see genuine claimants compensated for losing money that they need?
I reassure my hon. Friend that it has always been the case that both Concentrix and HMRC were pursuing matters of error and fraud; it was not the case that only Concentrix was doing so. HMRC will continue to pursue error and fraud cases. In recent years the Government have put additional resource into supporting HMRC’s work on general tax avoidance and evasion, and compliance.
I thank the Minister for her statement and draw the House’s attention to how different that response was from those of the previous Government; I do not believe that we would have had today’s statement had there not been a leadership change, so I thank her for that. Will she pass on my thanks to her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), for the immediate action she took on the report I submitted on Hermes, whose unlawful use of self-employment HMRC has been asked to investigate?
I have two questions. The worry about this contractor is that to some people it appears to be cutting benefits first and asking questions afterwards, and there is no mechanism for a hotline for MPs to try to sort such issues out. Although I very much welcome her bringing the contract back in-house, it is the only contract that has ever been put in place that has allowed a private company to make decisions about people’s benefit levels, so might she review that?
It is quite cheeky of the right hon. Gentleman to ask two questions and to declare so openly his intention to do so, although it is perhaps not quite as cheeky as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who asked five questions without making any such explicit declaration at all.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments on the priority given to resolving problems of this nature. It is worth reiterating that, through the contract, we have secured more than £280 million of identified savings in terms of error and fraud. There continues to be considerable fraud, particularly with regard to whether people live singularly in a household. It is important to recognise that the contract has brought important benefits to the taxpayer.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s challenge on the nature of the contract. Such contracts have their place, but they must work appropriately. The contract must work to do the thing it set out to do, but it must at all times work for taxpayers and, above all, for the vulnerable. I will reflect on his wider point if I may, but I give him reassurance on that general point.
All hon. Members will have received a deluge recently of harrowing cases of people who have had calls from and interaction with Concentrix. They were unsure at first whether the company existed and whether they had received a scam letter, which we see far too often. There has been a poor delay in opening post, and getting through on the telephone has been next to impossible. That service level is unacceptable in the public sector. Will the Minister confirm that her very strong announcement today, which is welcome, shows that the Government are committed to helping the vulnerable immediately and accurately?
I hope we have shown that. We have important contracts across the Government with people to provide services, but clearly they need to be provided to an acceptable standard. The decision is not to renew the contract. In taking that decision, HMRC has clearly taken into account operational performance. The focus for all of us—Ministers, HMRC and individual Members acting in their constituency capacities—is to ensure that our most vulnerable constituents are supported as soon as possible to ensure that the money to which they are correctly entitled hits their bank accounts and they do not have the stress of wondering where the money will come from.
All of us as constituency Members of Parliament can relay stories of how the service contract has worked and been deplorable, but on the jobs that will be lost—some of them are in Belfast—will the Minister tell us what contact she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive, or what contact HMRC has had with the relevant devolved Administrations or regions, about the effect on jobs? What will be done to give support to those who will lose their jobs?
It is important to note that the decision has been taken by HMRC not to renew the contract. To that extent, the decision for a private company such as Concentrix on what it does beyond that point is clearly a matter for the company. If the right hon. Gentleman has concerns of that nature, colleagues in the territorial office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be happy to talk to him in the normal way. It is important to stress that this is not a decision to end a contract here and now, but a decision not to renew it in the spring.
I welcome the steps the Government have taken to protect the vulnerable in this situation. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the lessons learned in this case will apply not only to the contract when it is retendered in May, but across Government contracts more widely?
I hope I can give that reassurance for the future. To date, it has always been the case that, when the Government contract a supplier to provide a service, it should be provided to the right standard, and that contracts are monitored and we ensure that service levels are acceptable to Members and their constituents.
Despite what the Minister has said, I have constituents who have had their tax credits cut off with no prior notification, and who have spent up to 70 minutes on the phone trying to get through, which is a huge drain on their resources. Will she tell us whether the contract included penalties for Concentrix if it did not provide an acceptable service level or answer calls within a set time? If not, who will take the responsibility for negotiating such a flawed contract?
Waiting 70 minutes to have a call answered is clearly not acceptable. I can imagine the distress that would cause somebody trying to get through. If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, and if the hon. Lady will let me, I will write to her about the points she made about the contract—I do not have that detail to hand, and I need to assess what we can say given commercial confidentiality. If I can give her the answers she seeks, I will do so, but I will write to her if that is acceptable.
The National Audit Office found that the Concentrix contract delivered savings of £500,000 in 2014-15 compared with the original estimate of £285 million. It was expected to deliver at best half the original savings planned in the contract. As we have heard, and as we have learned from our constituency postbags, there were a large number of errors in the process. What more can the Government do to improve the tendering process in future, particularly at HMRC, and to improve the managerial capability at HMRC, so that we do not have such mistakes in future?
This is a payment-by-results contract. As I said in my response to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) at the outset, Concentrix will not be paid when it has not acted appropriately and when it has not got a result. It is important that we get these things right and I take my hon. Friend’s point. I reassure him that HMRC, and indeed Ministers, will always seek to get the right contracts. Clearly, when there are lessons to be learned, we must reflect on them and ensure that they are reflected in future arrangements.
Last week in evidence to the Institute for Government, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), admitted that outsourcing to the private sector was not a panacea. Surely after the Concentrix contract fiasco it is time for full review of outsourcing to private companies in the welfare system. Is it not time to look at whether outsourcing is appropriate at all or, if it is to continue, at what better civil service oversight provision is needed to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again?
I again urge hon. Members to keep a degree of perspective. Many contracts deliver what we want. It is worth noting that the Concentrix contract delivered more than £280 million in savings to the taxpayer, which represents a sensible return on that investment. I have said what I have said about service levels—they must be acceptable and to the standard we have contracted for—and there are circumstances in which the use of private companies offers a cost-effective way to get something that the Government might not otherwise have, which could mean flexible capacity or the capacity to do something for an uncertain period. Sometimes, the flexibility that such contracts offer makes it easier than doing something in-house. I take the hon. Gentleman’s points and will reflect on them but I do not draw the same general conclusion as he does.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and concur with the excellent point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). The Minister will know that genuine errors are made by constituents and HMRC. Going by one’s casework and constituency surgeries, it seems that sometimes full compassion is not shown by HMRC when looking at the circumstances when a genuine error is made. Can we ensure that that is done in those difficult circumstances for those who are most vulnerable and in need?
I have had the same experience as my hon. Friend. Only last week in a constituency surgery, I sat with a constituent who had a complex case and who was in a very difficult situation. Obviously, we can take up cases on behalf of constituents, but when constituents ring HMRC, it is important that they explain their circumstances. HMRC will make every effort to resolve the situation quickly. It is very aware of the need to get people sorted out and get money into their bank account, as appropriate, quickly, but I will re-emphasise that—as the House can imagine, I have discussed the issue in recent days. The interest in this urgent question and the points being made on both sides of the House will be seen and heard where they need to be.
A significant number of my constituents have been left financially disadvantaged as a result of the antics and processes at Concentrix. Can the Minister assure the House that, while the priority is to resolve those cases urgently, she will look seriously into fining the company and using those resources to compensate my constituents for the financial distress they have suffered?
To reiterate what I said earlier, I will ask HMRC to advise me on the nature of the contractual arrangements. Again, it might be better if I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on that.
As a constituency MP who has dealt with a number of cases, I am pleased to note the action the Government have taken. That said, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee I have also sat through numerous reports on the quality of service HMRC provides, which is at times hardly of gold standard. What reassurance does the Minister have that, with HMRC picking up some of this work, we will not see a drop-off in the standard of services elsewhere and in future arrangements?
I do not believe that that will be the case. HMRC has been dealing with cases at the same time as Concentrix throughout the period of the contract. I have been assured that the 150 additional staff deployed with immediate effect will be focused on this. I have no reason to believe that any other services will suffer. My hon. Friend’s point is well made and will be re-emphasised to HMRC.
I am glad to hear that the Concentrix contract is ending but, as the Minister said, it will still be dealing with ongoing casework. Will she personally intervene to help a constituent of mine who was plunged into £1,300 of debt through the incompetence of Concentrix? It failed to process the annual review and refused to acknowledge any of my correspondence. Will she take up this case?
Of course. If any Member wishes to write to me, I will ask HMRC to look at it as a matter of priority. The hon. Lady may not be around tomorrow morning, but there is an opportunity, if she or any other Member wants to bring a complex case, to go to the drop-in where HMRC officials will be available. If she would like to write to me, I will of course look at the case.
I first raised this issue last January. It has taken about eight months to get to this situation. The issue, which had been going on for weeks, related to a family who did not have any income over the Christmas period. Why does it take a BBC programme to bring Ministers to the Dispatch Box? On Monday, a member of my staff was given the run-around by HMRC and Concentrix because nobody would take responsibility. My constituents have spent hours on this. To involve the private sector in such a sensitive and humane issue does not work.
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman had that difficult experience. I cannot agree with his general point about there being no role for the private sector in this regard. I refer again to the amount of money that has been saved for the taxpayer. There is a lot of error and fraud in the system, and it is important that we bear down on that. We do not want money to go to people for whom it is not appropriate, in particular in relation to the nature of people’s households. Much of the fraud does rest in that area. As he highlights, this is a particularly difficult and sensitive area to investigate, but we need to continue to investigate it because the amount of fraud in the area of tax credits is considerable.
We can all share the stories of our constituents’ anguish and the frustration for our offices in dealing with this debacle, but we should remember that HMRC is itself not an innocent agent. It designed the contract. It put customer hostility and suspicion into the contract, and into the standards of performance and practice. It was, of course, HMRC that provided the names targeted by Concentrix. This has happened against a backdrop of the Government persistently running down the capacity and character of HMRC. Will some of those bigger policy misguidances also be looked at, as well as the enjoyment we are all having today in scapegoating Concentrix itself?
I return to the answer I gave a moment ago. We need to continue to bear down on fraud in the system. There is a considerable amount of error and fraud. I am afraid it would be naive to think that all of this is error. There is fraud in the system and there is a lot of error, which the original design of tax credits makes easier. We need to continue to bear down on fraud, but clearly we need to do that in a way that does not make it difficult to assist the most vulnerable.
The Minister has mentioned fraud a number of times. There is obviously fraud in the system, but I really do not see that as an excuse for errors and failures that affect our constituents. My constituent Sarah Hodgson has three young children and is struggling to put food on the table. There is no excuse for incompetent contractors. I am glad the Minister talks about the redeployment of HMRC staff to support people. The HMRC office in my constituency, which employs over 200 people, is due for closure. Our nearest regional office is more than two hours’ drive away and the phone system is clearly not working: it is not helping people with their inquiries. Will she please review the closure of our local offices, so that people can keep the support and the face-to-face contact they need in these situations?
I am sorry to hear about the case the hon. Lady mentions on behalf of her constituent. She raises a wider issue about the modernisation project that HMRC is going through. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if she wrote to me. Although the process of modernisation means that some regional offices are closing, it is important because it is fundamentally about delivering a better and more modernised service in the future for all our constituents.
I trust there will be some compensation paid by the company for the ineptness in the way the contract has been handled and the extra costs that have been incurred. A lot of people today have talked about how wonderful it is that this is being brought in-house, but it was not so long ago that this House condemned HMRC for not answering more than half of the telephone calls made by constituents about tax matters. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that, now that new cases will be brought in-house, there will not be the same problems with HMRC as there were with Concentrix?
It is documented that at times in the past HMRC has had problems with answering its phones, but I think that of late some of the information in the public domain is rather out of date. Indeed, performance in answering phones is considerably better and has reached a very good standard in recent weeks. It is important to retain some balance. It is worth noting that Concentrix has amended about 103,000 claims following the checks it has made. I reiterate that this has been an important exercise, but clearly it needs to be done in the right way.
I welcome the news from the Minister that Concentrix will not have its contract renewed, but in the meantime I have ongoing concerns on behalf of my constituents. There has been a lot of talk about what is unacceptable, with a focus on fraud. What we are talking about here today are errors that have been made and have caused tremendous suffering. We are not talking about occasional exceptional errors; we are talking about a widespread number of errors that are causing exceptional misery for some families. Let me just share with the House the story of one of my constituents, a single mother of four, whose tax credits were stopped in error. As a result, her claim has been closed down, her children can no longer access free school dinners, she cannot get free milk tokens for her baby, and, more importantly, she has been told that her claim cannot be reopened for 44 days. Will the Minister assure me that she will intervene, as a matter of urgency, to make sure that this mother can continue to feed her children?
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady’s constituent has had such a difficult time. Obviously, without knowing the details of the case it is very difficult to comment across the Dispatch Box. I urge her to use the resource I have referred to throughout this urgent question to take up the case. I hope it can be resolved in that way as soon as possible. I have emphasised—HMRC is very aware of this—that speed is of the essence where people have had their tax credits erroneously stopped. She is right that there is error in the system. I reiterate the point that this is a too-complex system, which is exactly why the Government are looking to make major long-term reforms. Even the honest taxpayer can easily fall into error with a system that was so complex in its design from the start.
As we sit here, families up and down the country have been required to rely on charity and food banks. To make ends meet, as a result of what can be described only as frankly ridiculous decisions made by Concentrix, our constituents find themselves in a position not of their own making. To this end and given that so many are living a day-to-day existence, will the Minister confirm just how quickly people can expect to be paid the sums to which they are rightfully entitled?
It is really important that we get the facts of the case correct and quickly. At the point that that is done—it might be during the course of just one phone call—I am assured that money should be placed into people’s accounts in a matter of no more than four working days. That is what I expect to see. It is a matter of days and it certainly should not be weeks. We need to establish the facts in each instance. It is worth saying again—for the sake of the House having some sense of perspective on this issue—that last year only 1.6% of customers asked for a review of the decision, following a check. Given that a large number of people are being checked, that is quite a large number, but it would be wrong to think that this was a huge proportion of the cases in question. It is important to get things right and, as I say, we look to pay people within days—as soon as the facts of the case have been established.
The Minister says that HMRC is supporting Concentrix in performing its contract up until it ends next year. What is the cost to the public purse of that support, and is it recoverable from Concentrix?
It has always been the case, as we would expect, that managers within HMRC have worked with Concentrix throughout. I do not anticipate that enormous additional costs will be involved. There has always been a relationship between the two because there is some overlap in the work being done. I would expect that to continue as we work towards the end of the contract.
The Minister is currently engaged in crisis management, but unless she sees the bigger picture, crisis management itself is not going to be good enough. In her opening statement, she said that Concentrix was not allowed to phish, but it clearly has been phishing. One of my constituents got a phishing letter not only saying that they were going to stop the tax credits, but demanding £10,000 in back payments. It is quite clear that investigation is needed—and soon. Any such investigation needs to look not only at the contract terms, the audit process and Concentrix’s behaviour, but at what is the true resource requirement for dealing with the tax credits issues. Unless the Minister can confirm such an investigation and review, we will be back here in a couple of years’ time.
HMRC has data analytics and operational experience to deliver the kind of savings we are looking for in reducing error and fraud. Practical measures such as simplifying the tax credit system, better monitoring of changes of income through real-time information and improved detection of fraud will obviously go forward. They are all important parts of making sure that we improve performance. It is worth noting again that hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer have been saved by reducing error and fraud. We want to make it harder for people to make errors in the future.
As long as I have represented them, people in the Wirral have been treated with disrespect and indignity by HMRC. This is only the worst of a long series of cases. Let me ask the Minister one simple question: when did she first meet Concentrix to raise our concerns with them?
I have been a Minister in this Department since mid-July. I have not met Concentrix because I have not been the Minister for that long. Clearly, however, my predecessor colleagues have done so. I have been working with HMRC on regular monitoring. Given the interest from colleagues of all parties in recent weeks, I have been getting daily updates from HMRC on terms of performance. In the relatively short time I have been in my post, particularly in view of the summer recess, I have not had a chance to meet Concentrix. On the hon. Lady’s general point, I am sure that HMRC will be disappointed to hear it, but I am also sure that it will want to reflect on her words.
One issue reported by my constituents is the requirement to send all the documentation by registered post, which costs over £13—money that they can ill afford when they are living on the breadline. During the eight months in which Concentrix will continue to have this contract, will the Minister look urgently at alternative methods of providing documentation?
I will certainly ask that question, but I cannot give any assurance that it will be possible to alter the situation during the time that the contract has left to run. The hon. Lady highlights an important point about where we go in the future with these sorts of systems. It further highlights the fact that the more we can make these things digital and make it easier for people to get right, the more likely we are to avoid these sorts of unhappy situations.
The Financial Secretary should know that I tabled five questions on this issue on Monday, and that I am well alive to the issues that many colleagues have raised this afternoon. With 1,800 people employed by Concentrix in Belfast and with Concentrix redeveloping one location in the city, will the Financial Secretary reflect on how appalling it was that members of staff—many of them my constituents—found out about this news last night only by a tweet from the BBC rather than through any communication from Concentrix or indeed any statement to this House?
As I have said a number of times, the contract is not going to be renewed; it has not been terminated. To that extent, consideration of whether any contract is renewed will take place in the normal course of events. The hon. Gentleman provides me with an opportunity to place on record my thanks to the many Concentrix staff who are working hard at their jobs and trying to resolve problems. At the same time as we shine a light on areas where performance is unacceptable, it is really important to take the chance to reflect on the fact that many people are working hard to do their jobs as well as possible to provide a good level of service. Indeed, many people are succeeding in that regard.
I know the Minister says that she sees no need for an inquiry, but I and many colleagues in the Chamber today—and certainly many of our constituents—very much disagree with that position. My question is: how can we learn the lessons to ensure that the practices employed by Concentrix never come to light again if we do not look into the practices carried out by Concentrix through some form of investigation or inquiry?
In the normal course of events, we would always look to how things should be arranged in the future after reflecting on what we can learn from things that have already happened. That would happen through a normal process of review and consideration. We shall have to agree to differ on the issue of whether an inquiry is needed.
I have been contacted by many distressed women in my Neath constituency about how awful Concentrix really is. Some Concentrix advisers have suggested to mums, who are desperately trying to renew their tax credits, to get payday loans to feed their children while their claims are being processed. A group has been formed, called “Concentrix Mums”, whose more than 5,000 members can share their horror stories. Let me provide just a couple.
No. I think one will suffice.
One it is, Mr Speaker.
I fear the hon. Lady has caught what might be called “the Burnley condition”.
I hope not. Does it involve shoehorning? One mum had not eaten for three days so that she could feed her children. This is sickening: it should be stopped and it should have been stopped a long time ago.
I am aware of the Facebook group that the hon. Lady mentions, and I am also aware of some of the cases that have been documented there. To end where I began, that is exactly why we are deploying additional resources to make sure that we can deal with the most difficult cases for the most vulnerable people as quickly as possible. That will be my focus and that of HMRC in the coming days.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During International Development questions this morning, the Secretary of State said that she would make an announcement on future funding of the global fund at some point next week. It is true that the global fund replenishment conference will take place next week and therefore represents a hard deadline, but given the scale of taxpayers’ funding that is at stake—up to £1.2 billion, hopefully—should not we in the House of Commons, representative as we are of the British taxpayer’s interests, be informed before any briefings are made to the media or to other countries?
It is a matter for Ministers. Announcements can be made during recess periods, and frequently are, but if the Government know what they intend to announce, I would hope that they would be sensitive to the prior claim of Members of this House to be informed first, rather than the information being disseminated through the media or to some other less deserving source. I hope that that deals with the issue for now; I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.
These matters usually end up having to be announced to the House anyway. We had a case of that some days ago, when, frankly, it would have been better for an earlier statement to be made to the House on grammar schools. It was not made as early as it should have been, but when it was eventually delivered to the House, I did ensure that everyone questioned the relevant Minister, and a considerable allocation was therefore required. It is always better, really, if the Government anticipate these things in the first place, rather than waiting until later than is necessary.
Small Charitable Donations and Childcare Payments
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Secretary Karen Bradley, Mr David Gauke, Jane Ellison, Simon Kirby, Caroline Dinenage and Mr Rob Wilson, presented a Bill to make provision about the payment schemes established by the Small Charitable Donations Act 2012 and the Childcare Payments Act 2014.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 68) with explanatory notes (Bill 68-EN).
Health Services Commissioning (Equality and Accountability)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Rehman Chishti presented a Bill to make provision to reduce inequalities in the health care received by people with mental illness and learning disabilities; to require commissioners of health services to make an annual report to the Secretary of State on the equality of service provision to, and the health outcomes for, such people and of their qualitative experience of health care services; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December, and to be printed (Bill 67).
Air Quality (Diesel Emissions in Urban Centres)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Mrs Margaret Ritchie, Rob Marris, Alex Cunningham, Thangam Debbonaire and Tulip Siddiq, presented a Bill to make provision about urban air quality targets relating to diesel emissions; to require vehicle emissions targets and testing to reflect on-road driving conditions; to make the removal or disablement of pollution-reducing devices in vehicles a criminal offence; to provide powers for local authorities to establish low diesel emissions zones and pedestrian-only areas and to restrict the use of roads in urban centres by diesel vehicles; to promote the development of trams, buses and taxis powered by electricity or hydrogen in urban centres for the purpose of improving air quality; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November, and to be printed (Bill 69).
Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Graham Jones, Alex Cunningham, Julie Cooper, Louise Haigh, Mark Durkan, Tommy Sheppard, Sir David Amess, Dr Philippa Whitford and Dr Julian Lewis, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set targets for sugar content in food and drinks; to provide that added sugar content on food and drink labelling be represented in terms of the number of teaspoonfuls of sugar; to provide for standards of information provision in advertising of food and drinks; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 November, and to be printed (Bill 70).
Truly, the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) will prove to be a busy bee.
I am buzzing away now.
The hon. Gentleman is buzzing away now, as he helpfully and originally points out.
We now come to the ten-minute rule motion, which the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) has been so patiently waiting to move.
European Union (UK Withdrawal from Membership)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a bill to implement the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from membership of the European Union; and for connected purposes.
The House knows that the position of the Government is very clear. Brexit means Brexit, and we will make a success of it; also, Brexit means Brexit, and we need to get on with it. I think it important for us to understand, agree with, and endorse the position that article 50 is a matter for the Prime Minister alone. She has the mandate of the masses, given to her—or to the Prime Minister, and the Government—on 23 June, and it is right for her to invoke it. I believe that the sooner she invokes it the better, so that we have the security, the stability and the certainty that we need as we seek to build a post-Brexit Britain.
I am introducing the Bill first to give the House an opportunity to endorse and accept the decision of the British people on 23 June; secondly, to talk about the red lines that the British people clearly identify in terms of what Brexit will look like; and, thirdly, to talk about the vision that we can have for the post-Brexit Britain that we will build.
First, let me deal with the issue of where Members of Parliament stood when it came to the referendum. As the House knows, I was very concerned about the border between Calais and Dover: I did not want it to move back from Calais to Dover. The British people did not share my concerns, and I am here today to say that that is their decision, and we must endorse it.
This is an opportunity, in particular, for the Labour party to reject the talk of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who says that we should have a second referendum to drag the British people back into the European Union. It is an opportunity for the Labour party to say, “We accept and we will submit to the will of the British people, and we will help to make Brexit a success.” I also say to members of the Scottish National party, who do not seem to like the result of any referendum that is held in these isles, “Do not be the Scottish Neverendum party.” I ask them first to accept the decision of the Scottish people, by an overwhelming majority and with an overwhelming turnout, to remain part of the United Kingdom, and, secondly to accept the decision of the British people as a whole that this country, this nation, this United Kingdom, should seek a future outside the European Union. I say to them that it would be wrong to think that “If at first you don’t succeed, vote, vote again” should be their motto. That would be the wrong approach.
Let me now deal with the red lines. It is clear that the British people are deeply concerned about the level of uncontrolled EU immigration. They were told, and it was pledged in manifestos, that net migration would be brought down to tens of thousands, but last year the figure was 330,000. People in Dover tell me regularly that they are very concerned about the downward pressure that that exerts on their wages, and their concern has been underlined and proved right by important research conducted by the Resolution Foundation which shows that, on average, the mass migration that we have experienced has caused wages to be about £450 lower for the hard-working classes of Britain. According to the foundation, if we did succeed in bringing migration down to tens of thousands, they would have a pay rise. Work by the OECD, published in 2014, emphasises that mass migration does not benefit, and has not benefited, the people of Britain or those in the rest of the world. It does not have an economic good, and it does not work for the British people in their daily lives. That red line is crystal clear: we must end uncontrolled EU immigration.
The second red line—which was confirmed by Lord Ashcroft’s recently published poll—is also very clear. People do not want billions for Brussels: that has to end. We cannot have any kind of Brexit deal that includes the handing over of billions to Brussels. Instead, the money should be spent here at home, and invested in Britain. My constituents say that we need a renaissance for the towns and regions of Britain, and we need to use that money wisely—which brings me to my final and most important point.
What is the post-Brexit Britain that we are going to build? What will this country look like? My constituents say to me, “It always seems to be about investing in HS2, or runways at Heathrow, or £4.7 billion for Crossrail. It always seems to be about benefiting London, or benefiting the jet-set elite. What about us in Dover? Why has the A2 not been dualled? We have been waiting for that project for decades.” Every single region in the country will be able to specify an infrastructure project for which it has been waiting for a long time, while things always seem to work for the jet-set elite and the metropolitan populace in London rather than for other towns and regions. We need a rebalancing for the 90% who live in the towns and regions of this nation, rather than the other 10%. It is time that Britain worked for everyone. It is time that public expenditure worked for everyone as well. London receives about £10,000 of public expenditure per head, while the figure for the south-east is less than £8,000. That is a difference of some 26%. My constituents say, “The allocation of resources in this country is not fair. When we get this money back from Brussels, there will be an opportunity to make it fairer.”
It comes down to this question: who does Britain work for? Who do my constituents, and the constituents of the towns and regions of this nation, feel that Britain works for? They feel that it too often works for the Philip Greens of this world, for the privileged few rather than the hard-working-class kids of Dover and Deal and Doncaster and Darlington, and they think that that needs to change. First, big business needs a change of culture. We all know how Apple has been gaming the tax system and paying hardly any tax in this country: it is a bad Apple. We also know that Amazon has a Luxembourg structure. We should look closely at its books, and I hope that HMRC will do so. On Google, we need to make sure that the Public Accounts Committee is supported in its searching, and make sure that Google pays a fair share of tax in this country. When it comes to car rental businesses like Avis, it just shows that we are being taken for a ride when, the other day, it imposed a Brexit tax on Britons but is not paying any corporation tax to Britain because it has a Luxembourg structure. It is that kind of thing that drives the people of Dover and Deal round the bend and we need to call a stop to it. We can do that when we leave the EU very simply, because we will not be struck by its anti-discrimination rules that make it so hard for us to secure our tax base.
We need to make sure that Britain works for the people as a whole, rather than have the bloated boardroom bonuses we have seen too much of in recent years. The ground-breaking research of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) recently showed that pay in the boardroom for chief executives is 150 times that of employees of FTSE 100 companies. That is not right, and that has doubled in the last 12 years. When a shareholder vote rejects that, companies like BP just say, “Well, we’re not accountable to you; we’ll do what we like.” That culture needs to change.
We need to have a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. It is important that we make sure that we have more investment for the regions—that we have runways in places like Bristol and Birmingham and Manchester and that we have railways and roads that work for everyone in the regions. It is important that we have bigger investment.
Finally, I simply say that Brexit means Brexit. We are going to make a success of it, but it is also an opportunity to change how we run Britain, to change our national way of life and who our country works for and make sure it works for literally everyone, rather than just the privileged few, which is how people have felt for too long. That is the kind of change we can make.
It was the towns and regions of this country that decided to take us out of the EU, and they should be supported in leading the charge for the kind of future we can build as we head out into the single market of the world.
I want to decline the right of the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) to bring in his Bill. He said that we in Scotland, the Scottish National party in particular, should respect the decision and the outcome of the referendum. I very much respect the decision of those nations who voted to leave the EU; I would simply say to my friend from Dover that perhaps he and his colleagues should respect the wishes of those nations who voted to remain in the EU.
It is always sweet to be chided by the hon. Gentleman, who railed against the jet-set elite and talked about the imbalance in boardroom pay. We do not need to leave the EU and destroy our trade opportunities to tackle the imbalance in boardroom pay. He talked about the imbalance in public spending, and he was right to do so; indeed, other parts of the country—the east of England, the north-west of England—get even less than the south-east gets, such is the imbalance. But we do not need to leave the EU and weaken job opportunities and export opportunities to rebalance public spending throughout the English regions. If only we had an English Parliament to deal with these things, then things would be so much better. The hon. Gentleman spoke about corporate tax and how little is paid by some of the Goliaths of the global corporate world. We do not need to leave the EU and weaken opportunity further in order to deliver fairness in corporate taxation.
In essence, though, the hon. Gentleman made a pitch to leave now because, he said, “Brexit means Brexit” and we will “make a success of it”; I think I am quoting accurately. The problem, and the reason why no one can support this ten-minute rule Bill, is that when the Prime Minister—the leader of Government, the high heid yin of the Tory party—is asked, “If Brexit means Brexit, does it mean we will be staying in the single market?”, she does not know. When she was asked the most straightforward question earlier today—“Will the passporting in place for financial services be maintained?”—she said “I refer you to the answer I gave last week,” which is, “I don’t actually know.”
So on the basis that “Brexit means Brexit” is no more than a meaningless campaigning expression, and that none of the benefits described by the hon. Gentleman in terms of Brexit—tackling corporate pay and corporate taxation, tackling the imbalance in regional public expenditure in England—will in any way, shape or form be addressed, let alone improved, by Brexit, I fear we are going to have to call against the hon. Gentleman’s valiant attempts to drag the whole of the UK, including those parts who voted to stay in, out of the EU before there is even a plan.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
14 September 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
I beg to move,
That the draft Welfare Reform and Work (Northern Ireland) Order 2016, which was laid before this House on 6 July, be approved.
The order will ensure that the welfare reforms enabled by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 in Great Britain are delivered in Northern Ireland while also ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive have a workable budget. This order is an important part of delivering the “Fresh Start” agreement and will enable the Northern Ireland Executive to provide for supplementary welfare payments from within their own budget. Before the “Fresh Start” agreement, the impasse on agreeing the implementation of welfare reform meant that the Northern Ireland Executive had been operating on an unworkable budget. This had created significant political instability and it risked collapsing the devolution settlement.
This order today brings changes that will help to ensure that the budget of the Northern Ireland Executive is placed on a stable footing. We want to work with the Executive to support a Northern Ireland where politics works—a Northern Ireland with a stronger economy and a stronger, secure and united society. It is in the light of these goals that the Government have agreed to legislate on behalf of the Executive to enable the welfare reform changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 to be implemented. Those changes include the introduction of universal credit, personal independence payments and the benefit cap. This formed an integral part of the “Fresh Start” agreement in November last year.
The Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order passed in December last year has enabled the making of more than 30 sets of regulations replicating in Northern Ireland the welfare reforms in the 2012 Act. The order before the House today is the next step in that process. It has been drafted with the full consent and collaboration of the Northern Ireland Executive to bring social security in Northern Ireland back to a position of parity, thereby helping to rebalance and strengthen the finances of the Executive.
Across the UK, our welfare reforms have focused on supporting people to find and keep work. They have focused on employment, fairness and affordability while supporting the vulnerable. Over the past six years, we have stuck to our economic plan, delivered welfare reform and seen great progress, with employment up 2.7 million. Broadening life chances is a central part of this Government’s plans. In Northern Ireland, the raising of tax thresholds will take 110,000 of the lowest paid people out of income tax altogether, and 700,000 people will benefit from reduced taxes. Also, 100,000 people in Northern Ireland are projected to benefit from the national living wage by 2020. The Government’s support for working people goes hand in hand with the welfare reform programme to encourage people into work.
We have also invested in Northern Ireland. The Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements included financial packages of £2.5 billion to support investment and reform. This includes £350 million of additional capital borrowing explicitly for economic development projects. By working together, the Government and the Executive have achieved significant successes, including bringing £60 million of additional finance to Northern Ireland businesses, providing additional borrowing for shared education projects and boosting green investment by £70 million.
In Northern Ireland, 55,000 more people are in employment than in 2010, but there is much more still to be done. The most recent Northern Ireland unemployment rate of 5.6% is above the overall UK average of 4.9%. The percentage of unemployed people who have been out of work for more than a year is 47.8%—markedly higher than the UK average of 27%. Some 22% of working-age households in Northern Ireland are workless compared with 15% in the UK as a whole.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 built on the 2012 reforms, and this order provides the legislative framework to replicate some of its most important aspects, including changes such as improving fairness in the welfare system by changing the level of the benefit the cap. The order will ensure parity by bringing the cap that exists in Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Changes also include providing new funding for additional support to help employment and support allowance and universal credit claimants with health conditions and disabilities into work and removing the ESA work-related activity component, so that the right support and incentives are in place for those who are able to take steps back to work. The unsustainable rise in benefit levels compared with earnings will be corrected by freezing most working-age benefits. Importantly, the changes will help to ensure that the budget of the Northern Ireland Executive is placed on a stable footing.
It was agreed in the “Fresh Start” agreement that the Executive could supplement benefits from within their own budget. The agreement allocated up to £585 million of the Executive’s block grant over four years to provide for supplementary welfare payments in Northern Ireland, and that will be reviewed in three years. Under the 2015 order, the Assembly has already passed some regulations for supplementary welfare payments relating to the 2012 reforms. The provisions of this order will give the Assembly the ability to design and pass further such regulations, including supplementary payments to those affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy. These time-limited payments follow the recommendations of the Evason report, which flowed from a commitment in the “Fresh Start” agreement.
The order is about delivering the “Fresh Start” agreement and returning Northern Ireland to a position of legislative parity and financial stability, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Minister for bringing this order to the House, but it is a shame that the matter could not have been resolved in Northern Ireland. The order is the result of months of negotiations and an attempt to break budgetary deadlock and avoid the potential collapse of the Stormont institutions. I and many hon. Members were glad to see a deal reached and credit the work of all those involved: the parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and many Members of this House.
I have been involved in Northern Ireland affairs for almost 30 years—within the trade union movement, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and latterly as a vice-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. In the union work in which I was involved in the 1990s, when we worked hard to deliver the peace process, we coined the phrase, “We are a non-partisan agent for change.” It is that phrase that has guided my work inside and outside this House, and it is with that attitude that I want to address the matter before us today.
The Labour party takes great pride in the role it played in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, working with good people on the ground and around the world on the Good Friday agreement, the “Fresh Start” agreement and much in between. We have always worked in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. What is paramount today is ongoing peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and Labour will work with the Government and all interested parties both in this House and in Northern Ireland on maintaining it. I am sure that that sentiment will be echoed by Members in the House today.
The “Fresh Start” agreement included legislative consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow Parliament to enact legislation on its behalf. I respect the legitimacy of the Assembly to do that, but I am sad that it had to. Today’s order seeks to extend, among other measures, the welfare reform Acts of 2012 and 2016 to Northern Ireland. The Government’s welfare reform programme has devastated the lives of far too many vulnerable people across Great Britain, plunging them into financial distress. In the hour before this debate, we heard about the tax credit fiasco. Real people are suffering as a result of measures brought in by this Government over the past six years. I and many other Members from across the country see the effects of the cuts in our constituency surgeries.
This legislation is in the interests of ongoing stability in Northern Ireland, so we will not stand in its way, but the Labour party will never stop showing its ongoing opposition to the Tory austerity agenda, which we have consistently railed against in this House over recent years. We have opposed cuts to tax credits that hit families in the pocket, changes to ESA that hurt those suffering from disease and injury, a benefits caps that does not rise with inflation, cuts to council tax credits, and cuts to crisis loans. We must also never forget that 42% of those deemed fit for work by Atos were actually declared unfit on appeal—a damning indictment of the Conservative party. I could go on and on.
Welfare reform was intended by this Government to impact hard on the UK’s most vulnerable people and to force them to work when they are not well equipped to do so. The desire to inflict on the people of Northern Ireland the same disastrous policy that has blighted the lives of so many of our constituents right across Great Britain is a desperate tactic from a Government more concerned with ideology than compassion. The use of austerity as a weapon of policy was and still is a crude and blunt instrument. The role of austerity in the now hardly mentioned long-term economic plan will be the epitaph of our dear departed friend from Witney and his sidekick from Tatton. Saying “We will make work pay” rings hollow for those forced to look for work while struggling with long-term illness, injury or disease. The truth is that this Government want to make it impossible for anyone to survive on benefits, which is hugely unfair to those struggling from day to day through no fault of their own.
There may be some who say that the changes should apply to Northern Ireland because they apply across the rest of Great Britain, but, to put it simply, two wrongs do not make a right. The Conservative party clearly believes in the equalisation of misery. Labour believes in the alleviation of misery. When we get back into power, we will not be attacking the sick, the young, the elderly and the disabled or calling them scroungers and skivers. We will not be declaring war on anyone whose curtains are not open by a specific time every day. We will not be making the poor pay for the failings of the rich and those who dabble in money markets. It is interesting that the “Fresh Start” agreement includes measures to mitigate the ongoing austerity regime. While I welcome such measures, does that not show that these changes should not be made in the first place? It is accepted that problems are going to be piled on people who do not deserve them.
We have been advised that the cuts will take £750 million out of the Northern Ireland economy and that the loss per working age adult, at £650 per year, is 38% higher than the UK average. In Northern Ireland, it was recently announced that the Michelin factory in Ballymena will close, resulting in the loss of 860 jobs, that another 250 jobs will be cut in the Caterpillar factory in Newtownabbey and that there will be job losses at Bombardier. Those men and women will find less support than ever and this order will do nothing but compound their difficulties as they try to find their way through the world of unemployment.
As the Minister mentioned, Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of long-term unemployment in the United Kingdom. Almost one in 10 adults of working age is in receipt of disability living allowance—almost twice the national average—and so will be hit more than those in other parts of the UK. Belfast will be damaged most by the reforms. Poverty is a genuine everyday reality for many in Northern Ireland, and the reforms will serve no purpose other than to compound such difficulties. The cuts will hurt the vulnerable. They hit the disabled, families and children and Labour cannot be complicit in that.
We have to accept that despite the huge opposition to these so called reforms, they have been enforced on the people of Great Britain. But that does not make them any more palatable and it does not give any more reason also to force the changes on the people of Northern Ireland. We have to accept the very real circumstances of its history and of the current difficulties the people of Northern Ireland face. According to figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, since 1998 more people have taken their own life in Northern Ireland than died throughout the troubles, with research showing that during the recession those figures increased. The suicide rate in Northern Ireland is 70% higher than the UK average. Forcing the vulnerable in society further into despair will do nothing to defeat this problem.
We support any work aimed at maintaining the long-term stability of the institutions in Northern Ireland, as those of us who remember the days of direct rule can attest; we will say how important it is to make sure that these institutions not only carry on, but flourish and improve. On that basis, we will not oppose this order today, but that should in no way be taken as our condoning what is being done by this Government to the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) for outlining the position on welfare reform and the fact that it can be so pernicious in bringing about bad impacts on people already on a low income. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Employment is here today, as he has previously been in the Treasury. He has outlined this supplementary legislation.
My party has always been clear about our position, which is on the record both in this Chamber and in the Northern Ireland Assembly: legislation dealing with welfare reform should have been dealt with in the Assembly, as originally envisaged. Westminster’s interference in our devolved welfare arrangements was inappropriate, as were the subsequent fines. As a former Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland for three years, I recall bringing forward “karaoke” legislation on welfare issues. Why should it have been different this time?
The Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin voted through the legislative consent motion in the Assembly to hand our welfare powers over to Westminster. Indeed, far from its original promises that no claimant would be worse off, Sinn Féin handed our welfare powers over to London to carry out its dirty work, while its Members do not even take their seats in this Chamber. The essence of devolution is to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland, and devolution is damaged if the two largest parties in the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive pick and choose which powers they have and when they have them. People in Northern Ireland must be able to have confidence that the political institutions upon which we agreed in the referendum in May 1998, and the people and politicians involved, are serious about the powers they have and will fiercely defend any attempts to reduce them.
This legislation should have been a matter for the devolved Assembly, which should have resisted the Treasury’s interference and taxes on our devolved budget. Instead, the DUP and Sinn Féin were delighted to have the powers taken off their hands for some 13 months. My party made numerous attempts to build consensus on welfare reform as far back as 2010, both in the Assembly and in this House through my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). He made those attempts when the original Welfare Reform Bill was going through the House—even before the issue came to the Assembly.
The Social Democratic and Labour party was always realistic about the implications of welfare reform and made the case for mitigation that was sustainable and would be included in the devolved budget. I can well recall a meeting we had with Lord Freud, then a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, where we outlined specific measures that would help to mitigate the impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—those mitigation measures areas were eventually to come about. We divided on the Bill last year and on the order when it came to this House in 2015.
I would welcome clarification from the Minister on another matter that is directly related to this order. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle raised it last week. Clause 9 of the Finance Bill provides for the Treasury to ensure that
“no liability to income tax arises on supplementary welfare payments of a specified description”.
But it also makes provision for the Treasury to make regulations to
“impose a charge to income tax under Part 10 of ITEPA 2003 on payments of a specified description.”
The SDLP has been at the forefront of securing mitigating powers for the Assembly to enable it to make supplementary payments. Can the Minister confirm today that the clause does not give the Treasury the green light to interfere in decisions by the Executive and the Assembly on supplementary payments by dictating that those payments could be subject to a tax clawback? As he knows, such top-up welfare payments will be made from the Executive’s own devolved budget and will not come under annually managed expenditure, which is the usual route for the payment of benefits throughout Northern Ireland. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury confirmed last week that the clause will not allow that. Can the Minister for Employment reconfirm that position?
As I said, the SDLP has worked to secure mitigation, and the passing of this order will be necessary to release the moneys for mitigation measures or supplementary payments, which we do not want to obstruct. For that reason, we will not push the House to a vain Division on the order today—I am sure some people will be pleased about that. Notwithstanding that, it is important to remember that welfare reform, and particularly the legislation upon which this order is based, will introduce pernicious measures into Northern Ireland and will have an impact on those with low income who are reliant on benefit. I fear that it could push people further into poverty. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to ensure that people are protected and that there is some form of cushion for them. I respect the fact that the mitigation measures will ensure that there is, but the Government must consider other measures to ensure that people can live decent lives.
Earlier today, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) initiated a debate on social fund funeral payments. The SDLP participated in that debate, because there is a feeling that those payments have been capped for several years and there has been no corresponding increase when the costs have exceeded the bounds of many people’s income. The Minister responding to that debate did not give us a helpful response about future DWP or Treasury measures to increase such payments. When we discuss welfare matters in relation to Northern Ireland, it is important that we take into account the special circumstances of the many people, particularly in urban areas, who find themselves unemployed, perhaps through no fault of their own, and are in receipt of benefits. They must have a financial cushion and protection in order to live their life without any detriment.
The fact that this order has been brought before the House today indicates the radical steps that had to be taken to rescue the Northern Ireland Assembly from financial and political collapse. Let us be in no doubt about this: the Northern Ireland Assembly faced collapse because of the attitude of those who, despite all the protestations that legislation on matters devolved to Northern Ireland should be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly, took a totally irresponsible view and blocked the Assembly’s ability to make decisions. That plunged the Assembly into financial crisis.
It is less than a year since the welfare reform legislation went through the House of Commons. Although the matter had been devolved to Northern Ireland, it was always assumed that the legislation passed in this place would be reflected in the legislation passed in Northern Ireland. The bill was being paid through the AME payments that came to the Northern Ireland economy—in other words, it was money that was paid on demand. If unemployment went up, we did not have to find the money from the block grant; it came centrally from the Exchequer. If there was a change in the number of claimants for a benefit, the money was automatically made available.
Of course, there was opposition to some of the welfare reform measures—indeed, my party voted against a number of them—but once they had been through the House of Commons the stark choice for the Assembly was between deviating from those measures and paying for the deviation, and complying with them and ensuring that payments to the Northern Ireland expenditure block continued. There were some who, because of their minority position in the Assembly—the SDLP led the charge—wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to ensure that the budget in Northern Ireland was not put into jeopardy, but at the same time, like Pontius Pilate, they wanted to wash their hands of what was happening and say, “By the way, the consequences of welfare reform are nothing to do with us, because we voted against it. It was all those other parties that voted it through.” That was the position that we faced because of the political structures in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) suggested that attempts were made to reach consensus with other parties in Northern Ireland. Can my hon. Friend recall any proposal that was made to build consensus and overcome the significant hurdle that he has just outlined, which was that we could either deviate from the welfare reform measures or follow them?
That was the problem. In his short intervention, my hon. Friend did not have the opportunity to explain what happened. We were not delighted that the powers were taken away from us, but because of the use of the petition of concern by the SDLP and others, the ability to bring legislation forward was blocked. We then faced a situation in which we could not bring forward our own bespoke Northern Ireland legislation because of the block.
I will give way in a moment, but let me just explain this, because it is important. Rather than being delighted that Westminster had taken responsibility, our party worked frantically to try to find ways of ensuring that the worst aspects of welfare reform—the ones that we believed were the most damaging and that, for structural reasons, could not be introduced in Northern Ireland—were dealt with by taking money from other priority areas. We used that money to alleviate some of the difficulties. That was blocked—stopped dead in its tracks—by the SDLP’s use of the petition of concern. We worked our socks off to try to get a bespoke arrangement for Northern Ireland, which could be agreed to by all of the parties and would therefore have some kind of democratic authority, but it was impossible to do that because of the actions of the SDLP. It protested that it wanted the legislation dealt with in Northern Ireland, but did its darnedest to ensure that it could not be dealt with in Northern Ireland and that it had to be dealt with here.
Let me refresh the hon. Gentleman’s memory, as I fear that he and his colleagues may have forgotten what actually happened. My colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly proposed an all-party Committee as far back—[Interruption.] It is not flannel. It was proposed as far back as March and April 2011 to address this issue. We wanted to achieve all-party consensus so that we could go forward to the Treasury here in London as a united team to achieve the best possible deal for the people of Northern Ireland.
I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland at the time, and I can remember those discussions. There was a whole list of demands. Basically, it was demanded that we should not introduce any of the welfare reform proposals and that we should just go ahead as usual. The important question was who was going to pay for it. There was a naive belief that if all the parties in Northern Ireland came to Ministers here in London, with the great and the good from Northern Ireland on their coat-tails, and pleaded a special case, we would somehow be exempt from the welfare changes that were being made in all other parts of the United Kingdom. That was the cunning plan. I am afraid that even those who were sympathetic to the SDLP’s point of view knew that nothing would come from it. Indeed, Baldrick could not have devised a more stupid plan had he sought to do so.
There is no point in saying that the SDLP tried to find ways of changing this; the only suggestion was that we should oppose the changes and say that we therefore did not want them for Northern Ireland. The more realistic position, and the one now reflected in the order, was to say that we should look at what resources were available, look at the most damaging aspects of the legislation and see whether we could find, within our own resources, the ability to mitigate some of them.
Over the term of this Assembly, we will find from our own resources—that means reducing the priority in some areas—a way to protect the most vulnerable. We will mitigate the measures by, for example, not enacting the spare room subsidy, or by compensating people for it. We may also use the work allowance and a range of other things. We will find half a billion pounds over the lifetime of the current Assembly to alleviate some of the impacts of the welfare reform changes, and those are reflected in the legislation that is before the House today.
It is a great pity that there was not the maturity to have those changes made through legislation that was debated and passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. At the “Fresh Start” talks this time last year, or just later, it was agreed that, rather than going through the process of trying to force this issue through the Assembly when we knew the blocking mechanism would be employed again by the SDLP and some of its allies, it would have to be dealt with here in the House of Commons, and that is the position we are in today.
Let me just emphasise a number of points. First, there are welfare changes that we supported here in the House of Commons because we believed that welfare did need reform. Secondly, we believe that any welfare system ought not to be designed in a way to dissuade people from wanting to look for work—that is important. Therefore, we did support some of the changes, even in the debates here in the House of Commons. Thirdly, there were things that we did not support, but once they got through the House of Commons, and we knew we could not afford them in Northern Ireland, we accepted that they should be part of the legislation. Fourthly, there were things that we believed we could change and that we could find the money to change, with bespoke legislation for Northern Ireland, and those things are reflected in the proposal before us.
The last point is, of course, that this will all be devolved back to Northern Ireland at the end of this year. I trust that we will have learned from the debacle that brought the Assembly and politics into disrepute, and that we will learn that sometimes, there are hard choices to be made and that we should at least be prepared to face up to those hard choices and find ways of dealing with the consequences of legislation that comes from this place.
Will the hon. Gentleman not honestly accept that, really, the whole debacle was more about him and his party not wanting to troop through the Lobby in a love-in with Sinn Féin to inflict poverty on people in Northern Ireland?
This is the amazing thing: I know there are all these attempts to rewrite history, but it was a DUP Minister who actually brought the legislation to the Assembly—who was prepared to walk through the Lobby and to vote for it. However, because a petition of concern was introduced by the SDLP, even if a majority of Members in the Assembly had voted for the legislation, it would still not have become law. Once that petition of concern was triggered and the legislation was turned down, we could not have any welfare reform Bill. That is the truth of the matter—not that we ran away. We faced up to things. I can remember doing interview after interview where we even faced flak from people who said, “You’re going to hurt individuals because of part of this legislation.” We argued, “At least we’ve done something to mitigate it. We have got the best possible deal.”
Can I just say that we did get changes and allowances made by the Department for Work and Pensions? I want to give credit to Ministers in the Department. When we were negotiating on welfare reform, they accepted that Northern Ireland could make changes, albeit that we had to accept the financial consequences of those changes. However, flexibility was demonstrated by the Department, although it was rejected by those who wanted simply to be able to say, “We are purer than everyone else on this issue. We have stood on our principles”—regardless of the consequences of that.
We have the legislation that we have today. Those who are most vulnerable in Northern Ireland have been safeguarded by the changes that have been made and by the resources that have been devoted to this issue by the Northern Island Assembly, and that has been a painful choice, because, of course, it means that there is less money to spend on other things.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The hon. Lady had plenty of opportunity to make her point during the debate, and I have allowed three or four interventions already—I know she is struggling with the case that she has and with the embarrassment of the way in which the SDLP has handled this issue.
We now have this order. I recommend it to the House—it is the best deal we could possibly have got. Unfortunately, it would have been far, far better had it gone through the Assembly, but because of the Assembly’s structures and the ability of minority parties to obstruct legislation through a petition of concern, this measure was the only avenue by which we could ensure that the Assembly finances were protected and that the political process in Northern Ireland was able to continue.
I may come later in my short speech to a few of the points that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised. First, however, on the detail of the legislation, I want to make it clear that the Ulster Unionist party supports the benefit cap, for example, because it is important that we keep people in work. People are better off in work than totally relying on benefits, so we do support a raft of these issues.
We are still concerned that the split cap level between London, where it is £23,000, and the rest of the UK, where it is £20,000, represents the most significant non-conformity in the UK’s social security system. It will need to be watched closely, and the issue is obviously with the reserved Government here at the moment. Clearly, that is where the watching brief must be, and I am sure that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will also make representations here.
It had originally been planned to introduce universal credit in Northern Ireland from 2017, but that has now moved to the autumn because the development work on the Northern Ireland changes to the universal credit information and communications technology system has been delayed. The deadline still remains June 2018. As such, the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has now found itself with the unenviable task of trying to implement one of the biggest shake-ups in a generation over less than 12 months, but I am sure it will manage that with the help of others.
We still do not support the abolition of the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance for new claimants from April 2017. However, the debate has been held, and the Government have not taken that on board, so we must progress with what we have. We must now move on to identify all the additional support and help that claimants need to help them return to work.
On a more principled issue, there is huge frustration that, first, this measure has had to come back here to be implemented and, secondly, that it has taken so long, at a huge cost to organisations such as the health service and the education service, where there have been delays after delays. A lot of this has just been grandstanding. I fully accept the point that some people just did not want to vote for this in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Let us be blunt about it: Sinn Féin was the biggest proponent of that, assisted to some extent by the SDLP. The reality is that this issue could have been resolved many months—in fact, years—ago. The delays have been at a huge cost to the people of Northern Ireland—the ordinary people who needed that health care and that education.
I support the continuance of this measure. There are some changes that I would have liked to see that did not happen, but we are where we are, so I support the progression of this measure. Clearly, however, we cannot get into another mess like the one we have been in for the last couple of years; otherwise, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will be back to a very difficult position and, once again, to stalemate.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott). I want to support what my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said very powerfully about why we are here today debating this statutory instrument. It is important to emphasise that this is not a situation that we on these Benches wanted to see. We want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly legislate in those areas that are devolved, although it should be noted that the Scottish Parliament, with the extensive powers it has, does not have responsibility for welfare. This is an area where Northern Ireland took responsibility, and those who negotiated the 1998 Belfast agreement decided it would be a good idea to devolve welfare to Northern Ireland, with the massive cost that comes with that, although the vast bulk of it, as my hon. Friend said, comes from direct payments and not out of the Northern Ireland block grant. As a former social development Minister back when devolution began in 1999, I remind the House that the understanding was that there should be parity, because if we deviated from that, then Northern Ireland would have to pay for it out of the block grant. Areas such as hospital spending, education, the environment and housing would all have to suffer cuts to pay for any deviation.
This comes to the crux of the arguments that took place in the Northern Ireland Assembly in recent times. People in certain parties—notably the SDLP, and at times Sinn Féin and others—would say, “Let’s deviate, let’s do our own thing—we’re not accepting these welfare cuts.” Their proposal to try to get something for Northern Ireland was to say, “Let’s set up a committee, go and knock on the door of the Treasury, and demand that Northern Ireland receives hundreds of millions of pounds extra,” which was never going to happen.
Had this measure not been introduced—had the “Fresh Start” negotiations that took place primarily between the DUP and Sinn Féin not had a successful outcome—then by now we would have had full, untrammelled direct rule from this place. That is the reality of it. We would have had welfare changes in Northern Ireland that were exactly the same as those in England and Wales. There would have been none of the mitigations—none of the changes that we implemented, and wanted to see implemented. So the consequence of the approach of members of the SDLP and others who opposed a sensible compromise would have been full, untrammelled welfare changes of the sort that they say they oppose.
Can the right hon. Gentleman enlighten us, because I have not got to the bottom of it, on why Sinn Féin has done such a somersault on this? It totally opposed it for years, and then all of a sudden it seemed to come to its senses and accept the principle of it. Can he shed any light on that?
It is for Sinn Féin to explain its own position. It is not for me to speak for it, especially when its Members do not come to this House. Certain Members are often seen about the corridors. They are here to collect their allowances—their political representation money and their constituency office allowances—but that is all they do; they do not take part in any other parliamentary processes. I will therefore leave it to them.
The reality had to dawn on people in Northern Ireland that we were facing the collapse of the political institutions. It is a bit like a local council in England or Wales, or anywhere else, being told, “Here’s your financial settlement—here’s what you’ve got to work within,” and the leading party there saying, “Sorry, we’re not going to accept that. We’re going to set budgets that are way beyond that, we’re going to just ignore the financial realities, we’re not going to make any compromises which will safeguard the most vulnerable”—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No. The hon. Lady had plenty of time to put her arguments to the House, and the fact that she was unable to put any convincing arguments is her responsibility.
In terms of financial responsibility, serious parties of government—parties that are serious about running countries and being in government—have to take difficult decisions within the financial parameters that they are set, especially in a devolved Government. If we simply say, “We’re not going to do that—we demand that you give us more,” it eventually leads to collapse.
Let us remember that the people of Northern Ireland had their say—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, no—the hon. Lady has had her opportunity to speak, and I am not giving way.
The people of Northern Ireland have had their say. There was an election in May in which they delivered their verdict on the whole social security debacle and on how the DUP and other parties had performed. The SDLP and certain other parties had their worst ever result in Assembly elections. The DUP was returned with one of its best results ever and is back at the head of government in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland saw very clearly what was going on. They recognised that parties and politicians have to face up to their responsibilities. If they are not serious about that, they will be rejected at the polls.
I, too, welcome this order. I wish the DWP Minister, who has moved from the Treasury, well in his work. I hope that we come to a point where we do not need such legislation to come to the Floor of the House of Commons and can get back to dealing with it in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Let me emphasise that this order fulfils a vital commitment made as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement. We have had a robust debate on some of the historical aspects of how we got to this point. In the interests of time, I think it best that I do not reflect further on that. Suffice it to say that the two largest parties in the Assembly signed up to the “Fresh Start” agreement of which this legislation was a crucial part. Moreover, the Assembly passed a legislative consent motion supporting the legislation to be dealt with here in Westminster. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, Northern Ireland has long kept to parity on social security, as set out in section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Restoring that parity is a crucial part of keeping the Executive’s finances stable. The provisions on the welfare supplementary payments will be put forward in full detail by the Executive and the Assembly.
In response to the question about taxation from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), supplementary payments to non-taxable benefits will be non-taxable, and supplementary payments to taxable benefits will be taxable, so the tax treatment will be the same as in the current system.
This order is a crucial part of delivering the “Fresh Start” agreement. It will help to build a politically and financially stable Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Welfare Reform and Work (Northern Ireland) Order 2016, which was laid before this House on 6 July, be approved.
I beg to move,
That the draft Pensions Act 2014 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2016, which was laid before this House on 4 July, be approved.
This order implements a small number of further minor consequential amendments in connection with the introduction of the new state pension. It does two things. First, it ensures that existing administrative arrangements that are designed to facilitate the annual uprating exercise will continue to operate as they do now. Secondly, it gives appeal rights to decisions about national insurance credits that count for new state pension purposes.
Let me deal first with the amendments to do with uprating. Article 2 amends the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which deals with alterations in the payable amount of certain income-related benefits due to uprating: that is, income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, universal credit, and pension credit. These provisions allow an existing award of these benefits to be altered automatically to take account of the uprating of another benefit in payment to the claimant or their partner, without the need for a further decision by a decision maker. They can also enable the decision maker to take account of the new rates from the uprating date when he or she is determining a new award that begins before the uprating order has come into force, rather than having to revisit the award to apply the new rates at a later date. Article 2 retains long-standing administrative easements that support the annual uprating exercise. It is simply a case of delivering business as usual in a case where a person or their partner’s benefit income is the new state pension. These amendments will therefore apply for the first time in April 2017, with the first uprating exercise for the new state pension.
I turn to the amendment to do with appeal rights for national insurance credits. Article 3 amends schedule 3 to the Social Security Act 1998, which lists decisions that carry the right of appeal. This schedule already includes decisions on credits awarded under the old 1975 credits regulations, and also needs to include those provided for under part 8 of the new State Pension Regulations 2015. The policy intention is that decisions made in relation to those credits should carry the right of appeal. That should have been enacted with effect from 6 April 2016, but I regret to say that it was overlooked and that, as the law stands, they do not have that right. The amendment makes good that omission and it will come into force on the day after the order is made.
Of course, that means that there will be a period in which decisions will be made that were intended to carry the right of appeal but that cannot in law be appealed. Those decisions are made by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials on behalf of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so my officials have been working very closely with HMRC to find a solution.
That solution involves a workaround. Once the order comes into force, any decisions made under the provisions in part 8 of the State Pension Regulations 2015 will be appealable. HMRC will revisit any decisions made before the order comes into force, and when fresh decisions are made they will carry an appeal right. There will be no substantial difference in outcome between an original decision, had it been appealable and successfully appealed, and a fresh decision that is successfully appealed. A successful appellant will have credits awarded to them.
Importantly, I reassure the House that, to date, no one has in practice been affected. That may seem unlikely at first glance, but there are a number of reasons for it. First, the omission can affect only certain decisions made since 6 April 2016. Secondly, it affects only credits for which a person has to apply.
The practical impact of this gap in the law relates only to decisions about credit that a person has applied for since 6 April 2016. They include new credits that cover past periods in which a person was accompanying their armed forces spouse or civil partner on an overseas posting. Ordinarily, credits awarded for the tax year 2016-17 would be taken into account only in the assessment of new state pension awards that will be made after 6 April 2017. However, those new credits could affect state pension awards made since 6 April 2016.
A further mitigation is that, before a person can lodge an appeal, they have to ask for the decision to be reconsidered by a decision maker—a process known as mandatory reconsideration. Mandatory reconsideration enables a decision maker to reconsider the decision and the facts taken into account in making it. If, on reflection, it is considered that the decision should be changed, it can be revised without the claimant having to go through the whole appeal process. HMRC data from the last tax year, 2015-16, tell us that fewer than 10 cases where a credits decision under the 1975 regulations was disputed ended up progressing to appeal.
Finally, out of 324 applications for the new armed forces partner credits that have been refused up to 5 September, 201 of those refusals were because the tax year being applied for was already a qualifying year for other reasons, so the applicant would not need the credit in order to establish their new state pension entitlement.
It is an unfortunate situation, but I hope that I have reassured the House that, even if a case did materialise, we have measures in place to ensure that, while justice may be delayed, it will not be denied. We are confident that no individual will be disadvantaged by the oversight.
I am sure you will be delighted, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I can confirm that I am satisfied that the instrument is compatible with the European convention on human rights, and I commend the order to the House.
I warmly thank the Minister for introducing the order. May I also take this opportunity to welcome him to his place? It is nice to see him there.
Although I recognise that the order principally tidies up existing legislation—as such, I will not oppose it—I want to make a few comments about articles 2 and 3, as well as about the decision not to conduct an impact assessment.
Article 2 enables the income-related benefits awarded to recipients to be adjusted to account for additional income being received through an uprating of the new state pension, without requiring Secretary of State oversight, as the Minister has explained. The arrangement applies to the old state pension and it is now being carried forward to the new one, so it is relatively uncontroversial. However, I want to push the Minister on the specific changes to entitlements for couples.
The explanatory memorandum states that, currently, where one member of a couple has reached a qualifying age for pension credit but the other has not, the couple can choose to claim either pension credit or the relevant working-age benefit. The explanatory memorandum points out that most choose to go for pension credit as, should they choose to access the working-age benefit, they will be subject to conditions that do not apply to pension credit. From 2018, it is planned to remove the option to claim pension credit, replacing it with universal credit for mixed-age couples making new claims.
What are the proposed transitional arrangements to cover those changes? Would someone covered by transitional protections who loses their entitlement to pension credit for a short period then be expected to enrol on universal credit? How do the Government plan to communicate those changes? Given the important differences in the amount awarded under pension credit compared with most other working-age entitlements, as well as the strict conditionality requirements of universal credit, I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is very important to ensure that all those affected are well informed.
Article 3 provides for a right of appeal against a decision as to whether a person is to be credited with earnings or contributions for the purposes of entitlement to the state pension. Under the old state pension, people who reached state pension age before 6 April 2016 already had a right to appeal decisions regarding whether they were eligible for credits. The order, as the Minister has explained, extends that right of appeal to the new state pension.
The explanatory memorandum states that that right should have been in place from 6 April 2016 but that it was “unfortunately overlooked”. That omission is disappointing, not least for those who might have been affected. Although the Minister has taken pains to explain that it has not affected anybody and that there are measures in place to ensure that no one will lose out, I would be grateful if he wrote to me to clarify how many people have been denied a claim since 6 April and who might have been affected. For example, were women and people on low incomes more likely to have been affected? I would also be grateful if he confirmed in writing how the situation for all those who have had applications for credits declined will be resolved?
I want briefly to touch on the related issue of take-up of national insurance credits. NI credits cover circumstances in which people are not working, and in some cases they require an application to be made. In 2013, the Government acknowledged that there was a low level of awareness and understanding of some NI credits, such as carer’s credit. They said that the low take-up rate suggested that the credits were
“not achieving their stated aim of protecting the state pension position of individuals who take time out of paid employment due to caring responsibilities”.
Of course, in many cases, those affected are women.
The Government undertook to review the system, develop a customer-focused communications strategy and work with outside agencies to encourage take-up. They said that state pension statements, which individuals have to request, would be the vehicle for providing individuals with personalised information about their entitlement. In last week’s debate on this order in the other place, the Minister for Welfare Reform said:
“There are around 400,000 eligible for carer’s credit and, in August, there were 10,900 recipients.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 September 2016; Vol. 774, c. 1221.]
According to my maths, that is about one in 40, which means that a very low proportion of those who are eligible to apply have received entitlements. Do the Government have plans to review their approach and to look again at some of the recommendations made by the Work and Pensions Committee in its report, “Communication of the new state pension”?
Finally, I want to push the Minister on the decision not to undertake an impact assessment when preparing the order. The Government argue that the order has no impact on civil organisations or the private sector. Is this not a narrow interpretation of when an impact assessment should be carried out? Can the Minister reassure the Opposition that a dangerous precedent is not being set? As we know, impact assessments by this Government have tended to be rather inadequate.
I welcome the Minister to his place. It is a pleasure to see him here. We on the Scottish National party Benches look forward to working with him to the benefit of pensioners when it is appropriate to do so.
We welcome the measure in so far as it enables the award of certain income-related benefits to be adjusted automatically when the new state pension is uprated, but when the measure was drawn up was consideration given to the results of the EU referendum and the uncertainty that arises for the 400,000 UK pensioners living in EU countries? The House will be aware that long-standing rules enable the co-ordination of social security entitlements for people moving within the EU. One result is that the UK state pensioners resident in EU countries receive annual increases to their UK state pension. Elsewhere, the UK state pension is uprated only if there is a reciprocal social security agreement requiring this.
The Government could have taken the opportunity today with these measures to address the concerns of the 400,000 UK pensioners living in the EU. Why has this not been done? Does the Minister agree that those UK citizens residing in EU countries who are entitled to a UK pension and all annual increments, as would be the case if they were living in the UK, should have those rights protected after the Brexit vote? Can he give an assurance today that this will happen?
In a parliamentary answer on the issue on 8 July the then Minister for Europe, now Leader of the House, said:
“It will be for the next Prime Minister to determine, along with their Cabinet, exactly the right approach to take in negotiating these provisions going forward but the Government’s guiding principle will be ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people.”
Given that the Prime Minister has had time to settle in, there has been ample opportunity to address this question. May we have an answer today and remove this uncertainty for UK pensioners? Prior to our entry into the EU, the UK had bilateral arrangements with a number of European countries. What will be the situation where this was previously the case? Do those arrangements remain in force and can the Minister reassure pensioners in those countries?
The measures before us also fail to address the issue of the 500,000 UK pensioners living in territories where there is no annual uprating. Why are not the Government bringing forward today plans to restore annual uprating to all British pensioners, based on entitlement and regardless of domicile? It is morally unjust and truly unfair for the Government to strip pensioners of their right to equal state pension payments. There are a host of reasons why a pensioner may choose to move abroad in later life, such as wanting to be closer to family or friends, or to enjoy a different lifestyle. It is simply wrong to punish them for making that choice.
Pensioners who have paid the required national insurance contributions during their working lives, in expectation of a decent basic pension in retirement, will find themselves living on incomes that fall in real terms year on year. Payment of national insurance contributions in order to qualify for a state pension is mandatory. All recipients of the British state pension have made these contributions, and although historically the level of pension received has varied according to the level of contributions made, it is clearly unfair to differentiate payment levels by any other criterion.
Pensioners will now face ending their days in poverty because they chose to live in the wrong country, in most cases without any knowledge of the implications of their choice for their pension. Others are forced back to the UK, away from the family they love, just to secure an income on which they can retire. All should receive their full and uprated pension according to their contribution, regardless of where they choose to reside. Reform would bring the UK into line with international norms, as most other developed countries now pay their state pension equivalents in this way. We are the only OECD member that does not do so.
Most pensioners had no idea that their pension would be frozen when they chose to emigrate. The frozen pension policy acts as a disincentive to pensioner emigration. As the International Consortium of British Pensioners put it, people currently living in the UK who would like to emigrate and who are aware of the frozen pension policy know they would not be able to afford to live on a state pension at its current level in their older years, by which time inflation will have decreased its value, and accordingly they decide not to move.
There is a real disparity in the treatment of UK pensioners and no consistency in how overseas British pensioners are treated. Those who live in the US Virgin Islands get a full UK state pension; those who live in the British Virgin Islands do not. Overseas pensioners are entitled to fairness. The state pension is, after all, a right, not a privilege. It is not a benefit; it is an entitlement to a pension based on paying national insurance contributions.
Given that the measures before us are provisions that support the annual exercise to uprate social security benefits in payment, will the Minister clarify the Government’s position on the triple lock? There have been suggestions that the triple lock may not survive. We on the SNP Benches fully support the continuation of the triple lock. It is the right thing to do to protect the interests of our pensioners. Will the Minister join me in championing the triple lock and commit the Government to continuing with it?
As we are talking about pensioners’ rights, equity and fairness, can the Minister tell us why, when we are discussing the state pension, there is no mention of the WASPI—Women against State Pension Inequality—women and no solution to the injustices that many face in this secondary legislation package? It is not right that women born after 1953 are having to wait so much longer than those born in previous years to collect their state pension. The Government will have to bring forward mitigation to deal with these injustices, and do so quickly. Why are there no measures in this package to deal with those issues?
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for their contributions to the debate and for their kind words, which I appreciate. I am sure this will be the first of many occasions when we take part in such debates.
Let me deal briefly with the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I am aware that he has spoken many times on the frozen pensions issue, but the policy on that is unchanged. It has been in place for almost 70 years, under all sorts of Governments, and there are no plans to change it. The Government comply with their legal obligations where reciprocal agreements exist with other countries. There are no plans to change that and I would not like to mislead the hon. Gentleman by saying that there are.
On the triple lock, I will happily send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the Conservative party manifesto, if he is interested. I am sure it is still available from all good bookshops, and probably some bad bookshops as well. The Government are committed to retaining the triple lock throughout this Parliament. They have said so several times in the past and I am happy to repeat it for him.
The hon. Lady commented on the statutory instrument. On the transitional arrangements—for example, on ending the choice for mixed-age couples—the choice is ending because it is not right that a working-age customer should be exempt from any work-related conditionality just because they have a pension-age partner. Couples in receipt of pension credit at the date that the change is introduced will continue to be eligible for pension credit unless entitlement ends for some other reason—some change in their circumstances.
The hon. Lady asked me if I could indicate the number of claimants to date who had been denied a right of appeal as a result of the omission that we have mentioned. I will check and, if necessary, respond to her in writing. To my knowledge, we do not hold that information because administrative data are not routinely collected by HMRC on volumes of all clerically administered credit applications, but I am happy to get back to her on that point.
Very briefly—hon. and right hon. Members have had a lot of patience with this statutory instrument—the credits affected include applications predominantly for spouses and civil partners of members of the armed forces, as the hon. Lady said, but also for partners of recipients of child benefit where entitlement to the credit is transferred to the applicant, for people providing care for a child under the age of 12—that is called grandparent credit—for being a foster parent and for persons approaching pensionable age.
I have explained what the order covers and these consequential amendments, and we have been through them both in quite some detail. We have acknowledged the gap in the law. This is the first time we have dealt with that gap in the law, but we have put mechanisms in place to make sure that no one is disadvantaged. Fortunately, we have not yet needed to employ them because no one has sought to appeal.
I hope I have provided the clarification that the hon. Members required, but I am very happy to speak to them separately, should they require further clarification. I commend this order to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
We now come to motion 4 on local government. I remind the House that as the Speaker has certified that this instrument relates exclusively to England and is within devolved legislative competence, this motion is subject to double majority. If a Division is called, all Members of the House are able to vote in the Division. Under Standing Order No. 83Q, the motion will be agreed only if, of those voting, both a majority of all Members and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England vote in support of the motion. At the end, the Tellers will report the results, first, for all Members and, secondly, for those representing constituencies in England.
Business Without Debate
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
That the draft West Midlands Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) Order 2016, which was laid before this House on 30 June, be approved.—(Andrew Percy.)
14 September 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
[Un-allotted Half Day]
NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern that NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans are expected to lead to significant cuts or changes to frontline services; believes that the process agreed by the Government in December 2015 lacks transparency and the timeline announced by NHS England is insufficient to finalise such a major restructure of the NHS; further believes that the timetable does not allow for adequate public or Parliamentary engagement in the formulation of the plans; and calls on the Government to publish the Plans and to provide an adequate consultation period for the public and practitioners to respond.
I am glad to open this debate on the NHS sustainability and transformation plans. As the whole House knows, the NHS has a special place in the affections of our constituents. No other public service engages with us all when we are at our most vulnerable—in birth, death and illness—and the public and NHS staff are increasingly aware that the NHS is under severe financial pressure, a matter I will return to.
In that context of financial pressure and concern about the availability of services, the sustainability and transformation plans are arousing concern. They sound anodyne and managerial, and there is undoubtedly a case for bringing health and social care stakeholders together to improve planning and co-ordination. But the concern is that, in reality, the plans will be used to force through cuts and close hospitals, will make it harder for patients to access face-to-face consultations with their GPs, and, above all, will open the door to more privatisation. It tells the public how little the Secretary of State cares about their concerns that he is not in the Chamber to listen or respond to this debate. We know that recently he has missed all seven recent meetings of the NHS board. The public are entitled to ask how much he cares about their very real concerns.
The hon. Lady mentioned cuts, but this Government are putting more money into the national health service—an extra £10 billion a year. The Labour party had no intention of making that sort of financial commitment to the NHS, as we saw in its failure to do so before the last election.
The NHS was never better funded than under the last Labour Government and the public know that. That is why they trust us with the NHS.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I need to make progress.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Order. I think we can spot that the hon. Lady has just given way to a Government Member and now she is giving way to an Opposition Member. We do not need the cheering to go with it.
I want to check this with my hon. Friend. The last time I checked, Simon Stevens had said that STPs were designed to make up the £22 billion shortfall that the Government are not prepared to put in. Is that not the case?
It is indeed the case; rather than being an anodyne managerial exercise, the sustainability and transformation plans are designed to make up the missing £22 billion.
One of the most alarming aspects of the STPs is their secrecy. England has been divided into 44 regional footprints, and it is worth noting that they are called footprints to distract from the fact that they are ad hoc regional structures—they are the exact same regional structures that the Tory health Bill was supposed to sweep away. Because they are ad hoc and non-statutory, they are wholly unaccountable. In the world of the STPs, the public have no right to know.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to my hon. Friend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. We have a leak of the STP for Merseyside and Cheshire, which states that there is an “appetite for hospital re-configuration” because the existing set-up is “currently unaffordable”. Given that it also says that almost a £1 billion gap is to be expected by 2021, and that the public have not yet been consulted, does my hon. Friend agree that when the public are consulted, there will be an absolute outcry?
That is the reason for the secrecy thus far. The Government know that if the public understood what STPs meant, there would be an outcry.
Does the hon. Lady agree that unless the local community are fully engaged in the process of considering how the health and care system needs to change their area, the process is destined to fail and simply will not work?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. For nearly the whole time I have been in Parliament, there have been attempts to reconfigure hospitals and close A&Es and make other changes in London. We have found that when the local community does not take ownership of the plans, it is impossible to take them forward. That secrecy runs counter to making the reorganisations we might have to make.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Initially, the STPs were discouraged from publishing their draft plans, freedom of information requests were met with blank replies, and enquirers were told that no minutes of STP board meetings existed. We are therefore bound to ask: if the plans are really in the interests of patients and the public, why has everyone been so anxious to ensure that patients and the public know as little as possible?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
In some cases, even local GPs have not been fully involved in decision making. Hon. Members may not take that seriously, but I assure them that their constituents will. [Interruption.]
Order. It is up to the hon. Lady whether she wishes to give way or not. Shouting and screaming will not help with the debate, because Members on both sides want to hear. I am sure that, when she wants to give way, she will do so, but screaming will not help, and it certainly does not help my ears.
GP leaders in Birmingham said that it would appear that plans by the STP to transform general practice, and to transform massive amounts of secondary care work into general practice, are already far advanced. Only at this late stage have they been shared with GP provider representatives.
Freedom of information requests have also uncovered the substantial role of the private sector in formulating these plans. GE Healthcare Finnamore, for example, is advising STPs across the south-west, and I have no doubt that work is under way for it to get larger slices of the action in the future. In the name of transparency, does my hon. Friend agree that all their boards should publish everybody who is on them, with their declared interests as well?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. All STPs should publish who is on them, what their financial interests are, and how far advanced they are in planning. However, thanks to the work of organisations such as Open Democracy and 38 Degrees—and, frankly, thanks to leaks—the picture of what STPs will mean is becoming clearer.
We know from the information we have been able to glean that the reality of STPs is quite concerning. For instance, in the black country there are plans for major changes to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan hospital, including the closure of the hospital’s accident and emergency. The plans also propose to close one of the two district general hospitals as part of a planned merger. We know that by 2021 the health and social care system in the black country is projected to be £476.6 million short of the funds it needs to balance its books. [Interruption.] Government Members may shout now, but they are going to need an answer for their constituents when the reality of some of these proposed closures becomes apparent.
In Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland, there are apparently plans to reduce the number of hospitals in the area from three to two. By 2021, the health and social care system in the area will be £700 million short of the money it needs to balance its books. In Suffolk and north-east Essex, the STP plan refers to the
“reconfiguration of acute services within our local hospital, Colchester Hospital University Trust”.
The whole House knows that, historically, reconfiguration in the NHS has meant cuts. There are also plans to close GP practices.
The context of these plans, of which I have given an idea, is the current NHS financial crisis. Most recently, we have heard from NHS providers about this financial crisis. They represent the NHS acute, ambulance, community and mental health services. NHS providers say that despite the best efforts of hardworking staff, including junior doctors, hospital accident and emergency performance is the worst it has ever been. Waiting lists for operations, at 3.9 million, are the highest they have been since December 2007. We ended the last financial year with trusts reporting the largest deficit in the history of the NHS: £2.45 billion.