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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
17 October 2016
Volume 615

House of Commons

Monday 17 October 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People: Government Support

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1. What steps his Department is taking to help disabled people to access Government support. [906577]

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On the day that the country is celebrating our Paralympic athletes, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking them for a summer of thrilling and inspirational sport.

It is right that we continually review the way support is offered to and accessed by disabled people. That is why I was pleased to announce an end to stressful and bureaucratic employment and support allowance reassessments for people with the most severe lifetime conditions. We are also transforming the way disabled people access support through our new digital Access to Work platform and providing help to budding disabled entrepreneurs to set up their own business.

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I am holding a round-table event on 31 October for those with disabilities, parents and employers, to try to remove the barriers to employment. Does the Secretary of State agree that for some the barriers are simply too high? Will he welcome the positive response from Disability Rights UK to his recent announcement that those with long-term and severe disabilities will not have to undergo regular repeat assessments of their condition?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the round table. He is right that there are too many barriers to work for disabled people, and this Government are determined to do everything possible to break down those barriers. Like him, I was pleased that a number of disability groups welcomed the announcement that I made on 1 October. I was particularly pleased to see the chief executive of the MS Society, Michelle Mitchell, say that it was a victory for common sense. She went on to say:

“We are therefore delighted that the Government has listened to our concerns and have agreed to stop reassessments”.

I am pleased that the sector was so pleased with the announcement.

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I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Which conditions will the exemption cover, and when does he expect the change to be introduced?

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It is not so much the conditions as the individuals. We apply the exemption on an individual basis, as there are clearly conditions where at some stages people will be able to work and at other stages they will not be able to work, so the exemption covers conditions that can only deteriorate as well as conditions that may stay the same. On timing, we will be consulting on a wide range of measures in the work and health Green Paper, which my predecessor promised would be with us by the end of the year, and I am happy to repeat that promise today.

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I, too, welcome the announcement that people with severe lifelong conditions will no longer face repeated work capability assessments. My right hon. Friend has clearly recognised how stressful people find these assessments. Although mental health conditions can follow an unpredictable path, will he consider taking steps to reduce the stress and trauma experienced by people with long-term mental health conditions undergoing work capability assessments?

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I am happy to try to reassure my hon. Friend about that because she is right. One of the things that has improved in the diagnosis field has been the number of people who have been correctly diagnosed with mental health conditions in recent years, and clearly this is a group who in some cases have particular difficulties in getting back to work. The stress and strain of constant reassessment may well contribute to that, so we are always looking at ways of improving the assessment that we do to make sure that they achieve what they are meant to achieve and do not just act as an increaser of strain on people.

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Constituents who have been refused employment and support allowance tell me that they are experiencing barriers being put in their way when they apply for mandatory reconsideration of the decision. They tell me that they are being told to put the application in writing and to give reasons in advance, and then if the request is rejected they are not given reasons for the refusal. Will the Secretary of State take a look at this situation because it does seem that there is a deliberate attempt on the part of at least some officials to thwart people in having their cases reconsidered?

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I am not at all aware of officials actively acting to thwart mandatory reconsideration. As the hon. Lady will know, the Social Security Advisory Committee supported the mandatory reconsideration, but there are a number of recommendations on the table that we are looking at and that will improve the process. With all these processes, there is a need for continuous improvement, and that is what we will seek to do.

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My right hon. Friend’s announcement will be particularly welcome to a constituent of mine who is a long-term mental illness sufferer. He has been sectioned four times and is still required to have the work capability assessment. I very much hope that the process to which my right hon. Friend referred will be a quick one and that people such as my constituent will soon be able to benefit from this announcement.

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Yes, I quite take the point my hon. Friend has made—certainly as he describes the constituency case he has taken up. Someone like that should not be reassessed while we are establishing the details of the appropriate guidance so that the new system can be put into effect.

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I am glad the Government have said they are going to end the needless and distressing practice of reassessing work capability people with lifelong, progressive and incurable conditions. I hope the Secretary of State now accepts that his predecessors got this very badly wrong over recent years. Will he now take steps to overhaul the work capability assessment to ensure that all ESA claimants, including those with invisible and fluctuating conditions, are treated with dignity and respect?

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I am grateful for the support for my announcement from those Benches, even though I sense it came through slightly gritted teeth. As I have said to previous questioners, we are constantly looking at ways of improving the work capability assessment, and of course that work will carry on.

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I thought I was being quite restrained.

The other thing the Government have got badly wrong in recent times is the decision to cut financial support to ESA claimants in the work-related activity group—people assessed as currently unfit for work. At the time, that decision caused huge disquiet on both sides of the House, and deep anger and concern outside it. With those changes due to come into effect shortly, will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement to reinstate that support, which sick and disabled people need so badly?

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As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, no one who is already claiming ESA in that group will see a cash loss. What we are seeking to do is to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to get into work, because doing a job is, for most people, the best route out of poverty. The various changes announced by my predecessors were all aiming at that end, which is the best one for the vast majority of people receiving these benefits.

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The Government’s climbdown regarding their discredited work capability assessment is welcome, but given that 60% of people who appeal against their WCA decision are successful, that academics estimate that between 2010 and 2013 an additional 590 suicides were associated with WCA and that the Government’s data show that the people who have been found fit for work are four times more likely to die than the general population, why will the Work and Pensions Secretary not scrap the WCA process immediately and completely?

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Because the work capability assessment, which was, of course, introduced by a Labour Government, has been reviewed five times since 2010, and each time we have improved it. I am glad that the hon. Lady has welcomed the recent improvements that we have introduced. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if she waited for her next question before she asks it. One thing I would particularly take issue with her over is her implied link between suicides and the work capability assessment. I do think that that is an unhelpful use of what is always clearly a deeply tragic situation for political ends. I think she will have known that there is no direct evidence to support that, and I do not think it is a very constructive way to seek to improve the work capability assessment.

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Just as a point of fact, these are academic estimates, and the Government’s data show that people have died.

Unlike with the work capability assessment, the Government plan continually to assess all disabled people for the personal independence payment, regardless of their disability or condition, regardless of the fact that 59% of PIP appeals are successful and regardless of the wholly inappropriate process. After the outcry over proposed cuts to PIP in the Budget, and having had to abandon proposals to restrict access to PIP by changing eligibility to the daily living component, the Government are looking for alternative ways to make cuts to PIP—this time by changing the guidance and making it harder for disabled people successfully to appeal PIP decisions. Are the Government not ashamed that they are putting disabled people in such dire circumstances?

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I am not at all ashamed of the introduction of PIP or the fact that many more people are eligible to receive PIP than were eligible to receive disability living allowance. It is a better benefit, and most of the disability support groups recognise that it is a better benefit, so I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of PIP.

Personal Independence Payment: Autism

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2. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the introduction of personal independence payment on benefit claimants with autism. [906578]

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The personal independence payment assessment is designed with all health conditions and impairments in mind, including autism. About 38% of those with autism are currently receiving higher rates of PIP.

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Autism is a complex medical condition, and there is a fundamental failure in the personal independence payment system in that assessments are being made by people who have no detailed knowledge of the medical condition involved. Will the new Secretary of State and the Minister assess whether it is possible to have real medics and people with professional medical opinions carrying out assessments, so that these people can be looked after?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the important fact that the assessment and the person’s experience of it are appropriate. He is quite wrong to say that these are not healthcare professionals. Both our assessment providers’ training covers autism. Capital and Atos give their health professionals specific information that has been developed by the National Autistic Society.

Child Poverty

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3. What steps his Department is taking to reduce child poverty. [906579]

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11. What steps he plans to take to reduce levels of child poverty. [906587]

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Work is the best route out of poverty. There are 557,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010. The Prime Minister is clear that tackling poverty and disadvantage, and delivering real social reform, is a priority for this Government. To that end, I will be returning to the House with a number of announcements over the coming months.

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The latest OECD figures show the that the risk of income poverty is growing for young people, and that was before the impact of the coming into force of benefit cuts hitting children. Will the Secretary of State accept the warnings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that child poverty will increase by 50% in the next few years and abandon the cuts to universal credit, which will punish low-paid workers, especially single parents?

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I simply point out to the hon. Lady that since 2010 there are 100,000 fewer children in poverty in this country, and, overall, 300,000 fewer people in poverty. I have already said that work is the best route out of poverty. I am sure that she, like me, will welcome the fact that we have far more people in work in this country than most other advanced countries. That is the best long-term way to ensure that children do not suffer poverty.

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I very much welcome the change of tone since the Secretary of State took up his new position, but what I would really like to see now is a change in policy. He should be ashamed that the IFS is predicting a staggering 50% increase in child poverty over the course of this Parliament under his Government, who are still committed to a policy where a living wage does not pay enough to live on and where tax and benefit changes will be directly responsible for that increase in child poverty. When will the 2.5 million children who currently go without enough food to eat—who go hungry in this country—see some real action from this Government?

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I disagree with the hon. Lady on the points that she makes on income and on tax. On income, the introduction of the national living wage means that a full-time worker who was previously on the national minimum wage is now £900 a year better off, and many children will benefit from that. On tax, over the course of the previous Parliament, we took 4 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. Those are practical measures that help people on low incomes and help children in low-income households.

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As the Secretary of State will know from his recent visit to my constituency, earlier this year I worked with local Bath charity St John’s Hospital to set up the Action Against Child Poverty group in Bath, bringing together over 50 charities and £100,000 of funding to tackle the issue of the one in five children who live in poverty in my constituency. Will he agree to meet Action Against Child Poverty in Bath, this time in London—don’t worry!—to learn about the group’s work and extend his congratulations on its work?

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I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the group in his constituency. It is exactly the sort of thing that one wants to hear that the third sector is doing, and I am happy to meet the group. I am grateful that he is depriving me of yet another trip to Bath. I am always happy to go there, but I quite like to spread myself around the country a bit.

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Helping parents on jobseeker’s allowance or income support to start their own business is one way of reducing child poverty. Will the Secretary of State support the new enterprise allowance, which helps unemployed people to start their own business and raise household incomes?

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The new enterprise allowance is indeed an extremely helpful tool in our armoury of ways to help disabled people. We have seen 20,000 firms started up—20,000 disabled people helped—through the new enterprise allowance. I intend to continue and expand the scheme, which is so good for disabled people.

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The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said in March 2014 that he believed the Government would eradicate child poverty by 2020, yet, as has already been mentioned, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted last week that child poverty is set to rise by 50% by 2020. Does the Secretary of State agree with the former Secretary of State or with the Child Poverty Action Group, and are the Government still committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020?

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The Government are certainly committed to reducing child poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group made a number of specific demands. One demand was to expand childcare support, which the Government have done, extending the 15-hour offer to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. Universal credit now reimburses up to 85% of childcare costs, up from 70%. CPAG also demanded support to progress in low-paid work—it is absolutely right about that—and we are undertaking a number of trials to deliver evidence on in-work progression, which will be delivered by Jobcentre Plus, because I agree with CPAG that that is an extremely good step forward.

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In 2011, the Government said that universal credit would lift 350,000 people out of poverty. By 2013, that had been downgraded to just 150,000. The Office for Budget Responsibility published its report on welfare trends last week and made it clear that the cuts going ahead under universal credit will mean that it will be less generous than tax credits. How many children, if any, do the Government expect universal credit to lift out of poverty?

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Universal credit, which is now being paid to more than 300,000 people, has already shown that people will get into work and progress in work faster and that they are more likely to seek work. If the Opposition accept, as I think they do, that work is the best route out of poverty, they will welcome universal credit because, when it is paid to more parents it helps children in those families to be in households where there is work. That will be the best way to get them out of poverty.

State Pension Age: Women

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4. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. [906580]

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14. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. [906590]

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16. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. [906592]

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Transitional arrangements are already in place. We committed £1 billion to lessen the impact of the state pension age changes on those who were affected, so that no one would experience a change of more than 18 months. In fact, 81% of women’s state pension ages will increase by no more than 12 months, compared with the previous timetable.

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Last week, I and more than 100 cross- party colleagues presented petitions in support of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. Will the Minister acknowledge that those women have been subject to a grave injustice and that now is the time for the Government to introduce appropriate transitional payments for the women most affected by the pension changes?

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I can only reiterate to the hon. Lady what has been said many times before. The Government made transitional arrangements that came to more than £1 billion. [Interruption.] She is chuntering at me from a sedentary position. I could not hear, but will try to imagine what she was saying. The Government have made the transitional arrangements, and no further moves will be made to assist those women, all of whom will benefit in time from the significant increase in the new state pension.

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There are shocking reports of women affected by the changes introduced last April being left destitute. Many of them who have been on low pay all their lives where occupational pension schemes were not open to them have taken on caring responsibilities, saving this country lots of money. What immediate measures will the Government take to address this appalling situation and put these wrongs right?

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Those women, or indeed those men, under the state pension age who are in the position of destitution the hon. Lady mentions are fully entitled to a comprehensive benefits system, of which I am sure she is aware.

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I pay tribute to Rosemary Jordan and the north Lincolnshire WASPI group. The Minister is better than the answers he has just given. These women are being badly affected. The Prime Minister has given a commitment to this nation to look after those people who are just managing, and the women I have seen in my surgery are just managing as a result of these pension changes. The transitional arrangements that were made back in 2011 are not good enough. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department and improve the offer.

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As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I have said many times, as have other Ministers, that the transitional arrangements have cost more than £1 billion and there are arrangements in place for those people in destitution. It becomes a question of the public money that is spent. At the moment, the new state pensions are costing £89 billion a year, plus pension credit and everything else, and there is no further money available.

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I am very surprised that no Government Members want to ask questions about this topic. The Prime Minister celebrated her 60th birthday earlier this month, making her part of that sisterhood of 1950s-born women who have been so shabbily treated by her predecessor’s Government. My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) have already referred to the mass petitions organised by WASPI, and we have heard about the amazing change of mind of not one but two previous pensions Ministers, who have acknowledged that the whole thing was wrong and a bit of a mess. Unlike other members of the special sisterhood, the Prime Minister will probably not have to rely on the state pension, but will the Minister appeal to his boss to use the power she has and to compensate some of the most needy women in our society?

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I find it strange that the hon. Gentleman and his party were in the House when the Pensions Act 2011 was passed, yet their 2015 manifesto made no mention whatsoever of negating it.

Personal Independence Payments: Applications

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5. What support is available for people who require assistance to complete personal independence payment application forms. [906581]

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Department for Work and Pensions visiting officers can assist people with the completion of their PIP forms in their own homes, as can family and friends. Claimants can also authorise another person or organisation to help them handle their PIP claim.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but completing the forms can be a particularly difficult experience for those with mental health conditions. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said earlier about reassessments, but what specific help and support is provided to that particular group of applicants?

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We want to help people with the form as much as possible. That is why we give them up to a month to complete the return form, as well as additional time if they require it. We provide guidance online so that friends and family can look at it and go on to assist the person with the completion of the form. We also allow them to use their own words to describe their condition and to provide as much detail as they would like, or as much as their condition allows.

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22. As chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on Parkinson’s and on motor neurone disease, I met the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), many times. The problems of people with motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s are such that, often, by the time the form is in, their condition has progressed excessively. Will the Minister meet me and the charities associated with those conditions to discuss the issue? [906598]

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There are opportunities in the Green Paper for exactly that sort of information to be fed back, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will be delighted to provide as much support as is needed.

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My constituent John Mullen had been working abroad for two years when he fell ill earlier this year with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. When he came back to this country, he was told that he would not qualify for personal independence payments until January 2018. Given what the Secretary of State has said about relaxing the cuts in welfare payments, will the Minister look at his case personally and make sure that my constituent has the money that he needs right now?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we cannot intervene in individual cases, but if he sends the detail of the specific problem with regard to those who have lived abroad and moved back, my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will be delighted to look at it.

Benefit Eligibility Assessment: People with Disabilities

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7. What steps his Department is taking to improve the benefit eligibility assessment process for people with disabilities. [906583]

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The Department is committed to improving continuously assessments for all our benefits, and we have responded to a range of recommendations from a number of independent reviews. As part of our continuous review of the work capability assessment, we will be consulting on further possible improvements in the forthcoming Green Paper.

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I welcome the Government’s recent announcement. May I ask the Department to consider creating an individual health statement for each disability claimant to give every local and national agency that is responsible for paying benefits access to the relevant information, so that we can end the practice of repetitive form-filling and evidence gathering? That would reduce individual stress on the vulnerable and reduce bureaucracy in our essential public services.

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That is a sensible suggestion, and I thank my hon. Friend for making it. If we can use all the data that Government hold—for example, care plans or evidence for someone’s war pension—better to reduce stress and bureaucracy for individuals and arrive more quickly at a good result on the assessment, we should do so.

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How confident is the Minister of the robustness of emergency payments for disabled people who lose their ESA or PIP? What would she say to my constituent who suffers from chronic lymphoedema? He wrote to me two weeks ago, having lost his benefit:

“I can’t seem to concentrate on what I should do. I have no money at all. My electricity and my gas have run out. As for food I don’t know what to do.”

How can we have a system in which people are left in such a predicament?

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I am sorry to hear of the circumstances of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Enormous numbers of decisions are made on ESA, PIP and on all sorts of other benefits. In some cases, the wrong decision is taken and it is overturned on appeal. We need to concentrate on ensuring that we arrive at the right decision in the first place. That has been our focus over the last few weeks, and we are doing a lot of work to ensure that medical and other evidence is submitted earlier in the process so that such circumstances do not arise. I would be very happy to look at the situation of the hon. Lady’s constituent.

Personal Independence Payments: Assessments

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8. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and appropriately. [906584]

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10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and appropriately. [906586]

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21. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly. [906597]

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Our policy is developed by utilising service user panels. Provision is strictly monitored and measured by independent audit, and the provider is held to account through the contract that we have with them.

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For the fourth year in a row, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has said that the roll-out of the personal independence payment project is

“in doubt with major risks…apparent in a number of key areas.”

What action is the Minister taking to address the urgent problems with the PIP assessment, which is causing further hardship to disabled people trying to access vital support?

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I start by pointing out that PIP is a vast improvement on what went before. It is a more targeted benefit and it takes into account a whole raft of other conditions, such as mental health and sensory conditions, not just physical disability. It is a vast step forward in that respect. We cannot rest on our laurels, however. We must continually improve, and there is a robust improvement process, based on user and claimant feedback, which looks at the assessment and also at record keeping and a raft of other areas.

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Let us examine that claim. My constituent Leila Kennedy lives with dwarfism, and her Motability car was removed from her after a PIP assessment. She had to use public transport, which she was unable to do, and she lost her job as a result. Does the Minister really think that Government policy is delivering compassionate outcomes in such cases?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will write to me with further details of that case. Under PIP, more people are entitled to use the Motability scheme, but clearly we want to make sure that any decision taken on a PIP assessment is the right one. A key part of that, as we know from looking at cases that have been overturned on appeal, is getting the evidence submitted earlier in the process.

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Reports suggest that Capita rewards its assessors on the basis of how many assessments they complete every month, which leads to rushed assessments where applicants are not given enough time to describe how their condition affects them daily. What is the Minister doing to ensure that applicants are given enough time and that such a reward system is not operating?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question because it gets to the heart of what I have just described. If we do not have a good-quality assessment and good quality in all the evidence needed early in the process, we will end up causing distress to an individual who has to go to mandatory reconsideration or an appeal. We are doing work in the Department to address this, including giving a bit more flexibility for certain cases at that early stage, with the hope that the evidence we need will then be submitted at that stage. That is recent work, and we are rolling it out at the moment.

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For those with a mental health condition, the PIP assessment has transformed opportunities. Under disability living allowance, only 22% accessed the highest rate of benefit; yet under PIP, the figure is 68%. With more people with mental health conditions being identified, what more can be done to signpost them to the wider support of the NHS, charities and the Government’s pilots?

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I thank my hon. Friend for the work he did at the Department on these issues. He is absolutely right that mental health now has the priority it needs, and that PIP is delivering for such people. I would give him one example, which is the work we are doing to build on the excellent work that he did with the Disability Confident scheme. We have further beefed up the scheme, which will give employers a general grounding in these matters, and act as a platform for organisations such as Mind and others that can offer bespoke advice.

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Most Members in this House will have someone come along to their advice surgery every week with a problem about PIP. The area that worries me most is Motability, because people come to my surgery who are clearly going to win at the tribunal stage, but their Motability is removed right at the beginning of the process. Can we not look at a change of policy, whereby the Motability stays until all the appeal processes have been concluded, which would be a great help to many people?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Historically, we have not paid benefit during an appeal. The key to cracking this is to ensure that the assessment is done correctly. I would point out to him that the mandatory reconsideration process would be over before the person had to return the vehicle.

Disabled People: Recruitment and Retention

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9. What steps the Government are taking to increase awareness among employers of the value of recruiting and retaining disabled people. [906585]

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Building on the work of my predecessor, we have introduced a new Disability Confident scheme to identify the value that disabled people bring to businesses and to give employers the tools and techniques they need to recruit, retain and develop them. The new scheme went live in July, and it will be formally launched soon. I must thank my hon. Friend for being an early adopter.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I pay tribute to her predecessor. Earlier this year, I held my fifth annual jobs and apprenticeship fair at Mid Cheshire College in Weaver Vale. In July, I undertook my first Disability Confident fair, where I signed up 19 Cheshire businesses to become Disability Confident employers. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Government are taking to encourage more small and medium-sized enterprises to take up this very important role?

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In addition to the Disability Confident scheme, we are trialling the small employer offer, which will provide some additional support to those who may have less capacity within their own organisation. We are also working closely with the Health and Safety Executive, with its reach to SMEs, to target our services better.

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Recent analysis suggests that as well as an employment gap, there is a wage gap of about 13% between disabled workers and their non-disabled counterparts. What is the Minister going to do to raise employers’ awareness of this abuse?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. We quite often talk about getting people into work, but we clearly also want them to have a career: we want them to develop, reach their full potential and pursue all their talents. The Green Paper, which we will publish shortly, will look at some of these issues, but the beefed-up Disability Confident scheme will also be very effective in doing that.

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18. Scope’s research shows that 85% of disabled people feel that employers’ attitudes to employing them have not improved during the past four years. Should not more employers follow the lead of employers such as Waitrose, John Lewis, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer in my constituency and put practical support in place to help disabled people, particularly when they are applying for jobs in the first place? [906594]

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I agree with my right hon. Friend. We need to do more to ensure that the support we offer is understood by employers. Disability Confident will help with that. We also need to raise employers’ awareness of what they are missing: huge talent and huge insight in their workforce. We will shortly bring forward schemes which will do just that.

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The Minister may be aware there is a massive pool of talent among people who suffer from neurolinguistic difficulties and challenges, and autism and dyslexia. What more can the Government do to show that, if we recognise their challenges, these young and old people make very good employees?

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Absolutely; part of the solution is ensuring that our own staff are fully aware and able to encourage employers to take on these people. There are many other things we can do to highlight the positive contribution they have made. We are doing a huge amount of work with Hidden Impairment, including training our staff and our ongoing communication with employers.

Financial Literacy

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12. What steps he is taking to increase financial literacy and money management skills among people in receipt of benefits who are in debt. [906588]

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We are committed to battling financial exclusion. Under universal credit, through universal support, we are working with partners to help claimants manage their finances and avoid debt.

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Sixteen million adults have less than £100 in savings, with younger adults, larger families and single parents most at risk of struggling with their personal finances. The all-party group on financial education for young people, which I chair, has, supported by Young Enterprise, concluded that people need better money management skills in life. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to increase financial education and money management skills for young people and those in receipt of benefits?

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I commend my hon. Friend for her work with the all-party group, which has been particularly effective. In jobcentres, the first work search interview provides the opportunity to identify barriers, including financial capability. Under universal credit, personal budgeting support can be offered in partnership with jobcentres, local authorities and other local service providers.

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I thank the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) for asking that very important question. The new Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, of which I am a member, highlighted that it is so much harder to recover from mental illness if one is in debt. Adults with mental health conditions are three times more likely to be in debt than adults without mental health conditions. What specifically is the Minister doing to ensure that people with a mental condition who are in receipt of benefits and in debt are supported appropriately?

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The most important thing we do is work in partnership at a local level with mental health organisations such as Mind to increase understanding of jobcentre operations on these issues, as well as to extend help to individual claimants. It is very important to understand the full range of barriers and challenges that somebody may face.

Supported Housing

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13. What plans his Department has to help ensure long-term, sustainable and predictable funding for the supported housing sector. [906589]

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19. What progress his Department is making on its proposal for a new supported accommodation funding model. [906595]

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25. What plans his Department has to help ensure long-term, sustainable and predictable funding for the supported housing sector. [906601]

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The Secretary of State announced in a written ministerial statement on 15 September 2016 that we will be deferring the application of local housing allowance rates for supported housing until 2019-20. At that point, we will bring in a new funding model.

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In Lewisham, funding for supported accommodation has fallen by more than half since 2010. My constituent Winston Morris suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wholly reliant on his wheelchair. He was made homeless and had to move into his sister’s living room, where he sleeps, eats, uses the commode and bathes. More than a year later, he is still there. Despite being on the housing waiting list, there is no clear timeframe for when he will be rehoused. This is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister meet me to discuss his case to prevent other vulnerable people from falling into similar situations?

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Local authorities are absolutely best placed to make decisions on supporting vulnerable people in their own areas and commissioning supported services that are needed locally, which is why I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the specific issues she raises. It is important that we work to establish the best funding model for supported housing.

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First, I very much welcome the Government’s announcement to exempt specialist providers such as women’s refuges from changes to housing benefit. I know that the Government have a plan to help refuges and women’s refuges remain sustainable in the future, so I would like to hear what they plan to do for all other sorts of supported living accommodation for elderly people, people with learning difficulties and some of our ex-servicemen and women who, as I heard on the radio today, are having their services shut.

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I commend the hon. Lady for the sterling work she has done on refuges. What we know is that there is a massive variety of types of providers of supported housing, and it is critical that in the consultation process we find a solution that works for all of them.

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How many supported housing starts have been stalled by the Secretary of State’s decision to delay a framework for supported housing?

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What is critical is that we get the solution right, which is why we are bringing forward the consultation and why we deferred the local housing allowance cap for supported housing until 2019-20.

Pensions: Long-serving Employees

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15. What steps the Government are taking to help protect the pensions of long-serving employees. [906591]

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We have a well-established regime of checks and balances in place, for example the Pension Protection Fund and the Pensions Regulator. The Government keep this framework for pensions under constant review, and amend it when evidence demonstrates that such change is needed.

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As I have stated previously, one of the welcome provisions in the Pensions Act 2014 was the raising of the Pension Protection Fund cap. Will my hon. Friend update the House on when that clause might be implemented, because two years on it has still not been put in place and pensioners in my constituency are suffering the consequences?

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Let me first acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has done to ensure that the long service cap was established. Pensions legislation is, as he knows, a very complex and technical area, and it is important that the secondary legislation for the cap operates as it was intended in all circumstances. This process can take time. However, I can assure him that this has been a priority for me from my first day in office. As I recently announced, I intend the long service cap for the PPF to come into force in April 2017.

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My own personal occupational pension scheme has just been reduced. It is not a problem for me personally with my generous parliamentary salary, but it is symptomatic of the problems facing occupational pension schemes and pensioners. Is not the real long-term solution to establish a compulsory universal state earnings-related scheme for all, with defined contributions and defined benefits?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, this was looked into by the Turner review and by many people and institutions since. Automatic enrolment is in place, which is a great step forward. Millions of people have now enrolled. I hope that, as time evolves, this will become the main form of pension for people other than the new state pension.

Benefit Appeals

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17. What proportion of (a) personal independence payment and (b) employment support allowance applications are awarded on appeal to a tribunal. [906593]

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For PIP, it is 3%; and for ESA, it is 14%.

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What main reasons has the Minister identified for why valid claims are ending up in the tribunal, and what changes to procedures can she suggest so that the Department awards these valid applications either in the first place or on reconsideration?

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As I stated previously, we have been doing some work in this area. One of the key things that will help is ensuring that we have more flexibility early on in the process so that where cases are complex, the evidence is submitted. There is also huge scope for using the information that the Government, and different parts of the Government, have to cut down on the bureaucracy altogether. The Green Paper will look at all these issues.

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My constituent receives ESA and has been seeking a review of her action plan by Ingeus, but neither Ingeus nor the DWP will take responsibility for reviewing it, despite the Secretary of State having a statutory obligation to do so. Will the Secretary of State investigate my constituent’s case?

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I am sorry to hear that. If the hon. Lady writes to me, I shall look into it further.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [906602]

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I am pleased to update the House on our continued efforts to support disabled people to access essential services and support more easily. Last month we launched a new digital service for Access to Work, so people can now apply online, making the application process quicker, more convenient and more efficient. Statistics published today show that already around 500 people a week are now making claims online, on average taking less than 20 minutes to complete a claim—a huge improvement from the delays and difficulties many experienced with the old system.

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I am glad that the Secretary of State feels so complacent. Only weeks ago the House was assured that tax credit cases would be expedited as a matter of urgency, but claimants are still waiting for weeks without their cases being resolved. The Secretary of State’s Department is responsible for dealing with child poverty. Will he tell us what he will do to push the system forward and make it work?

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I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I absolutely take the point that the system is not perfect, and, one suspects, will never be perfect, but, as I have said, we are taking steps to improve it in every area. The hon. Gentleman mentioned child poverty. As I have said before, there are many thousand fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010. Overall, there are 300,000 fewer people in poverty than there were then, and there are 100,000 fewer working-age adults in poverty. I hope the whole House agrees that work is the best route out of poverty, and that using the benefits system to try to help people into work is the best thing that we can do for them in the long term.

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T3. Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the extremely low rate of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in my constituency, which is currently half the rate in the north-east region as a whole? It is due to drop even further with the imminent arrival of a new Premier Inn hotel in Berwick, which will go some way towards countering the otherwise largely seasonal nature of tourism employment locally. [906604]

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I welcome both those pieces of news, and the employment that will be brought to my hon. Friend’s constituency. What she has said about the opening of the hotel reflects a national trend. We know from surveys that the demand for staff in the hospitality industry continues to be strong, and it is one of the factors that are helping us to achieve a record level of employment.

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According to the International Monetary Fund, a series of forecasts has shown that the vote to leave the European Union will lead to low global growth and rock-bottom interest rates for years to come, and that as a result, despite the saving of trillions of pounds, workers who are due to retire in the next few years will not even have their basic needs met. Today, as the deputy Governor of the Bank of England defends the Bank’s approach to the economy to Members of Parliament and outlines his concerns about pensions, will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government are going to do to shore up the pensions of people who have done the right thing and earned their retirement?

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The best thing that the Government can do—and, of course, it is what we are doing and will continue to do—is ensure that our underlying economy is strong and continues to create jobs as it has over the past six years, because, as we know, that is the best way to preserve and enhance both the state and the private pensions systems in the future.

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T5. Given that only 15% of people with autism are in full-time employment, I was pleased earlier this year to join the Department’s Paul Maynard taskforce, which made 14 recommendations for improving access to apprenticeships for people with learning disabilities, including autism. What progress has been made with the implementation of those recommendations? [906606]

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I pay tribute to the taskforce, and also to my right hon. Friend’s work with the all-party parliamentary group on autism. We have introduced a number of measures. We have a contract with Autism Alliance UK, and I am grateful to the alliance for training more than 1,000 of our own staff. We will introduce further measures, and the Green Paper will focus strongly on autism, outlining not just our ambitions but what we intend to do now.

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I call Mr Virendra Sharma.

Where is the fellow? He was here a moment ago, and now he has beetled out of the Chamber. All this beetling out of the Chamber is a very unhealthy phenomenon when an hon. Member has a question on the Order Paper. Members should look at the Order Paper a bit more carefully. I call Caroline Flint.

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It has been brought to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee that universal credit is paid per calendar month, which, as has been pointed out by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, affects those receiving four-weekly pay very badly. I know that, since our evidence inquiry, the Minister’s officials have met representatives of the union to discuss their concerns. May I ask the appropriate Minister to follow the matter up? It is an anomaly that affects a great many retail workers who are ending up without their universal credit being paid.

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The right hon. Lady identifies the issue around four-weekly versus two-weekly versus monthly cycles of pay. As she mentions, it came up at the Select Committee. I know that Lord Freud is considering what the implications are and is continuing his discussions.

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T8. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the news that there are now more women in work, including in my constituency, than ever before. Furthermore, does he agree that this Government’s childcare offer, which ensures that universal credit covers 85% of childcare costs for claimants, is critical in helping families and in helping mothers back into work? [906609]

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Indeed, I welcome the news of the record levels of female employment. My hon. Friend is right that enhancements in childcare are an important part of this. Within that, the extension in universal credit support from 70% to 85% of costs is important, coupled with the fact that it applies at lower levels of hours, which will enable some mums to get back into the workplace sooner than might otherwise be the case.

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T6. Last week, my constituent, Mrs Roberts, told me that, during the course of migrating her disability living allowance claim to the personal independence payment, she was asked to read out her bank details over the phone. That presented a problem to her because she is blind. For other Government services, she is able to use an adapted computer. Will the Secretary of State agree to review urgently that element of the PIP process so that reasonable adjustments can be made for all those with visual impairments? [906607]

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that case. Reading out bank details over the phone is bad enough and, clearly, if his constituent is blind there are additional problems. If he will write to me, I will ensure that we look at that matter carefully.

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I hope that Ministers were as concerned as I was that not one of the offenders leaving prison earlier this month who were mentioned in the chief inspector of probation report found work? Will Ministers commit to raise that issue with all employers they meet, not least in the public sector, where our record is still not good enough, so that we can all be safer?

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My hon. Friend is right to identify the importance of helping ex-offenders into work. We know that, if they get into work, they are much less likely to reoffend. The See Potential campaign is important in that regard. Many employers have signed up to that and I commend them for doing so. I and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), the Minister with responsibility for prisons, are in regular contact about how we can further improve our offer for ex-offenders and we will continue to work on that.

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T7. Given the complaints about the conduct of assessors during the PIP assessment process, a failing in the absence of a recording and recordings made on mobile phones, tablets and computers not being accepted, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that recordings are taken as a matter of course and that claimants are not required to provide their own specialist equipment? [906608]

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As I mentioned earlier, we have identified a number of things through the PIP continual improvement process. Some recurring trends have been down to straightforward things—for example, the failure of computer systems to integrate. However, we have the standards to which she has alluded. Where that is not happening, I would be grateful if hon. Members would let me know. We have a rigorous process to look at and to audit where these things are and where they are not taking place.

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Disability Confident is an excellent initiative, but there are still far too few disabled people in employment, particularly those with learning disabilities. Can the Minister look at what we might do to give financial incentives to employers to take on people with disabilities, because it seems that getting people to give someone a go is the best way to show that any doubts they have about employing people with a disability are unfounded?

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This is a very important issue. The Green Paper will look at it, but outside that, if we are really serious about closing the disability employment gap, we have to look at job creation and create opportunities for everyone, including those who may have particular needs, to do meaningful activity, to work and to have flexibility. Therefore, we are looking at those things.

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T9. Given that delays in assessment have left my constituents waiting—in the case of Sandra Maley, more than two years—for their employment and support allowance payments, will the Secretary of State make a commitment to backdate payments to the point of application, so that my constituents suffering real hardship get the financial support to which they are entitled? [906610]

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that individual case. Obviously, if he wants to send details, I will look at them. Clearly, each case has to be assessed on its merits, so I cannot give any blanket commitments at the Dispatch Box, but I will certainly look at the individual case.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that with more powers over health and social care being devolved to local government, it makes sense to at least consider transferring the administration and responsibility for attendance allowance to them too?

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This was part of the consultation on business rate retention and is being considered at the moment.

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T10. As the Secretary of State will know, the north-east still has the highest unemployment rate in the UK, with far too many people desperate to find secure work. Is this what the Government mean by a northern powerhouse, or have Ministers abandoned the idea altogether? [906611]

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Ministers have absolutely not abandoned the idea of the northern powerhouse, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, but we are also equally determined that the benefits of the high employment, low unemployment regime we have established over recent years are spread to all regions of the country, including her own. We will continue the very successful work that we have done in that field over the past six years during the course of this Parliament.

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I know the Minister is passionate about sports opportunities for disabled people, especially with today’s homecoming parade for our Paralympian champions. However, Mencap today highlighted that only nine out of 252 Paralympic events are open to those with a learning disability. Will the Minister meet Mencap urgently to look at how this can be addressed?

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It is absolutely vital that we ensure that, whether in school or later in life, people with disabilities can participate in sporting activities. That is good not just for physical health, but for mental wellbeing. I would be very happy to meet Mencap.

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Youth unemployment in Wolverhampton remains stubbornly high despite recent progress. City of Wolverhampton Council is running an excellent project to help young people back into work, which is part-funded by the European Union. The Secretary of State and I campaigned to remain in the EU. Can he guarantee that such projects will be funded by the Government once we leave?

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As the hon. Lady knows, a statement has been made about the European social fund and what happens to projects at different stages. I commend what is happening in her constituency and welcome the fact that in Wolverhampton North East youth unemployment has fallen by 54% since 2010.

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I do not know whether it is just in my area, but at every weekly surgery I will have one person who has been refused PIP who is clearly entitled to it. I had a lady this week with multiple sclerosis; she is clearly entitled to it and will get it when she goes to the independent tribunal, but why do such people have to wait until then? Surely this can be corrected at an earlier stage.

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We now have mandatory reconsideration, but I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. The key to this is to ensure that we get the decision right in the first instance. We are looking very closely at those cases that have gone to appeal and been overturned to see why the right decision was not taken earlier in the process. I have mentioned some of the things we are going to do and the Green Paper will have more, but I absolutely hear my hon. Friend.

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Dozens of Women Against State Pension Inequality petitions with thousands of signatures have been presented already across the UK, with more on the Order Paper today and tomorrow. The Secretary of State needs to accept that these women are not going anywhere and a solution is needed. Does the Minister agree that if there is no money for pensions, there is no money for weapons of mass destruction?

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The Government have already made a concession to the WASPI women. The state pension is very much part of public expenditure and always will be, and it is absolutely not the case that defence expenditure and that on the state pension can be compared.

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The most recent Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs figures show that my constituency now has the highest level of child poverty in the country, and we know that two thirds of children living in poverty live in working households. For my constituents this is not a country that works for everyone. Will the Secretary of State now agree that he must come to this House and reverse the cuts to universal credit so that my constituents and others are supported, rather than penalised for this Government’s choices?

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I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that the figures I have quoted on a number of occasions show that child poverty and the number of children living in workless households has fallen. Clearly, there will be different percentages in different constituencies around the country, but we will continue on a path that gets more people into work and means that fewer children are in workless households, so that the prosperity can be spread across all parts of this country.

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The Minister will be aware that independent research commissioned by the Scottish National party has found that the Government’s figures on a solution for the WASPI women were wrong. Instead of £30 billion, mitigation could cost much less, at £8 billion. Given that there is a surplus in the national insurance fund, why does he not do the right thing and ensure that those women get mitigation?

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Since September, the Scottish Government have had the power to pay benefits in many new areas; they can create new benefits and top up reserved benefits. The days when this Chamber was just a relaxing place where SNP Members could come to whinge are over. They now control a Government who have the power to do something about this and put their money where their mouth is.

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Order. I am sorry, but we must now move on.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the remit, organisation, budget and staffing of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.

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I would like to make a statement on the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. I know that the whole House will agree with me when I say that the work of the inquiry is absolutely vital. Victims and survivors must have justice, and we must learn the lessons of the past. The inquiry’s remit is to examine whether institutions in England and Wales have failed to protect children from sexual abuse. It is an independent body, established under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Home Office is the sponsor Department, and I am responsible for the terms of reference, appointing the chair and panel members, and providing funding. Last year, the inquiry had a budget of £17.9 million and underspent by over £3 million. The appointment of staff and the day-to-day running are matters for the chair.

I appointed Professor Alexis Jay as chair of the inquiry on 11 August, following the unexpected resignation of Dame Lowell Goddard on 4 August, and I am aware of questions around the reasons for that resignation. Let me spell out the facts. On 29 July, the secretary to the inquiry met my permanent secretary and reported concerns about the professionalism and competence of the chair. My permanent secretary encouraged the inquiry to raise those matters with the chair. He reported this meeting to me the same day. My permanent secretary also met members of the inquiry panel on 4 August. Later that day, Dame Lowell tendered her resignation to me, which I accepted. Less than a week elapsed between concerns being raised with the Home Office and Dame Lowell’s resignation. My permanent secretary’s approach was entirely appropriate for an independent body.

The second issue relates to my evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. I was asked why Dame Lowell had gone. Dame Lowell had not spoken to me about her reasons, so I relied on the letter that she had sent to the Committee. In her letter, she said that she was lonely and felt that she could not deliver, and that that was why she had stepped down. Dame Lowell has strongly refuted the allegations about her. The only way we could understand properly why she resigned would be to hear from Dame Lowell herself. To echo any further allegations, which are now likely to be the subject of legal dispute, would have been entirely inappropriate. We now owe it to the victims and survivors to get behind the inquiry in its endeavour. My own commitment to the inquiry’s work is undiminished, and I invite the House to offer its support in the same way.

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I have no wish to be disobliging to the Home Secretary, but for the record, and for the propriety of these proceedings, I should just mention that in no meaningful sense of the term was she making a statement to the House, which is a matter of conscious and deliberate choice by the Government. The right hon. Lady was responding—she has done so timeously—to an urgent question, which I have granted. In other words, the Home Secretary is here because she has been asked to be here, not because she asked to be here. That is quite an important distinction, which we ought to respect in the language that we use.

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The Home Secretary is right to say that the inquiry is of profound significance not only to survivors, but the whole country. She is right to remind us that it is independent, but these events and the problems that have beset it since it started also raise fundamental questions of accountability.

The Home Secretary referred to the evidence that she gave to the Home Affairs Committee on 7 September, in which she said that “all the information” she had was that Justice Goddard had quit because she was a “long way from home” and “too lonely”. The Home Secretary said that she was relying on a letter. Why did she not ask Justice Goddard why she had quit the inquiry? We have since learned that senior officials in the Department were aware on 29 July—before the resignation—of concerns about Justice Goddard’s conduct. It is also alleged that Liz Sanderson, an adviser to the Home Secretary’s predecessor, who is now Prime Minister, and Mark Sedwill, the permanent secretary, knew about the concerns long before then. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether that is the case?

On what date did the Home Office become aware of the problems? On which exact date during the 16 months that the chair was in post did the Home Secretary or her predecessor become aware of the problems? Who made them aware of those problems? Given that 38 Home Office staff are seconded to the inquiry, how could the Home Secretary have been unaware of the concerns as late as 7 September? Can she tell us why, given that the Home Office knew of serious questions about the behaviour and leadership of the inquiry, she went on to authorise a pay-off to Justice Goddard worth £80,000?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that she is the only person who can terminate the chair’s contract and that misconduct is grounds for dismissal under that contract? If so, why was that not acted upon? Has she or the Prime Minister intervened to request that Justice Goddard appears before the Home Affairs Committee? If not, will they do so urgently? Can she explain the circumstances surrounding the departure of the lead counsel, Ben Emmerson, QC? Has any compensation been paid to him or the four other senior lawyers who have quit the inquiry? Will the Home Secretary assure survivors about how the inquiry will proceed?

Finally, this inquiry was established to shine a spotlight on institutions characterised by a culture of secrecy, denial and cover-up in which child abusers were able to operate in plain sight without challenge or consequence. It is a tragedy that the inquiry has been dogged by allegations of a similar nature, with which child abuse victims will be far too familiar. If the inquiry is to proceed with confidence, the questions must be answered.

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It is very cheeky for an hon. Member to use the word “finally” in what I might call the Hughes sense—a reference to the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who was wont to follow that word with several further sentences.

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I will endeavour to answer the hon. Lady’s questions as fully as possible. She initially asked about my comments to the Home Affairs Committee on why Dame Lowell Goddard had left, so I want to quote from Dame Lowell’s letter, in which she says:

“It was never easy operating in an environment in which I had no familiar networks and there were times when it seemed a very lonely mission.”

It was with reference to that note that I gave my answer to the Committee.

The hon. Lady had several queries about staffing. The independence of the inquiry can be maintained only by it being absolutely clear that such matters are for the chair. It is not for the Home Office to control staffing; it is for the chair to appoint members of staff, and the chair has the operational independence to do so.

The hon. Lady also inquired about whether I had asked Dame Lowell Goddard to appear before the Home Affairs Committee. I have indeed passed on that specific request.

My Department has followed the correct formal procedure at all times and will continue to do so in order to ensure that there is true accountability regarding transparency, which is so important. The fact that the inquiry is independent is absolutely essential to garnering the support that is needed from the expert panel, which is part of the inquiry, and from victims and survivors.

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May I support the Home Secretary in emphasising the importance of this inquiry carrying on its important work? Will she also acknowledge that Alexis Jay and other panel members, as well as her own permanent secretary, will be appearing before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow? Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be very helpful if Lowell Goddard agreed to appear in person in front of us? Finally, while respecting the independence of such an inquiry, there is a duty for the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Committee, as a scrutinising body, to make sure that it is fit for purpose and is spending public money wisely. Does she agree that it is not sufficient for a chairman to be entirely self-regulating if things are going wrong, as she appears to be suggesting?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to say that we need to point out that the permanent secretary is appearing before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow, as is the new chair, Alexis Jay. I am sure she will get the confidence she deserves from the Select Committee and from other parties who have listened to her.

My hon. Friend is right that the operational independence of the chair is also dependent on support from the expert panel, and when my permanent secretary was approached by the secretary of the independent inquiry about concerns on 29 July, he rightly referred the secretary to ask the expert panel to take this up with the chair. The relationship between the chair and the expert panel is central to this, and so in that way the chair would not be able to act independently, because she needs the support of the expert panel.

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The Government are now on their fourth chair of the inquiry into child sexual abuse. No inquiry in modern times has been mired in such chaos. At the very least, this suggests a certain incompetence, both in setting the terms and in selecting the personnel to lead the inquiry. This is bad for policy and for the Home Office but, above all, it is a terrible situation for the survivors of child sexual abuse, who have put so much hope and trust in the successful conclusion of this inquiry.

The latest scandal is the departure of Dame Justice Lowell Goddard, amid allegations of high-handedness and racist remarks. The Home Secretary said—this has been repeated—when she appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 7 September that “all the information” she had was that Lowell Goddard had quit because she was

“a long way from home”

and “too lonely”. She says that she was reliant on Justice Goddard’s letter, but why did she not ask—why did she not get a formal response from her as to why she was going? In the absence of any attempt to get formal information, other than the letter, the Home Secretary finds herself in a position where she will have to defend herself against accusations of misleading the Committee. It is clear from the statements of the victims and their families that they believe there will be no change to the remit of the inquiry and no reduction in its scope. Who, on behalf of the inquiry and the Home Office, has communicated that to them? Was this Home Office policy at the time? Has it changed, and why has it changed? Will any attempts be made to scale back the inquiry? Does the Secretary of State agree that if that were to happen—scaling back an inquiry on which so many hopes rest among individuals who have spent a lifetime in pain and misery because of early abuse—it would be to make the survivors pay for the Government’s failure in managing this inquiry?

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The hon. Lady confuses a number of items in her questions, and I respectfully say to her that questions to me about scaling back the inquiry reveal that she has failed to understand that this inquiry is independent. I urge her to look at the terms of reference, which were set out last year to Parliament, as they are very clear about independence. To maintain the confidence of the survivors and victims, it is essential that that independence is maintained and is seen to be maintained. There is no question of the Home Office scaling back an inquiry; this is for the chair of the inquiry, Alexis Jay, who has such a strong reputation in this area, including for her work on the Rotherham inquiry. I urge the hon. Lady to acquaint herself a little more with what this independence means, and I hope that that will mean that she will have more confidence in the process.

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Having worked for many years with my constituent Tom Perry, who works with Mandate Now and the Survivors Trust, which seek to require all staff working in regulated activities to report concerns about a child’s welfare to the local authority, I know how important this inquiry is. Does the Home Secretary agree that the inquiry is indeed a vital tool for uncovering where children and young people have been failed by Government and institutions in the past, and will she undertake again to look at mandatory reporting?

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My right hon. Friend raises a personal case, and it is important for us all to bear such cases in mind when we think about the scale of this inquiry and people bringing forward criticisms. There are always these independent stories that remind us how important it is to get truth and justice for these people, and to learn from those stories so that we can ensure that institutions make improvements. Of course I will look at what she has suggested.

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Every MP in the Chamber is anxious for the inquiry to succeed, but before we can draw a line under recent difficult problems and move on, we need honesty and transparency from the Home Office. When the Home Secretary appeared before the Home Affairs Committee in September alongside the permanent secretary, she left Members with the impression that Justice Goddard resigned because, in short, she was “lonely”. There was no mention of concerns about conduct then or, indeed, in her subsequent letter to the acting Chair of the Committee. For clarity’s sake, did she know before giving evidence that day, or before writing the letter, about the concerns that had been raised? Will she confirm that only she could remove the inquiry chair from office and that the limited grounds for doing so included misconduct? Is that not why all these questions about the state of her knowledge are so important?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the secretary to the inquiry, to whom she has already referred, is a lifelong Home Office staffer and that that secretary regularly meets the permanent secretary to provide progress updates? Is she categorically stating that these issues were not raised before July? If they were not raised before July, why on earth were they not raised before then? When did the permanent secretary or the special advisers first make either the current or previous Home Secretary aware?

When the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, was she being economical about what she knew, or had she been badly briefed by the permanent secretary—it has to be one or the other? Finally, does she accept that, by sticking its head in the sand, the Home Office hierarchy allowed the inquiry to descend into a state of paralysis, which we must never see again?

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Order. I fear it is rather discourteous for the hon. Gentleman to suggest or imply that the Home Secretary might be “economical” with what she knew. That comes fairly close to crossing the line. Given that he has a prepared text, and therefore had full knowledge of what he was going to say, may I suggest that, for the future, he ought to phrase things rather differently?

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I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no “paralysis”—he particularly used that word. The inquiry is at full tilt and working at full speed under Alexis Jay, and it will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the dates. I believe that I set them out very clearly in my response to the urgent question: I knew about this on 29 July, and that was one week before Dame Lowell Goddard resigned. I point out that the allegations to which he refers are absolutely denied by Dame Justice Goddard, so it would not be appropriate for me to refer to them or to speculate on them while there may indeed be legal action following them.

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Many of our constituents have suffered child sexual abuse and live every day with its consequences. Will the Home Secretary confirm to the House that this inquiry will be a No. 1 personal priority for her?

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I can confirm that this is a priority for us. It is a priority for this Government and Members across the House. As my hon. Friend says, we all know of constituents who have suffered and who are, quite rightly, expecting action.

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Is the Home Secretary aware that there is bound to be disappointment? When she appeared before the Select Committee at its hearing on 7 September and replied to questions about why Justice Goddard had resigned, she did not give further information that was relevant to the resignation or that involved any possible legal action. On the wider issue, will the Home Secretary accept that there is now a lack of confidence—there is no other way to put it—that the inquiry will carry out the very crucial task of looking into the sexual exploitation of children? There is also no indication whatsoever of a timescale; the inquiry could go on for many years. It would be an absolute farce if such an important inquiry ended in the way that many of us fear.

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I urge the hon. Gentleman to give his support to the inquiry. Let us all try to find a way of being confident about it. Alexis Jay, the chair, has said that she hopes to conclude the inquiry by the end of 2020, but it is perhaps for us in the House and for the Home Affairs Committee to give her assistance. I am not suggesting anything but the most thorough of scrutiny, but it may be that we need to give as much assistance as we can to make sure that the new chair can do a thorough and successful job going forward.

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I very much welcome the appointment of Professor Jay to take the inquiry forward. Can the Home Secretary confirm that victims of child sexual exploitation in my constituency will be able to engage with the inquiry and share their experiences?

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My hon. Friend is right. Alexis Jay has the experience to be able to lead the inquiry and under the truth project, one of the strands within the inquiry, we are encouraging people to come forward and speak to the inquiry about their experience.

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The Home Secretary is right to talk about the independence of the inquiry. We all want Professor Jay to be able to make a success of such an important inquiry now, but there is continued concern because this is the fourth chair and the second legal team, and because of the lack of transparency about the problems that there seems to have been from both the inquiry and the Home Office. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that the transparency arrangements for the inquiry are strong enough and that there will now be enough accountability for the progress of the inquiry?

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The right hon. Lady has come to the crux of the matter—have we got the right balance of independence and transparency? I recognise that that is something that I need to reassure people about and hopefully demonstrate. One of the reasons for being here today is to make that point. I will watch carefully to make sure that we continue to get the right balance, providing the independence that is necessary while being as transparent as possible.

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I think it is worth reiterating the importance of independence, and I hope my right hon. Friend agrees with me. I hope she will reinforce to the House that protecting the strictly independent nature of the inquiry is incredibly important. Will she continue to give that reassurance?

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My hon. Friend is right. Ensuring that people have confidence in the inquiry is also about maintaining its independence.

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Instead of making this all about lawyers, judges and even Ministers, may we bring the focus back to where it really belongs—on the needs, wishes and interests of the victims? Will the Home Secretary give us an assurance that as the inquiry goes forward, any request for access from victims’ representatives to her or to the inquiry will be met, that the victims’ voice will be heard in Government, and that any victim who is pursuing justice by another route will not find that route prejudiced by any shortcomings in the inquiry?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that important point. The inquiry is, of course, about the victims and survivors. When I wanted to make inquiries about appointing a new chair, I did, of course, consult the victims and survivors consultative panel to ensure that it was supportive, which indeed it was. The right hon. Gentleman is right—we must make sure that the victims and survivors are always at the centre of our words and our deeds.

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As well as it being vital that this important inquiry is strictly independent, as hon. Members have emphasised, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we let it do its work and await its report, rather than anyone seeking in any way to pre-empt its findings?

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My hon. Friend is right. We are caught between our impatience to find out more and the need to keep the inquiry independent. We are hoping for an interim statement on the inquiry for the current financial year—the end of March next year—and I hope that that will shed some light on progress to date.

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The Saville report took 12 years and spent £190 million to report on a single incident that took place over two hours. This inquiry has been given the mission impossible to report on hundreds of thousands of incidents that took place over many decades. Is it not time for the House to confess that this was a political escape hole to recover from an embarrassing situation, and to make it clear that the matter is, of course, of vital importance, but that the committee must be allowed to reshape the report and its inquiries so that they can be reported within our lifetimes?

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I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about this being a political inquiry of any sort. I think it is essential, important and valued by everybody—in this House certainly, and in the nation generally. We have a Select Committee that will continue to make its inquiries. As I said earlier, Alexis Jay has indicated that she hopes to conclude the inquiry by the end of 2020.

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Given that we are where we are now with the resignation of Dame Justice Goddard, does my right hon. Friend agree with Professor Jay when she says that the inquiry is “open for business”? Does she agree that it can now go forward with its vital work with confidence to demonstrate its accountability?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We may have discussions, urgent questions and statements on issues of staffing, but the fact is the inquiry is going ahead, it is taking evidence and the chair is working hard to make sure she delivers as soon as possible.

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It is not taking evidence from everyone yet. I am the appointed representative of some of the survivors from my constituency, and my office is assisting others with statements, and none of that has gone forward yet. Is there not a danger that this is going to become another lawyers bun fest, with judges and barristers resigning, and with large numbers of lawyers not just queueing up, but at the front of the queue, to make large amounts of money not only representing people to the inquiry, but, simultaneously, taking legal civil action against the authorities? What are the Government going to do to ensure that the survivors are at the heart of this rather than the lawyers?

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We always make sure that survivors are at the heart of this. There is, nevertheless, a legal role to be played, and there are expenses associated with an inquiry, but there is no blank cheque. One role with which the Home Office does have constant engagement is making sure that the budgets are carefully set and challenged each year so that the proper costs are associated with this.

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I am sure the inquiry is moving forward in the right way, but I hope we are not being deflected from dealing with child abuse that is going on at the moment, especially of children who are trafficked into this country. One thing we could do urgently is move the protection of children who are trafficked from local government to national Government and the Home Office. If the Home Secretary would be willing to look into that, it would improve things enormously.

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I know of my hon. Friend’s action and strong reputation on the issue of trafficking, and I would of course be delighted to speak to him on any matter in this area on which he has advice to give. I would like to reassure him, though, that a key element of this inquiry is about learning from the past to improve institutions going forward.

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Will the Home Secretary accept that there are some serious questions to be asked about the due diligence that was undertaken in the appointment of Justice Goddard in the first place? Has she had an opportunity to discuss with her predecessor what steps she took to ensure Justice Goddard was up for the job? Can she confirm for me exactly what date she expects the interim report, exactly what date she expects the final report and what the total cost of the inquiry will be?

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We have asked for the interim report by the end of this financial year, so we would expect it in March or April next year. I have already indicated that we hope that the final report will be completed by the end of 2020, but I cannot be prescriptive about that; that is for the chair to decide, but that is the indication she has given.

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Can the Home Secretary reassure my constituents that the work of this important inquiry was not stopped each time a chairman stood down? Can she reassure the House that there is a robust system of deputy chairs in place?

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Considerable work has already been done over the past 16 months. The new chair is aware of the need to get confidence back and to pick up activity with all due urgency. I assure my hon. Friend that she is taking that obligation, with the momentum that she has now picked up, very seriously.

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When I asked the former Prime Minister an oral question about the loss of survivor testimonies that were submitted through the inquiry website, he said that he would write to me. What he meant was that he would print a press release from the inquiry website and forward it on. This patronising and irresponsible approach has been the only consistent theme of the inquiry. Is it not time that this Government started listening to the legitimate concerns of survivors and experts, and acknowledged that unless something changes, it is simply being set up to fail?

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I respectfully ask the hon. Lady perhaps to engage with the inquiry in a slightly more positive manner. This Government set it up, and we are absolutely serious about wanting to assist survivors and victims, and wanting to make the changes to institutions that are necessary as we move forward.

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Parliament set it up.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I like to think that this Government had some part in making sure that that took place.

If the hon. Lady would like to write to me about the particular instance to which she is referring, I would of course be happy to respond, and she can rest assured that I will do so.

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Order. Unless I am much mistaken, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is a most assiduous attender at our proceedings, was not here at the start of these exchanges in the Chamber. [Interruption.] If she was, that is fine. I had been advised that she was not, but her word is good enough. If she says she was, that is good enough for me. Was she here at the start of the exchanges on this matter?

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indicated assent.

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Very good.

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Do Professor Jay and the panel have the resources they need to complete this inquiry, and if not, what extra help can be given to them?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. These inquiries are not always popular because they can be costly, but the Home Office has a management technique to make sure that we always look carefully at the costs that might be involved. I assure her that we will always make sure that they are sufficiently funded to do the job well.

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As part of its work, the inquiry was due to look into the sexual abuse of children in the care of Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council as one of its first-phase investigations. As the Secretary of State knows, survivors in my constituency have already waited not just years but decades for their voice to be heard. What assurances can she give to my constituents, who are desperate to secure a measure of justice, about the timeframe for those investigations?

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I completely understand the need for the hon. Lady’s constituents to have a better view on the potential timing of the progress of this inquiry. We now have a chair who has said that she is going to move with momentum and pace, so I would expect them to hear from her soon. I am sorry to have to repeat this, but it is for the inquiry to decide how to proceed. I urge the hon. Lady to engage with the chair in order to get an answer.

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Following the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), with the movement of people and the vulnerability of children a matter of concern to all of us in this House, what steps are the Government taking with other nations to tackle the global challenge of child sexual abuse in order to learn from that and better inform the inquiry?

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Internationally, we are viewed as being ahead of other countries in trying to address this. We have a number of initiatives online to make sure that we share good practice and engage with other countries. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is one way of making sure that less abuse takes place. Again, we are an international leader in that area.

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I have known far too many people in my life who have been abused. A colleague at theological college used to cry herself to sleep every single night because of the abuse she had suffered as a child. A young member of the congregation where I was a curate self-harmed for months on end because of the abuse that she had suffered from one of her teachers. Another ordinand was abused by the Bishop of Gloucester—a man in power and authority, and spiritual authority, over him. For all those people, and doubtless for all the others we all know, the thing that matters more than anything else is getting to the truth, so that what they know in their heart is known by everybody else to have been the truth. I say very gently to the Home Secretary that if at any point she has a choice between letting everything out into the open and keeping some things back, she should always go for the former, not the latter.

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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is incumbent on those of us who have anything to do with an inquiry about transparency and abuse to ensure that we are as transparent, accountable and frank with people as possible. I reassure him that I will always do that, but I would like to turn the emphasis back to the inquiry and the new chair so that we can make the progress that is so essential to his and all our constituents.

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David Cameron was very fond of quoting Justice Brandeis’s dictum that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In the spirit of the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), does the Home Secretary agree that we need to get all the facts out in the open now? Will she allow, and in fact even encourage, former panel members to share their fears and concerns in public so that we can start with a completely clean sheet?

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I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the new chair takes that approach in terms of full transparency, but I do not want to mislead him by saying that the Home Office can do too much on that. We can be frank and open about every stage that we have been involved in, but it is for the inquiry to answer some of the detailed questions. I remind the House that Alexis Jay will be in front of the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow and hopefully will be able to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

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Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker. When the Macur report was presented earlier this year, it contained hundreds of redactions, apparently to avoid prejudicing court actions, much to the dismay of victims in north Wales. What can the Home Secretary do to ensure that the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will have a minimal amount of redactions to help victims to obtain justice in the courts?

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I can honestly say that I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that an inquiry of this nature and seriousness should have the minimum amount of redactions. What the Government and the country expect is a full, open inquiry that will allow our constituents and people in our country who have been abused to have the truth and justice opportunity that they are seeking, and then for us and the institutions involved to learn so that such abuse does not happen again.

Community Pharmacies

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the budget for community pharmacies in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

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Members will have seen media coverage over the weekend about our consultation on the community pharmacy contractual framework. I shall set out the current position, the process going forward and how the final decision will be announced to the House.

In December 2015—10 months ago—the Government set out a range of proposals for reforming the community pharmacy sector. Our intent was to promote the movement of the sector towards a future based on value-added services, together with much stronger links to the general practitioner sector.

We proposed ways in which to make a reduction to the £2.8 billion currently paid to the sector. Part of the rationale was the increase of 40% in the budget and an increase of 18% in the number of establishments in the past decade or so. Each establishment now receives an average £220,000 of margin over and above the cost of drugs disbursed. Many of the establishments are in clusters.

The 2015 spending review reaffirmed the need for the privately owned community pharmacy sector to make a contribution to the publicly owned NHS efficiency savings that we need to deliver. We are confident that the changes proposed will not jeopardise the quality of services required or patient access to them, but some services will be delivered differently, which is why we have set aside £112 million to recruit a further 1,500 pharmacy professionals to be employed directly by the NHS in GP practices.

The Government have consulted on the reforms since December 2015. On 13 October this year, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee rejected our proposed package and sent a list of remaining concerns. We are now in the process of considering its final response, and expect to be in a position to make an announcement to the House shortly.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Community pharmacies play a vital role in frontline healthcare. Nearly 12,000 communities in England provide free advice to patients, and more than 1 billion items were dispensed in the community last year—an increase of 50% on 2005. Reports in recent days, however, make it clear that the Government are determined to press ahead with massive cuts to community pharmacies in this and the next financial year.

Serious questions remain about the impact of those cuts. When will Ministers finally publish an impact assessment of the proposed plans? How many pharmacies will close? Which regions will lose the most? Will they be in clusters or not? What will be the rate of loss in urban, as opposed to rural, areas? Will the Minister confirm that only about one in 10 community pharmacies will be helped by the pharmacy access scheme?

Community pharmacies and the cuts to them are a complete false economy for the NHS. They can only add further pressures to our already overstretched A&E units and GP surgeries. What is the Minister’s assessment of the downstream costs to other parts of the NHS as a result of cuts to the community pharmacy budget, especially given the evidence from Pharmacy Voice that one in four people who would usually visit a pharmacy for advice would instead make a GP appointment if their local pharmacy was closed? In areas of higher deprivation, such as those in my constituency, the numbers are much higher.

We have seen massive opposition to these cuts, not just from pharmacies and voices on both sides of the House, but from the 2.2 million people who have signed the biggest petition in healthcare history. To conclude, Ministers have, to be frank, been all over the place. We have had mixed messages and false hope. The Government announced a pause to the cuts. Is not there now a compelling case for that pause to be made permanent?

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The hon. Gentleman has not had any mixed messages from me. A pause was announced because the original consultation gave the intent to go ahead with this on 1 October. Given the change of Government and of Prime Minister, and given the new Chancellor and new Ministers, we took the opportunity to look at it again, to make sure that we get it right for patients, the NHS and the pharmacy sector itself, and that is what we intend to do.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions, but first he said that the pharmacy sector is vital, and we agree with him. In some instances, however, there are as many as a dozen pharmacies within half a mile of each other. That is not an isolated occurrence. Each of those pharmacies receives £25,000 per annum, and it is our job to consider whether that money could be better spent in other parts of the NHS.

I am not in a positon today to announce the final format or shape of the GP access scheme.

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It is in the newspapers.

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That is speculation. We continue to look at the most recent communication that we have received from the negotiating body of the PSNC. I remind the House that 60% to 65% of these pharmacies are owned by public companies or private equity. The fact of the matter is that the Government have a responsibility to make sure that that money is spent effectively, and that is what we are going to do.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that GP access needs to remain good. I confirm and repeat the point that I made earlier: 1,500 additional pharmacists will be recruited into the GP sector by 2020. That is a massive investment, and it will make a big difference.

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I should declare that Boots has its headquarters partly in my constituency and partly in Nottingham South. May I gently say to the Minister that there is great concern about the proposals? If there was ever a time to argue to increase the role of pharmacies, it is now. They perform a hugely powerful job in making sure that people do not, to be frank, bother their GPs and A&E with matters that are best dealt with by pharmacies because they are of a minor nature. The Minister makes a good point about clustering, but he has to get this right, because, if he damages pharmacies, there will be fewer of them, not just in poorer areas, but in remote rural areas. I urge the Government to take a hard good look at the issue, to make sure that this is the right approach as the pressures on the NHS increase.

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I agree with my right hon. Friend. Boots makes a big contribution. It owns 1,724 pharmacies and is the biggest of the big four, which between them own 40% of all pharmacies. The Government’s position is that community pharmacists make a big contribution, but I repeat that the number of locations has increased by nearly 20% over the past decade, and each one gets £25,000 per annum just for being open and for being a pharmacy. One consequence is that we have seen a great deal of clustering, and 40% of pharmacies are within half a mile of three others. It is right that the Government look at that and make a judgment.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) on securing this urgent question and on his exceptional campaigning on the issue. He is, no doubt, as disappointed as I am by some of the Minister’s replies.

Ministers appear to be intent on pushing ahead with the cuts that have been outlined, under which thousands of community pharmacies could close and patients could lose out on essential medical services. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee has described the Government’s proposals as “founded on ignorance” and warned that they will do “great damage”. The National Pharmacy Association says that the proposal is a “dangerous experiment” that

“shows a complete disregard for the well-being of patients.”

Is that not an absolute indictment of the Government’s handling of this matter? The Minister has said that he will make an announcement shortly. Given the concern among Members from across the House, including Conservative Members, can he be more specific and tell us when he will give us a final decision? Will he also be negotiating a solution with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee? As the Minister knows, his predecessor talked of the potential for up to 3,000 pharmacies to close. Is that correct, in the Minister’s judgment? If not, can he tell us how many pharmacies he thinks will close, and how many of those will be in deprived areas?

Has the Minister had a chance to study the PwC report that describes the cash savings that community pharmacies bring to the NHS? What will be the financial impact on the NHS of more patients presenting themselves at A&E departments and GP surgeries because pharmacies have closed?

Is not the real reason why Ministers are pressing ahead with these cuts the complete mismanagement of NHS finances? Hospitals ended last year £2.45 billion in the red. We have had continual warnings from experts in the NHS, and over the weekend we learned from the Prime Minister that there is no more money for the NHS. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister would be wrong to continue to ignore the advice of experts and pretend that everything is going to be okay. Unless the Government get a grip of the funding crisis facing the NHS, I fear that these cuts are just the start and that there is worse to come.

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The Government spend more than the OECD average on the NHS. We spend more than the commitments made by the Labour party before the last election. That does not mean that we do not have a duty to spend that money as effectively as we can, however, and that is exactly what we intend to do. The money that may be saved by the measures we are consulting on will not go to the Treasury; it will be recycled back into NHS England. That is what NHS England wants to happen.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the excellent PwC report, which reaffirmed the value of community pharmacists to this country. PwC did not consider whether that same value could be still provided after some savings to the network. That is what we are looking at, and it is reasonable and responsible for the Government to do so. To say that that is not the case is simply incorrect.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the previous Minister talked about 3,000 pharmacies closing. We do not believe that the number will be anything like that big. In some areas, there are 10 or 11 pharmacies within half a mile of each other. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] Leicester, Birmingham—we can talk more about this. It is quite possible that at the end of the review, some of those pharmacies will merge. If that happens, it will not mean that provision has been reduced. We do not believe that patient provision will suffer at all from the changes that we are considering.

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Community pharmacies play a very important role locally. Many of them have taken on useful services, such as eye tests and hearing tests, which definitely help to reduce the workload of GPs and of the NHS. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a community pharmacy service that is better integrated with primary care and public health in line with NHS England’s five-year forward view?

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It will not surprise the House to learn that I agree. Last Thursday night, I announced to over 1,000 pharmacists at their annual dinner that we are moving ahead with an urgent access scheme. From the beginning of December, all 111 calls for repeat prescriptions will go directly to pharmacists, not to the out-of-hours GP service. That is a tangible difference. We will do just the same with a minor ailments scheme, which will be commissioned right across the country so that, by April 2018, pharmacists will be paid—over and above any money that comes out of this settlement—for minor ailments work on things such as earache and so on. Those are exactly the sort of sensible steps that need to be taken to integrate pharmacy more closely into GP practice, and that is what we are doing.

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In Scotland, we already have a national minor ailments scheme within our community pharmacies, and it has had a huge impact. The Scottish Pharmacy Board estimated at the beginning of the project that 10% of those making GP visits and 5% of those making A&E visits could be seen in community pharmacies, so our investment has been in completely the opposite direction—in that of developing and strengthening such pharmacies. On top of minor ailments, one of the big areas that has made a difference is in chronic disease management. For people on repeat prescriptions, the pharmacist requests their next prescription and has it ready, while for housebound people, they deliver it, as they do with blister packs.

The concern about these changes is that pharmacists are afraid it will be a case of cutting and then seeing who survives. If it is felt that there are too many pharmacies in one place, reducing their number needs to be done in a planned way, otherwise rural and deprived areas will end up without one. The Government should be making sure that community pharmacy is a real part of the NHS, not slashing it.

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The hon. Lady made several points. On her last point, the access scheme on which we are currently consulting will protect pharmacies in rural and deprived areas. That is precisely the point of the scheme.

The hon. Lady’s first point was that Scotland has moved ahead on minor ailments, and we agree. I am on the record as saying that the pharmacy first scheme in Scotland is a good model. We want the profession to move away from just dispensing towards more value-added activities, such as services. That is precisely why we are putting into effect the minor ailments scheme that has been piloted. It will be implemented right across the UK—right across England, I should say—from April 2018.

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In the lee of Watership down in my constituency, the village of Kingsclere was so alarmed by the Government’s plans that it raised a petition, possibly for the first time in its history, in support of its precious local pharmacy. Will the Minister confirm that, notwithstanding the consultation, the idea of protecting the dwindling number of rural pharmacies will come out at the end of the consultation as part of the access scheme?

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Yes, I will confirm that. I am not in a position to announce today precisely how the access scheme will work, but I agree with my hon. Friend that a central part of it will be to make sure that everybody has a baseline distance to travel to get to a pharmacy and that everybody in the country will be able to access pharmacies within a reasonable time.

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NHS England’s five-year forward view stresses how important prevention is. Community pharmacies, which are anchored in the communities they serve, are vital in keeping people out of their GP surgeries and out of accident and emergency. The Minister talks about distance. What will the distance be? If I reflect on my own constituency, where the millionth signature of the petition was signed, my constituents really value each and every one of our community pharmacies. How many will he be cutting and how far does he expect people to travel to access one?

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The hon. Lady mentions the five year forward view. If she reads the “General Practice Forward View”, she will see that central to it is the recruitment of 2,000 pharmacists into GP practices across the country by 2020. That is how we will embrace the pharmacy profession and link it much more closely to GPs. I am not in a position, because we have not yet announced it, to discuss in detail today the final form of the access scheme and how it will work. Let us be very clear, however, that we do not expect people to have appreciably more of a journey to any pharmacy. We are talking about tens of metres, if any. The fact is that we will protect the pharmacies that need to be protected, so that everybody in the country has access within a reasonable time.

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Where sensible savings can be made, it is absolutely right that they should be explored, particularly if they are ploughed back into the health service. However, at a time when people in Cheltenham are turning increasingly to expert pharmacists for minor ailment support, can the Minister assure me that no changes will take place that undermine the welcome trend of going to pharmacies and not GPs?

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As I said, that is our intention. Our belief is that the package in its entirety, which we will announce shortly, will actually enhance the role of pharmacies in providing services.

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How many community pharmacies will close as a result of these cuts?

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We do not believe that any community pharmacies will necessarily close as a result of these cuts. That will depend on a number of factors. [Interruption.] I will answer the question, which is fair. It depends on the margin they make from their pharmacy activities and on the additional margin they make from their retail activities. Given that 65% of all pharmacies are owned by public companies or private equity, it depends on the position those organisations take to their businesses. That is very hard to predict.

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Will the Minister say a little more about how he sees these plans tying in with the agenda to better integrate health services? In Weldon in my constituency, GP and pharmacy services work very well together for local patients under the leadership of Dr Sumira. What best practice is out there, and what attention is the Government giving to it?

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As I said, we are recruiting an additional 2,000 pharmacists into general practice by 2020. We will also link community pharmacists into the NHS 111 system in a way that has never been done in England, so that repeat prescriptions will go direct to pharmacists and not to out-of-hours GPs. By 2018, pharmacists will receive additional payment for looking after minor ailments.

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I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party pharmacy group. In February this year, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said there would be an impact assessment. In answer to a parliamentary question I tabled last week and the Minister answered, you also said that an impact assessment will be published, so that it would inform the final decision. Can the Minister tell us when that will be published? Will it be shared with representatives of community pharmacists?

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I did not say anything about any impact assessment, but the Minister might have done for all I know. I have a feeling we are about to learn about it.

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As my predecessor said, an impact assessment is being produced, and when these proposals are published in their entirety, that will be published at the same time.

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On Thursday, my local clinical commissioning group will announce whether it is going to press ahead with plans to downgrade A&E at the Huddersfield royal infirmary. Can the Minister not see that when our A&Es are under so much pressure, we need community pharmacies and GP surgeries to see patients on the front line? I appreciate what he says about clustering, but having seen the last bank branches close in my rural communities, I am sorry but I just do not have confidence in it.

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All I can do is repeat the point that I made earlier. The Government completely agree that we need community pharmacies. The Government completely agree that they have a vital role to play in keeping patients away from GPs and, potentially, from A&E as well. That, however, is not the same as saying that the 11,800 pharmacies that we have at the moment are precisely the right number, or that the clustering is at precisely the right number as well. It is right for the Government to review this and to establish whether or not the £25,000 of NHS money that every pharmacy receives every year is money well spent.

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As we have heard, pharmacies have the potential to help the NHS become more efficient and community based. Community pharmacies are an integral part of the integrated care communities that the Success regime in Cumbria is promoting in order to take the pressure off our overstretched GPs and A&Es. We are really struggling to recruit doctors in Cumbria, so any loss of community pharmacies is a serious loss to our community. Can the Minister assure me that these wider health challenges are being taken into account?

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Yes, I can assure the hon. Lady that we fully understand the issues in places such as Cumbria. To an extent, the access scheme is designed to make sure that large rural communities are properly protected. I can only repeat that we value the services that pharmacies provide and that we do not believe that there will be a substantial detriment to them as a result of a bit less clustering.

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Given that as part of the Greater Manchester devolution deal, the Greater Manchester health and social care partnership has taken control of the £6 billion a year health budget, will Greater Manchester be treated differently? If not, is there not a case for the area to be allowed to determine for itself how best to make use of community pharmacies?

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It is my belief that the devolution deal does not include pharmacists, so the responsibility for that sector remains in the Department of Health. The proposals that we shall shortly outline will therefore include proposals for pharmacies that will apply equally to Greater Manchester.

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The Minister may not know how many pharmacies are going to close, but Reena Barai, an award-winning community pharmacy in my constituency, estimates that one out of four pharmacies in the London borough of Sutton, which is 11 pharmacies in total, will be closed. These will predominantly be the independents—not Boots or Superdrug. Why does the Minister think that, for years, successive Governments have encouraged people to visit their pharmacies for certain conditions or tests, instead of GP surgeries and A&E? Was it not because it was better for their health and cheaper?

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I can only repeat that we value and can see the value in community pharmacies. We do not believe that any reductions will be skewed towards the independent sector; nor do we believe that the sector’s position overrides our duty to look at clustering and to make sure that the money we spend in this sector—£2.8 billion—is spent most effectively and cannot be spent better on other parts of the NHS.

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As far as residents in the Kettering constituency are concerned, community pharmacies are a good thing. They relieve the pressure on the overburdened A&E at Kettering general hospital, and they are the only place to go when people cannot get an appointment at their local GP surgery. Can we please make more use of the community pharmacies that we have? If the Minister is right, and he suspects that not many community pharmacies will close, let me tell him in all candour that the process he is going through is completely cack-handed, because it is spreading fear among the community pharmacy community up and down the country?

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The current process began in December last year, and will be brought to an end shortly. I do not know about the specifies of the pharmacy scene in Kettering, but I repeat that we regard pharmacies as vitally important to the NHS. One of the proposals that we shall announce shortly is a proposal for an integration fund of £300 million, which will be used entirely to provide services and pay for pharmacies to provide them. It will be informed by the review that is being conducted by Richard Murray of the King’s Fund, and Kettering will benefit from those services in just the same way as other parts of the country.

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May I enthusiastically endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)? Community pharmacies are an underused resource. We currently spend £10 billion a year on diabetes treatment, 80% of which is spent on treating avoidable complications. Instead of cutting pharmacies, why do we not get them to do more to help with diabetes prevention, and to identify the 1 million people who have diabetes and do not know about it?

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We intend to do more to help pharmacists to help with diabetes prevention. Diabetes is one of several long-term conditions that the Murray review is examining. There are ways in which pharmacies can be used to avoid repeat or ad hoc GP appointments, which is precisely what we want to happen, but that is not the same as not keeping under review the amount of money that we pay pharmacists for dispensing, and ensuring that we are getting a good deal.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he agreed with the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). The density of the United Kingdom’s pharmacy network is approximately double the density of networks in Holland, Sweden and Denmark. No one thinks that it should fall to the same level as theirs, but there are opportunities for us to review clustering and ensure that the NHS is receiving value for money, and that is our duty.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) on his urgent question, although I am slightly sorry for the excellent Minister, who is having to deal with the question before the Government are prepared to make an announcement. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that community pharmacies are very important in Northamptonshire, given that the rest of the national health service in our area is under such pressure. If the amount saved is really going to be so small, I urge the Minister to say, “Actually, let’s drop this. It is just not worth the battle.”

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I can only repeat that we value the contribution that community pharmacies make, and that the savings that we shall propose shortly are needed for other parts of the NHS. We believe that provision will not be affected, and that other parts of the package, including the integration fund and the hiring of an additional 2,000 pharmacists for the GP sector, will make this sector work better than it does at present.

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Does the Minister agree that should one in four community pharmacies close, the effect on the elderly, the vulnerable, the poor and those with long-term conditions could be very serious indeed, and potentially catastrophic?

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We do not believe that the proposals that we will be announcing shortly will do anything to the detriment of any of those patient groups.

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Community pharmacies play a vital role in primary care, and there is a very important relationship between them and our constituents and their patients and customers. My constituency contains a healthy living pharmacy that provides added value. Is not the Minister’s reductionist proposal about price rather than quality, and should we not be looking at the quality of pharmacy provision? Healthy living pharmacies in Hyndburn, and in Lancashire generally, provide an exceptional service, and should not be under the dark cloud that is hanging over them as a result of the Minister’s proposal.

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The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. A large part of the value added from pharmacies is related to quality, and we need to reward the pharmacies that are trying harder than others to provide it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned healthy living pharmacies, and there are many examples. Part of our package will address the quality issue, which is one of the issues that the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee asked us to consider.

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If the Minister wants to make the savings that he has talked about, he should work with the pharmacists and listen to what they have to say, because they have the ideas about how to make those savings. In my constituency, they talk to me about the potential for reducing repeat prescriptions, among other ideas. If he does that, he will play a role in looking after the heart of our community, which is what pharmacists are, and the heart of our NHS, which is also what they are. They also play an incredibly important role in every community in providing much needed footfall for other local businesses.

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We have been talking to the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee for 10 months. We have tried to incorporate, in the proposals that we are going to make, some of the points it has put to us. I can only again tell hon. Members, as I have already said to many others, that we value the contribution that the pharmacy sector can make. We wish to see that move over and above what it is now, in terms of dispensing, into more value-added services dealing with minor ailments, repeat prescriptions and long-term conditions. We want to do all those things, and we will.

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The Minister should tread with great care. I have visited many community pharmacies in my constituency, and in each and every one I saw lots of value-added activity—preparing medicine trays, delivering medicines or whatever—and a keenness to be involved in wider activities. There is a real danger that the Minister, in seeking savings, will cost the health service and communities more.

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That would be a danger, had we not spent time over the past 10 months to try to get this right. We are confident and believe that we have done so.

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May I give some advice to the Minister? If he wants reforms—I think that the feeling on both sides of the House is that we need a high-performing, innovative pharmacy sector, which is at the heart of every community, urban and rural—and if he wants to generate enthusiasm in the workforce, he should not demoralise them at the very beginning. His predecessor was the person who said, “Let us cut 2,000 pharmacies.” That is the truth. The Minister should not just reach out to pharmacies at posh dinners—he should come to Huddersfield, which is more exciting than Kettering, and talk to our pharmacies.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: I should not just reach out to pharmacists at posh dinners. In the past three weeks, I have visited a number of pharmacists. I have even opened a new pharmacy. I bow to no one in my view of the value that they can add, but they agree, and I think most Members in the House agree, that the community pharmacy network must move from a model based on dispensing to a model based more on services. We are going to help pharmacies to do that, and these proposals in the round will achieve that.

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As we have said, primary care is the cornerstone, indeed the foundation, of the NHS, and pharmacies represent a successful public-private model. This proposal does seem to be a totally counter-intuitive one. When I, on the Public Accounts Committee, questioned the chief executive of the NHS last month about the Department of Health accounts, he expressed surprise that there may be a reprieve for pharmacies, because the reality is that this is an in-year cut that is already happening; it is part of NHS England’s delivery of savings this year. Can the Minister clarify the reports over the weekend—what are the figures we are talking about? The reports were that the cuts would be £113 million in 2016-17 and £208 million in 2017-18. Are those the correct figures?

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The figures to which the hon. Lady refers were announced in the consultation in December 2015. The only change since those figures were announced in that consultation in 2015 is that, because of the delay in looking at this again, the in-year saving this year is likely to be lower.

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Those of us who wish the Minister well would probably best describe his performance at the Dispatch Box this afternoon as “courageous”. I feel that he has been sold a hospital pass on this one. He is responsible for a policy that lurches from the inchoate to the indefensible; that talks on the one hand about recruiting thousands of pharmacists and on the other about closing thousands of pharmacies. I am sorry, but we cannot keep loading, even on to the willing shoulders of the community pharmacies, more and more responsibility while we are draining away the financial lifeblood. Would the Minister care to become the most popular Minister on the high streets of our nation by saying that he is going to have another look at this nonsense?

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I am always keen to be popular, but I am also keen to do the right thing. Nobody is talking about thousands of pharmacies closing and I do not believe that will happen, but we have talked about hiring 2,000 more pharmacies in the GP sector. That is true, but that is not incoherent; that is the right thing to do.

I just say this to the House: we all need to distinguish at times between the pharmacy profession, which we need and will nurture and help to grow and that can produce all these added values, and those people who own the pharmacy shops, 65% of which are public companies and private equity. The House should just reflect on that.

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It really is possible that the centre-ground in British politics is changing. Here we have a Conservative Minister coming to the Chamber to say, “I’m going to put hundreds of small firms out of business, but don’t worry; I’m going to get them all working for the Government.” It is absolutely bizarre, and the Minister is now trying to convince us by saying, “Don’t worry, they’re all hedge funds anyway.” We know it is not the Boots in the centre of Chesterfield that is going to be shutting; it is the community pharmacies in each of our communities. So will the Minister at least give us the commitment that no community will be left without a pharmacy and that no doctors’ surgery will be allowed to have a pharmacy close on its doorstep?

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I will give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that no community will be left without a pharmacy.

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I cannot impress strongly enough on the Minister the danger of these proposals. In my constituency the pressures on primary care are such that GP surgeries cannot recruit GPs and many practices are now not meeting Care Quality Commission standards because they are in old premises that are unsuitable. The thought that on top of that we would reduce the possibility for people to attend their local community pharmacy for simple healthcare needs is frightening. When the Minister publishes the impact assessment, will it provide any sort of reassurance and clarity that those complex primary care factors have been properly taken into account?

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We have talked all afternoon about the need to protect access to GPs, and I repeat the point I made earlier: our proposals in the round should increase the degree to which pharmacists are linked into GP practices. The hon. Lady says that many practices are getting poor-quality assessments, but the fact is that over 80% of them are getting good-quality assessments, and we need that to continue.

The proposals we are setting out in the round are expected to make pharmacy access better than it is now, and the orientation of the pharmacy profession towards services and away from just dispensing should happen more quickly.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At last week’s Prime Minister’s questions I raised some serious concerns about the practices of Virgin Care, based on direct experience as a former employee after my NHS service was transferred. Virgin Care has since issued a statement to the media stating that it has no record of my raising such concerns at the time. I am glad it brought that up as its failure to keep accurate records is one of my concerns. However, it is clear that it is implying dishonesty on my part, and I hope you will be able to advise me, Mr Speaker, on setting the record straight in that regard, because I want to make it clear that I did raise concerns on many occasions, including directly with the chief executive of Virgin Care, Mr Bart Johnson, in person at a meeting in the autumn of 2012. This was therefore known at the highest level within the company before it issued its statement suggesting the opposite.

In short, when the company suggested that I was being dishonest, it was trying to obscure the truth. Mr Speaker, may I ask you what resort Members have when the rich and powerful seek to intimidate or smear as we seek to do our duty in this House, and could such actions infringe the privileges of this Chamber?

Finally, can we reiterate that even the richest individuals and the wealthiest corporations should always stick to the truth about this House and its Members, however inconvenient that truth may be to their private interests?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. Moreover, I understand her concern if the veracity of what she volunteered in good faith to the House has subsequently been called into question. Specifically, she asks me what recourse she has in these circumstances. In response, I make a number of points. First, if anybody was seeking to intimidate the hon. Lady as she goes about her parliamentary business, any such attempt has manifestly failed. Moreover, on the basis of my knowing her for the past 17 months, it seems entirely obvious that any such attempt would be doomed to fail. The sooner that point becomes clear to everyone outside the Chamber as well as within it, the better.

Secondly, I think that the hon. Lady has found her own salvation in that she has taken this opportunity to raise a point of order with me on the Floor of the Chamber in which she has registered her discontent as well as putting the record straight in terms that appear to brook no contradiction. If she thinks that any further clarification or airing of the issue is required, various parliamentary avenues are open to her, and I do not doubt that she will pursue them with that combination of forensic precision and terrier-like tenacity for which she has become renowned in all parts of the House.

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Let’s get Richard Branson in here.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for his sedentary contribution to our proceedings, helpful as it was.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This afternoon when I raised the issue of mitigation for the WASPI women during Work and Pensions questions, the Secretary of State indicated that the Scottish Government could deal with the issue by making additional payments to the WASPI women in Scotland. Perhaps unbeknown to us on these Benches, the Government are going to introduce legislation to give enhanced powers to the Scottish Parliament over pensions, but we have not heard about it. I have checked the legislation, and section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 precludes us from making payments on reserved matters and specifically excludes pensions. I am sure that the Secretary of State unwittingly alleged that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government had competence in that area, but I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on what could be done to bring him back to the House or to correct the record in some way.

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The hon. Gentleman is a dogged and assiduous Member of the House at all times, and I say to him that if the Secretary of State judges it necessary to return to the Chamber to clarify the position or seeks to insert a corrigendum in the Official Report, it is open to that Minister to do so. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman has put the record straight with crystal clarity, doubtless to his own satisfaction but perhaps more importantly to that of the constituents whom he seeks to represent.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will have heard the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), saying a few moments ago that he hoped to make an announcement “shortly”. Can you use your good offices to ensure that when he has made his decision, he comes to the House to make a statement?

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I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me that age-old question: “What does ‘shortly’ mean?” As we know, in Parliament the term “shortly” has a degree of elasticity associated with it. The Minister has heard the hon. Gentleman make his point. Before he became a Minister, he was an extremely active and effective parliamentarian who took pride in his responsibility to the House, and I am sure that he continues to do that. It is unimaginable that he would do anything other than come to the Chamber in those circumstances. In so far as the point needed to be underlined, however, it has been duly underlined by the notable campaigner from Leicester. I thank the Minister for his persistence and his courtesy in responding to the urgent question. I gently say to him that, now and again, he said that all he could do was to repeat his previous answer. He said it with great good humour and a degree of world-weary resignation. As I have often had reason to observe in the Chamber, repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. We will leave it there for now.

Savings (Government Contributions) Bill

Second Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Let me start by reminding the House why the measures contained in the Bill are so important. We want people in this country to have all the tools at their disposal to save money in a way that works for them. We want to make it easier for everyone to build up the savings that they need, to meet their ambitions and to feel secure in their personal finances. We have already set to work to make that the case, putting an end to 17 million people having to pay tax on the interest they receive on their savings and making the biggest ever increase to the individual savings account allowance—to £20,000 from April next year—but we want to do more. The Bill will introduce two new schemes—the lifetime ISA and Help to Save—that will support more people as they save up for the future and provide them with new options to do so.

The lifetime ISA will provide a new option for young people who are looking to save for the long term. We want to make sure that they have a choice in how they save. For some, the pensions system alone is the way forward and we have done a lot to improve it, such as through automatic enrolment and initiatives such as the pensions dashboard. In our consultation last year on pension tax relief, we heard that the pensions system on its own is too inflexible for young people, so the lifetime ISA complements that system while giving people a new option that has been designed with flexibility in mind.

The lifetime ISA is a way of saving up to £4,000 a year. Someone can open an account between the ages of 18 and 40 and carry on saving up to the age of 50. On top of any interest they receive on their savings, they will earn a 25% tax-free bonus from the Government that is paid straight into their account.

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Is the Minister at all concerned that this lifetime ISA will introduce an added complexity to the savings market, in particular for young people? Choosing whether to go for a pension or a lifetime ISA could be one of the most important financial decisions in a person’s life. Does she think that there is merit in increasing investment in independent advice and financial literacy so that young people are able to make informed financial decisions?

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On the latter point, I will discuss advice a bit later on, but we are keen that people have access to good advice and good information. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, this is about complementary products. It is not an either/or choice. The feedback from last year’s consultation was that many younger people did not want to make a binary choice between saving for later in life and saving for a house. This product is simple in its design but gives people that flexibility. As he says, it is important that people get advice, but the welcome that the proposal has received from consumer advocates indicates that people think that it is simple and flexible.

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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Their incomes mean that many young people are perhaps more hard-pressed than older generations. They do not have the choice of investing in a pension and a lifetime ISA, so they will be deciding which one to go for. The Government need to address that worry with these proposals.

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That interaction has been addressed in the Bill’s impact assessment. There was some concern about the Help to Buy ISA and the interaction with automatic enrolment, but we have seen no evidence of it driving a higher opt-out rate. In fact, the opt-out rate for automatic enrolment is lower than forecast—even on the forecast that was revised down. I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern but I think it has been addressed in the work that we have done.

What is attractive about the lifetime ISA is that people do not have to make an immediate decision about why they are saving this money, which goes back to the hon. Gentleman’s point about people not having to make that decision at an early stage when they cannot see what is ahead.

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Anyone saving into an auto-enrolment pension will get tax relief up front, but anyone who invests in a lifetime ISA will be making that investment out of taxed income. Does the Minister see the unfairness in that?

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Obviously, we have the Government bonus, which I mentioned, but I go back to the point about this not being an either/or choice; this is about people having potentially complementary products that are for different purposes. This product is not about replacing a pension; it is about giving people a complementary product to help them save for later in life, while keeping open the option of building up money to put towards a house. As we have seen, many hundreds of thousands of people have taken that opportunity with the previous ISA product.

The lifetime ISA can be used by people to get on to the property ladder for the first time and can be put towards a home worth less than £450,000. Through this Bill, from April next year a new, more flexible way to save will be available to people, as one of a number of options.

The Bill also introduces Help to Save, which is about finding a better way to support families who are just about managing but are struggling to build up their savings. All Members will be aware of the research carried out by a number of bodies, particularly the excellent Centre for Social Justice, which estimates that 3 million low-income households have no savings at all. That is not a nice position for anyone to be in: living without having any kind of financial safety net in place and knowing that if they lose their job, they have barely got enough money to pay next month’s rent.

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Will the Minister acknowledge the concern of some that the two-year qualifying period for Help to Save is lengthy for people on very low incomes? Will she also acknowledge the credit union movement’s concern that as a result of the Government response to the consultation on Help to Save—this is how I understand it—it is going to be excluded from offering Help to Save products?

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We have announced that we will be going with a single provider, National Savings & Investments, at the outset, but the primary legislation does not preclude more people providing the product in future; it was essential that we got national coverage for offering this product, but, like all of us in this House, I have huge respect for the credit union movement and we certainly see a role for it going forward, not least in respect of advice and support, a point referred to a moment ago. Perhaps we will tease more of that out in this debate, but I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

The two-year period comes from looking at the advice and research that has been done by groups that deal with people in this category, and trying to capture the moment at which a savings habit is ingrained. This does not mean people cannot take money out; there is no penalty for taking money out earlier if they want to access it, but the bonus comes at the two-year point, and I will come on to deal with that. This is based on research by groups and charities that work with people in the target market for the product, so there is a robust reasoning for that two-year period.

If someone is trying to put some of that hard-earned money aside in an effort to be more financially secure, we want them to have the full support of their Government as they do so. That is why, through this Bill, we want to introduce the new Help to Save accounts by no later than April 2018. They will be open to any adult who is getting working tax credits or universal credit and working enough to earn the equivalent of at least 16 hours’ pay at the national living wage. That means about 3.5 million people are likely to be eligible.

As has been mentioned, people can save up to £50 a month for two years—we are talking about £1,200 in total—and the Government will give them a 50% bonus. If after those two years someone wants to do that again for the next two years, they will be able to do so. This way to save also offers complete flexibility. What people want to do with the money they have saved and with the Government bonus they have earned is completely up to them, and if they want to take their money out at any time, they can; there will not be any charge or penalty for doing so.

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As usual, the House of Commons Library has produced a fantastic briefing on this Bill. In relation to this product, it mentions the conclusions of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which says that only £70 million has been allocated by the Treasury to cover this new savings product in 2020-21, which is nowhere near enough to cover the Government contribution of 50% if everybody who is eligible takes up the product. Has the Treasury got its figures wrong?

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We know that, historically—the hon. Gentleman is right on this—it has been difficult to target financial advice at some of those who are being targeted by this product. Indeed, not many financial products are being targeted at this particular group. However, I can reassure him that we will be doing everything we can—all hon. Members and credit unions have a role to play in this—to promote this product. If the take-up exceeds our expectations, we would be delighted, and we will certainly be working to that effect.

The scheme provides a real incentive for people on low incomes to keep saving what they can. That means that more and more families will have a rainy day fund, so that they can cope with unforeseen events that come their way. I am talking about the sort of events that many of us as constituency Members recognise. They are the ones that drive people into our advice surgeries because something has happened. Research from the debt charity, StepChange, suggests that if families have £1,000 in the bank, they are almost half as likely to fall into problem debt, by which it means being in arrears with at least one bill or credit commitment. This is a savings vehicle that will really help people to build up a pot of money, which can be used for any purpose at all, but which is also there if needed for a rainy day.

In conclusion, this Bill is all about rewarding people who are trying to save for their future and providing them with new options to do so, and it encourages more people to follow their example. Whether we are talking about a young person who wants flexibility in how they save for their future, or someone on a low income who is trying hard to set aside a bit of money each month, we want to ensure that they have a helping hand along the way. Through these two new savings vehicles, that is exactly what the Government will provide. It therefore gives me great pleasure to commend this Bill to the House.

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It is a pleasure, as always, to debate opposite the Minister. I thank her for outlining the overarching principles of the Bill, which will introduce the new lifetime ISA and the Help to Save scheme. As we have heard, the lifetime ISA is a new savings product that will be available from April 2017 in which people under 40 may deposit up to £4,000 a year. The Government will then top up those savings by 25%. The savings accumulated in the LISA can be used as a deposit towards a first home, or can be accessed once a person is 60 to “complement”, to use the Government’s word, their retirement income. In the absence of using the product to save for a house deposit, it will be possible for a person to remove funds from the LISA before they are 60, but there will be a charge of 25%, effectively to remove the Government top-up from the funds withdrawn.

The Help to Save scheme will be available for people in receipt of either universal credit or working tax credit. If they receive working tax credit, they must have minimum weekly earnings equivalent to 16 hours at the so-called national living wage.

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I was grateful to the Minister for her response to my question. Will my hon. Friend commit our Front-Bench team to probing the Government further on whether there should be a two-year qualifying period, or if the period should be reduced to 12 months? Similarly, will she commit our Front-Bench team to exploring in Committee whether credit unions can be allowed to take part alongside National Savings and Investments? NS&I already offers national coverage, so there is no reason why credit unions should be excluded.

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My hon. Friend makes important points and we would support him in pushing the Government to respond to those questions. I will highlight some of the concerns of our Front-Bench team about the Help to Save scheme in particular. Credit unions are vital for the roll-out of any savings scheme that targets the most deprived communities.

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The hon. Lady helpfully outlined the circumstances in which the lifetime ISA kicks in. Does she welcome that ISA to enable young people to save, given that half of present ISA holders are over 55?

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I welcome the Government’s sentiment of encouraging people to save. If I may make a little progress, the hon. and learned Lady will get a fuller response in due course.

The Opposition have serious concerns about both policies under the Bill and a number of questions, with which I hope the Minister can assist. The Labour party warmly supports the Government’s principal aim of encouraging saving. Many working people in Britain are not saving enough or not saving at all, and that is storing up a multitude of problems not just for their personal finances, but for the public purse. The helpful House of Commons Library briefing states that 28% of people say that they have no savings at all and that 38% would struggle to pay an emergency expense of more than £500. In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation surveys on poverty and social exclusion consistently find that between a quarter and a third of households say that they are unable to make regular savings. In the most recent survey, which was conducted in 2012, 32% of households gave that answer.

It is therefore right for the Government to examine methods and structures that will encourage saving, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that they must also address the root causes of this low saving trend. Will she examine carefully the reasons why many people do not save at all? Is it because they are splashing out on fancy cars and extravagant purchases, or is it because wages are too low and the cost of living is too high to get through the month for some people, never mind whether they have a bit of spare cash at the end of the month to put into a savings plan?

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Does the hon. Lady agree—this is perhaps unlike some of the measures brought in by Chancellor Gordon Brown—that it is important to keep products as simple as possible? It is also hugely important that they are transferable—a Help to Buy ISA can be transferred into the lifetime ISA—and complementary.

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Indeed. Products need to be explained as simply as possible and there needs to be a commitment from the Government that there will be an adequate advertising campaign to avoid any ambiguity about a product. I shall shortly come on to some of my concerns about the specific products to which the Bill refers.

It is important to examine the fact that those who live in more deprived areas or areas that do not have access to a healthy range of high street financial services are often more financially excluded, having limited access to reasonable lending facilities. This in turn leads many to rely on extremely high interest lending facilities such as payday lenders, which are often the only lending facility available. In many cases, that initiates a cycle of debt and sucks any possible savings surplus out of the monthly pay packet. It cannot be lost on the Minster that for some time now food banks have been reporting surges in the number of people in full-time employment who are accessing them. This in itself may suggest that many people have no spare cash to live on day to day, let alone to save.

These problems bring me to the Opposition’s main problem with the Help to Save scheme that the Bill introduces. We wholeheartedly support moves to encourage saving for a rainy day, but in many cases the idea that those on universal credit and working tax credit have a spare £50 at the end of the month is extremely optimistic. People can barely make ends meet, as the Government found out last year when there was a cross-party backlash after they tried to take thousands of pounds from the recipients of much-needed tax credits. The transition to universal credit will arguably leave people in an even worse position.

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rose—

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I will pre-empt the Minister’s reply that Help to Save is incredibly similar to the saving gateway scheme that was piloted by the previous Labour Government.

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I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Lady, but it is important to make the point that this is about people saving up to £50. It must not be suggested that everyone must save £50. The figure is up to £50, and that can be a very small amount. I would just like to make that clear.

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I thank the Minister for clarifying that point, but I think that some people would struggle to save even £5 a month, let alone £50.

Let me go back to the point I was trying to make about Labour’s scheme. We did introduce a similar scheme, but it is important to note that we had not spent the previous six years eroding the disposable income of the people whom it targeted. Help to Save might well look good on paper in terms of helping those on low incomes to save, but I must warn the Minister that, given the long-term effect of Government cuts and wider austerity measures, it will not have the desired impact in many cases. The cuts the Government are making to universal credit alone will cost 2.5 million families up to £1,600 a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Where will these families find even £1 a month, or up to £50 a month, to put into this savings scheme?

It appears that the Government are not expecting the measure to put rocket boosters, as it were, under savings by those on low incomes. Their costing for the policy is £70 million in 2020-21. Some 3.5 million people will be eligible for the scheme, so if my and the IFS’s calculations are correct, that works out as a Government bonus of £20 per eligible individual in 2020-21.

I was very excited to read the Government’s impact assessment in the past few hours. However, the Minister should note that it arrived at only 1 pm today, and while I am pleased that it arrived at all, she will appreciate that it is really not acceptable to provide such information at the 11th hour if the Government wish to be transparent and capable of being effectively held to account. None the less, I was interested to see that the Government’s expected take-up rate was 500,000 people in the first two years. I will be grateful if she explains the rationale behind that figure. For example, are specific groups more likely to save than others?