House of Commons
Wednesday 26 October 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Northern Ireland Economy
Before I answer the questions, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in condemning the murder of Joe Reilly last Thursday in Belfast. My sympathy is with his family and with the local community. It is a stark reminder of why we must all continue to work together to ensure that this sort of violence has no place in Northern Ireland.
The UK and Northern Ireland economies are fundamentally strong. In Northern Ireland, economic activity increased by 1.6% over the year and 64,000 more people are in work compared with 2010. That means that we are well placed to build a stronger economy that works for everyone.
I welcome the growth of the Northern Ireland economy, and particularly the fact that unemployment has fallen to its lowest levels since Labour’s great recession. I also welcome last week’s excellent news of the investment from Thales. Will my right hon. Friend continue to prioritise making the case for Northern Ireland as a great place to live, work and do business?
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I will not tire in talking up the Northern Ireland economy and underlining what a great place it is to do business. He highlights investment; outside London, Northern Ireland is the leading UK region for attracting inward investment across a range of sectors. He is right to highlight the new and innovative investment from Thales, with its space propulsion facilities in Belfast, which underlines what a great place Northern Ireland is to do business.
I certainly underline to my hon. Friend that we stand by our commitment to the devolution of corporation tax powers, subject to the conditions around fiscal discipline and financial stability agreed in the Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements. The Northern Ireland Executive have indicated that they would like corporation tax to be set at around 12.5% from April 2018, and they estimate that that could create 30,000 more jobs.
I join the Secretary of State in his comments about the recent murder. It is important that we all redouble our efforts to ensure that such events are a thing of the past.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, to build and strengthen the economy of Northern Ireland, investment in infrastructure is absolutely vital? The announcement by the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive that he was delaying the major York Street interchange project—for access to ports, an airport and a major road thoroughfare through Belfast to the rest of Northern Ireland—is a bit of a blow to that strategy. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to reiterate to the Minister for Infrastructure that all EU projects that are signed off before we leave the EU will be funded even if they continue after we leave the EU?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the continuance of EU funding. He will have noted the statement, which he has referred to, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer underlining that the Government will guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects that are signed off until the point at which the UK leaves the EU, even where projects continue after we leave. It is important to underline that message. There should, therefore, be more projects coming forward, and we should continue to benefit from EU funding up until the point at which we depart.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for underlining that important commitment, which should allow investment in that much-needed project to go ahead.
On the question of exporters, who have received a boost as a result of the revaluation of the pound, Northern Ireland was the only area last year that grew its exports, by 9.5%. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment that the new Department for International Trade will work closely with Invest NI to continue that really positive news for Northern Ireland, along with many other very positive economic indicators for the Province?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to underline the fact that the value of goods exported from Northern Ireland increased to £6.6 billion, which emphasises the strength of the Northern Ireland economy. The Secretary of State for International Trade has underlined his all-UK approach to his work, and he will want to work with Invest NI and the Executive to ensure that there is that clear message of seeing further investment and further exports coming from Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the role that manufacturing plays in the Northern Ireland economy. It directly contributes more than 85,000 jobs—some 10% of employment—and, clearly, it provides high-skilled jobs. As a Government, we will continue to work with the Executive on the issues of skills and pathways into employment. It is notable that we have seen record employment levels. We want to work with the Executive to ensure that that very positive picture continues, underlining the fact that we want to see further investment in the economy.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the financial and related professional services industry provides jobs for some 31,000 people in Northern Ireland and generates more than 6% of economic output. What are the Government doing to ensure that Northern Ireland will have the benefits of passporting for financial services after the UK leaves the EU so that that industry is not damaged?
I underline the work I have done as Secretary of State to reach out to the business community. Indeed, I have established a new advisory group, and one of the sectors we have met is the financial services sector. We are listening keenly to the information that it is providing us with as we frame our all-UK approach to the negotiations that lie ahead with the EU.
On the back of the Chancellor’s comment to Nissan that it will be compensated for losses due to Brexit, the Secretary of State for Scotland said at the Dispatch Box two weeks ago:
“whatever support is put in place for businesses in the north of England will apply to businesses in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 287.]
Given that the manufacturing sector plays such a pivotal role in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that his Government’s policy will apply to Northern Ireland in the same way as it appears to apply to Scotland and the north of England?
We take an all-UK approach. That is the way in which the Chancellor has been approaching his announcements about support post the departure from the EU, ensuring that we do have such a UK-wide approach, and indeed his preparations for his autumn statement. The approach will be to support the UK, with Northern Ireland being a core part of that.
Armed Forces Covenant
The armed forces covenant is making a real difference in Northern Ireland. Bids for funding from the armed forces covenant fund have been more successful in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. Grants that have been made include £450,000 for Combat Stress to help veterans with mental health support, and £600,000 for the Somme Nursing Home in Belfast to enable it to add more bed spaces for veterans requiring nursing care.
I thank the Minister for his response. Northern Ireland is in 10th place among all the regions of the United Kingdom for small grants. Beyond the Battlefield has applied for LIBOR funding for four years running, with a substantial and detailed business plan, but it has not been successful. Does the Minister consider that to be fair? What steps will he take to address that imbalance, and to help groups and bodies such as Beyond the Battlefield to prepare successful applications?
I commend the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends for making sure that they have secured the largest proportion of the big pot, although I appreciate that he is now going after the small pot. His point about how to secure the funding is really important, and I am more than willing to sit down with him to talk about how we can support that package.
Will the Minister confirm that he and the Secretary of State have the determination and the will to eliminate all impediments to the full implementation—I do mean the full implementation—of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland?
May I add to the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and to those of other hon. Friends representing Northern Ireland? When I went there as the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I was, frankly, deeply struck—perhaps only an English person can say this—by the complete lack of drive to ensure that all its local authorities signed up to the military covenant, as local authorities have done across the whole United Kingdom. There is no reason why the covenant should not be in effect in Northern Ireland just as much as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that every council should participate. I get the opportunity to meet lots of councils, and I know that a lot of them are making a massive contribution, but where they are not I reassure her that I will push those councils to do so.
May I disagree with the Minister? The armed forces covenant is not working especially well in Northern Ireland. There is £100 million in the LIBOR funds for the whole military covenant. Can some of that be used to make sure that the mechanisms work—that is, that we get a nominee on to the covenant reference group, that the reserve forces and cadets association gets the support it needs to help all soldiers and that the champions get some help?
I know that there are opportunities to get on to the committee that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I will support him if he wants to do that. I know it is a big issue, and I say this as ex-services personnel myself: I want to make sure that this works, and that every partner—not just councils but health authorities and housing authorities—works together. But this is devolved, and it is up to the Executive to make it work. However, as someone with a history in this area, I will assist him in every way I can to ensure that that is delivered.
The shadow of the past hangs heavily over the questions that have been asked and there are many unquiet graves still on the island of Ireland. Bearing in mind that it is now 42 years since the atrocity of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and in view of the vote in the Dáil Éireann, what contact and communication is the Minister having with the Irish Government on this question?
I agree that that act 42 years ago was appalling, and offer my sympathies to the families of those who were lost. There is a continuing dialogue with the Irish Government and their Foreign Minister. We will continue that and I am quite happy to have discussions with the hon. Gentleman if he wants further information about the progress we are making.
Leaving the EU: Republic of Ireland
I have met and will continue to meet counterparts in the Irish Government as we work through the challenges ahead. The UK-Irish relationship has never been stronger. It is a unique relationship, and in the coming months we will strengthen co-operation to help to secure the best outcome from the EU negotiations.
I think my right hon. Friend will agree that both the common travel area and the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have served us well for decades. Will he do everything he can to ensure those arrangements continue and that there is no establishment of hard borders within the island of Ireland or within the UK?
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State reassure us that the common travel area is a key priority. Does not the fact that citizens of EU countries will be able to move freely to live and work in the Irish Republic make a nonsense of the leave campaign claims that Brexit means that somehow we can take back control of our borders?
No. This Government are very clear that the EU referendum underlined that free movement cannot continue as it does today. We are considering carefully the options in relation to migration policy as well as border policy, to ensure that both work in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
I entirely agree. There are very strong relationships and connections between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other UK Government agencies. Those have been and will continue to be really valuable and we are determined to maintain them.
A number of institutions have been established for discussing these matters with the Government of the Irish Republic, including the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those are the bodies through which discussions take place, and not some ad hoc arrangement?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the structures that have been in place since the Belfast agreement, such as the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, which will meet again in a few weeks. They are really important and valuable structures that can and will be used in supporting the negotiations ahead; there is of course the new Joint Ministerial sub-committee as well.
Given that Her Majesty’s Government, the Irish Government and political parties in Northern Ireland want to see the special relationship and soft border continue, is it not incumbent on the European Union to allow us to exit on terms that will enable us to preserve that relationship?
My hon. Friend underlines a very significant point, which is the support that other EU member states have provided to the political process in Northern Ireland over many, many years. That is a point we have underlined and the Irish Government have underlined. We will continue to do so as we look towards the negotiations.
Charlie Flanagan said in Derry on Friday night:
“I view my role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement as a solemn duty and—together with the Taoiseach—will be working to ensure that all aspects of that international agreement are fully respected in the new arrangements between the EU and the UK. Ireland has a seat at the EU table which we will use in the best interests of the whole island.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise that that will include the need for a bespoke and explicit reflection of the key constitutional precepts in annex A of the Good Friday agreement in any new EU-UK treaty?
The Irish Government and the UK Government are co-signatories to the Belfast agreement. I have said on a number of occasions that we stand behind our commitments. There are unique circumstances that operate on the island of Ireland: the common travel area, the single electricity market and so on. We are determined to find the right solutions that serve Northern Ireland well and all of the all-Ireland issues.
As I have already underlined, the Government are determined not to see a return to the borders of the past. We want to strengthen the common travel area. Work with the Irish Government has been ongoing for many months and will continue, reflecting the important issues the hon. Gentleman highlights on the movement of people, the movement of goods and services, and the sense of politics and identity, which is why this is such a priority.
The hon. Gentleman wants to get into negotiations that have not yet started. I underline the shared will and commitment of ourselves, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to support the common travel area and to ensure we do not return to the borders of the past. That is the work we have ahead of us.
We have already heard the huge concerns in Northern Ireland about the specific problems posed by Brexit. One fundamental issue that has not been addressed so far is the fate of the Good Friday agreement, which is an international agreement formally registered with the United Nations. Will the Secretary of State tell the House today what specific measures he and civil servants in Northern Ireland have taken to ensure that this important issue is not left behind in the wake of Brexit?
The Government remain fully committed to the political settlement and the institutions set out in the Belfast agreement and all its successors. The key principles established there, the details that have been taken over successive Governments, are things that we do not want to unsettle and that we will maintain. I assure the hon. Gentleman of the focus we are giving to this matter.
Leaving the EU: Northern Ireland Economy
Following my appointment, I established an advisory group to ensure the voice of business is heard. It is clear that our focus now needs to be on what we can achieve in terms of trade, jobs and exploiting the opportunities of the UK’s exit from the EU.
The Secretary of State referred a few minutes ago to taking a whole-country approach to the EU referendum negotiations. The Chancellor recently spoke to the British Bankers Association about the specific needs of the banking industry. If special privileges in terms of the single market are afforded to the City of London, will the Secretary of State be asking for the same privileges for Northern Ireland?
I set up the advisory group and am speaking to individual sectors within the Northern Ireland economy precisely to ensure that their voice is heard as we prepare for the negotiations ahead, and to ensure that, where there are specific issues and concerns, they are heard as part of those preparations and are reflected in the negotiations.
My hon. Friend identifies—I think rightly—the opportunities for bringing about greater focus on enterprise in the Northern Ireland economy, where there has been significant reliance on the state to support employment. We need to work with the Executive on skills and opportunities, which is precisely what we will be doing. [Interruption.]
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the businesses in Northern Ireland, especially the small and medium-sized enterprises, are second to none, and that whatever they face with Brexit, they are up for the challenge.
I have heard that message very clearly. There are some fantastic, innovative businesses and some great family businesses in Northern Ireland. We want to support them to take that next step, to grow their business and to look at the new opportunities for exports. I think they now have a great opportunity to do that.
Leaving the EU: Northern Ireland Economy
The Government take part in regular direct discussions with the Irish Government through a number of forums, including the upcoming British-Irish Council. We will ensure that we engage closely with all relevant partners to secure the best outcome for Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier comments about the increase in employment, which is very important, but in light of the significant damage to the British economy, the dramatic fall in the value of sterling and the increase in the price of food and fuel as a result of the referendum, does he accept that many businesses in Northern Ireland are frightened that damage to the Northern Ireland economy will be magnified relative to the British economy?
I reiterate for the hon. Gentleman the strong base that we see, with record levels of employment, exports that have grown significantly and continuing foreign direct investment. I will continue to champion business in Northern Ireland and to underline the fact that Northern Ireland remains open for business. A number of firms are continuing to invest and create jobs, which we will continue to welcome.
I have already had two meetings—with the Taoiseach and with the Irish Foreign Minister—and there are more meetings and discussions to come. The British-Irish Council meeting is coming up in just a few weeks’ time. Border issues such as protecting the common travel area and not seeing a return to the borders of the past are a priority, and also a shared objective between the two Governments. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that over the past few months there have been reports from the retail trade in Northern Ireland of a veritable multi-million pound boom along the border in shoppers from the Irish Republic, and that we should do more to encourage that as business continues to make progress?
The threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be “severe”, meaning that an attack is highly likely. Our response to terrorism and paramilitary activity is co-ordinated, effective and fully resourced. This Government’s focus is on keeping people safe, and we will ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
Does the Minister agree that it is damaging both to the security situation in Northern Ireland and to the peace process when former members of the armed forces who have been cleared on multiple occasions are now arrested for offences that are alleged to have taken place more than 40 years ago? Will he agree to meet me to discuss the broader issues surrounding the case of Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings?
Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities, who act independently of Government and politicians. The Government therefore cannot comment on individual cases. However, I am more than willing to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the broader issue that he has raised.
In the past two years, 1,631 police officers—a quarter of Northern Ireland’s police force—have been injured or assaulted while on duty. When will the Northern Ireland Office fund and support a new recruitment drive to return the number of officers to the 7,800 required under the Patten settlement?
Does the Minister agree that the best way of tackling paramilitarism and criminality in Northern Ireland is to adopt the community-wide approach that was outlined by the SDLP during last year’s Stormont House talks, rather than throwing money at paramilitary organisations?
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but I can give her some comfort. We have ensured that £25 million is available specifically to counter paramilitary activity, and we are working with the Executive to deliver that. We look forward to seeing the report in the near future.
The Prime Minister was asked—
In the black country, in the west midlands, we are very proud of our long industrial heritage. We are also very proud of the recent revival in the fortunes of the black country, which is seeing new jobs and investment in the local economy. Does the Prime Minister agree that one way to create an economy that works for everyone is to devolve further powers and funds to the west midlands to drive investment, and to combine that with the strong leadership and vision that can only be provided by Andy Street, the Conservative candidate for the position of west midlands mayor?
My hon. Friend speaks up well for the black country, and I am pleased to echo his comments about economic growth in the west midlands. Since 2010, we have seen the creation of over 220,000 more jobs and 55,000 more new businesses in the region. However, he is right to say that the devolution deal is important. It is the biggest devolution deal that is being done for the west midlands. A crucial part of it is the election of a directly elected mayor, and I think that, given both his local knowledge and his business experience, Andy Street will drive economic growth.
Let me start by welcoming the child refugees who have arrived in Britain in the last few days. They are obviously deeply traumatised young people, and we should welcome, love and support them in the best way that we possibly can.
Irrespective of party, when Members go through health problems we reach out the hand of support, solidarity and friendship to them. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) for the message that he sent through social media this morning. It showed amazing humour and bravery. We wish him all the very best, and hope that he recovers fully.
There are now to be regular sessions of the Joint Ministerial Council to discuss Brexit, but it seems that the Prime Minister’s counterparts are already feeling the same sense of frustration as Members of the House of Commons. The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has said that there is a “great deal of uncertainty”, but that it is clear that there must be “full and unfettered access” to the single market. Can the Prime Minister help the First Minister of Wales—and, indeed, the other devolved Administrations—by giving them some clarity?
Let me first—in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s opening comments—commend the Home Office for working so carefully and in the best interests of the child refugees so that they have the support that they need when they come to the United Kingdom. Let me also join the right hon. Gentleman in commending my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) for his willingness to be so open about his health problem. We wish him all the very best for the future, and for his place here in the House.
On the issue of clarity on the Government’s aims in relation to Brexit, I have been very clear and I will be clear again. There are those who talk about means and those who talk about ends; I am talking about ends. What we want to see is the best possible arrangement for trade with and operation within the single European market for businesses in goods and services here in the United Kingdom.
I thought for a moment the Prime Minister was going to say “Brexit means Brexit” again. [Interruption.] I am sure she will tell us one day what it actually means. The Mayor of London also added that this is causing “unnecessary uncertainty”.
It would also be very helpful if the Prime Minister provided some clarity over the Northern Ireland border. Will we continue membership of the customs union or are we going to see border checks introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic?
The Leader of the Opposition tries to poke fun at the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”, but the whole point is this: on Brexit, it is this Government who are listening to the voice of the British people. “Brexit means Brexit” means we are coming out of the European Union. What the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do is frustrate the will of the British people by saying that Brexit means something completely different.
In relation to the Northern Irish border, a considerable amount of work was already taking place with the Irish Government to look at the issues around the common travel area, and that work is continuing. We have been very clear, the Government of the Republic of Ireland have been very clear, and the Northern Ireland Executive have been very clear that none of us wants to see a return to the borders of the past, and I simply remind the right hon. Gentleman that the common travel area has been in place since 1923, which was well before either of us joined the European Union.
On Monday the Prime Minister said that the customs union was “not a binary choice”. I cannot think that whether we have a border or do not have a border is anything other than a binary choice; there is no third way on that one. On Monday her friend the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) expressed concern about the automotive and aerospace industries, while the British Bankers Association said that its members’
“hands are quivering over the relocate button.”
Every day the Prime Minister dithers over this chaotic Brexit, employers delay investment and rumours circulate about relocation. This cannot carry on until March of next year; when is the Prime Minister going to come up with a plan?
The fact that the right hon. Gentleman seems to confuse a customs union with a border when they are actually two different issues shows— [Interruption]— why it is important that it is this party that is in government and dealing with these issues and not his.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the plan. I have been very clear that we want to trade freely—both trade with and operate within the single European market. I want this country to be a global leader in free trade; the Labour party is against free trade. I want to introduce control on free movement so that we have an end of free movement; the Labour party wants to continue with free movement. I want to deliver on the will of the British people; the right hon. Gentleman is trying to frustrate the will of the British people.
There was no answer on the border, which was what the question was about. On Monday the Prime Minister told the House:
“We have a plan, which is not to set out at every stage of the negotiations the details of those negotiations”.—[Official Report, 24 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 31.]
I have been thinking about this for a couple of days, and—[Interruption.] I think when we are searching for the real meaning and the importance of the Prime Minister’s statement, we should consult the great philosophers. [Interruption.] The only one I could come up with—[Interruption.]
The only one I could come up with was Baldrick, who said that his “cunning plan” was to have no plan. Brexit was apparently about taking back control, but the devolved Governments do not know the plan, businesses do not know the plan and Parliament does not know the plan. When will the Prime Minister abandon this shambolic Tory Brexit and develop a plan that delivers for the whole country?
I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman chose to support Baldrick. Of course, the actor who played Baldrick was a member of the Labour party, as I recall. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what we are going to deliver. We are going to deliver on the vote of the British people. We are going to deliver the best possible deal for trade in goods and services, both with and operationally in the European Union. And we are going to deliver an end to free movement. That is what the British people want and that is what this Government are going to deliver for them.
Three years ago, the United Kingdom backed Saudi Arabia for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council. On 28 October, there will again be elections for the Human Rights Council. A UN panel has warned that Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen has violated international law. Amnesty International has stated that
“executions are on the increase…women are widely discriminated against…torture is common…and human rights organisations are banned”.
Will the Government again be backing the Saudi dictatorship for membership of that committee?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, where there are legitimate human rights concerns in relation to Saudi Arabia, we raise them. In relation to the action in the Yemen, we have been clear that we want the incidents that have been referred to properly investigated, and if there are lessons to be learned from them, we want the Saudi Arabians to learn those lessons. I reiterate a point that I have made in this House before: our relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one. It is particularly important in relation to the security of this country, to counter-terrorism and to foiling the activities of those who wish to do harm to our citizens here in the UK.
Taher Qassim, a Yemeni man who lives in Liverpool, told me this week:
“Yemen is quickly becoming the forgotten crisis. If people aren’t being killed by bombs, it’s hunger that kills them. The UK needs to use its influence to help the people of Yemen”.
Bombs exported from Britain are being dropped on Yemeni children by Saudi pilots trained by Britain. If there are war crimes being committed, as the United Nations suggests, they must be investigated. Is it not about time that this Government suspended their arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
The issues are being investigated, and we have taken action. The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the humanitarian crisis in the Yemen, and this country is one of those at the forefront of ensuring that humanitarian aid is provided. That is a record of action of which I believe this country and this Government can be proud around the world. There was a cessation of hostilities in the Yemen over the weekend. It lasted 72 hours. As I said in the House on Monday, I spoke to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi at the weekend, and one of the issues we discussed was the importance of trying to find a political solution in Yemen and to see whether that cessation of hostilities could be continued. It has not been continued, but we are clear that the only solution that is going to work for the Yemen is to ensure that we have a political solution that will give stability to the Yemen.
My hon. Friend is right to speak up for his constituents. He is also right that there is no single model that will work in every part of the country. That is why it is important for local people to come together to determine what is right for them. My hon. Friend is trying to build a consensus in Dorset on the right way forward. It is right that local people are able to respond to the consultation and that their concerns are listened to.
The Scottish poppy appeal launches today for parliamentarians, so may I take this opportunity to praise all the fundraisers, volunteers and veterans involved? I am sure that colleagues in other parts of the House will commend the efforts to raise money for the poppy appeal in the rest of the United Kingdom.
One of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes of our time is in Syria, specifically Aleppo, where we expect the ceasefire to end shortly and an onslaught to begin. Will the Prime Minister tell us what efforts the UK is currently undertaking not only to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but to deal with those who are exacerbating the situation?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in commending and praising the work of all those across the United Kingdom who give their time and effort to raise money for the poppy appeal. It is important that we never forget those who have given of themselves for our safety and security through many conflicts. It is important that we recognise that and give generously to the poppy appeal across the country.
On Syria, it is important to approach the matter on a number of tracks. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been involved in discussions with the US Secretary of State, Senator Kerry, on such issues, looking for the way forward. I raised the issue of Russian action in Syria, in particular the bombing of Aleppo, at the EU Council at the end of last week, where it was on the agenda only because the UK had raised it. As a result of that discussion the EU agreed that, should the atrocities continue, we will look at all available options for taking action to put pressure on Russia in order to stop its indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians.
I commend the Prime Minister for those endeavours, but it is widely expected that the onslaught on Aleppo will be unleashed by the Russian airpower that is aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, currently steaming across the Mediterranean with its battle group. In recent years, more than 60 Russian naval vessels have refuelled and resupplied in Spanish ports, so will the Prime Minister join me and EU and NATO allies in unequivocally calling on Spain to refuse the refuelling?
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the passage of Russian naval ships. They are of course able to travel as they wish on the high seas—although they were accompanied by royal naval vessels when they went through the English channel. We have sadly seen that the Russians are already able to unleash attacks on innocent civilians in Syria. What matters is that we put pressure on Russia to do what everybody agrees is the only way that we are going to resolve the issue, which is to ensure that we have a political transition in Syria. That is where we should focus our attention.
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the proposed deal will provide the west midlands with £1 billion over 30 years to spend on local projects that will drive economic growth. That is the important part of the deal and is why it is so important to have a mayor, Andy Street, who not only understands the local area but has business expertise to ensure that those economic projects are developed with the interests of the locality as the prime focus. The deal will deliver more jobs and economic prosperity across the west midlands. It is good for the west midlands and her constituents. It is good for the rest of the country as well.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point: the whole purpose of this inquiry was to be able to provide justice for those whose voices had not been heard for too long and who felt that people in positions of power and institutions of the state, and other organisations, had not heard their voice, and had not been prepared to listen to them and properly to investigate what had happened to them. It is important that victims and survivors have confidence in the inquiry. Of course, the inquiry is an independent inquiry and it is up to its chairman to work with survivors and victims, as I know the inquiry chairman has been doing. But I will ensure that the Home Secretary has heard the representations the hon. Lady has made, and we will take what she has said to us today away and consider it very carefully. We all want this inquiry to work properly, and to work in the interests of survivors and victims.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know she has championed the armed forces covenant and is a great proponent of our veterans and the armed forces. It is absolutely right to say that everybody in this House owes a great debt of gratitude to our veterans and to those serving today in our armed forces for what they do to keep us safe and secure. That is why it is so important that the covenant is not just a responsibility for the Government, but a national responsibility; we should all be working to ensure that those who have served us, and served us well, do not face disadvantages. That is why we have been doing things such as putting money into a forces Help to Buy scheme to help them with houses—I believe the figure is £200 million. We must continue to do this, and I absolutely commit to ensuring that this is a Government who continue to support our veterans and the members of our armed forces.
First, I recognise and commend the hon. Gentleman for raising his personal experience of the terrible tragedy that can occur when mental health problems are not properly dealt with. He raises a very serious issue—it is a serious issue for everybody in this House—about how the NHS treats mental health. This is why we have established the concept of parity of esteem for mental health and physical health in the NHS, and why we are seeing record levels of funding. He raises the question of talking therapies, which are very effective, and we have been introducing waiting time standards in relation to them. However, I accept that there is more for us to do in this area to ensure that those with mental health problems are properly treated, and are properly given the care and attention they need. This is an issue not just for them, but for the whole of our society.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The Chilcot report was an important task. Although it looked at and criticised the way in which information had been handled, it did not say that people had set out deliberately to mislead, and it is important to recognise that. It is important also that we learn the lessons from the Chilcot report, which is why the National Security Adviser is leading an exercise to do precisely that. This was a long time coming. It was a serious report. There is much in it, and we need to ensure that we do learn the lessons from it.
There is no reason to believe that the outcome of the referendum will do anything to undermine the absolute rock-solid commitment of this Government and the people of Northern Ireland to the settlement that was set out in the Belfast agreement. There is, and remains, strong support for the entirely peaceful future for Northern Ireland. That has been determined by democracy and consent. We remain committed to that and to work with others to ensure that entirely peaceful future.
I am delighted to hear of the commitment that GE has made to Stafford, but it is more than a commitment to Stafford; it is a commitment to the United Kingdom and to the future of our economy. I understand that the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade has already met GE to discuss its interests in trade and what we can be doing to promote free trade. As I said earlier, I want the UK to be a global leader in free trade. We are listening to businesses around the country and to the importance that they place on free trade as we look at the negotiations for exiting the EU.
I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes from the figures that we have seen recently, particularly the figures in relation to women and the use of alcohol. As Home Secretary, I was part of the development of the alcohol strategy that the Government produced a few years ago. I am pleased to say that, at that time, we were working well with industry to encourage it to ensure that it could take steps to impact on the drinking habits of the nation.
I seem to recall that I first met my hon. Friend when she was campaigning in relation to motorways. She is right that in order to support the rail infrastructure, we need to ensure that the right road infrastructure is in place. That is why we are investing £15 billion in the road investment strategy, which is about boosting local economies and further economic growth. I understand that Highways England is looking at the issues in the east midlands and at bringing forward significant new road enhancements around the expected site of the new east midlands HS2 station. Going forward it is looking at an audit of roads in the area. I trust that on this issue my hon. Friend will make her voice heard, and that of her constituents, as she has in the past.
I gave a serious answer to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), which is that we have been looking at the whole issue of talking therapies, their availability and the waiting times for them. We do want to improve the options that people have for access to talking therapies, precisely because they have been shown to be so successful in so many cases. The Government are working on this and we will continue to work on it to provide, as we have said, that parity of esteem between mental health and physical health in the national health service.
I can absolutely give the commitment that we continue to support Crossrail 2. We are waiting to see a robust business case and a proper funding proposal for Crossrail 2. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will in due course set out the timetable for that, but as a former Wimbledonian I can assure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of his interest in the Wimbledon to Waterloo aspects of the project, and that the needs of the local area are being taken into account.
The hon. Lady sets out her case and the issues that she has identified. I take the same view as this Government have taken since they came into power and previously, which is that the issue of Kashmir is a matter for India and Pakistan to deal with and sort out. The Foreign Secretary has heard her representations and I am sure will be interested in taking up those matters with her.
Several months ago I raised with the former Prime Minister at his last Prime Minister’s questions the issue of enhanced medical assistance for the Kurdish peshmerga. I then wrote to the new Prime Minister. Now, with the campaign to liberate Mosul under way, will my right hon. Friend agree to meet with me and representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government to discuss whether we can provide specialist medical facilities here in the UK—for instance, 10 beds for seriously wounded peshmerga—and to ensure that the forces on the ground are getting all the support they need? I understand that they are short of heavy weapons and basic infantry kit such as helmets and body armour.
My hon. Friend is right and I recognise that this is a matter that he has raised before. We have seen that the coalition activity that is taking place is having some impact, and is having an impact, as we wish it to, in relation to Daesh. There are no plans at present either to do what he suggested in his question or to provide a field hospital and field medical capabilities from the United Kingdom, but we continually review what we are doing in support of the coalition, and the training that we are providing for the peshmerga includes training in the provision of medical facilities.
Individuals are already being brought to the United Kingdom under the Dubs amendment, in addition to the resettlement scheme for vulnerable Syrians—the 20,000 who will be brought here over the course of this Parliament—and in addition to the 3,000 vulnerable people, children and others, who will be brought here from the middle east and north Africa. We are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to ensure that it is right for those individuals to come to the UK and that they have support when they get here. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this country is the second biggest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in the Syrian region, and we are able to support and provide for more people in-region, which I think is absolutely the right thing to do.
Around Heathrow legal air quality limits are being breached, and over Twickenham noise pollution has increased, according to Heathrow data. Can the Prime Minister explain how a third runway can be delivered and comply with legal pollution requirements? Does she agree that, environmentally, Heathrow is not good enough and cannot possibly be both bigger and better?
The Government looked very closely at the issue of air quality and the environmental impact of all three schemes proposed by the Airports Commission. We took extra time, from the decision to increase airport capacity in the south-east, because we wanted to look particularly at the air quality issues. The evidence shows that air quality standards can be met, as required by all three schemes, including the north-west runway at Heathrow. My hon. Friend raises an issue that is actually about more than airports, because air quality is also about road transport. That is why we are looking to do more in relation to air quality. It is why, for example, I am pleased to see that we are at such a leading edge in the provision of electric vehicles.
The Prime Minister’s real plan for Brexit seems to be to pick winners: to cut a special deal for the City of London and let the bankers avoid the dire consequences of leaving the economic union. Wales has an exporting economy, with a £5 billion trade surplus last year, and 200,000 jobs dependent on trade with the European Union. It is a soft Brexit for her friends in the City, and a hard Brexit for everybody else. Will she cut a similar deal for Wales?
Every year, hundreds of people are diagnosed with, suffer and usually die prematurely from rare diseases such as cystic fibrosis and rare cancers, for which there has been no treatment, or for which the latest drugs are prohibitively expensive. This week sees the final report of our accelerated access review, which sets out a new model for the NHS to use its genetic and data leadership to get quicker access and discounted prices. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the review, which is strongly supported by patients, charities and the life sciences sector, and in encouraging the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and NHS England to implement it speedily?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the publication of the review. This is important in enabling patients to get quicker access to drugs and treatments. The United Kingdom has established a leading role in life sciences, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the role he has played in that. I know that the Department of Health will be looking very closely at the report’s specific recommendations, recognising that where we can take opportunities through the national health service to encourage the development of new drugs to benefit patients, we should do so.
The Prime Minister has just told us that record levels of spending are going into our mental health services. Her Health Secretary stood at that Dispatch Box on 9 December and told us that the proportion of funding going into mental health from every one of our clinical commissioning groups should be increasing. Why is it, then, that 57% of CCGs in our country are reducing the proportion of spend on mental health? It is yet another broken promise. When will we have real equality for mental health in our country?
The fact that I set out—that we are spending record levels in the NHS on mental health—is absolutely right, but I have said in response to a number of people who have questioned me on this that we recognise that there is more for us to do in mental health, and I would have thought that we should have cross-party support on doing just that.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street on the day she became Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend said:
“If you suffer from mental health problems, there is not enough help to hand.”
I welcome her commitment to mental health, expressed on that day and in her responses today. What steps is she taking to make sure the bold ambitions of the Government’s five-year forward view for mental health are achieved?
I am pleased to say that, in fact, what we see—far from the impression that is given by some of the comments from Opposition Members—is that, since 2009-10, around 750,000 more people are accessing talking therapies and 1,400 more people are accessing mental health services every day, compared to 2010, so that is up by 40%. But my hon. Friend, who I know has a particular interest and a particular expertise in this area, is right that we need to do more, and that is why we are continuing to invest in mental health services and continuing to increase the standards that we provide.
Just 20 children are diagnosed with inoperable brain tumours as a result of tuberous sclerosis every year. Yet, despite earlier indications, NHS England turned treatment down for funding, despite it being affordable. Will the Prime Minister meet me, the Tuberous Sclerosis Association and families to discuss how we can get through this blockage and get the treatment that these children need?
Maternity and Paternity Leave (Premature Birth)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Part 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to make provision about maternity and paternity leave for parents of babies born prematurely; and for connected purposes.
Having a premature baby is one of the most traumatic experiences that any parent can go through. Instead of bringing home the healthy baby they had longed for, their tiny baby is put inside an incubator, fighting for its life, surrounded by tubes, wires and bleeping monitors. Instead of holding their baby close, these parents can only watch as their baby struggles to breathe, dependent on life support and intensive care. This can go on for weeks and months before a baby is well enough to go home. The stress, anxiety and worry lead two in every five premature mums to suffer mental ill health. Parents fall into debt from the unplanned expense of daily journeys to hospital, overnight accommodation or eating in expensive hospital cafes.
One mum told me her baby spent three months in intensive care, and that time was all taken out of her statutory maternity leave. So her baby suffers twice: first, from the serious health complications of being born too soon and, secondly, from having less time at home with mum and dad—vital bonding time that can affect a child’s development for many years to come.
I spoke to another mum who told me that once she had gone back to work, her employer would not give her the extra time off she needed to deal with her premature child’s frequent illnesses. She lost her job, and her family lost that vital extra income. I spoke to a dad who had to go back to work the day after his baby was born three months too soon and was fighting for her life in an incubator. Most people would agree that his family needed him more at that time than his employer did, but the law did not give him the support he needed to be there with his family. We should give the parents of premature babies all the support they need to cope at one of the most traumatic times they will ever experience.
I pay tribute to a Croydon mum and tireless campaigner, Catriona Ogilvy, who started campaigning on this issue after her two beautiful little boys were born prematurely. Over 100,000 people have already signed her online petition. I should also like to recognise the outstanding work of the charity Bliss, which campaigns for the rights of premature babies and their families.
It is time the law recognised the special needs of premature babies’ parents by extending their leave so that they can give their vulnerable, tiny babies all the love and care they need and deserve. This measure commands growing support in the country, it is the right thing to do, and it deserves the support of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Steve Reed, Norman Lamb, Heidi Allen, Chris Philp, Wes Streeting, Dan Jarvis, Stella Creasy, Mr Gareth Thomas, Jenny Chapman, Lyn Brown, Heidi Alexander and Lisa Nandy present the Bill.
Mr Steve Reed accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 December, and to be printed (Bill 81).
[10th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House notes that Concentrix has not fully met the performance standards set out in its contract with the HM Revenue and Customs to correct tax credit claims, and welcomes the announcement that the services performed by Concentrix will be brought back in-house to HMRC next year; and calls on the Government to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the performance of Concentrix under its contract with HMRC, which includes a consideration of the potential effect on other HMRC services, take urgent action to compensate people who have erroneously had tax credits withdrawn by the company, and in doing so mitigate any adverse effect or reduction in service for claimants.
The topic of today’s first Opposition day debate affects every single hon. Member’s constituency. I have received many case studies from Labour Members, and I thank them for their hard work on this issue. I welcome the comments in the amendment tabled by Scottish National party Members; I am very pleased that we are on the same page on this issue. We have heard how constituents of Conservative Members have been affected by this scandal too. My own inbox and postbag have seen a surge in the number of anxious and distressed families needing my help after their tax credits have been stopped. I put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and to the Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee and the Treasury Committee, for their hard work in shining the spotlight on this very serious issue.
I am sure that Members will assist the Minister by illustrating their own cases, but I will begin by outlining a shocking yet typical case study brought to my attention recently. The lady in question is a single parent with three children and a job, although at the time of her exchanges with Concentrix she had just had a baby and was on maternity leave. This lady had been accused on two separate occasions of living with an undisclosed partner. On both occasions, she had never met the person. The first time, she was accused of living with a man who turned out to be the former tenant of the housing association flat that she now lives in. This was sorted out fairly easily. We can imagine her shock, though, when only months later she received another letter accusing her of living with another undisclosed partner. When she phoned Concentrix, she was told that she was living with a woman of whom she had never heard. The lady pointed out that there was absolutely no truth in that allegation and sent all the requested documentation, by recorded delivery, to Concentrix. She received no response. She gave birth to her third child two weeks later.
When the claimant phoned Concentrix, she was told that the documents that she had sent were not on the system, and she then received a letter cancelling her tax credits. That left her with only maternity allowance to live on and a demand to repay £4,100.
The lady in question obtained replacement documentation, after Concentrix appeared to have lost the originals, and sent a request for mandatory reconsideration, again by recorded delivery, to Concentrix. By this time, she was running very short of money and contacted her Member of Parliament for help. When the parliamentary office investigated the matter, it was told that there was a backlog of mandatory reconsiderations, so it could take six weeks for the case to be looked at.
By this time, the lady in question had been waiting for three months for a resolution to her case—that is three months in complete stress and turmoil, on the breadline, when she should have been enjoying those precious early moments of her child’s life.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early on. I was contacted not long ago by a woman in a similar situation. Her tax credits were cut because Concentrix accused her of having a lesbian relationship with her sister. It took her coming to me as her Member of Parliament and calling Concentrix myself before it started to believe the truth. Is it not absurd that it takes a direct intervention from a Member of Parliament before this ridiculous company takes these people seriously?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The term, “It beggars belief” springs to mind. Unfortunately, his case is not an isolated one.
After much chasing, it was eventually confirmed that the lady had no connection to this mystery woman. She was paid all the money she was owed, and the demand to repay the £4,100 was withdrawn.
We all have examples of constituents with similar stories, but the Government are showing a complete lack of urgency. People are left destitute by these decisions, for no good reason. We want to hear the Government say that they are going to put in extra resources to expedite investigations so that these people are paid and compensated, if necessary at the expense of Concentrix.
I could not agree more. The case to which I have referred is not an isolated one. According to the Government’s own figures, the company has considered about 667,000 cases, of which 103,000 have been amended. That means that 15% of investigations have wrongly pursued perfectly legitimate tax credit claimants, and they are simply the ones who have had the strength to come forward and present themselves, including to their MPs, as we have heard.
In every single one of the Concentrix cases that has been taken up by my office so far and that has been resolved, the payment has been put back in place. In other words, they have been 100% wrong. What does my hon. Friend think that the Government ought to do about that?
I think that the cases we have seen so far are the tip of the iceberg. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that all cases are adequately investigated, and that no one has fallen through the cracks and not presented themselves either to their MP or directly to Concentrix.
I have spoken in previous debates about Capita’s failures in delaying the payment of disability benefits to some of our most vulnerable people. It seems to me that the only difference this time is the name of the corporation involved. Is not the fundamental issue that private profit-making companies are failing to deliver critical Government services?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I will come on in due course to the issue of the contract and how it is delivered, because there needs to be a wider investigation and discussion about that.
In 2014-15, there were no appeals against a decision. In 2015-16, there were 365, and from April to August 2016, there were 176. A similar spike is clear in the number of mandatory reconsiderations, which more than quadrupled between 2014-15 and 2015-16. It is even more shocking that that number almost quadrupled again in the period up to mid-August.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is hard to believe that the number of fraudulent tax credit claimants suddenly increased so dramatically in those two years. What is clear, however, is that there is an ever-growing evidence base suggesting that Concentrix has been unfairly and unjustly stopping people’s tax credits, leaving them in financial difficulty, along with the anxiety that that causes.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted that the contract was not working. Indeed, they were forced to concede that point in an answer to a parliamentary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley early last month. The response revealed:
“Since mid-October 2015 there has been 120 instances where Concentrix has not fully met the performance standards set out in the contract out of a total of 1625.”
Following mounting pressure from Opposition Members, the Government announced that they would not renew the Concentrix contract when it ends in May, and that they would redeploy 150 members of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to clear the backlog of cases.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Is she aware that it was not actually until October last year that the Government started monitoring the performance of Concentrix, as was revealed to me in a parliamentary answer just a couple of weeks ago? That shows exactly why they have removed the contract now, because before that they did not even know whether Concentrix was performing the service standards laid out in it.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. A whole section of my speech is devoted to particular clauses in the contract that may or may not have been enforced by HMRC and the Government. I will come on to that in due course.
Labour welcomed the announcement that 150 members of staff would be redeployed and that the contract would not be renewed, but we still had serious concerns that Concentrix would continue to handle cases and that the Government had not stated that they would bring the operation back in-house. Following further pressure from Labour and the Public and Commercial Services Union, the Government backed down and PCS confirmed last week that the operation will, indeed, be brought back in-house, with Concentrix staff in Belfast being transferred to HMRC.
We of course welcomed that action, but it does not even begin to address the wider issues. How did this situation arise? When did the Government first become aware of it? What action did they take? How will they ensure that it does not occur again? Most importantly, when and how will the victims be compensated? Media reports were surfacing as far back as 2015 in relation to erroneous tax credit decisions pursuant to the contract, and, as I have outlined, the figures indicated an unusual spike in appeals. The red flags were there and they should have been acted on.
I would like to direct the Minister to the contract between HMRC and Concentrix, which provided a number of tools that the Government had at their fingertips. Section I3.1 of the contract provides that where HMRC is concerned with the delivery of service, it can investigate. Was HMRC concerned, and if so, when? If the Minister cannot answer just yet, I will, to help her to pinpoint the information, illustrate further machinery in the contract that would have helped the Government and HMRC to find out about any problems pretty swiftly. Section E7.1 and schedule D provide for reviews of the contract’s effectiveness. Schedule D4.1 states that “prior to…Go Live”, HMRC would work with Concentrix to establish and agree a “robust Governance Framework” including contract management, communications, quality and assurance, payment risk management, performance management, change control and, most importantly, reporting. Will the Minister confirm the details of that “robust Governance Framework” for the benefit of the House?
If the Minister cannot do so, I can reassure her that fall-back options were still available. Schedule D12.1 states that HMRC would have full access to individual cases and, further, that Concentrix was under an obligation to let HMRC observe its working methods. Pursuant to that provision, were individual cases reviewed by HMRC, and did HMRC investigate the methods used by Concentrix? If so, how often did that happen and what were the findings of those investigations? It is clear that the Government had the tools that they needed to monitor service delivery, but perhaps they simply did not use them. The Minister will confirm in due course.
If the Government had found failings after exhausting the quite reasonable dispute process in the contract, they could have exercised the break clause found at section G3 by giving only three months’ notice. Will the Minister confirm whether and when that was considered, and tell us the outcome of that consideration? If, however, her answer to all my contractual questions is, “I don’t know,” I would ask whether she is really sure that HMRC had the capacity to monitor the contract effectively. She will be interested to know that PCS is due to publish a report on HMRC shortly, which suggests that
“the department is at breaking point…staff are hugely demoralised, 25% want to leave the department immediately or within a year and the department scores below average in all of the measures on the Civil Service’s annual staff survey.”
The report does not paint a happy picture.
My hon. Friend is making a forensic case. Behind these facts and figures are very real human cases of people, particularly women and single mothers, who are being absolutely hammered by Concentrix. I have constituents who are going hungry, and whose children are going hungry, because of the incompetence of Concentrix. That is what we need the Minister to answer about.
Is the hon. Lady aware of the spikes in such claims that she talks about arising in the week before conference recess and in the days following, when Concentrix was stripped of the contract? We all know what is happening here: drilling down into the contract to avoid exit penalties. Will the Government shed any light on that?
I hope that the Minister will address the hon. Gentleman’s question in her speech because we all want to hear the answer.
Several provisions in the contract relate to payment by delivery. The head of the National Audit Office stated in June 2015:
“While its supporters argue that, by its nature, Payment by Results offers value for money, these contracts are hard to get right, which generates risk and cost for commissioners…the increased risk and cost may be justified, but this requires credible evidence. Without such evidence, commissioners may be using this mechanism in circumstances to which it is ill-suited, to the detriment of value for money.”
Under schedule A6.1 of the contract, HMRC required Concentrix to deliver, over the duration of the contract, some £1.03 billion in savings in annually managed expenditure. I appreciate that the contract used estimates to forecast potential savings, but given the model, how could anyone have been certain about the position without a crystal ball? In answer to parliamentary questions, it was revealed that total savings in annual managed expenditure were £2.3 million in 2014-15, £122.3 million in 2015-16, and £159.5 million in 2016-17, to mid-August 2016.
Does my hon. Friend agree that these savings were made by my constituents facing a similar situation—100% of them have had their benefits paid back—going to food banks for the first time in their lives? The place-based team in Platt Bridge has seen a spike of some 50 families going to them because of problems with their tax credits.
My hon. Friend’s intervention highlights the human impact of these contractual failings. My constituents have asked me for the addresses of food banks and whether parcels could be delivered to them because they were too ashamed to be seen as struggling by their communities. To put people in such situations is an absolute disgrace.
Total savings of £284.1 million have been made since the commencement of the contract in November 2014. Anyone can see that the leap from £2.3 million in 2014 to £159.5 million by mid-August 2016 is excessive. Does the Minister therefore believe that there was simply a massive increase in fraud in the system, or does she agree that the contract was granted in the absence of a firm evidence base to justify the risks associated with an agreement based on payment by results?
As I said, there is a human impact and a human cost; it is not simply a case of slapping Concentrix on the back of the hand and saying, “Let’s all move on.” We are talking about the Government’s duty to preserve justice being abandoned as a result of the profit motive established by the contract. The risks were real human risks—families being forced into destitution, anguish and despair, with all the associated pressures on an individual’s mental health.
Earlier this year, the Social Security Advisory Committee noted that the payment model could create a conflict of interest. It recommended that the National Audit Office should examine the contract to ensure that it included appropriate safeguards to preserve justice for the claimant. At that stage, there was no investigation, but the Labour party has since written to the NAO and received the following response:
“My team has carried out some preliminary work to look into the issues. Their view is that the contract between HMRC and Concentrix merits further investigation.”
I am pleased that the NAO will investigate, but the Government must carry out a full and transparent inquiry of their own. Our motion calls on the Government to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the performance of Concentrix and HMRC’s contract with the company, in terms of both the adequacy of enforcing all the contractual terms, and the suitability of a payment-by-results model for delivering such a service. I would add that the NAO confirmed last year that the Government’s payment-by-results schemes accounted for at least £15 billion of public spending. It has stated that neither the Cabinet Office nor the Treasury monitors how payment by results operates across government.
My hon. Friend is making a detailed case about the defects of the contract, including in relation to payment by results. Does she agree that the problems with that model were exacerbated by the fact that when people had a problem with their tax credits being withdrawn, they had to complain to Concentrix—they had to go back to the decision maker—and there was, naturally, no financial incentive for Concentrix to unwind a wrong decision?
My hon. Friend is right. Sadly, however, when many people tried to complain to Concentrix, all they received was a dull engaged tone, so they did not get very far.
Will the Minister assure the House that she will go beyond the scope of the motion and investigate such contracts more widely? She should consider putting measures before the House that will prevent the incorrect application of payment by results. I fear that Concentrix is just the tip of the iceberg.
No. I have one paragraph left before I finish.
I want to conclude by speaking about the victims of these terrible systematic failures. They did not deserve to face the hardship they have endured, and they must be adequately compensated for their losses. Will the Minister confirm that they will be compensated? On what basis will they be compensated, and what is the timeframe for that action? Will she confirm that, in addressing the problem and bringing services back into HMRC, she will mitigate any adverse effect on or reduction in service for complainants? I ask her to keep an eye out for the PCS report because it is a real eye-opener. I know that the Minister has experienced terrible cases on her own doorstep. She has seen the effects at first hand and seems to be very empathetic. As such, will she issue an apology on behalf of her Government for the distress and hardship that has been caused? That is the very least our constituents deserve.
During the past few weeks, there have been a number of debates in this House about the quality of service provided by Concentrix in helping HMRC to counter fraud and error in our tax system. This is an important opportunity to debate the issue again, and I hope to go a little further in providing the House with information.
It is right that we have debated the issue because during the past few months it has become clear that Concentrix, despite the best efforts of the majority of its frontline staff, was failing to meet the standards we expected and, indeed, that we had specified in its contract. This meant that many of the people whose tax credits were being investigated—we have heard about them in the speech by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and in interventions, and they include my constituents—have been caused needless frustration and distress in resolving their cases. I suspect we will hear more examples as the debate unfolds. I intend to address the specific points in the motion, but as the hon. Lady accurately speculated, I may need in due course to write to her about aspects of the contractual arrangements, for reasons that may become obvious as I go through my speech.
Before the Minister leaves the human suffering aspect of this debate, may I welcome the speed with which she has responded to the letter and memoranda of cases that I, like other Members, have submitted to her? If we are not only talking about learning lessons from the contract, may I ask how we can quickly get compensation to the people who have been adversely affected? Will she give an undertaking today—she may have such an undertaking in her speech— that people whose benefits have been cut by Concentrix will be informed of the hardship fund that she has established so that they can quickly apply for help?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to anticipate that I will touch on that issue. I will reflect on his point. I do not know about the arrangements for being proactive in telling people, but there are arrangements in place. When I get to that point, he can let me know if he does not think they are adequate.
Given that so many hon. Members on both sides of the House have made such efforts to support their constituents during recent weeks—the human aspects of this issue are absolutely uppermost in our mind today—I should bring the House up to date on the action taken to rectify the situation. As I informed the House last month, we decided on 13 September not to pass any new cases to Concentrix. Instead, it was intended that it should concentrate on resolving outstanding cases. HMRC staff stepped in to reinstate a quality customer service, such as making sure that people could once again get through on the phones. We know how critical it is for people to be able to get through and have their voice heard.
On 14 September, when the Minister answered an urgent question in the House, she told all our constituents to phone the number they were given. One of my constituents phoned the line that day and waited for ages to get through, only to be told, “Because of all the complaints you’ve been making, we’re getting sacked”, and the phone was put down. Does she agree that that added further to the already deep distress that people were feeling, and that it is not acceptable?
In her response to that urgent question, the Minister reassured the House that queries would be dealt with within four working days. We know that that simply is not the case, and many of my constituents have been waiting for weeks to hear back from Concentrix or HMRC about their tax credit award. Will she update the House about the deadline for dealing with these cases?
I will come on to that, but the hon. Lady has provided me with an apt moment to be clear about what I said on that day. I said that once we had established the facts of the case, people should be paid within four working days. Clearly, some cases are complex and need further details to be provided. In response to the urgent question, I said that once we had established the facts, an automated process would authorise payment to be made within four working days. That is the timeline to which HMRC is working.
As I have said, it is absolutely critical that we get the right information, establish the facts and get payments started again. To that end, HMRC took back from Concentrix 181,000 incomplete cases, and staff have been working hard to resolve them. I can update the House by saying that 178,000 of the 181,000 cases have already been finalised, which represents 98% of them. HMRC has already written to the people concerned in the other 2% of cases, and it should conclude those cases by the end of this month. I want to place on the record my thanks to HMRC staff for their efforts in that regard. HMRC staff are also taking on reviews that are requested of any decision made by Concentrix.
It is startling that 98% of cases have been resolved within four weeks. Is there any evidence whatsoever that there were grounds to pursue people over their tax credits in those 98% of cases, or was this a bogus fishing expedition, as all of us in the House are likely to believe?
It is important to recognise that when a case is resolved, it means that a conclusion has been reached based on the facts. I cannot give the House the breakdown of cases in which payments have been reinstated, cases in which there was in fact an error in the claim that had to be corrected, or indeed cases—a very small number of them—in which claims were fraudulent. The point is that the cases have been resolved according to the facts provided and in the knowledge of the person concerned. We may be able to provide a breakdown at some point, but I am not in a position to do so today.
No. I really must make some progress—you may not indulge me too much more, Mr Speaker, if I give way again—but I will see whether I can take further interventions later.
As hon. Members should be aware, anyone who wishes to challenge any changes made to their tax credits has a right to request a mandatory reconsideration of their case. As of the start of this week, HMRC had received more than 26,000 such requests. Staff have already reviewed and resolved more than three quarters of them, and they are up to date with the Concentrix reviews. As I have said, that means that the cases have been resolved in accordance with the facts; it does not necessarily mean that there was a problem in each case. However, at least such cases have been resolved, and closing the remaining cases will of course be a priority.
That gives the House a sense of the necessary steps being taken to fix the immediate problem: restoring quality customer service, resolving people’s claims and checking that the right decisions have been made. But I know that hon. Members have been worried about people falling into hardship if their claim has been incorrectly withdrawn or reduced due to errors. That has quite rightly been the source of many of the questions we have been asked. I reassure Members that a system is in place to support anyone who contacts HMRC in such circumstances. They will be helped to request a review of the decision taken—the so-called mandatory reconsideration that I have just mentioned. Those in hardship will then receive a payment of £100, normally on the following day, while their review is being handled.
On that specific point, my constituent Katy Holness successfully challenged an erroneous Concentrix investigation. HMRC wrote to her saying that she would have £100 compensation but warning her that that £100 might in itself trigger an overpayment. What does the Minister say about that?
It is very difficult for me to comment on a specific case, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me with the details I will ask HMRC to comment on it. We held a further drop-in on 19 October, and if the House feels it would be useful to hold another such Member drop-in for cases such as that to be resolved face to face, I am very happy to arrange one. If hon. Members are aware of people in hardship—I know many are—they can bring that directly to our attention. In fact, I am grateful to all those Members who have already taken action of that kind and attended the various drop-in sessions I have organised in the House. I remind everyone that there is a special hotline for MPs to raise issues and seek information, and we have allocated extra staff to make that service available over extended opening hours. We will address any such cases with the greatest of urgency.
We are making some progress towards at least putting an end to the distress and worry that some people have regrettably faced in recent times. Mechanisms are in place to make sure that anyone in hardship as a result of uncertainties or mistakes will be supported. Those two things have been our top priorities.
Will the Minister tell us where the duff information that has been acted on by Concentrix has come from? One of the key things about these cases is that the information upon which people’s claims have been cancelled has been almost universally poor and nonsensical. Where have those data come from?
Most of the data that both HMRC and Concentrix are working from are the sort of data Members would expect companies and HMRC to be using in this regard. Concentrix makes some reference to credit data. Because there are so many tax credit claims, a lot of the work on pointing to where there might be errors is based on the history of where there have been substantial errors over time, and those individuals and people—
Not just at the moment—I must make some progress.
Particular individuals in particular circumstances are more prone to error. Over the years that tax credits have been running quite a substantial picture has built up of where error is more likely to exist.
No, I am sorry, I am going to make some progress.
We have been working—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) says the information is duff, but there are a lot of cases of error, and some of fraud, in the system. It is not the case that all the information is, in her word, duff—far from it. I will come on to mention the figures involved, but all right hon. and hon. Members know that there are times when people give the wrong information; that is mostly because of error, but sometimes because of fraud.
I will just make a bit more progress, then I will bring the hon. Gentleman in.
We are working hard to address the wider issues, many of which have been alluded to. I will move on to the three main points in the motion. We agree that Concentrix’s performance fell below the standards required in its contract. I do not want to ignore the millions of pounds’ worth of savings it has helped to deliver for the taxpayer, which might not otherwise have been achieved, but when the level of customer service is so far below what we expect, it is right that we take action.
First, then, as set out under the terms of the contract, payment to Concentrix will be cut in response to its failure to adhere to the standards required. Secondly, as HMRC announced on 13 September and I confirmed the following day, its contract will not be renewed beyond its end date in May 2017, nor will any further procurement exercise for tax credit checks be taken forward at that time. Thirdly, I can confirm that HMRC is in discussion with Concentrix to agree a negotiated early exit from the contact.
Although Members accept that cases of hardship have been created, does the Minister also accept that in a written answer to the House she indicated that Concentrix was meeting its 75-day service level, had an average answer time of six minutes for phone calls and was making decisions within 23 days, and that of the 660,000 appealed cases that went to HMRC, only 280, or 0.6%, were upheld? Does she accept that not all of the blame goes on Concentrix, which in many ways met its targets but is now being made a scapegoat?
I have said, both in reply to the urgent question on 14 September and in my opening remarks today, that front-line Concentrix staff have been working hard to resolve these issues. The problems of a contract like this, and of getting through on the phone, are never usually the fault of the person you finally get through to. It is right to say that people have been working hard. I suspect the hon. Gentleman represents many of the people who work there.
I also welcome the statement that we are terminating the contract with Concentrix. That is absolutely the right thing to do. I have a number of constituents who have suffered these problems. Mr and Mrs Young from Malton provided evidence that they were married. Despite that, Mrs Young was identified as unmarried and living in Whitby on her own. Members of Parliament have the emergency hotline—I have used it—and people can get emergency hardship payments. Does the Minister welcome that and should we make it more publicly known that those measures are available for people in hardship?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—she is being very generous. As we have heard, the contract altered last year. Will she confirm how the contract was altered last October, and that it was altered because Concentrix was unable to make enough money out of it before then?
I thank the Minister for giving way, as I know time is precious. I appreciate that she cannot divulge the terms of the ongoing negotiations for the termination of the contract, but will she commit to coming back to the House to make a statement as soon as those terms are finalised? Will she provide the information that she can obtain—for example, when the dispute process was first examined and the outcome of that process? We are at the very end of a contractual process, and simply want to know what the timeline was.
I understand, with the challenges coming from the Opposition Benches, why she wishes to outsource blame purely to Concentrix, but this Government wrote the contract to incentivise Concentrix’s behaviour and, as confirmed by the Economic Secretary last week in Westminster Hall, sent the personal data to Concentrix to investigate—