House of Commons
Wednesday 16 November 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—
This year we have significantly increased our support, providing a further £80 million of humanitarian aid to support more than 9 million people affected across the region. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working to tackle poverty and the crisis in the region at source, rather than waiting for the consequences to reach us domestically.
There are more than 2.6 million displaced people in the area, 6.4 million people are facing food insecurity, and a public health emergency has been declared in four countries, together with the Central African Republic, in response to a polio outbreak, yet United Nations appeals are only one third funded or less. What more can the UK Government do to bring this crisis to the world’s attention?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to an appalling situation facing the region, and more must be done to meet the humanitarian needs. The UN needs that help to increase its capacity and develop. As to what more can be done, we encourage Governments across the world in the donor community to step up their contributions, just as we have, because the humanitarian response required must be funded now. With my hon. Friend and with the UK Government, we are challenging everyone to step up and do more.
I welcome the Government’s additional £80 million committed at the UN General Assembly for the humanitarian crisis. This goes some way towards addressing the imbalance between development assistance and humanitarian aid. However, relief agencies are unable to reach up to 2 million people in north-east Nigeria. Can the Secretary of State provide an update on how her Department is leading an effective, strong UN-led response while also ensuring that DFID funding goes to a range of actors, including by channelling more funding bilaterally through non-Government organisations?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the issue. She is right. In addition to addressing the emergency humanitarian needs, DFID is investing in partnership working—yes, at a bilateral level, but also through the multilateral organisations that we are working with. Long-term resilience, support and capacity building are required. Our humanitarian programme is laying the foundations for these long-term outcomes through, for example, social transfers and access to health services, and importantly, focusing on the right interventions that can both help in the long term and provide the emergency relief required now.
The UK has excellent links through the Anglican Communion to the Churches in Nigeria. Would the Secretary of State welcome the willingness of the Churches to help with the humanitarian situation to address some of the underlying causes, particularly corruption?
My right hon. Friend is right about the power and the support of the Anglican community and Churches in Nigeria in particular. We have to work with grassroots organisations and religious organisations as well. We welcome the support and the focus on capacity building in particular, and the awareness-raising that is required on many of these challenging issues.
Aid without security in northern Nigeria is meaningless. I welcome the deployment of British troops to support the Nigerians in the north-east. Will the Secretary of State review official development assistance rules to make sure that that type of deployment is ODA-eligible for the people of northern Nigeria?
My hon. Friend will be clear about ODA rules from his previous role in the Foreign Office. He highlights the importance of a united and strategic approach, which can be seen in the UK’s work to support the Nigerian Government in their overall undertaking. The cross-Government work that is taking place is the right approach to tackle the severe issues that Nigeria is trying to cope with.
Looking at the immunisation of children in northern Nigeria, it appears that the coverage is very thin. In the past, some of the figures for coverage have been shown to be completely false. Can the Department work with the Government of Nigeria to ensure that there is total transparency, and work more with NGOs to ensure that more children are immunised throughout northern Nigeria?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of immunising children. I recognise the outstanding work that the agencies undertake in very difficult conditions as they try to reach communities to immunise children. More data and more transparency are needed, and we are driving much of that data transparency requirement through the support that we provide to organisations on the ground delivering those vital immunisations.
Providing education for girls is a priority for this Government and this Department. In the last Parliament, we helped over 5 million girls to get the education that they need and deserve. In this Parliament we continue that work. The girls’ education challenge is the largest programme of its type in the world. Over the course of this Parliament, we will see 11 million children or more supported into education because of the work of the UK.
In Afghanistan, adult women are more than twice as likely as men to be illiterate, with a literacy rate of just 24%, compared with 51% for men. Does the Minister agree that there is much work to be done to close the gap between girls and boys in developing countries, and that it is in Britain’s interests that we continue our world-leading efforts to close that gap?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We will continue our efforts and continue our commitment. The UK Government are supporting 300,000 girls in Afghanistan to complete a full cycle of education. The drop-out rate for girls in Afghanistan is running at around 50%. We have to do what we can to tackle that—to help countries develop, to help address these imbalances and to secure a better future for those who live there, but for UK interests as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We need to ensure that people get the education they need and can benefit from, so that those economies can grow and those countries that have often suffered so much can develop their way out of poverty with our support. In this Parliament, the Government will be supporting over 11 million children—including, separately, 6.5 million girls—into education, including in sub-Saharan Africa. There is more work that needs to be done, but we are focused on the task at hand, and we shall ensure that we get the maximum value and benefit from the work that UK taxpayers contribute to.
HIV/AIDS continues to be the largest killer of girls in the developing world. If they cannot go to school because they are ill, they cannot fulfil their potential. What more can the Government do to ensure that girls stay healthy?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I met him only a few weeks ago in his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, and we discussed the contribution the UK makes to the global health fund. I was delighted that, shortly thereafter, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a significant contribution from the UK. We remain a world leader in combating HIV/AIDS, as well as many other terrible diseases that affect girls and boys, and we are determined to play our part in ensuring these diseases are tackled, and ultimately eliminated, in the best and swiftest way possible.
This morning I was with Monir Mustafa of the White Helmets, who was absolutely clear that Assad’s bombs are targeting schools in Syria and the girls inside them. Has the Minister made representations to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to come to this House and bring forward a strategy to protect schools, hospitals and civilians?
We are discussing education for girls in developing countries, which was, I am sure, what the hon. Lady had very much in the forefront of her mind.
Whether it is in developing countries or those that are, sadly, impacted by some of the terrible conflicts we see across the globe today, I am proud that the Government are working with their international partners and the global community to fight those who look to do ill, and to protect those who need protecting most. In no small part, that includes those girls and boys who, so often, are the innocent victims of conflict. We are continuing to do what we can to support those who are suffering in Syria. The Department is making a very significant contribution, as is the UK taxpayer, but there is so much more that needs to be done, and I accept the point the hon. Lady makes.
When the Secretary of State appeared before the International Development Committee in September, she said she was working across Government on the implementation of sustainable development goals, but she was unable to give any details. Can she now provide an update on how her Department is leading the way to ensure that that important international framework is being fully implemented through DFID’s development work and here in the UK?
I have, indeed, as I mentioned at my last appearance at the IDC, been working across Government —I am working with the Cabinet Office as well—to ensure that all Government Departments, via their single departmental plans, will be meeting all of the SDGs. There will be an update forthcoming; I cannot give a date, but it will be quite soon, and I am sure it will be of interest to the hon. Lady when we publish it.
The UK is at the forefront of efforts to tackle Daesh and has led the way in supporting the Government of Iraq with humanitarian and stabilisation work as part of the response in Mosul. It is not enough simply to defeat Daesh on the battlefield; we have to ensure that we support the victims of barbarous regimes to get access to humanitarian support as events unfold in Mosul.
In such a complex and sensitive environment, how will DFID use its leadership role to ensure that other aid providers work together and take a united approach, to maximise the effectiveness and value for money that we can achieve from investment in this critical area?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue not only of Mosul and stabilisation, but of the humanitarian response. DFID and the British Government are leading the way and working through our membership of the humanitarian country teams. We are working closely with the UN, donors, NGOs and, of course, the Iraqi and Kurdish Governments, to deliver a co-ordinated, targeted and effective response.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the urgent humanitarian needs. What are the UK Government doing to support the Government of Iraq in preparing for securing the peace and stabilising the city of Mosul once we get it back?
Stabilising newly liberated areas and helping people to return to their homes in a safe and secure environment is a central priority of the Government of Iraq. We are working alongside them and the UN coalition. Britain’s support for the stabilisation efforts is helping the UN to clear lethal explosives, repair water supplies, restore power networks and reopen schools. Those stabilisation efforts have already helped more than 700,000 people to return home across Iraq.
There is concern across the House about Daesh’s brutal treatment of minorities, including Yazidis and Christians. What approach will DFID take on that question, and will the Secretary of State speak to the Home Secretary about the potential for a medical evacuation or resettlement programme for Iraqi minorities, similar to that which we have for Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the persecution of minorities by brutal regimes such as Daesh. He is also right to highlight the cross-Government approach that we have taken. I absolutely acknowledge his points. I will reflect on them and work with my colleagues across Government to pick up on them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that women have a key role to play, and that we need to do whatever we can to support them? Women have been doing so much to help protect civil infrastructure in Syria. If the Government do not have a plan, will they kindly consider putting in place a women-specific plan?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the role of women. Not enough attention is given to the role that they play in peacekeeping and stabilisation. We hear much about the consequences of conflict for women, but they can play a significant role and that will be part of our ongoing dialogue with the Government of Iraq.
As winter creeps in across Iraq, thousands are expected to be exposed to temperatures close to zero as they flee for their life from Mosul. This is the worst time for the UNHCR to experience a funding shortfall in its winter assistance plan. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to guarantee that the UK and others meet their humanitarian obligations and address that shortfall?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise not only the humanitarian issue, but the contributions required. The UK’s efforts are meeting in full our commitments to Iraq. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, at the UN General Assembly, we were the first, in terms of our pledges and commitment, for preparedness before the operation in Mosul. On the question of what more can be done, I and other colleagues in the donor community need to step up. I constantly engage with the donor community, pressing for a greater sense of urgency in getting funds, preparing for winter and, importantly, ensuring that shelter, food and emergency equipment are put in place sooner rather than later.
Third-party Aid Providers
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, almost all our Department’s work is done in partnership with third-party providers. Our Department provides the policy and the monitoring. In a humanitarian situation, it will be UN agencies delivering on the ground, and in a development situation, NGOs and partner Governments will work alongside us.
How exactly are we going to promote our democratic values in cases where our aid budget is being delivered by a third party, such as a foreign Government, and neither the people nor the Government in the recipient country have a clue that it is UK money going in?
I absolutely agree that we need to make sure that when UK taxpayers are contributing, that is clear to the people receiving the money. That is also why the Secretary of State has focused hard, with all these third-party providers, on securing value for money and ensuring that the UK national interest is served and UK taxpayers get the credit.
Isn’t it great that we have so many excellent NGOs in the UK to help us to deliver our aid programme? Does the Minister agree, however, that there is still too much competition, overlap and duplication between some of our NGOs, and that a measure of streamlining and collaboration would be most welcome?
That is absolutely right. Co-ordination is vital, particularly in an extreme humanitarian situation. It is terrible when people require assistance if we are wasting money duplicating effort. That is why DFID staff and UN staff are working so closely together, and that is why co-ordination is central to our multilateral aid review.
Does the Minister recognise the role of civil society organisations in delivering the sustainable development goals, which the former Prime Minister helped to draft? If so, why do the sustainable development goals not even appear in the recent civil society partnership review?
The sustainable development goals are central, and the UK Government played a very important role in bringing them forward, but this is a cross-Government effort and we will be bringing forward a cross-Government response.
Africa (Economic Development)
Last month in Kenya, I saw the life-saving impact of UK aid on the ground when it comes to combating drought, hunger and disease. I also saw how innovation can not only result in UK aid reaching more people, but help people to look at the long-term economic opportunities to tackle poverty and bring economic growth.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that working in partnership with Governments, businesses and investors around the world to transform economies and trading relationships, particularly in developing countries, should be a vital part of our UK diplomatic effort and our long-term prosperity strategy, especially as we approach Brexit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No country can defeat poverty without economic growth. Jobs, trade and investment are central to that, and the United Kingdom will be at the forefront of championing economic development and helping the poorest in the world to work their way out of poverty.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady raises these important sectors. She is right to do so, because of the youth dividend across Africa and the enormous potential for those sectors. DFID is leading the way when it comes to agri-development and investing through CDC and other organisations. British firms are playing a strategic role here, too. This comes back to the point that no country can defeat poverty without economic growth, and these are the core sectors that are crucial to the delivery of prosperity and jobs across Africa.
My hon. Friend raises a very important and controversial issue. The protection of wildlife in Africa is a priority for the Government, and we have a strategy to address it. Tourism is of course important across Africa. I have visited not just Kenya, but Sierra Leone, another country that needs to get back to investing in tourism, and that is something we can help with in the long run.
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that UK taxpayers are reassured about the way in which our money is spent, and that accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure proper value for money?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the whole issue of value for money, which we in DFID will champion on behalf of British taxpayers. It is right that money goes to the right countries and the right people, because every pound that is not spent in the right way means that people do not get access to life-saving treatment or poverty reduction. Our mission in the Department is to ensure that we can eradicate poverty, but also to make sure that the money goes exactly where it needs to go.
No country can defeat poverty without sustained economic growth. Later today, the Government will introduce the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, which will raise the limit on the level of financial support that the Government can provide to the CDC. By doing so, we will be able to help to create more jobs and to boost economic growth in Africa and south Asia, so that people can lift themselves out of poverty and leave aid dependency behind. I will write to colleagues with further information.
Will my right hon. Friend outline what humanitarian relief the Government are providing to support those affected by the conflict in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the appalling scenarios we are seeing in Yemen right now. There is a deteriorating situation and a humanitarian crisis, with an increasing number of Yemenis facing food shortages and suffering malnutrition. There has been a recent outbreak of cholera as well. The UK is the fourth largest donor, and has committed to spending £109 million in Yemen, helping more than 1.3 million Yemenis—[Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many very noisy private conversations taking place while we are discussing the fate of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The message is quite clear: hush or, alternatively, leave the Chamber.
Last year, we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis to get access to food, medical supplies and water. My hon. Friend will know that we have recently helped to raise over £100 million, via the UN, to strengthen humanitarian support for people in Yemen.
I have recently spent much time with civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and the great organisations doing life-saving work on the ground. We have recently published the “DFID Research Review” and the “Civil Society Partnership Review”. With regards to the development aid reviews—the multilateral and bilateral aid reviews—I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they will be coming by the end of the month.
We have made it clear that our focus will be very much targeted on health, education and co-existence projects. We ensure that any support going in is carefully vetted, with an independent auditor, and directed to what will provide value for money; and, above all, that it will benefit the Palestinian people.
As I have mentioned, we have published the “Civil Society Partnership Review”, on which I spent time speaking to many of the great organisations involved in the delivery of aid and humanitarian work around the world. We make sure that British aid—UK taxpayers’ money—goes to the right causes via the right organisations, and DFID will continue to pursue that. We are championing taxpayer value, while delivering poverty reduction and humanitarian support and assistance.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the destruction of cultural and heritage sites around the world. I have been clear that, in funding international organisations, we wish to see reform in the system to make sure that money is spent in the right way. We will continue to deliver value for money. DFID will publish the reviews that reflect on UNESCO towards the end of the month and he will see the approach we are taking.
The Department remains entirely committed to the following principles. First, anything we do must encourage a two-state solution by ensuring that the Palestinian people are served with proper services. Secondly, we must make sure that the money goes in the right way to the right people. That is all about auditing, vetting and making sure that the real beneficiaries are there. Of course we will ensure that the review is done as efficiently as possible to serve the interests of the Palestinian people and the stability of the region.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who lost their lives and to those who were injured in the tragic tram incident in Croydon last Wednesday. We all thank those involved in the rescue operation.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming today’s news that the unemployment rate has fallen to an 11-year low? Will she join me in thanking all those businesses that create jobs, such as Jennifer Ashe & Son, whose funeral home on Brownhills High Street in my constituency I was kindly asked to open last weekend?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am pleased to say that in the last year, employment in her constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills has gone up by 88,000. It is good to hear of companies that are providing new jobs. The employment figures show the strength of the fundamentals of our economy: the employment rate has never been higher and the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in more than a decade. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will welcome yesterday’s news that Google will create another 3,000 jobs.
I concur with the remarks the Prime Minister made about the disaster in Croydon last week. We send our sympathies to all those who lost loved ones and express our solidarity with the emergency workers who went through such trauma in freeing people from the wreckage.
It appears from press reports that the Chagos islanders who were expelled from their homes over 40 years ago will suffer another injustice today with the denial of their right of return. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told European media that Brexit would “probably” mean leaving the customs union. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that is the case?
I think the right hon. Gentleman was trying to get two issues in there. On the issue of the Chagos islanders, there will be a written ministerial statement to the House later today, so everybody will be able to see the position the Government are taking.
On the whole issue of the customs union and the trading relationships we will have with the European Union and other parts of the world once we have left the European Union, we are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations, but—[Interruption.] We are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations. What we want to ensure is that we have the best possible trading deal with the European Union once we have left.
I asked the Prime Minister, actually, about the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about leaving the customs union. He is only a few places down from her. Mr Speaker, would it be in order for the Foreign Secretary to come forward and tell us what he actually said? I am sure we would all be better informed if he did.
Earlier this week, a leaked memo said that the Government are
“considerably short of having a plan for Brexit…No common strategy has emerged…in part because of the divisions within the Cabinet.”
If this memo is, as the Prime Minister’s press department says, written by ill-informed consultants, will she put the Government’s plan and common strategy for Brexit before Parliament?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, we do have a plan. Our plan is to deliver the best possible deal in trading with and operating within the European Union. Our plan is to deliver control of the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom. Our plan is to go out there across the world and negotiate free trade agreements around the rest of the world. This Government are absolutely united in their determination to deliver on the will of the British people and to deliver Brexit. The right hon. Gentleman’s shadow Cabinet cannot even decide whether it supports Brexit.
Well, the word does not seem to have travelled very far. I have to say, I sympathise with the Italian Government Minister who said this week, about the Prime Minister’s Government:
“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense.”
Is not the truth that the Government are making a total shambles of Brexit, and nobody understands what their strategy actually is?
Of course those in the European Union whom we will be negotiating with will want us to set out at this stage every detail of our negotiating strategy. If we were to do that, it would be the best possible way of ensuring that we got the worst result for this country. That is why we will not do it.
Talking of worst results, the Foreign Secretary has been very helpful this week, because he informed the world that “Brexit means Brexit”—we did not know that before—and that
“we are going to make a titanic success of it.”
Taking back control, if that is what Brexit is to mean—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is getting advice from the Foreign Secretary now; can we all hear it? Taking back control clearly requires some extra administration. Deloitte has spoken, saying:
“One Department estimates it needs a 40% increase in staff to cope with its Brexit projects”,
and that overall expectations are of an increased headcount of between 10,000 and 30,000 civil servants. If that estimate is wrong, can the Prime Minister tell the House exactly how many extra civil servants will be required to conduct these negotiations? Her Ministers need to know—they are desperate for an answer from her.
I repeat for the right hon. Gentleman that we are doing the preparations necessary for the point at which we will start the complex formal negotiations with the European Union. I have set up a Department for Exiting the European Union, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing an excellent job there in making those preparations.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that from the confusion that he has on his Benches in relation to the issue of Brexit, it seems to be yet another example from Labour of how where they talk, we act. They posture, we deliver. We are getting on with the job, he is not up to the job.
Well, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] That was exciting, wasn’t it? Mr Speaker—[Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I say to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), calm yourself, man. You should seek to imitate the calm and repose of your right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is setting an example for all Members of the House.
I do not wish to promote any further division on their Benches, Mr Speaker.
These are the most complex set of negotiations ever undertaken by this country. The civil service has been cut down to its lowest level since the second world war. The Prime Minister’s main focus surely ought to be coming up with a serious plan. May I ask her to clarify something? If, when the Supreme Court meets at the beginning of December, it decides to uphold the decision of the High Court, will the Lord Chancellor this time defend our independent judiciary against any public attacks?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there have been two cases in the UK courts on the prerogative power and its use. The Northern Ireland court found in favour of the Government; the High Court found against the Government. We are appealing to the Supreme Court. We have a good argument, and will put the case to the Supreme Court. I believe and this Government believe in the independence of our judiciary, and the judiciary will consider that decision and come to their judgment on the basis of the arguments put before them. But we also believe that our democracy is underpinned by the freedom of our press.
My question was on defending the independence of the judiciary. We should all be doing that. We have an International Development Secretary who is opposed to overseas aid, a Health Secretary who is running down our national health service, a Chancellor with no fiscal strategy, a Lord Chancellor who seems to have difficulty defending the judiciary, a Brexit team with no plan for Brexit and, as has just been shown, a Prime Minister who is not prepared to answer questions on what the actual Brexit strategy is. We need a better answer than she has given us.
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have got. We have an International Development Secretary delivering on this Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development, a Health Secretary delivering on £10 billion of extra funding for the health service and a Chancellor of the Exchequer making sure we have the stable economy that creates the wealth necessary to pay for our public services. And what we certainly have got is a Leader of the Opposition who is incapable of leading.
They do the absolute opposite!
Order. It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) but they should not be articulated from a sedentary position and will have to wait for another occasion.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, may I wish his wife all the very best in the treatment she is going through at the moment? The thoughts of the House are with her.
My hon. Friend is right. We have a manifesto commitment to increase the personal allowance. By increasing it from £6,475 in 2010-11 to £11,000 in 2016-17 and £11,500 next year, we have cut income tax for more than 30 million people and have taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether. That is important. It has helped people at the lower end of the income scale.
We join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in extending our condolences following the tragedy in Croydon and in paying tribute to the emergency services.
The Institute for Government, which has close ties to the civil service, has published a report saying that the UK Government’s approach towards Brexit is “chaotic and dysfunctional”, that Brexit poses an “existential threat” to operations in Whitehall Departments, that the Prime Minister has a “secretive approach” towards Brexit, and that the present situation is “unsustainable”. Does the Prime Minister plan to carry on like this regardless?
The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised when I tell him what the Government are doing in relation to Brexit. As I said earlier, the most important thing for the Government to do is calmly and carefully to get on with the job of preparing for complex negotiations. One of the most important things we can do is to make sure that we are not giving a running commentary on those negotiations and on our stance, because that would be the best way to get the worst deal for this country.
On the day we hear that “post-truth” has become the international word of the year, we have a running commentary from the Foreign Secretary. He is prepared to tell the media in the Czech Republic that the United Kingdom is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit, but that it still wants to trade freely afterwards. In response, his colleague from the Netherlands said that that option “doesn’t exist” and is “impossible”. Both those things cannot be correct, so will the Prime Minister confirm today, to Parliament and to the country, whether the UK is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit—yes or no?
The right hon. Gentleman does not actually seem to understand that the customs union is not just a binary decision, but let us set that to one side. Let us look at what we need to do: get the best possible deal for access to, trading with and operating within the single European market. He stands up time and again in Prime Minister’s questions and says to me that he wants access to the single European market. I might remind him that it was only a couple of years ago that he wanted to take Scotland out of the single European market by making it independent. [Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Docherty-Hughes, you are in a very emotional condition. I normally regard you as a cerebral denizen of the House. Try to recover your composure, man!
I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue that is very important for everybody in the House. Certainly the Government will do all they can to support police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst, who is already doing an excellent job in Essex. Since 2009, knife crime figures have fallen overall, but I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns. That is why the Home Office has been supporting police forces such as Essex in conducting weeks of action against knives under Operation Sceptre. We have legislated to ban dangerous knives, including zombie knives. We are putting tough sentences in place and making sure that offenders are punished. We should send a very clear message that we will not tolerate knife crime in this country.
I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that our special relationship with the United States is, I think, very important to both the United States and the United Kingdom. We will continue to build on it, as was clear from the conversation that I had with President-elect Trump shortly after his election, and of course we want to ensure the dignity of our citizens. It is up to the United States what rules it puts in place for entry across its borders, but we will ensure that the special relationship continues, and does so in the interests of both the UK and the US.
Last Tuesday, I attended an infection prevention and control summit that highlighted the great work done by the Department of Health, the NHS and other organisations dramatically to decrease MRSA infection rates, yet also raised the growing threat of E. coli and sepsis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending such events and outline the Government’s strategy for combatting superbugs?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend, who raises a very important issue, in commending such events. It true that the DOH, Public Health England and the NHS are doing vital work to decrease infection rates. We have already seen some very good results—a 57% reduction in MRSA bloodstream infections since 2010 and a 47% reduction in C. diff infections—but of course there is more to do, which is why we are setting bold objectives to halve gram-negative blood infections by 2020, and why last week we announced a new national infection lead to champion and oversee this effort. This is an important issue and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for free trade. He is absolutely right that as we leave the EU we will be looking for opportunities to develop flexible trading relationships around the world that suit the United Kingdom. Given the strength of our economy, I believe that we can go out there and be a global leader in free trade, and I welcome his support for that.
Last Wednesday, seven people tragically died and 50 were injured in a tram accident in Croydon. I am sure that the whole House will join the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the SNP in extending our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. Three investigations—by British Transport Police, the Office of Rail and Road, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—are under way. Will the Prime Minister assure the House and the families that any recommendations to improve safety on trams in Croydon and across the country that are made by those investigations will be rapidly implemented by the Government?
I join my hon. Friend in once again sending our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who died in this terrible incident, in expressing our sympathies for those injured and affected, and in thanking our emergency services. It is important that we allow these investigations to continue and that they can come up with recommendations in due course; we will, of course, look very seriously at them. We can never be complacent about safety and security regarding such issues, so we need to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they are indeed learned.
Employment and Support Allowance/Universal Credit
The Government are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society, including disabled people and those with health conditions, and people currently receiving employment and support allowance will continue to receive the same level of financial support. We are ensuring that the support is concentrated on those most in need, and that it is available not just through benefits, but as part of a wider package to help those who could get into the workplace reach the point where they can get into the workplace.
This week, the Prime Minister said:
“Change is in the air. And when people demand change, it is the job of politicians to respond”,
so how does she respond to the 70 disability organisations that want these cuts stopped, or indeed to Conservative Members who have supported my cross-party motion calling for these cuts to be halted, which will be debated tomorrow? Surely she must respond accordingly.
As I have said, we are focusing support on those most in need. For those in the support group for ESA, support has gone up, and we are giving extra support to help those in the work-related group who could at some stage get into the workplace to do so. It is important that we do not view this solely as an issue of benefits; it is about the whole package that is available, which includes the personal independence payments that provide for the living costs of disability. Let me gently remind the hon. Gentleman that if he is concerned about the levels of payment in Scotland, he might wish to talk to the Scottish Government about the new powers that they have, whether they intend to use them and how they would fund them.
Following the election of Mr Trump, and given the very welcome progress made in our society by women and those from ethnic minorities, what message of reassurance does the Prime Minister have for fat, middle-aged white men, who may feel that we have been left behind?
That is a very interesting point. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to come up and see me some time.
I note that the Social Mobility Commission has recorded today that more working- class youngsters are benefiting from higher education than at any point in our history. The Government have invested record amounts in childcare and the early years, and the attainment gap, as the report acknowledges, has actually narrowed. The hon. Lady refers to the education system and the reintroduction of grammar schools, so I refer her to the report commissioned by a Labour council in Knowsley to look at how it could improve educational achievement there. That report said:
“Re-introducing grammar schools is potentially a transformative idea for working class areas”.
Today the BBC World Service announced its biggest expansion since the 1940s, including 11 new services in different languages, bringing the total number of languages covered around the world to 40. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an excellent example of soft power and a lifeline to many people around the world?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The service that the BBC provides through its World Service and the independent journalism that that brings to millions of people around the world is very important, including by bringing that to people in places where free speech is often limited. It is important to support the BBC World Service, which is why we are investing £289 million over the next four years so that it can provide accurate and independent news to some of the most remote parts of the world.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already given guarantees about the research funding available from the EU and those contracts that will be signed. He will know, too, that within the immigration rules for people outside the EU, we are already able to ensure that the brightest and the best can come to the United Kingdom. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, as I reminded his right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that it was not that long ago since he was campaigning to come out of the European Union and come out of free movement.
In a Committee yesterday, I learned that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team had placed serving members and veterans under surveillance in this country. I also learned that, despite everything we have said, we have paid for chasing lawyers to go out and collect evidence in theatre. I know of the Prime Minister’s commitment to this agenda. Does she agree that we need to work harder to close the gap between what we say and how things actually feel for our servicemen and women?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I recognise the concern that has been expressed by a number of my hon. Friends about the impact of the IHAC on servicemen and women. It important that we ensure that it conducts its inquiries within a reasonable timescale, which it is now set to do, and that it weeds out what could be described as the more frivolous cases. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that credible allegations of criminal activity should be investigated properly, but I am conscious of the need to ensure that our servicemen and women, who do such a good job for us around the world and keep us safe and secure, have the support that they need.
Ministerial Meetings (First Minister)
I recently met the First Minister and leaders of the devolved Administrations at the Joint Ministerial Committee. Its next meeting is planned for early in the new year. Of course, the United Kingdom Government engage regularly with the Scottish Government on a range of issues.
There is a question that is, I am sure, vexing not just the First Minister but the whole of Scotland. On 22 June, Ruth Davidson stated that those supporting the leave campaign
“won’t tell us what they will replace the single market with.”
Now that the Prime Minister is part of a Government who are dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its sovereign will, can she answer Ruth Davidson?
And on 23 June, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and that is what the Government will deliver. [Interruption.]
Order. Members should not seek to shout down the Prime Minister. The question was asked, and the answer has been provided.
It is right that the Prime Minister has latitude to enter into negotiations with the EU. However, the Vote Leave campaign was very clear that the rights of EU citizens would not be affected if this country voted to leave. My parents are Italian. They have never naturalised and have been in this country for 50 years. Can the Prime Minister assure me that she will never instruct me to vote in the Lobby to take away the rights of my parents and those of millions of other EU citizens?
I recognise the personal passion with which my hon. Friend raises this issue. I want, intend and expect to be able to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, but I also want the rights of UK citizens living in EU member states to be guaranteed. As I have said previously, I hope that this is an issue that we shall be able to discuss with my European colleagues at an early stage.
I commend the hon. Lady for raising an issue that I know is a personal concern for her. It affects the constituents of Members in all parts of the House. We have set ourselves the ambitious target of 4 million dementia friends by 2020; we already have 1.6 million. We have doubled research spending on dementia and invested in the development of a dementia research institute. We are determined to transform end-of-life care, which is why we have created the national end-of-life care programme board, which will help to implement the commitment to high-quality, personalised end-of-life care for all. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and assure her that it is something on which the Government are focusing.
At the same time as the Government are rightly restoring hundreds of millions of pounds of funding to the BBC World Service, there are no current plans to restore the very modest £20 million a year it costs to run BBC Monitoring. Former members of the Intelligence and Security Committee such as Lord Menzies Campbell and I are dismayed that the BBC is proposing to cut the monitoring service further, to close Caversham Park and to break the colocation with its American counterparts. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet us and have a discussion before this disaster is visited on an incomparable source of open-source information on which so many Government Departments and intelligence agencies depend?
My right hon. Friend raises an important issue. Of course the staffing and provision for the monitoring service are matters for the BBC, but we are clear about the importance of the service. It provides high-quality reporting for the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and other parts of Government, and of course for the BBC itself. As part of the charter renewal process, we are talking to the BBC about a new agreement in relation to the BBC monitoring role that we believe will result in an improved service for Government, not a reduced one.
I recognise the importance of this issue to the hon. Lady. It is one on which she has campaigned, and she champions the cause of the victims and survivors. Of course, like her, it is the victims and survivors whom we must always keep at the forefront of our minds. That is why it is important that this inquiry is able to continue, and I agree. This point was made this morning by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the new Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. We owe it to the survivors and victims for the inquiry to continue. I have to say that, having seen the work that Professor Alexis Jay did in the Rotherham inquiry, I have absolute confidence in her ability to undertake this inquiry.
During the United States election, President-elect Trump stated that Britain should not be at the back of any trade queue, but should be at the front. Now that he has been elected President, what action will the Prime Minister’s Government be taking to ensure that the already very good trading conditions between the USA and the United Kingdom further improve?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I mentioned earlier the special relationship between the UK and the USA. We now have an opportunity in our trading relationship with the USA, and that is something I will want to discuss with President-elect Trump at a very early stage.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Social media is overall a good that is used for good intents—it is even used by political parties for campaigning and in other ways—but it can also be abused and ill-used by people who wish to bully others, and there are Members of this House who have suffered significantly as a result of bullying and trolling on social media. The Home Office is well apprised of this issue. Over the years—I did this when I was Home Secretary—it has been talking to the companies about their responsibilities. The issue is best addressed through the terms and conditions of the companies themselves, and I am sure that the Home Secretary has listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s point.
In the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party, the last Labour Government changed the law to make sure that all prisoners were released halfway through their sentence, irrespective of whether they had misbehaved in prison or still posed a threat to the public—[Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”]
That must have contributed to the upsurge in violence in our prisons. Does the Prime Minister agree with the previous Labour Government that prisoners should be released halfway through their sentence, irrespective of how badly they have behaved or the threat they pose to the general public, or does she agree with me that this is an outrage that flies in the face of public opinion and must be reversed?
The important point, as my hon. Friend indicates, is that when decisions are taken about the release of prisoners, proper consideration is given to the impact of that release on the wider community. That is why this issue has been looked at, and I can assure him that it was an issue of concern when I was Home Secretary. But this is not just about the conditions under which prisoners are released; it is actually about how we ensure that we have measures in place to rehabilitate ex-offenders. That is why the work that has been done by previous Justice Secretaries, which is being continued by the current Justice Secretary, is important to ensure that we reduce reoffending by prisoners when they are released.
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that such matters are normally never discussed in public.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the announcement of phase 2 of High Speed 2 from Crewe to Manchester airport and into Manchester Piccadilly, bringing jobs and prosperity to Weaver Vale, to Cheshire and to the north-west region including north Wales, thereby closing the north-south divide?
I know that my hon. Friend has championed the cause of HS2 for a long time, and he is absolutely right. I welcome the Government’s announcement about this. It shows that we are willing to take the big decisions that will help to support our communities and our economy. Crucially, as he says, HS2 will support the economy in the part of the country that he represents.
The hon. Gentleman refers to free movement arrangements being in place since 1973, but the common travel area was actually started 50 years earlier, in 1923, so it existed for some considerable time before we were in the European Union. I repeat what I have said in the House before when asked about this issue: we are working with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and with the Northern Ireland Executive, and we are very clear that we do not want a return to the borders of the past. We recognise the importance of movements of trade and people to those on both sides of that border.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. I say to expectant hon. Members who are itching to raise points of order that points of order come after urgent questions. I am sure that they can restrain their appetites for a period.
Calais Children and Immigration Act
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Calais children and the guidance document published by her Department for section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.
The Home Secretary updated the House on 24 October on how the Government were supporting the French authorities in the humanitarian operation to clear the camp in Calais. That statement outlined the Government’s absolute commitment to bring eligible children from France to the UK. That included those with close family links under the Dublin regulations and those unaccompanied refugee children who met the wider criteria of the Dubs amendment to the 2016 Act. These children are the very youngest, those assessed as being at a high risk of sexual exploitation, and those likely to be granted refugee status in the UK. On Monday, my Department published further details of the policy, including our intention to prioritise the youngest.
We remain absolutely committed to bringing all eligible children to the UK as soon as possible. More than 300 children have been transferred from France since 10 October. Transfers were resumed over the weekend, and another 19 girls assessed as being at high risk of sexual exploitation were brought to Scotland. It is important to note that all the children previously in the camp in Calais are now in the care of the French authorities. Staff from the UK supported the French operation to move the children from the container area in the camp to specialist centres across France, where they are receiving the care and protection they need.
Home Office staff, interpreters and social workers are currently visiting the centres to carry out the necessary assessments to determine whether it is in the best interests of the child to be transferred to the UK. The Government have continued to seek every opportunity to expedite this process, but as has previously been made clear we must work alongside the French and with their permission. I am grateful for the support of the local authorities that have stepped forward to accommodate the children and look forward to continuing to work closely with those authorities to ensure we do not place an unnecessary burden on them.
The Government are getting on with the job of bringing eligible children over to the UK, working closely with the French authorities to ensure that both Governments are working in the best interests of these children. I hope that the whole House will join me in supporting that.
The chaotic demolition of the Calais camp, which abandoned some children on the street, leaves upwards of 1,000 children in basic and temporary care facilities in France. In the days running up to the demolition, the Home Secretary made statements that pointed to the UK offering a home for up to half of the children in the camp. It is unclear how that will be achieved given the criteria in the guidance document, so I hope that in answering my questions the Government will be able to explain how that will be done.
What progress has the Home Secretary and her Department made with local authorities on agreeing the number of vulnerable children the UK will take from Calais and other European camps? Will the guidance and the criteria apply to other European countries, such as Italy and Greece? When will the criteria for those countries be produced? Why has the Home Office limited one of the criteria to Sudanese and Syrian unaccompanied children? Why are Eritrean children excluded? Can the Minister explain why they have chosen to exclude 16 and 17-year-old children from the eligibility criteria in Calais given the universal recognition that they are still children and still vulnerable? Given the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery and exploitation at home and across the globe, will the Minister clarify why the vulnerability of these child victims is not included in the “at risk” criteria? Finally, what guarantees can the Minister give that the children who will eventually be allowed into the UK will not be deported on reaching the age of 18?
This House agreed to the Dubs amendment and our Government must now set out how they are going to honour its letter and spirit.
It was absolutely right that, during the final days of the camp clearance, there was a pause. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there were some chaotic scenes, but they were not as chaotic as some of the scenarios that we had planned for, including violence, possible injury and even death, during that clearance. Now that the children have been transported to the reception centres—or welcome centres as the French call them—around the country, we can now assess them under the criteria of the Dubs amendment. More than 300 children have already been transferred to the UK, and we expect several hundred more to be transferred under both the Dubs amendment and the Dublin regulations.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the numbers. Under the Dublin regulations, there is no limit on numbers—if the children meet the criterion of having family here, they will be brought across. That applies not just to France, but to Italy, where we have Home Office people working, and to Greece, where things are slightly more difficult, but where we hope to make progress.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the Syrians and the Sudanese. It is absolutely important that the children we bring across are those who are more likely to qualify for asylum. He mentioned the Eritreans. I know that there are particular issues with Eritrea—I have been taking an interest in that country, particularly in the open-ended nature of the national service there—but we did update our country guidance in October to reflect the court judgment. The threshold that we have put in place is based on overall grant rates for the year ending June 2016, and the nationalities that have a grant rate of 75% or higher are the Sudanese and the Syrians. Yes, he is absolutely right that when children arrive in the UK they should claim asylum, and they will be processed in the usual way.
What is the average age of the children?
The demographics of the children in the camp are that 90% were male and 60% of them were in the age group of 16 and above. We are determined to assess the most vulnerable children, as they are the ones whom the Dubs amendment suggests that we assess. That includes those who are 12 and under; those who are 15 and below whose nationalities are likely to qualify them for refugee status; and those at high risk of sexual exploitation, including particularly the girls who could be trafficked.
The qualifying eligibility criteria for children from Calais are a disgrace. The children have to meet one of the following criteria: they are aged under 12; they have been referred by the French authorities as being at high risk of sexual exploitation; they are aged under 15 and are Syrian or Sudanese; and they are aged under 18 and the sibling of a child in one of the former categories. They must also all meet the following criteria: it must be in the best interests of the child; they must have been in Calais on or before 24 October 2016; and they must have been in Europe before 20 March 2016. The criteria are a disgrace, and are certainly not in the spirit of the Dubs amendment.
On the basis of the criteria, it seems that any child at medium or moderate risk of sexual exploitation is on their own. A child is a child until the age of 18, and it is wrong to restrict children’s right to transfer based on their age. It is not clear what the basis or authority for determining the additional criteria are, or whether there is any appeals procedure.
The arbitrary dates mean that children who came to Europe after 20 March are on their own, whatever their age, and that children who came to Europe after 24 October are on their own. Children are at risk of all kinds of exploitation, including trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery, but this Government do not care. [Interruption.] If Members are not comfortable with what I am saying, that is not my problem. Without a proper asylum process, we risk pushing children into taking dangerous journeys to the UK in order to get a fair hearing for their asylum claim. None of this meets the Dubs amendment, which is that any child who would benefit from asylum in the UK should be granted it—up to 3,000 children. Will the Government now meet the full demands of section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 as voted for in this House?
The hon. Lady has gone completely over the top. I am proud that the United Kingdom is the second biggest donor in the region. I am proud that the United Kingdom has agreed to take 20,000 people from the region and an additional 3,000 people, including children from the wider area. I am proud of the work that we are doing and I am proud that we are meeting our obligations under the Dublin regulations and the Dubs amendment. If she reads the Dubs amendment, she will understand that the number we bring across should be able to be accommodated by our local authorities.
I have been working very closely with local authorities. I met representatives of the local authorities at their summit on 13 October and I spoke at their conference on 3 November. We are working very closely with them to ensure that the children we bring across can be accommodated, and, as I have said, 118 local authorities are doing that.
I remind the hon. Lady that the children we do not bring across are not in Syria, but in France, which is a civilised country with a developed social system. Those children are being well supported and well looked after in France. The children about whom I am most concerned are those who are still in Syria—they are the ones we are endeavouring to help.
The reason why we do not consider children who arrived in Europe after 20 March is, simply that we do not want to introduce a pull factor that will incentivise parents to pay people traffickers to help their children make that hazardous journey across the Sahara, across the Mediterranean and, in many cases, end in a watery grave. That is why that date has been chosen and why we do not want to do anything to introduce a pull factor that would increase the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean or the Aegean.
Let me tell the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) that I know that this Minister is absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting unaccompanied refugee children.
I have constituents who have been working as volunteers in the Jungle, and they have contacted me—I have also contacted the Department about them—because they still have some concerns about the children who have been scattered across France. They are still in direct contact with those children by mobile phone. What would be the best way for my constituents to contact the Department to give real-time and up-to-date information about these vulnerable children who they believe have a right to come to the UK?
First, let me pay tribute to the non-governmental organisations that have been working in France. I am talking about not only the French NGOs such as France terre d’asile, but British charities that have been working in the camp, giving the children much-needed help, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is one of our partner organisations working in France and the wider region. Anyone who is in contact with a child in France should tell them to apply for asylum in France. That child’s claim will be considered and they will be looked after in France. One problem that we faced during the Calais camp situation was that the people traffickers and the organised criminals were advising people not to apply for asylum. That is the wrong advice to give. It is important that they do apply for asylum in France, which is a safe country for them to be in.
The debates that we had in this House on the Dubs amendment were among the most passionate that I have seen since my election 18 months ago. How section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 is now implemented is important to this House and deserves the greatest scrutiny. Surely the Government will agree to a proper debate in this Chamber on the content of the guidance that they have issued, because restrictions appearing in the guidance were certainly never contemplated during the Dubs debates.
My party shares the uneasiness about the exclusion of any children aged 16 and 17. Of course 16 and 17-year-olds can be, and are often, vulnerable. I ask the Minister is this a hard and fast rule, or will discretion be applied?
Similarly, we are very troubled with the restrictions on nationality. For example, the exclusion of Eritreans is utterly inappropriate given that Home Office decision making in this area has been torn to pieces in the tribunals. Surely, the grant rate will soon be back through the 75% threshold mentioned. Again, will some discretion be applied in this area? We share UNICEF’s concerns that eligibility is restricted to those
“at risk of sexual exploitation.”
I have not yet heard an explanation of why those at risk of trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery are not to be included as well. As the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, this guidance relates to children in France. What input did the French Government have in setting these criteria, and when will we see guidance for other countries, especially Greece and Italy?
Finally, in relation to children and the Immigration Act, may I ask when the Secretary of State intends to extend the scope of the scheme for transferring responsibility for relevant children in order to include Scotland, under section 73 of the Immigration Act?
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman closely reads section 67, the Dubs amendment, as it makes it quite clear that it applies to refugee children? The reason why we are choosing these particular nationalities is that they are more likely to qualify for refugee status. He also talks about vulnerability. That is why we are addressing the issue of younger children. Indeed, we go further to make it clear that we must work with local authorities and, I am pleased to say, the devolved Governments around the country, to ensure that the capacity is there. This is all in the Dubs amendment, which is why we are discharging that amendment within not only the letter of the law, but the spirit as well.
In order to ensure that we are helping the most vulnerable children, can the Minister tell us whether those 300 who are coming over or have come over have undergone a proper age assessment and, if so, whether the results of that will be made available to Members of this House?
The more than 300 children who have arrived since 10 October include 60 girls. Two hundred of those children would qualify under Dublin, of whom half have been reunited with family members here in the UK, and the other 100 would be Dubs children. Of the further children being transferred, a greater proportion will be Dubs children. When the children arrive at the assessment centre in Croydon or elsewhere, they will be assessed for age. There will have been an initial assessment based on appearance and demeanour, but if necessary a further age assessment can be undertaken using a Merton compliant process, a well-established process that social workers are used to using. Two social workers would have to refer a child for that process.
The Minister will know that I have supported him and the Home Secretary in the important work they have done to bring the first few hundred children over from Calais and from France, but not on this. I remember the debates on the Dubs amendment and we did not discuss ruling out 13-year-old or 14-year-old Eritreans on an arbitrary basis. If this was simply priority guidance because we were going to prioritise the youngest children, people would understand, but why is he basing this on strict eligibility rules? I urge him to think again, turn this back into priority guidance, not eligibility guidance, and tell the House how many children he now thinks are going to come from France, because the number sounds considerably lower than the previous numbers that he and I discussed.
We certainly expect many hundreds more children to be brought across from France under the criteria that we have set out. I must repeat that the Dubs amendment specifically refers to refugee children. Many of the children who may currently be in France would not qualify for refugee status, which is why for the older children we have set that criterion. For the other children, the risk of sexual exploitation indicates that they are likely to be the most vulnerable, as are the youngest children. Again, the children that we are bringing across as part of the 20,000 from Syria are the most needy children, in my view.
I am very glad that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), after his earlier consternation and excitement, is now displaying veritably a Buddha-like calm.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Kingston Council on being the first council to call for every council to take 50 Syrian refugees and on already meeting its quota of vulnerable minors? Does not that compassionate attitude on the part of Kingston and other Conservative councils show how ill-judged and wrong the bombastic comments of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) were?
I congratulate not only Conservative councils throughout the country but, to be fair, councils of all political affiliations that have stepped up to the mark. It is great that they understand their responsibility. There is potential in the legislation to mandate councils to take children. That has not been the case and I do not believe it will be. I am pleased that so many local authorities have entered into the spirit of this great humanitarian need and helped with children up and down the country.
When this matter was last before the House, I asked the Home Secretary about reports that the number of Home Office officials who were dealing with bringing these children to the United Kingdom had been doubled from one to two. She was not able to tell me whether that was correct, so can the Minister say today how many Home Office officials are dealing with bringing these children to the United Kingdom?
We have dozens of Home Office officials on station. On the buses that were taking the children from the camp in Calais to the reception centres there were two Home Office officials, supported by interpreters and social workers. We have stepped up the numbers that we have operating in Italy and Greece. We currently have 70 officials who have been allocated to Greece and 54 are already on station there.
At the Dover and Kent frontline, our communities are looking after 750 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—a quarter of the total. That is five times more than the whole of Scotland and 12 times more than the whole of Wales, while Wakefield is looking after just 22. Is it not time for either mandatory dispersal or more help for Kent?
The national transfer scheme is working well. We have had 160 transfers. I do understand the pressure that Kent has been facing and I have met the leader of my hon. Friend’s county council to discuss that. In response to concerns from local government, we have increased the rates that we give for the children being looked after, in some cases by as much as 33%. Some councils have been very helpful in opening up their books. We believe now that the funding that we have made available is sufficient to cover their additional costs.
I welcome the Minister’s statement that he wants to increase support for Syrian children in Syria. May I press him on that? What specifically does he intend to urge on his ministerial colleagues in other Departments? Will he be urging aid to be transported into the berm—the no man’s land between Syria and Jordan? Will he be urging the reopening of the border at Jarablus? What more will he be doing to make sure that aid gets to Syrians, who are so desperate?
I was in Jordan last week, where I visited the Azraq refugee camp and met some of the people who had been transported from the berm. The Jordanian Government have concerns about some of the security aspects in the berm, particularly following the recent attack on their police forces. We continue to work with the Jordanians and others in the region to ensure that we can put people into a place of safety and, at the same time, maintain security. We have allocated £2.3 billion to assistance in the area, and I am proud of what we as a Government are doing as the second-biggest humanitarian donor in that region.
Running through the Home Office guidance on the interpretation of section 67 is the legal test of the best interests of the children. Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to that legal test, there is a wide-ranging assessment of the children, including their age, health needs, emotional needs, whether they have been victims of trafficking or trauma and any other family links? That is a reflection of the compassion and pragmatism that this Government are showing to these vulnerable children.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The priority is to ensure that the best interests of the children are served. We need to demonstrate to the French authorities that, by bringing these children across to the UK, their best interests will be served. A number of criteria, including the ones that she mentioned, are taken into account.
The Minister referred in his statement to the NGO work that was going on, particularly by volunteers, to help to resolve the issue. Have they reported to him any difficulty with the French authorities, as they try to ensure that children at risk are sheltered and helped as they try to make their way to the UK?
I have not received any concerns about the facilities available in the 60 or so welcome centres that have been set up around France. Indeed, the conditions there are unbelievably better than the dreadful conditions that many people had to endure in the camps. I am pleased that in the interim, while these children’s cases are being looked at and while we assess them against the Dubs and the Dublin criteria, they are in a place of safety and are being well looked after.
Will my hon. Friend update the House on the lead that this Government are taking in tackling the vile trade of people trafficking?
Yes, indeed. Much of that dreadful trade is fuelled by the fact that the people traffickers seem to have no regard for people’s safety. During the summer, I was in Nigeria talking to the authorities there, and they are very concerned about the way that people are putting their children’s lives at risk by putting them into the hands of people traffickers. If and when the children arrive in Europe, the nightmare continues, particularly when they are pressed into modern slavery, or even worse in the case of some of the girls.
In the run-up to the closure of the so-called Jungle camp at Calais, there were reports of a thousand or more people disappearing from the camp and melting into the countryside. What work is the Minister doing with his counterparts in France to ensure that when the French authorities identify people who melted away from the Calais jungle and who have vulnerable children, they too can be included in this programme?
I certainly received reports of some people leaving the camps as the clearance started. I also received reports of people coming back into the camps as they saw how that clearance was taking place. Indeed, some children who had been elsewhere in France arrived at the camps, hoping that they would be part of the scheme and could be relocated and considered under the Dubs and Dublin regulations. Unfortunately, those late arrivals were not considered in the same way. The advice that we always give to people is to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach, and if not so, then to claim asylum in France, where they can be adequately processed.
May I commend the Minister for the evidence he gave to the International Development Committee this week? Opposition parties might benefit from reading it, because he was very open and honest about what is happening. Will he confirm that any action taken by the Home Office in France must be approved by the French? Is it right that, until relatively recently, the French did not want Britain to take any children under the Dubs amendment for fear of creating a pull factor?
I have to say that the French have been excellent partners in working through this. Of course, it was very difficult while the children were in the camp, and the clearance of the camp has been the opportunity we were all waiting for to make sure that those children who could be looked after and considered for relocation to the UK could be considered. I am full of admiration for the way that the French have worked with us in partnership, and I hope and feel sure that the children who are not coming to the UK will have a long and successful life in France, should their asylum claims be granted.
What provision is being made for counselling services for children who have experienced trauma and perhaps seen and experienced things that our own children have not?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: many of these children have experienced traumatic situations, not only perhaps in their host country, but certainly as part of their journey and their life in the camp. On 1 November, my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families and I issued a joint written ministerial statement on the safeguarding strategy for these children. The strategy includes a number of measures, including transfer procedures, safeguarding for family reunion, the information given to these children and revising the statutory guidance under the Dublin III arrangements. We will give regular updates to right hon. and hon. Members on how that is working out.
Does my hon. Friend think it extraordinary that, for months, the Labour party has not had a shadow Immigration Minister?
I think that Labour has had a number of problems in that regard, but I will not revisit those issues.
As a proud city of sanctuary, Sheffield is doing everything it can to house these very vulnerable children, but it is being held up by Home Office incompetence around the central assessment process. Will the Minister ensure that funding is released urgently to all local authorities and that concerns around the central assessment process are addressed?
We certainly have addressed the funding issues. As I pointed out, there have been considerable increases. For example, children under the age of 16 will receive a 20% increase—that is £114 a day. The 16 and 17-year-olds will receive £91 a day. That is in response to the concerns raised by local authorities about the funding we have given. We are working with the Local Government Association, and we are content that the funding is appropriate to the expenditure authorities are being asked to make.
I was pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about the welcome centres in France. It cannot be in the interests of France, the UK or future refugees that the Calais Jungle and the dreadful conditions there get re-established. Does he believe that that can be prevented?
Certainly, the French are absolutely determined that new camps will not spring up. As we saw, the conditions in the Jungle, and previously in Sangatte, are not ones that anybody should be expected to live in. The French do, I believe, have adequate resource to enable people who claim asylum to be looked after properly—particularly the children.
My local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, which has taken a lead on this, has not received the number of children it either offered to take or was told by the Home Office it would receive, because the Government have dragged their feet. Can the Minister give us some idea of how quickly assessments will take place of the children who are now dispersed across France, so that they can come here, because there are places for them to go to?
It is great to know that there are places available. We must not forget that, despite the fact we have had around 318 children from France, in the year to June 2016, we had 3,472 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK by other means. A lot of that has meant that local authorities, particularly in the areas where these children arrive—in the south-east, in particular—have had to rise to that challenge. I am pleased that we have made 160 transfers under the national transfer scheme. I know that local authorities that have capacity will use it as they see fit.
The Minister will be aware that, last week, the Public Accounts Committee had a very interesting discussion about the support the Government have been offering as part of the relocation programme and about its effectiveness, and the shadow Minister might benefit from looking at that. Yesterday, a constituent emailed me offering to provide a home—as has the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—to relocate a child. What work is the Home Office doing to make sure that such offers are taken up?
Specifically, we have launched the community sponsorship scheme. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury launched it at Lambeth Palace—indeed, two Syrian families currently reside there. The community sponsorship scheme is more about local community groups working together with their local authorities to make sure people can be looked after than about people going into somebody’s spare bedroom. If those people who wish to help could become engaged with, perhaps, a faith group or another group in their area, I am sure that they would be able to put forward a bid under the community sponsorship scheme.
Citizens UK has warned that the new guidelines make it impossible for the Government to fulfil their promise to take half the unaccompanied children from the former camp. Is it correct that that promise will be met in full? If not, what proportion of those children do the Government now expect to take into this country?
As I pointed out, we are assessing children against the criteria we have laid out, and we expect to bring several hundred more children here, as is our responsibility under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.
Contrary to the bluster from the Opposition Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Minister is working tirelessly on this issue, as indeed did his predecessor. Knowing that we have a severe lack of carers, and particularly foster carers, in our area of Yorkshire, will my hon. Friend explain what the Government are doing to ensure that there is a fair distribution of caring responsibilities for unaccompanied children right across the UK?
Some of the bluster we have heard from the Opposition Front Bench is not reflected in the very practical and constructive way that Labour local authorities have been working up and down the country. One aspect of the safeguarding strategy we launched on 1 November was, indeed, looking at the demand for foster care and its availability. Many local authorities have raised concerns that they do not have sufficient capacity for fostering, and they have had to place children out of area, which has incurred additional costs, particularly if agencies are being used. We do need to improve the capacity for fostering, and I would say to anybody out in the country who fancies a career in fostering that it is a very rewarding career and one we would be very pleased to see more people stepping forward to take up.
Can the Minister explain how he determines which children are at risk of sexual exploitation? What criteria are used? Who does the assessment? How confident is he about its reliability? I should have thought that any of the children we are discussing today would be at risk of sexual exploitation.
The main criterion we would look at is gender, as we know that girls are more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation, but if any other individuals were in that category, they would also be considered.
How many criminal gangs that have been exploiting these young people in Calais have been stopped due to our co-operation with France? What have we learned from those arrests in terms of the future safety of our borders?
There have been a number of interceptions in France of these criminal gangs, and I am pleased to say that the number of interceptions has increased. Indeed, we have also had arrests in the United Kingdom, some of which have come to court. This is something we are very determined to address. These criminal gangs profit from people’s misery, and they must be prevented from doing so.
Amnesty International has found that children as young as 16 have been indefinitely conscripted into the army in Eritrea. I would gently suggest to the Minister that that is not a pull factor in terms of the attractiveness of the United Kingdom, so will he urgently review the arbitrary decision to exclude Eritreans over the age of 12 from these criteria?
I have already mentioned the criteria we use, but I am well aware of the conscription situation. A number of EU countries, as well as our Home Office officials, continue to look at that situation, which is not a good one, in Eritrea.
I add my thanks to the Minister for his statement and update. I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who is no longer in her place, and recommend that people read the Minister’s evidence to the International Development Committee yesterday. In working closely with the French to accelerate the process of identifying and bringing eligible children to the UK, will he confirm that the appropriate security checks will continue to be undertaken?
The assessment that takes place when children are processed includes a security assessment. Indeed, in terms of the children and families who we are bringing across from Syria, that is a central part of what we do to ensure that we are kept safe, while addressing the real humanitarian need in the region.
Will the Minister re-explain the rationale about not accepting unaccompanied 16 and 17-year-olds under Dubs? Will he reassure us that that is not a reaction to his Back Benchers making outrageous demands for teeth examinations?
The criteria that we use look particularly at vulnerability. In terms of sexual exploitation, that is gender-neutral. People are referred to us by the French, and their process is gender-neutral as well.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On two occasions during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister suggested that the Scottish National party campaigned during the independence referendum to leave the European Union single market. That is untrue. We campaigned to remain in the EU, including the single market. That is not a matter of speculation or debate; it is a matter of fact. What powers do you have, Mr Speaker, to ensure that no one in this House, including the Prime Minister, can mislead the House, however inadvertently, when the facts are clear?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. I have heard what he has said and my response is as follows: it is the responsibility of each and every Member of the House faithfully to communicate what he or she regards as facts and to take responsibility for their own statements. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not think that it is right for me to be drawn into the matter any further. I understand entirely what he has said. I think that I also understand the Prime Minister’s position in relation to Scotland’s status within the United Kingdom and what the alternative to that status might entail. Therefore, notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s insistence that the matter is a straightforward one of facts, as with many things the situation lends itself to a number of different interpretations. If any Minister, including the Prime Minister, thinks that she has erred and needs to correct the record, it is incumbent on the Member to do so. Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman can go about his business with an additional glint in his eye and spring in his step, in the safe knowledge that he has articulated his concerns and that they are on the record, both for the people of Scotland and for the world to see.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today’s calendar of business shows no Government business for Monday 21 November. Rumour has it that it will be the Higher Education and Research Bill and the Clerks have been told that the amendment deadline is tonight. Members are gifted, but they are not psychic. Can you do anything, Mr Speaker, to clarify what is clearly an unsatisfactory situation?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Members are gifted, but, as he rightly observes, they are not psychic. However, I hope that he will not take great umbrage if I remind the House and communicate to the world the fact that he does at least have the advantage of being a noted philosopher. That may aid him in seeking to decipher matters, or it may not avail him. We shall see.
I had not heard bruited what apparently has winged its way to the hon. Gentleman about the likely business for next Monday. Admittedly, I had not inquired about that business. It may be so. In general terms, it is clearly desirable for the House to have the maximum possible notice of upcoming business. It is, in all likelihood, going to fall to the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday to specify Monday’s business.
What I will say to the hon. Gentleman in respect of the point about the deadline for amendments is this: I, from the Chair, always seek, within such powers as I have, to facilitate the House. If the House ends up being disadvantaged by lack of notice, it is open to the Chair to consider, exceptionally, manuscript amendments. I make the point and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is a sagacious and perceptive fellow, will have got it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you advise me on how it would be in order to put on the record the widespread anger felt in Torbay at the theft over the weekend of poppy boxes belonging to the Torquay branch of the Royal British Legion? While thousands attended remembrance services, some light-fingered thieves stole boxes that had been positioned in a number of shops in the centre of Torquay. It is the actions of the thousands of people who supported the appeal, the hundreds of people who helped to with the collection and the people who diligently run the Torbay poppy appeal that should be remembered, not the actions of a handful of thieves.
That is not a point of order, as the barely concealed grin of the hon. Gentleman in raising the matter eloquently testifies. Nevertheless, what I will say to the hon. Gentleman, who is certainly a quick learner in the House, because he entered only last year, is that, as he knows, he has now found his own salvation. I have a feeling that his clarification in the Chamber may well communicate itself, or be communicated, to media outlets across Torbay and possible elsewhere.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister alluded to a written ministerial statement to be published later today on the fate of hundreds of UK citizens—in other words, on whether or not the Chagos islanders will finally be granted their right to return. That written statement has yet to make an appearance, but the Government’s decision has been reported all over the morning papers, and apparently that decision is to maintain the 40-year injustice. Is it in order for us to read about Government policy in the papers before it has been reported to this House? What opportunities are available to us to question Ministers on such disappointing decisions?
The short answer is that it is up to the Government to decide whether the matter warrants an oral statement or a written statement, and that is not for the Chair to judge. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman, however, is that it is highly undesirable for there to be a significant time lag between public disclosure and parliamentary opportunity. He will know that other business has so far occupied us today. But that is true of today. The written statement that he legitimately anticipates has not yet been made. Doubtless it will be, and that may well lead Members to want to raise the matter in coming days, particularly if there has been no substantial parliamentary discussion of it beyond the brief exchange at Prime Minister’s questions. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be ready to explore what utensils are available to him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you able to give me any advice regarding incidents in my constituency? I have been contacted by a number of my constituents regarding letters that they have received from the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) about the Boundary Commission’s proposals. Some of my constituents have been left confused, given the subject matter, believing that their MP has already changed under boundary changes. Given that the hon. Gentleman gave me no notice of his activities in my constituency, may I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and for notifying me in advance of her intention to raise it. Moreover, I gather that she did notify the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who is in his place. He can hear what I have to say, and we can judge whether it requires any further comment today.
What I will say to the hon. Lady is that this is not a point of order relating to conduct in the Chamber. That said, as Members who have been here for a long time know, the Speaker will always encourage Members to observe the usual courtesies in informing others if they intend to visit, for political purposes, other colleagues’ constituencies, and they should do so in a timely way. I think the point about visiting is also applicable to communication with another Member’s constituents. The truth of the matter is that, especially in the run-up to potential boundary changes, there have often been, if I may put it this way—I do not mean this disobligingly—spats of this kind. It is much better if such spats are avoided, and the whole House and all its Members benefit if these courtesies are observed.
If the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to say anything—I am not sure that the nation needs to hear it—as I have heard from the hon. Lady, I am happy briefly to hear him as well.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The nation may not want to hear this, but my constituents will do. I have not written to the hon. Lady’s constituents by name or used parliamentary paper, resources or a portcullis emblem. I also did not deliver any of the letters personally, as I was away on parliamentary business out of the country at the time. I have therefore not breached any protocol. As far as the views that have been expressed are concerned, they are the views of my constituents and I am representing them as their Member of Parliament. Their responses to the letter concur with the opinion of both sides, which is that we should keep Morecambe and Lancaster separate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. I note what he says about not using parliamentary notepaper and so on. We are certainly most grateful for that, because that would have been very wrong. I thank him for being characteristically up-front.
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman, for the benefit of all Members, is that we have to take responsibility for conduct in our name by our staff or volunteers who are, or might reasonably be thought to be, acting on our behalf. Beyond that, I have no wish to intrude into this matter, and I hope that people of good will who represent neighbouring constituencies and who are doing their honest best can try to observe these courtesies. I have a sense that that is what the public would expect of us, or—let me put it this way—that that is what the public would like to be able to expect of us.
Mr Turner, your chuntering from a sedentary position, “Say sorry!” does at least represent a welcome change from your usual sedentary utterance, which several times a week, as you know, tends to be: “Shocking! It is a disgrace.” That does not render it any more orderly, however. We will leave the matter there for now, and I thank colleagues for what they have said.
Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 50)
Secretary Priti Patel, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr David Gauke, Rory Stewart and James Wharton, presented a Bill to amend the amount of the limit in section 15 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 on the Government’s financial assistance.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 93) with explanatory notes (Bill 93-EN).
Clean Air Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set, measure, enforce and report on air quality targets; to require that vehicle emissions targets and testing reflect on-road driving conditions; to make it an offence to remove permanently devices that reduce vehicle emissions; to provide powers for local authorities to establish low diesel emissions zones and pedestrian-only areas; to restrict the use of diesel vehicles in urban areas; to make provision about the promotion of electric and hydrogen powered vehicles and for the development of sustainable public, private and commercial transport by road, rail, air and sea; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 December, and to be printed (Bill 94).
Feeding Products for Babies and Children (Advertising and Promotion)
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 control advertising and promotion of feeding products for babies and children; to establish arrangements to set standards for the efficacy of products and to measure claims against those standards; to make provision about penalties for advertisers and promoters who do not meet the standards; and for connected purposes.
We all expect the food we consume to be safe. We would like to hope that the standard of that food is monitored and that the advertising that tries to encourage us to buy it is accurate; should that not be the case, we would hope that the companies involved would be punished for misleading us. We expect our health professionals to be knowledgeable, and we expect them to be able to give impartial advice on foods from a position of expertise. We expect parents to have access to information so that they can make informed choices about how they feed the most vulnerable and precious people in our society: babies and young children.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. The present means of regulating products intended for babies and children—the infant formula and follow-on formula regulations—has loopholes and is not enforced in any meaningful way. That is the reason why I have brought this ten-minute rule Bill to the House, and it is why I seek the support of hon. and right hon. Members today.
The Bill I wish to bring in would tighten controls on the advertising and promotion of infant and young child formula. Under the present regulations, the advertising of formula intended for babies under six months is not permitted, so formula manufacturers have instead focused their efforts on promoting follow-on milks. Such products are heavily promoted on TV and in the media with soft-focus visuals of cute babies. Looking at the products on a supermarket shelf, it is clear that they are branded in a similar way so that parents get the impression that a child will progress from one to the next. They are numbered from one through to three or four. The branding is very distinctive and attractive—golden, with shields, crowns and cute animals. This is a growing market, and competition is fierce.
Dr Nigel Rollins from the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child & Adolescent Health at the World Health Organisation recently predicted that the market value of the formula industry would reach US $70.6 billion by 2019. The majority of growth in the sector comes from follow-on and toddler milks, but the truth is that those products are not necessary. They have emerged because of the tightening of regulations around formula intended for babies aged zero to six months. They are marketed on TV, in print and online as important for child development, but many agencies globally are concerned about their high sugar content, and young children will receive all the nutrients they require from a healthy, balanced diet. I am concerned that parents are not hearing that message and that there is an impact on family budgets as a result.
Infant formula milks are not cheap. The size of the containers is getting smaller while the cost is increasing. As a rough guide, the price of a tin of infant formula can range from £8.50 to £14. Ready-prepared milks are even more expensive, and using one of the brand leaders in the first week of life could cost a family more than £100. Certain heavily advertised niche brands can cost nearly £23 for 900 grams of powdered formula. For a baby in the first six months of life, one of those tins of formula might last around a week.
As hon. Members can imagine, the cost can have a significant impact on household budgets. If families do not have access to impartial information about the content and merits of infant and young child formula, they make the decision on which product to choose by the way in which formula is presented on the shelves and by the marketing produced by formula companies. They might well consider the most expensive formula to be the best. I do not believe that formula companies are providing good enough and transparent enough information to allow parents to make an informed decision. That is being left to small charities such as First Steps Nutrition Trust, which has excellent guides to infant formula on its website. We do not have any independent analysis to check whether the information provided by the companies about their products is accurate.
The Mintel baby food and drink report from April 2016 notes that one of the main factors determining parental choice of milk is “brand”. It is not well enough known that all formula milks have to be of a very similar composition to comply with the requirements set by the EU, and claims are made primarily for unnecessary ingredients. Most of the rest of the difference is simply in the label and the branding, which parents are paying for: companies spent about £23 for every baby born in the UK on marketing follow-on formula in 2015. Given the disproportionate prevalence of bottle feeding in less affluent areas, the poorest families in our society are losing out the most. The Government should act to protect their interests.
This is an area in which one might expect health professionals to be able to help. Unfortunately, their ability to do so is constantly undermined by formula companies and by the lack of support, funding and leadership from Government in protecting them via legislation. There is a significant loophole in the regulations, which means that all infant formulas, for use from birth, can be advertised
“in a scientific publication, or…for the purposes of trade prior to the retail stage, in a publication of which the intended readership is other than the general public”.
That includes adverts in professional medical and health journals that health professionals will read. Dr Helen Crawley of First Steps Nutrition Trust, who is doing a great deal of work in this area, recently published a report called “Scientific and Factual? A review of breastmilk substitute advertising to health professionals”, which analysed some of the claims made in advertising to healthcare professionals. Many of the headline health claims made cannot be substantiated. The sources they cite are not in line with health policy, graphs set out to mislead and the adverts may fail to meet the Government’s requirement for such claims to be supported by peer-reviewed work. Even more frustratingly, the adverts cannot be challenged, as they could be in any other publication, by taking the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority, and that is just not fair. The intent of these adverts is to influence health professionals, who are the first line of support to families, but families need proper, independent information. The Bill would aim to tighten up this loophole and protect the integrity of health professionals from misleading claims.
The Bill proposes arrangements for controlling claims. Claims in adverts are challenged successfully and regularly by organisations such as Baby Milk Action. At present, claims can be made by formula companies for ingredients that are not necessary. For example, there is a global trend at the moment to add probiotics to formula, and for many years companies in this country have made claims about prebiotics in formula, which scientific authorities say have no benefit. There may also be issues with the degrading of formula composition over time, but we just do not have any information about that. Formulas can sit on the shelf for years, and we do not know what the impact of that is. There is no independent verification of formula composition or of claims. Furthermore, the Government take no formal national role in testing and monitoring all infant formulas to ensure that the products are safe and meet compositional regulations. I think parents would be quite shocked to find out that this is the case. These products are chosen with care to give to our youngest citizens in this country, and I propose that the Government give serious consideration to making improvements in this area.
Lastly, I wish to turn to penalties. There have been no prosecutions under the current regulations since 2003, despite numerous flagrant breaches. Under the present regulations, contravention or failure to comply is an offence liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, which is a fine of up to £5,000. Given the size and scale of the companies and of the industry, that level of fine barely registers. We should contrast this with Romania, which has recently signalled its intent to bring in a new law banning the promotion of infant formula products for children up to the age of two. Breaching the rules will constitute a criminal offence, with fines of up to 100,000 Romanian new leu, the equivalent of about £19,000. This would be a step in the right direction and would put down a marker to formula companies that failure to comply is not going to lead to a mere slap on the wrists.
The World Health Assembly resolution adopted in May 2016 clarified that all infant milks marketed as a breastmilk substitute in the first three years of life should be covered by the WHO code, the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, including follow-on formula, toddler milks and other milks. The House has an opportunity today to make progress on this important public health recommendation.
I am grateful to colleagues from both sides of the House who have put their names to this Bill for their support. I would be glad to have the opportunity to consider other aspects of this issue should the House give me leave to bring in the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alison Thewliss, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Mrs Flick Drummond, Dr Philippa Whitford, Jim Shannon, Caroline Lucas, Patrick Grady, Julie Elliott, Mark Durkan and Kirsty Blackman present the Bill.
Alison Thewliss accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 February 2017, and to be printed (Bill 95).
[12th Allotted Day]
Autumn Statement Distributional Analysis, Universal Credit and ESA
I inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the £3.4 billion reductions to the work allowance element of universal credit and the £1.4 billion reductions to employment and support allowance; calls on the Government to reverse those reductions; and further calls on the Government to reintroduce detailed distributional analysis for the Autumn Statement and all further Financial Statements, as was done between 2010 and 2015.
On a solemn note, I wish to send my condolences to the family and friends of Debbie Jolly. Some Members may have known Debbie, who was a disability campaigner. Over the years, she provided briefings for many Members of the House of Commons and, through Disabled People Against Cuts, was involved in many of the various lobbies of Parliament. She passed away last week, and I would like to send our condolences to her family and all her friends. We all hoped she would survive long enough at least to see this debate. I pay tribute to her for the work she did.
I want to explain the genesis of the motion that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have tabled for today’s debate. As we all know, the autumn statement is a week today. Traditionally, we would have held an Opposition day debate and used it to have a wide-ranging debate, second-guessing and commenting on what we predicted would be contained in the autumn statement.
This year, we want to try something different. We want to break radically with that tradition, because next week could be the last chance to head off what is shaping up to be quite a harmful disaster for many low earners and many vulnerable people in our society. For our debates today, we have taken two significant issues that are contained in the Budget plans announced earlier this year by the Chancellor’s predecessor, and which the new Chancellor has the ability and opportunity to intervene upon and, we hope, reverse. The first is the plan to cut the work allowance element of universal credit and employment and support allowance, and for the later debate we have chosen the issue of funding social care.
We believe that the Chancellor, by withdrawing the proposed cuts to ESA and universal credit, would dramatically beneficially impact upon the lives of many, many of our fellow citizens, who are, yes, low earners, but many of whom, through their disability, are also often the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We want to see today and, yes, over the next week, whether we can assemble across the House a coalition of pressure that can decisively influence the Chancellor to think again.
I welcome the Back-Bench debate that has been secured for tomorrow, which I believe will contribute to forming that coalition; I certainly believe and hope that we can succeed in doing so. So the appeal to hon. Members today and in the coming week is to do all we can to prevail upon the Chancellor to halt the policy of cuts to universal credit and ESA contained in the Budget introduced by the former Chancellor, which are planned to come into effect on 1 April.
Before I come to the grounds for making this appeal to the Chancellor, it is important to understand the origins of the proposals, and this goes to the heart of the autumn statement process. I believe their origins lie in the mistake by the last Chancellor of imposing a fiscal framework on his colleagues that was simply impractical, given the economic circumstances that we were facing, and certainly what we are about to face. If the fiscal framework is wrongly set and, importantly, if it is so inflexible that it cannot reflect the realities and challenges of the economy, decisions on both tax and spending equally fail to reflect the economic realities and meet the new economic priorities. I believe that in this instance, the fiscal framework imposed by the former Chancellor was so inflexible, and unworkable in the end, that it totally failed to meet the economic targets he set for it. It is also vital to understand that the former Chancellor’s fiscal framework imposed on his colleagues’ Departments unrealistic constraints that are undermining their ability to achieve their own policy goals.
The reality is that the fiscal framework did see a significant reduction in the annual deficit. That is a good thing for this country. I have not seen anything from Labour Members to suggest that they would have been able to do anything like that.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has not been listening. We introduced a fiscal credibility target, which would have built in the flexibility that we need—and actually, which his colleagues would have benefited from as they sought to deliver the goals set out in the manifesto upon which they were elected. That is the critical problem—that this fiscal target has become unworkable. Next week, most probably, we will see that not only will it be reset, but large elements of it will be scrapped; and some of those political disputes within the Government will be seen to have been completely unnecessary if only the Chancellor, at that stage, had listened not just to us, but to some of his own colleagues.
On the Government’s own economic metrics, the fiscal framework has failed. I remind the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) that the former Chancellor’s target was to eliminate the deficit by 2015. The deficit remained at over £45 billion in the first six months of this financial year. I remind the House that his target was to reduce the debt. The debt now stands at £1.7 trillion and has increased over the past six years, according to the latest estimate, by £740 billion. I believe that the biggest failure was to ignore the needs of the real economy and use the fiscal framework to constrain investment. The failure to invest on the scale needed to modernise our economy resulted in stagnating productivity.
In the face of all the evidence that the fiscal framework was not working and not achieving its target, the decision to set a target for the framework not just to eliminate the deficit, but to produce a multibillion-pound surplus by 2019-20 demonstrated to many of us how far the former Chancellor’s politics was overriding sound economics. The result of his setting targets even more removed from reality was that he imposed on his own colleagues the task of scrambling round to find a scale of cuts that, in many instances, undermined what chance they had to implement the policies on which they were elected and their long-standing ambitions, some of which could have secured cross-party support.
That was no more evident than at the Department for Work and Pensions. For the Treasury to demand cuts to universal credit that would take, on average, £2,100 out of the incomes of people who were doing all that was asked of them—working all they could to come off benefits, bringing up their families, contributing to society—flew in the face of all that the universal credit system was meant to be about. The same can be said of the cuts of nearly £30 a week to employment and support allowance. That is an extremely significant cut to the incomes of disabled people who are also doing all that has been asked of them—seeking work to lift them off benefits, and overcoming their disabilities and conditions.
On the ESA cut, does my right hon. Friend recall that at the time it was being taken through the House, we were assured that the Government would introduce an ambitious plan to reduce—indeed, to halve—the disability employment gap by 2020? Does he share my dismay that that goal has been abandoned completely?
I recall my right hon. Friend advising the Government of the unreality of their proposals at the time. What worried us all was that, on the one hand, benefits were being reduced, but the support was not being put in place by which those people could gain work and supplement their incomes.
I understood the motivation of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) when he resigned. The overriding demands of the Treasury were undermining the policy goals he was seeking to implement. He rightly objected to a further burden being placed on the social security budget, especially at a time when new, long-planned systems were at the early stages of introduction. I understood then his sense of frustration, and I understand now why he and many of his hon. Friends have called on the new Chancellor to look again at the burden that is being placed on the welfare budget and the threat, above all else, that it poses to the successful roll-out of universal credit and the policy of supporting disabled people into work.
The planned cuts are more than a threat to the implementation of policies long advocated and cherished by many Government Members. More importantly, they are a threat to the livelihoods, living standards and quality of life of millions of low earners and some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities. The Government have sought to judge themselves on their own set of economic metrics: eliminating the deficit, reducing the debt and adhering to a cap on welfare spending. On all their own metrics, they have failed. However, there is an alternative and very basic set of metrics on which a Government should be judged—whether they ensure that their population is adequately fed, decently housed and kept warm in winter, and has sufficient income through employment or a support safety net to have a decent quality of life.
My right hon. Friend is laying out a powerful case for the need to make some very different decisions next week in the interest of all our futures. There is clearly a combined moral and economic rationale for an urgent focus on disability employment. The 30% disability employment gap makes that even more important. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people with disabilities and their families deserve so much more from the Government, who should be on their side, rather than pursuing a strategy characterised by cuts to ESA, the tragic failure of work capability assessments and no strategy for fairness?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. There is a week in which we can overturn at least an element of that brutality. This week, we need to seize upon the chance as best we can, across parties, to deliver change.
From our privileged position in this House, I firmly believe that before we consider cuts to basic support for low earners and disabled people, we have a moral duty, as my hon. Friend said, to fully appreciate the plight of many of our fellow citizens and the impact that any changes that are forced upon them could have. There are some basic facts that we need to face up to—basic facts that depict the harsh reality of the lives of so many members of our community. Nearly 4 million of our children are living in poverty. The scandal is that two thirds of them live in families where someone is working. Thanks to low wages, zero-hours contracts and forced or bogus self-employment, which has been exposed today, the promise that work will lift people out of poverty is a broken one for many.
If a basic responsibility of the Government is to ensure that their population is adequately fed and housed, they are failing. A million emergency food parcels were given out by food banks last year to families who did not have sufficient income to feed themselves. The latest reports confirm that the numbers are rising. This year, 200,000 children in our country will be dependent on a food bank to get a decent meal at Christmas. One survey reported that more than 20% of parents had regularly not eaten so that their children could eat. Others report the frequent choice between eating and heating. This is 2016.
On the duty of the Government to ensure that people are adequately housed, they are failing again. Rough sleeping has doubled in recent years. The equivalent of 100 households a day are evicted from rented homes—a near-record 40,000 in the year to date. Some 1.2 million households are stuck on council housing waiting lists. In my constituency tonight, there will be families sleeping in beds in sheds that have been rented to them.
As for the Government’s responsibility for disabled people, as the UN report concisely summed it up, the Government have—and I quote—systematically or gravely violated the rights of disabled people. Independent research suggested that Government efforts to push people off claiming disability benefits have been associated with more than 500 people committing suicide in three years.
Three years ago, I led a debate following the presentation of the War on Welfare petition, which highlighted the call for an overall impact assessment of the Government’s policies on disabled people. I cited the immense human suffering caused by the brutal implementation of the work capability assessment and the latest round of cuts to benefits and care services. I cited examples of people who had tragically taken their own lives in despair following the WCA and the penalisation through sanctions. We now know that those suicides were not isolated examples, but that there have been hundreds.
Of course, there is a double whammy, because people who are suffering and being punished in that way are not likely to get access to good mental health services or NHS services, because those are being cut and wound down across the country as well.
I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s responses to a number of questions about cuts to mental health services at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I hope that her commitment to social justice will result in the reversing of some of those cuts, particularly to mental health walk-in services, which were raised at the Prime Minister’s questions session before last.
The shadow Chancellor mentioned what happened three years ago. He will probably remember, as I do, that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who was the Labour party’s spokesman at the time, pledged that Labour would be “tougher than the Tories” on benefits.
Bringing things more up to date, many people in the ESA work-related activity group have told me that the current support package—a visit to the jobcentre once every six months—is completely inadequate. Does the shadow Chancellor agree that that shows a system that urgently needs reform?
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. There needs to be more support, and that was promised but has not been delivered. At the same time, benefits have been taken away, so as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) said, there has been a double whammy in the impact on disabled people. That demoralises people who are under pressure, losing benefits and not getting support, which pushes them into an even worse position.
I have raised this issue before, but we now have better figures than we had two or three years ago. We now know that between 2011 and 2014, more than 2,000 people who were assessed in a work capability assessment as being capable of work died before they could even take up that work. Surely we have to learn the lessons from that evidence, and surely one lesson is that if we impose further cuts on people who are already struggling, not only will we increase the deprivation and suffering that they endure, but many of them will see no light at the end of the tunnel and will simply despair.
The WOW debate was intended simply to ensure that any impact of decisions on benefits was properly assessed. We called for a cumulative impact assessment to be published, and we asked for a detailed impact assessment of every policy to be published for the House before a final decision was made. In a supposed post-truth environment, I still believe that evidence-based policy making is worth aiming for. That is why it is critical that the Government also restore the distributional analysis of their proposals, and ensure that it is intelligible and usable.
Before scrapping that analysis entirely, the Chancellor’s predecessor took to publishing figures that disguised the real impact of his policies. That accusation is not mine but that of one of his old colleagues, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the former Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. If the Treasury is to restore public trust, it must not just let the House know when it will publish the distributional analysis, but ensure that the figures are published clearly and without any attempts to massage or spin them. Only in that way will we be able to test the fairness and equity of policy proposals.
In my view and that of many Members, when the cuts were first introduced they reflected a grotesque unfairness, because at the same time the Government were cutting taxes for some of the wealthiest in our country and for large corporations. [Interruption.] Capital gains tax, inheritance tax—how many more examples do we need? That was a strange priority to many Members on both sides of the House. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, reversing just some of those tax cuts could render the cuts to benefits unnecessary. The last Chancellor also had a penchant for absorbing budget gaps at various times.
There is a real opportunity next week for the Chancellor to live up to the Prime Minister’s spoken commitment to tackle social injustice. We believe that the Chancellor will reset the fiscal framework in next week’s autumn statement. He has already adjusted it. That will allow him the flexibility he needs to reverse the cuts. I appeal to hon. Members throughout the House to help us lift the threat of further cuts from families and disabled people. We have a week to achieve that, and we can start today by supporting the motion.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes the role of universal credit in ensuring that work pays; welcomes the £60 million package of additional employment support announced in the Summer Budget 2016 available to new claimants with limited capability for work from April 2017 and set out in the recent Work and Health Green Paper; further welcomes the proposals for employment support for disabled people and those with health conditions set out in that green paper; and notes the comments by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Treasury Committee on 19 October 2016 on his intention to publish distributional analysis at the forthcoming Autumn Statement.”
Since 2010, we have been working to get the country’s finances in order while continuing to provide proper financial and practical support to those who need it. We will have to wait until next week to hear the Chancellor’s plans, but we can note today the significant progress on which the autumn statement will build. In 2010, we faced an economy that was barely growing, investment that was low, unemployment that was high, and a deficit at a level not seen since the second world war. In 2009-10, the then Labour Government were borrowing an annually recurring amount of nearly £6,000 for every household in the country—an unsustainable situation.
Since then, Conservative-led Governments have taken the tough decisions needed to reduce the deficit, and it is working. Over the past six years, we have cut the deficit by almost two thirds from its 2009-10 post-war peak of 10.1% of GDP to 4% last year.
It is funny, because I remember being in the House and being told that the deficit was going to be cut—wiped out, gone—by 2015, and Labour’s plan to halve it by 2015 being dismissed as nonsense. Does the Minister have the same recollection?
The hon. Gentleman, who is a man of great memory, will also remember the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman shouting “Too far, too fast” over and over. We embarked on a determined programme to get our nation’s finances back in order, which the Opposition opposed at every turn. They voted against essentially all the substantial measures to get us there.
I also remember, in the run-up to 2008, Conservative Members saying from the Opposition Benches that the Labour Government needed to spend more on hospitals, spend more on schools—spend more, spend more, spend more. Funny how they have forgotten that.
They have not forgotten that, and it is because we are getting our nation’s finances back in order that we can afford to increase our funding for the national health service by £10 billion, in line with what the NHS itself has deemed necessary in the five year forward view, a plan that it would never have been possible to realise had the Labour party been in government.
The Opposition claim that the poorest in our society have borne the brunt of the reductions in the deficit, but that is not the case. It is undeniable that when we face a deficit of almost £6,000 for every family in the country, we have to do some difficult things, but people throughout society have contributed to getting our finances back in order. We have never seen tackling the deficit as just an option. It is a matter of social justice, because when Governments lose control of the public finances, with all that flows from that, it is invariably those who have the least who stand to lose the most.
Is it not the case that a distributional analysis cannot capture the impact that things such as capital gains tax cuts have on the wider economy by encouraging entrepreneurs to create jobs and wealth so that we can pay our way in the world, which is what we have to do if we are to afford schools, hospitals and all the rest of it?
My hon. Friend is of course right. There is always a dynamic effect of changes in taxation. I will come on to the question of the distributional analysis, because when we look at it we see that it is rather different from what the shadow Chancellor suggested.
May I remind the Minister of what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said about the Government’s changes? It stated that the long-run effect of tax and benefit changes in last year’s autumn statement, which were translated into the Budget, would be percentage losses around 25 times larger for those in the bottom decile than for those in the top decile.
The programme of deficit reduction has always been done in a fair as well as a determined way. At the end of this decade, the best-off fifth of households—the best-off quintile—will be paying a greater proportion of total taxes than in 2010-11; in fact, they will be paying more in tax than the rest of the households put together. That means that those with the broadest shoulders are, quite rightly, paying their fair share towards fiscal consolidation. Meanwhile, the plans the Government have set out lead to a projected distribution of public spending between the income groups that is essentially the same as in 2010. As the distributional analysis published alongside the last Budget showed, the poorest will continue to receive a share of spending on benefits in 2019-20 similar to that in 2010-11. I reassure the House that the Chancellor has committed to publishing a distributional analysis alongside the forthcoming autumn statement.
Government reforms to incentivise work and enable those who are just about managing to keep more of their pay packet include the national living wage, increases to the personal allowance, the doubling of free childcare, action on council tax and freezes to fuel duty. Although we have had to make difficult decisions on welfare spending, we have never lost sight of the fact that the most sustainable route out of poverty and just managing is to get into and progress in work. The introduction of the national living wage means that lower-paid workers are now seeing record increases to their earnings.
Will the Minister explain to our constituents how the introduction of the “pay to stay” policy will help incentivise people to get into work?
I was in the middle of talking about how wages have been rising. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I thought that she was challenging me on that point, so I will continue to make it. According to recent data on earnings from the Office for National Statistics, the lowest 5% of workers saw their wages grow by more than 6% in 2016, the highest growth for that group since that statistical series began nearly 20 years ago. Based on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast at the Budget, almost 3 million low-wage workers are expected to benefit directly by 2020, with many more benefiting from the ripple effect on income distribution.
At the same time, universal credit is transforming the welfare system to ensure that it always pays to work more and to earn more. That is in stark contrast with the pre-2010 system, in which in-work poverty increased by 20% between 1998 and 2010, despite welfare spending on people in work increasing by £28 billion. Evidence is already showing that people move into work faster under universal credit; for every 100 people who found work under the old jobseeker’s allowance system, 113 universal credit claimants have moved into a job. We estimate that universal credit will generate around £7 billion in economic benefit every year and boost employment by up to 300,000 once fully rolled out.
Most important of all, universal credit will drive progression, delivering sustainable outcomes for low-income families. Unlike tax credits, with the 16-hour cliff edge, it supports part-time and flexible working—as well as full-time working—adjusting on a month-by-month basis according to household income. The work allowances are just one element of a much wider system of support and incentives. The personalised work coach support, the smooth taper rate and the reimbursement of 85% of childcare costs as soon as someone starts working, even for a small number of hours, are all key to making work pay for universal credit recipients.
In this morning’s employment figures, we saw that the employment of disabled people is up by 590,000 in the past three years. The disability employment rate has gone up by 4.9% in that time, and the gap has been narrowed by two percentage points. We were talking about this earlier, and it is welcome news, but there is much, much more to be done, as only half of people with disabilities are in work, compared with 80% of the non-disabled population.
I am glad that the Minister has raised the question of the disability employment gap. Former Ministers—two of them, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), are in their places this afternoon—promised that a quid pro quo for the cuts in employment and support allowance would be halving the disability employment gap by 2020. That was in his party’s manifesto, and the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed to halving the gap by 2020. Why has that promise now shamefully been abandoned?
We are committed to working towards halving the disability employment gap. The right hon. Gentleman is reading somewhat more into things than he can or should. We are absolutely committed to doing that, but there is a long way to go, and he will know better than most how hard it will be. But the figures we have announced this morning show that the employment rate for people with disabilities is up by almost 5%. That is welcome news that I had hoped would receive a more positive response from the Opposition.
I am not reading any more into the promise that was made than what was set out very clearly. In the election campaign David Cameron made it clear that the commitment was to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. There was a press release in the name of former Minister for Disabled People, the hon. Member for North Swindon, saying that it would be by 2020. Why has that promise now been so shamefully abandoned?
We are working hard on this. When my colleague the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work sums up at the end of the debate, she will no doubt elaborate on that more. To be able to do everything we can as a Government, we need employers to do more as well, as the right hon. Gentleman will recognise. A whole-society approach is required to address this great challenge. Progress is being made but more is needed. He should have no doubt about the Government’s commitment to doing everything possible to achieve that.
One reason why so much more needs to be done is that we still have that yawning gap despite all the progress that has been made—despite the regulatory reform, the medical advances, the advances in assistive and adaptive technology, and, critically, the fact that we know that so many people with disabilities want to move into work and that so much talent is not currently being fully utilised. We know that being in work can have wider benefits for the individual, beyond the purely financial. There is clear evidence that work is linked to better physical and mental health, and to improved wellbeing. That is a key theme in our recently published Green Paper “Improving Lives”, and a driver behind the changes to the employment and support allowance and universal credit that were announced in last summer’s Budget.
ESA was originally introduced—I am happy to acknowledge the bipartisan parts of this debate—in 2008 by the then Labour Government. The expectation at that time was that the Atos-run assessment process would place the clear majority of claimants into the work-related activity group, leaving a relatively smaller number in the support group. Over time it became clear that that was not the case, with around three times as many people in the support group as in the work-related activity group. At the same time, fewer than 1% of people were leaving that benefit for work each month.
That is why we are introducing changes to encourage and support claimants to take steps back to work and to fulfil their full potential. From next April we will no longer include the work-related activity component for new ESA claims, or the equivalent element for people on universal credit with a health condition or disability. I stress that that is for new claims after April next year; there will be no cash losers among those already in receipt of ESA or its universal credit equivalent, and there will be further safeguards meaning that they will not lose the extra payments even if reassessed after April and placed in the work-related activity group.
I very much welcome the Green Paper, which many of us have been looking forward to for some time. It sets the direction of travel, providing a much more joined-up approach for this group of very vulnerable people. On the notional cash loss for new WRAG claimants, could there be support from the financial support grant in the Green Paper—
The flexible support fund.
Yes, the flexible support fund, which could provide some flexibility and relief for those particular needy groups.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to whom I pay tribute for bringing forward the universal credit system and so much else that goes with it. The flexible support fund is part of the package of support there is, through the Jobcentre Plus network and other means, to help people into work. It is the case—I will come on to this in a moment—that more money will go into those support packages to help people into work, or, as some people have very significant barriers and some distance to go, to get closer towards work. About 47% of people in the work-related activity group also receive the personal independence payment, which is, of course, exempt from the benefit freeze, and there will be no change to the support group supplement. In the Green Paper consultation, we are consulting on whether we should decouple the support group rates from the type of support people can receive, so that those in the support group can seek help that goes towards their getting work without worrying about their benefit entitlement being at risk.
The amount we are spending on disability benefits, at £50 billion, is not going down: it is going up. In real terms, it will be higher at the end of this decade than it was at the beginning. We believe that the change in the work-related activity group, working in tandem with the new employment support package announced in the Green Paper, will help to provide the right incentives and support to assist new claimants who have limited capability for work. We believe that this package—representing £60 million of funding in 2017-18, rising to £100 million a year in 2020-21 and developed with external stakeholders, including groups and charities expert in addressing the barriers that can come with disability—can have a much bigger and lasting effect on people’s prospects and their livelihoods than the work-related activity component itself. In addition to the funding package, we are introducing £15 million for the Jobcentre Plus flexible support fund in 2017-18 and 2018-19 to help claimants with limited capability for work. From next April, we are also removing the 52-week permitted work limit that exists in ESA, to allow claimants to continue to undertake up to 16 hours’ part-time paid work and, currently, earn up to £115.50 per week.
I trust that hon. Members will recognise the value in our approach. Today’s employment figures show unemployment at 4.8%—a decade low. Average wages are rising at 2.4%, which in real terms is 1.7%. Since 2010, we have seen a 2.8 million rise in the number of people in a job, 865,000 fewer workless households and 62,000 fewer households where no one has ever worked. Income inequality has fallen and average incomes are the highest on record. There are 300,000 fewer people and 100,000 fewer children in relative low income. This morning’s figures show that the rate of young people who have left full-time education and are not in work is at a new low, and the biggest drop in unemployment was among the long-term unemployed.
We introduced the national living wage—a £900 a year pay rise already for a full-time person on the previous minimum wage, with more to come. We have taken millions out of income tax. We have extended free childcare to disadvantaged two-year-olds and we are upping childcare spend by £1 billion a year. We are being ambitious on skills through school reforms and a dramatic increase in apprenticeships, so that more people can share in the opportunities of the new world economy. We are transforming social security through universal credit. We are stabilising the nation’s finances, and ensuring that low-income families and those with health conditions and disabilities have the support they need to enter and progress in work as we build an economy and a society that works for everyone.
The UK Government must commit to protecting disadvantaged people from the impact of future budget cuts in their autumn statement. Post-Brexit, it is essential, that with the risks to economy and with inflation rising and set to rise further, the Government act now.
Analysis by the IFS is the latest sign that the UK leaving the EU is having a negative impact on the UK economy even before article 50 is triggered. The IFS said that “virtually all” forecasters revised down their predications for growth and revised up their expectations for inflation in the years ahead. The collapse in the value of the pound, combined with potential rises in inflation, will hit the poorest and the most disadvantaged in society hardest. It will mean more of their income will have to be spent on day-to-day costs and living standards will push people into poverty.
If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the disadvantaged, will he explain why it has been reported that the Scottish Government will defer, until April 2020, taking powers from the UK Government to administer the welfare system?
I expected this issue to be raised, given press speculation. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman the facts of the matter: with the powers coming to us, we will control 15% of welfare spending in Scotland. We have to put in place the mechanisms for us to deliver fairness with the revenues we have at our disposal. We certainly would not punish the poorest in our society in the way that this Government have, and we certainly would not be punishing the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign women, who are not getting their just rights when they have had only a year’s notice. What I would be saying to this Government is, “Give us the powers over welfare so that we can protect the people in Scotland.” When we have put in place the mechanisms to allow us to look after people, we will certainly be doing a better job than the Government are doing today.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the point about powers is that, unlike this Tory Government, we are able to help and support people properly? We should not have to fill the black hole they have created in our budget. When we get those powers and have that agency, they will be set up properly. We will protect the people in Scotland properly.
My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, because this is about powers and responsibilities. For us to protect people in Scotland in the way that we want to, we need powers. We were promised—since this has been raised—devo to the max. We were promised home rule for Scotland. How on earth can we have home rule for Scotland when we control 30% of our revenues and 15% of social security? I am afraid that the UK Government’s failure to protect the disabled and pensioners demonstrates that if we want to do what is necessary in Scotland, we will ultimately have to have the independent powers to do so. I am sure we will get to that point.
Let me return to what I want to address. [Interruption.] I am only responding to the Conservatives’ uninformed distractions, with which we are all too familiar.
The IFS stated:
“Normally, working-age benefit recipients would also be at least partly protected as benefits usually rise in line with prices, but, as we have discussed before, their benefits have been largely frozen in cash terms, meaning that their income from this source is fully exposed to future inflation. Those in work will, unless they are able to negotiate a bigger pay rise, find that their earnings will stretch less far than they otherwise would have done.”
Why should the most disadvantaged pay the price for Brexit and its consequences? That is what the Conservative Back Benchers should be addressing today rather than making an undisguised attack on the Scottish Government. What we need to address this afternoon is why working people will suffer from rising inflation. The weakest in our society deserve to be protected and their benefits ought to be inflation-proofed. Why are the UK Government not doing that? Why are they not seeking to protect the vulnerable in our society?
Does my hon. Friend agree that while the tax gap in the UK sits at £36 billion, this Government should be focusing on closing that gap, and not marginalising and targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our society?
I fundamentally agree. There is a £36 billion tax gap, so let us fix that hole. I listened to the Minister talk earlier about the challenges the Government face in fixing the deficit. What they fail to recognise is the interaction between fiscal and monetary policy. It is the richest who have benefited most from quantitative easing. We should have had a fiscal stimulus package. That would have driven investment and productivity into the economy, and got more people back into work. That is what we should be doing.
This is not the first time I have heard the hon. Gentleman refer to the great fiscal reflation he is planning. I welcome the fact that in the same speech he is also talking about the problems with inflation, but is that not a contradiction in terms?
It most certainly is not. The reason for the rise in inflation—to something between 2% and 3% next year, according to commentators—is, quite simply, that the pound has crashed, and the reason the pound has crashed is that investors do not have confidence in the UK economy, and who caused that? It is a direct consequence of Brexit, through the referendum, which was the misjudgment of the previous Prime Minister.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see an inconsistency in his argument, given that only a few years ago, his party was campaigning to leave the United Kingdom and, by virtue of doing so, the EU?
The hon. Gentleman has made a gross misjudgment. When we were campaigning for independence for Scotland, it was about securing Scotland’s future as a European nation. Those in the Better Together campaign continually told the people of Scotland that our European future would be secured only by staying with the UK. Well how has that worked out? I am glad that the Scottish Parliament has given a mandate to the Government of Scotland to make sure we protect Scotland’s position as a European nation and remain within the single market, and, through that, to ensure we protect the prosperity and jobs of the people of our country.
Let me come back, if I may, to the subject we are supposed to be discussing.
While half of me is loth to continue this debate, I want us to be clear. We have here an economic crisis brought about by political instability caused by the rupturing of unions between countries. So for the hon. Gentleman to argue that Scottish independence would not have had similar disastrous effects for the Scottish economy is, frankly, disingenuous.
I remind Members to be cautious with the language they use. Also, I do not want this to degenerate into a debate about independence, and I know that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) wants to get back to his brief and not to be tempted by those who want to go out fishing today. To those Members intervening, I say this: when your speaking time is reduced to four minutes, do not blame me.
I will take your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I only say to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) that she has demonstrated once again that Better Together is still alive and well—and how did that work out for the Labour party in Scotland?
I will return to the issue we are dealing with. We have inflation created by Brexit and a falling the pound, and the result of this failure will be a fall in living standards for many of our poorest—falling living standards brought to you by this Government. On top of the benefit cuts next year, the Prime Minister is sleepwalking into a perfect storm for low-income families, rather than living up to her promise of delivering for just-managing families. The UK Government must use the autumn statement to end their austerity obsession and instead bring forward an inclusive programme that will truly support low-income families and their children.
The UK Government’s U-turn on tax credits last year was simply a delaying tactic that kicked cuts to universal credit further down the line. The Government should take the opportunity to reverse the cuts to universal credit work allowance in their autumn statement. The original intention of universal credit was to increase work incentives and make sure that, as the Government put it, work paid. On top of damning economic forecasts, however, which will push up the cost of living, the work allowance cut will simply push more working people into poverty. It has slashed the income of working universal credit claimants. The IFS has calculated that in the long term more than 3 million working families will lose an average of more than £1,000 a year as a result of the work allowance cut.
As my hon. Friend says, it is shameful. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that the resulting cut in income will mean that many low-income parents cannot protect the income levels they had before April 2016.
House of Commons Library analysis from February 2016 calculates that lone parents without housing costs will experience the largest reduction in their work allowance, from £8,800 in 2015-16 to £4,764 in 2016-17—a loss of over £4,000. Is that what the Government want to defend? A person or couple without housing costs who claim universal credit where one or both are disabled will see their allowance reduced from £7,764 in 2015-16 to £4,764—a loss of £3,000. The U-turn on tax credits in the short term saved families and working people from having their benefits cut, but in the long term the work allowance cut will have a similar impact.
The House of Commons Library analysis also states that the work allowance reductions announced in the summer Budget
“will ultimately have a similar impact to the changes to tax credits which are not now going ahead, though the impact of changes to UC work allowances will not be fully felt until the roll out of Universal Credit is complete.”
By cutting the work allowance, the Government will impose an eye-watering level of marginal taxation on people in low-paid jobs and make it harder than ever for those in low-income households to break out of the poverty trap.
That point is well understood by many, including the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who said:
“At present, the 2016 Budget’s plan to reduce Universal Credit work allowances will not be the most effective way of controlling welfare expenditure and, moreover, it goes against the key principles. The planned reduction will affect more than three million people, reducing their income by an average of over £1,000 per year. This will reduce people’s incentive to move into work. Moreover, in November 2015 the previous Chancellor decided to reverse the reduction in working tax credits, increasing the pressure on Universal Credit as it created an artificial disincentive to move to Universal Credit from Tax Credits.”
I do not say this too often, but I fully agree with him. I would even say that, for the Government, the game is up when even the architect of much of the landscape on this issue can see the fatal flaws in what they are doing. When will they start to listen and begin to act?
We are having this debate today, and welcome though it is, it is important that we achieve a cross-party consensus on the substantive motion we are debating tomorrow, on the cuts to employment and support allowance. The House will have an opportunity to send a very clear signal to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement next week. It is a scandal that proposed cuts to ESA WRAG are still going ahead. The Chancellor must halt these planned cuts until the UK Government can deliver the long-awaited support promised for disabled people in and out of work. Almost 500,000 disabled people in the UK rely on ESA WRAG. This £30 cut will make the cost of living more expensive for many people—even more so in the context of the devalued pound and a possible inflation increase.
The UK Government said that these changes were introduced to
“remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work”.
But Mencap’s review of this policy found
“no relevant evidence setting out a convincing case that the ESA WRAG payment acts as a financial disincentive to claimants work, or that reducing the payment would incentivise people to seek work”.
It is a positive step that the new Secretary of State has announced the Green Paper on support for disabled people in and out of work, and we look forward to assessing the detail of the Department’s proposals in due course. However, until the detail in the Green Paper comes to fruition, storming ahead with these cuts is simply putting the cart before the horse. The autumn statement is a key opportunity for the new Cabinet to prove it is true to its rhetoric about delivering for just-managing families. That can be achieved only by abandoning austerity by reversing these cuts and delivering an inclusive Budget fit for the post-referendum economic turmoil.
A failure to act will drive more people into poverty and the use of food banks. Recent data show that the Tories’ austerity agenda continues to push people into poverty across the UK. A survey for the End Child Poverty coalition suggested that 3.5 million children were living in poverty in the UK, with 220,000 of them in Scotland. A separate study by the Trussell Trust found that in the first half of this year there was an increase in food bank usage that included 500,000 three-day emergency food supplies distributed across the UK, of which 188,500 were for children.
A recent Resolution Foundation report has highlighted the need for the urgent delivery of support for families who are just managing. It also noted:
“Average incomes in the low to middle income group were no higher in 2014-15 than in 2004-05, reflecting not just the turmoil of the post-crisis period but also a sharp pre-crisis slowdown in income growth.”
It also points out that the projections for unemployment have been revised up since the March Budget following the referendum in June, and real pay growth is now projected to be lower than previously thought.
In conclusion, with this autumn statement, the Chancellor has the ability to re-prioritise the spending agenda to reflect the very real danger of economic turmoil resulting from the June referendum and ongoing negotiations with the EU. The Chancellor must use the autumn statement to propose measures that reverse benefit cuts and mitigate the impact of economic uncertainty on disadvantaged people.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me clarify that we shall start with a seven-minute limit, but if Members can speak in less time than that, everyone should be able to have approximately equal time.
I shall be as brief as possible and certainly intend to be well under that limit. I shall not follow the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) down a memory-lane trip involving independence or leaving the single market. I will say, however, that I am a huge admirer of him. Many of my ancestors are buried in his constituency, so I like to claim a little bit of union with him, even though he would not want to admit it. I shall visit the area as often as possible to ensure that I give the hon. Gentleman the best support I can for him to stay up there as long as possible.
I rise for the first time in, I think, nearly seven years to speak from the Back Benches, and I do so to speak on an issue that is very close to my heart. I want to explain why that is the case to my colleagues. Let me start by welcoming both Ministers to their new roles on the Front Bench, and I congratulate them on continuing to commit to the changes and reforms necessary to improve the quality of life for so many people who would otherwise be left behind.
In passing, let me note one or two figures. The number of children in workless households has fallen to record levels—down to just under 11% from the 20% that we inherited. A child in a workless household is nearly three quarters more likely to be in poverty than a child in an in-work household. That is an important point, because that dynamic is critical—a point to which I shall return. The fall in income inequality has been mentioned, and it is falling because more people at the lower end are going back into work.
There is another important issue about disability. We have committed to, want to commit to and must stay with the position of wanting to see more people with disabilities in work. We want the gap to be at least halved, which I think is feasible. I shall explain in a few moments why I think that it is feasible.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
In a minute, but let me finish this point first.
A lot of the work of the Green Paper was done when I was in the Department. It was a White Paper at that stage, and I hope it gets speeded up and becomes a White Paper again fairly soon. After five reviews of the inherited employment and support allowance, I would be the first to acknowledge that although we have stabilised it and it is better than it was, it is a very difficult area, as we all know. If every Member was prepared to be reasonable, we would all recognise that these things need to change.
Let me clarify that the main single thing that I wanted to see change and I still want to see changed is this artificial idea that people are either too sick to work or unable to work. There should be a greater nuancing in people’s lives, and universal credit now opens the door to a much more flexible process that allows even those diagnosed and reasonably said to be “not capable of work” to be able to work—and if they wish to work, they should be allowed to do so as far as they possibly can, with the taper used to take benefit money away gradually. I think that might improve the quality of life for many people. I know that this is a submission in the Green Paper, and I hope the Minister will bear it in mind.
Let me return to the point that when universal credit was set up by my noble Friend Lord Freud, who worked very hard on it, and me, the idea was that it was not just about money, but about human interface. The people in jobcentres now stay with individuals as they go into work to help advise them and be with them. This will be a more human interface, so that people can be helped through to gain extra hours, which opens the door for people with limited capabilities to work to be helped in a way that would not have been possible if we had stayed with the original system. All this is very good and very positive.
There are two critical elements. First, when people step into work, the barrier must be reduced by improving the amount of money that can be held from benefit before it is tapered away. The second element is the taper itself, which is the simple process by which people have their income reduced. I say to the Minister that those two elements, notwithstanding all the other stuff such as improved childcare and everything else, are at the heart of what delivers.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies and others recently looked at what the dynamic effect of universal credit might be as it rolls out. The IFS was very clear: it said that the effect was a 13% improvement in all elements—going back to work, staying in work, taking more hours and earning more money. I know from my experience in the Department that every time one benefit has been substituted for another, it has almost always been worse on arrival than the previous benefit before people engage with it and improve it. This is the first time that a benefit being rolled out is a net improvement on a previous benefit.
I therefore make this recommendation. That figure of a 13% improvement was made on the basis of the original work allowances. In the spirit of general collective view and belief, I say that if we really want to see the right thing happen to people out there who try to get into work and stay in work, the allowances are critical. I recommend and hope that my colleagues in government will think very carefully again about the decision to reduce those allowances. I recognise the problem with the deficit, and we of course want to reduce it. I am not asking for more money; I am asking for wiser spending. I wonder whether we could revisit the idea of a tax threshold allowance and look to see whether getting the money to the lower five deciles would be better served by universal credit. Some 70% of those people will be on universal credit, whereas only 25p of a tax threshold allowance will actually go to the bottom five deciles.
I urge the Minister to speak to his right hon. Friends and say, “Look, we have a very good opportunity to do something that is really bold and right for those whose lives we really want to improve—those that the Prime Minister rightly said was her target group.” It is a very Conservative thing to do to help people who are doing the right thing to improve their lives. Even if the Government cannot do it all, they should look at two elements: lone parents and those with limited capability for work. This would answer the problems surrounding the WRAG, too. I urge Ministers to do just that. It is the right thing to do, and it will be the thing to do that changes lives and improves the quality of those lives.
I begin by saying some words that I never thought would leave my mouth: I really hope that Ministers listen to what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) has just said—but where were you as Secretary of State? The right hon. Gentleman has explained very clearly how many people feel about the proposed changes. I hope that it is not too late for the Government to change their mind.
This Government seem to be developing a problem with transparency. We found out from the front page of The Times this week that there is no plan for Brexit, even though we were told that there was. My constituents found out through a leak from another local authority that their A&E department was under threat. Now we find that the Government do not intend to publish a full distributional analysis of the impact of the decisions they are about to make in the autumn statement. The decision not to publish a full analysis of that impact makes Opposition Members incredibly suspicious. The people who are going to feel the worst brunt of those decisions might well feel extremely angry.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said that, historically, whenever there was a change to benefits, people suffered until the situation was changed and improved. Does that not also explain why so many of our constituents are extremely worried about what is going to happen?
That is right. People want clarity. What everyone wants is for work to pay and for people to be better off in work than out of work, but that is not what we are going to get.
The Government used to be very keen on having a full and detailed distributional analysis, and I have with me the introduction to the one they published in 2012. They said then:
“The Government has taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency and enable effective scrutiny of policy making by publishing detailed distributional analysis of the impact of its reforms on households.”
It was a very good thing that the Government, and the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), did then. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say:
“The analysis shows average impacts due to policy changes over time across the income and expenditure distributions by decile”.
I hope that, at the end of the debate, Ministers will commit themselves to publishing the information by decile, so that we can scrutinise it properly and challenge the Government on what they are about to reveal. That is not just my view. The Tory Chair of the Treasury Committee agrees, because he knows that if he is do his job effectively the information must be published and available to everyone, including the public. This matters: the distributional analysis should reveal the impact of tax, welfare and public spending changes on 10 household income brackets, but the Government want to halve the amount of detail and cover just five brackets.
I was pleased when the Conservatives chose this new Prime Minister, given the choices that they had, and I was pleased when she said that she wanted this to be
“a country that works for everyone”.
Don’t we all? But how can we know whether the Prime Minister is true to her word if she does not proceed to publish the information that we need to test the assertion by which she herself asked to be judged? Unless she does so, we cannot test that claim.
This leads us to ask ourselves what the Government are attempting to hide. What the Minister said sounded incredibly positive, and there were many measures that he said we ought to be welcoming. If that is true—if he is right and Opposition Front Benchers are wrong—he should publish the information, so that we can test him on his claims. Go on, let us see it!
I suspect that the picture is not quite as rosy as the Minister suggested. Perhaps it is the £1,500 a year to be taken from disabled people that he is trying to conceal, but it could be any number of the measures that he has in mind. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that the poorest 50% of households will be £375 worse off on average by 2020-21, while the other half will be £235 better off. We need this information to be published before every Budget and every autumn statement, so that we can compare the impact of the different measures. I want to be able to see what is going to happen next week and compare it with what happened three years ago.
My hon. Friend is making a marvellous speech. Does she agree that we can safely conclude that someone is going to lose out somewhere when the Government speak about their proposals in such glowing terms?
My hon. Friend has far more experience of scrutinising Conservative Governments than I have, and I suspect that he may be right.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the effect of all the tax and benefit changes in last year’s autumn statement would mean losses about 25 times larger for those in the bottom decile than for those in the top decile. If the IFS is wrong, let the Government publish the information so that the Minister can back up the claim that he has made today. The IFS also says that average earnings have been revised down in every year of the forecast, as has real household disposable income.
We want to know exactly what the country is in for. On 23 June, we made a decision to leave the European Union, and what that has done—or part of what it has done—is unleash a huge amount of uncertainty on the country, on business and on decision makers. One thing that the Government could do to ease some of that uncertainty is publish all the information that we need to determine where we are and track the direction in which the Government are taking us.
According to the IFS, nearly half a million children will be plunged into absolute poverty by 2020
“as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms”
in the March Budget. The IFS says that an additional 500,000 people—including 400,000 children—will be in relative poverty because of tax and benefit overhauls. That paints a very different picture from the one presented by the Minister. Unless he is prepared to publish a proper distributional analysis, we shall be forced to conclude that he is, for some reason, trying—his attempt will fail—to conceal the impact of some of the measures that he has in mind. I hope that he will resist that urge and commit himself to publishing a proper analysis with 10 deciles, so that we can see what is happening, make comparisons over time, and challenge and scrutinise the Government effectively.
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. The shadow Chancellor talked about econometrics; I want, like the Prime Minister, to focus on human metrics. At the outset of her premiership, she rightly said that this would be a Government who wanted to
“stand up for the weak”
and reach out to the “just managing”.
Today’s debate, like the debate that we shall have tomorrow, is about seeking to fulfil those aims.
I intend to concentrate on cuts in the universal credit work allowance today and delay most of my comments about the ESA WRAG payments until tomorrow, although I will say now that I approve of the Green Paper’s direction of travel. Its vision of integrated and personalised employment and health support is overdue, but welcome. However, we need to look out for the disabled people—some 500,000, according to a House of Commons Library estimate—who worked in April as new WRAG claimants. They will still be affected. The flexible support fund—about which I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work—is crucial. Along with other discretionary relief, it needs to meet the wider costs of job seeking for disabled people by April. We cannot deny that those wider costs exist, and we must ensure that we meet them. My support for the Government’s admirable reform agenda for disability depends on that.
Let me now say something about low-income families, who are the main subject of the debate and, in particular, about the first few lines of the Government amendment, which
“notes the role of universal credit in ensuring that work pays”.
That is what we want to happen. It is the very basis of our welfare reforms. We must commend the Government, and previous Governments, for the fact that some 764,000 children will not wake up in workless households today because of the opportunities for work that have been provided. That is extraordinarily important. Work is obviously a primary route out of poverty, and the income tax cuts, the national living wage and the 30 hours of free childcare are all extremely welcome.
What will drive all this through, however, is universal credit that does what it was designed to do, and makes work pay. In Enfield, which rolled the scheme out early, it has been a success. Work coaches have reached out to previously unreached individuals, helping them to find work. More people are working, obtaining work more quickly, staying in work longer, and earning more. The first nine months have been very successful. Universal credit claimants are now 13% more likely than jobseeker’s allowance claimants to be employed, work 12 days more, and are more than twice as likely to try to work for more hours.
That is all extremely welcome. However, there is a risk that the cuts in the universal credit work allowances will unpick the good work of the universal credit: the work coaches, the incentives, the living wage and the free childcare. It will be like a travellator in an airport. We want the travellator to help people—especially those on low incomes—to travel into work. It will now be switched in another direction; actually, it will be going in the opposite direction, which will mean that 2.7 million working families will on average be £1,500 worse off without the benefit of work allowances. It matters greatly to these families. It also does not make sense that these families who are claiming universal credit will be worse off than families protected under legacy tax credits payments living in the same town, the same neighbourhood or even the same street. That is not fair.
There is cross-party concern about this, and a shared concern among campaign groups, which are not always on the same wavelength. Gingerbread, focusing its concerns on single parents as well as couples with children, makes the point that working single parents in the poorest fifth of households are set to lose nearly 7% of their income. A home-owning single parent working full time will be over £3,000 a year worse off without the work allowances, and if a second earner enters work he or she will lose 65p in every pound earned. CARE also made this point in relation to recognising our support for marriage in the tax system, which it says could be undermined. In particular, single-earner married couples on median incomes with two children will lose significantly without the work allowances.
My hon. Friend is rightly dealing with the levels and the amounts, but may I take him back to one point that came out of the dynamic study, which was that if we stayed with the purposes of the original universal credit with that allowance, it would amount to a minimum of an extra 300,000 people in work over and above existing forecasts? That is a positive reason for staying with those allowances.
I agree, and it helps to revolutionise things for everyone—those on low incomes and those on median incomes. A one-earner married couple on a median income with two children—those with children are particularly impacted, given the costs—will lose some £2,211.04 per year without the allowances.
This Opposition debate is plainly timely as it comes ahead of the autumn statement. Before all the universal credit is rolled out and has its full impact, we want to make sure that that impact fulfils the first line of the amendment: to ensure that work pays. Welfare reform rises and falls on this basis, and that is why I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) for all the work he has done. That is the basis of our welfare reform. We want this to rise to meet the aspirations of everyone who can work—families who have been put in poverty, and vulnerable disabled people who are the subject of this debate.
I urge Ministers to take back to the Chancellor the message coming from both sides of the House and from campaign groups, who are united in their concerns for these low-income families, and to ensure that universal credit, which is doing great work across our country, is given the boost it deserves and that work allowances are regenerating it to ensure that work pays.
One of the beneficial consequences of the recent change in Government personnel is that we are no longer subjected on a daily basis to the phrase “long-term economic plan.” We know of course from recent press reports that that is because the Government do not really have an economic plan at present, and many of the pre-existing problems in our economy are now exacerbated considerably by the decision to leave the EU. We also know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, that it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that pretty much every forecaster says things are going to get extremely challenging. Six months ago we could have got $1.50 for £1; today, we would be lucky to get $1.25. As those changes feed through, we are going to see a rise in prices and in inflation.
Yet at the same time we have had practically no real-terms growth in wages over the last 10 years, and that is likely to continue. Although there has been a blip in 2016 as a result of the increase in the national minimum wage, it is likely to be just that; we are not likely to see sustained growth in wages, so revenues are not going to increase as a result of increasing wages. This will present the Government with an even more challenging problem; they will be facing rising costs, and revenues not keeping pace with them, and they are going to have to take some difficult decisions.
The point about the currency has been made several times now. I campaigned for remain, but in terms of the cost of living, which is obviously key to this debate about poverty and living standards, the hon. Gentleman must surely recognise that our country’s economy is unbalanced and there is significant benefit from a lower pound. We need to export more if we are to have sustainable growth.
The Government are faced with a big challenge, and I think how they manage the necessary deficit in the years ahead will be the measure of this Government. The Prime Minister has talked about just-managing families; we will have to see whether or not we have a Government who, as they have to make the necessary cuts and adjustments to their plans, are prepared to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. It is said that the mark of a civilised society is how it treats the worst-off and the most vulnerable; we will see in next week’s autumn statement whether the Government really believe that.
The Government have a bit of form on this question. Just last week there was a report from a United Nations committee which put the Government in the dock for the way in which their policies affect disabled people in our society. It is not the first such report; there have been many others, yet the reaction from the Government was to dismiss this out of hand in a fairly cavalier manner and say that the criticisms were unfounded. Well, these reports cannot all be wrong, and we need a better approach from the Government to these reports if disabled people in our community are going to feel with any confidence that their concerns are taken seriously.
I do not have a lot of time, but I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about the cuts to employment and support allowance. Perhaps over 500,000 people will be affected by them, including over 60,000 in Scotland and over 1,300 in my constituency. It has been said that the cut of £30 a week in this benefit, bringing it into line with jobseeker’s allowance, is being introduced to make sure that there are no incentives to be on the higher rate. Not a single one of us in this Chamber could live on £109 a week, but let us take the Government argument at face value. It is not an incentive, and the argument that it is fails to recognise the very real costs that people in this category have as a result of their illness or disability.
Over 1,300 of my constituents will be affected by this, as I have said, and I want to read into the record the testimony of two of them. The first is Dean Reilly, a single father of three children. Four years ago he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to leave his job at British Gas. Dean is currently in the work-related activity group of ESA and gets the £30 a week. He tells me in his correspondence that this money means he has more security, independence and confidence. It helps to mitigate some of the extra costs he incurs because of his health condition, and it helps to compensate for the fact that his co