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Commons Chamber

Volume 617: debated on Monday 21 November 2016

House of Commons

Monday 21 November 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I hope that colleagues in all parts of the House will want to join me in congratulating Andy Murray on winning the ATP world tour finals last night in London and on finishing the year as the world men’s singles No. 1.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Older Workers

1. What steps the Government are taking to give older workers the support they need to find or stay in work. (907331)

7. What steps the Government are taking to give older workers the support they need to find or stay in work. (907337)

May I, on behalf of the Government, echo the thoughts about Andy Murray? He is a great Scotsman who has made a great contribution.

There are more older people in employment than ever before, but we know that there is more to do. We recently appointed Andy Briggs, chief executive of Aviva UK, as business champion for older workers to promote the benefits they bring to employers.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. What more are the Government doing to build on the fuller working lives strategy that they launched in 2014?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of the fuller working lives strategy. We will be publishing a new strategy in the new year to build on the success of the fuller working lives strategy, and that will set out its future direction. I am particularly keen that it should be led by employers, because I think that employers are the best people to persuade other employers of the benefits of employing older workers. That is true for the employers themselves and for individuals, and it is particularly true for the public sector.

Many older workers have caring responsibilities, which can make it hard for them to remain in work or even to return to work. What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage employers to work responsibly with those very valuable employees?

I agree with my hon. Friend that those employees are often particularly responsible and have particular needs, if they have caring responsibilities. That is why the Government recognise the benefits of flexible working. We extended the right of workers to request flexible working from June 2014. We have also introduced older claimant champions in jobcentres, and we are working with employers to help to highlight the benefits of employing older workers. Aviva, which I have mentioned in the context of Andy Briggs, is launching a new pilot scheme this Friday specifically to support carers. I very much hope that other companies will follow its example.

A year ago, Ministers committed to publishing an annual report on progress towards full employment, for the benefit of older workers and others. Does that commitment still stand, and if it does, when will the first of those annual reports be published?

Yes, it does. We will be publishing one next year, and I am happy to report in the interim to the right hon. Gentleman that there are more older people in employment than ever before. There are 9.8 million workers aged 50-plus in the UK. That is an increase of 1.5 million over the last five years, and I think that that is one of the strengths of our labour market.

But is it not true that there has been a relative decline in the proportion of older women in employment? Is the reason for that just the increase in the pension age, or is it that the Government are not providing the support for carers and the other things that enable older women to work?

I am afraid I cannot agree with the right hon. Lady on that. Currently, there are 4.05 million women aged 50 to 64 in employment. That compares with just under 3.5 million five years ago. As a percentage, it has gone up from below 60% to more than 65%. The benefits of work for older people are being applied to women as well, and that, of course, gives them much more control over their own lives.

On the question about carers, it is now seven months since the minimum wage was increased, but the income threshold for carer’s allowance has not risen in line with the minimum wage. Will the Secretary of State act to raise it by just £5 a week to ensure that carers are not forced to cut their hours because they are caught in this loophole?

Indeed. Carer’s allowance applies to people other than older workers, as you will be aware, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady will also be aware that carer’s allowance was increased significantly at the most recent announcement. We keep all benefits under review.

Older employees bring many benefits to employers, including turning up on time, taking pride in their appearance and passing on a wealth of life experience to their younger colleagues. We have national recognition schemes for innovation, technology and exports. Has the Secretary of State thought of introducing a national recognition scheme for those employers who employ a large number of older workers?

As so often, my hon. Friend makes an innovative and good point. We work with employers to see what the best form of recognition is for employers who are particularly good at ensuring that older workers can carry on in the workforce, but I will certainly consider his suggestion.

Self-employment

Many people aspire to be their own boss. Although the bulk of the growth in employment in recent years has been in employment, there are now 4.7 million self-employed people in the UK labour market, accounting for approximately 15% of everyone in work.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but notwithstanding what he has said there is a growing issue of bogus self-employment. Trade unions such as the GMB have been at the forefront of exposing such practices, so will he commit to working with trade unions as part of the ongoing Taylor review?

Of course, what the hon. Lady refers to does not apply to the great majority of people in self-employment, but some concerns have been expressed. The growth of atypical employment was behind the Prime Minister quite rightly saying that there would be a proper review under Matthew Taylor. That review will look at a whole range of things, as its terms of reference are quite broad: rights, responsibilities, representation, training, representation of under-represented groups and so on.

19. I am glad we are doing so much to help the self-employed get into business, but so many of them are on the legacy system for support rather than universal credit. What are we doing for those people? (907349)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are launching a test—face-to-face and on a voluntary basis, from Jobcentre Plus work coaches—for self-employed people currently in receipt of tax credits. A range of support material is also available at gov.uk.

Ordering presents online is now a normal part of Christmas for many people, but there have been disturbing reports recently of delivery drivers who are classed as self-employed working dangerously long hours for less than the national living wage. Those workers make a vital contribution to the functioning of the digital economy. Will the Minister commit to meeting Labour’s five tests for social security for the self-employed?

I join the hon. Lady in recognising the necessity of looking at these issues. National living wage enforcement is very important. That is why we have raised the budget for it, as well raising the maximum penalty. As for the exact definition of self-employment, she will know that there are variations in definition for tax purposes and employment law purposes. The Matthew Taylor review is looking at precisely these issues to make sure that the appropriate protections are in place while enabling more and more people to avail themselves of the opportunities in the new economy.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We know that many more disabled people want to get into work, and one route is through self-employment. I am pleased to be able to say that more than a fifth of the participants in the new enterprise allowance scheme are people with a declared disability, but there is a great deal more we can do.

Disabled People: Recruitment and Retention

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that employers are supported in recruiting and retaining disabled people. (907333)

15. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that employers are supported in recruiting and retaining disabled people. (907345)

18. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that employers are supported in recruiting and retaining disabled people. (907348)

We already support employers through the new Disability Confident scheme, Access to Work and the Fit for Work service. Other measures are planned. The Green Paper consultation will provide further insight into how we can support employers and their disabled employees.

What advice can my hon. Friend offer to people such as my constituent Jehanzaib Sabih, who is deaf, so struggles to speak on the telephone, worked hard to obtain a university degree and yet is really struggling to find employment in the financial sector?

A lot of our bespoke expertise lies in the partner organisations we work with. If my hon. Friend contacts Sarah Holtham, who is the work coach at the Northampton jobcentre, she will facilitate a meeting with Deafconnect for him and his constituent. It also does a huge amount of work getting placements in the financial services sector, in particular with Nationwide, whose headquarters are in his constituency.

Following numerous successful Disability Confident events, we launched the small employer offer directly to engage, encourage and signpost new employers to take advantage of this often overlooked wealth of talent. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of this vital pilot?

As part of the small employer offer, we will introduce over 100 employment advisers to small employers, and the feedback we have had is that that is very welcome—in particular, for organisations that do not have their own human resources departments.

Recalling the very happy days when my hon. Friend was training for her diving competition in Southend, will she join me in congratulating Southend Adult Community College and Poundland on leading the way in employing disabled people in Southend?

I am familiar not only with the diving boards at Southend but with that excellent college, which has done many things well, including understanding that the built environment has a huge, positive role to play in ensuring that people with profound and multiple physical and learning disabilities can achieve their full potential.

Very many individuals who previously received disability living allowance and who now receive personal independence payments are prevented from travelling to work—their Motability vehicles are being taken away because they do not qualify for the higher rate mobility component. This is a serious issue for people who are working, want to work and for whom the Government are making things more difficult. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I would point out that more people now have access to Motability than before, but I understand the problems that the hon. Gentleman raises, and we are looking at this in the Department.

May I put on record congratulations to Andy Murray on his magnificent achievement and also congratulate his brother, Jamie Murray, who will end the year as doubles world No. 1? What Scotland lacks in football prowess, we more than make up for in tennis, and we are immensely proud of both Murray brothers.

Last week, Members on both sides of the House made it clear to Ministers that cutting employment and support allowance for those who are in the work-related activity group by nearly £30 a week, with corresponding cuts to universal credit, is not acceptable when the Government are still consulting on their Green Paper on closing the disability employment gap and do not have adequate support in place. Has the Minister discussed the outcome of last week’s debate with the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement and impressed on him the need to postpone these punitive cuts?

I point out to the hon. Lady that the support that needs to be in place for those members of WRAG will be in place, and I gave the detail of exactly when that would be in place—before new claims come online—but I must stress that, as well as enabling people to endure and cope with such situations and the associated costs of living, we have an obligation to help them to get out of those situations. I have given assurances to the House that we will do both.

The loss of the limited capability for work element of universal credit will mean that thousands of working disabled people will be about £1,500 a year worse off. Does the Minister think that slashing the incomes of working disabled people sends the right message about the Government’s commitment to those who are just about managing?

We are spending more money on disability benefits, and we are doing more in terms of support, so I do not recognise the position that the hon. Lady outlines.

23. The evidence is clear that work can be good for people’s health and particularly their mental health. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should be working with GPs and healthcare professionals to support people with mental health issues to stay in work or to get back into work as soon as possible after leaving employment? (907354)

Yes, I do, which is why we have brought forward a Green Paper, and we will be consulting on it until February. In the meantime, where we can make progress and foster the local connections and relationships between employment support and healthcare professionals and others those individuals will need support from, we will do so, and the flexible support fund, which goes live in December, will do that.

On behalf of Labour, I offer my congratulations to Andy Murray.

The prospect of a further £1,500-a-year cut in support to sick and disabled people found not fit for work, on top of the previous £28 billion of cuts, fills many with dread. Why is the Secretary of State touting the propaganda that the cut will incentivise disabled people to find work, when his Department’s own research says the opposite? Will he listen to MPs on both sides of the House who unanimously rejected his policy last Thursday, and stop the cut in the autumn statement?

As I pointed out at length, we will mitigate the financial cut to the WRAG group through several measures, including the flexible support fund, which will help with costs related directly to work, and through other measures to help with costs not directly related to getting into work. I have stated to the hon. Lady several times in the last week that we have to do both those things. We need to ensure someone’s liquidity and financial resilience, but we must also ensure that they have other kinds of support. We will not pause that support when it commences in April.

Women’s State Pension Age

4. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907334)

5. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907335)

11. Whether his Department plans to take steps to introduce new transitional protection for women adversely affected by the acceleration of increases in the state pension age. (907341)

The Government will not be introducing further transitional protection beyond the £1.1 billion already in place. Going any further could not be justified, given that the underlying imperative must be to focus public resources on those most in need.

That is a very disappointing response. There are 10,000 WASPI women in Hull, and with 4,100 names, Hull’s was the largest WASPI petition presented to the House last month. Labour has suggested changes to pension credit that could be financed by clawing back handouts to the wealthiest in order to help these women. Is it not about time that the Minister understood that these WASPI women will not go away until justice is done and they get a fair deal?

As the hon. Lady has mentioned, Labour proposed using pension credit as a transition mechanism for helping these women. This was discussed extensively during our debates on the Pensions Act 2011 as it went through Parliament, and it was decided that £1.1 billion would instead be used as transitional relief.

It is quite obvious from the Minister’s response that he is fed up with these questions, but I will keep asking them so long as I have women, such as my constituent Gillian Purcell, coming to me and saying, “I’m 60. I’ve worked all my life, but my body is telling me I can’t do it any more without a pension”. When will the Government do the honourable thing and start looking after the WASPI women?

The cost of reversing the changes varies depending on whom one asks. The different political groups have come up with different amounts, varying between £7 billion and £30 billion, and that is quite apart from the substantial practical problems, such as risk of legal challenge, deliverability and all the problems associated with such options.

I recently spoke to a constituent working in a care home who was incredibly distressed at the thought of having to work another seven years in an increasingly physically demanding job, especially as she had made retirement plans to look after her daughter’s children so that her daughter could go back to work. What assessment has the Department made of the implications not only for the women affected but for their families too?

As the hon. Lady implies, the Department has considered this matter long and hard. The current average age of exit from the labour market for women is 63.1 years, which is well above the previous women’s state pension age of 60.

I just want to make it clear that it is not just on the Opposition Benches that there are concerns about this matter. Of course we do not know what the autumn statement will say on Wednesday, but we ought at least to keep options open, because the current state of affairs is not very satisfactory.

As my hon. Friend knows, the public finances are very complicated, and I know that he intends to wait until Wednesday to hear what the Chancellor has to say, but this matter has been looked at long and hard and transitional funds of more than £1.1 billion have been allocated. The change to the state pension age was discussed and enacted in 1995. Since then, there have been further Acts and all this has been extensively discussed.

I understand that reverting to the 1995 state pension timetable would cost something in the region of £39 billion. Does the Minister agree that it is easy to criticise the Government over this policy, but more difficult to explain where the money would come from for any policy changes?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with Labour’s proposal on pension credit is that it does not reflect what is actually sought by the WASPI campaign, which goes right back to the Pensions Act 1995? That would almost certainly be illegal—[Interruption]—under the rules of fair progress for both sexes on pensions, and it would cost an absolute fortune?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I heard a Labour Member shouting, “Tell that to the destitute.” Well, we have a very good benefits system in this country, and I am sure that those people who are destitute are very familiar with it.

The Minister has made it very clear that the Government will not act further to help those affected by the ill-managed change to people’s pension age. Will he tell us whether he or the Secretary of State have had any discussions with the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement about whether there might be additional help for those most affected?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I can do no better than repeat that the transitional arrangements have taken place and that Government policy is very clear. I would not want him to think or believe that there will be any change on this.

Clearly there have been no discussions with the Chancellor. In the Westminster Hall debate on the issue, we heard about many people who have been left destitute and are living in poverty as they care for elderly relatives who may be unwell, but not ill enough to qualify for employment and support allowance, and about many others who are in dire straits. The Government have no intention of doing anything to help them and they have rejected Labour’s first-step proposal of extending pension credit to both women and men who are being denied their state pension for years to come. I ask the Minister to think again. Assuming that his hands are tied by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, will he set up a dedicated proactive helpline for those affected so that they can access the social security benefits that the Minister says are sufficient to meet their needs?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a very good benefit system in this country and people in every area are well aware of how to access it. There are Jobcentre Plus offices and help available in every local area. If right hon. or hon. Members wish to write to me about individual constituents, as they do, I will be happy to refer them to the places in their local areas.

Autumn Statement

8. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential effect of the autumn statement on his Department. (907338)

12. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential effect of the autumn statement on his Department. (907342)

16. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential effect of the autumn statement on his Department. (907346)

I am happy to confirm that I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I will not be pre-empting what he will be saying in his statement to the House on Wednesday.

That is a shame. The Resolution Foundation has suggested that the best way to help the 6 million just-managing households would be to scrap the planned cuts to universal credit, including the reduction in work allowances that could see losses of up £2,800 for a working single parent. Does the Secretary of State agree that, on Wednesday, the Government need to move beyond the soundbites and reverse these cuts before low-income families pay the price?

No, I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the tremendous successes we have achieved in getting people into work. We have employment at historic high rates. Very specifically, because of the introduction of the living wage, the latest Office for National Statistics data show that the group whose pay is going up the most—more than 6% last year—are the lowest-paid workers. I think that that is the system working exactly as it should.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that with the fall in the pound since the Brexit vote, prices are being pushed up by about 2.6%. This means that there could be a rise in inflation that would coincide with this Government’s benefit freeze, adding even more pressure on low-income families. Does not the Minister agree that in view of that situation, we should get rid of the benefit freeze in the autumn statement?

I am sure that we shall receive a list of bids from members of the Scottish National party. I repeat that it is not for me to pre-empt my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s autumn statement but, as I said to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), the purpose of the various benefit changes—and, indeed, the whole benefits system—is to enable people to get into work so that they can not only earn more money, but take more control over their lives. In that respect, the system is working historically well. We have more people in work, more women in work, and fewer children growing up in workless households than ever before, and that is a huge achievement.

Despite assurances from the Government that there would be no more austerity-driven benefit cuts, any family whose third or subsequent child is born after April 2017 will not qualify for child tax credit, which could mean a loss of more than £2,000 per child. Does the Secretary of State agree that to protect just-managing families, this repugnant measure must be abandoned on Wednesday?

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said at the weekend, the House has already voted for certain benefit cuts. We do not intend to make any new cuts in benefits during the current Parliament, but Parliament has decided on various measures, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and we shall be implementing those measures.

A great many families who struggle to get by each month do not receive universal credit; indeed, they do not receive any welfare payments at all. We should not fall into the trap of defining this issue solely by the benefits system, and we should therefore not commit ourselves to reversing those cuts. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that there is a strong case for sitting down with the Chancellor and looking into what more we can do to help people on low incomes, and to support families who struggle to get by month after month?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is not purely about the payment of benefits; it is about a system that enables and helps people to get into work, or back into work, and to make progress once they are in work. As I am sure my right hon. Friend will have observed, that is the thrust of the work and health Green Paper, which is specifically designed for people with a disability or long-term health problem who have often have found it particularly difficult to find work in the past. We want to find new, innovative ways of helping those people so that they can enjoy the wider success of the modern labour market.

Unemployment in Corby, in east Northamptonshire, has fallen by more than 50% since 2010. We have seen falls in youth unemployment, and record private investments that are coming on stream will bring thousands of new jobs. As well as ensuring that all the right support is being provided, will my right hon. Friend call on the Chancellor for more of the same when it comes to job opportunities?

I certainly will. I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituency is sharing so fully in the wider benefits of the more flexible, dynamic and innovative labour market that we have created over the past few years. I am sure he has found that for many of his constituents—along with other people throughout the country—work is absolutely the best route out of poverty, and they are benefiting from what has been done in the past. I assure him that we will continue to take such action.

22. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that a single parent with one child under the age of four, working full time on a minimum wage, will be up to £3,600 a year worse off by 2020. Does the Secretary of State think that the changes in welfare policy are fair, or will he be urging the Chancellor to reverse the cuts in universal credit in this week’s autumn statement? (907353)

I do think that the changes are fair. I also think that much of the problem with the various pieces of analysis that have been produced by a number of think-tanks is that they do not assess the effects of getting more people into work, or—I mentioned this earlier—ensuring that they make progress when they are in work. Both those actions help people’s family incomes, which is, I think, the way to give them more long-term security and to ensure that they do not just get out of poverty, but stay out of poverty.

The Government’s flagship universal credit programme has been in trouble almost since day one, which has undermined the important principle of always making work pay more than social security. Two and a half million people in low-paid work will be, on average, more than £2,000 a year worse off as a result of the Government’s cuts in universal credit work allowances. How can the Secretary of State justify his mantra that work is the route out of poverty when, under this Government, there are 7 million working families in poverty and the cut in their support will make the position worse? Why will he not honour his pledge to make work pay and ensure that the cut is reversed in the autumn statement?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis of universal credit. The great thing about it is precisely that it does make work pay. We all remember the cliff edges that people were faced with: once they started to work more than 16 or 30 hours a week, they had to decide whether they would be better off in work or on benefits. That is a terrible choice to put before someone. The whole point of universal credit, which we are steadily rolling out, is that work always pays. People know that if they go into work, or if they work extra hours, they will always benefit from that. If she does not accept that, I am afraid that she and I fundamentally disagree about the fact that work is the best route out of poverty. She appears to be denying that fact.

Universal Credit

Last week, we announced the remainder of the roll-out of universal credit full service through to September 2018. Universal credit is now being delivered in every jobcentre and local authority, with over 400,000 claimants now receiving it.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Given that one is more likely to be employed, to work more and to earn more on universal credit than on JSA, will he confirm, on the mechanics and progress of the roll-out, that the test-and-learn approach is enabling difficulties to be quickly identified and resolved so that the roll-out can be delivered smoothly in the next few months?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the technical aspects of the roll-out. We have always been clear that an undertaking of this size and scale would be bound to meet obstacles. That was precisely why we adopted the test-and-learn approach which, I am glad to report, has worked. We have listened to issues raised by our staff and officials, and by claimants and other stakeholders. We now have a solid foundation. Universal credit is delivered in every jobcentre and local authority area. As I said, 400,000 claimants are now receiving it and being supported to build a better future for themselves.

The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is on 25 November. Universal credit is normally paid to a single person within a couple, but that can cause major problems for women or men in an abusive relationship, and asking for split payments could exacerbate the difficulties for someone in that situation. Will the Secretary of State consider automatically splitting payments for each partner in a couple?

I suspect that automatically splitting payments would introduce many technical difficulties and cause more problems than it solves. In individual instances, it is possible to split the payments to deal with problems including that which the hon. Lady rightly identifies. However, automatically splitting payments would probably not be practical.

If the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) can overcome his natural shyness, we will hear him.

17. Vulnerable people in supported housing particularly stand to benefit from the roll-out of universal credit, if it is done in the right way. When I went to visit the Salvation Army housing association in Skegness, there was concern about whether support would be in place to ensure that people spend the money over which they now have control in the best way. What support will be available to ensure that we get that right? (907347)

I pay tribute to the Salvation Army for its work in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in my constituency, where it has just celebrated its 125th anniversary, and throughout the country. We have developed a personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to money advice in the transition to universal credit. A small minority might need alternative payment arrangements, which can be set up in various forms. Particularly in the housing sphere, that is a necessary part of the flexibility that we have with universal credit, so that a small minority who may not be able to cope with the way in which it is normally delivered are helped.

I am dealing with a universal credit case whereby a constituent has been left near-destitute. Following his application, the DWP has alleged that he is not a British citizen, despite the fact that he has an English birth certificate and other proof of his citizenship. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this case to help my constituent and to stop this happening to anyone else as universal credit is rolled out?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss individual cases. Alternatively, if she wants to write to me, I will ensure this is dealt with as quickly as possible.

Frozen Benefits

10. What steps the Government are taking to mitigate the effect of projected levels of inflation on the spending power of frozen benefits. (907340)

The Government are committed to the creation of jobs and making work pay. We know that work is the best route out of poverty, and that is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into work, rather than leaving them to rely on benefits.

It is interesting that that answer does not necessarily address the question that I asked.

Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted the impact that weaker sterling will have on the cost of many of the essentials for which welfare benefits pay—clothing and food. It estimates that inflation for those items could be 2.7% next year. These circumstances were neither known nor anticipated when the decision was made to freeze benefits, so should they not themselves be the catalyst for a review of the decision?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that inflation was in fact down last month. What is really important is that we support people who can work into jobs, and into better jobs—that is the whole premise behind universal credit. We know that getting people into work lifts them out of poverty. Our reforms include increasing the national living wage to £9 an hour by 2020, cutting income tax for more than 30 million people and, of course, the roll-out of universal credit.

Jobcentre Plus and Food Banks

13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential merits of improving co-operation between Jobcentre Plus and food banks. (907343)

Jobcentre Plus district managers have discretion to work with food banks in their areas where those food banks are willing to work with them. This is part of the wider Jobcentre Plus outreach programme with community organisations.

In just six months the Trussell Trust has provided more than 2,000 children in Bristol with emergency food parcels, and east Bristol food bank has had to open another outlet in Fishponds. We know that changes to benefits or delays in payments account for nearly half of those cases, so will the Minister agree to the Trussell Trust’s simple request that a Jobcentre Plus hotline for food bank volunteers is provided?

First, I should say that 90% of out-of-work benefits are paid on time; of course, we always strive to make that better. On the question of whether the Jobcentre Plus network is willing to work with food banks, as I said, there is discretion locally to do that when it makes sense and if the food bank is happy to do so. There are plenty of examples of that happening around the country in terms of both signposting from Jobcentre Plus and work coaches going to food banks.

Personal Independence Payments

14. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that personal independence payment assessments are undertaken fairly and appropriately. (907344)

Our policy is designed by service-user panels, provision is strictly monitored and measured by independent audit, and the provider is held to account through our contract with it.

Citizens Advice and the mental health charity Mind told the Public Accounts Committee in March that private contractor assessors were comprehensively failing claimants with mental health issues, so what progress has been made since in the recruitment of registered mental health nurses by healthcare assessment providers to ensure that claimants with mental health issues get the support they need?

Since then we have introduced a number of new measures, including improved training and additional recruitment. We are also monitoring to ensure those doing assessments are referring to mental health services if they feel that that is required.

Fourteen-year old Olivia in North Cornwall is the primary carer for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis. PIP assessments create uncertainty for Olivia; no one else in her household is able to work or to care for her mother. Will my hon. Friend applaud young carers such as Olivia? In the light of the DWP’s proposed end to reassessment for people with long-term illnesses, will she consider extending this to people who rely on children to care for them until such time as those children have finished further education?

I certainly pay tribute to Olivia and the thousands like her who do a physically and emotionally demanding job for their loved ones. We recognise the principle. We have made changes to ESA reassessments and the Green Paper affords us the opportunity to look at how that principle could be applied to PIP. It might be to my hon. Friend’s constituent’s advantage to have further PIP assessments because her needs might increase, but there is an opportunity to have a much more streamlined process, which I hope the Green Paper will deliver.

Does the Minister not realise how wildly wrong some of these assessments can be? I had a constituent with cerebral palsy who was told that he would get no mobility component with his personal independence payment, meaning that he risked losing his car and therefore his ability to work. Are any financial sanctions imposed on the contractor for getting such assessments so wildly wrong and hence threatening people’s jobs?

I think the hon. Lady’s question related to PIP. We have also introduced other ways in which we can measure a contractor’s performance, including the use of clinical data. Whether in relation to PIP or to ESA, we need to ensure that the evidence needed to make these judgments is submitted early in the process. We are doing some work to ensure that that happens, and it is improving things considerably.

Supported Housing Sector

20. What plans his Department has to help ensure long-term, sustainable and predictable funding for the supported housing sector. (907350)

In his written ministerial statement to the House of Commons on 15 September, the Secretary of State confirmed that from 2019-20 we will be introducing a new funding model for supported housing. I can also confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, will today publish a consultation document to develop the details that will underpin the new funding model, and the evidence review of supported housing in Great Britain.

One in five people affected by severe mental illness rely on supported housing. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health about the effect that these policy changes have had on those who suffer from a mental illness?

Colleagues from the DCLG and I have had extensive discussions with the supported housing sector since 15 September, and those conversations will continue now that the consultation document has been published.

Workplace Pension

24. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people have the opportunity to save into a reliable workplace pension. (907355)

Automatic enrolment will give about 11 million people the opportunity to save into a workplace pension scheme, all of which must meet qualifying criteria and minimum requirements. I am pleased to say that just under 7 million people have already been enrolled by more than 293,000 employers.

It is welcome that more people are joining pension schemes, but the Pensions Regulator issued 3,700 penalty notices in the quarter to September, up from 861. Does that perhaps suggest that this process is becoming a bit too cumbersome for small businesses?

The vast majority of small employers are meeting their automatic enrolment duties on time and without the need for any enforcement action. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the regulator has issued more fixed penalty notices this quarter, but this is proportionate to the number of employers now implementing automatic enrolment.

Topical Questions

Since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have been determined to look at the benefits processes to ensure that they are working in a fair and proper way. As part of that ongoing work, I have announced an extension to the groups that can access hardship payments immediately following a sanction. Those groups now include people with a mental health condition and homeless people. This change will help to ensure that sanctions do not discourage those vulnerable groups from engaging fully with the welfare system, and that we have a system that is fair, that protects the most vulnerable and that supports people into work.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said to the House. The new figures from the Office for National Statistics show an increase of 590,000 disabled people in employment over the past three years, and I am particularly pleased that the employment rates for disabled people in my local authority areas of Hart and of Basingstoke and Deane are 16.3% and 14% above the national average. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming those figures? Can he also assure me that this Government will commit to building on this success by continuing to reduce the disability employment gap?

I am delighted to hear about the figures in my hon. Friend’s area, which reflect the national move that has narrowed the disability employment gap by 2.3% over the past year. There is an enormous amount still to do, which is why we produced the joint Green Paper with the Department of Health. It is a central task for this Department over the next three years, and we will pursue it with as much vigour as we can.

T5. New PIP criteria have meant a reduction in the unaided walking criterion to qualify for the Motability scheme from 50 metres to 20 metres. Three of my constituents originally failed under the new criteria and were threatened with the removal of their car if they could not pay for it themselves. Like 60% of appellants, they won on appeal. Will the Minister consider maintaining Motability payments during the appeal process and, more importantly, reinstating the 50-metres criterion? (907360)

That particular criterion, of which I am very aware, is obviously not the sole criterion—many other factors are taken into account. I wish to do more on Motability, and we are looking closely at the whole area.

T2. I continue to work with small businesses across my constituency while auto-enrolment is rolled out. I was heartened by last week’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report, which showed that that 22 to 29-year-olds in particular have seen a massive boost in pension coverage. What are the Government doing to ensure that everyone in my constituency and across the United Kingdom has the opportunity of saving for a good-quality workplace pension? (907357)

I can reiterate the fact that plans to expand auto-enrolment are happening, and hundreds of thousands of people are signing up, which is a significant improvement. As for the self-employed and other people who are not in the scheme, that is just the sort of thing that we should be looking at in our 2017 review of automatic enrolment.

T6. Given that the Department promised to increase the number of people supported by the Access to Work programme, will the Minister tell us why fewer people are now in receipt of Access to Work than in the last year of the previous Labour Government? (907361)

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures, but I do not recognise what he says. We have actually expanded such schemes, and the Green Paper asks what more we can do. We want to ensure that everyone who wants to get into work has the necessary equipment and support to do so.

T4. These days, many more people seem to be working until they are much older, and few things are more depressing than such people retiring after having worked and put into their private pensions and then getting hammered with taxation until they drop. Is the Department in discussions with the Chancellor about imaginative ways of rewarding people who have worked all their lives and have just done the right thing? (907359)

I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend does not work until he drops, but I take his main point that people are retiring later. As part of the policy of continually reducing taxation on people, I am sure that the Treasury will be looking at the matter in future. With pension freedoms and the tax-free element that pensioners enjoy, the good news is that there is much more scope for pensioners to do the kind of thing he mentions.

The IFS’s projections are for the IFS to explain, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the facts: the proportion of people living in relative poverty is near its lowest level for more than 30 years; and, since 2010, 300,000 fewer people, 100,000 fewer working-age adults, and 100,000 fewer children are in poverty. The whole House should welcome those figures.

T7. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is a whole-system approach to viewing work as a health outcome? (907362)

I point my hon. Friend towards the joint Department of Health and DWP Green Paper that we have just published. It represents a key opportunity. If we want to, it is early enough in this Parliament to reform things such as the work capability assessment to ensure that support—whether from our services or from healthcare—gets to the people who need it.

By Wednesday’s autumn statement, it will be 505 days since the Government first announced the two-child policy and the rape clause in the summer Budget 2015. The Resolution Foundation estimates that that policy will put 200,000 children into poverty by 2020. The Government still cannot tell us how it will actually work, and there is a measly 38-day consultation in which the public can respond. When will the Government finally admit that the rape clause and the two-child policy are completely unworkable and scrap the policy?

Difficult decisions had to be made in welfare reform, and the vast majority of families with children have two children or fewer. This is one decision that had to be made, and it applies only to new cases and will not take money away from those already in receipt of help. On the exemptions that the hon. Lady mentions, these are some of the most difficult and sensitive topics. It is right that we have a full consultation and that we work closely with experts within the sector to ensure that we get the process exactly right.

T9. I was very pleased to hear last week from the Minister for Disabled People that she really understands the extra cost that people face in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. She talked a lot about liquidity. She gave a reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that the people who would no longer receive the extra ESA WRAG benefit would be compensated financially in other ways. Will she clarify that? (907364)

Yes, I would be very happy to give those reassurances. In addition to discretionary payments that can be made through the work coach with the flexible support fund—[Interruption.] Yes, it has always been the case. Those payments are in relation to the costs that people incur from getting into work. As for those other costs that are not directly related to getting into work, we are looking at how we can reduce those outgoings, and there are a number of other national and locally administered schemes that would mitigate those costs. I am very clear that we have to do both things. We have to ensure that someone can endure and cope with the situation in which they find themselves, but we must also bring forward that support in April to enable them to get out of a situation.

With around £4 billion of child support debts still outstanding and DWP’s own figures to March this year showing that 90,000 non-resident parents have not paid child support in full, will the Secretary of State tell the House where extra resources can be found to ensure that those parents who are due child maintenance for the care of their children receive it in full and on time?

We encourage paying parents to pay their maintenance on time and in full and to avoid the accrual of arrears. However, if a paying parent fails to pay on time, we aim to take immediate action to recover the debt and re-establish compliance. We have a range of strong enforcement powers, including seizing property and commitment to prison. We attempt to re-establish compliance initially through a one-off card payment, or negotiated agreement, deduction from the paying parent’s earnings, or deduction directly from an individual’s bank account. We are currently in the process of responding to a consultation run earlier this year on using powers to deduct from joint bank accounts.

T10. Will the Minister allow alternative payment arrangements for universal credit claimants with complex needs to begin right at the start of their tenancies, and will the Government take steps to ensure that such arrangements are delivered swiftly? (907365)

The DWP has long recognised the challenges that some claimants, particularly those with multiple or complex needs, may face in the transition to universal credit. That is why we have developed the personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to suitable financial products and money advice. For the small minority who need them, alternative payment arrangements can be set up. All APA cases are dealt with urgently and the majority of cases are processed within the first assessment period and within a five-day average clearance time.

It was a long overdue victory for common sense that those people with chronic illnesses and long-term conditions will no longer be subject to the work capability assessment, but what about our brave veterans in receipt of war pensions? Why are they still subject to work capability assessments?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is one that I, as a former Armed Forces Minister, have discussed with the Department. That is why we have specific questions related to our armed forces in the Green Paper. It is a good idea.

The most challenging gap that we need to bridge in the disability employment statistics is the one relating to people with learning difficulties. In answer to a written question, the civil service was unable to break down the stats to show how many people with learning disabilities were employed. Does the Minister agree that those stats are vital to help us to provide policies and support for people in these circumstances?

I agree absolutely, which is why we are doing that at as local a level as possible. On 5 December we are holding a drop-in session to which every Member of this House will be invited. As well as giving them information about how they can run local events to encourage participation in the Green Paper consultation, we will be giving them some local data so that they can get that local focus on the people we are currently trying to help and the unmet need.

Why does the Secretary of State think that five of his colleagues voted for my motion last week calling on the Government to pause cuts to ESA and universal credit?

Hon. Members are entitled to vote in this House as they like. I am not sure that the Chief Whip would agree with me at all times, but it is a fact. I disagreed with the case that the hon. Gentleman made in that debate. As has been explored over the past hour in this Question Time, a balance clearly has to be struck between keeping the public finances in order and ensuring that our benefits system works as well as possible to help as many people as possible into work. That is what we have been doing successfully for many years now, and that is what we will continue to do.

Universal credit was rolled out in Waveney on 25 May. I am sorry to report that at present it is not going well and many vulnerable people are finding themselves in difficult situations. Can the Secretary of State assure me and my constituents that everything is being done to address these technical issues as soon as possible so that universal credit can play the role for which it was intended?

I am always happy to talk about any technical issues that arise as we roll out this important benefit, and if my hon. Friend wishes to bring them to my attention in detail, I will happily talk to him about them.

Should not those people who were damaged in the contaminated blood scandal by the NHS be passported on to the new PIP regime if they are already in receipt of DLA?

I do not know whether this is an issue that the hon. Lady has raised before. I am sorry if I am not aware of the previous correspondence that she has had with the Department. I would be happy to meet her to discuss that.

PIP continues to lead the way in identifying and supporting those with mental health conditions to a significantly greater degree than DLA, so what more can be done to signpost the people identified to additional support provided by the NHS, charities or the Government pilot?

We have been trialling a number of measures—for example, the mental health trailblazers, which combines employment support advice with psychological support delivered through the NHS, and we are going to roll that out nationally.

Does the Secretary of State understand that the dismissive answers that the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), gave about the problems faced by WASPI women are a slap in the face to women who have worked all their lives and in many cases have retired to look after sick or elderly relatives, thus saving this country millions of pounds? It is time that Ministers recognised that those who have done the right thing ought to be looked at and their situation alleviated.

Since the original legislation was passed more than 20 years ago, and since the Pensions Act 2011, the Government committed £1.1 billion to lessen the impact of the changes for those affected. In the end, we have to address the issue that having the same pension age for men and women is fair, and that at a time when we are all living longer it is necessary, if we are to keep a credible pensions system going, for the pension age to go up gradually for both sexes. [Interruption.] I am sorry that many people in the Labour party do not seem to accept those basic facts of arithmetic, but they are basis facts and the mitigations that were put in place mean that no one has seen their pension age change by more than 18 months compared to the previous timetable—[Interruption.] For 81% of those women the increase will be no more than 12 months. Finally, for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) who is shouting from the Front Bench, other countries have done this faster than the UK. In nine European Union countries, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, all of which run extremely sophisticated welfare systems, the state pension age was 65 for women as far back as 2009, so the Labour party will have to accept these basic facts.

I was hoping there would be time for the remaining two questioners. There is not, but it will have to be found anyway.

On Saturday evening, I met one of my constituents, who came to see me about PIP reassessments for those with deafness-related conditions. The question he wanted me to put to Ministers was whether, as part of the ongoing review of the reassessment process, they will look carefully at the situation relating to this group of individuals.

Yes, the Green Paper will afford us the opportunity to do that. Around certain disabilities, there are some very sensitive issues about how someone might need assistance provided—for example, they might prefer to use sign language, as opposed to assistive technology—which we also need to take into account, and we will do that.

I was recently contacted by a constituent who was asked to complete an evaluation form at the end of a PIP assessment and who alleges that the Atos healthcare professional who conducted the assessment stood over her and watched as she completed the paperwork. I am sure the Minister will share my alarm that people may feel menaced into giving favourable feedback. Will she agree to personally look into this as a matter of urgency?

If the hon. Lady can give me any more specifics about that, I would be very happy to look into it. In terms of the satisfaction reviews that are done, the satisfaction rating is high, and I do not think—[Interruption.] No, we need to give credit where credit is due. But if that kind of practice is going on, or if any Member of this House has evidence or further examples of it, I will be very happy to look into it.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

The inquiry was set up to look at the extent to which institutions in England and Wales failed to protect children from sexual abuse. We know the terrible impact that abuse has on survivors, sometimes for many years.

As the House knows, following the resignation of the previous chair, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appointed as chair Professor Alexis Jay. She has a distinguished career in social work and a long-standing dedication to child protection. She led the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, where she scrutinised the work of social workers and proved her capability to uncover failings across institutions and professions. She is the right person to take this work forward.

Taking the work forward is vital for creating a sense of certainty for victims and survivors. The inquiry has set up 13 strands of investigation, and made 250 formal requests for information from over 120 institutions, with 164,000 documents having now been submitted. It has referred roughly 80 cases a week to the police. It has rolled out the truth project, providing survivors with the opportunity to tell the inquiry what has happened to them. More than 500 people have so far come forward.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 2MC.]

The inquiry has adequate resources to undertake its work, and we will support the inquiry with what it needs. The inquiry remains independent, which means it is not part of Government and is not run by a Government Department.

Professor Jay is mindful of the scale of the task and the need to move forward with pace. That is why she has instigated an internal review of the inquiry’s approach to its investigations, exploring new ways to develop its investigative work, while remaining faithful to its terms of reference. She has made it clear that, if any changes are proposed, the views of those affected will be sought.

We expect the outcome of this review soon. It is crucial that we now give the inquiry the space and support it needs to get on with its job—getting to the truth for victims and survivors—and I urge everyone in the House to do just that.

I thank the Minister for that statement, but where is the Home Secretary, and why has nobody from the Government sought proactively to come to this House to provide reassurance about the serious events that have unfolded over the past week as this inquiry has unravelled in front of our eyes?

Has the Home Secretary met survivors groups since last Thursday? What steps has she taken to establish that the chair and the panel have the expertise and the working relationships for this to succeed? Has anybody from the Home Office investigated why so many lawyers have cited concerns about competency and leadership? Does she expect further resignations? Has a new chief legal counsel been appointed? Is the former chief legal counsel, Ben Emmerson QC, still being paid, and if so, why? What action has the Home Office taken to establish that there was a disclosure of sexual assault, and is she satisfied that that disclosure was dealt with properly by the inquiry? Can she give me a personal assurance that the intelligence services are standing by the commitment to hand over all files and that that is not being obstructed? We heard about Professor Jay’s internal review for the first time in August—where is it?

This is the second time in recent weeks that I have had to ask Ministers to come to the House and account for these failings. They have lost seven senior lawyers, three chairs and several survivors groups, and it is now impossible to see that this inquiry is still operating effectively. This may be the last chance that the Prime Minister and her Home Secretary have to rescue from collapse the inquiry that the Prime Minister set up. Will the Home Secretary now stop hiding behind the smokescreen of independence, recognise that she has responsibility for this inquiry’s success, and get a grip on it?

I am absolutely delighted, as the Minister responsible for vulnerability, safeguarding and counter-extremism, to be here to answer this question. It is absolutely at the core of this Government’s priorities to safeguard children in our country. The Home Secretary was in this House as recently as 17 October answering questions in detail. The Home Affairs Committee has asked detailed questions of the permanent secretary to the Home Office. The hon. Lady is really quite wrong in asserting that there is some sort of smokescreen and hiding behind independence. It is absolutely essential that this inquiry is an independent inquiry. The terms of reference of the inquiry were shaped with the voices and the opinions of the victims, and it is very important that this independence is maintained.

The hon. Lady asked a series of operational questions, all of which are for the chair and the leadership of the independent inquiry. It would be totally wrong for me to answer those questions here, because we would be intervening in the independence of the inquiry. I am confident, as are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, in the ability of Professor Jay to lead this inquiry. It is really important that we all get behind the inquiry so that it can get on and do its really important work in making sure that it gets to the truth and delivers for victims.

I do not for one moment undervalue the intentions of those who set up this inquiry and those who are working with it, although it has had a very rocky road since it was begun. Nor do I underestimate for one moment the trauma felt by those who have been affected by child sex abuse. I have acted in a number of criminal cases in which I have seen with my own eyes the terrible consequences for adults of what happened to them as children. I want to ask my hon. Friend a question from a slightly different angle. I have a constituent who, since the early part of this century, has been left in a hideous, Kafkaesque limbo. He does not know whether he is an accused person or a witness. What is his status in relation to this inquiry? He, like the victims, needs to be told when this is all going to finish, both for him and for the victims. Will my hon. Friend please make some inquiries of the inquiry to ensure that this man can either be prosecuted or set free?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the customary thoughtfulness with which he asked his question and reflected on the importance of this inquiry. As he quite rightly points out, child sexual abuse can have a devastating impact not just on the victims, but on the people caught up in such inquiries. He referred to a particular case that is an operational matter for the police. While I can understand why he wants to bring this matter to a swift conclusion on his constituent’s behalf, these are operational matters for the police, who, quite rightly, are independent of the Home Office.

This inquiry is on its fourth chair. Every time, Ministers have come to the House and asserted that the current chair is the right person to take the inquiry forward. Having said that for the fourth time, why do they expect the House, the public and, above all, the survivors to be reassured? As the Minister has said, this is of course an independent inquiry, particularly as to its conduct and findings, but that does not mean the Home Office can take no responsibility at all.

On the question of the Shirley Oaks survivors who were in the Lambeth children’s home, I have heard the Minister say that she will not answer operational questions, but she will know their concern about having a social worker as the overall chair of the inquiry. They have said they will accept a vice-chair for their strand who is not a social worker. Have Ministers put that to Alexis Jay? Above all—I hope the Minister will not dismiss this as an operational question—the Shirley Oaks survivors want to know what Home Office involvement there was in the monitoring and supervision of the Lambeth children’s home during the period when the historical child abuse occurred. Ministers cannot just let this inquiry run into the sand. The public expect better, this House expects better and the survivors expect better.

I absolutely assure the hon. Lady and every other Member in the House that we will absolutely not let this inquiry run into the sand. It is vital to the full protection of children in our country that we understand the failings of the past, seek remedies for the victims and use that intelligence to improve and have better safeguarding arrangements for children today.

The hon. Lady asked questions about operational details that she knows full well it would be completely inappropriate for me to answer. I can assure her that the chair of the independent inquiry regularly meets survivors groups, and I am sure that she will listen to the concerns raised by the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association. She is undertaking a review to make sure that the inquiry is properly focused to address the really serious concerns that are being raised.

I appreciate that this is an independent inquiry, but my hon. Friend must understand that the victims groups have become upset and disturbed about the nature of the inquiry and how long it is going to take. Will she at least assure me that the scope of the inquiry will not be reduced, and that whatever funds are required by the inquiry will be delivered by the Home Office?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I quite understand that the victims, who have been abused, will feel disappointed at some of the issues that there have been with the inquiry. I quite understand that, but as he says, it is absolutely vital that the independence of the inquiry is maintained. The chair is meeting and engaging with the survivors organisations and individuals to make sure that the inquiry absolutely delivers on its terms of reference, which they themselves shaped. To go back to my initial response to the urgent question, the fact that 80 cases a week are being referred to the police and that over 500 people have come forward to participate in the truth project shows how valuable the inquiry already is to those victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]

We all know that the inquiry has been dogged by setbacks and problems, so it is very disappointing to learn of further difficulties, namely the latest withdrawals and the concerns expressed by groups representing victims and survivors. I am sure that all right-minded people want the inquiry to succeed. We want it to meet its original purpose of investigating historical allegations of institutional child sexual abuse, and, wherever possible, we want, above all, justice for those people whose lives have been irreparably harmed by abuse. Yet, to do so we need to restore and secure confidence in the inquiry and its findings.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s reluctance to address what she considers to be operational matters, when does she anticipate that a suitable legal counsel will be appointed to ensure that the facts are well established throughout the proceedings? Following the resignation of the previous chair in August, does the Minister know whether internal procedures for resolving complaints about staff and panel members have been established? Most importantly—this is categorially not an operational matter—what does she plan to do to restore trust in the proceedings for those survivors of sexual abuse and to regain their support?

I thank the hon. Lady for her series of questions. I will take her last point first. On confidence, there is a huge amount that we can do in this House, and that is to get behind the inquiry. It is open for business. It is worth getting some perspective. Although I am really disappointed that one victims group has decided not to engage with the inquiry at the current time, I am hopeful that it will re-engage in the future. We must remember that it is one group. The inquiry is open for business and getting on with its work.

The question about the legal counsel is for the chair and the leadership of the commission. It is their responsibility to make sure that they appoint the people necessary to undertake the task. I am sure that the chair understands the concerns raised by Members and victims organisations regarding making sure that she gets on with resolving the issues so that the very important work that the inquiry is doing can come to a swift and really good conclusion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the Home Secretary, or any Secretary of State, under the Inquiries Act 2005 is to appoint the chair and the panel and to agree the terms of reference with that chair, and that for a Member to come to this House with an imperious and censorious list of questions, such as those we heard from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), does not help the inquiry and totally fails to understand the law?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a lawyer, for asking such an insightful question. It is very disappointing that Opposition Members are coming to the House and making such censorious claims when what we really need to do is get behind this independent inquiry so that it can do the job for victims and make sure that we all learn what more we can do to keep children in our country safe.

It is not just my constituents who are members of the largest survivors group, Shirley Oaks, whose more than 600 members have said that they no longer have confidence in the chair of the inquiry. White Flowers Alba, Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors and lawyers representing numerous other survivors have also said that. On Friday, I was appalled that one response to Shirley Oaks’ withdrawal of support was a suggestion that it should be compelled to provide to the inquiry the evidence that it has gathered. Its members are survivors of child abuse—they are not criminals. Millions has been spent, there has been no public cross-examination of witnesses yet, and the most senior lawyers are resigning month after month. Does that not reinforce the need for a change in leadership, which is within the purview of Home Office Ministers? What we need is a senior judge of High Court standing or above to lead this inquiry. Why do the Government not act?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is an assiduous constituency MP and he is quite right to raise the concerns of the victims based in his constituency. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary could not have made clearer their confidence in the chairman of the independent commission. It is really important that we carry on with the inquiry and that we let it get on with its vital job of getting to the truth and making sure that we learn the lessons to keep children in our country safe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is to have any degree of public confidence, no one should pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We set up an independent inquiry so that it can get on with its work. It shaped the terms of reference with the victims themselves, and, as we have seen from my response to the urgent question, it is making good progress.

It is a bit rich for Conservative Members to call for patience, understanding and so on. Eighteen years ago in this House I had to bring business to a stop two nights running to get allegations about child abuse in my constituency put on the record. The Waterhouse inquiry was set up, and that took years. There have been subsequent inquiries, one after another. One of the children in my constituency committed suicide before we heard any results from an inquiry. It is absolutely essential that the survivors of abuse have those results and have confidence in what is being done.

In north Wales, for example, it has taken all these years for Chief Superintendent Anglesea to be put on trial and to be sentenced for his involvement in child abuse in north Wales. It was good investigative journalism, not inquiries, that got to the root of his case. I appeal to the Minister: do not ask for patience from the Opposition. We have been patient long enough, and it is just not good enough.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question, and I pay tribute to her for the work she has done in campaigning so assiduously for justice for her constituents. I reassure her and everyone who is here that those lessons have been learned from the past. The inquiry is an incredibly important part of what the Government are doing to learn lessons from the past and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to keep children in our country safe. As a result of people coming forward to the inquiry, as I said in my response to the urgent question, more than 80 referrals a week are being made to the police. Information and evidence gathered by the inquiry are being used to seek the prosecutions that absolutely need to be made, as the right hon. Lady described.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]

This inquiry is doing incredibly important work. Does the Minister agree that the most important aspect is that it is independent of Government? “Independent” is the first word of its title. Does she agree, therefore, that the best thing that Members on both sides of the House can do to support its work is to give it the space it needs to do that work independently?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for absolutely hitting the nail on the head. As constituency MPs, we have all met victims of domestic abuse and violence and children who have been involved in child sexual exploitation, so we know how absolutely devastating this is. It is really important that we do everything we can to support those people and encourage them to come forward to the inquiry. Wherever the evidence takes us, we will seek those solutions and those prosecutions.

It has taken 35 years for Gordon Anglesea to face trial at Mold Crown court, where he was convicted last month and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for historical child abuse offences. While recognising the inquiry’s independence, will the Minister tell the House when the first evidence sessions in public are likely to be, so that my constituents and others can give their evidence of that level of abuse?

If the right hon. Gentleman or his constituents have any evidence whatever, they should go to the inquiry right now. We are not waiting for the end of the inquiry to take action, as I have said before; more than 80 cases are sent to the police every week so that action can be taken. It is really important that people engage with the inquiry and support their constituents in doing so, so that we can seek justice for the victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 4MC.]

I would like to pick up on a point the Minister has already made. This inquiry plays a vital part in protecting vulnerable children for the present and for the future. Will she put it in the context of what else the Government are doing?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The inquiry is incredibly important, but is part of an overarching strategy. We want to do everything we possibly can to keep children in our country safe. We are seeing record levels of prosecutions and huge investment in supporting victims, making sure that we take apart the culture of secrecy and cover-up that contributed to the delays we have heard about from Opposition Members.

The inquiry was set up as a panel inquiry, then turned into a statutory inquiry. Was the biggest mistake not setting up a royal commission modelled on what is happening in Australia, which has had a royal commission for the past few years that is pursuing the issue very successfully and has the victims’ confidence, as well as having their interests at its heart?

Royal commissions can be very important, but they tend to take a very long time. The Government’s view was that an independent inquiry was the best way to learn the lessons and secure the justice that the victims were looking for.

There was speculation over the weekend about the way an inquiry was taking place in Wiltshire. When events might have happened a long time ago, evidence is difficult to corroborate and high-profile figures are involved, there is always a significant risk that things might somehow just get left. Will the Minister assure the House that when victims give evidence, although that evidence might be difficult to corroborate and it might be about things that happened a long time ago, our chief constables and investigating officers up and down the country will go where the evidence takes them, as they should? Will she commit to ensuring that sufficient resources are available so that everyday policing is not affected when these serious matters happen in individual constabularies?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I can absolutely give him the assurance he is looking for—we must go where the evidence takes us. It can be very painful for people to revisit terrible things that happened in the past, but I encourage them, as I am sure he is doing, to come forward, go to the police and give that evidence.

The inquiry has been given the status of one of the most important police functions in our country. The police have the resources to support investigations into historical sexual abuse of children.

On the Opposition Benches there is no question but that the inquiry is and must be independent. But this is a question of confidence, and confidence is not an operational matter. There seems to be an attempt to dismiss the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association as just one group of survivors. I can tell the Minister that that association represents 600 survivors of abuse. It has undertaken two years’ worth of rigorous, detailed, exceptionally high quality research on behalf of survivors and has very powerful evidence. I have raised concerns on the association’s behalf, as have both my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and the Home Affairs Committee, but they have not been answered. I am afraid that it simply is not good enough for the Minister to demand our unswerving confidence when the legitimate questions we have raised have not been answered. I ask her once again: will she intervene to ensure that we can have the confidence in the inquiry that is necessary for it to do the job it needs to do on behalf of victims and survivors?

I absolutely want to put it on the record and correct any doubt in the hon. Lady’s mind that we take every victim’s story extremely seriously. Every victim’s voice must be heard. That is why we set up the inquiry. If I were to intervene, it would no longer be an independent inquiry. It is absolutely essential that it maintains its independence. Professor Jay has a long and established record. She did a really excellent job in Rotherham. If people were to speak to the victims in Rotherham, they would hear the confidence that they placed in her and what a really good job she did there. I would strongly encourage Opposition Members to go back to victims and their organisations and encourage them to re-engage with the independent inquiry and with its chairman, so that we can move forward.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on being granted the urgent question, but I do not think that it has been the best question: there has been a lot of noise from the Opposition and not a lot of clarity from them. [Interruption.] As they are proving, Sir, at this very moment. Does the Minister agree that one of the most important things is that we look after potential child victims of abuse now? Is not the simplest thing that the Government could do to take responsibility for child victims of sexual abuse, especially those who were internally trafficked, away from the Department for Communities and Local Government and make it an independent responsibility of the Home Office, because too many children are re-trafficked into sexual abuse while under the DCLG’s care?

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful question. Bringing us right up to date with the incredibly important work that we are doing to ensure that we keep children safe in our country, while addressing historical issues, is very important and it informs what we do now, but we leave no stone unturned in our determination to make sure that children are safe, including those children, as he rightly points out, who might be trafficked or who are victims of modern slavery. We constantly keep under review our care for those children.

May I remind the Minister that the purpose of setting up this inquiry was to find out the truth and to allow the victims of child sexual abuse to get closure? To achieve that, they have to have confidence in the inquiry. If the inquiry alone cannot command the confidence of victims, the Government still has a role to play. She or the Home Secretary should be meeting the victims’ groups. She should be hearing their concerns directly from them and seeking their remedies if the inquiry is to do the job for which we set it up in the first place.

We have absolute confidence in the inquiry. I respectfully urge everyone in the House today to get behind the inquiry to make sure that it works for victims. More than 500 victims have come forward, and that is leading to cases going forward for the police to take action. It is really important that we send out a strong and united message from the House that we all think that this independent inquiry is vitally important for victims and survivors and that we will all do our best to support the inquiry’s work.

Over a month ago, when I brought up with the Home Secretary in this place the loss of survivor testimonies by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, she suggested that I engage with the inquiry in a slightly more positive manner and that I write to her about the incident. As I have yet to receive a response to the detailed letter that I subsequently sent, and as the Home Secretary is not here today, will the Minister update the House now on what investigation has since taken place into those lost testimonies?

I agree to make sure that the hon. Lady gets a response to her letter and the detailed concerns she raises.

There has never been an official Welsh representative on the inquiry, despite intense lobbying by Welsh Government Ministers, the then Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Social Services Minister, Gwenda Thomas. Considering that this is an England and Wales inquiry, will the Minister give an assurance that there are open lines of communication with the Welsh Government, so that devolved aspects can be appropriately discussed? Will she confirm that the interests of Welsh victims are adequately protected?

Of course, it is really important that people living in Wales, like those living all over our country, can have their voices heard. It is an independent inquiry, however, so I respectfully ask that the hon. Lady makes those representations to Professor Jay to make sure that she is satisfied that victims in Wales feel they are being listened to.

For years, I worked supporting victims of sex abuse. It is absolutely clear to everyone in the House that the seemingly endless cover-ups, scandals and delays will be painful and traumatic for all the victims and survivors. How does the Minister intend to restore trust and integrity to the inquiry as soon as possible?

The hon. Lady draws on her work and personal experience. In working with victims, she made a huge contribution before she came to the House, and I am sure that some of them look at what has happened and feel disappointed, but I can assure her that we are utterly committed to seeing the inquiry through and that we utterly support the chair, Professor Alexis Jay, who we believe is the person to see this through. I encourage the hon. Lady to speak to the victims in her constituency and assure them that this is a top priority for the Government. We will support the independent inquiry to do its job so that the victims she worked with and those all over the country get the justice they seek.

In north Wales, where many offences of child sexual abuse took place, there is extreme scepticism about the Government’s commitment to openness. The Macur review, which reported recently, redacted the names of people in positions of responsibility, some of them Members of the House, because of continuing court proceedings. We now know that Gordon Anglesea has been convicted. If the Minister is committed to openness, will she go back to the Ministry of Justice and ask it to revisit the Macur review and to make open those redacted names to make it clear that there is openness in this inquiry and that, following their conviction for heinous crimes of child sexual abuse, those responsible will be openly put for consideration as part of reports issued by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman says there are concerns about a lack of openness and transparency, which I simply do not accept. This Government have done more than any other to make people accountable, to be more transparent, to open up processes and to make those in authority accountable for their actions.

The question you are asking is about a specific case, but it would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on a case that is going through the courts. I have absolute confidence in our criminal justice system. The matters the hon. Gentleman raises should be raised with the justice system.

First, I should just point out that I was not asking any question, as the Chair does not do so. Secondly, notwithstanding the evident and audible frustration of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), I simply make the point that there has been a full exchange today, but these matters will inevitably be returned to on the Floor of the House, possibly on innumerable occasions, and either the hon. Lady or some other Minister will toddle along to the Dispatch Box to respond. The matter will go on and on. I feel sure of that.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

Members will note that I have, unusually, selected some starred amendments. I have done so in the circumstances applying to this particular Bill—the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), following his point of order on this matter, will be conversant with the issues—because the deadline for tabling amendments had already passed when today’s business was announced last week. In those circumstances, it seemed to me sensible and helpful to the House to proceed in this way.

New Clause 1

Duty to monitor and report on financial sustainability

“(1) The OfS must monitor the financial sustainability of the following registered higher education providers—

(a) those who are funded wholly or partly by a grant, loan or other payment from the OfS under section 37 or 38 (financial support for providers),

(b) those who are not so funded but are eligible to receive such funding under section 37 or 38, and

(c) those who provide higher education courses which are designated for the purposes of section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 (financial support for students) by or under regulations made under that section.

(2) The OfS must include in its annual report a financial sustainability summary for the financial year to which the report relates.

(3) “A financial sustainability summary” for a financial year is a summary of conclusions drawn by the OfS for that year, from its monitoring under subsection (1), regarding relevant patterns, trends or other matters which it has identified.

(4) Patterns, trends or other matters are “relevant” if—

(a) they relate to the financial sustainability of some or all of the registered higher education providers monitored under subsection (1), and

(b) the OfS considers that they are appropriate to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State.

(5) In this section—

“annual report” means the annual report under paragraph 13 of Schedule1;

“financial year” has the same meaning as in that Schedule (see paragraph 12(6)).”—(Joseph Johnson.)

This new clause, which is for insertion after clause 61, requires the OfS to monitor the financial sustainability of registered higher education providers who are in receipt of, or eligible for, certain kinds of public funding. It requires the OfS to include in its annual report a summary of conclusions which it draws from that monitoring regarding patterns, trends or other matters which it has identified relating to the financial sustainability of some or all of the providers monitored and which it considers are appropriate to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 4—Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title

“(1) The OfS must establish a committee called the “Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title”.

(2) The function of the Committee is to provide advice to the OfS on—

(a) the general exercise of its functions under sections 40, 42, 43 and 53 of this Act, and section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;

(b) particular uses of its powers under section 40(1) of this Act; and

(c) particular uses of its powers under section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

(3) The OfS must seek the advice of the Committee before—

(a) authorising a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees under section 40(1) of this Act;

(b) varying any authorisation made under section 40(1) of this Act so as to authorise a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant a category of award or degree that, prior to the variation of the authorisation, it was not authorised to grant; and

(c) providing consent under section 77 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 for an education institution or body corporate to change its names so as to include the word “university” in the name of the institution or body corporate.

(4) The OfS must also seek the advice of UKRI before authorising a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant research awards under section 40(1) of this Act.

(5) The OfS does not need to seek the advice of the Committee before—

(a) revoking an authorisation to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees; or

(b) varying any authorisation to grant taught awards, research awards, or foundation degrees so as to revoke the authorisation of a registered higher education provider or qualifying further education provider to grant a category of award that, prior to the variation of the authorisation, it was authorised to grant.

(6) Subsection (4) applies whether the authorisation being revoked or varied was given—

(a) by an order made under section 40(1) of this Act;

(b) by or under any Act of Parliament, other than under section 40(1) of this Act; or

(c) by Royal Charter.

(7) In providing its advice to the OfS, the Committee must in particular consider the need for students, employers and the public to have confidence in the higher education system and the awards which are granted by it.

(8) The OfS must have regard to the advice given to it by the Committee on both the general exercise of its functions referred to in subsection (2) and any particular uses of its powers referred to in subsection (3).

(9) The majority of the members of the Committee must be individuals who appear to the OfS to have experience of providing higher education on behalf of an English higher education provider or being responsible for the provision of higher education by such a provider.

(10) In appointing members of the Committee who meet these criteria, the OfS must have regard to the desirability of their being currently engaged at the time of their appointment in the provision of higher education or in being responsible for such provision.

(11) The majority of the members of the Committee must be individuals who are not members of the OfS.

(12) Schedule 1 applies to the Committee on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title as it applies to committees established under paragraph 8 of that Schedule.”

This new clause would create a committee of the OfS which fulfils much the same functions as the current Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers.

New clause 7—Automatic review of authorisation

“(1) The OfS must consider whether to vary or revoke an authorisation given under section 40(1) if—

(a) the ownership of the registered provider is transferred,

(b) the owner of the registered provider has restrictions placed on its degree-awarding powers in relation to another registered provider under its control or ownership, or

(c) for any other reason considered to be in the interest of students enrolled at the institution or the public.

(2) A decision taken under sub-section (1) to vary or revoke an authorisation shall be carried