House of Commons
Monday 20 February 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England (Answer to Address)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 24 January, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Robert Fredrick Behrens CBE to the offices of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work is the best route out of poverty, and the benefit cap has been successful in encouraging people into work. Since its introduction, almost 62% of households in Scotland have found work, reduced their housing benefit claim or no longer claim housing benefit at all after having their benefits capped.
Of course we agree with the fiscal framework—the Government drew it up, in conjunction with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government already have extensive benefits powers if they wish to introduce them, but the fact that they do not is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to take up with his colleagues in that Government.
Writing in today’s Daily Record, Scotland’s First Minister has commented that the Scottish Government have yet to receive “confirmation” from the UK Government that when we abolish the bedroom tax the benefit cap will not be applied. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to guarantee that there will be no clawback of social security funding when Scotland abolishes the hated bedroom tax?
I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), because it is for the Scottish Government to take these decisions. They have the power to give benefits, increase benefits and make supplementary payments beyond the benefits available throughout the UK. It is noteworthy that they fail to exercise those powers and Scottish National party Members come to this House to complain about benefits in Scotland, despite having the power to do something about it themselves.
I support the Government’s strategy in this area, but does the Secretary of State accept that those who support it have concerns about what might be happening, certainly in the short run, to families so affected? What research is he carrying out to make sure that those who can move into work do so and that those who cannot do so are looked at sympathetically?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically reasonable point, to which I make two responses. The first is that those who are put into hardship have available to them discretionary housing payments, which have been extensively used by local authorities throughout the country precisely to avoid the problem that he suggests. Secondly, on the other point he makes, some of the research we have done shows that households that have been capped are 41% more likely to go into work than similar, uncapped households. So the policy is very successful in encouraging people to get back to work, which of course is the best thing for them in the long run.
During the passage of the Scotland Bill, UK Ministers gave me and others clear assurances that any income derived from new benefits or top-ups introduced by the Scottish Government using new powers would not simply be clawed back from claimants through the benefit cap or other forms of means-testing, and those commitments were reflected in the fiscal framework. Will the Secretary of State therefore give a cast-iron assurance that that is still the UK Government’s position?
With respect, that is just nonsense; the Scottish Government are working towards the already-published timetable. But there should be absolutely no ambiguity here, so will the Secretary of State now commit that he, his Ministers and his officials will engage positively with Scottish Ministers as they use those new powers to abolish the bedroom tax in Scotland?
I, along with both my Ministers and my officials, engage positively with the Scottish Government all the time. I know that because I go to the meetings, and I have engaged positively with them on this and all the other important issues that we have to discuss in this field.
Mental Health: Support
We have been seeking views on this through the “Work, Health and Disability” Green Paper. We are also investing £100 million in trialling voluntary employment initiatives to consider what works for this group, including embedding employment advisers within the NHS talking therapy services.
I agree that voluntary organisations have huge insight and expertise that we can tap into, and I commend the work of Talk It Out in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We are recruiting 200 community partners throughout the Jobcentre Plus network so that we can ensure we reach all those organisations and benefit from their huge experience and wisdom.
My hon. Friend has hit on a theme of the Green Paper. Much work is going on in this area, not only for those with mental illness but for those with a learning disability. One health trial is currently looking at discounting business rates for employers with good mental health practice.
The target of halving the disability employment gap is at the same time both hugely ambitious and hugely underwhelming. We should be working to ensure that everyone can reach their full potential. I have asked the Department—the right hon. Gentleman’s office will have been supplied with this information—to look at the local need in all our constituencies. How many people with a learning disability do we need to ensure can get into work? How many people with particular conditions are we focused on? We need to focus on those numbers, not on some arbitrary formula that will change with all sorts of other factors. The labour market survey will still contain all the measures it has contained in the past, but if we are really to crack this issue we need to focus everyone locally on the local numbers.
I agree with the aim that the Minister has outlined, but in my constituency office the overwhelming issue, particularly for those with mental health conditions, is the assessment process for personal independence payments, which is causing individuals real distress and great worry about their future and their ability to support themselves. I welcome the work being done with local partners, because at the moment the system is not working. The sooner the Government realise that, the better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We are clearly looking to reform the work capability assessment on employment and support allowance. That affords us some opportunities to look at the PIP assessment process, to which there have already been many improvements. If we can ensure that both those systems are sharing data properly, we should be able to reduce the burden on the claimant.
The Access to Work programme is popular, and is just one of the Government’s schemes to provide support and financial assistance to employers. One way in which we are publicising that is through the Disability Confident scheme, which we relaunched last autumn. Around 4,000 organisations have now signed up to it, and it is one way of ensuring that employers really do understand the support that is there for them, as well as the huge talent and insight that this group of people can bring to their workforce.
Many people with mental health problems pay the bedroom tax. Three months ago, the Government lost three cases in the Supreme Court that had been brought by disabled people over the bedroom tax. How has the Department identified other disabled people who should not be paying that tax, and when will disabled people in Bermondsey and Old Southwark and across the country stop having to pay it?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a discretionary fund that is administered at a local level. Many local authorities have not accessed the fund. The vast majority of people, including those who are disabled, are exempt from the scheme. If he has examples of cases where that is not happening, he should write to us and let us know.
In addition to the community partners that we are recruiting to ensure that we have local networks plugged into our Jobcentre Plus scheme, we are also looking at opportunities for where that sector can increase the services that it already provides and derive an income from them. One such example is our one-stop-shop hub for employers, which can be a shop window for many of the organisations that already provide support to employers and that want to do more.
Will the Minister say a little more about how ESA and PIP assessments for those with mental illnesses work? I have six cases where mandatory reconsideration letters are identical to the letters providing the original decision. I have four cases—she knows of one of them because she has written to me about it—where the wrong information, about other people, has been cut and pasted into the mandatory reconsideration letter.
Let me point out that only 3% of those decisions are overturned. The vast majority of the assessments are good. The hon. Lady should let me know if she has examples of where that is not the case. One thing I have done to ensure that we get more timely information about where things are going wrong and where standards are not being maintained is to establish a claimant user rep panel, which will go live in the next few weeks. It will be rolled out on a very large scale across the country. In the meantime, she should keep on flagging up the issues that she finds.
Perhaps the Minister could talk a little more about the ESA assessments for those with mental health conditions, with particular regard to regulations 29 and 35 of the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2008, as they are causing much distress to disabled people.
We are looking at the assessment process. A huge amount has already been done to ensure that assessors and those in our Jobcentre Plus networks have been trained to recognise the needs of people with a mental health condition and to ensure that what they are doing is fit for purpose. The Green Paper on work and health will provide us with the opportunity to re-evaluate entirely those assessment processes primarily for ESA, but it will also reveal some opportunities for PIP.
People with mental health conditions and autism whom I met recently in Bristol told me of the difficulties they face getting into work. They also told me about the issues relating to PIP, work capability assessments and sanctions. Those in the ESA support group fear that the Green Paper spells out that they will be targeted next after cuts to people on the ESA work-related activity group in April. How does the Minister justify ESA WRAG cuts, cuts to employment support, jobcentre closures and the liberal use of sanctions as helping disabled people into work when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Young People in Work
The number of young people in work has increased by 235,000 since 2010, and is up 38,000 in the past three months. Nearly nine in 10 young people are in education or work, and youth unemployment is the lowest it has been since 2005.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. I warmly welcome the fact that the youth employment jobs figures are at near record levels. Will he join me in welcoming the work of the Dorset Young Chamber, which helps to match individual businesses in and around my constituency with particular schools and to bridge the gap between education and employment?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the work of the Dorset Young Chamber. I have seen the great work that my local chamber of commerce, Kent Invicta, does in schools. My hon. Friend chairs the all-party parliamentary group for youth employment, so he will be pleased to know that the youth claimant count in his constituency has gone down by 74% since 2010 and by 7% in the past year alone.
More young people are claiming benefits in Newcastle Central this year than they were last year, and the north-east has the overall highest unemployment rate in the country. Too many of our young people have to leave the region to find good jobs, so when will the Secretary of State make the northern powerhouse a reality for the north-east?
We are determined to make the northern powerhouse a reality. As the hon. Lady says, youth unemployment is higher in certain areas than it is in others, but I hope she recognises that youth unemployment as a whole has come down markedly in recent years in her region, as in all others. Some 86% of 16 to 24-year-olds are now in full-time study or work, which is a record high, and the employment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds who have left full-time education is up by 0.4 percentage points in the past year.
We work closely with colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that the Government meet their commitment to having 3 million new apprentices during this Parliament. We are on target for that. In particular, we wish to ensure that apprenticeships are available not only to young people leaving school for the first time, but throughout the age range so that we can make a reality of the phrase “lifelong learning.”
What would the Secretary of State say to areas such as mine, where youth unemployment has actually risen in the past month? Will he please look at working with colleagues in the northern powerhouse to ensure that the benefits of Government investment are shared across the north-west and north Wales as a whole?
I am happy to listen to the right hon. Gentleman’s latter point. One purpose of the northern powerhouse and, indeed—more widely—of the Government’s consultation on the industrial strategy is to ensure that the success of the economy is spread to all regions of the country. I am more than happy to talk to the right hon. Gentleman about any specific points he wants to make on his region.
Almost 7.3 million eligible workers have been enrolled into a workplace pension because of automatic enrolment. This is an unseen revolution; the way people are now saving will lead to more freedom, more choice and more security for the pensioners of tomorrow.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is quite clear that many people who would otherwise not save into a private pension will now have a pension for their futures, and that young people, who often do not save for a pension now, will have a secure future in retirement?
I agree with my hon. Friend, particularly on his point about young people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has done some research showing that participation in auto-enrolment among those aged 22 to 29 increased from 28% in 2012 to 85% in 2016. That is a very impressive improvement.
Auto-enrolment has been hugely successful. However, a number of people are still opting out. A business in my Southampton, Itchen constituency suggested that up to 50% of its staff may be opting out. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to encourage people to continue to save for their retirement in a workplace pension?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that his example is an exception. When the Turner commission reported and suggested this kind of scheme in 2005, it estimated that about 25% of people would opt out, but the opt-out rate is about 10% at the moment. There is always more to do, as my hon. Friend’s example suggests, which is why we are currently conducting a review to ensure that such schemes are even better in the future in order to work for all kinds of individuals, particularly those in small businesses.
I can supply the hon. Gentleman with evidence that we have transformed saving over the past few years. People have often said that young people in particular do not want to save, but the facts I have just put before the House suggest that that is no longer the case. If the hon. Gentleman is advocating taking away all tax relief for pensions, I would be interested in his ideas—as, I am sure, would his own Front Benchers.
Ministers have been clear on the need for transparency in the pensions industry, including in master trusts dealing with auto-enrolment. In his Second Reading speech on the Pension Schemes Bill, the Secretary of State spoke of it. In a speech to the TUC, the Pensions Minister said:
“We have to get transparency. It’s not an option to do nothing.”
On Report in the Lords, Lord Freud said:
“We want pension scheme members to have sight of all costs and charges”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 December 2016; Vol. 777, c. 1528.]
Despite those fine words, all the attempts to deliver on transparency in the Bill Committee were dismissed by the Government, so can the Minister tell the House what they mean by transparency in the pensions industry?
The Bill—I note the Labour party did not vote against it on Second or Third Reading, so the hon. Gentleman cannot have objected to it that strongly—actually set up a new system of regulation, particularly of master trusts, that deals with not just transparency but a whole range of aspects, so this relatively new form of financial body is now much better regulated than it was before. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed it—actually, he did welcome it.
Learning Difficulties: Support
The Green Paper consultation, which concluded on 17 February, asked a range of questions about how we can better support people into employment and highlighted learning disabilities as an area for further work. We will bring forward shortly schemes to support this group in their ambitions.
Will my hon. Friend join me in praising the work of the Balance community interest company in Surbiton, which provides employment support for people with learning difficulties? I urge her to raise awareness of organisations such as Balance and, indeed, of the Government’s own Access to Work scheme, so that everyone knows what support is available out there.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the work of Balance CIC. This is a group of individuals we want to do much more for. We will be bringing forward a young person’s work experience scheme shortly, and we wish to open up apprenticeships, but more is needed in this area, and organisations such as Balance can help us do that work.
The disabled students allowance has been a great help to students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia in gaining the qualifications they need to enter the world of work. Will the Minister not accept that the £200 fee is acting as a real deterrent to the uptake of this allowance and that it is unfairly penalising students who need that extra help?
We are looking at a range of things we can do in particular to help young people with learning disabilities, with autism and with mental health conditions. They need more options available to them, and they need more financial support in some of those areas. I am happy to look at what the hon. Lady suggests if she would like to write to me with evidence that these things are happening.
Governments of all persuasions have tried and failed to shift the employability rate of those with learning disabilities from 6%. That rate is an absolute waste of the huge amounts of talent and enthusiasm that are out there. That is exactly why we brought forward plans to open up apprenticeships and to have a special disability apprenticeship scheme. Please would the Minister update the House on where we are with creating those opportunities?
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the apprenticeship scheme. We wish to open up the opportunities such schemes bring to those with learning disabilities, and we are making good progress on that with the Department for Education, but we need to do other things as well. When we talk about people with learning disabilities, we are talking about a huge range of individuals. We have not done enough for those who are at the highest-need end of that spectrum, and I hope we will be able to do more shortly.
Personal Independence Payments
I receive regular representations from disability organisations and hon. Members regarding personal independence payments. As I have previously stated, we want to do more to create real-time feedback across the whole country. We will shortly be introducing service user panels to feed directly back from claimants on PIP and employment and support allowance.
Unfortunately, I have to tell my hon. Friend that I am still receiving complaints from constituents about the procedures regarding personal independence payments, so what is she doing to improve the process, reduce delays and support people through what is often a traumatic assessment process?
The goal is clearly swift, accurate and admin-lite assessments. Good progress has already been made in many areas—for example, reducing the average time it takes for a claim from point of registration to decision by more than three quarters from over 40 weeks to 10 weeks as of October last year—but there is more to do. One reason we have set up the service user panels is that it is incredibly important to be aware that, while things may be generally going well, there are certain hotspot areas where they are not, and identifying those in real time is critical—but there are many other things in the PIP improvement plan as well.
Yet again, one of my constituents has been to see me about a PIP assessment that has led to her Motability vehicle being taken away from her. She is currently appealing, and I have written to the Minister about the case. What reassurance can she give me and my constituent that this vehicle, which she needs, will be returned to her?
There are 70,000 more people making use of the Motability scheme than there were in 2010. The hon. Lady will know that there are improvements that we want to make to the Motability scheme. We have been working very closely with that independent organisation; we are now attending its board meetings and are able to work much more strategically. I have spoken at length, so I will not repeat it, about the areas where we wish to see better customer service. We hope to be able to make some announcements shortly.
Will the Minister make strong representations to the Ministry of Justice that it should reduce the length of time that unsuccessful claimants are having to wait for their tribunal, so that they can process their claim successfully?
Last year, the Government announced that those with chronic progressive conditions would not be subjected to continual work capability assessments. Why are constituents of mine with progressive conditions like multiple sclerosis continually being called for reassessment?
If the hon. Lady has cases she wishes me to look at, she must write to me about them. We are currently still outlining the criteria for the scheme to be introduced, but in the meantime, as she will know, we do not wish to call people for reassessment who would be in that category, so if she has cases where that is happening, she must let me know.
At present, 65% of all claimants have their PIP appeal upheld by tribunal—an all-time high. It should be a source of huge embarrassment to the Government that, even after the introduction of mandatory reconsideration before appeal, the majority of claimants who go to tribunal win their case. How does the Minister justify forcing vulnerable claimants to navigate the complex and gruelling process that the appeal system demands, often with little or no support? Will she now get a grip and reform this clearly broken system?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. She is not correct: 6% of the caseload is overturned, but there are many things that we wish to do to ensure that that is improved. Some opportunities will come after the consultation in the Green Paper with the reforms that we want to make to this part of the system to improve it and reduce the administrative burden on those also claiming PIP.
It is not meaningful to compare against an unchanged tax credits system, but the national living wage, help with childcare and the straightforward taper in universal credit all mean that people can earn more, and a higher income tax allowance means that they can keep more of it.
A single parent working full time on universal credit will be up to £3,000 worse off than someone in the same situation on tax credits, as a result of this Government’s cuts. Does the Minister accept that those cuts are creating an unjustified disparity in the in-work support received by people in similar circumstances?
Anybody who changes from tax credits to universal credit as a result of managed migration can get transitional protection. For those who are coming into it with a new claim, it is a wholly different system with a completely different support set, including much more child care support. There are various other reforms from which the individual to whom the hon. Gentleman refers would also benefit.
Does my hon. Friend accept that universal credit, which now reaches almost a third of the unemployed people in my constituency, is a much simpler system and the first major new benefit introduced in my political lifetime that has not resulted in a whole string of correspondence from people with difficulties?
Last week, DWP informed Members of Parliament that our constituents would have to give specific and precise explicit consent if we are to help them with full universal credit claims with which they have difficulty. I think that that will significantly inhibit our ability to assist our constituents. Will the Minister reassure the House that measures will be put in place to ensure that MPs can support our constituents effectively?
Of course we want hon. Members to be able to support their constituents, but the universal credit full service system is different because the online account allows the user to access a greater breadth of their data. The claimant holds the key to those data, and implied consent cannot be assumed. A claimant can give their consent via their journal, and that is what has to be done to enable a Member to act on their behalf.
Currently, families have to wait at least six weeks to receive universal credit after they have made a claim, which is leading to some people being in rent arrears and at risk of eviction. Research by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust found that about 30% of food bank users were waiting for the outcome of a benefit claim. What urgent action will the Government take to cut the delay at the start of universal credit claims?
Universal credit, as the hon. Lady knows, is a monthly benefit, but benefit advances are available where people cannot make it through to the first pay day. The fundamental point is that universal credit is helping more people into work, and once they are there, it is helping more people progress in work, and that is what is putting down the better foundation for their future.
Many families on tax credits and universal credit will lose out when the two-child limit comes into force in April. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects a 50% rise in child poverty by 2020—the biggest in a generation—and it says that a key reason will be the impact of tax and benefit changes on families with three or more children. Do the Government think that some children matter more than others?
The Government are committed to providing free impartial guidance through Pension Wise to help people make informed and confident decisions about how they use their defined-contribution pension savings in retirement.
I thank my hon. Friend for that really important question. She can be reassured that a cross-Government consultation on further measures to tackle pension scams closed very recently—on 13 February —and it included a proposal to ban all cold calling in relation to pensions. We will announce our next steps once we have considered the responses we have received to the consultation, but I assure her that we will take action as soon as possible.
Jobcentre Plus (Closures)
We have been mindful throughout of the impact on staff and customers. Analysis and local knowledge have informed the proposals, which are all subject to consultation with staff and, where appropriate, the public. A full equality impact assessment will be carried out.
Following the Minister’s advice, I went to see the regional manager of my jobcentres last week, but she had absolutely no information on the number of employment and support allowance or income support claimants that will be affected by the proposed closure in my constituency; the plans for outreach in relation to what will replace my jobcentre after its closure; the amount saved by that closure; the necessary spend on increased capacity at the alternative centre; or projections of footfall at the centre destined for closure. I hope that such work has been undertaken internally, so will the Minister commit to publishing all that information not only before a decision has to made, but preferably before the end of the consultation period?
First, ESA and IS claimants are not required regularly to attend the jobcentre in the same way that JSA claimants are. We want to look at outreach and other opportunities in working with partners. As the hon. Lady will know, the consultation closes on 28 February. On the overall approach for the city of Sheffield, this is about consolidating the amount of available space and using that space better to get a better deal for the taxpayer, while being able to provide enhanced services for customers. It will raise utilisation across Sheffield from 51% to 69%.
In 2010, there were three jobcentres in my constituency. The coalition closed one in 2012, and now the Minister’s Government want to close the remaining two. Just under 3,000 people—not an insignificant number—have to access the jobcentre in my constituency at least every two weeks Why did his Department not conduct and carry out the full equality impact assessment before the closure of the consultation?
The proposals will raise utilisation across the city of Liverpool from 66% to 95%, which will make better use of buildings. Where movement from one jobcentre to another involves travelling less than three miles or 20 minutes by public transport, we consider it is reasonable to ask people to make such a move.
In “Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper”, we asked about the barriers preventing employers from recruiting and retaining disabled people and people with health conditions. We will shortly bring forward measures to address those barriers.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I recently held an engagement event in Lowestoft in my constituency to consider the Green Paper. The conclusion reached was that the disability employment gap is best tackled with bespoke local solutions worked out with local employers. Will the Minister give this approach fair and full consideration as she assesses the feedback from the consultation?
First, I put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend and Members of all parties in the House who have held local consultation events. Doing so was incredibly important and has made this a very good consultation, but it is also vital in establishing and building such local networks. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the solutions have to be local ones, not least because healthcare is commissioned locally. I can give him reassurances that we will bear that in mind as we go forward.
The all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery has heard compelling evidence about how people enslaved in the UK have post-traumatic stress disorder and similar serious disabilities as a result. Will the Minister commit to meeting the relevant Minister in the Home Office to look at practical ways in which those victims of exploitation can be supported into work and be enabled to work in companies?
The right hon. Lady raises an important point. I can give her assurances that both my office and that of the Minister for Employment are working very closely with the Home Office on precisely the group of individuals she mentions and other vulnerable people such as refugees. I am very happy to raise any points that she wants me to make.
I am holding a Disability Confident event in my constituency on 28 April. The Minister will be very welcome if she is able to find time in her busy schedule to join us. In the meantime, will she look at what incentives can be given to employers to give disabled people a chance to prove themselves and to show what they are capable of if they are just given that chance in the first place?
I thank my hon. Friend for holding a Disability Confident event. We are looking at what further support and, in some cases, incentives we can provide for employers. We need to raise the profile of the fact that these individuals have much to offer any business. We will be holding events in March in this place to enable all Members of all parties to become Disability Confident employers and to ask for their assistance in signing up 30 targeted organisations in their constituencies. I hope all Members will take that opportunity.
This question is highly relevant to what Members have been saying. I am sure that the Minister will agree that to change attitudes towards disability in the workforce, we need more businesses to become role models in this area. In Taunton, sadly, very few businesses have signed up to the disability awareness register. Will the Minister join me in encouraging local businesses to attend a special event to be staged by Taunton jobcentre on 13 March to promote the Disability Confident initiative?
I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing in her constituency to promote the scheme. It is important that employers realise not only what opportunities are presented by employing these people, but the support and advice that go alongside it. The more people who know about that, the closer we will be to achieving the goal of ensuring that every citizen in this country can reach their full potential.
Jobcentre Plus (Closures)
The proposals are subject to consultation with staff and, where appropriate, the public. Should they proceed, the Department will support customers through any change of jobcentre. Staff will continue to offer the same support and services to customers and to maintain the relationships they have built up over time.
Now that the Glasgow consultation is closed, can the Minister tell us the following: when will the consultation responses be published; when will the equality impact assessment be published; and when will the decision be announced? On the announcement, will he assure the House that it will not be slipped out in a press release or a written statement, but that he will make it from the Dispatch Box?
I have met the 83 people who work at Vinovium House in my constituency—another office that is scheduled for closure. Will the Minister explain what the impact of the closure of that child maintenance back office will be and how it can possibly be efficient to close an office in one of the most low-rent towns in the entire nation?
The entire estates review has come about because a 20-year private finance initiative contract comes to an end at the end of March 2018. That has presented the opportunity—indeed, the requirement—to review almost the entire DWP estate. We are trying to consolidate it into less space to save money for the taxpayer and to do things more efficiently. We do not want the people who work in those places, particularly in back-of-house locations, to be made redundant. We are trying extremely hard to find other opportunities for them elsewhere in DWP or in the public sector.
The UK labour market is the strongest it has been for years. Over the past year, the number of people in employment has increased by 302,000. The employment rate stands at a new record high of 74.6%. The unemployment rate remains at 4.8%—the lowest rate in over 10 years.
My hon. Friend is right: long-term unemployment can significantly damage anyone, particularly young people. I welcome the recent employment statistics, which show that 3 million 16 to 24-year-olds are full-time students, and another 3 million have left full-time education and are working. Together they account for 86% of all young people in the UK, the joint highest on record. She is right that there is always more to do, which is why, in April, we are introducing the youth obligation to ensure that young people are fully supported as they progress into work and while they are at work.
We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, objective, fair and accurate assessments. The Department monitors assessment quality through independent audit. Assessments deemed unacceptable are returned to the provider for reworking. A range of measures, including provider improvement plans, address performance falling below expected standards.
My constituent Neville Cartwright is living with just one lung following a battle with lung cancer, yet he lost his Motability car when his PIP was cut last year. He began his appeal in June, but has still not had a tribunal hearing. Does the Minister agree that an eight-month wait to find out the result of an appeal is totally unacceptable?
I do agree with the hon. Lady, which is why we have been trying to work more strategically with Motability, thrashing through the issues I am very aware of on appeals and on matters such as when an individual leaves the country. We are looking to reduce the amount of time that appeals take and at what we can do with the running of the scheme so that the precise scenario she outlines does not happen.
Self-employed People: Support
There are 40 new businesses in Banbury currently supported by the new enterprise allowance, with about 100 more going through the developmental stage. Can the Minister reassure us that the programme is not just there to set up new businesses, but to enable them to grow?
Absolutely. The 40 new businesses in Banbury are a great example of what the NEA can do. In phase 2, we are introducing additional features to continue to promote sustained success in self-employment, including extending the mentoring period and ensuring there is a pre-workshop to outline the responsibilities and realities of being self-employed.
Today, we published our Green Paper on defined benefit pension schemes. The schemes provide an important source of income in the retirement plans of millions of people. The majority of the nearly 6,000 defined benefit pension schemes are run effectively. We are fortunate to have a robust and flexible system of pension protection in the UK. However, it is clear that experiences differ from scheme to scheme. Some employers are clearly struggling and the system may not be working optimally in all circumstances. The Green Paper is an opportunity to look at the schemes to ensure the system remains sustainable, while still ensuring members’ benefits are protected.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on universal credit inquiries on behalf of constituents, does the Secretary of State not accept that putting in this extra hurdle is disadvantaging people who are in a very vulnerable situation and flies in the face of Information Commissioner guidance?
As my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment explained, the data are now held in a different way. They are entirely owned by the claimants, who can and should give any Member of Parliament permission to act on their behalf. With that permission, all of us can do our job, as we traditionally have, on behalf of our constituents.
May I first praise the work of the all-party group on motor neurone disease, and the work of my hon. Friend as its vice-chair? Following the announcement, we are working to develop a set of criteria to switch off reassessments for people with the most severe health conditions or disabilities. We have sought feedback from stakeholders, including many motor neurone disease organisations. They will not be about a specific list of medical conditions; they will be based on a number of other factors, in particular how conditions are impacting on people.
In April, the Government’s two-child policy will mean that a woman who has a third child after being raped will have to prove that fact if they are to get child tax support. At the same time, the Government are cutting widowed parent’s allowance by an average of £17,000 for each bereaved family. In 2015, that benefited 40,000 children who had lost at least one parent. Will the Secretary of State please think again about these punitive measures?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the measures are punitive. To take just one of the two that she brought up—bereavement payments—as she knows, this measure is bringing three payments into one. The original system was devised for a world in which women often would not work at all and so needed lifelong support, rather than the extra support that they will be offered after such a tragic event. I think she will find that the new system is much fairer and more effective at providing support when it is most wanted.
My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the benefit cap is working. It has brought about behavioural change, and evaluation of the current cap level has found that capped households are 41% more likely to go into work than similar, uncapped households. More than that, 38% of those capped said that they were doing more to find work, a third were submitting more applications and a fifth went to more interviews.
The first thing I would say to the hon. Lady is that although the policy is being introduced in April, it will not start to have an impact on individuals until the summer. There is a personalised support package—13 measures that are outlined in the Green Paper—and she will know that we are also looking at ways in which we can reduce an individual’s household outgoings that are not related to finding work.
Does the Minister agree that we must do all we can to support into work people with mental health issues, disabilities and learning difficulties, but that, equally importantly, we must ensure that businesses are equipped to help them to sustain their employment?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. This is about people being able to reach their full potential and make use of all the benefits that come with having a pay packet—all those opportunities and that choice. Employers have a huge role to play. I have been very encouraged by the results of the consultation, particularly from employers wanting to do more, and we must ensure that they have the tools and expertise to do more.
This consultation affords us an opportunity to look at a person’s whole journey. Generalising, the earlier someone can have a conversation with somebody about their ambitions and the support they will need, the better that journey will be, so I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I suspect that the Employment Minister may not be aware of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920, but it is a concern to the Heritage Railway Association and others, who have had advice from leading counsel that young people cannot volunteer in industrial undertakings. We have now written to the Health and Safety Executive, but I wonder whether the Minister will meet me to have a conversation about it.
I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend about that issue. There is a huge amount of work going on to ensure that young people, but others as well, can make use of all opportunities to expand their horizons, and I would be happy to meet her about the specific points she raises.
Last week, I attended two excellent business breakfasts in my constituency—one organised by the Rockingham Forest hotel and the other organised by Corby Business Group. There was a lot of expertise and experience there. In what ways does the Minister think we can use that experience to support young people entering the world of work through mentoring?
Mentoring has a critical role to play, and I would encourage those employers in my hon. Friend’s constituency, if they are not already doing so, to get in touch with local schools and colleges and to seek out more opportunities.
There are multiple features of universal credit that make that so much more likely. The critical thing is to remove the barriers that create differences between being out of work and being in work. Having the rent paid directly to the individual is one thing; there is also the additional support that people get from the work coach in the jobcentre; then there is the fact that people know how much they will retain for every extra hour worked and extra pound earned.
We are very mindful of our duties under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, and we do indeed carry out the equality impact assessments that the hon. Lady mentions. She and I have had a chance to talk about the specific jobcentre. What we are doing is making sure that we have a good spread of jobcentres across the country that are accessible to the people who need to use them, but also utilising space better.
Last week, I visited a number of successful factories in my constituency that were taking on additional employment. Does the Secretary of State agree that our long-term economic plan has worked and that the Opposition Members who opposed it should now be contrite? Does he also agree with me that it is rather surprising that until two minutes ago there has not been a single Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber?
I am grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, because I would be horrified if I were responsible for the attendance record of Liberal Democrats. I am happy to agree completely with my hon. Friend about the long-term economic plan. Our labour market is in its strongest position for years, which is a tribute to a successful economic policy for the past seven years.
On behalf of my constituent, Miss Leslie, may I ask the Secretary of State to get personally involved in her case? The victim of a house fire when she was 12 weeks old, she has no hands and has multiple physical problems. In the migration from DLA to PIP, she could not open the envelope telling her to go for her assessment. On 1 February, all her benefits ceased, and on 10 February, her Motability car was taken away. This cannot be right; please help.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no evidence to suggest that we are going to lose 3 million jobs, as we were so often warned would happen if we left the European Union? Given the recent announcements that thousands of new jobs would be located in this country by the likes of Google and Amazon, does he agree that this country remains a very attractive place in which to do business?
It is perfectly clear that this country is an extremely attractive place in which to do business. I am delighted at the number of big companies—particularly in the tech sector, but in others as well—that have decided to move jobs to this country in recent months, and the Government will do all they can to ensure that that economic success continues.
Leytonstone jobcentre, in my constituency, is threatened with closure, which has spread alarm and despondency among some of the most vulnerable people whom I represent. The nearest jobcentre, in Walthamstow, is more than 3 miles away, which breaks the Minister’s own guidelines. Will he undertake a proper impact assessment and publish the results?
Of course I will look into the position, but the criterion is that consultation takes place if a jobcentre is both more than 3 miles away and more than 20 minutes away by public transport. Within that, if either of those conditions is met, it is reasonable to ask people to move.
On Friday I visited Shipley jobcentre to hear at first hand the concerns of staff about its closure, and their concerns for its clients. Will the Minister agree to meet me so that I can go through that list of concerns and, hopefully, he can find a way of addressing them?
I am astonished that the Secretary of State said that the rape clause was not punitive, given that, in their response to the consultation, the Government said that many respondents considered it
“unacceptable for Government to ask women to re-live the ordeal of a rape just in order to make a claim for benefit.”
Will the Minister and the Government accept that the policy is simply unworkable, and absolutely despicable?
What plans has the Secretary of State to reduce the cost of telephone calls to his Department, which can now cost up to 55p a minute? Is he still having discussions with the Social Security Advisory Committee, which believes that all telephone calls to the Department should be at no cost to claimants?
Point of Order
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. I wish to follow up the answer that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work gave me a few moments ago about the work-related activity component of the employment and support allowance. The Minister said that no one would be affected by the change before the summer, but the DWP website says—and, indeed, I think we always understood—that it will take effect in April. I wonder whether you, Mr Speaker, will invite the Minister to clarify or correct the record.
I am happy to clarify the position. The policy change will happen in April, but it will not start to have an impact on people until later in the year because of the process that they will be going through. However, all the elements of the personalised support package, and all the other things that we are seeking to do to help with individuals’ liquidity, will be in place by April.
Vauxhall/Opel: Proposed Takeover
Vauxhall is one of our oldest and most valued motor manufacturers. It has been making cars in Britain for 113 years and has been owned for the last 92 years by an overseas investor, General Motors. There are over 40,000 people employed directly by GM or in Vauxhall’s retail or supply chain in this country. Last Tuesday, news emerged that GM was in discussions with French company PSA about the future of GM’s European operations.
I spoke to the president of GM by telephone that afternoon and communicated the importance we attach to Vauxhall’s presence in the UK and to its workforce. I am grateful to Mr Ammann for travelling to meet me in my office last Thursday morning. In our meeting, he told me that no agreement with PSA had been reached and discussions were ongoing, that he shared my assessment of the success of the Vauxhall plants in Britain and the Vauxhall brand, and that GM’s intention was that any deal should be about building on the success of these operations, rather than seeking to rationalise them.
Following my meeting with GM, I travelled to Paris to meet my counterpart in the French Government, the Industry Minister, and following those discussions I met PSA board members for two hours later on Thursday night. I emphasised once again the importance I attach to the continuing success of Vauxhall in Britain and the recognition of its workforce. The PSA executives said that they, too, greatly valued the Vauxhall brand and the commitment of its workforce, and that any deal would build on these strengths. They also emphasised that their operational approach in recent years has been not to engage in plant closures, but to focus on continuous improvements in plant performance. On behalf of the UK Government, I emphasised our commitment to securing continued mutually beneficial access to European markets, and our intention, as part of an ambitious industrial strategy, to enhance the competitiveness of the UK economy generally—including, of course, the automotive sector. Earlier today, my Minister of State spoke to his German counterpart.
We remain in close contact with GM, PSA and the French and German Governments, and I look forward to meeting Carlos Tavares, PSA chief executive, later this week. Of course, I have also met, and will continue to meet, the trade unions and Members of this House with constituency interests. I will do everything I can at all times to secure the best possible future for Vauxhall and its workforce. Our unity of purpose in seeking this good future should be a source of strength in the House, and I will keep the House informed at every opportunity.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response and for the helpful way in which he has kept me and other interested parties informed as matters have unfolded. As he said, not only are thousands employed directly at the plants in Ellesmere Port and Luton, but there are tens of thousands of other people working in the associated supply chain and sales network.
I want to make it clear that Vauxhall is a British success story. The plants in Ellesmere Port and Luton benefit from dedicated and highly skilled staff, who are among the most efficient anywhere in Europe. If this takeover does go ahead, we need to get the message out that risking the closure of either facility would be a retrograde step not just for the UK economy, but also for the new owners. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government stand ready to use all the tools at their disposal to safeguard British jobs at Vauxhall?
Of course, this is a worrying time for everyone affected, but it is not a new experience. There have been threats to the plants in the past, but they have been seen off by industry-leading collaborations between unions, workforce, management and Government. I want that to carry on, so can the Secretary of State confirm that he will continue to work closely with everybody at every stage?
Although it would be an over-simplification to characterise the proposed deal as being entirely down to Brexit, there are understandable concerns about Brexit’s potential impact, particularly if tariffs were imposed. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the future of the automotive sector is put front and centre of our negotiations and that a red line will be that there will be no deal that imposes tariffs—not just on the finished product, but on components in the supply chain?
We are very proud of our automotive sector in Ellesmere Port and Neston, but we know we cannot take it for granted. I will do everything I possibly can to fight for the future of Vauxhall, and I expect nothing less from the Government.
I commend the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to update the House on these matters. I completely agree with him about the importance and the success of the workforce at both Ellesmere Port, his constituency plant, and Luton, and of course the supply chain, the retail network across the country and the call centre and customer service sector.
Every part of Britain has a stake in Vauxhall, so I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman: we will do everything we can. My personal commitment, and the commitment of this Government, will be unbounded to make sure that the future, building on the success of the plant in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the workforce, will be maintained. That is my purpose, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for that. I will of course work with all the groups, including the trade unions and the workforce, to make that case to the new owners, if new owners there are to be.
Vauxhall has been a huge name in Bedfordshire for over a century, and that tradition continues with the building of the excellent Vivaro van at the IBC plant in Luton. I want to see the Secretary of State doing everything he can to secure those jobs, but will he also say something about the pensioners in this country, many of whom are in my constituency and across Bedfordshire? They will be worried about the future of their pensions, so will he say a little bit about that issue as well as about the jobs?
Of course, the continued welfare of the pensioners is of great importance in any prospective takeover, and I have mentioned in my discussions with GM and with PSA how important it will be. No deal has been concluded yet, but both those organisations are well aware of the importance that I, and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), attach to that matter.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for his question. Vauxhall employs over 40,000 people in the UK, as the Secretary of State said, including 4,500 at its manufacturing plants in Ellesmere Port and Luton and tens of thousands in its retail and support arms and in the supply chain. It is, as we have heard, a great British success story.
I would like to raise a number of questions. First, the French Government own a 14% share in Peugeot, which has prompted many to suggest that any job cuts are likely to fall on Opel’s six plants in Germany, the UK and Spain. The German Government have already demanded that there must be no job or plant losses as a result of any deal, and German papers reported yesterday that PSA had pledged to continue operating all four of Opel’s German production sites. Will the Secretary of State tell us what action the Government are taking to obtain the same assurances for the UK? Will the Prime Minster demand that no jobs or plants will be lost when she meets the PSA chief executive?
Secondly, at the 2016 Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister stated:
“We are the party of workers”.
To make good that promise, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will demand equal treatment for UK workers, compared with workers in France and Germany, in any final deal package?
Thirdly, the UK’s automotive industry is dependent on the EU for sales and components. Nissan’s special deal provided assurances of unencumbered EU market access, more UK-based suppliers, and support for green vehicle research and development and for jobs and training. Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that PSA has been offered the same deal, and whether, in return, it has given an assurance that no UK jobs or plants will be lost? Is it not the case that all UK industries require certainty and stability? Would he agree that a haphazard and crisis-led approach is quite simply the very antithesis of an industrial strategy?
First, I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box and congratulate her on her appointment. She will find that there is no one more prepared than I am to be active in supporting employment prospects in every constituency in the country, wherever they might be. In our discussions with industry, including the automotive industry, about overseas investment, there has been tremendous enthusiasm and warm encouragement for our industrial strategy. This is something that has been pursued in other countries for some time. I think the hon. Lady described our approach as haphazard and random—
Indeed. I am not sure that the hon. Lady, in speaking from her Front Bench, is in the best position to talk about that. She made some important points, however. She mentioned the fact that the French Government own a significant stake in PSA. That is why I felt it was important immediately to have a meeting with my French counterpart. That meeting was very constructive, and he recognised the importance of ensuring that the whole of Europe should be treated fairly in these discussions. We agreed to stay in close touch on that, and I was grateful to him for seeing me.
On the treatment of plants across Europe, one of the points that the PSA executives made to me is that, since the new management of PSA has been in place, they have taken pride in the fact that part of their strategy is not to close plants. The discussions are clearly continuing and no deal has been done, but I share the view of the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and Members on both sides of the House: it is very important that our successful enterprises with successful workforces should be able to continue that success in the future.
As for questions about the European Union, many of GM’s operations in Europe are in Germany, which is not about to leave the European Union, so this is not a Brexit-related transaction. I have said very clearly that our commitment, evidenced in black and white in our industrial strategy, is to build on our strengths in advanced manufacturing, including in the automotive sector. That is available to all players in the sector through the Automotive Council, and in our industrial strategy we mention electric vehicles, battery storage and training, which are important to all members of the sector and, as I began by saying, have attracted enthusiastic support from firms all over the world.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s characteristically speedy response to this new situation. Can he confirm that the UK automotive sector is not only integral and important to our industrial strategy but will play a vital role in shaping our future trade relationship with EU member states post-Brexit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the strengths of our automotive sector is that it is particularly international. It benefits from and is strengthened by trade to and from not only the rest of Europe but the whole world. Vauxhall’s being owned by GM for such a long time is a reflection of the fact that the motor industry has long been international beyond Europe. The industry will be very prominent in our discussions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this urgent question. I welcome the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) to her Front-Bench position, and I look forward to working with her in that role.
Like every Member of this House, my party’s thoughts are with those affected at the plants in Ellesmere Port and Luton and with all those who work in the supply chain or for the company in other ways. I welcome that the Secretary of State has led from the front in his interactions with the French and others.
What assurances has the Secretary of State sought and/or received from the French Government or from PSA about the plants, employment and, in particular, the terms and conditions of employees and pensions? We cannot ignore the impact that Brexit might have on this issue. If there is direct competition between a German plant and a UK plant—regardless of the undoubted strength of UK plants—given that 75% of a UK plant’s components come from, and 80% of its exports go to, the single market, it will be at a comparative disadvantage with European counterparts.
Given that the Secretary of State has said that he will do everything he can at all times to rule out the hard Brexit that has been proposed, will he reassess single market membership? We can leave the EU, but we do not have to leave the single market, and staying in the single market would protect employees at Vauxhall and right across the economy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I thought it was important to have discussions immediately with both parties to the negotiations. It is fair to say that, as a deal has not been concluded and discussions are continuing, the prospective purchaser is clearly not in a position to give contractual guarantees. One of the important reasons for meeting was to have a clear understanding of the prospective purchaser’s purpose and to commit to having further meetings as the discussions continue—I will be having a further meeting later in the week. Of course, the conditions for workers and pensioners are uppermost in the discussions.
In the context of Brexit, I made it clear, as the Prime Minister did in her speech at Lancaster House, that we want to negotiate the best possible access to the single market, free of tariffs and bureaucratic impediments. It is also important to reflect on the fact that we have a very strong and successful domestic market, with Vauxhall having a particularly strong share of it. That was mentioned to me by both parties, GM and PSA; they are very aware of that, and we will emphasise it in the days and weeks ahead.
In the context of the Hinkley Point C decision, we said that we would come forward with measures to govern the critical national infrastructure regime. In addition, we have proposed some changes to our corporate governance regime, and we will be making suggestions as to how we can keep our merger regime up to date.
In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State said that this will not become entangled in Brexit, but the concern will be that the issue of this important company’s future in Britain will become collateral damage in wider negotiations and deals on Brexit. In the face of elections in France and Germany this year, does he think that nations will have to engage in an ever-rising bidding game in order to maintain production facilities in their countries? If so, what will he do for British manufacturing?
The hon. Gentleman should reflect a bit more positively on the success of Vauxhall in this country. The two plants we have been talking about are among the most efficient in Europe and, therefore, the world. So this is not about altruism; these are successful plants, which is a tribute to their workforce, and they are competitive. As I said a few moments ago, the other side of the equation is that the Vauxhall brand is a very successful one in this country. So we start from a position of strength and, as he would want, I will be vigorous in promoting those strengths and influencing the negotiations so that this excellent workforce can continue and go from strength to strength in the future.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the importance of this plant to the Cheshire and greater Cheshire economy. Will he assure the House that he will ensure that PSA understands the skill and efficiency of the plant and its workforce?
I will indeed, and from my initial conversations I can say that I think that is well understood. It is matter of pride that our automotive industry in general and those two plants in particular are such high performers, and nobody will be more vigorous than me in reminding all parties to the transaction of that.
Does the Secretary of State believe that it will be much harder for companies that are looking at their integrated European operations to want to base themselves in the UK, because of the uncertainty surrounding our leaving the single market and the customs union? Does he agree that in those circumstances they are going to need some very attractive sweeteners? What sweeteners has he offered? Are those sweeteners also going to be available to the medium-priority and low-priority areas that the Government have identified, such as fisheries and chemicals, and steel and telecoms?
I would say to the right hon. Gentleman what I said to the Chair of the Select Committee: he should reflect on the competitiveness of our automotive industry. Companies choose to invest in Britain because we are a competitive place from which to do business, we have a skilled and flexible workforce, and we have fantastic research and development facilities. We have been absolutely clear in the industrial strategy consultation that these strengths will be extended so that we continue to be a beacon of success in this and other industries.
The Secretary of State has clearly made some reassuring noises to the firm. We need transparency on those, so will he now respond to the Treasury Committee request to publish the letter he sent to Nissan on 21 October giving reassurances to that company?
I commend the Secretary of State for his fast action in meeting all the parties. I represent people who work in the Ellesmere Port factory. We local MPs are all justifiably proud of the work that has been done there to keep the production process as one of the most efficient in the world. We bow to no one in the world when it comes to efficiency and productivity at the Ellesmere Port plant. Nevertheless, given that it is effectively much cheaper to get rid of British workers, because of the nature of employment rights in this country compared with those in France and Germany, what can the Secretary of State do to ensure that, when it comes to possible cost cutting, the equation is evened up so that we can support British production and British jobs?
Like the hon. Lady, I am proud of the performance of the two plants, as well as that of the other plants in our automotive sector. The PSA executives communicated to me that performance is their guide to strategy. The two plants have very effective performance, so I want and expect them to be major parts of the future of an expanded group, if the transaction proceeds.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s action on this incredibly important issue of retaining the plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton. Most investment in motor manufacturing in this country comes from overseas, with the exception of Aston Martin and Triumph. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage British-based investment in motor manufacturing so that we do not always rely on overseas investment?
I am very proud that we attract the world’s best automotive companies and that they see Britain as a place to prosper and succeed, so I am always encouraging that level of investment. Of course, it is not only about the major manufacturers; the supply chain is increasingly important in all advanced manufacturing, including the automotive industry. We have an increasingly good record of attracting small and medium-sized businesses either to locate here from overseas, or to grow from the bottom up. My hon. Friend will know that our industrial strategy makes a great focal point of the opportunity to grow our supply chains.
The Secretary of State understands the importance of the plant at Ellesmere Port, and its suppliers and retailers, to the wider north-west’s automotive sector, which includes Jaguar Land Rover at Halewood. What will he do to ensure that we do not lose some of the essential skills, jobs and firms, and that the sector in the north-west does not shrink as a consequence of factors that are completely out of the control of the Government and the people who work at the Ellesmere Port plant?
The hon. Lady knows from the work that we have done together that it is possible to make a case for attracting investment and commitment. She is absolutely right that the plant is important, and not only to the north-west but to the whole country, if the dealership network is taken into account. My ambition, as is the case for the rest of advanced manufacturing, is for our automotive sector to be more successful and to employ more people in the future. That does not happen by accident; it will involve our being engaged with the sector and making sure that facilities for research and development and training establish our reputation as the go-to place in the world for motor manufacturing, as we are for other sectors. I will work with the hon. Lady and others, and I will be vigorous in making sure that that message is very loudly understood.
Leyland in my constituency has a long and proud history as a part of the automotive sector. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House what specific support for the automotive sector will be included in the industrial strategy?
The automotive sector has been one of our most successful sectors in recent years. That is partly due to the effective arrangements that have been put in place through the Automotive Council, whereby firms, including small and medium-sized suppliers, can work together to support each other. An example of that is the National Automotive Innovation Centre, which I visited recently, where new facilities are being made available not only for the majors, but for people with new ideas who are setting up new businesses. That can reinforce and continue the success of one of our most effective industrial sectors.
A number of my constituents work for Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port and Unilever in Port Sunlight. If there are Members who think that everything in our economy is rosy, I invite them to come to Wirral South this weekend and say that. When it comes to the high-value manufacturing that the Secretary of State has talked about, does he realise the importance of the customs union, and has he made a great and important contribution to the Prime Minister’s strategy on Brexit with regard to keeping us inside the customs union?
The automotive sector, like others, trades across borders. That is one reason why the Prime Minister and I have been very clear that we need to be able to negotiate trading arrangements that maintain our access across those borders without tariffs and without bureaucratic impediments—that is clearly understood. Those negotiations have some way to go, but it is important to emphasise, as I and the Prime Minister have done, what our intention is.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the independent Pensions Regulator is the arbiter of any changes to pension arrangements. It is absolutely right that such robust independence is in place. I emphasise that discussions are still continuing. No agreement has yet been reached but, as I have said to a number of colleagues across the House, the future of pensioners is very important to me, as it is to all Members.
I was involved in the discussions that took place the last time that GM considered selling its European brands in the wake of the financial crisis. At that time, we had a successful resolution, in that the company decided to retain the brands. The Secretary of State is right that Vauxhall is tremendously successful. The Astra and Corsa are among the top 10 best-selling cars in the UK, but those cars are made by a Europe-wide company that has a Europe-wide supply chain. In any of the discussions that he has had in the past week, have exchange rate movements over the past year been raised?