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House of Commons Hansard

Commons Chamber

18 October 2017
Volume 629

    House of Commons

    Wednesday 18 October 2017

    The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

    Prayers

    [Mr Speaker in the Chair]

    Oral Answers to Questions

    International Development

    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Hurricane Relief (Caribbean)

  • 1. What steps she is taking to provide hurricane relief in the Caribbean. [901226]

  • The UK Government mounted an enormous cross-Government response to the devastating hurricanes consisting of more than 40 aid experts, 2,000 military personnel and more than 50 police officers, with HMS Ocean, RFA Mounts Bay and more than 600 tonnes of humanitarian aid. I give my thanks to our military and civilian personnel, whose efforts during the hurricane relief effort were simply heroic.

  • Will my right hon. Friend assure me that our friends in the Commonwealth who have been affected by these recent hurricanes are receiving support and aid as they recover?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The hurricanes have been devastating, and I have seen their effect across our overseas territory. I can absolutely give the House an assurance that we are not just supporting the overseas territories; we are now working with them on the recovery and the rebuilding efforts, in addition to the relief efforts.

  • What progress is being made on the commitment that the Government made at the world humanitarian summit last year to increase spending on disaster risk reduction? How is that being implemented and in what countries is disaster risk reduction spending increasing?

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to point that out in terms of the grand bargain and the humanitarian work that Britain leads on around the world. He asks about progress. I can let the House know that enormous progress has been made directly with the humanitarian agencies that we work with, through the funding that we are putting in place. We are making sure that the grand bargain commitments are part of the funding performance that we now put in place with regard to the reform agenda.

  • My understanding is that military assistance to British overseas territories may not be paid out of the British aid budget. Is it not an absurdity that our defence budget has to pay for British military aid in the Caribbean?

  • Let me politely say to my hon. Friend that that is not wholly accurate. When it comes to support for the military budget, he will know that part of the official overseas development assistance goes to the Ministry of Defence, so, as I said earlier, this has been a cross-Government effort involving the Foreign Office, the MOD and the Department for International Development, and others, including the Home Office. We have all been providing a great deal of support to the overseas territories.

  • The Secretary of State is right that the scenes of devastation that we have witnessed are heartbreaking. As well as helping victims, we must try to prevent future damage, so will she reverse the recent trend in reducing DFID climate change funding, especially for the adaptation work that is so crucial to help vulnerable communities become resilient to hurricanes and other climate-related disasters?

  • We are very focused on resilience as part of the recovery programme and dealing with the challenges faced in respect of climate change. The implications of climate change for small island states are very much a focus of DFID, but also across the Government. We are leading many of the discussions internationally in terms of climate change—how we support resilience programmes through our aid budget, but also how to help countries have the preparedness that they need to deal with some of these disasters.

  • On Friday, the Secretary of State finally announced her big plans for the Caribbean’s recovery—a private sector taskforce, but not a penny of new funding. What are her plans to ensure that that taskforce helps those in need, rather than fat-cat profiteers? Is this really the best the UK Government can do?

  • I am disappointed by the tone the hon. Lady has taken, primarily because, having been to the overseas territory myself, I have seen the private sector absolutely wiped out. We are talking about not large sectors and industries, but men and women who have lost their livelihood—small shops and small businesses. That is effectively why we have established a private sector taskforce, which will work with the chambers of commerce and those grassroots organisations that will help small businesses to get back on their own two feet. She also asks about money and resources. Of course, we are providing all the support that is required.

  • Leaving the EU: Preferential Trade

  • 2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on securing preferential trading access to the UK for least developed countries after the UK leaves the EU. [901227]

  • DFID and the Department for International Trade are working together to prepare and plan for the day when Britain finally leaves the EU in 2019, when we will start to secure duty-free access to less developed countries and work on trade preferences.

  • The oil and gas industry, which is important to my constituency, uses copper and nickel—major exports of less developed countries such as Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that free trade with those countries is good for them and good for the UK?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am well aware of his constituency’s links with the sectors he mentions. By increasing trade opportunities for UK firms, we can help the world’s poorest countries trade themselves out of poverty, which everyone in the House wants.

  • In many of the countries in which the Department for International Development operates, co-operation on the ground with the European Union is crucial to the impact of our efforts. Will the Secretary of State assure us that work is being done to ensure that that development co-operation with the EU continues?

  • The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about development co-operation. We lead in many countries, both bilaterally and multilaterally, but co-operation is vital to delivering on the ground for the world’s poorest. We will continue to work not only with the EU, but with other partners in some of the poorest parts of the world where they can add value and where there is great need.

  • The United Kingdom has historically imported 50% of the sugar that we consume on preferential terms from developing countries, and it is then refined by Tate & Lyle. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that the jobs, both at home and abroad, that depend on that agreement will be given proper consideration in the Brexit negotiations?

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about trade preferences and the implications for securing jobs in this country and about creating new markets in developing countries and new trading opportunities. As part of the discussions, those subjects will be at the heart of securing a prosperous future for our country and for poor countries around the world.

  • What reassurance can the Secretary of State provide that post-Brexit trade agreements for the least developed countries will enshrine good-quality employment rights and high standards of health and safety, align with fair trade policies and support trade union recognition?

  • It is important for the hon. Lady to recognise that Britain is at the forefront of that, unlike the EU, which has yet to agree trade preferences and good trading opportunities with some of the world’s poorest countries. Britain will lead the world in free trade, but, importantly, we will also help the poorest countries to invest in skills, technical assistance and capacity building and create new markets. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says no, but she should recognise that her party did little when in government to support trade in poor countries, which is exactly what this Conservative Government are doing.

  • 11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit offers us the opportunity to go further than the EU’s rules and to strengthen the UK’s offer on trade with the world’s poorest countries, so that they can trade their way out of poverty? [901236]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The mission of this Government and of my tenure at DFID is to do exactly that. We want to ensure that economic development is at the heart of everything we do, meaning free trade, market access and helping countries to stand on their own two feet.

  • Natural Disasters: Emergency Funds

  • 3. What steps she is taking to ensure that emergency funds can be made available from the aid budget to help British overseas territories to recover from natural disasters. [901228]

  • Overseas development assistance rules have not and will not stop Britain providing money needed for the hurricane recovery and reconstruction effort. The UK has committed over £60 million to the Irma and Maria relief efforts, and we are of course working with all our international partners to provide support.

  • Does the Secretary of State agree that recent events highlight the need for greater use of disaster recovery insurance to protect vulnerable nations, such as those in the Caribbean? Will she update the House on the Department’s work in that area?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility has paid out $49 million in the last month alone to the islands affected by the recent hurricanes. Through the World Bank and other international financial institutions, Britain and the British insurance industry are leading the way in providing more insurance support internationally.

  • In recent years, 58% of deaths caused by disasters have occurred in fragile states. What assurance can the Secretary of State give us that the aid budget for disaster relief will remain compliant with official development assistance rules and will focus on resilience and recovery for some of the world’s most vulnerable people living in those fragile nations?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right to highlight the fragility of many countries. Our aid budget is there to provide relief and the preparedness to help them to deal with many of the disasters and catastrophes that take place through climate change and conflict and through man-made disasters, too. That is effectively DFID’s focus.

  • Would a cross-departmental unit focused on the overseas territories, staffed by DFID, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, help to solve some of the problems of co-ordination and provide a better response to our OTs?

  • My hon. Friend highlights the importance of co-ordination. The cross-Government hurricane relief effort was strong and co-ordinated. We have to respond accordingly to crises when they happen, and we work together effectively. We are joined up and are making sure that we deliver for the people who need help.

  • We are just 10 days away from the negotiations in Paris on changing the ODA rules, and the Government still cannot clearly tell us their position. Will the Secretary of State tell us what changes the UK Government are seeking? Can she guarantee those changes will not divert aid away from the poorest?

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The House may have noticed that the secretary-general of the OECD was in town yesterday, and I met both him and the chair of the Development Assistance Committee to discuss this issue. They are the first to recognise that such small island states need resilience to the impact of climate change and that we need greater agility in applying the rules to many of those countries. We will have that discussion at the DAC in 10 days’ time.

  • Rohingya Refugees (Bangladesh)

  • 4. What steps the Government are taking to increase long-term support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. [901229]

  • 5. What steps her Department is taking to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. [901230]

  • The UK is the largest bilateral donor to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. DFID has worked in Cox’s Bazar for many, many years, and it has recently stepped up efforts with an additional £30 million in the light of the refugee crisis. We are working with many partners, and I am sure all colleagues in the House, including those who spoke in yesterday’s debate, recognise the difficulties we face in providing aid because of the scale of the refugee crisis. Britain is leading, and we are working with our international aid partners.

  • I accept that the UK is the largest bilateral donor, but the Secretary of State will know there is a United Nations conference on the issue next week. Will she clarify today the UK Government’s objectives at that conference? How will she put pressure on other countries to step up to the plate, too?

  • The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have already called for violence to stop and, importantly, for aid access to be granted. The point about the UN efforts is that we have to have a co-ordinated approach and response to the aid effort, aid delivery and aid access. It is also important that we ensure our voices are heard by the Burmese military, so that they stop the violence and introduce protections for the Rohingya people, rather than the persecution we have seen so far.

  • Although the majority of Rohingya Muslims have sought sanctuary in Bangladesh, 40,000 refugees in India face deportation back to Burma. Has the Secretary of State raised that with her Indian counterparts? If not, will she now guarantee that she will do so?

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the plight of the Rohingya people inside India, which shows the level of dispersal and displacement. With my Foreign Office counterparts—the two Departments are obviously working together—I will pick this up with the Indian Government. Importantly, our focus right now is on the relief efforts in the light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Bangladesh.

  • What pressure can be applied to the authorities in the region and particularly to the office of Aung San Suu Kyi? Tributes have been paid to her in the past for her work to bring people together to try to bring an end to the onslaught and murder that continue in the region.

  • Of course Aung San Suu Kyi has an important role to play. She has a voice, and she needs to use it to stop the persecution and, with the Burmese military and with what is effectively her Government, to create routes home for the Rohingya people, giving them security, rather than the fleeing and persecution we have seen. It is not just for the British Government, although we are doing this, but for all international voices to step up, come together and make that abundantly clear to her.

  • Commonwealth Development

  • 6. What steps she is taking to promote development in other Commonwealth countries. [901231]

  • The Prime Minister and Secretary of State have made it clear that the Commonwealth is absolutely central to our future policy, and that is not just true in respect of forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings; the 20 largest DFID recipient countries include Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi and Sierra Leone, in which our programmes extend from health and education, to economic development, without which there can be no jobs or growth.

  • We appreciate the power of recall of the hon. Gentleman’s exceptionally fertile mind.

  • Given the health and vibrant link between Commonwealth countries that open up to trade and their subsequent rapid economic development, does my hon. Friend agree that we have not only an economic imperative, but a moral obligation to do whatever we can with foreign aid to focus our efforts on supporting free trade? [Interruption.]

  • Order. We are discussing very serious matters appertaining to the livelihoods of our friends in Commonwealth countries, as we have been treating of a great many other serious issues. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) had to contend with excessive noise, but I am sure the House will now be becalmed as it listens to the flow of the eloquence of the Minister of State.

  • Absolutely. In this, as with everything, the devil is in the detail. For example, through TradeMark East Africa, DFID is not just supporting light manufacturing and trade and tariff negotiations, but reducing delays at borders and investing in infrastructure. Of course, most importantly, we will be providing tariff-free access to the least developed countries in the world after Brexit.

  • School students from Lesotho are visiting Wrexham this week for the 11th year as a result of building on global school partnerships. Why is Lesotho excluded from the list of countries that the Department is supporting, which the Minister gave earlier?

  • This is a very good challenge. This is partly to do with Lesotho’s economic status, as DFID has tended to concentrate on the poorest countries in the world. However, we take the current difficulties in Lesotho very seriously, and I hope to visit it in the near future to look directly at this issue.

  • One practical way to promote development in Commonwealth countries is through DFID’s procurement, so will the Minister examine ways to increase procurement with businesses in developing countries to strengthen the private sector there and increase employment growth?

  • Procurement is central to the Secretary of State’s reforms in DFID. She has made open and transparent procurement, and a suppliers review run by my right hon. Friend Lord Bates, central to how we take this forward, and of course that is right. Getting procurement right can help not only businesses, but the poorest people in the world.

  • Does the Minister accept that there are many places in the Commonwealth where conflict is still ever present? Will he assure me that DFID will never cut back on moneys for peace and reconciliation before we even get to the opportunity of development?

  • Conflict is probably the biggest single driver of economic catastrophe, poverty and refugees in the world. We will continue to commit half our budget to fragile and conflict-affected states, because without peace there can be no development.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [901241]

  • Over the next five years, the UK is providing £175 million in life-saving humanitarian aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where political insecurity and increasing violence are forcing people to flee their homes.

  • Sustainable development goal 4 focuses on inclusive and quality education for all, but a recent joint report by Leonard Cheshire and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative has found that girls’ education, especially of those with disabilities, is being overlooked in many developing countries. Will the Government seek to advance this SDG with the utmost vigour to ensure equal educational opportunities for all across the world?

  • The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the value and importance of girls’ education around the world. DFID and the UK Government lead in this area. We have encouraged, through the UN and other international bodies, other countries to step up, and of course we will continue to do that.

  • T2. What action does my right hon. Friend believe is necessary to counter the rise in resistance to antimalarial drugs in south-east Asia? In the past 17 years, we have seen much progress on reducing incidences of malaria around the world. [901242]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right that tackling malaria saves lives. It has a positive impact on improving health services for the poor and increases economic growth and productivity in affected countries. In April 2017, the UK announced that we would protect more than 200 million people from the pain and disfigurement caused by diseases such as malaria. I was at a conference addressing this subject in Berlin last week. Dealing with antimicrobial resistance will play an integral part in ensuring that drugs remain effective and that the UK remains a world leader in tackling malaria.

  • The Minister is a well-travelled fellow.

  • T3. The village of Khan al-Ahmar and its aid -funded school remain under the threat of demolition. The international community has stood by while other aid-funded structures have been demolished. When will action be taken—when will Israel be billed for the demolitions? [901243]

  • The UK continues to make representations on demolitions in the west bank and ensures that Israel understands the relationship between the UK and funding. We support efforts to bring to the notice of the Israeli authorities the legal arguments against demolitions, and we will continue to do so.

  • T5. Oxfam marked its 75-year anniversary earlier this month. I am proud of the work that British charities such as WaterAid, which was founded here in 1981, are doing around the world. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to support charities’ excellent work on campaigns for women and girls to have a safe and private place, as they come of age, to keep themselves clean? [901245]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because DFID and Britain are working with many partners, including WaterAid. I pay tribute to this country’s great non-governmental organisations that provide wash and sanitation facilities for women and girls around the world, and protect their health and wellbeing. I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend and other Members are doing to work with them.

  • T4. DFID is prioritising getting humanitarian aid to the Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, but will the Secretary of State say what she is doing to ensure that priority is also given to medical aid, including the psychological therapies that will be desperately needed for those very damaged people? [901244]

  • Of course, the medical aid and support that is going in is critical, because there are cases involving children, and parasites and diseases have really taken hold. Psycho-social care is now being put in place through many of the partners that I met just last week, including the Disasters Emergency Committee and other aid charities. A great deal of work is taking place, but there is much more to do in the light of the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently fleeing for their lives.

  • Many British scientists are leading collaborative research projects with partners around the world on diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Does the Minister agree that it is important that Britain continues to collaborate on science and research after we leave the EU?

  • As my hon. Friend would imagine, that is extremely important. From talking in Berlin last week to colleagues from throughout the EU and elsewhere about research collaboration, I was left in no doubt that those involved in the research and science community see every chance that we will continue to co-operate internationally, whether or not we remain in the EU.

  • T6. In its recent assessment of conditions in Cox’s Bazar, the International Rescue Committee found unprecedented levels of sexual violence against women and girls, and that 50% of pregnant women were not receiving the medical treatment they need. Will the Secretary of State tell us who will attend the critical conference in Geneva next week? Will she commit to mobilising the resources needed not only from DFID, but from international partners, to get these people the help that they need? [901246]

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to raise maternal health and protection for women, girls and children. We are working with the UN agencies, including the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to make sure that child protection and the protection of women feature heavily in their work and at next week’s meeting. Officials are attending next week, and it is important to say that Britain has led the way in calling out these issues and providing resources to the agencies that are delivering on the ground so that they can protect women and children.

  • We should rightly be proud of the enormous holistic contribution that the UK has made in responding to the Syria crisis, but what effort has been made in parallel? What credit does my right hon. Friend give to the charitable effort that has taken place and what has it achieved?

  • My hon. Friend is right to make a point about the charitable contribution that has been made across the United Kingdom to all the aid efforts for Syrian refugees. There are many examples of that happening in which we have all been involved. The situation continues to deteriorate, and DFID and the Government continue to provide all the support that is needed. Through our aid match scheme, we are providing help directly to many of the charities, as well as contributing to the relief effort.

  • I call Tracy Brabin. Not here—another time.

  • T8. A recent reply to a written question stated that nearly 11% of the aid budget is managed through the EU. Will the Secretary of State tell us what concrete plans she has to ensure that that money is properly used after Brexit? [901248]

  • The hon. Lady is right to point out that we make contributions through other organisations, particularly the European Union. After Brexit, we will ensure that that money is not only spent accountably and in a transparent way, but doing exactly what it is there to do: serving the world’s poorest and providing relief to those people who desperately need that aid support.

  • I would not want the hon. Gentleman to think that he was out of the water.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. What access can my right hon. Friend give to her Department’s procurement programme for innovative, UK-built food aid drones?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the opportunity for DFID and the Government to use technology to provide much-needed food aid relief around the world, such as in refugee camps and crisis zones. Our procurement system has now changed. We are working with a range of suppliers to ensure that we can get the innovators to the Government to deliver the support that is needed.

  • Order. Khadija Arib, the President of the Dutch House of Representatives, is joining us in Parliament today. I know that colleagues will wish to extend the warmest of welcomes to my Dutch counterpart. I thank her for being here.

  • Prime Minister

    The Prime Minister was asked—

    Engagements

  • Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 18 October. [901211]

  • I am sure that Members throughout the whole House will wish to join me in marking Anti-Slavery Day. Slavery is an abhorrent crime and I am determined to bring it to an end.

    This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

  • Will the Prime Minister reaffirm her Government’s commitment to the northern powerhouse? Will she set out the specific schemes—[Interruption.]

  • Order. The right hon. Lady has never been silenced and, as far as I am concerned, she never will be.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. The importance of the north will be heard.

    Will the Prime Minister set out the schemes that she seeks to prioritise, and does she agree that the only norths that are in tune with the Leader of the Opposition’s political correctness and Marxism are Islington North and North Korea? [Interruption.]

  • Order. We have 32 questions to get through and I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer. I ask colleagues to contain themselves.

  • My right hon. Friend referred to the voice of the north being heard, and it has indeed been heard by the Conservatives in government. It is a Conservative Government who committed—and remain committed—to the northern powerhouse, and it is a Conservative Government who are putting investment into skills and transport infrastructure for the northern powerhouse. We are backing business growth across the north, as I saw when I visited the north-west last week. We are putting £60 million into Transport for the North for looking at northern powerhouse rail; that is part of £13 billion of infrastructure investment. It is the Conservatives in government who recognise the importance of a country that works for everyone and of growth across the whole country.

  • I join the Prime Minister in recognising Anti-Slavery Day. The slave trade was one of the most grotesque times in the history of this planet and we must all be resolved to drive out slavery in any form whatsoever. I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in expressing sympathy to, and solidarity and support for, the people of Somalia following the horrific terrorist atrocity in Mogadishu last weekend.

    I welcome today’s fall in unemployment—[Interruption]—but the same figures show that real wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Most people in work are worse off. Does the Prime Minister really believe that falling wages are a sign of a strong economy?

  • I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our concern about the terrible terrorist attack that took place in Mogadishu, killing nearly 300 people and injuring many hundreds. Terrorism in Somalia undermines the stability of the horn of Africa. We will continue to work with the international community to try to bring stability to Somalia and that part of Africa. Of course, an aspect of that involves dealing with the terrorist threat that people face there.

    The right hon. Gentleman might have done a first in the House of Commons today, because I think this is the first time—certainly since I became Prime Minister—that he has actually welcomed a fall in unemployment. It is good news that more people are in work and that unemployment is at its lowest rate for more than 40 years. That means that people are taking more money in wages to their families.

    The right hon. Gentleman asks about the cost of living. I will tell him what we have done in relation to that. Some 30 million people have been given a tax cut that is worth £1,000 to a basic rate taxpayer every year. We have given the low-paid the highest pay increase for 20 years through the national living wage. For those who take the full entitlement, the doubling of free childcare is worth £5,000 per child per year to every family. That is what we are doing to help people with the cost of living.

  • I wonder whether the Prime Minister could do a first—answer a question. The question I asked her was about falling wages. Christine, a worker in a village shop, wrote to me this week to say:

    “I am worse off. I cannot afford to keep my car, which I struggled to buy, on the road. I need my car to attend appointments, job hunt for a better position, and take my son to activities. We don’t have a luxurious lifestyle and don’t want one. We just want to feel secure.”

    When millions of workers are having to rely on the benefits system just to make ends meet, is not that a sign of not a strong economy, but a weak economy?

  • I have recognised since I came into this role that there are people in this country, like Christine, who are finding life difficult. That is why it is so important that the Government take steps to help people with the cost of living—the costs they find themselves facing week in, week out. It is why the measures that I just listed to the right hon. Gentleman, including tax cuts and the national living wage, are important, and it is why it is important that we have frozen fuel duty. We have ensured that we take some of the lowest paid people out of paying income tax altogether. We are going to introduce an energy price cap—[Interruption.] Yes. It is all about helping people with the cost of living, but you can only do that if you have a strong economy, and you only get a strong economy with a Conservative Government.

  • People struggling to make ends meet; private sector rental evictions up; wages down; universal credit in a shambles. Is Christine wrong or is she just an example of what it is like to live in modern Britain?

    Last week, I asked the Prime Minister to scrap the unfair charges on the universal credit helpline. Today she has finally bowed to that pressure, but the fundamental problems of universal credit remain: the six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions. Will the Prime Minister now pause universal credit and fix the problems before pressing ahead with the roll-out?

  • Yes, it is absolutely right—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!]

  • Order. I have said before to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) that, as an aspiring stateswomen, she must conduct herself with due decorum. Calm—perhaps she is another Member who should take up yoga.

  • I suggest that Opposition Members listen to the whole sentence.

    Yes, it is absolutely right that we have announced this morning that we will change the telephone charge. I said last week that we were listening to a number of proposals that have been made—we have done that. It is right to do this now because there is a lot of emphasis and a lot of publicity about universal credit at the moment, and I want people to know that they can ring in and get advice without being worried. That is exactly what we are going to do.

    The right hon. Gentleman talks about universal credit and pausing it. Why have we introduced universal credit? It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working, because more people are getting into work. Pausing universal credit will not help those people who would be helped by moving to universal credit, getting into the workplace and bringing home more pay for their families.

  • There is a very long list of people urging the Prime Minister to pause universal credit, including Citizens Advice, the Trussell Trust, John Major and, I understand, two dozen of her own Back Benchers, who have a chance this afternoon to vote to pause universal credit and show that they are representing their constituents.

    The public sector pay cap is causing real suffering and real staff shortages. Last week, the Health Secretary announced that the NHS pay cap was scrapped, but when asked if the NHS was going to get extra money to fund any agreed pay rise, he replied:

    “That is something I cannot answer right now”.—[Official Report, 10 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 163.]

    Well, this is right now, and the Prime Minister is here right now. How about an answer right now?

  • As I have explained to the right hon. Gentleman and the House in the past, the way in which we approach the whole question of public sector pay is through the work of the pay review bodies. They have all reported for the current year, and they did their work against the remit set by the Government of a blanket cap of 1% on public sector pay. For the 2018-19 year, we have changed that remit to ensure that there is flexibility in the system for that period.

    Perhaps I could just explain something else to the right hon. Gentleman, because I fear that for all his years in Parliament there is one thing that he has failed to recognise—Government has no money of its own. Government gets money—[Interruption.]

  • Order. Mr MacNeil, you are becoming over-excitable again, young man. Calm yourself. There is no need for excessive gesticulation; it serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s reply. The Prime Minister will be heard, however long it takes.

  • Government has no money of its own. It collects money in taxes from businesses and people to spend on the NHS and on the services that people need. If businesses are not being set up, if businesses are not growing, and if people are not in work, Government does not have the money to spend on NHS pay, on schools, and on hospitals. Of course, the only way we ensure that those businesses are growing, and the only way we ensure that people are in jobs and that Government has the money to spend on schools and hospitals and NHS pay, is with a Conservative Government.

  • The Prime Minister seemed to have no problem finding £1 billion in a couple of days for the DUP. She needs to make it clear to the NHS workers what pay rise is being offered, when they will receive it, and what funding is being provided—and what cuts she is proposing to make elsewhere in order to deal with that.

    Young people are in record levels of debt. This week, the Financial Conduct Authority warned of

    “a pronounced build-up of indebtedness amongst the younger age group”

    to fund “essential living costs”. Is not this yet another sign not of a “strong economy” but of a weak economy?

  • I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have heard from the OECD that the deficit that the Labour Government left us was unsustainable. Since then, we have indeed found money for the people of Northern Ireland. We have also found, as I explained earlier, £20 billion to give a tax cut to 30 million people and £38 billion to freeze fuel duty. That is about helping ordinary working people, day in and day out. When it comes to students and young people and their fear about debt, there is one thing we know, and that is that we should not be racking up debts today, like Labour proposes, that those young people would have to pay off tomorrow.

  • It is very interesting that the Prime Minister talks about what happened 10 years ago. Her former friend George Osborne said earlier this week:

    “did Gordon Brown cause the sub-prime crisis in America? No.”

    He went on to say that “broadly speaking” the Government

    “did what was necessary in a very difficult situation”.

    Under this Prime Minister, we have a weak economy. UK growth is currently the worst among the 10 largest EU economies. We are the only major economy where wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Even without the risks posed by this Government’s bungled Brexit negotiations—it is very interesting to see that the Home Secretary is necessary to keep the two protagonists apart—we now have weak growth, falling productivity, falling investment, and falling wages. How does the Prime Minister have the nerve to come here and talk about a “strong economy” when the figures show the exact opposite?

  • I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the OECD says about the United Kingdom that we have the most efficient, accessible healthcare system, that fiscal sustainability has improved, that important steps have been taken to improve educational outcomes, and that jobs and earnings are good. That is what the OECD says about the strong economy under this Conservative Government. The way to get a weak economy is to borrow £500 billion like the Labour party is proposing. The way to get a weak economy is to ensure that you are promising spending after spending after spending and people are going to have to pay for that. The only way we get money to put into public services, and the only way we can give people tax cuts to help them with the cost of living, is to ensure that we deal with the deficit, get our debts down, and deal with Labour’s great recession which put us into this position in the first place.

  • Q5. Following the rather flaccid response from the Leader of the Opposition, may I welcome the announcement that the Government are scrapping the universal credit helpline charges—a move that demonstrates that the Government are supporting people who want to get up, work hard and get on in life? Can the Prime Minister now confirm that all welfare claim DWP helplines will be completely free to all claimants? [901215]

  • I am very happy to confirm that, and it is useful to be able to do so. My right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary announced this morning that we have taken the decision to change the universal credit helpline to a freephone number. I can also tell my hon. Friend that by the end of the year, DWP will extend freephone numbers to all its phone lines. I think that that will be welcomed and will be helpful to all who use them.

  • Will the Prime Minister do today what her Brexit Secretary was unable to do in this Chamber yesterday and rule out a no deal scenario on leaving the EU?

  • I can confirm that what we are doing is working for the best possible deal for the United Kingdom, but it would be irresponsible of Government not to prepare for all possible scenarios, and that is exactly what we are doing.

  • May I point out to the Prime Minister what her Home Secretary said yesterday—that a no deal scenario is “unthinkable”? I agree with the Home Secretary. Brexit has contributed to a fall in the pound and a subsequent rise in inflation, squeezing household budgets. Folk are getting poorer in Britain today. It has been reported that Government analysis shows that Scotland and the north-east of England would lose out from breakfast—I mean Brexit—but the Government responded to an FOI by saying that such analysis—[Interruption.] Well, there is hilarity on the Government Benches—

  • Order. A Government Whip from Staffordshire is forgetting his manners. He is gesticulating rather noisily, and he should calm himself. Let us hear Mr Blackford.

  • Members on the Government Benches are engaging in hilarity, but the reality is that the people of this country are going to pay an economic price for a hard Brexit. The Government analysis, which has remained secret, points out that people in Scotland and the north-east of England will suffer from a hard Brexit. What is the Government’s analysis of the impact and what will be the impact—[Interruption.]

  • Order. I must tell the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that I know what I am doing. I am trying to help the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), but he must help himself by asking a brief question. [Interruption.] Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman has completed his question.

  • No? A last sentence, but it had better be very brief. The question has been far too long. Come on—quick, quick.

  • What is the Government’s analysis of the impact of Brexit on a no deal scenario?

  • Once again, the right hon. Gentleman stands up and talks about the Scottish economy and makes reference to issues such as jobs in Scotland. I am sorry that in his rather lengthy question he did not make any reference to the fact that since 2010, nearly a quarter of a million more people in Scotland are in work. That is the result of the actions of this Government.

  • Now we are going to hear Back Benchers. Back Benchers in this place must be heard.

  • Q10. As the Prime Minister pointed out in answer to the first question, the northern powerhouse initiative has done a great deal to help the economies of northern areas. But our coastal communities are desperately in need of further investment and support. In north-east Lincolnshire we have established a private sector-led project board that benefits from the expertise of its members, who include a former Chancellor and a former head of the civil service. Could the Prime Minister give her support to the initiative for a town deal for north-east Lincolnshire, which might provide a model for other areas? [901221]

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this, and I recognise and understand that ambitious regeneration plans are being developed by the Greater Grimsby project board. I welcome that because it is based on a very strong private-public sector approach and partnership that is being put forward, and I know my hon. Friend is himself playing an active role in that. I believe there have been some positive meetings with my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and my hon. Friend the Northern Powerhouse Minister, and I would encourage the board to continue engagement with officials about the details of their plans.

  • Q2. At the general election, both main parties committed to an energy price cap and the Government have now published a Bill for which I believe there is strong cross-party support, so will the 14 million customers on standard variable tariffs actually see their energy prices come down this winter, and if not, when will the Prime Minister get on the statute book legislation to ensure that this is the last winter when customers can be ripped off by their energy company? [901212]

  • I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady says she and others on the Labour Benches will support the legislation that the Government have—[Interruption.] No, it was not. It is important that we take action to deal with energy prices: the draft legislation will see those rip-off prices being capped for millions of households—all standard tariff customers—and while this will initially run to 2020, we will be able to extend it on an annual basis until 2023, on the advice of Ofgem. I think we have sent an important message to the industry, which I would hope is actually going to make changes even before we get the legislation on the statute book.

  • Does the Prime Minister share the great concerns that were expressed in this House yesterday, including by Ministers, about the implications for the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong of the recent refusal of the authorities there to allow Ben Rogers, a UK national, entry? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will work with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to ensure that the democratic freedoms in the one country, two systems principle are honoured and preserved?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to ensure that the principle of one country and two systems is preserved and continues to operate. On the specific case and the specific issue that she has raised, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informs me that the Foreign Office has raised this issue at various levels in relation to Hong Kong and China, and we will continue to do so.

  • Q3. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. People in my constituency, many of whom work at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant, are devastated by the announcement of 400 job losses this week. PSA stated that clarity on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU was needed before the company would be in a position to consider future investment at Vauxhall. Cabinet Ministers have plenty to say to each other about Brexit, but what have the Government got to say to the 400 workers at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, who face losing their jobs in the run-up to Christmas? [901213]

  • Of course, we never want to see people in the position of losing their jobs, and if people do lose their jobs, support is available to them through the DWP to help them to get back into the labour market and to get back into work. We are in the process of a negotiation on Brexit. We will leave the European Union in March 2019, and we are negotiating for the best possible deal we can get for the United Kingdom. We have also indicated that we want an implementation period after that deal has been negotiated to ensure that businesses do not face a cliff edge but can have certainty about the rules under which they are going to operate in the future. If there is one thing that is certain it is that we will leave the EU in March 2019.

  • Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book—it is a very good piece of legislation—will the Prime Minister confirm that the community home building fund, available last year for group housing projects, is still available, and does she agree that providing service plots of land at scale is a good way to fix our broken housing market?

  • My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I know that he has campaigned long and hard on the particular area of self-build and of course has a great deal of expertise in it. He is absolutely right: if we are going to fix our broken housing market, we do need to build more homes. That is why we have made bold proposals in our housing White Paper—to make more land available, to build homes faster and to give local authorities the tools they need. I had a roundtable with house builders and others earlier this week, looking at how we can ensure that we unlock the potential of our housing market. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to discuss with him the very specific issues that he has raised.

  • Q4. Prime Minister, you said that universal credit is working. I wonder what you would say to my constituent, Fred, who claimed universal credit for a short time more than two years ago and has been working ever since, but suddenly got a letter in August demanding that he repay £366. Despite spending hours on the phone line, Fred was not told why he was being charged, and more than £100 a month was taken out of his wages, meaning that he incurred bank charges. Will you take personal responsibility so that no more claimants suffer injustice and debt, as Fred has? [901214]

  • I will take no responsibility for those matters myself, and the hon. Lady will be advised on the protocol, but the Prime Minister may wish to respond.

  • As I have indicated, changes have been made to the phone line. I repeat to the hon. Lady that the evidence shows that on universal credit, more people are getting into the workplace than on jobseeker’s allowance. Universal credit is about helping people get into the workplace and ensuring that, as they earn more, they keep more of what they earn. That is exactly what universal credit does.

  • Is my right hon. Friend aware of the wonderful work at Twycross zoo in my constituency, breeding endangered species? Is she also aware of the critical problem of the demise of African elephants, which are being slaughtered at the rate of 20,000 a year? What will she do about banning ivory sales in London?

  • My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I commend those in his constituency who are doing that valuable work. Earlier this month, we set out proposals for a ban on ivory sales that we believe will help bring an end to poaching elephants. That would put the UK front and centre of global efforts to end the trade in ivory. I am sure that Members across the House are concerned about that issue. Ivory should not be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol. I think our proposals will make a real difference.

  • Q6. Universal credit is not just a benefit for jobseekers; it is for people in work to subsidise their low pay, for carers and those who cannot work. My constituents have endured the brunt of austerity for many years. Now the Department for Work and Pensions proposes to roll out the universal credit system in my constituency over Christmas—the toughest financial time for people. My question to the Prime Minister is this: is the roll-out a matter of gross incompetence or calculated cruelty? [901216]

  • The DWP has been rolling out universal credit. As it has done so, it has listened to the concerns that have been raised. I am pleased to say that we are seeing a much better performance from the DWP.

  • It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. The figures show that the performance in getting payments to people on time has improved substantially—more people are getting advance payments. We want to ensure that all those who need advance payments can get them. The fundamental reason for moving to universal credit—a simpler, more straightforward system—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may not want to listen, but there is a reason for universal credit. [Interruption.]

  • Order. Colleagues know that I am determined to get through the list to help Back Benchers, but when questions are asked, the answers must be heard. Today is exceptionally noisy, and we are not setting a very good example to our Dutch friends. I am sure that they do it much better. The questions, and the Prime Minister’s answers, will be heard.

  • Finally, I would simply say to the hon. Lady that the purpose of universal credit is to have a more straightforward, simpler system that helps people to keep more as they earn more and encourages more people into work. That is what it does.

  • It is great to have the Prime Minister back in her usual fine voice. Will she join me in encouraging Members, who have demonstrated what good voices they have, to hold events in their constituencies for Singing for Syrians? The situation on the ground in Syria gets ever more desperate, and I am sorry to say that the Hands Up Foundation, which does great work, has an ever increasing list of prosthetic limbs that are needed.

  • I think we all recognise the desperate situation in Syria, which is why we continue to be proud of our country’s record of giving humanitarian aid to Syria and to refugees from Syria: £2.46 billion has been committed since 2012, our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in encouraging Members of this House to support the Singing for Syrians initiative and various events throughout the country. This is another important initiative focused, as is our humanitarian aid, on helping those people who are in a desperate situation in Syria.

  • Q7. Notts fire service tells us that sprinklers save lives. Nottingham City Council plans to retrofit sprinklers in all its high rise blocks, but the Government will not provide a penny to support it. After Grenfell, the Prime Minister promised:“We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.] How safe would she feel living on the 20th floor of Pine View or Southchurch Court in my constituency with one staircase and no sprinklers? [901217]

  • Since Grenfell, much has been said in this House about sprinklers. There are a number of aspects that have to be looked at in relation to the safety of tower blocks. It is not the case that sprinklers are the only issue that needs to be looked at or addressed; nor is it the only solution to ensuring their safety. On expenditure by the hon. Lady’s local council, it is of course up to the council to make decisions about what it wishes to do. We have been very clear that discussions have taken place with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities.

  • The mental health of our servicemen, servicewomen and their families is rightly gaining the attention it deserves. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the initiative between the Royal Foundation and the Ministry of Defence to ensure targeted support across the whole armed forces family?

  • I am very happy to welcome the initiative to which my hon. Friend refers. We know we need to address mental health more carefully and with greater attention across the public in general, but mental health concerns for those in the armed forces and those who have left the armed forces are a very real challenge that we need to face, because they have put themselves on the line for us and we owe it to them.

  • Q8. A major Southampton housing association tells me that 65% of its tenants who are on universal credit are now in rent arrears averaging £700, hampering the association’s ability to get on with building new houses. What message does the Prime Minister have for my local housing association? Is it just “Tough, get on with it”, or has she got something more positive to say? [901218]

  • We are indeed giving support to housing associations to build more homes. That is why, a couple of weeks ago, we announced that an extra £2 billion will be going to housing associations to enable them to do exactly that.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the death of Sir Teddy Taylor the country has lost an outstanding parliamentarian, a great constituency Member of Parliament and a true patriot? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that if Sir Teddy were alive today he would be delighted to learn that the outgoing Labour mayor of Southend, plus three unaligned councillors, have all joined the Conservative party?

  • I join my hon. Friend in recognising the great contribution Sir Teddy Taylor made in his time in this House as a Member of Parliament for different seats, including Southend, although I have to say to my hon. Friend that one of my abiding memories of Sir Teddy is the number of times we had to evacuate Portcullis House because he had set the fire alarm off by smoking where he was not supposed to—in his office. I am very pleased to welcome the former Labour mayor and the unaligned councillors who have now joined the Conservative party. We welcome them to the Conservative party and look forward to working with them.

  • Q9. Government failure to fund schools adequately is hurting children in my constituency. Lancashire schools will lose £40 million of funding and 828 teachers by 2020. Will the Prime Minister explain how this will help raise standards and aspirations? [901220]

  • I will tell the hon. Lady what is helping with standards and aspirations: first, the record funding that the Government are putting into our schools, and secondly, our reforms to the education system which mean already that over 150,000 children are at good or outstanding schools in her area, which is an increase of nearly 40,000 since 2010. More children are in good or outstanding schools—that is what the Government are providing.

  • Earlier this year, I opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing training facility at Braintree’s further education college. On Friday, I opened a new training centre for Contracts Support Services, a family-run business. Now that unemployment is at a record low and employment at a record high, will the Government commit to supporting both public and private sector trainers to increase productivity in the British economy?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Increasing productivity is a key aim of our Government—it is very important for the economy and the future—and investing in skills is a key part of that. I am pleased to hear that he has been so active in opening new facilities in his constituency. The changes we are making—our support for FE colleges, the new T-level, the emphasis we are putting on technical education and the £500 million we are putting into it—will all help to increase the skills levels of young people in this country.

  • Q11. Trust for London’s latest property profile shows that levels of homelessness in Enfield have risen by 82% in the last two years alone and that the eviction rate is the highest in the capital. What hope can the Prime Minister give to those of my constituents who are in work in the private rented sector that they can achieve their reasonable aspiration for themselves and their children to live in a safe, secure and affordable home? [901222]

  • I will tell the right hon. Lady what hope we are giving to people. It was precisely why I sat with house builders, housing associations and others in No. 10 Downing Street earlier this week—to encourage a faster rate of building houses and homes in this country so that more people can reach their aspiration of having a safe and secure home—and it is why we are putting £500 million over a period of years into dealing with homelessness. It is all very well, however, her standing up in the House and asking the Government what they are doing. We are putting more money into house building. She should ask the Labour Mayor of London what he is doing.

  • Yesterday, the director general of MI5 said that internet companies had an ethical responsibility to deal with terrorist material online. The Prime Minister has previously indicated that if they do not meet this challenge she will consider regulation. Will she confirm that if regulations are necessary they will be robust and enforced?

  • I am very happy to give my hon. and learned Friend that confirmation, but there is work to be done before we get to that stage. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done important work, for instance, with the tech companies, which have come together and formed a global forum looking at how to deal with terrorist material on the internet. It is a real issue that we need to address. I was pleased to hold an event on exactly this issue with President Macron and Prime Minister Gentiloni at the margins of the UN General Assembly this year attended by representatives of more than 70 countries and representatives of all the major tech companies. We need to work together, but I want those tech companies to recognise their social and moral responsibility to work with us to do something about this material.

  • Q12. Does the Prime Minister notice that I am wearing a red card in my pocket today? She will be aware that the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is not in his place. Indeed, he is in Barcelona doing his other job—today of all days. What signal does she think this sends to hard-working members of the public who are expected to turn up for their day jobs or face sanctions? [901223]

  • Order. I trust that the hon. Gentleman notified the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) in advance of his intention to raise this question.

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that confirmation.

  • Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the constituents of Moray will be very pleased that they have a Conservative Member of Parliament who is looking after their interests in the House. Let me also say to him that the Scottish Conservative Members are doing more for the interests of Scotland in this Parliament than the Scottish nationalists have ever done. [Interruption.]

  • Mr Spencer, what is the matter with you? My dear fellow! You eat home-produced food, you are a very respected farmer, and you are normally of a most taciturn disposition. I do not know what has come over you. Perhaps you should go and have a rest later. You must cheer up. Cheer up!

  • Along with the Scottish National party, the Labour party has said that it will not accept no deal with the European Union in any circumstances. That means that Labour will pay whatever final bill the EU demands, and accept any conditions on which it insists. Does the Prime Minister agree that no one with even an ounce of common sense would enter into a negotiation making such an announcement in advance, and does she agree that the stance proposed by the Labour party and the SNP is not a negotiation, but a capitulation?

  • My hon. Friend has put it very well indeed. We cannot enter the negotiations taking the stance that the Labour party and the SNP have taken. As my hon. Friend says, their rejection of a “no deal” means that they would accept a deal at any price to the British taxpayer, whatever the damage it would do to our economy, and we will not do that.

  • Q13. We are seeing the loss of skilled jobs at British Aerospace in Lancashire and more at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, as well as redundancies at Austin in Preston and Monarch in Manchester. What has happened to the northern powerhouse? Has its battery gone flat? If so, will the Prime Minister recharge it, as she rightly did in Northern Ireland? [901224]

  • As I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), the Government are committed to the northern powerhouse, and, indeed, are putting money into it to encourage economic growth, particularly through our investment in infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of cases, and the issue of Vauxhall was raised by one of his hon. Friends earlier. We are continuing to work with Vauxhall throughout the process to do all that we can to protect United Kingdom jobs, as we have done with BAE Systems and as we are doing with others. What matters, however, is ensuring that we have an economy that can enable more jobs to be created, and 3 million more people are in work today than in 2010.

  • Respectful and committed family relationships reduce poverty, improve wellbeing, and help the Government to live within their means. They are a key part of a country that works for everyone. Will the Prime Minister therefore implement the proposals of the recently published family manifesto?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are, of course, looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see those stable families, which lead to the benefits that he has described. He has campaigned on this issue since he came to the House, and I welcome the valuable contributions that he has made.

  • Last but never forgotten: Mr Dennis Skinner.

  • Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that INEOS, the fracking company, has been accused of creating a massive deterioration in the water supply, run by Severn Trent, on the Oxcroft estate in the Bolsover area? Will she, as Prime Minister, investigate this matter, and call on INEOS to halt the process while the investigation takes place? [901225]

  • I am sure that the issue will be properly looked into, but underlying it is the question of ensuring that we are able to have a secure and safe supply of energy in the future. That is why the fracking is continuing, and that is why we are supportive of the Shell gas exploration. There are opportunities there for the United Kingdom. As I have said, however, I am sure that the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman will be looked into appropriately.

  • Regulation of Property Agents

  • With permission, I shall make a statement on a call for evidence on protecting consumers in the letting and management agents market.

    When our housing White Paper was published in February we committed to taking action to help people already on the property ladder or living in rented accommodation. The Prime Minister has also announced billions of pounds of funding for new affordable homes, including homes for rent. We are also taking action to create a fairer property management system that works for everyone. We have already announced plans to regulate letting agents, including banning fees for tenants, and we have made it clear that we want to see an end to the unjustified use of leasehold in new-build houses.

    The time has come to address service charges. As the number of leasehold and private rented homes has grown, the market for managing agents has boomed. According to one estimate, annual service charges alone now total as much as £3.5 billion. While these managers provide an important service, the system in which they work is simply not suited to the modern age. Tenants and leaseholders—even some freeholders on new-build estates—hand over their money and receive services in return, but have little or no say over which agent provides them or at what cost. This matters because, while the majority of agents are honest professionals committed to delivering a high standard of service, a near total lack of regulation has led to the growth of a market where in places standards and safety come second to the pursuit of profit.

    We have seen reports of broken windows being repaired with cardboard and sticky tape and of damp and mould simply being painted over. One landlord was billed £500 by his agent for repairing a shower door, while a group of leaseholders were charged 10 times the market rate to have a new fire escape fitted, with the £30,000 contract for the work being handed to the property owner’s brother.

    People do not need any qualifications, training or experience to call themselves an agent. They do not need a criminal records check. They do not even have to know what a managing agent does. So it is no surprise that some experts believe such agents are overcharging by as much as £1.4 billion every year.

    Today, we are setting out plans for fixing the problems in property management. We are publishing a call for evidence which outlines the challenges facing the sector, proposes some possible solutions, and asks for the views of the people who know the market best, from those who work in it to those who pay the service charges.

    As part of this new call for evidence, the Government are seeking views on three key elements: first, whether regulatory overhaul of the sector is needed; secondly, measures to protect consumers from unfair costs and overpriced service charges; and, thirdly, ways to place more power in the hands of consumers by giving leaseholders more say over who their agent is.

    The sector has done some good work to raise standards already, but there is more to do to professionalise the sector and root out poor practice, and through the call for evidence we will take views on whether we need an independent regulator to oversee property management. So today the Government are asking everyone who pays service charges and everyone who receives them to share their views on what is wrong and how we can fix it. We want to give power back to consumers, give agents a clear and consistent framework to operate in, and give landlords, renters and leaseholders the confidence they need to know that agents are complying with the rules.

    As we build more homes, we need the right people to take care of them. That is why it is important that the Government act to recognise what works in the sector and fix what does not. Today’s announcement is about delivering better value and services for tenants, leaseholders, and hard-working people across the country.

    The call for evidence will be open for six weeks and is the first step in creating a property management system that works for everybody. I commend this statement to the House.

  • My goodness, the Government really are now scraping the bottom of the barrel: an oral statement on a call for evidence about property managing agents—not a statement on the Grenfell Tower fire and why four months on only 14 of 200 surviving families yet have a new permanent home, on bold Government action in the face of home ownership hitting a 30-year low, on rough sleeping doubling, or on the lowest level of new affordable house building for 24 years.

    More than 80 Members on both sides of the House want to speak next in Labour’s debate on universal credit, yet the House is being held up by the Minister telling us he wants to

    “create a fairer property management system that works for everyone.”

    If Mr Speaker were a football referee, he would book the Minister for time wasting. Where is the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) when he is needed?

    In the face of the country’s housing crisis, this is a truly feeble statement. It is not even a commitment to act; it is a commitment to ask some questions. The Government are launching today, the Minister tells us, “a call for evidence”. He tells us that he is seeking views on

    “whether regulatory overhaul of the sector is needed”.

    Of course it is: managing and letting agents can set up with no expertise, no qualifications, no registration and no professional body membership. This is a market with no legal regulation, just partial self-regulation. It is a market in which the reputation of the best is dragged down by the worst, and a market in which consumers too often face unfair upfront fees, restrictions on what they can do to their own homes, and a system in which it proves impossible to get problems sorted out.

    Better regulation of letting and managing agents has long been a commitment on this side of the House, so the Government’s concern now is welcome, but action needs legislation. Therefore, can the Minister confirm when the proposed legislation will be introduced, and when it will come into force? Can he confirm that this “call for evidence” today will not delay still further the announcement the Government made a year ago to ban letting agents’ fees? When will that legislation be introduced, and when will it come into force? As a result of today’s announcement, can the Minister tell us how much on average each leaseholder and private renter will save, and when—oh, when—will he act on the other protections leaseholders and renters need from this Government?

    Finally, may I give the Minister his first response to this “call for evidence”? Rather than asking whether or not renters and leaseholders need better protections, will the Government instead act on Labour’s proposals to end the building of new leasehold homes and to cap rises in ground rents, and will they back our plan for new consumer protections for private renters, with longer tenancies and a control on rent rises, a ban on letting agents’ fees, and new legal minimum standards that all landlords must meet before they rent their homes?

    We have a big housing crisis and small thinking from Conservative Ministers. After seven years of failure on all fronts on housing, when will Ministers come to the House and announce a proper plan to fix this country’s housing crisis?

  • I have not said this before, but I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. However, I am extremely sorry that he started his response to the statement with such rancour. There are 4.5 million households renting in the private sector. For them, this absolutely matters—it really does—so I hope he will reflect on how he started his contribution and on the fact that perhaps what we ought to be doing is working together on making this happen. He says we should do it. Of course, and that is precisely what we are doing, but I say respectfully that he was the Housing Minister—why did he not do it?

    Let me talk about fixing the broken housing market. The right hon. Gentleman said that we are tinkering. We are not tinkering. He will have seen the work that has been done since the White Paper was published and he knows the announcements that have been made. I recommend to him that, instead of talking to his colleagues in the Labour party, he talks to the social housing sector to ask what it makes of the announcements made at the Conservative party conference—the £2 billion extra and CPI plus 1%. It will tell him that those announcements were a sea change.

    I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that, in the work that we are doing, there is finally some joined-up thinking in Government. We have already announced—I am pleased he welcomes this—the ban on tenant fees from letting agents. We will publish the draft Bill very shortly, together with the consultation. He knows that, when it comes to rogue landlords, it has been possible since April to levy civil penalties of up to £30,000, and we are also looking at banning orders. A range of work is ongoing.

    The right hon. Gentleman will also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement a few weeks ago on measures to help the private rented sector with landlords being required to be part of a redress scheme and housing courts being consulted on incentives to landlords for longer tenancies. We are doing a huge amount of work.

    The right hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other points. He asked by how much leaseholders will benefit. He has seen the figures I talked about: £3.5 billion is charged, and some experts say £1.4 billion is overcharging, so if he does the maths he might be able to work it out for himself.

    The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have just concluded a consultation on leasehold. I pay tribute to the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform for all the fantastic work it has done. We have had 6,000 responses—a record—to this consultation, and we agree with him that this is an area that needs fixing, but I hope he will reflect and welcome what we are doing with this call for evidence.

  • Does the Minister agree that competition and choice are the best ways to drive standards up and prices down? Will they inform his work to empower tenants and to make the market function better?

  • My right hon. Friend is right. Of course competition is important, but we also need to ensure that there is the appropriate regulation in place to give fairness in the system for those who are renting privately. That is precisely what we are doing with a raft of measures, which I have already outlined, and this call for evidence.

  • The statement represents just another consultation on a proposal. People out there in the real world want action, because the problems in the housing sector are well known.

    The Scottish Government legislated on this matter back in 2011, through the Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011. The primary objective was to create a statutory framework to protect homeowners who used factoring services by providing minimum standards for property factors. This came into force in October 2012 and it applies to all residential property and land managers whether they are private sector businesses, local authorities or housing associations. A compulsory register of factors has been operating and registration helps to ensure that property factors are aware of the standards and that they comply with them. It is a criminal offence to operate as a property factor in Scotland if unregistered. Will the UK Government put that into legislation and follow that example?

    A code of conduct sets out minimum standards of practice with which all registered property factors are statutorily obliged to comply. There is a route for redress to the Homeowner Housing Panel, which is an independent judicial body separate from Scottish Ministers and from local authorities. Homeowners can apply to the panel if they believe that their property factor has failed to comply with the code of conduct or otherwise failed to carry out their factoring duties.

    That is another example of the Scottish National party leading the way for a progressive housing policy in Scotland and of how we are getting on with the day job while the Tories are off refereeing football matches.

    Given that the UK Government are six years behind Scotland, will the Minister meet the Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, to discuss what is already in operation in Scotland, what is working well, what we are doing and what the UK Government can learn from to represent homeowners across the UK?

  • I recognise that the devolved Administrations, including Scotland, have done work in that area, but this is a call for evidence and it is open to everyone to give their views. That is what we want—a comprehensive call for evidence. I do talk to the Scottish Housing Minister fairly regularly.

  • Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the three deposit protection schemes and of Shelter to discuss how we can better protect tenant deposits and put tenants in the driving seat when it comes to choosing the scheme that looks after their deposit?

  • Yes, I absolutely will. I know that my hon. Friend has a great deal of knowledge of and experience in this area.

  • When the Select Committee last looked at the issue of the arrangements for the regulation of letting agents, we recommended, simply as a first step, that letting and managing agents should be

    “subject to the same regulation that currently governs sales agents.”

    The Government response at the time was that this would

    “impose a new burden on local authorities, increase costs for consumers”.

    I welcome the Government’s change of heart, but that Select Committee report was published in 2013—four years ago. A consultation has been proposed, but today we want and need to know when we are going to have some action. Will the Minister commit today to act by a given date on the results of the consultation?

  • I am grateful that the Chairman of the Select Committee has welcomed this call for evidence. I hope that it demonstrates that we are open. He and his Committee should put forward any evidence that they have. As he knows, the consultation will last six weeks, finishing at the end of November. Once we have all the information in from the consultees, we will respond as quickly as we can.

  • Rip-off merchants, cowboys and those who seek to exploit often some of the most vulnerable people in our society have no place in a modern Britain, but does my hon. Friend agree that we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater? Lots of agents are thoroughly respectable and good—invariably estate agents who are small, independent, family-run businesses occupying important plots on our high streets. It is important that we do not destroy their businesses, but at the same time ensure that we have a proper system.

  • My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but I point out to her that support for regulation and the call for evidence has been welcomed by the Association of Residential Managing Agents, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the National Landlords Association, the Residential Landlords Association and the Institute of Residential Property Management. Those are credible organisations and they are calling for reform.

  • Far from what the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, will the Minister have another look at the role of tenancy deposits and the way certain agents do not carry through their legal obligation to ensure that the money is safe? Will he ensure that landlords do not hold money back for ridiculous repair jobs that have nothing to do with the tenants? That is both unfair and a real slur as to how tenants have their money handled.

  • I am sorry if I was not clear, but I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne to discuss precisely those matters. We will of course keep this in mind.

  • Sorting out service charges once and for all means sorting out the section 20 process. Will the Minister update the House on his Department’s work on that?

  • I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to set out the details on that. More broadly, she should put forward whatever thoughts she has in the call for evidence and we will of course take them very seriously.

  • I encourage the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) to circulate her text book on succinct questions. It would be of great benefit to colleagues.

  • My constituents trapped in rip-off leasehold houses now look forward to swift action from the Government following the consultation that has just closed. Turning to this statement, more and more new estates are subject to management fees because developers are not transferring responsibility for common parts to local authorities, meaning that many homeowners are effectively paying twice for the same services. Will the new consultation examine ways of requiring developers to pass on those maintenance functions, which should properly be the responsibility of councils?

  • This is a call for evidence, and right hon. and hon. Members and others should put forward any evidence they have.

  • One good way of placing more power in the hands of consumers is to establish and support more mutual housing co-operatives, which work well in Germany and place real power in residents’ hands. Will the Minister consider steps to encourage the establishment of more such co-operatives here?

  • I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss such matters. He knows a great deal about housing, particularly custom-building.

  • I declare an interest in that I own a property in Rochdale that is managed by an agent. Clamping down on rogue property agents is long overdue, and the consultation is welcome. However, whether regulatory reforms are successful will be entirely down to how well they are enforced. Self-regulation has failed, and local enforcement on the ground is under severe pressure due to public sector cuts. Will the Minister confirm that extra funding will be made available to make the necessary enforcement possible?

  • We have already made £12 million available to local authorities for enforcement since 2012. As I said in the statement, local authorities are able to levy penalties of up to £30,000 on rogue landlords and that money can be used for further enforcement.

  • I have an interest in the register. No matter how welcome the proposals, the Minister will agree that his proposals for vastly increasing the supply will be a much more effective defender of tenants’ interests.

  • As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The measures will of course help, but at the end of the day we need to fix the broken housing market by building more homes.

  • I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will the Department also consider what steps can be taken to protect the consumer rights of freeholders who pay management fees on new-build estates where managing agents are failing to deliver value for money, such as in Lawley Village in Telford?

  • Yes. We will, of course, consider all these matters in the round, but if my hon. Friend puts her thoughts forward as part of the call for evidence, we will review them.

  • The all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, which I co-chair along with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), will be grateful for the Minister’s remarks. We will submit more evidence.

    I put it to the Minister that it will be quite important for people to be able to submit their evidence to the consultation confidentially. There are so many crooks and dodgy people around that there may be threats of legal action, such as the one I received from Carter-Ruck on behalf of Barry Weir when I was looking after a park home resident. Ordinary people cannot face that; Members of Parliament can.

    Will the Minister also consider whether Dudley Joiner of Team Property Management can be investigated? He was going to be thrown out of his judicial property role, but he escaped hours before the report was announced.

    Lastly, will the Minister please give serious consideration to whether the chairman of LEASE—the leasehold advisory service—can properly remain in his role, or whether it would be better to let him retire and have him replaced?

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) have done brilliant work as co-chairs of the APPG. He talks about people being able to give information anonymously, and we will of course not release the individual names of those who give evidence when the consultation’s outcome is published.

    As for the two references to particular individuals made by my hon. Friend, I suggest that we speak about those other matters after this debate.

  • In the 17 years that I have represented residents, both as a councillor and as an MP, this is easily one of the biggest issues that they have faced. Leaseholders are being ripped off left, right and centre, and the only defence is the right to manage. The best case scenario is that it is a complex process, but it is more often near impossible. Through the consultation, I hope that the Minister will prioritise empowering those residents who have suffered long enough.

  • As I said, we will publish the outcome of the leasehold consultation, but we will clearly be considering proposals to ban leasehold houses and, of course, to tackle onerous ground rents.

  • Leaseholders in Kettering will warmly welcome the launch of the Government’s consultation, particularly those who live in blocks of flats where multiple leasehold interests are involved. I am thinking in particular of a block in the middle of Kettering that is in an appalling state of disrepair and has become a magnet for crime. The leaseholders there have no possibility of selling their properties, so the Government’s announcement of proposals in this area will be warmly welcomed.

  • I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He refers to the power of leaseholders more generally, but I point out to him that we would also like to reinvigorate commonhold.

  • There is anger in Newark that the common areas and public spaces around almost every freehold property built in and around the town by major developers are subject to a management charge. As other Members have pointed out, such charges essentially mean that the community has to pay two council tax bills in perpetuity. National developers are profiting from the scam, and councils do not have the power to resist it. I am pressuring the local council to resist it—I think it actually enjoys the arrangement because it benefits from it—but we need to give councils powers so that local MPs such as me can say that the practice is unacceptable and has to stop.

  • My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We will, of course, reflect on that matter when we respond to the leasehold consultation.

  • Is my hon. Friend able to reassure the House that any clampdown on excess service charges will not have an adverse impact on rents?

  • When we talk about the ban on letting agents’ fees and making the system fairer, the industry has talked about an increase in rents as a possible impact, but that did not come to pass in Scotland. We want to introduce fairness across the system, and I hope that that will ultimately mean lower charges and lower fees for tenants.

  • It cannot be right that those who visit a property agent to buy enter into an area of high regulation, but there is no protection for those who go to the very same agent to rent. Does the Minister agree that today’s announcement levels the playing field for homeowners on the one hand and tenants and leaseholders on the other?

  • I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

  • I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I urge him to widen its brief to the practices of housing associations. In recent weeks, constituents of North Dorset have been to see me after their housing associations increased charges without any prior notice and certainly with no justification.

  • The call for evidence relates to the private rented sector, but we will be putting out a Green Paper on the social housing sector and we will consider such matters.

  • I welcome the Minister’s statement, which many residents in my constituency will also welcome. More and more freeholders are subject to charges, so will he confirm that any new regulations will include the freehold market? Does he agree that a lack of transparency is at the heart of the issue? If so, will he ensure that any new regulations provide complete transparency for those who pay service charges?

  • We are all for transparency. As I have said, we will consider all the matters put forward as part of this call for evidence and in previous leasehold consultations.

    Bills Presented

    Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Secretary Chris Grayling, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Secretary Lidington, Secretary Greg Clark and Secretary David Mundell, presented a Bill to make provision about automated vehicles and electric vehicles.

    Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 112) with explanatory notes (Bill 112-EN).

    Smart Meters Bill

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Secretary Greg Clark, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Chris Grayling and Secretary Sajid Javid, presented a Bill to extend the period for the Secretary of State to exercise powers relating to smart metering and to provide for a special administration regime for a smart meter communication licensee.

    Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 113) with explanatory notes (Bill 113-EN).

  • Workers (Definition and Rights)

    Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

  • I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the definition of worker; to make provision about workers’ rights; and for connected purposes.

    My last ten-minute rule motion, on free telephone calls to Department for Work and Pensions helplines, has today been made Government policy, so it is appropriate that I ask leave to bring in a Bill to define the status of workers in law; to refine the current definitions in light of recent Supreme Court judgments; and to provide greater protection from day one of a person’s employment, eliminating zero-hours contracts and providing greater protection for those in precarious work, such as in the hospitality sector.

    For too many years, workers’ rights were rarely debated outside of trade union conferences, but since the 2008 crash, when the failures of big business landed the least well off taxpayers with the bill for the corporate gamblers and their reckless handling of the global economy, there has been a growing sense of outrage that hard work is not properly rewarded.

    Far from addressing an unbalanced economy that rewards failure so long as it is on a global scale, the Government have clung to the supremacy of the market over workers’ rights. However, all the evidence shows that a healthy economy values workers and that achieving the correct balance between profit and reward is the biggest spur to long-term growth instead of short-term profit.

    Many voices are now challenging the sheer scale of exploitation and poor working practices that all age groups experience but that often hit young people the hardest. I commend the private Member’s Bill tabled by my comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). The Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill would make it clear that, if a trial period is offered, the employer must pay up for that period whether or not a full offer of employment is made.

    In many ways, there is a false narrative about the modern world of work that suggests that 21st-century technology has created a different dynamic and that workers have to adapt to be more flexible and more open to different ways of working, leaving behind outdated notions of security and guaranteed reward. The clear implication is that full-time secure employment with rights, a pension and clearly defined hours is an outdated 20th-century concept, instead of the peak of a hard-fought struggle to redress the balance between employer and employee—or, at its most extreme, exploiter and exploited. I make no apology for putting the issue in stark terms. We need to stand up and take on the siren voices that want to cloud a simple issue that has existed for as long as one person has agreed to pay another for their work. If fairness is not nailed down in legislation and enforced, there will always be employers who push their advantage to the limit and beyond.

    I strongly believe the time has come for a full debate about what is fair work and how it should be properly rewarded. My Bill would bring some clarity to the definition of “worker” by defining what rights are available and consolidating a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply. It would also give the House the opportunity for more debate about the issues currently being explored by Committees following the Taylor report.

    The Taylor report is useful in one sense: workers’ rights are front and centre. With Brexit on the horizon, we should all be aware of how easily the rights we take for granted could disappear. The report correctly identifies that clarity in the law could be improved, but I take issue with the proposed solutions, particularly that of creating a new category of worker—“dependent contractor.” I have a strong sense that the Taylor report’s main focus is not primarily the worker. It gives more weight to the interests of consumers and employers; when Mr Taylor gave evidence in Committee his responses indicated an anxiety that nothing should be introduced that “harmed” or “affected” consumers and employers in a negative way, even if it improves workers’ rights.

    Mr Taylor admitted that his report was influenced by the Treasury submission on costs. He also admitted that if he had known that the Supreme Court was going to rule against the Government on employment tribunal fee costs, he would have been more robust in his report on the case for abolishing those costs. That was quite a revelation about how the report was produced—“nothing too radical” was evidently the starting point. There was quite a contradiction when he said that good businesses should not fail because other businesses are prepared to run a more profit-driven, exploitative model, but the report proposes no concrete legislative changes or enforcement to support companies that undertake good practice.

    One of the more puzzling aspects of the report and Mr Taylor’s evidence was the stress on the importance of empowering workers through access to information and advice without once acknowledging the role of trade unions. In many respects, the choice of employers is given priority throughout. It is odd that the United Nations International Labour Organisation standards and the four pillars of decent work—employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue—are not referenced.

    The research methodology, the time frame and the resources available to produce the report all point to this being a bit of a fig leaf to hide the Government’s true stance and intentions towards workers and their rights, which are more accurately reflected in the debates on the passage of the Trade Union Act 2016—the Taylor report does not call for the repeal of that Act. The two Supreme Court rulings this year in favour of Unison on tribunal fees and the right to consultation also support the need for reform of the law.

    The UK has not yet consolidated a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply. Through the Supreme Court there is already an emerging body of case law to support workers’ rights, in particular the landmark 2011 judgment in Autoclenz Ltd v. Belcher, which makes it clear that just because signed contract documentation makes it look as if a person is self-employed, that is by no means the end of the story. Employment tribunals must take into account the inequality of bargaining power between employer and employee, and they must look at the whole context to ensure the written contract document genuinely reflects what the parties intended the employment relationship to be.

    The time has come to secure legislation that uses the court judgments to clarify the nature and status of workers today. We should not overcomplicate the issue by pretending that the age-old struggle between labour and capital has magically vanished in the digital age. The Conservative party is not, and never will be, the party of the workers, despite the good intent adhered to or advocated by one or two well-meaning Members. During the passage of the Trade Union Act, in which I participated, the true intent and nature of Government policy was revealed and written into Hansard for all to see. I wonder whether the crackdown on workers’ rights goes far enough for some Members, who look fondly on 18th and 19th-century employment legislation—namely, the Master and Servant Acts designed to discipline employees and repress the combination of workers in trade unions—and whether they would happily vote for their reintroduction. However, I believe that is a minority viewpoint.

    The time has come for an Act of Parliament to address the issue of precarious work, and I commend this Bill to the House.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Ordered,

    That Chris Stephens, Neil Gray, Mhairi Black, Grahame Morris, Ruth George, Deidre Brock, Tommy Sheppard, Albert Owen, Kirsty Blackman, Jonathan Edwards, Kelvin Hopkins and Mr Alistair Carmichael present the Bill.

    Chris Stephens accordingly presented the Bill.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed (Bill 114).

  • 19 January is a splendid day, my birthday.

  • Opposition Day

    [2nd Allotted Day]

    Universal Credit Roll-out

  • I beg to move,

    That this House calls on the Government to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit full service.

    I am delighted that we have secured this vital debate on universal credit, given the concerns across the country and among Members on both sides of the House. I am aware that some 90 people have put in to speak, so I will take only a few interventions from both sides of the House. I will try to get through my key points as quickly as I can.

    Our motion calls on the Government to pause the roll-out of universal credit while the issues associated with this key social security programme are fixed. I genuinely offer to work with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to fix the many and varied issues associated with universal credit. To understand what needs fixing, we need to understand how we got here. When universal credit was first introduced in 2012, it had the underpinning principles that it would simplify the social security system, bringing together six payments for working-age people in and out of work, and that it would make work pay.

  • My hon. Friend talks about the underpinning principles. Surely, one of those should be that our social security system should not drive people into debt, yet that is precisely what is happening to my constituents who are waiting months for payments.

  • Absolutely, and I will go on to make those points in a moment.

    Getting back to the principles, we supported those then and we support them now. The Government wanted to pilot the implementation of UC, so they introduced a number of pathfinder areas, including my Oldham constituency, and planned a phased roll-out between 2013 and 2017.

  • My constituency was also a pathfinder, and since the introduction of UC in 2012, the claimant count in my constituency has halved. Does the hon. Lady think the two issues are connected?

  • There may be many and varied reasons why the claimant count is down, not least the system of punitive sanctions the Government also introduced in 2012.

  • Newcastle was also a pathfinder constituency. As the local MP, I have seen at first hand the absolute misery and destitution that this system has forced many of my constituents into. Our Newcastle food bank was already the largest in the country, and now it regularly runs out of food as a direct consequence of this system. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s attitude at questions earlier today showed a total lack of understanding of the impact and of the destitution and suffering of so many of her citizens?

  • This is a real test for the Government; if there is a genuine desire to make life better for everybody across the country, UC is a key way in which we can respond. I am so sorry to hear about the issues in Newcastle as a consequence of the introduction of UC.

  • I can report to my hon. Friend that I have had exactly the same experience in my constituency, where people are being driven into destitution by the waits for UC. The local food bank, alongside the citizens advice bureau, has estimated that if this full roll-out goes ahead just six weeks before Christmas, leaving everybody destitute for Christmas day, it will have to collect 15 tonnes of extra food to deal with the demand that will be generated by these changes.

  • This is the reality that people are facing; this is happening in the areas my colleagues have mentioned, and our concern is that, as this is rolled out to 55 areas this month, the situation will get even worse.

  • I will give way one last time.

  • I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, who is being enormously kind with her time. The motion calls for a pause in the roll-out. Is she going to tell us what the Labour party would do during that pause period?

  • The hon. Gentleman is pre-empting my speech, but I will happily propose exactly what we would like to do in conjunction with the current Government, whose programme this is.

    From the start, there were a number of serious design flaws, which the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I was a member, raised in 2012. They included, first, the fact that UC applications would be “digital by default”; in other words, applications could only be made online. There are still several issues with that, not least the assumption that everyone is computer-literate or has ready access to getting online. We all remember the scene in “I, Daniel Blake” where somebody who had not used a computer before was trying to do so, and we saw the real stress and difficulties he found.

  • I am sorry but I am not going to give way again, as I must try to press on.

    Secondly, there were concerns that UC payments would be made monthly, in arrears, and paid only to the main earner of each household, so women, as second earners, are automatically discriminated against in this process; it was also quite a radical change, with rental payments going directly to the household and not the landlord. Thirdly, there were considerable doubts about the use of so-called real-time information, which was meant to ensure that information from employers to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would allow the Department for Work and Pensions to calculate quickly what people in low-paid employment would be entitled to from UC. The reliability and validity of this data exchange was another key concern. I believe there is a DWP RTI issues group, so there are clearly still problems. Finally, the Government said that disabled people would not be financially worse off under UC, but because the severe disability premium payment has not been incorporated into UC, it is an effective loss of up to £62.45 a week for a single person—more than £3,200 a year.

    All that was in 2012, but a number of other issues emerged in the following couple of years—universal jobmatch, ballooning costs and of course several delays. One of the most worrying issues revealed in the January 2015 UC regulations was that people in low-paid work on UC will now be subject to in-work conditionality. So, for example, someone who is one of 1 million or so people working on a low-paid, zero hours contract, with different hours from one week to the next, will have to demonstrate to their Jobcentre Plus adviser that they are trying to work 35 hours a week and if they fail to do that to that person’s satisfaction, they can and will be sanctioned. For Members who are unfamiliar with this concept, those people will have their social security payments stopped for a minimum of a month.

    Fast forwarding to the 2015 summer Budget, the then Chancellor announced that cuts would be made to the so-called universal credit work allowances, which are how much someone can earn before UC support starts to be reduced. For example, a couple with two children claiming housing costs had their work allowances cut from £222 a month to £192 a month. In addition, approximately 900,000 families with more than two children could not receive support for third or subsequent children.

  • I am not going to give way again, as 90 people have put in to speak.

    The UC equivalent of the family element in tax credits was also abolished. The Government’s equality analysis showed that women and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities will be most adversely affected by these work allowances cuts. Let us recall what the principles of UC were and then consider that the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated at the time that the cuts to work allowances meant the principle of making sure work always pays was lost. The Government’s claim that UC is leading to more people getting into work is misleading, as it is based on 2015 data, before the work allowance cuts came into effect.

    The current Chancellor’s attempt to redress some of the damage of these cuts by reducing the UC taper rate in last year’s autumn statement has had a marginal effect. Members may recall that he reduced the rate from 65% to 63%, so that for every £1 earned over the work allowance, 63p of UC support is withdrawn. That is a far cry from the 55p rate envisaged when UC was first being developed. On that basis, the Resolution Foundation estimated that some families will lose £2,600 a year because of these cuts.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • I am sorry but I am not going to give way again, as I need to make progress, with 90 people having put in to speak.

    This summer, the Library analysis that I commissioned showed the real-terms impacts on different family structures and for different income groups. It found that a single parent with two children working as a full-time teacher will be about £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared with 2011-12.

    So where are we are up to now? The most recent statistics show that there are currently about 600,000 people claiming UC, over a third of whom are receiving support via the full service. The roll-out of UC over the next six months will see the overall case load rise to just under 1 million, which is a 63% increase. On average, 63,000 people a month may start a new UC claim before January 2018, and by 2022 we expect about 7 million people to be seeking support from the programme. We are at a turning point in the Government’s flagship programme, the roll-out of which is currently being ramped up dramatically.

    On top of the design flaws and cuts that I have just mentioned, several other issues have emerged. Perhaps the most pressing is the Government’s decision to make new claimants wait six weeks before they receive any support. Four weeks of that is to allow universal credit to be backdated, plus there is an additional week, as policy, and then a further week waiting for payment to arrive. This “long hello”, as some have called it, is believed to be one of the primary drivers of the rising debt and arrears we are now seeing. Citizens Advice reports that 79% of indebted claimants

    “have priority debts such a rent or council tax, putting them at greater risk of eviction, visits from bailiffs, being cut off from energy supplies and even prison”.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • I am sorry, but I will not.

    Half those in rent arrears under universal credit report that they entered into arrears after they made their claim. What is worse is that many claimants do not even receive support within the Government’s lengthy six-week deadline: one in four are waiting for longer than six weeks and one in 10 are waiting for more than 10 weeks. The Government’s so-called advance payment, which is meant to be available to those in need, is in fact a loan that has to be paid back within six months out of future social security payments. I recognise and welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about speeding that up, but I will explain later in my speech exactly what we might need to tweak.

    As we have heard, the measures I have outlined are pushing people into debt, rent arrears and even homelessness. Last year, the National Housing Federation warned that approximately 80% of tenants on universal credit were in rent arrears, with the six-week delay being attributed as the key cause. A few weeks ago, a nurse came into my surgery. She was a single mum who had transferred from tax credits to universal credit. She had the six-week wait, and as a result the arrears racked up. When she came to see me, she had just been served an eviction notice. As universal credit is rolled out, such stories will become more and more common.

    The Mayor of Greater Manchester has warned that rough sleeping will double over the winter if the universal credit roll-out continues without its fundamental flaws being addressed. This is not scaremongering; it is based on estimates by local authorities in which universal credit has already been rolled out. Throughout Greater Manchester, the average arrears for people on UC in social housing is £824, compared with £451 for non-UC tenants. It is already having an impact on rising evictions and homelessness—and that is without even going into what is happening in the private rented sector. In addition, the increase in rent arrears for social housing landlords means that less money is available for investment in housing-stock maintenance or the building of new social housing, thereby adding to the existing housing crisis.

    The increase in food bank use is another consequence of universal credit delays. Earlier this year, the Trussell Trust reported that referrals for emergency food parcels were significantly higher in a UC area, at nearly 17%, compared with the national average of just under 7%. The trust’s report also highlighted the impacts on the mental health of people on UC, who were described as stressed, anxious or depressed, as they worried about being unable to pay bills and falling into debt.

    Who is most likely to be affected and why? Single parents are particularly vulnerable under universal credit. There are now 65,000 single parents on UC. Gingerbread has described how, through

    “error in administration and the structure of the system itself, single parents have been threatened with eviction and jobs have been put at risk”.

    Gingerbread told me about Laura, who lives with her two sons, one of whom is severely disabled. Laura had to apply for universal credit when her temporary contract at work ended. She had to wait eight weeks for support, and visited a food bank to feed her children. She was not told about advance payments and was struggling with rent arrears. Reflecting on her experience, Laura said:

    “it’s very stressful, single parents quite often have enough stress and worry about money; and other things, bringing up your children to start with and it’s exacerbated by this very unfair, very unjust system”.

    With child poverty among single parents forecast to increase sharply to 63% by the end of the Parliament, it is vital that we fix the social security system to ensure that it is working. In a forthcoming Child Poverty Action Group report analysing the cumulative effects of social security changes on child poverty since 2010, the section on universal credit highlights its design issues and, in particular, the detrimental impact on single parents. It states:

    “Universal credit was designed to be more generous to couples than single people, with lone parents in particular expected to lose out compared with tax credits. This was a deliberate reaction to the decision, within tax credits, to boost support for lone parents in comparison with couples because of their higher risk of poverty and the greater difficulty of increasing earnings from work if you are a lone parent.”

    The report goes on to say:

    “Since its initial design, universal credit has been subject to a succession of changes and cuts which have substantially reduced its adequacy overall… As a result, it is now less generous than the system it is replacing, and no longer offers the promise of reducing poverty.”

    Universal credit is not just affecting single parents; young families and families with more than two children will also fare much worse under UC. Young families going on to universal credit will be affected by the decision to introduce a lower under-25 rate of the standard allowance in universal credit, even for parents with children. As a result, young families will be at increasing risk of poverty, especially if they have a single earner or a second earner working part time. Of course, among other cuts, limiting the child element of support to only two children leaves families with more than three children worse off as well. The report reiterates that as well as being less generous and actually cutting family income, UC fails to incentivise people into work or to progress in work, which are fundamental principles of UC. Shockingly, it has been calculated that, because of the cuts, universal credit will push a million more children into poverty by 2020, with 300,000 of them under five.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The last time that the Leader of the Opposition spoke on this issue, he made a series of entirely unsubstantiated factual claims about housing in Gloucester. Are these further unsubstantiated claims?

  • Order. That is not a point of order and it is an abuse of our proceedings. I strongly counsel the hon. Gentleman not to make the same foolish mistake again.

  • I wonder how that intervention will be seen by those people affected by these issues. Some 900,000 working-age adults will be pushed into poverty, while 900,000 children and 800,000 adults will be living in severe poverty.

    Earlier, I mentioned the design issues that are affecting disabled people. This week, I heard from someone who has lost nearly £80 a week—a week—because of their transfer to universal credit after they moved house, ending their ESA claim. When UC was first launched, the Government said they wanted to

    “simplify the current complex rules which have been prone to error and complex and confusing for disabled people”

    and to replace

    “seven different premiums with a simpler, two-tier system that focuses support on the most severely disabled people who are least able to work”.

    However, subsequent social security changes, particularly the abolition of the UC limited-capability-for-work element from April 2017, have meant that, instead of a net gain, it is likely that there will be a net reduction of support for people with health conditions and disabilities.

    Under this Government, we are seeing unprecedented cuts in support to disabled people, with the consequence that more and more disabled people are living in poverty. The number currently stands at more than 4.2 million; this cannot go on. This is exactly what the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said is causing a “human catastrophe”.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • I am sorry, but I will not. As I have said, I am conscious that 90 people wish to speak.

    The self-employed are another group who are adversely affected by the Government’s changes to universal credit. We have seen a dramatic increase in self-employed people in recent years: they now make up 15% of the workforce—5 million in total—and account for 80% of the increase in employment since 2008. But 45% of them pay themselves less than the living wage.

    As I have said many times, it is absolutely right that we try to design a social security system that can properly support self-employed people and that recognises the fluctuating nature of the labour market for those workers. Sadly, universal credit no longer does so, after the introduction of the minimum income floor, which is an assumed income for self-employed people, found by multiplying the minimum wage on the assumption that self-employed people are working 35 hours a week. One self-employed recipient who contacted me said:

    “This system does not allow for the fluctuations in income that are experienced by the self-employed. Surely an assessment made on a year’s profits would be much fairer.”

    They went on to say that universal credit will close down enterprise as a route to employment.

    Importantly, the Department for Work and Pensions does not average incomes over a year, which leads to issues around holidays, such as Christmas, when the self-employed may take time off. They will be punished for doing so under the Government’s universal credit system. The Federation of Small Businesses has also expressed concerns, saying that it expects major problems for low-income self-employed people to set in at Christmas.

    We need to build a social security system fit for the 21st century and to make sure that all workers, employed or self-employed, are afforded dignity and security as work demands fluctuate. We cannot allow the devastating impacts of universal credit roll-out to happen. I reiterate my genuine offer to work with the Government to address the very real concerns about universal credit, particularly its design flaws, the administrative issues and the cuts.

    I welcome the Government’s announcement this morning that the so-called helpline will now be a Freephone line. Given Serco’s appalling performance over the past few years and the profit that it has made from the Government contract, it should be paying for the Freephone lines. It is unacceptable that people on the lowest incomes have been paying money that they do not have on phone calls to find out about their claims.

    Action must be taken to improve call handler capacity and competence, so that people making inquiries on their claim are not kept on hold or passed from pillar to post. Another key ask is for alternative payment arrangements to be offered to all claimants at the time of their claims. That includes ending the one-week wait and enabling people to have fortnightly, instead of monthly, payments where appropriate with the option of the housing element to go directly to the landlord. Alternative arrangements have already been made available in Northern Ireland and will be introduced in Scotland, so there is no reason why they also should not be available to people in England and Wales.

    We need to look at the advanced payments and make them more manageable. A repayment over six months is still creating huge issues for people on the lowest income.

  • I am sorry, but I will not give way.

    These are relatively straightforward suggestions. I recognise that reinstating the original level of work allowances and reducing taper rates are less so, but if the Government and the Prime Minister are sincere about tackling injustice in this country and making sure that work pays, they must act. Once again, I commit to working with them on this. We must address the poverty and discrimination that universal credit is causing women, children, disabled people and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities now. This will only get worse as universal credit is rolled out.

    This country is at a crossroads. Brexit must not blind this Government to other obligations to their citizens. We must all work together in the national interest to avert the disaster that is about to unfold if universal credit is rolled out without fixings its failings. I urge all MPs to vote with their conscience, stand with us and their constituents and pause and fix universal credit.

  • Today we have seen yet another excellent set of labour market statistics: unemployment is 1 million lower than in 2010 and youth unemployment has gone down by 415,000 over the same period. Underneath those raw statistics lie the work and effort of millions of families across the country who are keen to get on and make the best of their lives: people who are in work but want to earn more, people who are out of work but really want to get a job. Young and old all deserve the opportunity to maximise their potential. That is what universal credit is all about.

  • Will the Secretary of State give way?

  • Let me make a little progress.

    When it comes to universal credit, there is much talk about supporting the principles behind the reform, and I welcome that. Before turning to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—and I will be taking plenty of interventions—I think it would be helpful to the House to articulate what those principles are.

    The fundamental purpose of universal credit is to assist people into work. It is through work that people can support themselves, obtain greater economic security and progress in life. Universal credit does that by making work pay.

  • Let me finish on the principles, and then I will take plenty of interventions.

    We inherited a welfare system that puts in place barriers to people fulfilling their potential. If those on jobseeker’s allowance do more than 16 hours of work, they must go through the disruption of stopping their benefit claim only to start another. Many on employment and support allowance can be faced with a choice between financial support or work while we know that many thousands would like, and would benefit from, both. Once a person is in work, they are all too often caught by the hours rules in tax credits. Universal credit cuts through that by taking six different benefits and replacing them with a single system: a system where claimants receive tailored support to get them into work; a system where claimants have to deal with only one organisation, not three; and a system that ensures it always pays to work and always pays to progress.

  • It is not the principle, but the practicality that is at issue. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] The principle of getting people back into work is something that we on the Labour Benches accept. The citizens advice bureau, the Trussell Trust and even John Major are saying that universal credit should be delayed, because it is increasing poverty and leading to debt and rent arrears. Are they wrong?

  • My argument is that we should not be pausing this. May I just say that I welcome the clear expression of support for the principle of universal credit? That is helpful. The case I will make today is that the principles lead us to a design that is focused on making work pay. It is diminishing the differences between being out of work and being in work, and can make a significant difference.

  • I give way to my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

  • The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) has just been promoted. The Secretary of State needs to gesticulate whom he means with greater clarity.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for that promotion. I look forward to receiving it in the post.

    Is the Secretary of State any more aware than I am of the topic of this debate? Yesterday, the Opposition wanted to fix universal credit. Today, the word “fix” has been dropped. It seems that the Opposition want to pause but not fix. Has he any greater awareness of this matter?

  • That astuteness demonstrates why my hon. Friend should become my right hon. Friend sooner rather than later.

    It is a very revealing point. There is no real attempt to fix this. This is about pausing it and wrecking it.

  • Has the Secretary of State seen the survey of 105 local councils, which showed that of claimants who claim universal credit, over half of the council tenants are in rent arrears compared with only 10% of those on the old housing benefit. Does that not show that this system needs to be paused and fixed?

  • Part of the issue is that that is not comparing like with like. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that the selection of people who will be on universal credit will be of a different group than the housing benefit population as a whole. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] The reason is that in many cases, going on universal credit involves a change of circumstances, and that change of circumstances may in fact be a reason why people are in arrears. [Interruption.] May I just make this point? I know that the right hon. Gentleman has concerns about how we address the issue of the early period, so I will say a little bit more about it. We are seeing improvements in payment timeliness, and people are getting more support early so the reasons for increased rent arrears will not necessarily apply.

    I want to make this point about what universal credit does. The work done within universal credit to give people the support to prepare for work can be too easily missed from debate.

  • I will just make a little bit of progress.

    Universal credit gives a person a work coach, who provides personalised support, helping them to stay close to the labour market and overcome barriers to work. A universal support package provides people with assistance to build confidence and competence with IT, manage their universal credit account online and access online job search facilities and training. Universal credit makes being out of work more like being in work, because people are paid monthly, as 75% of employees are, and because it is paid directly to tenants instead of to their landlord. It also stays with recipients during the transition from being out of work to being in work.

  • The Secretary of State makes a really important point about the unemployment figures and the importance of getting people into work. Will he join me in congratulating my constituency, which has one of the lowest levels of unemployment—the sixth lowest—in the country, with only 375 people unemployed or claiming unemployment benefit?

  • My hon. and learned Friend is right. We need to build on the progress that has been made in her constituency and, indeed, generally across the country, and further assist people into work.

  • I will give way to one of my predecessors as Secretary of State.

  • The Secretary of State is being very generous with his time. Did not the shadow Secretary of State rather give the game away when she denied any link at all between universal credit and the increase in employment levels? Since 2010, the Labour party has set its face against welfare reform. In 2010, Labour Members ran to the barricades to defend an outdated system that trapped people in poverty and worklessness for years.

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is yet a further example of the Opposition turning their back on reforms. I listened to the remarks of the shadow Secretary of State—

  • Will the Secretary of State give way?

  • I am just making a point about the speech we just heard from the shadow Secretary of State, who has set her face against any form of conditionality in the benefits system, as far as I can tell. She fails to appreciate that the best way of helping claimants is to get them into work. That sometimes requires a change of behaviour, and a degree of conditionality within the system is required to ensure that people change their behaviour so they can make progress.

  • On this side of the Chamber, we live in the real world of our constituents. People suffering from motor neurone disease came to see us in Westminster yesterday to say that on top of the agony of their disease, they faced the indignity of fighting for their full entitlement under PIP. Today a landlord came to see me in my office, saying that he will never again let to tenants on universal credit, and a single mum told me that she is desperate because, with roll-out just before Christmas, she and thousands of others face a bleak Christmas. Does the Secretary of State begin to understand—

  • Order! I am sorry to have to shout, but the hon. Gentleman, though he speaks with great force and eloquence, took too long. We must have shorter interventions, as it is not fair on others.

  • Let me turn to the important point of claimant commitment.

  • Will the Secretary of State give way?

  • I will give way, but not for a moment.

    Throughout this period, claimants have a flexible, clear and tailored claimant commitment so they fully understand their responsibilities. The commitment supports and encourages them to do everything they can to move into or towards work, or to improve their earnings. The only thing we ask is that claimants meet reasonable and agreed requirements that take into account their individual circumstances and capability, including mental health conditions, disability and caring responsibilities. I hope that this approach to benefit conditionality will have the support of both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle).

  • The Secretary of State must surely realise that the way in which the system is being administered is leaving people penniless and possibly destitute. He must address that point. The Government are rolling all the six benefits into one; if that is then not available to people for six weeks, there are people who cannot afford to survive in that time. The loans, which have to be paid back, are not an adequate response. Will the Secretary of State admit the human suffering that is happening in all our constituencies and deal with that particular point?

  • Let us be clear: if people need support under this system, they do not have to wait for six weeks. [Hon. Members: “They do!”] They do not have to wait for cash in their pocket from the state because they can get an advance, which is normally paid within three days. If someone literally does not have a penny, they can get that money on the day. There is a responsibility on all of us as constituency MPs, when we meet our constituents who face difficulties of this sort, to inform them of the availability of advances, not to scare them with the belief that they have to wait six weeks when they do not.

  • The points being made by Opposition Members are disappointing in one particular way. There is a strong responsibility on all of us as Members of Parliament to help our constituents when they get into problems, rather than trying to weaponise them politically. One way this could be done is to encourage our largest housing associations to have an implant inside the Jobcentre Plus so that at the very moment somebody goes on to universal credit, the housing association is there and able to make sure they get the necessary advance so that they can pay their rent. Does the Secretary of State agree?

  • My hon. Friend makes a good point. Co-operation between housing associations and the Department for Work and Pensions is an important part of improving the service. We are seeing improvements in how that operates and I hope it continues to improve further.

  • My constituency was a pilot scheme for universal credit, and I regularly meet the jobcentre and the citizens advice bureau. The important point is that there were teething troubles in the early days, but people can now get a loan on the day. The worst wait is seven days, depending on the individual’s circumstances. The problem—if there is a problem that has to be addressed—is how the loan is paid back. The repayment cap is currently at 40% of payments. Would the Secretary of State look into a 10% rate instead, to help the system flourish even further?

  • The advance is typically paid back over six months, so it is essentially a deduction of around 8% from universal credit payments for the first six months. The figure of 40% takes into account all deductions that may conceivably apply in such circumstances.

  • I have given way numerous time already, probably a multiple of the number of times the shadow Secretary of State gave way. I do not want the House to miss this point: universal credit represents a generation-changing culture shift in how welfare is delivered and how people are helped, creating a system that allows people to break free from dependency, take control of their lives and move into work. Our analysis shows that 250,000 more people will be in employment as a result of universal credit when it is fully rolled out. Universal credit is picking up from a deeply flawed system and striving to solve problems that were previously thought unsolvable.

  • If the Secretary of State’s intention really is not to cause hardship and distress, why will he not get rid of that automatic six-week wait? Many people still do not know about it. Many do not know to go to their MP to seek solutions. Get rid of it. What he is talking about is a loan, which has to be paid back over six months and which many people are not eligible for. The point is that the way the system is designed is making people fall into hardship, and it is deliberate. It is not an accident. It is absolutely an integral part of the design. Change it.

  • I will come back to the six-week period.

    We have to remember that we have inherited an old system, in which complexity and bureaucracy often served to stifle the independence, limit the choices and constrain the outlook of its claimants. The disincentives in the legacy system to work or earn more have been removed, along with the complex hours rules and cliff edges.

  • I have to make some progress.

    Claimants now no longer need to switch between benefits if they move in and out of work, so they are free to take up short-term and part-time work without worrying about being worse off or their claim ending. It is working: our research shows that compared with people in similar circumstances under the previous system, universal credit claimants spend more time looking for work, apply for more jobs, take up jobs that they would not even have considered previously, and take on more hours or extra jobs. That is not an abstract discussion; this is real people’s lives being improved because of universal credit.

  • Eighteen months ago, I visited Radian, a housing association in my constituency. Radian expressed to me and to our hon. Friend the Minister for Employment concerns about the impact of universal credit on tenants. Eighteen months later, those people are in work, paying the rent and working with the housing association. The outcome is positive. Labour Members are simply scaremongering.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the reality. This is not an abstract discussion; we are discussing real people’s lives.

  • Thanks to a Conservative Government, we now have almost full employment in this country. For a number of people who claim unemployment benefits, their mental health is a barrier to getting work. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give us that the universal credit system will either help people with low-level mental health conditions to get back into work, or give them the support they need for their future?

  • My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I was about to give an illustration of the way universal credit can work involving a claimant with learning difficulties, who was out of work when he came to the jobcentre. His work coach provided tailored support, building his confidence and capability. That man is now in work. He told us that he is proud of himself for getting into work, and that he did not think it would have been possible without universal credit. He is now looking forward to the future. That personalised support, tailored to individual circumstances, is much more widely available.

    Let me give another example. A university graduate had not previously had a job but was desperate to get into work. Her work coach helped to build her skills—interview skills and application writing—and she was soon successful in gaining a 16-hours a week job. When she was offered overtime, the work coach supported the claimant flexibly, rescheduling her Jobcentre Plus appointments so they did not clash with her new hours. The claimant could accept the overtime, confident that she would remain on universal credit and continue to be supported by her work coach.

    Those are true testimonies of the powerful potential of the reform to change lives for the better.

  • Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways to help people into work and support them is to deal not only with the six-week wait, but with the fact that—according to Citizens Advice—one in three people now wait longer than six weeks, and one in 10 wait longer than 10 weeks?

  • Let me deal with the points on the waiting period and timeliness. I acknowledge the concern. Returning to the intervention from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), we have to remember that a waiting period is fundamental to the structure of universal credit, which pays people monthly, mirroring the world of work. Universal credit also automatically adjusts payments to take account of a claimant’s income in a particular month, meaning that a claimant will always be better off in work. To do that, payments necessarily have to be made in arrears.

    We know that some people cannot afford to wait six weeks for their first payment, which is why we have advances that provide those in financial need with up to their first universal credit payment. Increasing numbers of people claim that; the numbers from July show that the majority of claimants did so. Claimants who want an advance payment will not have to wait six weeks; as I said, they will receive the advance within five working days, and if someone is in immediate need the advance can be paid on the same day. I recently improved the guidance to DWP staff to ensure that anyone who requires an advance payment will be offered it up front.

  • I will make a little more progress before giving way again.

    Of course it is important that we get people the right money at the right time. As UC full services roll out, there have been significant improvements in verifying claims and making payments on time. Our latest data show that 80% of new claimants are being paid in full and on time; 90% receive some payment before the end of their first assessment period; and, taking into account advances, 92% of new claimants receive some support within six weeks. More than 1 million claims to UC have been taken. The live service is available in every part of the country and the full service version is already in 135 of our jobcentres for new claims across all claimant types.

  • The Secretary of State says that advances are typically paid within three days. Of course, an advance in crisis funding is an admission that the system is failing, but aside from that, what evidence does he have for saying that payments are made within three days? The answer to a written question that I received this week shows that the DWP is not collecting that data.

  • For a start, it is not crisis funding; it is an advance giving people flexibility in when they receive their universal credit payments. Our commitment is to deliver within five days, and my understanding is that typically payment is made within three days. We are providing support to people earlier. I acknowledge the concerns. I have seen the hard cases of people who have apparently gone weeks—sometimes months—without support. What we are saying is that they can get an advance quickly, as long as we have verified their identity.

  • May I back up my right hon. Friend, drawing on work I have done in my area and on discussions with citizens advice bureaux? When people have needed advance payments, they have received them incredibly quickly, within two or three days, and the jobcentre staff tell me that universal credit is helping them to help people to get into work. Does he share my frustration at hearing so much negativity from Labour Members and never any positives?

  • I certainly do. This is an important matter and strong views are held in all parts of the House, but I urge right hon. and hon. Members to engage with their local jobcentres. When they talk to jobcentre staff, many Members hear what my hon. Friend just described—that the universal credit system is delivering for people, giving them the opportunity to get jobs. That is exactly what we are determined to do.

    Universal credit is working and the roll-out will continue—to the planned timetable. We are not going to rush things. It is more important to get this right than to do it quickly. At the moment, of the total number of households that will move on to universal credit, we are currently 8% of the way there. By January, it will be 10%. Across the country, we will continue to improve our welfare system to support further those who aspire to work.

  • I have given way numerous times. I am conscious that, as the shadow Secretary of State repeatedly said, 90 speakers want to get into this debate, and I have spoken for nearly half an hour, which is more, I am sure, than the House can endure.

    We are under no illusion but that we must continue to work together to resolve issues as they arise and ensure a successful roll-out. I want to improve the system. I want constantly to refine the system. I want to make changes where necessary to test and learn and improve. I am determined to do that. I have made an announcement today along those lines about telephone lines.

  • We all welcome the Government’s concession on the premium phone line, but I met the CAB on Monday and it tells me that advisers are sometimes waiting up to half an hour to get through. Would the Secretary of State consider an MP-type hotline for advisers from the CAB and other welfare advisers?

  • First, we have never had a premium line; it is the same sort of system that one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would find if he called him and booked into a constituency surgery. It has never been a premium line, but we are changing it. On the average waiting times, I think that in September it was five minutes and 40 seconds. As for his particular proposal, let me take that away. Very often the CAB needs to call the local jobcentre rather than the national centre, because if it wants to deal with an individual case, dealing with the jobcentre would be more helpful.

  • I thought that there was a helpline for MPs to deal with all our constituents’ cases—unless it is a courtesy extended only to North Dorset.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but to be fair to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), I think that he wants to extend the helpline that we have or offer a similar service to advisers. As I say, I will look at that, but very often advisers need to contact the local jobcentre.

  • I have spoken for a long time and I want to push on.

    The approach that we are taking is to test, to learn and to improve, because we are delivering a really important and fundamental change, moving towards a more dynamic system that is already improving lives and has huge potential to do more.

    Let me say something about the approach we have heard from Labour Members. We have adopted, I believe, a responsible approach. Of course, there are legitimate questions to ask, and no Government can object to scrutiny, but let us not pretend that that is what we are getting from Labour Members. What we are hearing today is not constructive opposition—not a plan to reform universal credit, but an attempt to wreck it. It is an attempt to paralyse a policy that will help 250,000 more people get into work and to block a reform that will increase opportunity. It is an attempt to play politics but with no attempt to set out a real alternative. I say to my colleagues, well, let them do that, but we will proceed. We will address the historical failures of our benefits system, we will increase opportunity, and we will deliver a welfare system that puts work at the heart of it.

  • Back in 2010 when universal credit was first mooted by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the SNP gave it a cautious welcome. My predecessor as the SNP’s social justice spokesperson, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, said at the time that

    “some of the measures set out today—particularly the universal credit—are very welcome”.

    The initial premise of a simplified social security system streamlined with one payment was a good idea. The SNP still supports that idea.

    However, successive Chancellors and Work and Pensions Secretaries have not just salami-sliced the idea; they have hacked it to bits as £12 billion of cuts need to be found from somewhere—anywhere—within the DWP. The fast-fading dream of a budget surplus meant arbitrary cuts to departments across Whitehall, but particularly the DWP, such that indiscriminate and unco-ordinated cuts were required. Cuts to tax credits, to the work allowances, to employment support allowance and to housing benefit—all component parts of universal credit—have undermined the new system. Indeed, having initially welcomed the premise behind universal credit, Eilidh Whiteford was one of the first to warn about the problems we see in its roll-out today. I wish she were standing here today for that reason.

    Yesterday a group of very prominent Government Back Benchers met the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and presented them with a set of areas which the Government could act on quickly as the roll-out was going on, and which would immediately help people and improve universal credit. Let me be clear: we do not want to see universal credit scrapped; we want it fixed and improved. The improvements suggested yesterday were cutting the automatic minimum wait from at least six weeks to a guaranteed four weeks, making payments on a fortnightly rather than a monthly basis, and doing more on advance payments to make them part of the award and therefore not recoupable as a loan. Those would be very welcome steps. None of those changes would break the bank. All of them would help. All of them would make a meaningful change to people’s lives. Those changes are the focus of what SNP Members and the Scottish Government have been calling for over the course of months and years, so of course we would have supported them.

  • The suggestion that I would like to add to that list—I wonder if the hon. Gentleman agrees with me—is that the Department might start to monitor whether people have requested split payments, which were put in place by campaigners like me to ensure that victims of domestic violence can access any of their finances. At the moment, under the current system, they have to admit it in the jobcentre, often in front of their partner.

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is one of the flexibilities that the Scottish Government are going to be using, so yes, we absolutely support it. Indeed, I was about to go on to some of the areas where we would want the Government to go further.

    We want the Government to address single household payments; to reduce the 63% taper rate, which far exceeds the top rate of tax; to scrap the two-child tax credit limit and the rape clause; to look again at cuts to housing benefit; to look again at employment support; and to look again at the work allowances. I understand why the concerned Tories chose the issues they did—because they are easy and quick to do without costing much money—but it appears that their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, at least for now. I suspect that if the Government abstain this evening, again, it will be only a matter of time before changes have to be made—so why not do it now? If the Government are abstaining to play for time until the Budget, what happens with the areas about to experience roll-out over Christmas? The Government must commit to fix this now.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern at learning about my constituent who suffers from severe mental health problems, failed a PIP assessment, and was told to claim universal credit? He has a sick note up until the end of December but was made to sign a form advising him that he will take any job. The sick note was dismissed by the work coach, who said that if he did not sign he would be sanctioned.

  • That is another appalling constituency case of which we all have many. I am about to raise one myself.

  • My constituents had universal credit rolled out last November, and we have been bearing the brunt of it since then. The only measurable difference we have seen is that food bank referrals have gone up by 70%. People cannot wait for the Government to make up their mind on how they are going to fix this system.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, as do the expert charities and organisations involved in alleviating food poverty. The Secretary of State will, of course, claim to have listened to concerns and made a concession by apparently reducing the time taken to process advance payments and crisis loans. Leaving aside the point that I have already made that for many, myself included, the very fact that these advance payments exist highlights that universal credit is failing, I struggle to see what has changed since his announcement. I know from my written parliamentary question this week that there is no data available on how long the claims took to process previously, but my suspicion is that it will not be too dissimilar to before the supposedly big concession in the Secretary of State’s Tory conference speech. I do not think that anything has really changed.

  • It is important to understand and address all the unintended consequences of universal credit. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital for the Government to talk more to local authorities, which are often on the receiving end of people in crisis—those who have been made homeless or who are struggling to pay for food for their families? As an illustration, universal credit claimants make up 15.4% of all local authority tenants in my borough, but they account for 49% of all tenant arrears. That is not unusual.

  • I agree, and I think it is good for agencies to talk to each other to ensure that the system works as smoothly as possible.

    In spite of the concessions and potential changes, and in the full knowledge of the evidence of the harm that universal credit is doing to our constituents, the Government are determined to press on. As the House of Commons Library briefing points out, the problems include

    “financial hardship and distress caused by lengthy waits before the first payment of UC is received, compounded by the 7-day ‘waiting period’ for which no benefit is paid; some, particularly vulnerable claimants, struggling to adapt to single, monthly payments in arrears; inflexible rules governing Alternative Payment Arrangements such as direct payment of rent to landlords;”

    and

    “increases in rent arrears, with serious consequences not only for claimants but also for local authorities and housing providers, as a result of exposure to greater financial risk”.

    That is why the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has circulated a briefing ahead of this debate in support of a pause and fix of universal credit. In addition, homelessness claimants have been unable to get help with the full cost of emergency temporary accommodation.

  • The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the impact on social landlords and housing associations is absolutely correct. We have not yet seen the full roll-out in Cardiff—it is not due until the new year—but I have been contacted already this week by social landlords who tell me that average rent arrears are as much as £500 for universal credit claimants, and that some have had to wait as long as three months to get their payments in place.

  • That is one of the most baffling areas, and one of the easiest for the Government to reform. It is causing untold stress to social landlords and to our constituents, who are being made homeless as a result of a massive rise in evictions.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the breaking of the system has gone too far when organisations such as the Greater Manchester Law Centre refuse to support universal credit, on the basis that it results in further adversity and punishment for vulnerable people?

  • Yes, absolutely. The Trussell Trust has reported a 17% rise in food bank aid in areas in which universal credit has been rolled out, which is double the year-on-year rise in the rest of the UK. There is, therefore, a direct correlation between the roll-out of universal credit in its current form and people living in food poverty. That cannot and should not be ignored. Citizens Advice in East Lothian, where UC has been rolled out, says that more than half its clients on UC are £45 per week worse off. The third of clients who are better off are up only 34p a week. Citizens Advice Scotland says that rent arrears are up 15% in UC areas, compared with a 2% drop everywhere else in Scotland. The DWP’s own figures show that one in four UC claimants wait longer than six weeks—some of them up to 10 weeks—to receive a payment.

    The SNP has been warning about these issues for years. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) met the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who was then the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, on 14 March 2013. My hon. Friend was, at the time, the leader of the Highland Council, which was one of the first areas for roll-out. Nothing has been done. The warnings from Highland have been ignored, despite the roll-out being designed to allow improvements to be made as it progressed.

    Where universal credit is currently in operation, rent arrears have spiked, because housing benefit is no longer paid directly to the landlord and people are not getting their money on time. Food bank need has grown because of the minimum six-week wait for payment. In-work poverty is rising as new work benefits start to become sanctionable, and the incentive to work is removed by the cuts to work allowances.

    Of course, the DWP has claimed, and will claim, that universal credit is motivating people into work, but that is not true on the scale that it would wish us to believe from its rhetoric. The DWP’s own figures show that for the 2% of jobcentres with UC, there has been a 3% uplift in employment rates. That accounts for all the factors that contribute to people finding or staying in work. Are the rises in food bank use, rent arrears and in-work poverty really worth a 3% uplift in employment, when many of those jobs are precarious, low-paid and unsustainable? The DWP must look again at cuts to work allowances to really make work pay, cut in-work poverty and allow people to get on. The roll-out is supposed to allow the DWP to adapt where things are going wrong, and to fix the problems. Why, then, are the Government not listening to their own Members, to the expert charities, to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and to constituents?

    On the subject of listening to constituents, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is failing his constituents by failing to be here to take part in a potential vote on this issue, which will impact on thousands of his constituents and a huge proportion of children in his constituency. Normally, Whips give slips for votes or business days so that MPs can take part in important constituency events or travel with Committees. The Government Whips appear to have slipped the hon. Member for Moray so that he can run the line at a football match in Barcelona. Far from standing up for his constituents, who would get sanctioned for not turning up to a work-related meeting—

  • On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate, in a debate about universal credit, to talk about the absence or otherwise of a particular Member of Parliament?

  • I allowed a passing reference to the hon. Gentleman, because I understand from exchanges at Prime Minister’s questions that the hon. Gentleman in question had already been informed by colleagues of the hon. Gentleman who currently has the floor that his name might be mentioned in this context today. I have allowed a passing reference; that is all. I think we have had enough about the hon. Member for Moray.

  • To be fair, Madam Deputy Speaker, we have all had enough of the hon. Member for Moray. It is worth a passing mention, because the Moray food bank is also concerned about the fact that the hon. Gentleman is not here today, for the very reason—

  • Order. We will return to the subject of the debate.

  • At the start of the year, Mr James Moran from Harthill in my constituency qualified as an HGV driver and managed to find work on a zero-hours contract as a driver while also receiving universal credit—exactly the sort of scenario under which universal credit was supposed to work better. Not long after gaining employment, however, Mr Moran was sanctioned, despite being in employment. As he started the process of appealing the sanction, he suffered a stroke, which meant that he was no longer able to work as a driver. As the sanction was still in place, he returned home from hospital with no means of receiving an income. Despite getting some help from his elderly parents, Mr Moran struggled with no money whatever for more than a month. He then suffered a second stroke. Mr Moran has advised me that the doctors who treated him in hospital at the time of his second stroke admission told him that the low blood pressure that caused the second stroke was almost certainly caused by malnourishment. That malnourishment was a direct result of a DWP sanctioning error, forcing Mr Moran to live without an income—to live on fresh air.

    I wrote to the Secretary of State about the case on 1 September and have repeatedly chased his office for a reply, but I have received nothing in return to date. The six-week minimum wait appears to be built into the Secretary of State’s correspondence turnaround as well. I do not take that personally, because I gather from press reports that the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions has had similar problems with getting the Secretary of State to put pen to paper. Perhaps he will now chase a reply.

    The revelation last week that our constituents on universal credit had to pay 55p a minute was a further dent to the public’s confidence in this Government’s handling of universal credit. It should not really have been much of a revelation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has been raising the telephone tax issue for months—and what a win for my hon. Friend this morning, as, following his ten-minute rule Bill in February, the Government have finally announced that the phone line will be free. But why must we wait until the end of the year for all telephone charges to be scrapped? The Government should bring in that welcome concession now.

  • Did any SNP Members, when they raised this issue, ever point out that there was a call-back service?

  • Yes, we did. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention completely misses the point. [Interruption.]

  • Order. Why are hon. Members shouting?

  • It is little wonder that the Government have moved. We all watched in horror as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was put up to defend charging people with no income—living on fresh air—55p a minute to get help and answers about why their payment had been delayed. She told viewers of the BBC’s “Daily Politics” to go to their local jobcentres instead of lifting the phone to the DWP—the same jobcentres her Government colleagues are shutting. After being pressed time and again by Andrew Neil, the Chief Secretary, who has quite a bit of influence over financial matters in this country, could neither defend nor explain why people on zero income were paying more to access help than people under investigation for tax fraud, although the irony appeared to be lost on her.

    The idea that this concession has been made to appease the Opposition or just a few concerned Government Back Benchers is of course nonsense. This morning’s concession was made for no other reason than to try to deflect attention from the fact that this Government do not carry the support of their own side of the House, never mind of the House in its entirety. It is a red herring to divert press and media coverage away from the rebellion on the Government side of the House.

    In conclusion, I return to the other areas on which the Government could act now at little cost, but which would benefit so many people. In doing so, I wish to appeal directly to Tory and Democratic Unionist party Members who have been working hard behind the scenes to try to get the Government to shift. Tory MPs have raised this issue with the Prime Minister, and DUP MPs have signed early-day motions consistent with the motion. The appeals have been made, the case has been made and the evidence is there for all to see: universal credit in its current form is failing those it should be helping. We all want this system to work, which is why I have done what I can to help those on all sides to make this case.

    The time has passed for walking by on the other side. It is crucial that we vote tonight to say to the Government, “You cannot just ignore this any longer. You cannot plough on regardless. You must act, and act quickly.” Yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State met concerned Tory MPs, who made suggestions that would garner support across this House and make a major difference to people on universal credit. It is crunch time now. What are Ministers and concerned Tories to do now? We have an opportunity this evening to make a real difference. That is what we all came into politics for—to make a real difference, and to see a problem and to fix it.

    The Government, when given a way out of this entrenched position, appear to have chosen to plough on, turning their face against reasonable offers, in the face of the evidence of destitution. I say to the DUP and to Back-Bench Tory MPs, on behalf of their constituents and mine in Airdrie and Shotts, “Don’t give up the powerful position you find yourselves in tonight. Take the opportunity to force real change, send a message to the Government that they know they cannot ignore and vote for the motion to fix universal credit.”

  • I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who I thought made an excellent speech. I congratulate him on the courage and the spirit in which he produced his commentary against quite a lot of what is really scaremongering about the way in which the system has been designed.

    First and foremost, the point I would make about universal credit is that it was designed to simplify the system, as well as to get more people into work. The second but very important element is that universal credit is about dealing with the very great difficulties of identifying those people—the minority, admittedly—who need universal support and then, with councils, providing them with help on debt counselling and getting them into the banking system in order, basically, to get them ready for work. Until now, those people have by and large been written off and forgotten about in a complex system—disjointed between councils and jobcentres—that did them no favours and provided them with no support. That is what we were trying to get rid of and believed we were actually getting rid of.

  • Will my right hon. Friend give way?

  • I recognise that time is limited, so I will limit the number of times I give way.

    Universal credit is not just about getting people into work; it is actually about changing lives so that those people are ready and better able to enter work. Why are there monthly payments? The very simple answer is that over 80% and rising of all work is paid monthly, and the figure will soon be close to 90%. That means that if people are not ready, able and prepared to pay bills and deal with their money in monthly periods, they will never survive in the world of work, as has happened to many people crashing out of work.

  • Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will give way to other Members in a minute, but let me make a second point. When it comes to housing, why do we want people to pay their rent, rather than always have it paid for them directly? There is a simple answer. All too often, housing associations and local authorities receive the money directly, but then do very little for the tenants. They often know very little about their tenants, and they quite often care even less about their lives. The result is that many tenants run up arrears because nobody bothers to get involved.

  • I will give way in a minute.

    That is why universal support—now bringing in councils—will identify such people and help them. That is the purpose of universal credit.

  • Was my right hon. Friend as surprised and disappointed as I was, during Prime Minister’s questions, to hear this policy described and characterised as “calculated cruelty”? There is nothing cruel about getting more people into work. There is nothing cruel about encouraging more people to work more than a mere 16 hours. There is nothing cruel about simplifying an overly complex system. The cruelty is trapping people in a lifetime of benefits.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

  • The right hon. Gentleman has explained the theory of the four-week delay, but does he accept that that theory simply does not work for the very large number of people who are still paid weekly?

  • It is not a theory, but I will come on to that in a minute. The right hon. Gentleman and I have had plenty of conversations and discussions about the structure of this, and I want to take him up on that point.

    I want to make the point, which is not often referred to by Labour Members, that the whole nature of the roll-out was deliberately set so as not to repeat the grave mistakes made when they rolled out tax credits and other benefit changes.

  • Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

  • No, because I am conscious that others want to speak, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in a minute.

    I recall that my surgery was full of people who, under the tax credit changes, found they had no money at all. When Labour rolled out tax credits in a big bang, over 750,000 people ended up with no money at all. Since then, the thresholds have had to be raised dramatically to get money to those people.

  • Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will give way in one second.

    The roll-out of universal credit has been deliberately designed—it is called “Test, learn and rectify”—so that, as it happens, we can identify where there are issues, rectify them and then carry on rolling it out. I want to give an example of why stopping the roll-out now will not work.

    One area that we discovered early on is that landlords were simply unaware of who was on benefits. As a result of all that, arrears would be racked up, but they did not know they could get that stopped and have direct payments made. That will be changed in the next stage of the roll-out, because a portal between landlords and the service centre will allow them to establish that immediately. Unlike the local housing allowance, under which people ran up huge levels of debt, but reset slightly and carried on, universal credit allows them only a two-month period of debts before they go on to direct payments. That critical change will be one way of resolving the problem.

  • It is worth reminding the House that the former Secretary of State resigned because of the cuts being made to universal credit. I am puzzled about why he does not think it is a good idea to implement the potential fixes being suggested during the roll-out.

  • I will come to that. The hon. Gentleman should not worry—I will not resile from why I resigned.

    Too much of the debate has been based on evidence that is months old, when rectification has taken place and changes have been made. Let me give an example that has not been mentioned. The mistakes in tax credits and housing benefit mean that more than 60% of those coming on to universal credit already carry debt and rent arrears. Universal credit is identifying those people and having to clear up the errors. That is an important point. Before universal credit, too many people were left to get on with their lives and get deeper and deeper in debt.

  • My right hon. Friend and I are about the same age. Does he share my concern that anyone who is younger than us and listening to the debate might labour—no pun intended—under the misapprehension that, before the election of a Conservative Government in 2010, the previous system was perfect, when it has been bedevilled by flaws for decades? That is why this simplified system, when all the bumps have been ironed out, is welcome.

  • I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has borne the years better than me. However, I will do anything for a kind look—[Laughter.] Particularly from my right hon. Friend.

    It is interesting that, in the past 24 hours, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has made the following statement:

    “Universal credit has the potential to dramatically improve the welfare system, which is fragmented, difficult to navigate and can trap people in poverty.”

    It went on to say that the system will help people

    “transition into work and will respond better to people’s changing circumstances.”

    I agree. It would have been nice if the Opposition had started their debate by being clear and positive about how and why universal credit can change lives.

    The point about test, learn and rectify is that it does exactly that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made many points in his excellent speech about the changes that are already beginning to happen. For example, some of the rent arrears are beginning to come down and the portal will help enormously with that.

    However, I ask my right hon. Friend about universal support, which is the critical other bit of universal credit that no one has mentioned. It allows us to pick up the pieces around universal credit and deal with them on a human basis. Universal credit flags up when somebody has a debt problem and when they are running into arrears. Universal support is vital to work directly with them, using councils, jobcentres and all the other agencies, and hub up around them to help them change their lives on the basis of knowledge about how to pay their bills, their banking facilities and their debts. I ask for reassurance in the winding-up speech that Ministers will put in the extra effort, focus—and money, when necessary—to ensure that universal support rolls out successfully alongside universal credit. That is critical.

  • The right hon. Gentleman seems to acknowledge that universal credit has not worked for everyone, so does he agree that it has been almost as bad for some of those affected as online reviews of his novel, “The Devil’s Tune”? Comments include: “frighteningly bad”, “rubbish”, “utter drivel” and “hilariously awful—an outstanding compendium of bottomgravy”.

  • I thought that was a reference to the hon. Gentleman’s speaking ability in the House.

    Universal credit is a huge driver for positive change that, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said, will not just get people into work quicker, but help us identify those in deep difficulty and change their lives. That is the critical element that I hope will unite the House on what universal credit is all about.

    We should not stall universal credit because doing so would damage it. Changes need to be made, and the problems that have been discovered need to be rectified as we move forward. The way that the system is being run is therefore right.

    I direct my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to some of my earlier comments. As I said, I hope that the Chancellor will look again the way in which financing for the work allowances has been reduced. I would like that to be changed. My right hon. Friend made a very good point when he said that we keep what needs changing constantly under review. The issue around waiting days is critical—I know that he will consider that and see if the evidence stacks up for whether changing that would make a major difference.

    I congratulate my right hon. Friend on moving swiftly to ensure, as was always the intention, that jobcentre staff can pay out the advances on the day or within the week and, more than that, notify every would-be recipient of universal credit that they are eligible to receive them. That will dramatically change the position of many who have found themselves in difficulty because of the monthly wait.