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Commons Chamber

Volume 631: debated on Monday 13 November 2017

House of Commons

Monday 13 November 2017

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for Gurkhas in the welfare system. (901832)

The Department for Work and Pensions has regular discussions with colleagues across Government about the treatment of Gurkhas in the benefit system and its responsibilities under the armed forces covenant. Additional support is already in place for members of the armed forces community, to take account of their needs and circumstances.

Gurkhas put themselves on the line for our country. I recently met members of the Gurkha community in Eastleigh. They have travelled a long distance from home and they are phenomenal soldiers. Will my hon. Friend continue to ensure that their unique circumstances are recognised in both our pensions and benefits systems?

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, I am married to a former Gurkha, so I fully understand and share my hon. Friend’s gratitude for their bravery and service. No member of our armed forces should be disadvantaged by their service to our country. I would like to reassure her that the DWP takes very seriously our commitment to the armed forces covenant. We will do everything we can, and work as hard as we can, to help them get the best possible support.

Universal Credit: Advance Payments

2. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential merits of reducing the repayment rate on advance payments of universal credit. (901833)

Advances are interest free and repayable over six months for those making a new claim, or 12 months for those who were on benefits before claiming universal credit. Our objective is to strike the right balance between supporting claimants with their living expenses and ensuring they have the ability to repay the advance.

The Secretary of State knows that the guidance states that 40% of the standard allowance can be used to repay an advanced payment, and that 40% can be deducted to pay back creditors. It is not clear from the guidance whether a claimant might end up paying both, meaning that they will have more than 40% deducted from their award. Will the Secretary of State clarify the maximum amount repayable? Does he recognise that, as it stands, this is a charter for loan sharks?

The deduction from subsequent payments that take into account an advance does not apply to the 40%. We have to remember that it is an advance. An advance gives people greater flexibility to access universal credit early, so they are able to cope during the initial assessment period.

We hear a lot from Opposition Members about universal credit, but we have to remember that it is a much more effective system at getting people into work. Nationally, 113 people move into work under universal credit for every 100 under the previous system. My constituency, which was a pathfinder for universal credit, is seeing very substantial falls in the number of people claiming. Is it not a better system all together?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to progress in work. It is also clear that people on universal credit are spending more time looking for work than those on legacy benefits. It is really important that we all work to ensure the success of universal credit. We believe it will result in 250,000 more jobs—something worth achieving.

What the Secretary of State has repeated again this afternoon falls into the trap of treating everyone on universal credit as if they were out of work. Surely one big issue is the problem of applying conditionality to people who already have jobs?

The point about universal credit is that it operates when people are out of work and when they are in work. What we will not get is what happens with the legacy system: people worrying about working extra hours in case they find that their claim is closed. That holds people back from progressing. I believe that in-work conditionality has a role to play within our system to ensure that people progress. There is an issue in terms of people who are in work but are none the less receiving substantial support from the taxpayer. We want them to be able to progress to be less dependent on the state. That is what universal credit will deliver.

We have changed the guidance that applies in jobcentres on advanced payments and increased publicity in jobcentres. I visited a jobcentre in Bedford and saw myself how the operation of advances is working. We believe there will be an increase in take-up, which will ensure that people receive the support they need. The suggestion that people under universal credit will face weeks and weeks and weeks without any financial support whatever is, I am afraid, scaremongering. That is what is happening under the system as it is operating now.

Yesterday, the Scottish Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, wrote to the Chancellor ahead of his Budget appealing for universal credit to be fixed, and today 114 academics published an open letter in The Daily Telegraph criticising the advance payments system and echoing Derek Mackay’s call to reduce the first payment wait time, move to a twice-monthly payment system and reverse cuts to work allowances. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Chancellor should act?

On universal credit and early payments, of course the Scottish Government have flexibility, which they are exercising, but that means that at the end of the second assessment period people get only 50% of what they are entitled to, the rest being deferred and paid in the third assessment period, which strikes me as making the situation more difficult, not easier, for claimants, although it is for Scotland to decide how it wants to do it.

If the Secretary of State is looking for the Scottish Government to show him how it is done, he should devolve universal credit in full, and we will get on with it. Has he seen the report from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research saying that cuts to universal credit will leave an extra 1 million children in poverty? Is 1 million more children in poverty not evidence enough for the UK Government to reverse their cuts to work allowances and make work pay?

My point was that the Scottish Government are delivering universal credit differently and in a way that I think is worse than the situation in England and Wales. The point about universal credit is that it will help people into work. I will give one brief example: I heard of an account last week of a single mother on income support not previously able to claim for her childcare costs but now able to do so under universal credit. She is taking up a job, working eight or nine hours a week, which she could not do previously—a first step on the ladder. That is an example of what universal credit is delivering.

A recent report by the Resolution Foundation using new data based on bank transactions shows that 58%—the majority—of new claimants moving on to universal credit as a result of leaving employment in the last year were paid either fortnightly or weekly in their previous job, which is a far higher percentage than in the economy on average, where about one in four of all jobs is paid fortnightly or weekly. The Government should ensure that no claimant has to wait more than 10 days, so will they end the six-week wait and ensure that universal credit mirrors the world of work for those who claim it?

Universal credit is replacing tax credits, and under tax credits 57% of claimants are paid monthly and 12% four-weekly—nearly 70%—so if we are to have a system that works for everybody, it has to be a monthly system.

Contracted-out Health Assessments

3. What recent assessment he has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. (901834)

We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, fair and accurate assessments. The DWP monitors assessment quality closely through independent audit. Assessment reports deemed unacceptable are returned for reworking. A range of measures, including provider improvement plans, address performance falling below expected standards. The DWP continually looks to improve the assessment process.

My constituency office is inundated with people dissatisfied and distressed after their personal independence payment assessment. In the light of statistics showing an almost ninefold increase in complaints to the Department, what analysis has been made of the assessment process?

We are of course constantly striving to improve the assessment process. It is worth pointing out that the total number of complaints is about 1% of the total number of PIP assessments, but we continue to work closely with the assessors to ensure that this can be delivered as effectively as possible.

The vast majority of successful appeals are successful because of late additional evidence. What further consideration has been given to sharing data between the two different assessments and to providing for automatic access to health records—where the claimant is willing—in advance of an assessment?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and is absolutely right about the reason for the majority of overturned decisions. We continually look at how to increase co-ordination between the PIP and employment and support allowance assessment processes, and that is certainly something we are considering.

My constituent has a life-limiting illness, and her medical consultant has confirmed that it affects even the most basic daily activities. Without a transplant, she has approximately two to three years left to live. She has just been turned down for a personal independence payment. Will the Secretary of State please undertake to look into the position as a matter of urgency? Will he also confirm that compassionate Conservatism is officially dead?

My answer to the hon. Lady’s first question is that I will, of course, happily look into that case if she will provide me with the details.

For our constituents a health assessment is an incredibly important moment, and it can be very distressing. I have been calling for routine recording of assessments, to provide evidence if they go wrong and also because recording in itself should sometimes change behaviour for the better. Will my right hon. Friend give me an update on the recording pilots?

We are indeed looking into that. My hon. Friend has made an important point about the need for independent auditing of assessments to ensure that the advice provided by the decision-makers is of suitable quality, fully explained and justified, and recording is one of various options that we are considering to bring about those improvements.

Let me start by welcoming the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), to her place.

There has been a 900% increase in the number of complaints about personal independence payment assessments. Statistics from HM Courts & Tribunals Service show that both the number of appeals lodged and the proportion of DWP decisions overturned have increased. There was a 67% increase in the number of appeals in the first quarter of 2017 in comparison with the same period last year. Just last week, Britain’s most senior tribunal judge said that most of the benefit cases that reach the courts are based on bad decisions when the DWP has no case at all. The quality of evidence—

Order. We need a question mark very soon. Forgive me, but the hon. Lady’s text does seem extensive. I know that she is new to the Front Bench, and I am listening to her with interest and respect, but we must proceed speedily, because otherwise Back Benchers lose out. I know that she is coming to a question in her next sentence.

I certainly am, Mr Speaker. What action is the Secretary of State taking to improve the PIP assessment framework, the accuracy of decision-making and the standards of mandatory reconsiderations, and will he stop wasting taxpayers’ money on unnecessary and lengthy tribunal appeals?

Let me put the position in context. Since personal independence payments were introduced in 2013, the DWP has carried out more than 2.6 million assessments. As I said earlier, the total number of complaints received equates to fewer than 1% of all assessments. Our latest research shows that 76% of PIP claimants are satisfied with their overall experience. Of those 2.6 million decisions, 8% have been appealed against, 4% successfully. Of course, we constantly strive to improve the PIP system, but, as I have said, it should be seen in context.

Last week I was able to spend a day at the Alloa jobcentre in my constituency and observe what is going well and what is going not so well with some of our welfare reforms, including universal credit and PIP. One issue that arose was the length of time that people are waiting for health and work capability assessments. What penalties are being levied against some of the third-party companies that are involved in the assessments, and what could be done to close the gap for our constituents?

The timing of both ESA or PIP assessments has improved in recent months: the waiting time has been reduced. I welcome that, but we continue to work closely with the providers of the assessments to ensure that their performance is adequate.

Pension Provision

4. What assessment the Government have made of the equity of pension provision between men and women. (901835)

6. What assessment the Government have made of the equity of pension provision between men and women. (901837)

In 2012, overall participation of female eligible employees in a workplace pension was 58%, but since the introduction of automatic enrolment this had increased to 80% in 2016. For males, this has increased from 52% to 76% in the same period.

Two former Pensions Ministers have criticised the Government for the policy, all Opposition parties recognise that the Government are wrong, the continuously growing number of cross-party MPs who have joined the all-party parliamentary group say it is wrong, and hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged 1950s-born women know it is wrong. When will the Pensions Minister and the Government admit their mistake and take action to rectify this grave injustice?

The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011. This would require people of working age, and more specifically younger people, to bear an even greater share of the cost of the pension system.

The Government’s former Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, has said that she regrets the Government’s failure to properly communicate state pension age equalisation, an approach she described as

“a massive failure in public policy.”

Does the Minister appreciate how much this failure has affected the ability of the 1950s-born women to plan for a happy and secure retirement, and their sense of outrage about this issue?

Since 1995 successive Governments, including Labour Governments, have gone to significant lengths to communicate the changes, including through targeted communications, hundreds of press reports, parliamentary debates, advertising and millions of letters, and in the past 17 years the Department has also provided over 18 million personalised state pension estimates.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that if changes are made to the women’s pension arrangements, it will create discrimination against men, and that would be unfair?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The proposal whereby women would receive early pensions would create a new inequality between men and women, the legality of which is highly questionable.

The Government seem to be under the misapprehension that the campaign by the wronged ’50s-born women will eventually go away if they just keep ignoring it. They even told the Table Office that they would not answer a question on the subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams). It will not go away, however, so why does the Minister not engage with the campaigners to find a solution, and in the meantime support our proposals to extend pension credit to the most financially vulnerable and give them all the opportunity to retire up to two years earlier?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion in 2011, which mean that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the 1995 Act timetable.

Universal Credit: Food Poverty

5. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of food poverty. (901836)

The availability of advances at the start of a universal credit claim ensures that those who need money immediately can access it. Our data shows that around half of claimants are receiving advances, and we have recently undertaken an exercise to improve awareness and access to this support.

The manager of a food bank in Lincoln has said that there is evidence of a clear correlation locally between the introduction of universal credit—in Lincoln, we have only had it partially so far; we are getting full roll-out in March—and an increase in the use of food banks. I ask for your comments on that, and do Government Members, including yourself, think it is acceptable that people in Lincoln and across this country are starving but for food banks because of waiting for universal credit payments.

I would not presume to say what is acceptable for the people of Lincoln—that is way above my pay grade—but the Secretary of State might wish to proffer an opinion on the matter, and we look forward to it with interest and anticipation.

This is why I repeatedly make the point that nobody needs to wait a long period of time for cash support under the universal credit system, and to suggest otherwise is causing unnecessary anxiety for those who are not on universal credit—and I think we should all discuss this in a slightly more responsible manner.

When I visited Newark’s jobcentre a week or so ago, I found that 80% of the jobs on offer were paid either four-weekly or monthly. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have to be careful not to patronise working people and not to prevent them from entering the workplace with as much ease as possible? The vast majority of jobs in my constituency are paid monthly.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the purpose of universal credit is to close the gap between being out of work and being in work. Most jobs are paid monthly, and getting people used to that monthly system is a sensible approach. I also very much welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has visited a jobcentre, and I recommend that other hon. Members do so, to hear how universal credit is operating on the ground. I know that many hon. Members have found the experience to be extremely positive.

I will not ask Government Front Benchers for a fifth time whether I should believe the Secretary of State’s statement that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead will be hunky-dory, or the opinion of the food bank, which says that it will need an extra 10 tonnes of food to prevent people from going hungry—if he cannot abide the word “starving”. We will have a debate on this on Thursday, which Members across the House have signed up to. This will be the first time that Conservative Members will have an opportunity to vote on whether they want to reform universal credit. Will the Secretary of State open that debate, hear it and take the message directly back to Cabinet, please?

The position that we have made clear for a long time is that we want to ensure that universal credit works. This is a test-and-learn system, and we are always looking at ways in which we can improve it, particularly for that first period. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House as a whole that universal credit is helping us to address the best way to deal with poverty, which is to ensure that people can get into work. That is the argument that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will continue to make.

I, too, have visited jobcentres, and I know that work coaches are an integral part of the universal credit system. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how the new work coaches will assist jobseekers in my constituency in their eager quest to find employment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is why we are recruiting work coaches up and down the United Kingdom to provide the personalised support that people need to help them get into work. I come back to my experience of meeting work coaches in jobcentres up and down the country. They believe that they have a system in place that is helping them to do more to transform lives, and that is hugely important.

One of the original objectives of universal credit was to reduce child poverty. In 2010, the Government said that UC would reduce child poverty by 350,000. That figure was revised to 150,000 in 2013, but last year, Ministers failed to produce a figure in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). What is the Government’s current estimate of how many children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of universal credit?

Universal credit gives people a better opportunity to work, and it gives parents, including single parents, greater support with childcare. I come back to the example I gave the House a moment ago. Someone who had previously been on income support and unable to get help with childcare can now get that help and get on to the employment ladder, thanks to universal credit. That is what universal credit is delivering.

That was a really disappointing answer. As we have already heard, the Child Poverty Action Group published data last week predicting that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty as a result of universal credit cuts, 300,000 of whom will be under the age of five. Another objective of universal credit was always to make work pay. Given that four out of 10 people on UC are in work and will be on average £2,600 a year worse off, when will the Government admit that UC is not fit for purpose or fit to meet the challenges of a new labour market and stop its roll-out?

May I just point out that child poverty is down since 2010? I think the hon. Lady has rather given the game away: she does not want to pause and fix universal credit; she wants to scrap it. She wants to rewind to a system under which claimants faced marginal deduction rates of over 90% and had to cope with a multitude of benefits. We had a benefits system that was not an aid but an impediment to working people and that trapped people in poverty and dependency. That is what universal credit will bring an end to.

Employment and Support Allowance: Claimant Poverty

7. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes to employment and support allowance work-related activity group payments on claimant poverty. (901838)

12. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes to employment and support allowance work-related activity group payments on claimant poverty. (901847)

There are no cash losers among those in receipt of employment and support allowance and the universal credit equivalent prior to April 2017, including those who temporarily leave ESA to try out work and then return. Since April, new claimants who are capable of preparing for work receive a rate of benefits on a par with jobseeker’s allowance.

I welcome the Minister to her place. Changes to benefits are actually resulting in huge cuts to the money that people with disabilities have to live on. The ESA cut was touted by the Government as a way to remove perverse incentives and encourage people into work. However, does the Minister agree that starvation does not encourage anyone into work and that cutting off funding to people in need does not help to end that need? Will she commit to reversing these invidious cuts?

There are no cuts for people on those benefits. Let me be absolutely clear about that. Since April 2017, people who are able to work receive a personal support package. We have already recruited 300 new disability employment advisers, and we have allocated £15 million to the flexible support fund. We are doing absolutely everything that we can to ensure that people who are able to make the journey back to work have the support that they need.

I might have a bit more faith in the Minister’s comments if one of her colleagues had not recently stood in exactly the same place and said, “There is no austerity.” Is the Minister aware that the Scottish Government estimate that between 7,000 and 10,000 people in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland stand to lose the work-related activity component of the allowances? That is a cut in income that people cannot afford. Will she undertake to speak to the Chancellor ahead of his Budget as a matter of urgency and ask him to reverse the cuts and stop punishing the poor and the disabled for this Government’s economic failures?

Let me be absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve here. Many people in Scotland and across our country who are recovering from health conditions or who have disabilities really want to work. We are doing everything that we can to provide them with tailored support, so that they can work and that they can play the full part in society that they want to play and that we want to enable them to do.

Despite record employment, only one in every 100 people in the ESA work-related activity group leaves the benefit system each month. Will the Minister tell us what more she and the Department are doing to help those people into work?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the unfair discrimination against people with disabilities in this country who really want to make a contribution to society and who really do want to work. We are doing everything we can, including working with employers through the Disability Confident campaign and providing people seeking employment with the tailor-made support that they need to play their full part in society.

UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

8. What steps his Department is taking to respond to and implement the recommendations in the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published on 3 October 2017. (901840)

The UK continues to be a global leader in disability rights, and we are committed to further improving and progressively implementing the convention. We are considering the committee’s recommendations and will provide an update on the progress that we are making in the next year, as requested by the UN.

The UN found that UK cuts disproportionately hit people with disabilities and fundamentally, systematically and gravely undermine their human rights, so will the Minister ensure today that personal independence payment, employment and support allowance and universal credit are all brought into line with the UN conventions on fundamental human rights, so that people are treated fairly and with dignity, instead of with discrimination and cruelty?

This country has a proud record of treating people fairly, and we will continue to uphold those proud principles. Of course we are considering the report, and as I have said, we will publish our findings. To put this in context, of the G7 only Germany spends more money supporting people with disabilities and long-term conditions. We spend 2.5% of GDP, which is 6% of all Government spending. That is £50 billion a year.

Will the Minister confirm that anyone in receipt of disability benefits, such as PIP or disability living allowance, is exempt from the benefits cap?

Parkinson’s Disease: Personal Independence Payment

9. What proportion of people with Parkinson’s disease who were receiving disability living allowance were not granted a personal independence payment. (901843)

Up to October 2016, 7% had been disallowed personal independence payment, but 45% of claimants with Parkinson’s disease actually receive a higher award under PIP than they did previously.

Would it not save a lot of time, money and distress if all those on the higher rate of disability living allowance with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s were transferred automatically on to personal independence payment? How many people with Parkinson’s are currently in the “no review” category?

It is absolutely right that we get PIP right for everybody with a disability, including those with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It is absolutely right to notice, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did earlier, that considering that more than 2.6 million PIP assessments have been made, less than 1% have resulted in a complaint. Most of the time, this benefit is got right the first time. Of course, we work tirelessly, including with our stakeholders and voluntary sector organisations, to make improvements.

Universal Credit

10. What steps his Department has taken to ensure that people do not face financial difficulties while waiting for their first universal credit payment. (901844)

Advances are available at the start of a universal credit claim to ensure that those who need it have money to tide them over until their first payment. Our data shows that around half of claimants are receiving advances, and we have recently undertaken an exercise to improve awareness and access to this support.

I thank the Secretary of State for his very reassuring answer. In Banbury, we are fortunate to have very low unemployment rates. Can he tell me what will be the likely impact on jobs of universal credit roll-out in my constituency?

In total, it is estimated that universal credit will help around 250,000 more people into employment. On average, that works out at around 400 extra people in work in each parliamentary constituency, but universal credit will, of course, have larger impacts in areas with a higher proportion of benefit claimants or a higher prevalence of single-parent and out-of-work families.

The Trussell Trust says that food bank use has increased in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Universal credit has not been rolled out yet in my constituency, but this weekend the Heywood food bank ran out of food. What safeguards will the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that universal credit claimants do not have to rely on the charity of their neighbours, a system that sometimes fails?

We are improving the advances system, and we are improving awareness of it. Importantly, support is available, and that is a message that we can all take to our constituents. Nobody needs to wait six weeks because advances are available within jobcentres, and they are being taken up. The majority of new claimants are taking up those advances.

Last week, I heard from one of my constituents who was having difficulty getting an advance payment and who had to resort to a food bank. When the error was corrected and he got his advance payment, he took the food back to the food bank. First, does that not show that, when mistakes are made, every effort is made to correct them? Secondly, does it not show the basic human decency of those claiming universal credit?

I entirely agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. It is worth pointing out that, in the normal course of events, someone’s advance takes about three days to go through the banking system and for the money to be paid, but that, if need be, people can get support on the same day.

AEA Technology Pension Scheme

11. What steps he is taking to assist people affected by the collapse of the AEA Technology pension scheme and its predecessor. (901846)

The Government’s position has been out in a parliamentary debate in October 2016, as it was previously in March 2015 by the hon. Lady’s Liberal Democrat colleague Sir Steve Webb. I have great sympathy for those affected, but they are now covered by Pension Protection Fund compensation scheme.

In 1996, the Government Actuary’s Department, in a note sent to AEA Technology staff, failed to clearly outline the risks of transferring their pensions to the new private sector scheme. We regulate financial advice in this country, yet when it is the Government giving the advice not even the parliamentary ombudsman can review it. Surely this is grossly unjust? Why does the Minister not pursue this mis-selling scandal, as the Financial Conduct Authority did with the payment protection insurance one? Is it because the Government would be to blame this time?

The hon. Lady suggests one thing. I can only refer her to the two parliamentary debates that dealt specifically with this matter; this was set out by her own Lib Dem colleague Sir Steve Webb in March 2015, when he was part of the coalition.

The PPF is a vital lifeboat for individuals whose employers become insolvent. Will the Minister update us on when his White Paper looking at the affordability of defined benefit pension schemes will be available?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, the Green Paper was published in February 2017, and extensive consultation and much consideration of the matters put forward has taken place thereafter. We are in the process of analysing those responses and intend to publish a White Paper in the new year.

Job Creation

Since 2010, more than 3 million more people have found employment. The employment rate is close to the record high, while the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 1975.

In addition to those almost record employment levels, 11% of people in Cheadle are self-employed. My constituent Alexandra Singer is a self-employed wheelchair user who finds that valuable opportunities to attend networking events are lost because they are not always accessible for disabled people. Does the Minister agree that to unlock the talent and energy of disabled entrepreneurs, organisers must make provision for successful businessmen and women, such as Alexandra Singer, to attend their events?

I agree with my hon. Friend on that. It is right that service providers have a duty to anticipate these things and provide adjustments, where reasonable, for disabled people. In the case of her constituent, this may include arranging events at an accessible venue. It is also worth pointing out that one in five of those taking up the new enterprise allowance, which is designed to help people set up businesses, are disabled people.

Every new job is welcome, but we have a country where 55% of people new into work are in receipt of benefits and living in poverty and where the better-off are now disgustingly well-paid. What are the Government really going to do about this?

Of course the highest earning 1% pay a bigger proportion of income tax than they ever have done before. I am also pleased to say that our Government have substantially increased the personal allowance; we have introduced the national living wage; and the support that universal credit is going to provide will help more and more people progress in work.

Universal Credit: Advance Payments

I am keen to ensure that advance payments are made to my constituents in need, which is why I see the jobcentre and the citizens advice bureau, one after the other, every month. Does the Minister agree that the Labour party should start acting responsibly and join me in encouraging constituents to apply for this additional help, and tone down the political rhetoric, which could deter vulnerable people from applying in the first place?

I do. My hon. Friend knows, and the Labour party should acknowledge, that no one need go without money while they wait for their first regular payment. Labour should not try to put people off accessing the support that is there for them.

Today is exactly six weeks until Christmas day. Anyone who applies for universal credit today will have to make do on just two weeks of universal credit payments until after Christmas. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on such families and their ability to let their children enjoy Christmas?

Our record on the timeliness of universal credit payments has improved markedly and, as the hon. Lady knows, advances are also available. I should also say that in the run-up to Christmas, when many temporary work opportunities are available, universal credit works much better for people, because they are able to access those opportunities, particularly on the verge of the festive season.

Very well: we have heard the right hon. Gentleman on Question 14, although he did not seek agreement to that proposition. He simply blurted it out, but we will accept that on this occasion.

We know that people on universal credit spend a great deal more time looking for work than others, and that they apply for a wider range of jobs and consider jobs that they may not have considered before. All that is part of why it involves significantly better labour market outcomes, and why people are more likely to be in work after six months than they were on the old benefits.

Benefits System: Working Hours

16. What steps he is taking to ensure that the benefits system does not penalise people who wish to increase the number of hours they work. (901851)

Universal credit is transforming and modernising the welfare state, ending complicated rules around employment hours and the cliff edges of the old system. Universal credit has a clear system of allowances and tapers to ensure that claimants know that they are always better off in work.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the fundamental flaws of the system that we inherited from Labour is that people who wanted to work more than 16 hours a week could lose 90p of every pound that they earned?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it was about not only the high marginal deduction rates, which obviously we do not see with universal credit, but the fact that people who moved in and out of work, or whose hours fluctuated, could find themselves moving from one benefit system to another. That created additional hassle and uncertainty for claimants, and discouraged people from taking on additional hours.

Universal Credit: Rent Arrears

17. If he will make an assessment of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of rent arrears. (901852)

19. What assessment he has made of the effect of the length of waiting time to receive universal credit on levels of rent arrears. (901856)

The Department for Work and Pensions is currently undertaking work to investigate the reality of rent arrears in universal credit. It aims to understand the true level of rent arrears for tenants, what is causing them, and any impacts universal credit may be having.

New findings say that 49% of landlords are less likely to rent to those in receipt of universal credit. In Kirklees, only 121 social homes are available for the 9,700 people on the waiting list. What steps will the Minister take to prevent those on universal credit from being discriminated against?

The hon. Lady is right to ask the question, but alternative payment arrangements are available. We have listened carefully to housing providers and we are seeing improvements all the time.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer, and I wonder whether it would be of any surprise to her that the chief executive of a large housing authority in the north-west of England recently told me that the authority had arrears of more than £2 million from universal credit alone. Claimants in one authority in Yorkshire and Humber have average arrears of more than £1,100 each. Why is that happening and what is she going to do about it?

We have to be careful not to scaremonger on this issue. A National Federation of Arm’s Length Management Organisations report says that three quarters of tenants who started to claim universal credit were already in arrears, and research shows that after four months the number of claimants in arrears has fallen by a third.

The single biggest problem for some welfare recipients who move into universal credit is their high level of debt. Can my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment tell me what he can do to take forward his idea of an interest-free period to resolve outstanding debt, and to promote the use of credit unions in advising strongly against the use of loan sharks, particularly in the run-up to Christmas?

On behalf of the Minister for Employment, may I say that my hon. Friend makes a very important point? We do want people to address their levels of debt, and that is why we have this effective system of advance payments, which enables people to budget properly and to meet their debts.

Universal Credit: Lost Applications

18. Whether he has investigated reports of online applications for universal credit being lost; and if he will make a statement. (901853)

We are rolling out universal credit full service in a very measured way. I am not aware of any recent cases of claims being lost, but if the right hon. Gentleman knows of such incidents, I of course very much welcome him bringing these to my attention.

There are serious concerns about glitches with universal credit apparently arising because the IT does not yet work properly in some areas. The Child Poverty Action Group has reported instances of claims being made and then vanishing into the ether without trace. Will the Minister assure the House that glitches of that kind will be addressed and resolved, not simply denied?

The CPAG report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers says in its summary that many claims seem to have disappeared, but the text refers to a small number, and then goes on to mention just one case. That is not to say that I ignore this matter or belittle it in any way—of course, I take what he says very seriously. He has my absolute assurance that I will pay attention to any glitches.

Topical Questions

This Department’s mission is to support people through all stages of their lives. Universal credit is being introduced slowly, and it is steadily and positively transforming people’s prospects by bringing about the satisfaction and financial security of entering work and increasing earnings. We are also helping citizens to prepare for later life with our work on pensions, and we are committed to helping people from all walks of life at all stages of their lives. We will continue to build on that body of work to achieve our aims.

How does the Department plan to respond to its own research, which shows that universal credit is a driver of rent arrears among families who rely on it for support?

As my ministerial colleagues have already said, we must recognise that a number of the statistics that have been quoted show that rent arrears have arisen before people have entered into universal credit, and that after time the numbers in rent arrears starts to fall. We continue to improve the system to ensure that payment timeliness is improved, for example, and that people are able to access advances when they need to.

T6. The Minister will know that motor neurone disease is a degenerative disease, so may I ask what plans the Government have to ensure that people who suffer from that terrible disease do not have to be re-assessed for personal independence payments? (901737)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The length of an award is based on an individual’s circumstances: it can vary from an award of nine months to an ongoing award involving a light-touch review at the 10-year point. It is very unlikely that somebody he describes would have another face-to face assessment with a healthcare professional.

We all know that the Government are bogged down in all manner of ways and that they have been slow to develop secondary legislation for several new Acts, but will Ministers tell the House when they will bring forward regulations to enact defined contribution and give pension savers the opportunity of the vastly increased benefits of those schemes that was predicted this week by the Pensions Policy Institute and Schroders?

T7. Can the Minister update the House on progress with the pensions dashboard and confirm that all pension schemes will be required to release the comprehensive data required to make that system useful? (901738)

I am firmly committed to delivering the pensions dashboard. Its introduction will clearly transform how people think about retirement. I will make a statement in the spring that will tackle some of the delivery challenges, including the point that my hon. Friend raises. There is an ongoing feasibility study and there will be a stakeholders’ meeting on 11 December, which I urge him, as well as many interested stakeholders, to attend.

T2. How does the increased conditionality associated with universal credit, such as the requirement to attend at jobcentres more frequently, square with the DWP’s estates review and the decision to close jobcentres, starting with Maryhill in my constituency—which, incidentally, I have visited? (901733)

We have a comprehensive network of jobcentres across the United Kingdom. There are more in Scotland than in England, and more in Glasgow than in other cities. Universal credit is a system that works to help and support people to get into work—it is the right system.

T8. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the inaccurate use of universal credit statistics can cause huge distress and concern to vulnerable claimants? Does he agree that everyone has a duty to check their facts before using them in this House? (901739)

I agree. May I give one example? Speaking from the Dispatch Box opposite recently, the Leader of the Opposition said:

“Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of…its tenants because of universal credit.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]

If that were true, it would amount to 650 tenants being evicted due to universal credit. Gloucester City Homes has described this as “not factually accurate”. In fact, a total of eight—not one in eight—tenants on universal credit have been evicted, all of whom had considerable rent arrears well before moving on to universal credit. I understand that one tenant had not been resident in their property for 18 months.

T3. Many veterans with psychological injuries carry out physical activity as part of their rehabilitation process, but some report that they are being sanctioned because of this. Will the Secretary of State give his guarantee that the Government will no longer sanction recovering veterans? (901734)

I will look at the facts of the case, but I cannot make a blanket commitment, because one obviously has to look at the particular circumstances. Of course, we recognise and support our veterans at every opportunity.

A constituent who recently contacted me is concerned about how long they are having to wait for a tribunal hearing. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the Ministry of Justice about the efficiency of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service?

T5. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s place, Mr Speaker.My local authority in Renfrewshire is having to set aside nearly £1 million to mitigate the devastating impact on families of the roll-out of universal credit. It is hiring extra staff to deal with rent arrears, which it expects to increase by 5%. With all levels of government in Scotland forced to pick up this Government’s slack, what further evidence does the Secretary of State need to see the huge systemic problems in UC and to understand that he must pause the roll-out now? (901736)

Universal credit will help to transform lives positively. It is already doing so by giving people the opportunity to work and to progress in work. The Scottish National party can join the Labour party in being on the wrong side of the argument, but history will not forgive it for that.

Since 2010, this Government have overseen remarkable levels of job creation. My predecessor, who used to sit on the SNP Benches, has just secured a very well-paid media position with Russia Today. Does the Minister agree that people must be flexible about their career choices to get on?

We sometimes hear enough fake news in this Chamber, but it is disappointing to see the former leader of the SNP employed by a purveyor of fake news, even if we welcome employment opportunities in the round.

T9. Universal credit is proving to be a real challenge for self-employed people as it fails to account for fluctuations in income from one month to another, meaning that many are losing out on hundreds of pounds of benefits. This is totally counter to the aspirational vision of universal credit that the Government preach, so will the Minister commit to immediately reviewing the benefit’s suitability for the self-employed and fixing this anomaly? (901740)

On the contrary, universal credit specifically responds each month to what a person’s earnings have been in that month. That is at the heart of its design. We want to help people in self-employment to grow their earnings and to ensure that they have sustainable remunerative work, so we have introduced a programme within the new enterprise allowance to help people to do just that.

Great unhappiness continues to surround the issue of pensions and the WASPI women, many of whom have come to see us in our constituencies. I believe that there will be a debate next April on a private Member’s Bill on the matter. Given the continuing accusations and counter-accusations about whether people were told about the changes, does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate will be worthwhile?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and I have no doubt there will continue to be debates on this matter. However, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has declared, we are not going deviate from the policy we have set out.

T10. In Southwark, 12% of council tenants on the universal credit pilot accumulated £5.3 million of rent arrears. Given the Secretary of State’s astonishing refusal in the face of such evidence to pause the universal credit roll-out, will he say precisely what he is doing to stop more of my constituents being made homeless as a consequence of this decision? (901741)

Again, I come back to this throwing around of accusations. We had the Leader of the Opposition claiming that 650 people had been evicted because of universal credit. We are not seeing evictions in the social rented sector and there are clear reasons why that does not happen. What we are getting for potential universal credit claimants from the Labour party is scaremongering, which is creating unnecessary anxiety.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Broxtowe citizens advice bureau, which I met on Thursday? Universal credit is being rolled out for us next year, and the CAB is already putting together all the relevant agencies to make sure that we are ready. Will my right hon. Friend also have a look at whether, for a very small amount, my CAB could have one person to deal with all the cases so that we can make this system work as we all know it should?

I will take that as a spending bid from my right hon. Friend. She is right to highlight the role of citizens advice bureaux. I met citizens advice bureaux in St Albans and Bedford last week, and where a CAB works closely with jobcentres, it helps to deliver the support that people need, which I very much welcome.

My Tollcross constituent Margaret Laird was moved on to universal credit in January 2016. She has been given a 132-day sanction. She is being treated by psychiatric services and helped by the local food bank. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into her case, because it is very sensitive?

I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman on that case. Obviously I cannot talk about the individual case, but I am happy to look at it.

When a non-resident parent fails to pay on time or in full, we endeavour to immediately establish compliance before enforcement action is needed. There is a range of strong powers that we can take, including the forced sale of property, disqualification from driving or, indeed, commitment to prison, but we are exploring options to expand those, and they will form part of our new compliance and arrears strategy, which will be published shortly.

Members of the British Steel pension scheme need to decide whether to go into British Steel pension scheme 2 or the Pension Protection Fund by 11 December, but there is still a lack of clarity around the position of high/low pensioners in the PPF and whether that might change after the point of decision making. Will the Secretary of State look at this so that the information is available to people before they make that decision?

I acknowledge the issue that the hon. Gentleman sets out. If he writes to me, I will sit down with him and go through it in more detail. Clearly it is a matter for the trustees on an ongoing basis as to what particular decisions are taken.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the case of British-Iranian national Ms Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

I should like to make a statement on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in response to the right hon. Lady.

The whole House will join me in expressing our deep concern about the ordeal of this young mother, who has spent the last 19 months in jail in Iran. Every hon. Member will join the Government in urging the Iranian authorities to release her on humanitarian grounds.

I spoke by phone to her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, yesterday, and we agreed to meet later this week. I told Mr Ratcliffe that the whole country is behind him and we all want to see his wife home safely.

In view of the understandable concern, I propose to describe the background to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and the efforts the Government are making to secure her release. In April last year, she was visiting her relations in Iran, along with her daughter, Gabriella, who was then only 22 months old, when she was arrested at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran while trying to board her flight back to the UK. The British Government have no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday and that that was the sole purpose of her visit. As I said in the House last week, my remarks on the subject before the Foreign Affairs Committee could and should have been clearer. I acknowledge that words I used were open to being misinterpreted, and I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I have inadvertently caused them any further anguish.

The House should bear in mind that Iran’s regime, and no one else, has chosen to separate this mother from her infant daughter for reasons that even it finds difficult to explain or describe. On 9 September 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was brought to a secret trial and sentenced to five years in prison, supposedly for plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The House will note that so far as we can tell, no further charges have been brought against her and no further sentence has been imposed since that occasion over a year ago.

Eleven days after Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised her case with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in New York on 20 September 2016. Two days later, I raised her case with my Iranian counterpart, Mr Zarif. For the sake of completeness, the House should know that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, raised Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment with President Rouhani on 9 August 2016, and my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), wrote to the Iranian Foreign Minister about her plight, and other consular cases, on 29 August 2016. [Official Report, 14 November 2017, Vol. 631, c. 1MC.]

At every meeting with our Iranian counterparts, my colleagues and I have taken every opportunity to raise the cases of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other nationals held in Iranian jails. We have expressed our concerns at every level—official, ministerial, and prime ministerial—on every possible occasion during the 19 months that she has been in jail. In addition, Mr Ratcliffe has held regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), formerly the Minister for the Middle East, and with the current Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

A situation where a British mother is held in these circumstances is bound to cast a shadow over Britain’s relations with Iran at a moment when, in the aftermath of the agreement of the nuclear deal in July 2015 and the easing of sanctions, we had all hoped to witness a genuine improvement. So I shall travel to Iran myself later this year to review the full state of our bilateral relations and to drive home the strength of feeling in this House, and in the country at large, about the plight of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and other consular cases. In order to maximise the chances of achieving progress, I would venture to say that hon. Members should place the focus of responsibility on those who are keeping Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe behind bars and who have the power to release her whenever they so choose. We should be united in our demand that the humanitarian reasons for releasing her are so overwhelming that if Iran cares about its reputation in this country, then its leaders will do now what is manifestly right. I commend this statement to the House.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, the Foreign Secretary has responded to an urgent question in the course of which he has very properly made remarks, but it is important, as others in the House can testify from past experience, to distinguish between a response to an urgent question, on the one hand, and the proffering by Government of a statement, on the other.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. How unfortunate it is that we need to ask an urgent question as opposed to getting a statement.

Let me say at the outset that whatever strong feelings we have about Iran’s actions in this case, I am sure we are all joined in sending our thoughts to those affected by yesterday’s earthquake on the Iran-Iraq border. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for returning from Brussels to answer this urgent question. Perhaps he reflected that the last time a Minister of State was asked to answer an urgent question on behalf of a Cabinet Minister, the Cabinet Minister lasted only 24 hours.

I hope that we can make more progress today than we were able to make on the same issue last week. Let us start by clarifying the points on which there is absolutely no difference between us. First and foremost, we all want Nazanin to be brought home as soon as possible. No one who has listened over recent days to the heartbreaking testimony of Richard Ratcliffe can be in any doubt about how urgent it is, for Nazanin’s mental and physical health, that she is returned to her family immediately.

Secondly, if that can be done, as has been suggested, by conferring diplomatic status on Nazanin, that would obviously be welcome, although I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary clarified how that could be achieved—how we can free this innocent British mother without opening up a Grace Mugabe precedent, which might make it possible to use the same tactic in Britain to help a guilty foreign national to escape justice? Thirdly, we can all agree that the responsibility for Nazanin’s incarceration and mistreatment lies entirely with the Iranian authorities, and we all unite in urging for her freedom to be restored.

On those points, we are in full agreement, but let me turn to two key issues on which we have so far differed and, frankly, we continue to differ. First, the Foreign Secretary argued last week that his comments to the Select Committee did not have “any connection whatever” with the latest threats by the Iranian authorities to extend Nazanin’s sentence, and that it was simply untrue to suggest otherwise. That is entirely contradicted by what was said by the Iranian courts last weekend, and by what was said on the Iranian judiciary’s website and on Iranian state TV. All of them said explicitly that the Foreign Secretary’s remarks were the basis of their renewed action against Nazanin. We know from the evidence of Richard Ratcliffe that when Nazanin was told of the remarks and saw how the Iranian authorities would exploit them, she became hugely distressed and upset. So will the Foreign Secretary today accept the impact that his words have had and the distress that has been caused to Nazanin, and apologise properly for that—apologise not for upsetting people, but for getting it wrong?

Secondly, last week the Foreign Secretary was asked several times to do one very simple thing, and that was simply to admit that he had made a mistake—not that his remarks had been taken out of context or misconstrued, but that they were simply wrong. He has, so far, refused to make that clear, and that refusal was compounded yesterday by his good friend the Environment Secretary. Even after all the debate on this issue, the Environment Secretary still, incredibly, claimed that we “don’t know” why Nazanin is in Iran. We do.

It is not good enough. If it is a matter of pride that the Foreign Secretary is refusing to admit that he made a mistake, I feel bound to say to him that his pride matters not one ounce compared to Nazanin’s freedom. After a week of obfuscation and bluster, will he finally take the opportunity today to state simply and unequivocally, for the removal of any doubt either here or in Tehran, that he simply got it wrong?

I am more than happy to say again what I said to the right hon. Lady last week: yes, of course, I apologise for the distress and the suffering that have been caused by the impression that I gave that the Government believed—that I believed—that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran in a professional capacity. She was there on holiday, and that is the view of—[Hon. Members: “Say sorry!”] I do apologise, and of course I retract any suggestion that she was there in a professional capacity. Opposition Members must have heard that from me about a dozen times.

The right hon. Lady asked an important question about diplomatic protection and how that would work. She is absolutely right that that is a question that Richard Ratcliffe himself has raised with me. All I can say is that I will be answering Mr Ratcliffe. I cannot give her an answer today; I would rather answer Mr Ratcliffe in person. I am delighted to say that I am seeing him tomorrow, and I will be explaining the position on diplomatic protection. As I said last week, he has requested to come to Tehran. I do not know whether that will be possible, but we will see what we can do.

Regrettably, more than a faint whiff of opportunism hangs over this urgent question, and others will question the wisdom of having this discussion at all. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is incumbent on each and every one of us in this House to pay very close attention to what we may or may not be about to say, because the Iranians will be watching these deliberations and we do not want to exacerbate an already extremely difficult situation?

My right hon. Friend is, I am afraid, absolutely right. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we remain very careful in what we say about the entire case.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman is reflecting very seriously on his position—the position that he holds not just in this Government, but in society—because, for Nazanin, it would have been reasonable to assume that when the Foreign Secretary got involved in her case, things might have been better. Unfortunately, it has made this situation very much worse. Why was another Cabinet Minister not briefed properly, and why did he say live on television that he did not know why she was there? What is going on at the heart of this Government?

As a direct result of these reckless comments, Nazanin is now in an increasingly perilous situation, which has given the Iranian authorities added cause to keep her locked up on false and arbitrary grounds. The Foreign Secretary’s apology is welcome, but he must reflect, as must the Government, on how they do their business and how they protect our citizens. What guarantee will he give that Nazanin will be granted diplomatic protection and be brought home? The Foreign Secretary and his colleagues must make it very clear that they are able to do their jobs and to protect our citizens.

Our priority is to secure the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and all other political considerations are entirely secondary. The only other thing we have to bear in mind is the safety and wellbeing of the other consular cases in Iran, and that is very important.

I said to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that I am seeing Mr Ratcliffe tomorrow. I am in fact seeing him on Wednesday.

As an ardent Churchillian, does my right hon. Friend accept that this has not been his finest hour? Before the Opposition make too much of that, however, may I urge them to avoid headlines such as that in The Independent online, which says, “Boris Johnson should resign if British mother stays in Iranian jail” for “even one more day”? The Iranian regime plays politics with hostages. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if they believe that they can get rid of a British Foreign Secretary by jailing a hostage for longer, they will jail that hostage for longer? That link needs to be broken, not reinforced, by the Opposition today.

I think the whole House would agree that there is nothing more important than the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and, as I say, the protection of all other consular cases in Iran, and that trumps all political considerations in this country.

My constituent Richard Ratcliffe wrote about his wife’s case in the Evening Standard:

“My complaint is not that her imprisonment has become a diplomatic incident this past week. It is that it wasn’t for the 19 months that came before.”

That shows the sheer dignity with which my constituent has been campaigning for his wife’s release for 19 months.

Richard has told me that their family’s lawyer, working together with the non-governmental organisation Redress, wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office two months ago with a legal opinion about Nazanin’s right to diplomatic protection. I know that the Foreign Secretary has already said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that he will consider diplomatic protection, but will he urge that a meeting takes place between the FCO and the lawyers, and will he give some indication of whether diplomatic protection will be given, as this could save my constituent’s life?

As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, I will be talking directly to Richard Ratcliffe about that issue on Wednesday.

Briefly, on consular protection, every day in some part of the world, a UK national or a dual national is detained, and I pay tribute to the consular work that the Foreign Office does across the world. A huge amount of work has been done on behalf of the constituent of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) by my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, who have met members of her family repeatedly and will continue to do so until we solve the problem.

I am very glad that the Foreign Secretary has made his statement today. However, does he agree that this poor woman, who is separated from her child, is being used a political football, not only—sadly—here, but in Iran, where the Iranian revolutionary guard is effectively fighting with the Khomeinite authoritarian regime in its own way? Would he consider calling upon people in our system who may be able to talk to the mullahs, perhaps asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, or indeed the Holy Father, to speak on behalf of this woman and seek to broker her release?

My hon. Friend speaks with great insight about the situation in Iran, and I assure him that no stone will be left unturned in our efforts.

From my experience of trying to get two British nationals out of jail in Laos in 2009, what is needed when dealing with a very difficult country is absolute commitment and persistence —to go to bed every night worrying about what is happening to that British national in another country; to be very disciplined; and to make sure that every single member of the Government is speaking with the same voice. The Foreign Secretary could not possibly argue that that has happened in this case. What I really do not understand, though, is that when he made a complete mess of appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee, his office rang to correct other, completely incidental parts of the record, but still refuses to correct this part. Will he do so now? Otherwise, frankly, he will have learnt nothing from this.

The Foreign Secretary has referred several times to the other cases in Iran. Is there not a real problem with dual nationals, specifically in Iran and countries that do not recognise dual national status? Is it not time for a broader review of the issue, alongside the urgency of dealing with this specific case?

It is one of the features of British consular protection that we give it to dual nationals, irrespective of whether their British nationality is recognised by the country in which they run into trouble. That is a mark of the dedication of our consular staff to their job. We will continue to work for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other difficult consular cases in Iran for as long as those cases are outstanding.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly said that the priority for everyone should be the return of a wrongfully and inhumanely imprisoned mother, who has been separated from her child. That is welcome, but he also knows that words matter. Every time he says things such as, “My words were simply open to misinterpretation”, he provides a lack of clarity and sounds as if he is wriggling in a way that other people can exploit. For the sake of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, will he say unequivocally for the record, “I got it wrong”?

I hope that the House will understand with crystal clarity that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was there on holiday. She was not there in any professional capacity. In so far as people got a different impression from what I was saying at the FAC, that was my mistake. I should have been clearer—[Interruption.] With great respect, Members should listen to what I am saying. I should have been clearer. It was my mistake; I should have been clearer. I apologise for the distress and anguish that has been caused to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. Our priority now is to do everything we can to get her out of Iran on humanitarian grounds.

My right hon. Friend should know that he has the support of everyone on the Government Benches in his efforts to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, understanding how difficult this case is. It has already been raised twice at Head of Government level, so it is very difficult to see how the Government could have done more. Does he agree that the prospects for her release are not being assisted by the rather unedifying spectacle of the pursuit of his scalp?

I think the paramount concern of everybody in this House is not narrow party political concerns, is it? It is not. It is the safe, secure return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and that is what we are working for.

While the right hon. Gentleman is in the business of correcting the record, will he correct his statement from last week that he had never met Joseph Mifsud, the UK-based so-called academic at the centre of the Trump-Putin collusion allegations, given the publication in the newspapers yesterday of a photograph of just such a meeting?

Order. There is all sorts of flailing and waving about. It is not statesmanlike and the source from which it emanates is a source from which I usually expect the most statesmanlike conduct. The right hon. Gentleman’s question suffers from the disadvantage that it is not even adjacent to—does not even hover over, does not buzz around—the urgent question that has been posed, so he will have to pursue other opportunities to favour the House with his thoughts, or to seek to extricate from the mind of the Foreign Secretary his own. On that point, we will leave it there for now.

Now, I am sure we can expect a wholly orderly question from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), very likely delivered in a sentence with no split infinitive. It might even be a series of sentences amounting to a lucid paragraph.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that generous introduction.

Will my right hon. Friend carry on his Palmerston-like approach to defending British subjects overseas, which is one of the first duties of Her Majesty’s Government? Does it concern him, as it concerns me, that the treatment of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, barbarous as it is, is being given succour by the socialists on the Opposition Benches?

I am afraid I think my hon. Friend underestimates the motives of the Labour party. I prefer to think that Labour Members are actuated solely by a concern for all our consular cases in Iran, in particular for the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Every Member of this House recognises that the Iranian regime is responsible for Nazanin’s detention and that the priority is to bring her home. However, our purpose here is to hold this Government to account for their actions. Can the Foreign Secretary tell me if he is confident in the quality and comprehensiveness of Foreign Office briefings, and that they are properly made available to other Government Ministers in advance of media appearances? If not, will he sort it out? If so, does he accept there is simply no excuse for Ministers to continue to get it wrong?

FCO briefings are excellent. As the hon. Lady has heard repeatedly from me today, the Government are absolutely clear in their understanding of what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran and why it is absolutely unjustifiable that she be detained by that regime.

Any mother forcibly separated from her daughter will suffer from mental health problems, but it appears that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now also suffering from a physical illness. She is a dual national, which means she is British, so it is possible for my right hon. Friend to appeal to the Government on humanitarian grounds for her release?

That is, of course, exactly what I did the week before last in the FAC. It is probably not right to go into too much detail about what we know of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s medical condition. I will only say this: it is pretty obvious to anybody studying the case that she should be released on humanitarian grounds alone.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who also sits on the FAC, will the Foreign Secretary now write to the Committee and all its members correcting the record? While he is doing that, will he also clarify and correct the wrong report in The Sunday Times that he was badly briefed before his remarks to our Committee?

Two points: I have written to the Committee and I really cannot be responsible for any inaccuracies that there might be in The Sunday Times.

I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) say that this is the fault of the Iranians, because it leaves us in no doubt about the politics being played here today. This is the worst possible situation. The fact that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) tried to button in on the back of this shows how this sensitive situation is being held in contempt. I wish my right hon. Friend the very best in seeking to bring this honourable lady home, because she needs to be with her husband and family.

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for everybody in her constituency and the country, and I know that she speaks for Members on the other side of the House as well.

Over one year ago, the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention ruled that Nazanin’s detention was arbitrary and referred her case to the special rapporteur, and the UN called for her immediate release, yet it appears that our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office might not have done so. Will the Foreign Secretary please explain?

That is a very good question. The answer is that we do not normally call for the release of consular cases, because very often that exacerbates their position. In this case, as the House knows, a couple of weeks ago I did call for her release on humanitarian grounds.

How many other British subjects are jailed in Iran, and does my right hon. Friend have any idea what the Iranians want in return for this lady’s release?

We have dozens, if not hundreds, of cases around the world. I probably ought not to go into the exact number in Iran, but I can tell the House that we are working on behalf of all of them.

When the House passed the Iran nuclear deal, I, along with others across the Chamber, expressed concern and requested that human rights and equality issues be part of the deal. What influence do the Government have in respect of the human rights and equalities of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the thousands of others held in jail there for the same reason?

The joint comprehensive plan of action does not cover the issues the hon. Gentleman raises, but common decency and humanitarian concern dictate that she should be released.

I remain a critic of the Iranian nuclear deal for many reasons, including the fact that human rights were not coupled with it. It was greatly disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition, who was paid to appear on Iranian Press TV, did not take the opportunity to criticise human rights in Iran, but instead agreed with and contributed to anti-Israel and anti-western bias. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me, and indeed Richard Ratcliffe, that his battling for his job will not help Nazanin come home?

I will resist the temptation to agree with my hon. Friend about any points that might have been made by the Labour party for or against Iran, because our priority now is simple: it is not to score party political points but to get Nazanin home.

The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) several times called Nazanin a hostage. Does the Secretary of State consider her to be a hostage?

The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a very difficult consular case, and that is how we are treating it.

A number of my constituents have contacted me expressing concerns about the case. Can my right hon. Friend assure them that he and the Government are doing absolutely everything possible to exert influence to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and does he agree that that should be our one and only priority and our one and only focus, in the Government and in the House?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can also tell him that our ambassador —our excellent ambassador—in Tehran is working on the case daily.

The Foreign Secretary has said that he finally accepts that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday, and that the whole country is now behind her. Does he include the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who just yesterday said that he did not know why she was in Iran, and has he told the right hon. Gentleman that his loose-lipped comments were unacceptable and damaging in equal measure?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath actually made it very clear that he believed she was there on holiday—[Interruption.] He did say that: I watched the clip. He was very happy to accept that that was the case.

What action can my right hon. Friend or the British Government take if Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not released? I am assuming that if we are in a hostage situation and if we do not win this case, there is a danger that others will be taken on a similar basis.

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. The answer is, I am afraid, that we must simply work diligently and flat out for her release.

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on this and the rest of his conduct as Foreign Secretary in order to realise that his brand of clownish incompetence is a joke that is no longer funny, and consider being replaced by a competent politician who will attract the respect of the world and not the ridicule that he attracts?

As I have said, I think that the best course for us all is to try to minimise the political point-scoring and concentrate on getting Nazanin home.