House of Commons
Monday 18 December 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—
Disability Confident Scheme
Over 5,000 employers have signed up to Disability Confident since its launch in November 2016. The Disability Confident business leaders group, made up of prominent national businesses, is promoting the scheme to other employers. I am pleased to report that all the main ministerial Government Departments have now achieved Disability Confident leader status.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Disability Confident will prove to be an effective way of breaking down barriers for disabled people to get into work, particularly by addressing the issues of stigma that a lot of disabled people still feel? In that regard, would he consider attending my Disability Confident event in Halesowen on 26 January?
I will certainly consider my hon. Friend’s kind invitation. I agree that a lot of Disability Confident events have been very productive in engaging employers at local level and encouraging them to see the benefits of employing disabled people. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to support local authorities and MPs in holding such events, so maybe I will have the opportunity to attend one in his constituency.
The truth is that this simply is not working. My constituent, Alan, has just graduated with a BSc honours degree in computing technology. He is blind and has a guide dog to assist him, but when he tells prospective employers about this in advance, they just do not take his applications. He has applied for 857 jobs but he has got absolutely nowhere. What is he going to do?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have undoubtedly made progress in the last few years. We have 600,000 more disabled people in work than was the case in 2010, but there is more to do, which is why the Government have an ambition to increase the number from 3.5 million to 4.5 million over the course of 10 years. It is also why we published our recent Command Paper on the subject. It is really important to bring about a culture change among employers so that people like Alan can have those opportunities.
How many of the FTSE 250 companies have signed up to this excellent campaign?
That is a very good question, and I will have to write to my hon. Friend with the answer. I can tell him that businesses small and large have participated in the scheme, including large organisations such as Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Sainsbury’s and Channel 4, as well as many small businesses up and down the country.
May I take this opportunity on behalf of my colleagues on the Scottish National party Benches to offer our sincere condolences to Mr Deputy Speaker after the weekend’s tragic incident? Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to Lindsay and his family.
The Chancellor told the Treasury Select Committee earlier this month that
“far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example, by disabled people, may have had an impact on the overall productivity measurement”.
The Chancellor belittled the efforts and contribution of disabled people in the workforce. How disappointed was the Secretary of State by that unhelpful statement?
First, I should like to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Deputy Speaker, who has the thoughts of the whole House with him at this time.
In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, however, I disagree with him. The point that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was seeking to make is that we have made great progress in recent years on increasing the level of disabled people in work. That is a good thing to do, and he made it clear that he considered it to be a good thing. That is what the whole Government want to achieve.
The small employment adviser at Rugby jobcentre has just signed up 15 new employers to become Disability Confident. Does the Secretary of State agree that the role of those officers in building links with small employers in local areas is crucial to ensuring that more disabled people get access to the workplace?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is really important that that engagement happens up and down the country, and I am pleased that we are making progress. As I have said, we have over 5,000 Disability Confident employers, and I hope that we will continue to increase that number. My Department will certainly be doing everything it can to achieve that.
In the recently published “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” paper, the Government said that they wanted to work in partnership with employers to help them to draw fully on the talents of disabled people. However, following the Chancellor’s recent comments scapegoating disabled people as being the reason for low productivity, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a need for a clear and coherent message from the Government that employing disabled people can enhance productivity and make a real contribution to organisations and businesses across the UK?
There is a clear and coherent message from this Government. We have seen significant increases in the number of disabled people in work, which is good for disabled people, but it is also good for the economy as a whole. That continues to be our message, and that is why we published our “Improving Lives” document. We will continue to work to improve the opportunities for disabled people in the labour market.
“Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families”
“Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and is making good progress. For example, from next Spring, Public Health England will run a trial of individual placement and support, and our vital work on reducing parental conflict was boosted by the Chancellor’s announcement of £39 million in the recent Budget.
I thank the Minister for her reply. As she will know, working households in coastal communities such as Cleethorpes face particular difficulties. There is much low-paid work, but not much to encourage young people to stay there. What additional support can she offer to those sorts of communities?
The Government are committed to supporting coastal communities, such as those in his constituency of Cleethorpes and my constituency of Gosport. That is why I am pleased that the claimant count in his area is already down by 49%. Last March, we saw 248 families in north-east Lincolnshire achieve significant progress through our troubled families programme, and I know that the Secretary of State was impressed when he visited my hon. Friend and saw a programme that is helping troubled youngsters. More widely, the council was awarded a Coastal Communities Fund grant in April worth £3.8 million towards a scheme to enhance Cleethorpes’ role as a high-quality place to work, live and visit.
Does the Minister think that the fact that she is failing to support people who are workless and still in poverty is one of the reasons why Alan Milburn resigned as chair of the Social Mobility Commission?
We are actually doing more to get people into work than any other previous Government. We know that making a meaningful difference to people’s lives, including those of the most disadvantaged children and families, requires an approach beyond just welfare support. That means supporting people into jobs, because we know that employed people have much-improved chances and incomes. That also means focusing on the other key drivers of poverty, such as education, and on other things to support children.
Rights of Disabled People
We are committed to improving the lives of disabled people, both in the UK and through our international development work, and we are constructively considering the UN’s recommendations going forward. We intend to provide an update to the UN next summer, as requested.
The UN report specifically called on the Government to repeal the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 and to ensure that eligibility criteria in assessments to access PIP, employment and support allowance and universal credit are in line with the human rights model of disability. Will the Minister commit to that today?
We are absolutely committed to disabled people. We are world leaders in disability rights. We were disappointed that the UN did not consider all the information that we provided, and we strongly rebut much of what it had to say. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the excellent work on reviewing PIP that was published today by Paul Gray, which sets out a whole series of reforms showing that this Government are determined to ensure that we have a benefit system that really supports disabled people.
Not only did the report seemingly fail to recognise that we now spend a record £50 billion on supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, but it also failed to recognise the proactive work with charities and stakeholder groups that helps to shape policies. Will the Minister reconfirm her commitment to that proactive engagement?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I absolutely confirm that I will work with disabled people and organisations that work with disabled people. I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend did when he held my position. I am sure that we will continue to build on the work that he did and will ensure that more disabled people have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential in our society.
Will the Minister please consider a root and branch reform of PIP? Someone who came to Feeding Birkenhead was doubly incontinent due to cancer, but she received a nil rating for PIP. While she needed food, she also needed nappies. When she did not turn up after a few days, people went to see how she was, and she was washing babies’ nappies, because she wanted to get about and was too ashamed to come and ask us for more. Is there not something wrong with PIP assessments when those sorts of cases occur?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this very sad case. Clearly something went wrong in that individual case. I look forward to answering questions and spending time with his Select Committee later this week. I point him to the response to Paul Gray’s evaluation of PIP that I published today. I am sure we will have more time to look at that in detail, but we remain utterly committed to making sure that we continue to improve PIP.
At my surgery last week I met Frances, who has cerebral palsy. She made an application to the clinical commissioning group to get e-motion wheels for her wheelchair, which has been denied. Does the Minister agree that ensuring that people have the equipment to enable them to go to work is incredibly important and increases their self-esteem and their ability to contribute to the economy?
My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. Of course, PIP is a benefit that is available to people in work and out of work, and it is there to support everyone with the additional costs of their disability. Of course, mobility is really important. There is also the excellent Access to Work scheme, which each year is funding more people, enabling them to play their full part in society, including at work.
Poverty: In-work Households
It is clear that work is the best route out of poverty, as the rate of poverty in working households is one third of that among workless households. Latest data shows there are 1.9 million working households in relative low income.
One of the real impacts of increasing levels of in-work poverty will be in the changes that the roll-out of universal credit will bring. In a written parliamentary answer I received today from the Minister for Employment, I was told that universal credit will be rolled out in my Ogmore constituency in March next year, which is incorrect. According to the House of Commons Library, universal credit will be rolled out in March, June and November. How can the public have any trust in what the Government are doing with universal credit if they simply do not know the dates of roll out in particular constituencies when they answer MPs?
We will certainly look into that information. It is important to point out that we know that work is the best route out of poverty, and that universal credit is helping people to move into work quicker, to progress through work faster and to stay in work longer. The smooth taper rate gives incentives to take on more hours because, unlike the old system, people see more money in their pocket for every extra hour they work.
Does the Minister agree that one of the ways we can help those in work and on low pay is by introducing and increasing a national living wage, by increasing the personal tax allowance so that people keep more of the money they earn, and by helping with childcare costs? Is that not precisely what the Government are doing?
I could not have put it better myself. There are 300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty now than in 2010. As my hon. Friend says, we are making sure that work pays through the national living wage and lower taxes. The lowest earners have seen their wages grow by almost 7 percentage points above inflation over the past two years.
On behalf of my party, may I add my condolences to those already expressed in this Chamber? I am sure that all our hearts go out to Mr Deputy Speaker’s family.
One of the biggest problems facing in-work households living in poverty is fuel poverty. Altnaharra, which is in the middle of my vast constituency, is the coldest place in the UK every year, so fuel poverty is a colossal problem for my constituents. Will the Minister have meetings with the Scottish Government to take forward ways of tackling this terrible problem, particularly in the remotest and coldest parts of the UK?
I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Mr Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about fuel poverty. The Government have been doing so much to ensure that people are aware that they can cut down on household energy bills by switching, and we have been making it easier for people to switch. We also know that the Scottish Government have devolved powers to support people more with their benefits, if that is what they decide to do, and they are free to develop their own approaches to addressing poverty.
Is it not time to have a grown-up conversation about the measure of poverty? Under the relative measure, thousands would be lifted out of poverty by a recession, by a significant number of job losses or by a reduction in the median level of household income. Surely that cannot be the best measure and it is right that we look to work as the best route out of poverty.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. If we look at progress since 2010 across all four of the most commonly used measures of poverty—relative, absolute, before housing costs and after housing costs—without cherry-picking any of the statistics, we see that people are no more likely to be in poverty today than they were in 2010. Indeed, on three of the measures the likelihood of being in poverty has reduced, and the incomes of the poorest 20% have increased in real terms by more than £300.
The Government are committed to building an economy that works for everybody, which is why we have committed to raising the national living wage—we are talking about an increase of 33p. This will be equivalent to a 9% increase in the national living wage since its introduction in 2016. It represents an increase to a full-time minimum wage worker’s annual earnings of more than £600.
On behalf of Labour Members, I would like to express our condolences to Mr Deputy Speaker. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people because of the extra costs they face. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently estimated the cumulative effect of Government cuts since 2010 at £2,500 a year for a disabled adult, but when the Government discovered that they had underpaid approximately 75,000 disabled people who transferred on to ESA support between 2011 and 2014, they announced in last Thursday’s written statement that they would only be repaying claimants from October 2014. How many of the 75,000 disabled people will receive an arrears payment? Given that attempted suicide rates among ESA claimants doubled between 2007 and 2014, what estimates have been undertaken on the impacts on claimants’ mental health as a result of this Department for Work and Pensions error?
I am sure that I can write to the hon. Lady with the details on that. As well as being very mindful of the impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, we must apply the law. We have to value disabled people in our workplace, which is why the Government are making sure that many, many more disabled people are able to access work and get into work.
Recent data shows that 8 million working families are living in poverty. Despite Government rhetoric, work is not the route out of poverty.; four out of five people who are in low-paid work now are likely to be in low-paid work in 10 years’ time. But in his interview on yesterday’s “The Andrew Marr Show”, the Secretary of State failed to mention that, under universal credit, sanctions have escalated and are being applied to people who are actually in work. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have both raised concerns about the impact of sanctions on debt, rent arrears and homelessness. So why is the Secretary of State intent on punishing people in low-paid work by sanctioning them?
Sanctions are applied only as a very last resort and there are mitigations in place to support people when this is done. The hon. Lady is wrong to say that people in work are more likely to be in poverty; a key driver of in-work poverty is the part-time work that people were trapped in when her party was in government—people were trapped working fewer than 16 hours a week. The Labour Government were literally paying them to stay poor, whereas our reforms are about supporting people to progress in work and keep more of the extra money that they earn.
Universal Credit: Food Bank Usage
There is no reason for people to go without support while they wait for their first UC payment. New benefit claimants starting on UC today will be able to access an advance. This is normally paid within five working days, but can be delivered in a day if needed. Changes announced in the Budget will allow claimants to receive larger advances and for advances to be recovered over a longer period.
Given the waiting period for universal credit, people face a choice: they can have no money to buy food, so either use a food bank or starve, or they can get a loan, as the Secretary of State says. Does he agree that pushing people who are already on a low income because they are on a benefit into debt in this way is totally unacceptable?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s categorisation at all. The complaint that has been made about universal credit is about the cash-flow point—that people have to wait a period of time before they get their first payment. To address the cash-flow point there is a system of advances in the universal credit system so that people have the flexibility to receive the money earlier. It is an advance, they get it paid earlier—they do not get it paid twice, I accept that, but they get it paid earlier—and it is a perfectly sensible way to address a cash-flow issue.
The Peabody Trust estimates that 60,000 households will have made a new universal credit claim in the six weeks before Christmas and will not receive their first payment before the holiday period. The need is already being felt in my constituency, where last week Norwood food bank provided food for an extraordinary 128 people in a single session. What is the Secretary of State’s advice to families who are trying to provide a happy Christmas for their children without the means to afford even basic necessities?
We should be clear: if people need cash before Christmas, they are able to get it under the universal credit system, which is designed so that they can do that. People trying to discourage claimants from taking an advance, which I am afraid is the tone that we hear too often from the Labour party, are causing unnecessary anxiety for claimants.
The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about high levels of debt among young people incurred just by their covering basic household bills such as rent. Young people aged 18 to 21 are not entitled to housing support under universal credit. Why did the Government ignore a Social Security Advisory Committee recommendation that young people on the edge of care should be exempted from that?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, there are a whole host of exemptions that do allow 18 to 21-year-olds to access housing benefit, if those exemptions apply to them. I have to come back to this point, which the Labour party does not seem to accept: the best way in which we can sustainably lift people out of poverty is to have a welfare system that encourages them to work and to progress in work. That is what universal credit does and it is what the legacy system failed to do, which is why we are making these changes.
Unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds is 523,000—down 60,000 on the year and down 416,000 since 2010.
I welcome that news from the Minister. I am a strong campaigner for apprenticeships, including in my constituency, where we have just 70 young unemployed people. Does the Minister agree that making apprenticeships far more available helps young people into jobs, not only in Wealden but throughout the country?
My hon. Friend has indeed been a great campaigner and a great champion for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships—including the 620 starts in Wealden in 2016-17—are one of the key policies that have contributed to our successful labour market, in which employment now stands at 75%.
What is the trend in unemployment for young people with learning difficulties?
We absolutely accept that of course young people with learning difficulties need additional assistance and additional understanding of conditions and so on, which is why we have very much focused on providing that in jobcentres to make sure that they get the support they deserve.
Personal Independence Payments
The DWP does not set a target for processing PIP claims. The Department takes all reasonable steps to obtain evidence of claimants’ individual needs, including independent assessment. We make decisions as quickly as possible based on the available information in order to reach the right outcome. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know, as I was, that the median time from start to end is currently 13 weeks.
Notwithstanding further appeal by the Department, will the Minister restore benefits after a successful first-tier decision for the applicant?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important question, but the Department takes the view that, because we are appealing the decision and it is based on an error of law, that really would not be appropriate. I just want to reassure him and all hon. Members that there are always exceptions, and this could arise where a suspension would cause financial hardship. For most benefits, this is considered before suspension is imposed, but, in all cases, the suspension letter sent to claimants invites them to contact the Department immediately if they are in financial hardship so that we can help them.
Sixty five per cent of PIP tribunals find in favour of the claimant, meaning that hundreds of disabled people are being denied the support to which they are entitled. This puts an intolerable strain on whole families, including my constituents Chris and Cathryn Stoney who, having coped with Cathryn’s bowel cancer surgeries, brain haemorrhage and cardiac arrest, now face a further ordeal appealing against an unjust assessment. Will the Minister agree to meet me, the Stoneys and Nottingham advice services to hear how the system is failing disabled people?
I would be very pleased to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents to talk about that case or to listen to their concerns more widely, but we really should put the situation in context: 8% of decisions are appealed and 4% of them are upheld. I am very aware that behind every statistic is a person, but it is actually a small percentage of the millions of people who do receive their benefits, and we are continuously focused on making the right decision, right from the outset, which is why we commission independent reviews. We welcome the findings of the latest independent review by Mr Gray, which has been published today, and we have accepted all his recommendations.
Does the Minister agree that Paul Gray’s recommendations in the second independent review of personal independence payments that the routine provision of the assessment report to the claimant would both improve identification of error and incentivise better performance at the assessment stage, and will she fully accept that particular recommendation?
As I have said before, I am really delighted with the review and to have received its findings. We have accepted all the findings in the review. At the moment, those reports are available, so that everyone can request them. We do not think it is a good use of taxpayers’ money to provide them to people who are happy with the result, who will not be going on to make any further appeal and who are actually getting on with receiving their benefit.
Universal Credit: Sanctions
The Department does not forecast numbers of sanctions that will be applied. We do not want sanctions to be incurred, but they do play an important part in reasonable conditionality.
Well, what an answer! Never would I accuse the Minister of dedolence, but I must say that that sort of Panglossian response shows an absence of empathy or understanding, particularly of the empirical evidence that we have had to date. My constituents see universal credit as a rock rolling down a hill next April. However, as this is Christmas and we are in the spirit of giving and generosity, will the Minister join me in my impetration to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for additional secretarial support during those dark days when this awful universal credit is rolled out and over our constituents?
I think the hon. Gentleman is going to the west end to perform on the stage. He would feel so fulfilled. In fact, I think that he has already done so—perhaps just now.
I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that when I say that sanctions are considered to be a part of reasonable conditionality, it was also the approach that was taken up fully by the previous Labour Government. With regard to universal credit over Christmas, we have in place—as we do every year—robust processes to make sure that claims get paid. We can bring claims forward to make sure that things go smoothly, as we always seek to do before Christmas.
There is a matter of some dispute here between the Chair and the Table. I think that the hon. Gentleman is a representative of a petrocurrency, but Mycroft in front of me is not wholly convinced, so the matter remains as yet undetermined.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I refer the Minister to the question I raised with the Leader of the House on Thursday. Will the Minister provide an assurance that when the Department makes mistakes in the administration of universal credit, claimants will be fully compensated in claims backdated to the point where they will be no worse off?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have written to him today on this specific case. I do not know whether the response has yet come to hand following his question on Thursday, but I am happy to meet him and discuss it in detail. I understand that there was an issue about some of the information at the time the claim was made, and that there has been some backdating. We will talk about the matter later.
The number of people in employment has increased by more than 3 million since 2010 to reach 32 million in the last quarter. The employment rate is close to the record high and has increased by almost five percentage points since 2010.
Despite a small recent decline in total employment, unemployment has continued to fall. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this suggests that the Government’s policies and the work of our great jobcentres across the country are making all the difference in matching jobseekers with available jobs? As it is Christmas, would he thank Ian Spalding—the manager of the Newark jobcentre—and his fantastic staff for ensuring that unemployment in Newark is now at 1%?
I will very happily join my hon. Friend in thanking Ian Spalding and, indeed, Jobcentre Plus staff up and down the country, who do a fantastic job in helping to reduce unemployment. I think that the claimant count in Newark has fallen by 42% since 2010. In the meetings that I have had with jobcentre staff across the country, I have seen that they are enthusiastically implementing universal credit because they can see that it will help them to make further progress.
Is the Secretary of State not aware that hundreds of thousands of people in this country are yearning for a good and well-paid job? Many are young people who cannot get an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship starts are down by 62% this year and further education colleges are in trouble. When is he going to do something about training young people and really giving them the chance of a good job on good pay?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the recent apprenticeship numbers were affected by a spike at the end of the previous period, but the reality is that we have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships in recent years. We have introduced the apprenticeship levy, which puts apprenticeships on a sustainable financial footing. It is this Government, with our industrial strategy, who are ensuring that we create the highly skilled jobs that the country needs.
Personal Independence Payments: Mental Health
The claiming process for personal independence payment was co-produced with disabled people, carers and organisations supporting them, including mental health charities. We will continue to explore opportunities to monitor and improve the process, making use of customer testing and engagement with disability groups.
The charity, Rethink Mental Illness, surveyed PIP claimants, and found that two in five felt that delays in decisions led to deterioration in their mental health, and that one in five had to take higher doses of medication to cope with the increased stress. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable, and will she look at the findings of the survey and review the assessment process in the light of them?
I pay tribute to Rethink and its campaign—I have read the findings of its survey with interest—as well as to Mind. These organisations are key stakeholders that help the Department to get these things right. No, I do not want people to be stressed by the process, which is why we are implementing a wide range of reforms that we have worked on with our stakeholders. We will make a paper-based decision wherever possible—wherever the information enables us to—and people also have the opportunity to be assessed at home.
Constituents and support agencies in North West Durham have told me that the assessment to determine entitlement to PIP is too black and white, and is not able truly to capture a person’s day-to-day life with all the nuances that involves, especially when assessing mental health problems. This is leading to traumatic and humiliating experiences, and claims being refused to people who really need them. Will the Minister please look into this process in detail for those with mental health problems?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. We keep the process under constant review, and we have it independently assessed to make sure that, if there are any problems at all, we will work to overcome them. However, I can assure her that, compared with the previous benefit—disability living allowance—many more PIP recipients with mental health conditions are getting the enhanced rates.
Contracted-out Health Assessments
We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, accurate assessments. We monitor assessment quality through independent audit. Decision makers can return reports for rework or additional advice. A range of measures, including provider improvement plans, address performance failings when we experience standards below what we want. We continually look to improve the assessment process.
Forty people in Wakefield have written to me with their concerns that, at their employment and support allowance or PIP assessment, they were not seen by an appropriate person. That includes one person with mental health problems, who was assessed by a paramedic. The Work and Pensions Committee recently heard that Atos and Capita employ only four doctors between them, and statistics released by the Minister’s Department today show that those contractors have consistently failed to meet their targets for the number of unacceptable assessments, so how can sick and disabled people in Wakefield have any confidence in the assessment process?
I am looking forward to discussing this matter in more depth with the Select Committee when I come before it on Wednesday. However, I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that all the assessors receive absolutely appropriate training for what they are there to do. These are functional assessments, and people are properly trained to make those assessments—there are doctors, nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists. We constantly keep the accuracy of the process under review, and that includes the experience of the claimants themselves.
We are immensely grateful to the Minister.
Pension Transition Arrangements
I receive a variety of representations, whether that is orally, in correspondence in writing, or in debates.
I thank the Minister for that non-answer. Figures I received from the House of Commons Library show that tax giveaways on things such as inheritance tax and corporation tax will cost the Treasury over £60 billion by 2025. Should a caring Minister and Secretary of State not argue that, instead of giving money to the rich, they could use it for transitional arrangements and ending austerity?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to two particular points. The first is that we have differing views on taxation. The Government believe that cuts to corporation tax assist job creation—the jobs we need to pay for the public services we have. Secondly, I refer him to the fact that, under the letter of 22 June from Jeane Freeman, my opposite number, the Scottish Government have powers in terms of working-age people and to take action on the specific points that he keeps raising, but that the Scottish Government fail to do anything about.
As the Minister will be aware, it was clear in last week’s debate that a number of colleagues behind him on the Government Benches supported the call from a lot of colleagues on the Opposition side of the House for the Government to look at transitional arrangements for WASPI women. I therefore ask the Minister, as I did last week, why not call a binding vote so that the House can advise him to do the right thing for WASPI women?
In days gone by, the Liberal Democrats were a party of fiscal discipline. In 2011, when this matter last came before the House for debate, the hon. Gentleman and I accepted the need to take the decisions that were made, and he joined me in the Lobby to vote for them. It is a shame that he has forgotten those views now.
Universal Credit: Torbay
We carry out a range of implementation activities well in advance of activation to ensure that sites are well prepared, and we have successfully rolled out to 235 jobcentres to date.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Roll-out of full service universal credit in Torbay is due to happen in September 2018. It is vital that claimants fully understand the system and their options. Will the Minister therefore confirm what work his Department is doing with Torbay’s local advice services to ensure that claimants can easily get such support if needed?
Yes, we are ensuring that stakeholders, including the key advice services, have a proper overview of universal credit, and we work closely with the citizens advice bureau and others. A dedicated employer and partnership team engages directly with local authorities, landlords and others to ensure there is a joined-up approach to supporting claimants.
I will interpret the Minister’s answer as being wide and therefore admitting of other constituencies, although it is not clear beyond peradventure. I will give Members the benefit of the doubt.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. There will be problems in Torbay and elsewhere if the universal credit calculation is wrong. The Minister told me in a written answer that there is no specific initiative called Late, Missing and Incorrect, but it turns out that there is, run jointly by his Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will he confirm that if real-time PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—information is late, missing or incorrect, then the universal credit calculation will be wrong?
We all admire the right hon. Gentleman for his deftness in getting from Torbay to that point. He and I have had quite an extended correspondence in parliamentary questions on the subject of real-time information in its various aspects. Of course we want to continue to make sure that every aspect of universal credit is working entirely as it should, and he has my commitment that we will do so.
The right hon. Gentleman will experience a long journey from East Ham to Torbay. We empathise with him on his long journey.
Social Security Spending: Working Households
Since 2015, the level of social security spending for families on in-work benefits has reduced from £28.9 billion to £26.7 billion in real terms. This has happened during a period when we have introduced the national living wage, employment has reached record levels, free childcare has doubled, the personal allowance has increased and income inequality has continued to fall.
With 8 million people living in poverty in working households and 28% of my constituents earning below the voluntary living wage, what action is the Secretary of State taking to address labour market inequalities with low-paid, low-skilled and insecure work?
Let me give the hon. Lady two examples. First, there is the industrial strategy. Secondly, if we want to address in-work poverty, one way in which we can do that is to ensure that people are able to work extra hours. We need a benefits system that does not trap them in working 16 hours a week, because if they can work extra hours, they can increase their income.
Looking back over these trends, has the Secretary of State drawn the conclusion that every Labour Government leaves office with higher unemployment than when they took office? What impact does he believe that that has on working families?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We heard a very revealing comment earlier when it was said from the Labour Front Bench that work is not the route out of poverty. If work is not the route out of poverty, exactly what is?
Since automatic enrolment was introduced in 2012, 9 million people have been enrolled in a workplace pension by over 900,000 employers. Today, I can announce the Government’s ambition to extend automatic enrolment to support more people to achieve greater financial security in later life. The Government’s 2017 review of automatic enrolment, published today, sets out the next steps we intend to take as we continue to develop a culture of routine pension saving. We will help young people to save by lowering the age for automatic enrolment from 22 to 18. We will also enable people to start saving from the first £1 of their earnings to provide a better retirement income for lower earners and for those in multiple jobs. I have today tabled a written statement setting out further detail, including trialling a number of targeted approaches to identify the most effective ways to increase pension saving among the self-employed.
The universities superannuation scheme is a strong pension scheme that recently closed its defined-benefits section, moving to a defined-contribution scheme and, in effect, transferring all risk to the employee. Many argue that over-cautious accounting rules drive these changes, creating a poorer scheme that leaves many people less well off in future and puts pressure on our universities. What is the Secretary of State doing to protect the future of our higher education sector?
Any changes that might be made to this scheme are a matter for the scheme’s joint negotiation committee, not for the Government. The independent Pensions Regulator remains in ongoing discussion with the USS’s stakeholders. Nothing has been brought to the DWP’s attention that we consider to be of concern. It would be improper for the Government to tell the joint negotiation committee how to run the scheme.
Since 2012, 7,000 employees in Ochil and South Perthshire have benefited from a workplace pension through automatic enrolment. Our thanks are also due to the 820 local employers. State pension has risen by £1,250 since 2010, but we want to do more. We are extending auto-enrolment to 18 to 21-year-olds in his area, where we also have targeted interventions for the self-employed that I believe will be of assistance.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the crisis engulfing members of the British Steel pension scheme, with advisers cashing in by persuading them to sink their pensions into all manner of dodgy, high-cost schemes, and he will be aware of the Financial Conduct Authority’s apparent failure to deal with the situation effectively. He will know that today the negotiations on the future of the universities superannuation scheme are coming to a head, with the threat of industrial action—something that should be interesting the Government. I am surprised that he is simply sitting back and leaving these matters to those who are directly involved. Surely, he can tell us today how he is going to get involved and take action to protect members of both schemes.
The position in relation to both matters is that they are worked through with the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, particularly in relation to British Steel, to ensure that members get information on the effect on their pension rights of staying with BSPS or moving to BSPS II. That includes newsletters, a website and bespoke option packs. The Financial Conduct Authority has also stepped in and banned a variety of organisations, and it is providing proper advice.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are more working people in older age groups now than there ever have been, but much more needs to be done, which is why we published our “Fuller Working Lives” strategy. Of course, many employers are waking up to the possibilities in jobcentres, and we are also making sure that we have more older worker champions to represent that group fully.
Reports suggest that the Foreign Secretary, the Environment Secretary and others used this morning’s Cabinet meeting to start the campaign to scrap the working time directive after Brexit. That directive protects us when it comes to hours worked and paid holidays, as well as giving extra protection to night shift workers. Can the Secretary of State confirm what representations he has made at Cabinet to ensure that his Brexiteer colleagues are not successful at ripping up our workers’ rights?
As I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” The Government are committed to protecting employment rights.
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to listen to constructive critics and those who want to make sure that universal credit works. In doing so, I thank him for his positive and constructive engagement. It is very clear that Conservative Members are united in ensuring that we deliver universal credit successfully.
I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to make this clarification. As I have mentioned before, 8% of decisions are taken to appeal, and only half of those are upheld. I appreciate that every one of those people is disappointed with the result, and we are working tirelessly to improve the process. But, overall, most people get a good decision on time, and their benefits.
On Friday, I visited my local jobcentre and saw the genuine enthusiasm that work coaches have for the new universal credit system. Will my hon. Friend confirm that additional help is available for users who are not too tech savvy?
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is quite right about the enthusiasm of jobcentre staff for universal credit, because it enables them to do more of what they want to do, which is to help people to get on and get into work. I can confirm to him that, yes, computers are available in jobcentres, and assistance is available when needed.
With the uncertainty of universal credit payments following the roll-out in Swansea last week, my local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, has co-ordinated the collection of food and warm clothes to help those in need. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the South Wales Evening Post on doing what the Government are failing to do, and making sure everyone has a good Christmas?
What I would say to anyone—Members of Parliament, newspapers, advisory bodies and food banks—is that we need to make sure that the facts are set out to new claimants: if they need to get access to support, they can get it quickly; they need to get in contact with their jobcentre; and they are able to access an advance, and they can get that money before Christmas.
Does the Minister agree that auto-enrolment has been a success to date and it is right to lower it to the age of 18, but that politicians—of all hues—and the pensions industry must work together to meet the savings and pension challenges facing this country?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am delighted with the fact that we now have 9 million people signed up to auto-enrolment, utterly transforming workplace pension savings. In his constituency, 8,000 employees and 680 employers have signed up—and great credit to them.
I assure the hon. Lady that we have a very robust quality assurance process. Clearly, the case she has highlighted today is unacceptable. If she would like to bring me that case and discuss it with me, I would be very happy to do so.
Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is lost due to fraud or errors in benefit claims. Will the Secretary of State say whether the introduction of universal credit will improve this situation?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the areas of good news about universal credit is the fact that it will enable us to reduce fraud by over £1 billion. That in itself is an important step, and there are of course many other very positive reasons why universal credit is a good thing.
We must ensure we have a welfare system that is fair not only to those in receipt of welfare, but to those who pay for it. The lower cap is fair to both working households and the taxpayer. Before the cap, the Department for Work and Pensions disproportionately spent £10 million a year on just 300 families.
For jobseekers in my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, it is overwhelmingly the “can do” attitude of professionals and the dedication of the work coaches, whom they value, that will help them to find work. Especially at this time of year, we as a House should definitely pay tribute to them. May I ask my hon. Friend how the new work coaches will boost the chances of jobseekers in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as well as those elsewhere, to find work?
I can confirm that we have been recruiting work coaches in every nation and region of the UK. We are seeking to do more to provide support with universal credit, and to ensure that what in-work support is needed is available.
Two constituents came to my surgery on Friday, concerned that the switch of support for mortgage interest payments will force them into the private rented sector and on to housing benefit, and will therefore cost the taxpayer more money. Will the Government review that policy? Is it not more evidence of Tory austerity hitting the poorest the hardest?
The conversion of SMI from a benefit into a loan is intended to retain support for owner-occupier claimants in a more sustainable way, while increasing fairness for taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to buy a home of their own.
What steps is the Department taking to ensure that DWP staff are aware of military covenant issues, so that they are best able to support our brave men and women when they leave the armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. Veterans make a considerable contribution to our country and it is right that we support them as they move on in their careers. DWP staff receive continual training to ensure that they can signpost veterans correctly. The “See Potential” campaign champions veterans and encourages employers to see the incredible skills they bring to the workplace.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on last week’s European Council.
Before turning to the progress on our negotiations to leave the European Union, let me briefly cover the discussions on Russia, Jerusalem, migration and education. In each case, the UK made a substantive contribution, both as a current member of the EU and in the spirit of the new deep and special partnership we want to build with our European neighbours.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the second world war that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Since then, human rights have worsened. Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbass and the peace process in Ukraine has stalled. As I said at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the UK will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and to work with our allies to do likewise, both now and after we have left the EU. We were at the forefront of the original call for EU sanctions and, at this Council, we agreed to extend those sanctions for a further six months.
On Jerusalem, I made it clear that we disagree with the United States’ decision to move its embassy and recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. Like our EU partners, we will not be following suit, but it is vital that we continue to work with the United States to encourage it to bring forward proposals that will re-energise the peace process. That must be based around support for a two-state solution and an acknowledgement that the final status of Jerusalem must be subject to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
On migration, when we leave the European Union, we will be taking back control of our own borders and laws, so we will be free to decide our own approach, independently of the EU. But as part of the new partnership we want to build, I made it clear at this Council that we will continue to play our full part in working with the EU on this shared challenge. We will retain our maritime presence in the Mediterranean for as long as necessary, we will work with Libyan law enforcement to enhance its capability to tackle people-smuggling networks, and we will continue to address the root causes of the problem by investing for the long term in education, jobs and services in countries of origin and transit.
On education, our world-leading universities remain a highly attractive destination for students from across the EU, while UK students also benefit from studying overseas. UK and EU universities will still want to work together after we leave the EU and, indeed, to co-operate with other universities around the world. We will discuss how to achieve that in the long term as part of the negotiations on our future deep and special partnership, but in the meantime I was pleased to confirm at the Council that UK students will continue to be able to participate in the Erasmus student exchange programme for at least another three years, until the end of this budget period.
Turning to Brexit, the European Council formally agreed on Friday that sufficient progress has been made to move on to the second stage of the negotiations. This is an important step on the road to delivering the smooth and orderly Brexit that people voted for in June last year. I want to thank Jean-Claude Juncker for his personal efforts, and Donald Tusk and my fellow leaders for the constructive way they have approached this process.
With Friday’s Council, we have now achieved my first priority of a reciprocal agreement on citizens’ rights. EU citizens living in the UK will have their rights enshrined in UK law and enforced by British courts, and UK citizens living in the EU will also have their rights protected. We needed both and that is what we have got, providing vital reassurance to all those citizens and their families in the run-up to Christmas.
On the financial settlement, I set out the principles for the House last week and the negotiations that have brought this settlement down by a substantial amount. Based on reasonable assumptions, the settlement is estimated to stand at between £35 billion and £39 billion in current terms. This is the equivalent of about four years of our current budget contribution, around two of which we expect will be covered by the implementation period, and it is far removed from some of the figures that had been bandied around.
On Northern Ireland, as I set out in detail for the House last week, we have committed to maintain the common travel area with Ireland; to uphold the Belfast agreement in full; and to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, while upholding the constitutional and economic integrity of the whole United Kingdom. We will work closer than ever with all Northern Irish parties and the Irish Government as we now enter the second phase of the negotiations.
The guidelines published by President Tusk on Friday point to the shared desire of the EU and the UK to make rapid progress on an implementation period, with formal talks beginning very soon. This will help give certainty to employers and families that we are going to deliver a smooth Brexit. As I proposed in Florence, during this strictly time-limited implementation period, which we will now begin to negotiate, we would not be in the single market or the customs union as we will have left the European Union. But we would propose that our access to one another’s markets would continue as now, while we prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin our future partnership. During this period we intend to register new arrivals from the EU as preparation for our future immigration system. We will prepare for our future independent trade policy by negotiating, and where possible signing, trade deals with third countries which could come into force after the conclusion of the implementation period.
Finally, the Council also confirmed on Friday that discussions will now begin on trade and the future security partnership. I set out the framework for our approach to these discussions in my speeches at Lancaster House and in Florence. We will now work with our European partners with ambition and creativity to develop the details of a partnership that I firmly believe will be in the best interests of both the UK and the EU.
Since my Lancaster House speech in January, we have triggered article 50 and begun and closed negotiations on the first phase. We have done what many said could not be done, demonstrating what can be achieved with commitment and perseverance on both sides. I will not be derailed from delivering the democratic will of the British people. We are well on our way to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit. That is good news for those who voted leave, who were worried the negotiations were so complicated it was never going to happen, and it is good news for those who voted remain, who were worried that we might leave without being able to reach an agreement. We will now move on with building a bold new economic relationship, which together with the new trade deals we strike across the world can support generations of new jobs for our people, open up new markets for our exporters, and drive new growth for our economy. We will build a new security relationship that promotes our values in the world and keeps our families safe from threats that increasingly do not recognise geographical boundaries. We will bring our country together: stronger, fairer, and once again back in control of our borders, our money and our laws.
Finally, Mr Speaker, let me say this. We are dealing with questions of great significance to our country’s future, so it is natural that there are many strongly held views on all sides of this Chamber. It is right and proper that we should debate them, and do so with all the passion and conviction that makes our democracy what it is. But there can never be a place for the threats of violence and intimidation against some Members that we have seen in recent days. Our politics must be better than that. On that note, I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement.
On Jerusalem, I also condemn the actions of the United States President. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to maintaining a maritime presence in the Mediterranean, but as a humanitarian mission to save lives.
As I said last week in response to the Prime Minister’s previous statement, we welcome progress to the second phase of negotiations but that should not hide the fact that this agreement comes two months later than planned and many of the key aspects of phase one are still unclear. These negotiations are vital for people’s jobs and for the economy; our future prosperity depends on getting this right.
The agreement reached on phase one was clearly cobbled together at the eleventh hour after the Democratic Unionist party vetoed the first attempt, as is evident in the vagueness of the final text, which underlines the sharp divisions in the Cabinet. As we head into phase two, the truth is that the Government must change track. We cannot afford to mishandle the second stage. The Prime Minister must now sort out the contradictions. We were told last week that the Prime Minister’s humiliating loss on giving Parliament a final say on a Brexit deal made her weak, and the Daily Mail, which previously branded the judiciary “enemies of the people”, is now whipping up hatred against Back-Bench rebel MPs. Threats and intimidation have no place in our politics, and the truth of it is that it is division and in-fighting in her own Cabinet and their reliance on the DUP that makes them weak. So will the Prime Minister welcome Parliament’s vote to take back control?
We have already seen Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, such as the Brexit Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, give the impression that the agreement can be changed or ignored—that it effectively does not amount to a hill of beans. It is not very reassuring that this is the end product of eight months of negotiation. Will she set out which parts of the financial settlement agreed between the UK and the EU will be paid if a final deal between the EU and the UK cannot be struck? Given the delays to the phase one deal, can the Prime Minister now see that cementing in statute a time and date on which Britain will leave the European Union could hinder negotiations?
I am glad that the Prime Minister now seems determined to follow Labour’s call for a transition period to create stability—[Interruption.] In case Government Members do not want to hear it, Mr Speaker, I will repeat the sentence. I am glad that the Prime Minister now seems determined to follow Labour’s call for a transition period to create stability as we leave the European Union. It is necessary that we remain in the single market and customs union for a limited period, allowing a smooth transition for British business. However, there was more Government confusion on this over the weekend. Will the Prime Minister clarify whether we will remain subject to the rules of the single market and the customs union during this transition period? Does she envisage that the UK will also remain a member of the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy, and can she clarify whether it will be possible under the phase one agreement to sign trade deals during the transition period?
There were also worrying reports over the weekend about what some senior Cabinet Ministers will demand from the Prime Minister to support a phase one deal. These demands were reported to include that Britain should leave the working time directive. Can the Prime Minister state now, categorically, that she will face down this push from some in her Cabinet and that Britain will maintain the standards of the working time directive both during a transition period and beyond? Will she also guarantee that the Government will not seek to use Brexit to water down any other working or social rights in this country? Will she commit to maintaining access for UK students to the Erasmus programme beyond the current budget period?
These issues are important to people’s jobs and living standards. It is becoming clear that many on the Government Benches want to use Brexit to rip up rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections, and to deregulate our economy. For many of them, Brexit is a chance to make Britain a tax haven for the super-rich. Let me be clear: Labour will do everything in our power to stop that.
The choice is becoming clear: a Tory Government who will use Brexit to protect the very richest, slashing corporation tax and the regulations that protect working people, or a Labour vision that would protect jobs, the economy and investment by building a relationship with our closest trade partners, and not starting a race to the bottom in which people’s jobs and living standards will suffer.
First, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has said that threats and intimidation should not form part of our political life. I agree with him, but what he said will seem a bit rich to those of my colleagues who were candidates in the general election, and who suffered from the Labour party.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the date of our leaving and phase 1. He said that the phase 1 agreement was vague. In fact, it is the result of significant work over a number of months. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at it carefully, he will see that it is detailed in relation to citizens’ rights. It gives reassurances to EU citizens here in the United Kingdom and UK citizens living in the EU 27 that they can carry on living their lives as they have done, and that their life choices will be respected.
The right hon. Gentleman claimed that the transition period—the implementation period—was somehow a Labour idea. He should look at the Lancaster House speech, in which I was very clear about the need for a smooth departure from the European Union. The financial settlement that we agreed in phase 1 is in the context of agreeing the final deal and reaching the final agreement. He talked about dates for our leaving. I note that he said that we should have triggered article 50 the day after the referendum. That would have meant that there was no time to prepare our negotiating position and we would be leaving the EU in six months without having done the proper work to make sure that there was that smooth and orderly progression, and that we did not disrupt our economy in the ways that the right hon. Gentleman has talked about.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether trade deals could be signed. I referred to that in my statement. He asked about the transition period, and about the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy. We will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019, and we will therefore be leaving the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy on that date. The relationship that we have with the European Union on both those issues continuing through the implementation period will be part of the negotiation of that period, and work will start very soon.
Then, of course, the right hon. Gentleman asked about workers’ rights. Again, I set out in my Lancaster House speech, and have confirmed on a number of occasions since, that this Government will not only maintain but enhance workers’ rights. If the right hon. Gentleman is so worried about workers’ rights, why did the Labour party vote against the very Bill that brings workers’ rights in the EU into UK law?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that attacks on MPs’ family members, particularly in vulnerable conditions, should be absolutely outlawed from the very beginning.
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether she has read Mr Barnier’s statement—made in the last couple of days—in which he set out the EU’s position in the run-up to the next two phases of discussion? Can she confirm that the Government have neither discussed that nor agreed it, and that therefore it is not Government policy?
I had noticed Michel Barnier’s comments, particularly in relation to the negotiations on the trade deal. We will start the negotiations on that as a result of the decision taken last Friday by the European Union Council. I can tell my right hon. Friend that one of the senior members of the negotiating team has today made it clear that the United Kingdom can indeed have its own bespoke agreement for a future trade relationship with the European Union. Indeed, that point was also made by the Prime Minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, in an article he wrote in the Financial Times last week. If anybody cares to think about it, every trade agreement is a bespoke agreement between the parties concerned—they have similar elements, but are specific to the various countries concerned. That is certainly what we will be looking for in our negotiations with the EU.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of today’s statement.
Scottish National party Members welcome the progress to phase 2 of the negotiations, as agreed by all EU member states, but Council President Donald Tusk was not kidding when he commented that phase 2 will be “dramatically difficult”. It is imperative that the devolved Administrations are included in phase 2 negotiations, and I call on the Prime Minister to agree to that today.
Much of the conclusion from last week’s summit should be welcomed across the House. We on these Benches especially welcome the EU’s reiteration of its firm commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We should all unreservedly condemn Donald Trump for his recent actions.
I must give special attention to the agreement on the social dimension, including commitments by member states to implement the European pillar of social rights and to follow up on the priorities of the EU action plan to tackle the gender pay gap.
Decisions on education and culture are also extremely welcome. An extended and more inclusive Erasmus+ programme, the creation of a European student card and stronger partnerships between higher education institutions across Europe, allowing students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries, are great moves forward for European collaboration. These decisions will not only bring much social progress to national politics across all member states but, more importantly, provide enormous opportunities for future generations. Erasmus is one of the EU’s biggest success stories, and it has benefited hundreds of thousands of young Scots. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to reassure young people on Erasmus now, and those aspiring to take part in the programme, that the UK will maintain participation in it?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been in discussions with the devolved Administrations through the process of phase 1. We will continue to engage with them as we move into the second phase of negotiations. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary meets the Scottish and Welsh Governments regularly to discuss issues of concern to them and how the negotiations are proceeding. Indeed, the last meeting of the Joint Ministerial Council was held on 12 December.
As I have said, we have committed to the Erasmus programme for the period of the current budget plan. Erasmus is exactly the sort of programme that we will be discussing in the second phase of these talks.
I commend the Prime Minister for her success in the negotiations and the statement. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that the merits of a transition period were first advanced on this side of the House, notably by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On that note, as a former Business Minister, may I say to the Prime Minister that what business really wants is certainty? How soon does she think that we will be able to announce that the transition period has been agreed so that we can give that certainty to business?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point from the point of view of business. Significantly, it was accepted at the December Council not only that there should be such an implementation period, which in fact reflects the guidelines set out by the EU Council last April, but that we would start negotiating that very soon. We are looking to have those negotiations concluded in the first quarter of next year.
On 10 December, the Brexit Secretary described the phase 1 joint agreement as
“more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing.”
However, last Friday’s European Council guidelines state:
“negotiations in the second phase can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase are respected in full and translated faithfully into legal terms as quickly as possible.”
Can the Prime Minister therefore confirm that all the commitments she made in the phase 1 joint agreement, including in respect of the border in Northern Ireland, will be written into UK law?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there will now be a process of completing some of the details behind the withdrawal agreement such that the withdrawal agreement can then be put to this House, to this Parliament and to the European Parliament. We have always been clear that there will be a meaningful vote for this House. Subsequently, as we have stated to the House, we will have the EU withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which will put the various provisions of the withdrawal agreement legally into UK law. That was a key element in relation to citizens’ rights in the phase 1 negotiations.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to give equal consideration, in the Cabinet and elsewhere, not only to the vital issues of our trading relationships and regulatory divergence, but to the perpetual, ever-escalating, undemocratic centralisation of the EU itself, which remoaners, reversers, status quo-ites and the Opposition seem incapable of grasping, and which absolutely proves how right the voters were in June last year in voting to escape from the European Union?
I can assure my hon. Friend that in the negotiations that we hold with the European Union, we will ensure that the British national interest is represented and that we come away with a deal that is in the interests of the UK. I believe that that will also be in the interests of the EU. How the European Union develops once we have left is, of course, a matter for the EU27. As he suggests, a number of recent speeches have suggested an increased centralisation of the European Union, but that will be a matter for the 27, not for us.
As the Government embark on far-reaching trade negotiations with the European Union and beyond, will the Prime Minister explain who will provide independent arbitration in legal disputes, given that the Government have rejected the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and that her friend, President Trump, is rejecting the authority of the World Trade Organisation and making its dispute panels unworkable? Is this not a recipe for anarchy in international trade?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, dispute resolution is part of any trade agreement negotiations, and that will be exactly the same with all the trade agreements that we will negotiate now.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that no binding offer about the money will be made until there is a general agreement that Parliament accepts, because I do not see how else we can proceed?
The joint progress report, which was published by the UK and the European Union prior to the December Council, made it absolutely clear that the settlement within it was set out in the context of going forward and having agreement on the future relationship.
Does the Prime Minister now agree that the meaningful vote to which she referred should take place on a statute, as set out in the terms of amendment 7 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, before any withdrawal terms can be implemented? Does she also agree that those who voted for amendment 7 did so in good faith to ensure that power would not be too heavily concentrated in the hands of the Executive, and that it was completely wrong to do what the Daily Mail suggested and accuse them of treachery?
If we look at our debates on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and indeed on other matters in this House relating to Brexit, such as article 50, it is clear that the will of Parliament overall has been to deliver on the vote of the British people. We were always clear with the House that there would be a meaningful vote on the question of the withdrawal agreement—[Interruption.] Yes, we were always clear that there would be a meaningful vote on that but, as I have just indicated to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), there will subsequently be the process of this Parliament agreeing the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill. It will be that which will bring the withdrawal agreement into UK law.
Further to the Prime Minister’s reply to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on the guidelines issued by the European Council on 15 December, will she confirm categorically that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and that it will be the final settlement, combined with phase 1, that she will bring forward as legislation for us to approve in this House?
The fact that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed is actually in the joint progress report that was published by the UK and the European Union. There will be various stages at which this Parliament will be able to vote on matters relating to our leaving the EU. I just referred to the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, and there will be other pieces of legislation as well. Separate from the formal withdrawal agreement that will bring those matters into UK law, we will of course be able legally to sign our new trade agreement with the EU once we leave the EU.
If we will no longer be in the internal market and the customs union during the implementation period, why can we not negotiate, sign and implement new trade deals before the end of that period?
The purpose of the implementation period is to ensure that businesses and individuals do not have to make two sets of changes because of a new relationship that is put in place as part of our future partnership with the EU. That is why, as we look at the implementation period, I and the Government are clear that although we will be formally out of the customs union and the single market, we expect to be able to operate on the same terms as we currently do. That is what limits the ability to implement new trade deals elsewhere.
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the entire negotiating team on the progress made to date. However, given that leaving the EU without a deep and special relationship on trade and security would also bring risk, does she agree that we should be using all our political energy in the months ahead to find that new relationship and that we should not get distracted by other squabbles?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s focus will clearly be on ensuring that we can negotiate that deep and special partnership for the future. That is not just in our interests; it is in the interests of the EU and the EU27 as well. That is why I am optimistic and ambitious about the trade deal that we can achieve.
Last year, the Prime Minister wrote to me giving the same general assurance on workers’ rights that she just gave to the Leader of the Opposition. She did not actually answer his specific question today, however, so I ask her again: given that her Cabinet colleagues are now agitating for some of those rights to be done away with, will she guarantee that none of the working time regulations—importantly, the 48-hour working week—will be done away with by her Government after we leave the European Union?
We are bringing those rights into UK law though the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I have said that we will maintain, and indeed enhance, workers’ rights.
Will my right hon. Friend clearly reject the negotiating mandate handed out by the European Council, paragraph 1 of which undermines the principle of nothing being agreed until everything has been agreed, and paragraph 4 of which would make the United Kingdom in the transition phase no more than a vassal state, a colony, a serf of the European Union—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear the hon. Gentleman, who is in full flow. I want to hear the fullness of the flow.
I urge my right hon. Friend to model herself on her predecessor, the late noble Baroness Thatcher, and to show real mettle and steel in rejecting the EU’s rather hostile negotiating terms.
The negotiation is between two parties. We will be very clear about the future partnership we want to have with the European Union on both trade and security matters, and I set out the framework for that in my Florence speech.
My hon. Friend has asked me before about the relationship between the UK and the European Union during the implementation period. As I have just indicated in response to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the purpose of the implementation period is to ensure that businesses and individuals can continue to operate, and to be reassured of the basis on which they operate, while the necessary changes are put in place that will lead to the future trade agreement that we will have achieved.
I have also said before in this House, and in my Florence speech, that there may be elements of the arrangement that we will be able to bring forward. For example, if we are able to bring forward a dispute resolution mechanism during that period, we will look to do so.
I urge the Prime Minister to reject the notion that we should get all the way to exit day and not have the full details of the future trade arrangement between the EU and the UK. If all we have is a sketch of the framework of a possible trade deal, it would not be acceptable to the public or to businesses. It is simply unacceptable to have something that looks like less than a half-baked arrangement.
We are working to ensure that we are very clear and have details of our future arrangement with the European Union at the point at which we leave.
Order. I call Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.
Mr Speaker, I am speechless.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm to me and the country that, when we leave the EU in March 2019—yes, there will be an implementation period; I understand why—we will have left the EU in its entirety?
We will have left the European Union. We will have the implementation period, and I would expect us to be able to continue to trade with the European Union on the same basis as now in order to ensure that businesses and individuals have the reassurance of knowing where they stand and how they operate while the practical changes that will need to be made as we move to our future relationship, such as our new immigration rules, are put in place. We will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.
The Prime Minister will have heard some confusing and conflicting statements from Opposition Members about the need for a second referendum and their desire to have one—some say one thing; others say another. Does the Prime Minister agree that a second referendum is the surest way of finding that the European Commission and the European Union make the hardest and most difficult deal possible for the United Kingdom? What people want is to get on with delivering on the first referendum.
I understand that, in the space of one day over the weekend, the shadow Home Secretary rejected a second referendum and the deputy leader of the Labour party said that a second referendum was still on the table. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) is absolutely right about this particular issue. The best way to get the worst deal would be to suggest that we are going down the route of a second referendum, but it is more than that—I think it would actually be betraying the British people. This Parliament gave the British people a vote, and it is up to us to deliver on the result.
Will the Prime Minister give the British people a huge Christmas present by stating that, on 29 March 2019, we will leave the European Union, end the free movement of people and remove the jurisdiction of the European Court, and that the £39 billion we plan to give the European superstate to squander will be spent instead on the NHS, social care and maybe even cutting taxes?
We will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. We will now be moving quickly to negotiate the details of the relationship during the implementation period which, as I have said, we expect to last for up to, or around, two years. The reason why we will have that implementation period, and why we would expect to continue to trade and operate with the EU on a similar basis to today, is to give businesses the certainty of knowing the basis on which they will be able to operate and so that they will not have to make two sets of changes to their arrangements, such as in relation to customs. There will only be one point at which businesses move to the new partnership. I think that that is a practical matter that most people will understand and appreciate.
The Prime Minister has admitted today that we are looking at a £40 billion bill for Brexit. The Chancellor is already spending billions on contingency preparations, and we have two Cabinet Ministers jetting around spending lots of taxpayers’ money. Has she seen the analysis today from the Financial Times showing that rather than getting the £350 million for the NHS that was promised on the red bus, there will be a cost of £350 million per year—[Hon. Members: “Per Week.”] That would be the cost to the British economy, as economic output is 0.9% down?
When we have left the European Union—I have set out the commitments that we have negotiated as far as the financial settlement is concerned in the negotiations in phase 1—we will no longer year in and year out be spending vast sums of money in the European Union and sending those vast sums to the European Union. That is in direct contrast to the Labour party, which would pay any price and carry on paying to the EU, year in and year out.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the hard work she has put in to get us to this point—I think it is fantastic. We know there is a lot of hard work ahead, but does she welcome this opportunity to focus on her priority agenda of social justice, including higher educational standards and housing for our country, now that we can see that Brexit is moving ahead?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. She is absolutely right. We have just heard a reference to sums of money being paid to the European Union. When we do leave the EU, the money that we will no longer be paying year in and year out to the EU will be available to us to spend on our priorities, such as housing, education and the NHS. I was clear at the EU Council about the importance of the university sector. We want to ensure that we continue to have good-quality higher education in this country.
Last week, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr Rajoy, said that as well as having a veto over any future agreement between the EU and the UK over the issue of Gibraltar, he also wants one over the issue of Gibraltar for the transitional period. Will the right hon. Lady give a firm commitment to the people of Gibraltar that she will not countenance any agreement for the transitional period that will not preserve their existing rights and arrangements?
We have been very clear throughout, and indeed in the discussions and continued interaction that we have with the Government of Gibraltar, that we are seeking the best deal for Britain and that deal must work for Gibraltar as well. They will be part of the exit negotiations. They will be covered by our exit negotiations and we will fully involve them as we leave the EU.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the very real success she achieved in Brussels last week and urge her to stick to the pragmatic approach to these negotiations that brought that success about. Let me follow up on the point just made. As well as committing firmly to Gibraltar being included in these arrangements, will she undertake that her Government will work to strengthen, to the maximum extent possible, the trading arrangements between Britain and Gibraltar, both in the implementation period and after we have left the EU?
Let me say to my hon. Friend, who has long championed the interests of Gibraltar in this House, that when we negotiate our exit from the EU, when we negotiate the trade deal that we will have, we will be considering Gibraltar as part of our negotiations. So they will be there. We will be discussing with them as we move through those negotiations to ensure that we get a deal that is right for not only the United Kingdom, but Gibraltar.
If I have this right, the agreement says that nothing has been agreed until everything has been agreed, so the agreement is not an agreement at all—it is just a kind of pending operation. May I ask the Prime Minister about Russia? She rightly said at the beginning that, “We were at the forefront of the original call for EU sanctions”. Britain has wanted to be tough in relation to Russia, and I praise her for that. But how are we going to do that in the future if we are no longer in the room?
It is perfectly possible for this country to maintain our position on Russia. I have set out the UK’s position on Russia—I did it in my speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. We will continue to work with our European colleagues on the approach that we take and we will continue to work through other international organisations, such as the United Nations, on these matters.
How likely is it that the Prime Minister would ask the EU27 to extend the article 50 deadline?
Sorry—I did not hear the beginning of my right hon. Friend’s question.
How likely is it?
I think everybody is now looking very clearly at the timetable that has already been set. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has expressed the view that we need to accelerate the progress because we need to get the agreement in place and the arrangements negotiated very speedily. We will be leaving on 29 March 2019.
Will the Prime Minister give a simple answer to a simple question? Will the working time directive be transposed and embedded into British law—yes or no?
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill brings the workers’ rights that are currently in EU law into UK law, which is why that sort of thing is a bit rich coming from Labour MPs who voted against bringing them into UK law.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the process evolves, the terms hard Brexit and soft Brexit seem increasingly redundant? The cocktail that the Prime Minister seems to have deployed—her personal pragmatism coupled with some rather good Tory common sense—seems to be winning the day. I encourage her to continue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As he may recall, I have said in this House before that I do not accept the terms hard Brexit and soft Brexit. We are negotiating the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister has agreed with me three times over the past year about the important role the European Parliament has in the negotiations, because it has the power of veto at the end of the day. Eighty-six MPs have signed a letter that urges the Prime Minister to address a plenary session of the European Parliament. When will she do that?
We have been in discussions with the President of the European Parliament about the interaction that I will have with that Parliament. I had hoped to be able to speak to the Conference of Presidents at the end of November, but unfortunately that proved not to be possible from a European Parliament point of view. Nevertheless, we are still discussing a date on which I can go, and I keep in regular contact with President Tajani.
Might I say what a fillip the good news from the Prime Minister and Mr Juncker on Friday gave to all the people I met around Taunton Deane over the weekend? It really did change the temperature. The businesses I spoke to do not want to be disrupted, so will the Prime Minister confirm that in the transition period they will be able to carry on trading as they do now, and that they will also be able to think about negotiating deals for when we leave?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. As I have said before, the point about the implementation period is to give that reassurance to businesses in particular that they will know the basis on which they can carry on trading. That is why we would expect the arrangements for the trading relationship during the implementation period to be much as they are now. Although we will be outside the customs union, the single market, the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, as I said earlier, we need to be able to continue to operate during the implementation period as we prepare for whatever the new arrangements are going to be at the end of that period.
Further to the Prime Minister’s answers to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), will she confirm that the implementation or transition phase will be exactly the same for Gibraltar as it will be for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?