House of Commons
Monday 21 May 2018
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—
Universal Credit: 2017 Budget Changes
I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend for his support in securing the Budget changes. We have increased advances, so claimants can receive up to 100% of their entitlement within days of a claim. We have removed waiting days, so the time to the first full payment is reduced, and we have given claimants an additional two weeks of housing benefit to provide extra support when they transition to universal credit.
I campaigned hard for those changes, along with Members on both sides of the House, and I am delighted that the Government listened and delivered. Does the Secretary of State have any information or feedback on how those changes are helping claimants on the ground?
People are moving on to universal credit now with a smoother transition. When on universal credit, they are getting into work quicker, staying in work longer and looking for more opportunities in work. They are also getting more personalised support through the claimant commitment, which is helping them whether they are in debt or need IT support. This is about developing universal credit to respond to people’s needs.
The modest changes in the Budget were welcome, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the recent research showing that food bank demand is growing much faster in areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out than it is elsewhere. Does she have substantial proposals to solve the very serious problems with this new benefit?
They were not modest changes; they were quite significant changes, made after listening to what people said on the ground and meeting various action groups on the ground to see what was needed. We listened and we changed, and that is why we have done a very slow roll-out. I meet some of the poverty action groups across the country on a weekly basis to ask what else can be done. All have welcomed the changes we have put in place and the record number of people we have now got into employment, but of course where we need to give debt support or advances, we will continue to do so.
With universal credit being fully rolled out in Erewash, can my right hon. Friend state how universal credit can impact the claimant count numbers and what can be done to explain like for like?
My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. Employment is going up and unemployment is going down, which is reflected in the numbers, but because this is a brand new benefit that takes on people in work and people out of work, we are seeing the number of people claiming double. We are now giving support and career progression to people in work, so we will see the claimant count increase and, in some areas, double.
Increased debt, job insecurity, rising stress, housing insecurity and unpredictability of income are all highlighted by Gingerbread as issues raised by single parents in receipt of universal credit, and it states that the Government need to go further. How does the Secretary of State plan to address those problems and the estimated 165,000 single parents of pre-school-age children who are highlighted by Gingerbread’s report as being at risk of poverty and debt from new universal credit conditionality?
As it is a brand new benefit, we are providing extra childcare support, which is needed by people with children and lone parents. We are also giving tailored support. The claimant commitment and the one-to-one relationship that people have with their work coach is about really understanding the needs of the individual. That is what we are doing to help people to get into a job, get a career and fulfil their job ambitions.
The Department for Work and Pensions has been forced recently to reveal that a fifth of universal credit claims are being turned down because claimants are not managing to negotiate the complex application process, meaning that thousands of people are falling out of the system. Claims must be made and managed online, even though, according to an OECD study, 40% of unemployed adults in England have low basic skills. Meanwhile, one in 10 jobcentres are being closed, removing face-to-face support from communities, and the Government are speeding up the roll-out of the full service yet again. What action are the Government taking to identify the factors leading to such a high level of failure?
Obviously, this benefit is not failing. That is why we are seeing extra support and why we are seeing record numbers of people in employment and record low unemployment. However, the hon. Lady is right to talk about the low IT skills that people have. Part of the universal support we are giving is to educate and to enable people because the IT skills they need to claim a benefit are the same IT skills they need to get a job and to get cheaper deals online. That is what we are providing. Again, if they are in debt, we are providing that personalised support. As we close some of the jobcentres, most important is the outreach work that we do. As we seek to help more people and some of the most difficult to help into work, we are doing outreach work through the flexible support fund.
Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit: Two-child Limit
The aim of the two-child limit is to strike the right balance between support for claimants and fairness to taxpayers who support themselves solely through work. The policy has been in effect only since April 2017 and statistics relating to its implementation will be published in due course.
The High Court recently found that the ordering restriction on the two-child limit for children in kinship care was unlawful. When are the Government going to introduce regulations to make sure that the law is in line with the Court judgment?
We welcome the High Court ruling, which showed that the policy is lawful. However, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: in terms of kinship carers, we are going to be making those changes. This will have to come about through regulations in Parliament and we will bring those forward shortly. I would point out that, as the Secretary of State made clear in her written statement, we will be making changes to include not just those in kinship arrangements, but children who are adopted and would otherwise be in local authority care.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely right that in our country someone should be able to have as many children as they want as long as they can support them, but it should not be that the taxpayer has to subsidise them?
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), the aim of this policy is to strike the right balance between support for claimants and fairness to taxpayers, but of course we do have exceptions in place, quite rightly.
When the Government came up with their two-child policy, did they seek any guidance or advice from China about its one-child policy?
I will just report that we have exceptions in place and of course this policy is ultimately about being fair both to claimants and to taxpayers.
Youth employment has risen by 150,000 since 2010 and now stands at 3.86 million. The UK has the third highest youth employment in the G7 and the proportion of all 16 to 24-year-olds in work or full-time education now stands at 85%.
Youth unemployment has fallen by 43% since 2010. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the work in Moray during Meaningful May, when 93 students have taken part in work placements, taking the total for this year to 330? Will she praise the 186 employers who have facilitated these projects and explain what further the Department is doing to get more young people into work?
I will indeed welcome the work that is being done in Moray not only by all the work coaches and the businesses there, but by my hon. Friend, who does so much in his local area. On top of that, Scotland has a different system in place, with the youth obligation traineeships supporting work experience, supporting sector-based work academies through Skills Development Scotland, and supporting and getting people excited about going into a job—excited about what they can do and what they can offer Scotland and the world.
Will the Secretary of State commit to raising the minimum wage for young people so that they are not subject to lower rates of pay, and to enacting a real living wage, as Labour will, so that this Government’s promise of making work pay is not an empty one?
Obviously, the hon. Lady will know that we have increased the living wage so that the lowest-paid workers have had the fastest wage increase in 20 years. That is what we are doing. What we will do—we are keeping this under constant review—is give support to young people. First and foremost, there are the apprenticeships, the traineeships, the work experience and the education we can give them, all of which are at record highs.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he does on the APPG. I know how important youth employment rates are to him and the group. It will either be me or one of my colleagues—perhaps we will all be there at the APPG once the work has been completed. We are putting the right building blocks in place for young people. It is about education. It is about that work experience. Many young people have never had work experience, so they do not have the soft skills. That is what we are trying to put in place and we would be delighted to go to the APPG.
The Tory party launched yet another policy group this morning. Is it not about time that these groups were given some serious work about how we really tackle youth unemployment, how we get more kids into real apprenticeships, and how we tackle child poverty, which is not going down?
I might not have said it enough today, so I will put it on the record again: youth unemployment is down 43% since 2010. The number of children not in education, employment or training is down 370,000 since 2010. That is what we are doing. We are providing the building blocks to support young people and to get them into a job, living independently. That is what a Conservative Government does—watch and learn!
Universal Credit: Household Debt
The Government have taken a number of steps to prevent problem debt, such as capping payday lending costs. We also have interest-free advances within universal credit, and a system of priority deductions to help claimants who are in arrears.
A recent Trussell Trust survey found that 70% of respondents were in debt as a result of the initial universal credit wait and more than half had experienced problems with their housing linked to debts and arrears. Advance payments simply stack up more debt, and food banks in areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out for more than a year have seen an average increase in need of 52%. The Secretary of State has it within her power to make further changes to universal credit to stop this avoidable hardship and distress now. Why will she not do so?
As the hon. Lady will know, a report that was published last year by the National Federation of ALMOs found that more than three quarters of tenants who started claiming universal credit were already in rent arrears. Other research shows that after four months on universal credit the number of claimants in arrears fell by a third. The key point is to make sure that we get help to individuals and that is precisely what the budget changes the Secretary of State has outlined do.
Could the Minister confirm whether, under universal credit, claimants are more likely to be in work within six months than they were under jobseeker’s allowance?
Yes, I can absolutely confirm that under universal credit claimants can get into work faster and stay in work longer than under the legacy system.
Universal Credit: Private Rented Sector Evictions
Housing benefit has been paid direct to tenants since 2008. Universal credit replicates that so we would not expect to see a change in landlord behaviour.
I am very disappointed with that answer because, having had meetings with a number of residents associations and landlords, I already know that the private sector is fairly loth to let houses to people on housing benefit. The same applies to universal credit, the reason being that the payment goes direct to the tenant. I urge the Government to at least have a default, if both sides agree, for the payments to be made to the landlord.
It is deeply disappointing when Members of this House trade their principles for perceived political advantage, as the hon. Gentleman seems to have done on universal credit, having of course previously been a strong supporter of the coalition Government’s reforms. He knows full well that direct payments to landlords are available. I have myself met the two most prominent residential landlord organisations very recently and, if he looked at the data, he would see that the proportion of working-age recipients of housing benefit and universal credit in the private rented sector seeking support has not really changed over the past 10 years.
It is reported that the Law Centres Network says cases are now common in which eviction proceedings come to court after the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to pay rent directly to the landlords of universal credit claimants, even though it says on a claimant’s journal account that a direct rent payment has been made. What action is DWP taking to address this issue as a matter of urgency?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have taken significant action to try to improve the situation upfront, not least by providing an additional two weeks of housing benefit for people transitioning to universal credit. People can receive a 100% advance and help with budgeting support, and of course a direct payment is available if landlord or tenant require it.
We understand the urgency of this matter and we remain on track to begin making the first payments in the summer. The exercise to identify claimants affected by the MH judgment will start as soon as we have made the changes to the guidance needed to implement the judgment. We are engaging with stakeholders to update the guidance and once guidance has been finalised I will further update the House.
Four months without even an update to Members of Parliament does not sound like the matter is being treated urgently by the Government. In January, when the Government were dragged here by an urgent question to give a statement on the court case they lost, the Secretary of State assured the House that, if I wanted to contact her to arrange a meeting to discuss a particular constituency case, her door was open and she would meet me. Six weeks after I wrote to ask for such a meeting, I got a letter back from a junior Minister saying the Secretary of State was not available to meet me. Will she apologise for breaking the promise she made to me and will she apologise on behalf of my constituents, and the constituents of other Members, who still do not know what the Government are doing to sort out this mess?
We have updated the House regularly. I published a list of frequently asked questions and placed it in the House of Commons Library on 28 March. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 17 April again offering a meeting and I have yet to hear a response. My door remains open and we are getting on with great urgency to begin the repayments as soon as possible.
From a PIP application being made to when an award is paid, what is the mode, the mean and the median waiting time?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I cannot answer with regards to the mode, the mean and the median, but I can tell him that the average waiting time at the moment is 12 weeks. We have worked very hard to bring down the waiting time so that people can get the support they need as soon as possible.
As PIP is the entrance to mobility allowance, will the Government join the Treasury Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee in asking for a full National Audit Office inquiry into what is ostensibly a really good benefit?
First, I would like to wish the right hon. Gentleman a very speedy recovery. I can see clearly that he has had an injury and I am sure I speak on behalf of all Members when I say that I hope he makes a very speedy recovery. We of course agree that it is really important that the NAO gets on with its work, but the Secretary of State will update the House shortly on progress.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that this very important exercise regarding PIP payments is not likely to require any new face-to-face assessments?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I can absolutely assure him that there will be no need for new face-to-face appointments or assessments.
I have been helping identical twins who have the same genetic condition, which involves learning disabilities and associated health problems. Both were assessed for PIP at different times by different assessors. One was granted PIP and one was rejected. The case has now been resolved, but can the Minister not see that the system is totally unfit for purpose and needs overhauling?
The very fact that the hon. Lady says the case has been resolved shows that the system is working. It is very important that we make the right decision first time. I have set in place a whole series of improvements to PIP. We have followed the advice given to us by the independent review of PIP and are working at pace to make the necessary changes.
As a result of the incorrect guidance produced by Independent Assessment Services, formerly Atos, in relation to daily living activity 6—help with dressing—will the Minister tell the House how she proposes to estimate the number of claimants who have been incorrectly assessed for PIP, and to identify the claimants affected, provide a correct assessment and pay all the arrears due?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question—we had a meeting last week where we discussed this case. The matter was brought to the Department’s attention by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in March. We have looked into the case and are absolutely assured that this is a one-off situation, but it is very important to me that we learn the lessons of how this happened. We are meeting the RNIB on Wednesday to see what further action we can take.
But does the Minister not accept that the wording of the correspondence that was produced by Independent Assessment Services—sent to her by a number of voluntary organisations, including the RNIB—suggests that the guidance has potentially been widely circulated among assessors, and that for contracted assessors to produce independent guidance on social security law without the Department’s knowledge suggests a serious problem with contract management?
I do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s questions. We are very clear that the personal independence payment assessment guide, which is published by the DWP and is on gov.uk, is the guidance that must be used by health professionals. The particular case was investigated and we have made sure that the procedures are in place to ensure that this does not happen again.
Young Disabled People: Help into Work
I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that I want us all to be as ambitious for disabled young people as we are for all young people, enabling them to fulfil their potential. We have a range of programmes to support the journey to work, including the young persons supported work experience programme, tri-work supported work experience and supported internships and apprenticeships.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that answer. Apprenticeships have proved to be a huge success story in Corby and east Northamptonshire, so what steps are the Department taking to help to encourage young disabled people to take up those opportunities and ensure that they are accessible to all?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents and it is great to see the number of people with learning difficulties or a disability starting an apprenticeship—it rose to 22,100 this year, 150 of whom are from Corby, which was a rise of 40 people on the year before. We want more employers to offer apprenticeships for disabled youngsters. The Department for Education has made adjustments to the maths and English standards and Access to Work is available.
Would the Minister care to explain to my disabled constituent how new claim rules for Access to Work justify requiring confidential contracts of and employment information about the disabled person’s personal assistant, and how do those square with the general data protection regulation?
The hon. Lady raises a very specific case. Of course, I will be very pleased to look into that, but let us be clear: Access to Work is providing invaluable support. It is enabling many more people with disabilities to play their full part in our society, including work. We have recently made a number of changes that have been widely welcomed.
When I ask young disabled people, “If you were the Minister, what would be your No. 1 priority?”, the answer is always to have an opportunity to work and, for some, to run their own business. The NESTA innovative technology fund was one of the most exciting ways to support disabled entrepreneurs, through prize money and matching them up with mentors. Will the Minister do all that she can to help to reinstate this important opportunity?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we should be as ambitious for disabled people as we are for anyone else, and that includes enabling them to set up their own business. He raises a particularly important scheme, but there have been other innovations through the employment allowance and the support that is available through Access to Work. Indeed, Microsoft has just launched a fantastic new fund of £25 million to help with assistive technology and people setting up businesses.
What assessment has the Department made of the impact of the abolition of the independent living fund on disabled young people?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, responsibility for the independent living fund was given to local authorities, which are very well placed to join up services in their communities to the benefit of all disabled people, including young disabled people.
The Department for Work and Pensions plays a vital role in social mobility, including by helping people to enter the labour market or to progress in work and earnings. The number of people in employment across the country is at a record 32.34 million, and that includes historically under-represented groups, among them disabled people. As a consequence, we have reduced the number of children living in workless households by 600,000.
Training opportunities are vital to boosting social mobility, because they help to get people into work. What is the Secretary of State doing to work with recruitment agencies, such as Prime Appointments in Witham, to enable more people to get into work, especially those in part-time work or on universal credit?
My right hon. Friend is living proof of social mobility—her family came here from Uganda, started a newsagents and expanded their business—and is right to ask: how can we get people into a job, and how can we help with recruitment and apprenticeships? I am working with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation to look at those opportunities and also with the Secretary of State for Education—that is where responsibility for apprenticeships is held, but we will do all we can to support my right hon. Friend.
In Stoke-on-Trent, one of the best ways of achieving social mobility is through our wonderful further education system, so will the Secretary of State please impress upon her colleagues at the Department for Education that properly funded further education, whether that be sixth-form colleges or other establishments, is needed and that they must make sure it is provided?
I will send the hon. Gentleman’s message to the Department for Education, but in this Department we do as much as we can, whether through traineeships or sector-based work academies, to support young people. It is about choice: do they want a job, an apprenticeship or further education?
Helping more carers to get into work and stay in work would certainly boost social mobility in the UK. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for coming to Shipley to visit Carers’ Resource. What progress has been made on developing a kitemark for employers to help more carers get into work and stay in work?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point: how do we best support carers, who do a vital job to support other people? When I visited his constituency and Carers’ Resource and met some of its carers, they told me they wanted a kitemark—they wanted to know which was a good business, who they could work for, who was deploying best practice. The Department of Health and Social Care is working on this with Carers UK, but we are also starting a new group between Departments, and I encourage Carers’ Resource to take part.
One of the hardest-to-reach groups of children are those living in kinship care with chaotic family relationships: one moment they might be with their real parents, the next they might be being looked after. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the children’s Minister to make sure they do not slip through the net?
The hon. Lady is right about kinship care and to ask how we can support kinship carers and those children, which is why I was pleased to be able to say that through tax credits we would be maintaining our vital support for kinship carers. I am more than happy to speak to other Ministers to ensure we give those children and families the best support we can.
Universal Credit: Victims of Domestic Violence
Universal Credit continues to support victims of domestic violence to claim benefits through a range of measures. These include special provisions for temporary accommodation and same-day advances. Work coaches will also signpost domestic violence victims to expert third-party support.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but the Government have still not committed to assessing the operation of split payments or collecting data. Will they commit to looking at specific areas of new universal credit roll-out, such as Leigh, which has also been highlighted as a hotspot by the local police, to ensure that we are adequately safeguarding victims?
Obviously we take domestic violence enormously seriously at the Department, and we certainly believe that we should play our part in detecting and seeking to combat it. We will keep the position under review. As we have said, we remain open-minded on the issue of split payments. If the Scottish Government proceed with their wish to introduce them, we will note what progress is made, and will review the issue in due course
Automatic Enrolment: Cheadle
Automatic enrolment is a cross-party success story, with more than 9.6 million workers enrolled in pensions saving and more than 1.2 million employers meeting their duties. Approximately 9,000 eligible jobholders have been automatically enrolled in my hon. Friend’s constituency, with 1,600 employers meeting their duties and supporting them.
Typically, the young are a difficult demographic to encourage to save early, as retirement seems a distant milestone to them. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage more people entering the workforce to stay in their workplace schemes to ensure that they have steady incomes when they retire?
My hon. Friend is right, and younger people agree with that. When NOW: Pensions carried out research, it found that only 4% of its 22 to 29-year-old members opted out. Our “Automatic enrolment review 2017” set out our plans to make saving the norm by lowering the age of automatic enrolment from 22 to 18. When an employee pays in, the employer pays in as well, and the Government pay in the tax relief.
Private Pensions: Windsor
Private pensions have been transformed by automatic enrolment, which is a social reform of which all Members should be proud. It involves behavioural economics and nudge theory. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, 30,000 eligible jobholders have been automatically enrolled and 2,310 employers have done their duties.
I am delighted with the Government’s progress in helping people to save for retirement, particularly through lifetime ISAs and workplace pensions. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the open banking initiative and the pensions dashboard, the FinTech industry can help to nudge people to save more and create greater competition in the private pensions sector?
The pensions industry can and should make the most of the opportunity presented by FinTech. We believe that if it is to succeed, it will be vital for industry and Government to collaborate in the development of the pensions dashboard. As others countries have shown, pensions dashboards are a fantastic way of giving people access to pension information in a clear and simple form, bringing together an individual’s savings in a single place online.
Well, the question was about Windsor, but the answer was broad and expansive in its scope. The hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin)—as befits a former constituency chairman of mine—is a keen young fellow, and I think that we should hear from him.
Young? You flatter me, Mr Speaker. I already had my excuse: I was going to say that we were all taking a close interest in the Windsor constituency at present. My particular interest, in relation to Windsor pensioners, is in the fact that they are being held back by a lack of knowledge about their pension provision. Does my hon. Friend agree that a properly constituted pensions dashboard would encourage pensioners to take their own fate in their hands, and would encourage accountability?
It is true that Windsor is the centre of the universe, and we should all congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan on their marriage at the weekend. It is also true that Windsor, and all parts of the United Kingdom, will benefit from the pensions dashboard. The internet has transformed travel, insurance and other businesses when they have gone online, and we believe that when the pensions industry comes out of the Victorian age and goes online, there will be great progress for everyone.
Attendance Allowance: Eligibility Criteria
Attendance allowance is available to those aged over 65, and entitlement is based on the ongoing need for frequent personal care and attention, or supervision, to ensure personal safety. The Government believe that the current long-standing qualifying rules for the allowance are working well. It is a popular benefit. Nearly 1.5 million people are currently receiving it, including 2,000 in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Before Christmas, I raised with the Prime Minister the case of Mr Walker from Great Harwood, in my constituency. Mr Walker was a fit and able pensioner until, at the age of 69, he was run over by a drunk driver. He is now quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down. He and his wife are struggling, and their Ford Fiesta is of no use whatsoever. He has been released from hospital, and he is not being given the help that he needs. Why is a previously fit and healthy 69-year-old man not entitled to the disability help that he needs—such as a Motability car—because of his age?
The hon. Gentleman recounts the truly tragic case of his constituent, and of course he will be able to apply for attendance allowance, but that is not the only support available. Clearly he will need support from the NHS and adult social care, where a range of support is available, and attendance allowance can be used on Motability aids as well.
PIP Assessors: Mental Health Awareness
Assessment providers write and deliver training for health professionals; this includes how to identify the impact of mental health conditions on claimants. We require providers to have mental health function champions who are available to provide advice and support. They must have at least two years’ full post-registration clinical experience in the management of the relevant conditions.
I suggest the Minister goes back and sees how that works in practice. A constituent came to see me recently about their personal independence payment assessment; they were asked during the course of the assessment why they thought their previous suicide attempts had not been successful. Does the Minister share my disgust at that cruel, inhumane and disgusting way of asking questions?
From the way the hon. Gentleman has presented that, of course I would unequivocally agree that it was totally unacceptable. The assessors are not given a script, and we expect them to treat everybody with utter respect and dignity.
On Friday I attended a simulated work capability assessment in Chelmsford and it was very helpful. What progress is my hon. Friend making to ensure that all assessments for employment and support allowance and PIP can be more regularly recorded so that those with mental health and other concerns have greater transparency?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend took the opportunity to visit her assessment centre; I am always happy to arrange these meetings so that hon. Members can see at first hand what is usually a very professional, very compassionate assessment. But of course we want to go further and make sure that every assessment is a good assessment, and recording is definitely part of our plans for improvement.
Some 75% of claimants in Wales who appealed against decisions to reduce or stop PIP were successful; that is 8,000 people in Wales who have needlessly worried about having payments stopped. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales were unavailable to comment on this at the Welsh Conservative conference on Friday, but can the Minister tell the House when the Government are going to get a grip on this situation?
Some 3.1 million PIP decisions have been made, and 9% of them have been appealed and 4% of those have been overturned. I am absolutely determined to make sure that we make the right decision every time; we should get it right the first time, and we have put in place a whole series of actions to make sure that that is the case.
The Secretary of State accepted that there was a failure of assessment of people with mental health conditions and said that this would be remedied, but we have been told by our job centre that guidance has not changed, and a young man who is suffering from appalling post-traumatic stress disorder in my constituency is still being treated as if he does not qualify. When will guidance actually change? We are still producing more injustices.
As I said in answer to an earlier question, we insist and make sure that the healthcare professionals undertaking the assessments are appropriately trained and have the right expertise, and the guidance is kept under constant review to make sure we get it right first time.
Pension Schemes: Fees and Charges
The Government recognise that customers need value for money, but lowest cost does not always mean best value. By working with the Financial Conduct Authority, we believe price transparency for trustees can drive effective competition and allow asset managers who can add value to thrive.
The Minister will recall my earlier question to him on 9 October last year, but is it not the case that all essentially private pension schemes, defined benefit or not, incur costs and uncertainties that significantly reduce benefits to savers, and the only way to minimise such costs is to establish a universal full-blown defined contributions and defined benefits state earnings-related pension scheme for all?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Financial Conduct Authority published the final rules in September 2017, and that independent governance committees on personal workplace pensions have had rules in force since January. On his discrete point, surely auto-enrolment, with 9.6 million people in this country signed up to it, and the enhanced state pension, which stands at over £1,250 more than in 2010, are the answers to his question.
Disabled People: Financial Support
There is a wide range of financial support available to disabled people who incur extra costs relating to their condition which welfare payments are not designed to meet. These include: Access to Work, disabled students allowances, disabled facilities grants, the disabled person’s bus pass and railcard, and VAT relief on certain items, goods and services.
I should like to thank the Government for instituting the bursary scheme for disabled parliamentary candidates; that is good news. On another matter, Scope, the charity supporting disabled people, has found that disabled people have £108,000 less in savings and assets, yet when they go to hospital—not out of choice, but because they have to—Scope finds that something like 50% of hospitals are still charging disabled people to park their cars. Will my hon. Friend lobby the Department of Health and Social Care to remove those charges and scrap hospital parking charges for all disabled people?
I am pleased to accept my right hon. Friend’s welcome for that good news; it is important that people seeking election should be supported in doing so. I am really pleased to announce today that we have created a new inter-ministerial working group to bring the full force of the Government behind ensuring that every disabled person in our country has the ability to reach their full potential. It is by working across Government that we will tackle issues such as the one that he has just raised.
I appreciate the hon. Lady bringing up that really important case. We will take it away and get back to her.
Further to our discussions in this House regarding Motability and my promise to seek a National Audit Office inquiry into it, I am pleased to announce that agreement has been reached and that the NAO will begin its inquiry into Motability.
I have a young constituent who has PKU, a rare inherited disorder that requires a strict diet and treatment for life. She had been in receipt of the disability living allowance, but now that she has turned 16, she has scored zero in every personal independence payment category. Will the Minister meet my constituent and me so that we can iron out this clear case of “the computer says no”?
I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Lady and to go through this constituency case with her.
We always aim to work constructively with the Scottish Government. Fair Start Scotland is a recent scheme that we are supporting proactively. My hon. Friend makes a point about changes. Introducing changes such as automatic split payments is a complex policy area, and we are having a detailed dialogue with the Scottish Government. There are currently many issues for the Scottish Government to resolve.
Of course, balls in court are always preferable to balls out of court. I am sure that that is a point with which the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) will be well familiar.
The Secretary of State has said that the pensions regulator had concerns about Carillion pension scheme deficits in 2014 but failed to act. The Government went on letting contracts to Carillion, despite repeated profit warnings, and failed to act. Do the Government recognise that the consequences of their failure to act include the biggest-ever hit on the Pension Protection Fund—£800 million—and many thousands of pensioners losing out on their pensions?
It was a Labour Government who created the Pensions Regulator in 2004, and I think we can all agree that there are lessons to be learned from Carillion and other recent high-profile cases. However, there are two options. We either try to discredit an organisation and run it down or—this is my choice—support the regulator, give it the further powers that we set out in detail in the defined benefit pension schemes White Paper and stress that the vast majority of employers do right by their employees.
The DB White Paper proposes criminal charges for directors who neglect their duties. Would Carillion’s directors go to jail under the proposed changes to the law? If not, why not?
I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman as we steer the DB White Paper into legislation, but the legislation is looking at the future—it is not necessarily retrospective.
Ahead of the roll-out, my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre will speak to local partners, such as the local authority and Citizens Advice, to ensure that claimants are supported as they come on to universal credit. My officials and I will host an induction session tomorrow for all colleagues who have UC rolling out in their area in the near future, so I hope that he will join us.
Being able to walk 20 metres is an essential part of the PIP assessment process, yet Ministers have told me in written answers that they do not have a policy for their assessment centres to have parking within 20 metres, nor do they know which centres have such a facility. Indeed, the centre that I visited recently had double yellow lines outside. Given that not everyone has access to a home assessment, what would the Minister say to somebody who turns up for an assessment and cannot walk to the door?
That is not only totally unacceptable, but absolutely unnecessary. When people are invited to come along for their assessment, there is an opportunity to talk about their mobility needs to ensure that the centre is totally accessible for them. Each centre must comply with the equality responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and people are also offered home visits.
I can confirm that. Since 2010, three quarters of the growth in employment has been in full-time roles, nearly 70% of employment has come from high-skilled work and, in the north-west, 227,000 more people are in work and unemployment has fallen by 141,000.
We have worked closely with a range of stakeholders, including the Multiple Sclerosis Society, to develop a series of severe conditions criteria, which mean that people will not be asked for face-to-face reassessments. Wherever possible, we will make decisions based on the paper-based evidence that is provided. We are also working carefully to ensure that those same criteria are applied to PIP assessments.
I of course congratulate Harlow College, but I also thank my right hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he does to promote employment both here and in his constituency.
It is well worth pointing out that the vast majority of people go through the process and get the support they need, and many more people are receiving higher-level support under PIP than under disability living allowance. However, when I hear of cases such as that, something has clearly gone amiss, so I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.
The Child Maintenance Service is working hard to improve its recovery efforts and will be increasing the number of individuals assigned to the financial investigations unit. The Child Maintenance Service is working much more closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to make sure that we have as full a picture as possible of people’s earnings and to ensure that people take responsibility for their children.
Dupuytren’s contracture, or miner’s claw, as it is commonly known, is a progressive condition that causes the fingers gradually to curl up, occasionally requiring amputation. It is a very common disease among former miners, and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has made it clear to the DWP that there is a link between the use of percussive tools and miner’s claw. Why has the Secretary of State chosen to ignore that expert advice, and will she explain why the condition has not been added to the industrial injuries disablement benefit list of conditions?
I am working very closely with the independent advisory board, which advises on which conditions should go on to the list for which people can receive severe disability payments. My meetings with the board are ongoing.
A small number of my constituents do not have the digital skills or the equipment to be able to process their universal credit online. What is the Department doing to help them?
Ninety-nine per cent. of universal credit claims are made online, and those who need support to gain basic digital skills are offered digital support as part of our universal support offering.
When people apply to go on to universal credit their existing ESA remains in place, so it might be that Lucy was coming up for her regular periodic assessment. It is really important to us that people get the right support but, of course, I will happily meet the hon. Lady to look into this case.
A number of my constituents have reported difficulty with the Child Maintenance Service on issues such as undeclared income and missing payments. What is being done to ensure that complaints about the CMS are dealt with in a timely manner?
It is typical of my hon. Friend that the welfare of children in his constituency should be uppermost in his mind. As I said previously, we are putting significant extra resources into the financial investigations unit and into making sure we are able to track down as much of the income as possible of parents who should be paying for their children. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I recently instituted monthly meetings with the Child Maintenance Service to ensure that it lives up to the high standards of customer service that we expect.
Of course I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady urgently, because she raises a terrible case. [Interruption.] Let us remember that the vast majority of people claiming ESA or PIP get a really good service and get the benefits to which they are entitled.
According to The Guardian on Saturday, a report shows that the share of employees who are officially classified as low paid has fallen to 18%, the lowest level since 1982. Does that not show the Conservative party is the party of getting more people into work and ensuring they remain in work? What will the Government do to ensure that that continues?
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who does so much for her constituents, is spot on. The report was published by the Resolution Foundation. Over the past eight years, we have got a record number of people into work—we have got 3.24 million more people into work. That was step one. Step two was increasing the pay of the lowest paid, which we have done. Step three has to be about career progression and moving up the ladder, and that is what we will now be doing.
Atos staff are being asked to squeeze extra assessments into their working day, and one constituent had her assessment cancelled several times because the assessors were ill. The two things are clearly linked, so how will the Minister change the system to ensure that staff are not made ill by the job and people like my constituent can get their cash?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As part of the contract process, we ask healthcare professionals to make sure that they provide a high-quality service. Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions monitor those contracts carefully. We do not ask for extra appointments to be squeezed in.
A recent report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions showed that there are massive gains to be made by deploying assistive technology to help people with disabilities into work. What are the Minister and her Department doing to extend this technology to people who need it?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. I am pleased that we have got more than 600,000 people with disabilities into work in the past four years, and assistive technology plays an incredibly important part in that. I have recently announced changes to the tech fund in the Access to Work programme, removing barriers so that people have access to assistive technology, and there is much more that we want to do.
The loss of the protected places scheme is likely to have a devastating impact on disabled workers, particularly in my constituency, where Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries employs 250 people, half of whom have a registered disability. What has the Minister done to assess the impact this move will have on disabled workers?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman asked that question, because this was totally misreported in The Times today; we are not going to close down any organisation at all that is supporting disabled people into work. I have been in ongoing discussions with the sector to make sure not only that we have the existing scheme, but that it is enhanced and mainstreamed into a new, improved programme.
May I ask the relevant Minister whether I have got this clear, because I thought that this understanding was given to Parliament: where someone appeals against the loss of their personal independence payment, their Motability car will not be taken away from them until the decision is made by the independent tribunal? Have I got that right?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. If somebody has appealed their PIP decision, they can keep their car.
Unemployment in my constituency now stands at 7.1%, which represents an increase of 1,200 on this time last year. What is the Department doing to support people into decent, well-paid and secure employment?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have record levels of employment across the country. There are more than 800,000 vacancies in the economy and help is available at jobcentres, with one-to-one personalised support.
Will the Minister consider changing how budgeting loans are administered, as they currently do not take into account personal debt and so, ironically, can make budgeting harder?
Budgeting loans are indeed available, but under universal credit we also have budgeting advances. If my hon. Friend has any specific cases she wishes to raise, I would be happy to talk to her about them.
Constituents who cannot afford a driving licence or a passport cannot do an initial online verification of their universal credit claim, meaning that they have to wait up to two weeks in order to be seen for a personal appointment. That is driving people to see loan sharks in some cases, so will the Minister look at it?
I will look at it, but if the hon. Lady would come forward with specific cases, that would make it easier.
Between 2010 and 2017, the basic state pension rate rose by £1,250. What will the Minister do to ensure that pensioners in my constituency continue to be protected and looked after by this Government?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the state pension has been enhanced and increased; the new state pension has gone up to £164-plus. There is fantastically good news on auto-enrolment in her constituency, and I will write to her with the specific details.
My constituent was called back early for a PIP assessment, which made no reference to the fact that he has an inoperable brain tumour, which has led to his having intractable epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Can the Minister explain why he was recalled for an assessment?
I am sure the whole House will appreciate that without looking at the details of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s case, it is impossible to do that. As I have explained, the process is designed to treat people with compassion, accurately looking at the medical evidence that it is presented, alongside their assessment of their conditions.
My hon. Friend the pensions Minister is doing a lot of work on auto-enrolment for the self-employed. Has he looked specifically at the so-called worker category, in which a person might do their self-employed work for one large firm that could, with willing and regulatory help, roll them into its employee scheme?
I would be delighted to take up that specific example and will definitely take it forward. I remind my hon. Friend that 12,000 people have been auto-enrolled in his constituency.
The latest quarterly figures show that in Coventry, 81% of PIP, 76% of ESA, 83% of income support and 100% of jobseeker’s allowance appeals heard by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service were decided in favour of the appellant. Does the Minister accept that the high proportion of successful appeals highlights the flawed nature of the DWP’s decision-making processes?
It is really important to put all those numbers in context. Let us be absolutely clear: we want to make sure that we make the right decision the first time and we are working really hard to make sure that that is the case. We have recently recruited 150 presenting officers, who now work in the courts, providing invaluable feedback so that we can improve the situation.
I recently had the privilege of attending a Disability Confident event in Ayrshire. What more can the Government do to encourage or incentivise employers to invest in disabled young talent?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading a Disability Confident event. Disability Confident is growing from strength to strength. The most recent numbers show that more than 6,500 employers have signed up. Of the largest companies in the country, more than a quarter of the workforce is covered. Each year, we see more people with disabilities go into work. We are utterly determined to close the disability employment gap and get a million more people with disabilities into work.
Finally, I call Ms Angela Eagle.
My constituent of working age suffered two strokes and has now been diagnosed as suffering from vascular dementia. He has been found to be fit for work, even though he has major problems with his short-term memory. He will have to appeal the decision and faces a wait of up to 30 weeks before he gets any kind of hearing or has his benefit restored. How can this possibly be a system that is working or acceptable?
I would of course be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through the specifics of that case.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a point of order that flows from his question, and therefore exceptionally I will take it now.
Earlier, in response to my question, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) indicated that I said one thing during the coalition and another thing post-coalition on the issue of rent payments to private landlords. The Under-Secretary was not a Member of Parliament at that time, so he will not know that I am on the record, both as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee and with the then Secretary of State, as having consistently opposed throughout the coalition the idea of paying direct payments to tenants and not to private sector landlords.
I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his perspicacity in raising the point of order, and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of the gravamen of it. If everybody in the Chamber was not previously conscious of the particular stance taken on this matter by the hon. Gentleman over a sustained period, they all are now. I do not cavil at the hon. Gentleman, but in fairness to the Minister—this is why I think no response is required—my sense of the subject was that the Minister’s critique was collective, rather than applying exclusively or in particular to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that that reassures him. He can reassure the good people of Eastbourne that he has volunteered his views with force and alacrity, and they are on the record.
Tower Block Cladding
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the action taken and planned by the Government with respect to residents in tower blocks with dangerous cladding, following the Grenfell Tower fire.
We are remembering those who lost their lives in the tragedy at Grenfell Tower today as the public inquiry opens. I know this will be an incredibly difficult time for all those affected. The whole House will join me, I am sure, in sending them our thoughts and prayers. I am determined to ensure that no community suffers again as they have done.
To that end, in the days since the fire, my Department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding; to ensure that interim measures are in place to reduce risks; and to give building owners clear advice about what they need to do over the longer term to make buildings safe. Remediation work has started on two thirds of buildings in the social housing sector, and we have called on building owners in the private sector to follow the example set by the social sector and not pass on costs to leaseholders. I will be holding the first roundtable with representatives from the private sector this week and repeat what I said last week: if the industry does not step up, I am not ruling anything out.
My predecessor and the then Home Secretary asked Dame Judith Hackitt to carry out an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. I welcomed her final comprehensive report last week, which called for major reform. Having listened carefully to the arguments for banning combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings, the Government are minded to agree and will consult accordingly.
In addition, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding on buildings owned by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million. I will be writing to social sector landlords this week setting out more detail.
It is vital that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe and feel safe. I am confident that the work we are undertaking and the important reforms triggered by the Hackitt review will help to restore confidence and provide the legacy that the Grenfell communities need and deserve.
As the Secretary of State has said, on this first day of the commemoration hearings at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, we remember the 72 people who lost their lives. We will not forget our special duty as Members of Parliament to do right by them, so it is a matter of deep regret that I must drag Ministers to Parliament again to explain their response to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
The Government have been off the pace at every stage since the fire. More than eleven months on from Grenfell, how is it that two thirds of Grenfell survivors are still in hotels or temporary accommodation? How is it that the Government still do not know how many private tower blocks are unsafe? How is it that only seven out of more than 300 tower blocks across the country with the same Grenfell-style cladding have had it removed and replaced? How can it be that Ministers offered money to councils and housing association landlords for re-cladding costs and finally agreed to consult on a combustible cladding ban only last week?
Many people will have learned only yesterday that the London fire service has fundamentally changed its safety advice to residents in blocks still wrapped with the same Grenfell-style cladding. In place of “stay put” if a fire breaks out—strong advice given for decades to all residents in all tower blocks across the country, including those in Grenfell Tower—the London fire brigade now says “get out” directly. Do all fire brigades now give the same advice? Do all residents in all blocks with unsafe cladding know that? I say to the Minister that more action, more clarity and more urgency are required from the Government.
When will the Secretary of State publish a clear national statement on evacuation policy? When will he confirm when all tower blocks be re-clad? When will he get sprinklers retrofitted—the Opposition and fire chiefs have argued that they are needed? When will he make public the location, ownership and fire safety status of all high-rise blocks at risk? The information is held by the Government, but Ministers are keeping it secret. We know that the Secretary of State knows—he is the new Secretary of State—that more action and greater urgency is needed. When will we get it?
May I underline what I said in my opening comments about the importance of remembering and reflecting on the very moving testimony that has already been provided in the public inquiry? It is right that all those affected are able to share their memories of those who lost their lives and, indeed, that there should be no time limit on that process. We all need to reflect extremely carefully on the testimony given.
The right hon. Gentleman raises many points, a number of which we dealt with last week during the debates on Grenfell Tower and during my statement on the Hackitt report. He knows that I have been very clear about wanting to speed up the process, which is why I said last week that it is not a question of waiting for the final recommendations to be fully implemented, and it is why I took the steps that I did in relation to combustible cladding and other issues such as the use of desktop studies. I have outlined that although the consultation on desktop studies closes later this week, I will obviously not hesitate to ban them if they cannot be used safely.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the advice from the fire authorities. Obviously, we are guided by the National Fire Chiefs Council on these matters, and the London fire brigade has given its advice in that regard. He mentions sprinklers. I would underline the points that I made last week—that is, we have given certain advice regarding the provision of sprinklers on new blocks of over 30 metres in height, but for existing buildings it is for the building owner to decide. As Dame Judith Hackitt rightly pointed out in her report, no single fire safety measure, including sprinklers, can be seen as a panacea.
I have already outlined the further steps that we are taking regarding remediation. We gave further instructions to local authorities last week to further empower them to take action in respect of identifying buildings. There is no lack of urgency on my part or on the part of my Department when it comes to moving forward with addressing these issues and underlining and recognising the serious concerns that have been expressed. Equally, I have underlined our desire to do the right thing in relation to fire safety. We will be taking the actions that I outlined last week and underlined again today to ensure that we are following this through and pursuing it rigorously.
Order. There is considerable interest in this matter, as I would have anticipated, and which I shall endeavour to accommodate, but it might help the House if I advise colleagues that I do not want to run this urgent question at great length. There is another to follow; there will be many further opportunities to debate Grenfell; and of course we have other important business of which to treat. Succinctness personified would be appreciated and could be aided by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) if he were standing, but it will not be because he is not.
But it will be, because he now is.
What can be done to encourage developers to follow the example of Barratt?
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight that Barratt has done the right thing by saying that it will not be passing costs on to leaseholders. It is outrageous that many have acted in the way in which they have by not participating. I am this week hosting the first roundtable to consider the next steps. As I said, I am not ruling anything out.
I welcome the comments of right hon. and hon. Members across the House that no stone will be left unturned in delivering justice for the victims affected by this tragedy. I also welcome the news that the inquiry has opened today and that the necessary lessons will be learnt. As we approach the one-year anniversary, we need to look at all necessary regulation changes and the implementation of pre-emptive systems. Will the Secretary of State confirm that these will be planned and that the review of all at-risk buildings will be included?
Obviously, we have taken steps to identify at-risk buildings. As I pointed out, we set out a further direction last week aimed at local housing authorities in England. We want to support them in their work through that statutory declaration. There are some local authorities that still have more work to do, which is why we have committed a sum in the order of £1.3 million to support local authorities to move as swiftly as possible to identify buildings and see that remediation takes place.
If we are banning the cladding, which is absolutely right, are we also banning bad work practices to ensure that all installations and all retrofittings are of an acceptable standard, so that there is no compromise with regard to the new cladding put on?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, because it touches on some of the issues in the Hackitt review about a culture change—a culture shift—across the whole sector in terms of the standards that should be applied. That is why I am determined that we will pursue this rigorously and follow through on the recommendations that Dame Judith Hackitt has given.
Last week, the Select Committee welcomed the Secretary of State’s decision to consult about banning all combustible material from the cladding on tower blocks. May I ask him, once again, whether he has given further thought to banning the material on existing blocks as well as on new blocks and refurbishment works? If he is minded to do that, does he accept that the Government would then have a responsibility to compensate building owners for the effects of building regulations that were changed retrospectively?
I welcome the action of the Select Committee in this regard. We are obviously working at pace to move forward with the consultation, which is intended to be forward-looking. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point about building regulations that could only speak to the existing timescale. There is also an issue, which comes through very clearly in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, about the risks of these sorts of systems and why these building owners need to take their responsibilities extremely seriously.
As a former firefighter and Fire Minister myself, I am really pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that we should immediately, as soon as this report allows us to, ban combustible cladding. That is something that we could do. One thing that we could easily do tomorrow morning is to make sure that there are heat-seeking cameras on every appliance that goes out to any incident in the country. That would provide the opportunity to make sure that there are no hotspots, which could mean that this sort of fire could have been put out much earlier.
My right hon. Friend touches on broader issues of appliances. There is also an issue in relation to electrical safety. Some colleagues may be familiar with some of the building regulations standards in that respect. The Government are continuing to work with the British Standards Institution on a revised standard that is due to be published in July.
While last week’s announcement of money to replace unsafe cladding on social housing is welcome, that still leaves a lot of private blocks, including in my constituency, where leaseholders are facing potentially a very large cost and great uncertainty about when the work will be done. Since the Government’s policy is that those who own the freehold should pay, will the Secretary of State now introduce a low-interest, long-payback loan scheme so that the work can be done and my constituents, and everybody else’s, can get peace of mind at last?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting the really essential issue of private sector leaseholds, where I have made the points that I have. That is why I will be hosting a roundtable this week, with a further roundtable to follow, to inform next steps. I hear what he has said, and all I can say to him at this stage is that I have not ruled anything out.
I welcome the £400 million that the Government have put forward to help remove unsafe cladding. What advice would the Secretary of State give to housing associations on accessing this fund so that they can bring the work forward very quickly?
Like my hon. Friend, I would like the funds to be available quickly. That is why we will be writing out to relevant agencies later this week with further details. This about prioritising the funding becoming available to relevant housing associations and local government, and we will take action this week.
I have just come from the Grenfell inquiry, which began this morning. One of the survivors said to me, “If it was thought that combustible cladding was responsible for the fire and it had to come down, why is not banned?” Can the Secretary of State give some timetable on when combustible cladding will finally be banned?
I understand and hear very clearly the call that has been made. There are certain statutory obligations to consult under the Building Act 1984. That is why I have said that I am minded to make this change, subject to the consultation. My officials are working at pace in relation to getting that consultation out, because I hear the very clear message that the right hon. Gentleman is giving about the urgency of this.
What confidence can I give to my constituents who work in tall buildings that they will be as safe at work as people who live in tall buildings?
Obviously it is for all building owners to ensure that they are taking appropriate steps. We know that interim measures are in place. As I said to my hon. Friend last week, Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations are focused on residential accommodation of 10 storeys and above, but she has said that some of her recommendations may have a broader application, and we will consider that as part of the consultation.
I welcome the launch of this inquiry. The Secretary of State will be aware that the fire was started by a faulty piece of electrical equipment. Given that recall of these sorts of products is currently only running at around 20%, what further action can the Government take to ensure that faulty products are fully recalled?
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy effectively leads on that issue, and we will continue to work in conjunction with it, to work with industry and to support action, so that all fire safety issues are at the forefront.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in Edgware in my constituency, Premier House was recently converted from an office block into residential property, but unfortunately the cladding has remained. Many of my constituents who saved up to buy a property there find themselves in a situation where the owners of the building want to charge them for removal of the cladding. I hear the point that was made about a low-interest scheme, but does my right hon. Friend agree that leaseholders should be afforded the same protection as tenants and not have to pay for that out of their own pocket?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes on leaseholders. Obviously there are legal relationships, but that is why I have underlined the need for us to take further action and to have the initial meetings that I have set out. I have been pretty clear in my view.
The “stay put” policy has been a recognised element of fire safety for a long time, and those of us who have thousands of residents in high-rise towers in our constituencies now want clarity from the Government. My understanding is that the London fire brigade has changed its policy for blocks with particular types of cladding, but are residents expected to know what kind of environment they are living in before deciding whether to stay put or to leave? What will the Government do about that to ensure that there is total clarity, from tonight, to guide people?
I understand the concern that the hon. Lady raises. Obviously that advice would normally come from the National Fire Chiefs Council. The London fire brigade has made that specific alteration. I will take further advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council and ensure that we report back to the House as a matter of urgency.
Does the Secretary of State share my surprise that the Hackitt review did not look in detail at the building regulations? Does he accept the need for urgent revision of the building regulations and clarity on them, particularly with regard to combustible materials, and will he set out the process and timescale for that review?
Dame Judith has set out a whole review of the system, end to end, and has taken a comprehensive stance. As I said in my statement last week, I intend to update the House before the summer on next steps. Knowing that certain issues will require legislation and others will not, I want to get on with it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a real issue of enforcement here and that self-regulation, especially in competitive industries such as construction, simply will not work? I suspect that that is what Dame Judith Hackitt was getting at in her report. Given austerity cuts, can he assure the House that enforcement will be strengthened, so that as the regulations are changed, they bite and have an effect?
The hon. Lady is right to point out what Dame Judith Hackitt says in that regard—she certainly underlines the need for stronger enforcement, and indeed criminal sanctions in a number of cases. That will be subject to consultation, as I indicated last week, and we will review carefully the submissions that we receive.
I welcome the tone of the Secretary of State’s responses, but can he say a bit more about the issue of desktop studies? I think many people find it very surprising that there can be a desktop study to see whether something will be safe in such a large building.
In her interim report, Dame Judith Hackitt recommended that the Government should significantly restrict the use of so-called desktop studies. We have accepted that recommendation, and we are consulting on significantly restricting or banning the use of desktop studies. As I have already said, the inappropriate use of such studies is unacceptable, and I will not hesitate to ban them if the consultation does not demonstrate that they can be used safely.
What advice does the Secretary of State have for landlords who are replacing cladding now? Perhaps the reason why only seven blocks have been re-clad is that landlords do not know what to do. Given that he has said he is minded to ban combustible cladding, why does he not put in place a provisional ban and advise landlords to use only non-combustible materials?
There are legal restrictions on me in terms of my obligations under the Building Acts to consult on changes to building systems and regulation. However, I underline that, as Dame Judith points out, the safest approach is to use non-combustible materials, and that is the very clear advice.
The Select Committee had an opportunity to review Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and to question her on it. One of the clear issues is legislative change, as my right hon. Friend has mentioned. Will he set out whether that is primary or secondary legislation, and what the timeframe is for the process we will have to go through, because decisions need to be made?
The end-to-end approach that Dame Judith recommends in her report will require primary legislation and secondary legislation. That is why I have said I will come back to the House before the summer recess to advise on the next steps, with a comprehensive response in the autumn. I made a commitment to primary legislation on Thursday, and I believe that is what is required, but it is a question of getting it right.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many private blocks have combustible cladding, and what sanctions will be imposed on companies that are passing on costs to leaseholders? He has mentioned not ruling anything out, so will he provide some specifics to reassure our constituents who are living in those blocks?
I can tell the hon. Lady that the latest figures I have are that 304 buildings have ACM cladding systems that the expert panel advises are unlikely to meet current building regulations: 158 are social housing buildings; 14 are public buildings, including hospitals and schools; and 132 are in the private sector, of which 101 are private residential buildings. Obviously, it is a question of the private residential side stepping up to the mark, and owners may well be taking interim measures. However, a sense of urgency needs to be applied, which is why I have mentioned the steps for getting on with making sure that leaseholders do not have to meet such a liability and that building owners meet their obligations.
I note that remedial work is under way on two thirds of public sector blocks where there is unsafe cladding, but what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that the final third are dealt with as quickly as possible?
It is important that we see the public sector estate dealt with as quickly as possible. Obviously, the additional funding of £400 million that the Prime Minister announced last week will go towards supporting that activity. Equally, there is an important point about the other things that may not be being focused on at the moment. Indeed, there is the actual supply side of more affordable homes and other building costs that might not otherwise receive the same focus.
What are the Government doing to ensure that residents of these high-risk buildings are made aware of the new arrangements about leaving in the case of a fire? Eight months since the change of policy there, residents of the privately owned Blenheim block in Hounslow have still not been given evacuation instructions or had a fire drill, and the only people who left the building when several fire engines turned up at one of several recent fires were the paid fire marshals.
I would certainly be interested in receiving further details from the hon. Lady about the case she highlights, because it is important that advice is followed and that appropriate steps are taken. I will certainly look into the issues she raises.
There is an increasing trend for modern high-rise buildings to contain a mix of office, retail, hospitality and residential offerings. Will he ensure that sufficient attention is therefore paid to building regulations on all such buildings?
This goes to the general point highlighted by Dame Judith Hackitt in her report about the need for a culture change, and a culture shift across the board on the responsibilities we all hold. That is why I think the report was a watershed moment.
The Secretary of State was good enough to agree to investigate why, the best part of a year on, Birmingham’s 10,000 households and 213 tower blocks are waiting for the Government to honour their pledge to provide financial support to make them safe. A sense of urgency is now absolutely vital, so I ask the Secretary of State: how many more weeks or months will they have to wait?
I committed to working with the hon. Gentleman in respect of Birmingham, and I hope that he recognises the announcement last week about additional funding. The point is that it is retrospective. I hope that will give him some assurance, but I will continue to pursue it with the urgency he asks for.
There is no enforceable legal obligation on builders, freeholders or insurance companies to pay for the removal of flammable cladding from private sector blocks, which means that the cladding will remain in place. Leaseholders feel that they are being hung out to dry and that their safety is being disregarded. If the Government believe that they can enforce a moral obligation, why do they not pay to take the cladding down, keep people safe and recover the funds from whoever they believe is responsible for paying for it?
I do not want to let the private sector off the hook for its responsibilities. That is why in the time for which I have been Secretary of State I have underlined my commitment and why I will be talking to industry this week and next to underline that clear message. I can then consider the right next steps to ensure that this is followed through with that intent.
The Secretary of State and his predecessor have repeatedly said that they wish to see essential fire safety works completed in tower blocks across the country, yet across the country councils are saying that sprinklers are the essential fire safety works that can save residents’ lives in the future. In several cases, they have been told that the Government do not consider sprinklers to be essential. No funding for sprinklers has been provided by the Government. Will the Secretary of State explain how that is consistent with the Government’s stated commitment to do everything possible to ensure that another catastrophic tower block fire cannot happen and will he think again about funding for sprinklers?
Sprinklers can be an effective fire safety measure, but they are one of many such measures that could be adopted. As Dame Judith Hackitt points out in her report, no fire safety measure, including sprinklers, could be seen as a panacea, as I highlighted earlier. We have obviously set out clear advice about new blocks over 30 metres, and for existing buildings it is for the building owner to decide, based on risk, the appropriate safety measures to take.
A study by the Association of British Insurers found that standard UK fire safety testing fails properly to assess risk. Why has the Secretary of State refused to initiate a large-scale programme of testing of suspected combustible cladding other than cladding made of aluminium composite materials?
Obviously, we have seen this issue with ACM material. We will continue to reflect on this in the light of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report. There are other issues as well. I made a written ministerial statement on fire doors and issues that have been highlighted in that regard, including on how we intend to follow through with further testing on fire doors to ensure that there are no further issues across the sector.
A year on, the NHBC is yet to conclude whether the New Capital Quay development in Greenwich was or was not compliant with building regulations at the time of construction. What can the Secretary of State do in such cases to ensure that warranty providers wrap up their assessments and determine claims as a matter of urgency?
I am happy to look into the specific issue of New Capital Quay. If the hon. Gentleman will send some more details, I will certainly investigate to establish the facts, the issues and what further action can be taken.
Gaza: UN Human Rights Council Vote
(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the decision of the UK Government to abstain from voting on the resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council held on 18 May, calling for an independent investigation into recent violence in Gaza.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question.
We abstained on calls for a commission of inquiry into recent violence in Gaza during the UN Human Rights Council session on Friday. The substance of the resolution was not impartial and it was unbalanced. We could not support an investigation that refused to explicitly examine the action of non-state actors such as Hamas. An investigation of that kind would not provide us with a comprehensive assessment of accountability. It would risk hardening positions on both sides and move us further away from a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, the United Kingdom continues to fully support the need for an independent and transparent investigation into recent events. We call directly on Israel to carry out a transparent inquiry into the Israeli Defence Forces’ conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence. We believe this investigation should include international members. We urge that the findings of such an investigation be made public, and, if wrongdoing is found, that those responsible are held to account. The Foreign Secretary stressed the importance of Israel conducting an independent investigation when he spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on 16 May.
Last Tuesday, the Minister assured the House that he endorsed calls for an international, independent and transparent inquiry into the appalling events unfolding in Gaza, yet when United Nations Human Rights Council resolved on Friday to set up a commission of inquiry to undertake precisely that kind of investigation, the UK failed to join 29 partner countries and instead abstained from the vote. The Government alleged that, as the Minister said today, the UN Human Rights Council resolution was “partial, and unhelpfully unbalanced”. May I remind the Minister that the remit of the UN inquiry is to investigate
“all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law”
and that it calls on Israel and “and all relevant parties” to co-operate fully with the inquiry? That includes Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as Israel. Which bit of the resolution and the remit do Ministers not understand?
May I put it to Minister that the Government’s feeble response to last week’s events in Gaza only encourages the culture of impunity that the Government of Israel too regularly display these days, apparently believing that whatever they do, they will in practice never be held to account? Will the Minister confirm that now the UN Human Rights Council has made its decision, the UK Government will get behind it? What consequences should follow if Israel, or anybody else, either refuses to co-operate with the inquiry or is otherwise found to be in breach of international law?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing this matter.
I draw attention to the detail of the resolution, which names the state of Israel in many cases right the way through. That follows a clear demonstration by the UN Human Rights Council in the past of a biased view towards Israel. I think it was the general nature of the resolution, clearly specifying Israel as opposed to any other, that caused concern. We of course were not alone. This is not a matter on which the United Kingdom is alone. There were 14 other abstentions, including by four other EU members, so it is not a question of the United Kingdom taking one view on this; it is a question of other states believing that if we want to get to the truth, it will have to be done another way.
I said last week, and I repeat, that we want an independent and transparent inquiry. The House has heard me say again today that if it is carried out by Israel, it must have an international element to it. It is very clear that if it is done solely by the Israeli legislative and judicial system, it is unlikely to carry the sort of confidence that the international community is looking for. That is what we will continue to press for, but this resolution in itself will not do the job we all want to see.
Order. Many hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye on this important matter, as could have been anticipated. I am keen to accommodate demand up to a point, but as in respect of the previous urgent question I do not wish to run this at inordinate length. There is other important business to which we must attend, so I am looking to move on after approximately half an hour from the start of exchanges. Pithy questions, pithy answers and we will maximise participation.
I very much welcome the Government’s decision not to back a resolution that was one-sided and biased against Israel. Will the Minister urge the UNHRC to desist from adopting these heavily one-sided resolutions as they have done so many times in the past?
I thank my right hon. Friend. We have made our position clear about the HRC on a number of occasions. We have expressed concern that elements of the HRC’s work have been clearly biased against Israel and that detracts from the other good work that it does. We will continue to maintain that position, but equally, if this inquiry is not the right vehicle, there must be another.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing it. I join him in welcoming the independent UN investigation into violence in Gaza. While we have already heard debate about the wording of the resolution agreed by the Human Rights Council, I have to say, as I did last week, that that debate is frankly immaterial as long as the objective of setting up an independent investigation is achieved.
The issue today is why the British Government, which claimed repeatedly last Tuesday to support that objective, chose three days later not to vote for it. The crux of that decision was made clear in the Government’s statement on Friday, which called for the Israeli authorities to be allowed to conduct their own so-called independent inquiry. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, I am afraid we should not be remotely surprised. After all, this is the Government that say that Saudi Arabia should be allowed to investigate itself for bombing weddings in Yemen. This is the Government that say that Bahrain should be left to investigate itself for torturing children in prisons. Time and time again we see this: if you are an ally of the Government, you get away with breaking international law with impunity, and you are also allowed to be your own judge and jury, too.
Before the Minister gets up and extols the virtue of the Netanyahu Government, may I remind him of the last time that that Government were allowed to investigate themselves over an alleged breach of international law? In July 2014, four children were blown to pieces on Gaza beach while playing hide and seek in a fisherman’s hut. And the resulting investigation: a blatant piece of nonsense, full of basic untruths, exonerating the IDF completely and saying that the old fisherman’s hut was in fact a Hamas compound. That is what an independent investigation by Israel looks like. That, instead of an international commission of inquiry, is what this Government on Friday decided to support, and that is nothing short of a disgrace.
Of course I read the right hon. Lady’s tweets over the course of the weekend. I remind her that among the other Governments that she was calling disgusting are those of Germany, Japan and, as I said, four other EU partners. It shows how careful we have to be in relation to this. Let me quote what the United Kingdom said in relation to the explanation of vote:
“Our abstention must not be misconstrued. The UK fully supports, and recognises the need for an independent and transparent investigation into the events that have taken place in recent weeks, including the extent to which Israeli security forces’ rules of engagement are in line with international law and the role Hamas played in events. The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.
To that end, in addition to abstaining on today’s resolution, we call directly on Israel to make clear its intentions and carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence. This investigation should include international members. The death toll alone warrants such a comprehensive inquiry.”
If we want to get to the bottom of this and find out what happened, I maintain that the HRC resolution was not the way to do it. We want the inquiry to succeed. That, we believe, is what we defended last week and will continue to pursue.
I say to the Minister that I support the Government’s proposals. Given that 53 of those killed last week were members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, how would this resolution—[Interruption.] It not only does not mention those two organisations but reaches its conclusions in the resolution outline; it has already prejudged the outcome. That is not going to lead to the impartial, international investigation that everyone in this House wants to see.
The reality, as we can hear from comments on both sides of the House, is that many people have already made up their minds about the events of last week. That is what the British Government must seek to avoid. If we want clarity about what happened, some people must be prepared to say, “We must find out the facts. We must await the facts”. Otherwise, as our explanation said, we only add to those who are already hardened in their hearts, and then we will not get the evidence we need.
We welcome the Human Rights Council resolution calling for an urgent independent investigation into the horrific killing of unarmed protestors in Gaza. It was a disgraceful decision of the UK to abstain from the HRC vote, and it flies in the face of previous statements from the Prime Minister and other Ministers in this House calling for an independent investigation. Given the mixed messages from the UK Government, will they now set the record straight and make it clear to the Israeli Government that deadly actions against protestors will not be tolerated by the international community? Finally, following this horrific incident, will the Foreign Secretary commit to joining his allies in concerting international pressure on the Netanyahu Government to lift the blockade on Gaza and put an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories?
In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I refer to what I said earlier. In relation to the second, one thing that was clear from last week’s discussion at the UN Security Council was the recognition that, in the absence of being able to make any serious immediate move on the middle east peace process, which ultimately will be the best way to overcome the issues at the heart of this, the international community —and Israel, Egypt and others with entry into Gaza—should first make changes and drive forward developments, including to infrastructure in Gaza, to change the nature of the lives of the people there. The UK firmly believes that, whatever else might have been behind the events of last week, the long-standing frustrations of the people of Gaza, caused by pressures upon them from more than just Israel but including Israel, should be relieved. We support the efforts that will be made to improve the conditions in Gaza.
Given that Gazans did all the dying and the Israeli soldiers did all the killing, how does the Minister expect an internal Israeli inquiry led by Brigadier General Baruch to be less partial and less unhelpfully unbalanced than the inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council?
With respect to my hon. Friend, until we see the make-up of the inquiry process, we will not know the answer to that. I made it very clear that if Israel is not only to undertake its legal obligations for what has happened on its territory but to fulfil its own processes, an international element to the investigation will clearly be one of the most important things, and that should bring the transparent and independent element that the UK and others have called for in order to find out the answers to these questions.
Human rights are constrained and violence exacerbated by a water shortage that the UN says will render Gaza entirely uninhabitable by 2021. Does anyone have a plan?
I said during my statement last week that I had recently met the Quartet’s economic director, looking at existing proposals for improving the infrastructure in Gaza, including the water infrastructure. Again as I mentioned, it is clear to anyone who goes there what the circumstances are and how desperate the water and other situations are. The infrastructure needs improving, and improving quickly, and all parties involved in Gaza need to take steps to make sure it happens.
Israel has maintained a temporary occupation for 51 years. It builds settlements illegally, demolishes homes illegally, confiscates land and water from occupied territory and blockades Gaza by air, land and sea. At what point do these illegal acts ever meet with any consequences?
I think that the circumstances of last week indicate—as the United Kingdom Government have said on many occasions—that there is no status quo in relation to Gaza. Conditions are getting worse, and circumstances are getting worse. As we rightly call on Israel in relation to issues such as settlements, in relation to Gaza we remain of the view that until these issues are settled there is no future, and no future for peace in the region.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what this points to again is the need for reform of the UN Human Rights Council? Does he agree that, whatever difficult questions Israel needs to answer about last week’s violence, using this absurd body on which some of the world’s worst human rights abusers play judge and jury on the rest of the world is not the way to deal with that?
As I have said, the United Kingdom has had concerns about the UN Human Rights Council for some time, particularly in relation to Israel. We are not alone in that. The Human Rights Council must be impartial and balanced, and it has not always demonstrated those qualities in relation to Israel.
Israeli forces have killed dozens of protesters and injured thousands in an appalling escalation of violence. I am sure the Minister will agree that the lethal use of firearms is legal only if it is unavoidable, to protect life. Given that Israeli officials have authorised soldiers to fire live rounds at people trying to damage or even coming within 100 metres of the border fence, how can he possibly have confidence in an investigation led by those officials rather than by independent voices?
As I said earlier, I believe that an independent element in any investigation is vital if anyone is to feel confident about finding out whether or not the circumstances were as the hon. Lady has described them.
Given that 50 members of Hamas and three members of Islamic Jihad were killed, and given that Hamas has now admitted that one of those incidents involved a gunfight between its members and the IDF, has my right hon. Friend any confidence at all that Hamas will co-operate with any independent inquiry?
That, of course, will be a matter for the inquiry itself. Just as we are not rushing to prejudge an inquiry by not supporting a resolution that we felt would have led to an unbalanced inquiry, I am not prepared to say that there is evidence that Hamas would or would not co-operate with any inquiry into what happened in relation to the allegations made about it.
The Minister does not like the UNHRC. He says that there must be another way. There is little or no confidence in the United States acting as an honest broker. What discussions are the UK Government having with other EU Governments about restoring the original United Nations mandate over the occupied Palestinian territories to make a more serious move on an international peace process?
I remind the House that we joined European allies—Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia—in the vote last week, so we are indeed talking to our European allies about what might be the best way to proceed. I do not think there is any clear pathway yet beyond what I have already indicated: the inquiry must have a transparent and independent element.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel is the only properly functioning democracy in that part of the world, and that it is right for it to be able to defend itself against aggression and terrorism, as it has done so successfully for the last 70 years?
By supporting an independent and transparent element in its inquiry, Israel has an opportunity in these circumstances to ensure that its long-standing statement of democratic principles is demonstrated to the rest of the world.
The Government of Israel will not tolerate any independent scrutiny of their actions, and increasingly obstruct and persecute international and domestic human rights organisations. What representations has the Minister made about the current plan to deport Omar Shakir, the well respected director of Human Rights Watch in Israel?
The first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question demonstrates the difficulty of dealing with the issue. He has already made up his mind about all this, and he is welcome to do that, but, as I have said, the United Kingdom Government cannot.
I have made no personal interventions in the case of that gentleman. I said last week that immigration processes were for each individual state, but we have made representations about the closing down of political space. We believe it is much better to interact with people than seek to bar them from a country; however, that is Israel’s own immigration right, as it would be ours.
The UN Human Rights Council has held a total of 28 urgent sessions; not one of them has focused on Iran, North Korea, Turkey, Russia, China, Venezuela, Yemen, Crimea, Pakistan, Somalia and so on, yet eight of those 28 have been on Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that organisation lacks any credibility whatsoever as an impartial observer?
The hard truth of what my hon. Friend said stands for itself, and illustrates the degree of difficulty the Human Rights Council now has in relation to Israel in demonstrating its independence and therefore being a credible body. That was one of the influences on the United Kingdom, besides the unbalanced resolution, that a number of our European allies supported.
The Minister has stated that the UK decided to abstain because the UK Government accept that the process is likely to be biased. Given the UK’s position that the Israeli Government should lead the inquiry, how can we continue to play the role of honest broker, which has been a very important role for our Government historically, given our unique historical relationship with that region? Can the Minister explain how that is possible?
I will endeavour to do so; that is a perfectly understandable and fair question. I draw attention to what we said in terms of the explanation of the vote:
“The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.”
We called on Israel directly to
“carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence.”
Difficult as it is, the UK taking a more balanced position on this than some enables us to remain in an impartial position in relation to this, which would be lost completely if we jumped one side or the other.
The Minister has pointed out that about a dozen other nations abstained on the motion. Is he able to clarify that their reasons for doing so mirrored those of the United Kingdom, namely that it was partial and imbalanced as written?
That was the UK’s view, and that was clearly a deciding factor in relation to our concerns.
I have listened very carefully to the Minister. Having said that Israel must make its intentions clear, can he update the House on the number of arrests made during the horrific events of last week?
I am afraid that I have no information on that for the hon. Lady. I can say that since the events of last week I have met the Israeli ambassador here to stress what I said earlier about the importance of independent investigations, but I have no information on what she asked.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar says the purpose of the violence is to breach the border and murder Israelis living nearby. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel not only has a right to defend its border but must do so, and that includes using military action?
Again, uncomfortable as some of these statements are, it is entirely clear why Israel would seek to make sure that there was no breach of the border. There have been previous incidents in which Hamas operatives have taken Israeli lives, but it is to get to the bottom of what actually happened—the number of deaths, the extent of live fire—that this has be considered by some degree of independent inquiry.
Will the right hon. Gentleman not concede that the Government’s dismissal of the UN’s resolution as “partial, and unhelpfully unbalanced” is an attempt to muddy the primary question: given that there has been a death toll of over 100 men, women and children in the last six weeks, who is primarily responsible?
It is precisely the opposite, if I may say so to the hon. Lady: that issue would not be clarified by an investigation which from the beginning was clearly seen to be biased and in which it would be unlikely that all available parties would co-operate. It is precisely to unmuddy the waters that we are trying to take, difficult as it is, a more independent and unbiased line.
Israel clearly has questions to answer, but can the Minister confirm that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation, so no one in this place or the UN should be seen as inadvertently defending or excusing it?
That is correct, and I am sure that no one in this House actually does that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it clear.
The other place recommended last year that the Government stop treating Israel with kid gloves and display some political robustness. This Government’s abstention is worse than weak; it is deplorable. How can the people of Palestine trust our Government when we refuse even to look seriously at these issues, let alone challenge them?
I understand the force of the hon. Lady’s response; she is always honest about all these things. I would point to what we said in the explanation of the vote, which clearly raises questions about Israel’s conduct. We seem to be one of the few Governments prepared to consider both sides of these dreadful incidents, and that is why we want to find the truth about what happened.
The United Nations commission of inquiry will be mandated to look at all violations of international law and calls for co-operation from all relevant parties. How do the Government see that as being unbalanced?
Mention was made of Israel’s activities a number of times throughout the resolution. There was no mention of Hamas, when it appears to be clear that there was engagement and involvement by Hamas, although no one knows how much. That is a vital part of the investigation, but there is no confidence that it would be part of it.
When the Government came to the conclusion that they could not support the resolution, what efforts were made to try to bring together a resolution that everyone could support, so that there could be a fully independent inquiry?
The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. Before any of these resolutions come together, there is a great deal of contact between member states to try to find a way to broker an appropriate resolution. It normally works on the basis of someone putting forward a draft and other parties coming forward with suggestions, but if there cannot be an agreement, something then gets tabled on which people have to vote.
Both America and Israel are our allies, yet we are powerless when the US moves its embassy and we are onlookers when the UN votes to hold an inquiry into the killings in Gaza. True friends offer advice and criticism, but are we now content just to hold hands rather than holding anyone to account?
No, I do not think that that is the case at all. As I said earlier, true friends take a position in which they try as best they can to learn all the facts of the circumstances before coming to any conclusions, particularly in an area as sensitive and difficult as this. That is what we have sought to do.
I apologise, Mr Speaker, that I am not in full voice today. Will the UK set out its criteria for assessing the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of an internal Israeli investigation? What action will we take, should those criteria not be met?
That was still the equivalent of a lot of full voices.
It was indeed, and the hon. Lady’s questions are always relevant and to the point. Discussions are still taking place among members of the international community to define exactly what the terms will be. I said earlier that I had spoken to the Israeli ambassador last week, and representations have been made in Israel as well. I have indicated what we believe ought to happen in terms of there being an independent element to any investigation carried out by Israel, and we would like to see that delivered. There will be further consultations on this, as the hon. Lady would expect.
As I understand it, one Israeli soldier has been injured, and 104 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 14 were children, and 12,500 have been injured, more than 2,000 by live ammunition. Has Israel’s response been proportionate?
Other allegations include 50 or so Hamas operatives being involved and improvised explosive devices being placed at the border fence. There has been a whole series of allegations about what has happened. That is why it is essential to get to the truth. We have already expressed our concern about the amount of live fire, and we stand by that.
The Minister has come to the House a number of times on this issue, and he has accepted the fact that there have been real abuses of the Palestinian people in Gaza through the use of poisonous water, through illegal settlements and through all sorts of cruelty to the Palestinian people, yet the international community rewards Israel with billions of pounds-worth of aid and armaments. Is it not about time that we—
Order. We have got the thrust of the hon. Lady’s question.
Would it not be appropriate, instead of saying that we criticise Israel and condemn what it has done, if we actually took action over what Israel has been doing over the years?
The hon. Lady is right to say that I have been at the Dispatch Box several times since 2010 in relation to this matter, and we despair at the fact that the arguments are always familiar. As for the long-term fixing of the issues that she raises, it is we who call the settlements illegal and call for an easing of the restrictions on Gaza, but none of that will be accomplished effectively until there is the political settlement that we are all trying to work towards. The United Kingdom unerringly pushes its determination towards that aim, and we do not believe that continuing to call for that while criticising Israel is necessarily a reward.
Do the British Government have any plans to seek support for a fresh resolution that requires an independent UN investigation, or is the matter now closed as far as they are concerned?
I do not think that any investigation is necessarily off the cards. In the first instance, the determination will be for Israel to carry out an investigation, and we have said what we have said about what should accompany that in order to convince the international community. What happens after that will depend on the response to that inquiry.
Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), regardless of the outcome of the Israeli investigation, surely the Government should try to initiate a further resolution to resolve the problem?
It may come down to resolutions at the end of the day, but an agreed mechanism, whereby we can find out what has happened in order to ensure that the circumstances do not arise again, is more likely to be effective. However, that would involve a whole series of other issues that relate to Gaza, as I mentioned earlier, and much determination among the leadership of both Palestine and Israel to ensure that the circumstances do not arise in the future.
Protesting adults and children have been shot in the back and shot while standing hundreds of metres away from the border fence. The Israeli authorities are clearly killing and maiming people in Gaza who pose no threat to them. If this was happening in Iran, the Government would completely and utterly condemn it, so why will the Minister not condemn the Israeli authorities for such actions?
I will repeat what I have repeated before—this is clearly set out in the United Kingdom’s concerns about the whole process:
“The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.”
The hon. Lady comes to her own conclusions about what she thinks has happened, but others have different narratives. It is clear that the extent of the live fire has caused casualties that raise prima facie questions about what has happened, which is why we must find out what the answer to that is.
The IDF and people here in this Chamber constantly refer to the “Gaza border” despite it not being internationally recognised. If it is a border, what state are the victims of Israel’s latest shooting spree in? If it is not a fence that entraps 2 million people, will the UK recognise the state of Palestine and push for an independent investigation, not just a whitewash by one party?
The hon. Gentleman makes a series of assumptions, and I understand where he is coming from. As I indicated last week, the United Kingdom will recognise the state of Palestine when it is conducive to the peace process, but there are more processes that must be gone through. If we are to find out what truly happened in Gaza, there must be a better option than that presented by the Human Rights Council last week.
The international community’s immediate focus after last week’s events was on the number of fatalities, but it is also important to dwell on the consequences for the thousands of injured people. Have the Government offered any additional humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza to ensure that the injured receive the medical treatment that they so desperately need?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The short answer is yes. I am in contact with international agencies that are involved in delivering humanitarian medical aid. Gaza’s medical resources, which are already incredibly stretched, will have been put under even greater pressure following the events of the past few weeks. I am looking to see what further the United Kingdom can do beyond the support that we already give to those who provide such help.
Last Wednesday, the Government chose to schedule a major transport statement on an Opposition day, thereby substantially reducing the time available for Opposition business. I thought then, as I think now, that this was very badly handled. It was, in particular, disrespectful both to the House and to the 23 Back Benchers who were hoping to participate in the Opposition day debate on the Grenfell Tower disaster.
It was in that context—and in that context alone—that, having expressed my displeasure about the matter quite forcefully from the Chair, I used the word “stupid” in a muttered aside. That adjective simply summed up how I felt about the way that day’s business had been conducted. Anyone who knows the Leader of the House at all well will have not the slightest doubt about her political ability and her personal character.
I love this House. I respect all of my colleagues, and I hold you all in the highest esteem. It is our duty to get on with the business of Parliament: scrutinising legislation, debating issues and standing up for the people we are here to represent. For my part, I shall continue to speak out firmly for the interests of the whole House and if, from time to time, it involves publicly disagreeing with the Government’s management of business, then so be it.
Private Members’ Bills: Money Resolutions
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)