House of Commons
Wednesday 11 July 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The industrial strategy is a strategy for the whole UK and will bring significant opportunities for Scotland. We are working with businesses, universities and business groups across Scotland to seize those opportunities. In line with devolution, the Scottish Government, of course, hold many of the levers to boost and support the growth that we hope the strategy will bring.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State for International Trade launched a drive to attract more than £2 billion of investment into Scottish companies as part of the modern industrial strategy. Does my hon. Friend welcome the Government’s efforts to boost exports and to ensure that the benefits of free trade are spread right across the UK?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Driving investment is one of the key ways we will deliver the industrial strategy, which will bring the benefits we want to see for Scotland. This pro-investment approach will see a truly global Britain hopefully becoming a leading place for people to invest.
I call Angus Brendan MacNeil.
The hon. Gentleman is gesticulating from a sedentary position in respect to some other question that we have not reached, but might, and on which he may or may not be called.
What is the Secretary of State doing to argue that Scotland should be able to bid for onshore wind in contract for difference auctions?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there will be an announcement shortly. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has many meetings with his Cabinet colleagues to discuss such issues.
In November, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced a review of how the UK and Scottish Governments could work more closely to support business in Scotland as part of the modern industrial strategy. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of that review?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that an important part of delivering this industrial strategy is the UK and Scottish Governments working collaboratively. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary gave evidence to the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee in April, and he has also hosted a roundtable with the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, so a lot is going on.
As a football fan, I wish England good luck tonight in their semi-final. Although 1966 may have been a very good year, 1967 was even better.
In 1999 it was a Labour Secretary of State for Scotland who stood up for Scottish shipyards and ensured that the contract for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary was given to the shipyards in Govan. Roll forward to 2018 and the contract for the fleet solid support ships is out for tender. Analysis by the GMB shows a direct tax and national insurance benefit and return to the Treasury of £285 million, but so far, the current Conservative Secretary of State has refused to stand up for Scottish shipyards. I therefore ask him a very straightforward question: why not?
As someone who was born in Wales, who now lives in England and whose father and family come from Scotland, I join the hon. Lady in wishing the English team every success today.
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not fighting for shipbuilding in this country. Our warships, which are being built in the UK, are securing 4,000 jobs and 20 years of work on the Clyde, and the British industry is preparing to bid for a new Type 31 class. We want all British yards to take part in the latest applications for the new contracts, and we hope that they are successful.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not reply for himself, which answers my question about why he is not standing up for Scotland.
Without the fleet solid support ships contract, Rosyth will be struggling for work and thousands will be worse off as a result. Labour’s Opposition day debate today will call on the Government to build these ships in the UK—build them here. The Government have a majority of 13, and there are 13 Scottish Tory MPs. Will this finally be the issue on which Scottish Tories stand up for Scotland? Will they and the Secretary of State back the motion, and will the Secretary of State encourage his other Westminster colleagues to do the same? Build them in Britain.
Our Scottish Conservative MPs work day in, day out, not just for their constituencies, but for Scotland as a whole, and I am very proud of the work they do—they really are a formidable team. Last year, we unveiled an ambitious new national shipbuilding strategy, which met the challenge set by the independent Sir John Parker, who said:
“I am very impressed by the courage that the Secretary of State has shown—and the Government—in adopting my recommendations, which were very extensive”.
That shows that we are behind the shipbuilding industry.
European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018: Legislative Consent
The Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations) met last Thursday and the Prime Minister was fully briefed on the outcome.
After repeated exclusion from Brexit discussions, the Secretary of State was finally allowed a place at the table at Chequers last week. How did he use that time to speak up for Scotland? What representations did he make on behalf of the Scottish Parliament, given the majority vote to withhold legislative consent?
The hon. Lady is conflating a number of issues, but what I can confirm to her is, as I discussed with Mr Russell last Thursday, that the Scottish Government produced a very complete document with their views to be fed into that meeting of the Cabinet, and I fed them in.
That was a bit of a disappointing answer, so may I probe a bit further? The Prime Minister’s Chequers agreement rides roughshod over the Scottish Parliament. Scotland’s economy is heavily reliant on services. Thousands of my constituents work in that sector, yet she is determined to make a deal in which services are taken out. Has the Secretary of State worked out the impact of the Prime Minister’s decision on the Scottish economy yet, and what is he going to do about it?
At the heart of the issue is a fact in the Scottish Government’s document that this Government could not accept—the Scottish National party Scottish Government do not want to leave the European Union. The Prime Minister is focused on leaving the EU on a basis that not only does the best for British business, but respects the outcome of a referendum across the whole of the UK.
I hear that the Secretary of State has been going about boasting that he is the longest serving member of Cabinet in role, but it seems odd that being invisible and ineffective has been rewarded. He has failed to represent and respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. He has failed to speak up for Scotland in the Cabinet and failed to meet his promise to debate devolution in the Commons. When will he accept those failures and resign?
Goodness—the hon. Lady did not get a chance in the debate last week, so she just reheats the same old stuff. At the heart of this is the fact that the SNP does not accept and does not like the representations I make on behalf of Scotland, which are about keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom.
Over the past year, it has been a huge privilege to work closely with my right hon. Friend on this issue. Does he agree that the ludicrous theatrics of the nationalist party are a disservice to the people of not only Scotland, but the whole United Kingdom, because of the detrimental effect they had on the passage of the EU withdrawal Act?
I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts as a Minister. He was one of the hardest working Ministers I have ever encountered, and I absolutely agree with what he said. Although there are people in this Chamber who have their differences on Brexit, the SNP is not interested in Brexit—Brexit has been weaponised purely to take forward the cause of independence and have another independence referendum.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the 2018 Act will not remove any of the Scottish Parliament’s current powers?
I can absolutely do that. We have heard repeatedly from the SNP about a power grab, but when Nicola Sturgeon reshuffled her Cabinet, she needed more Ministers because of the powers and responsibilities that the Scottish Government were taking on. Today, we learn that they have taken on additional office space in Glasgow for a bigger organisation because they are delivering existing priorities while embracing additional responsibilities.
Scotland trades around four times as much with the rest of the United Kingdom as it does with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our top priority must be to ensure that the internal UK market is protected as soon as we leave the European Union?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The UK internal market, which, as he says, is worth four times as much to Scotland as trade with the whole of the EU put together, may not be important to the Scottish National party, but it is important to businesses and for jobs in Scotland, and we will stand up to protect it.
With regard to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act or any issue to do with the EU in this House, will the Secretary of State tell us how many times Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, has demanded that he or any of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs vote against the Government line?
Ruth Davidson makes a very clear statement of her position on European issues and contributes fully to the debate. Government Members want to achieve a good deal for Scotland and the UK as we leave the EU. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bring himself to support that.
I am keen to get some clarity on the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Scottish Government and the debate at Chequers last Friday. Given that the Chequers agreement talks about a free trade area and a common rulebook, and therefore impacts directly on the areas that were discussed in respect of joint arrangements after Brexit, will he confirm that the content of that agreement was discussed with the Scottish Government in advance?
This comes back to the same question that the hon. Gentleman asks on each occasion. He cannot accept that Scotland has two Parliaments and two Governments.
I will take that as a no, then, which is beyond disappointing. The Secretary of State continues his disrespect for devolution. Given that the Government are changing their entire direction with respect to this matter, will he commit today to consulting the Scottish Government and coming to an agreement with them on how to administer things in Scotland after Brexit?
I am very keen and willing to work with the Scottish Government. As I said, the Scottish Government set out a helpful summary of their position, which we discussed with Mr Russell last week. I then set out the Scottish Government’s concerns and issues during the Cabinet meeting. After that Cabinet meeting, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and people from the Prime Minister’s office updated the Scottish Government on the Chequers summit.
We need to make faster progress; it is far too slow.
I feel that I ought to congratulate the Secretary of State on achieving a new milestone as the longest-serving member in one role in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, but I fear that may be by virtue of his invisibility, rather than his invincibility. As we have just heard, the Secretary of State is failing to stand up for Scotland’s interests when it comes to shipbuilding, and he and his 12 Scottish Tory colleagues have failed to stand up for Scotland’s devolution settlement. Will he use the influence that he should have developed over the past few years and condemn his Government’s handling of the devolution settlement, thereby demonstrating that he is not just Scotland’s invisible man in the Cabinet?
What I condemn is the once proud Unionist Scottish Labour party repeatedly voting with the SNP in Holyrood. I am afraid they have become just Nicola’s little helpers.
Leaving the EU: Fishing
I am proud to say that this Conservative Government are unequivocally taking Scotland’s fishermen out of the hated common fisheries policy. Just last week, the UK Government published their fisheries White Paper, which sets out that as an independent coastal state, we will at long last regain control of our waters.
Does the Secretary of State know whether the Scottish Government are supporting the central aims of that fisheries White Paper—namely that we leave the CFP; that we decide who catches what, where and when; that we manage the expansion of our industry in a sustainable way; and that we are not blackmailed by Brussels for our market—or does the SNP want to keep us in the hated CFP?
Hopelessly long. I have already said that we need to speed up. The trouble is that people have these pre-prepared, scripted questions—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has learned it, and we are grateful to him.
Sadly, the Scottish Government’s position remains exactly as it has been throughout: to take Scotland back into the CFP.
Last week’s publication of the fisheries White Paper was a hugely welcome step for an industry that is looking to capitalise on the benefits of leaving the EU. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, during the exit negotiations with the EU, this Government will keep the issues of access to British waters for EU vessels and access to the EU market for British fish separate, as they must not be conflated?
Yes, we will.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it will take many years to build the Scottish fishing fleet back up to full strength, but that that would never happen if the SNP got its way and kept us in the common fisheries policy?
Absolutely, and we can see that in the response of the fishing industry. This Government are right behind the fishing industry in taking advantage of what it sees as a sea of opportunity.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has secured a very apposite debate on that matter this evening. I am very conscious of this issue, and I will be meeting the Home Secretary next week.
I am very conscious of the issues around not just catching and processing fish, but the markets, and those will be at the forefront of our thinking as we take forward leaving the EU.
Will my right hon. Friend tell me what benefits there will be from leaving the common fisheries policies for the whole of the United Kingdom?
Mr Speaker, you have asked me to be brief, so I will refer my hon. Friend to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation document “Sea of Opportunity”.
I do not know what the Secretary of State plans to be doing at 7 o’clock this evening, but I shall be here, along with the Immigration Minister, for the end-of-day Adjournment debate on the subject of visas for non-EEA nationals in the fishing industry. If he could fix that and get the industry the labour that it needs between now and 7 pm, we could both probably think of something else to be doing.
I am afraid that I cannot meet the right hon. Gentleman’s timescale but, like him and others, I wish England well in their game this evening. On the substantive issue that he raises, I would be very happy to speak to him directly ahead of my meeting with the Home Secretary.
Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is, as we heard a moment ago, four times that with the EU, so good connectivity is vital to our shared prosperity. The recent vote on Heathrow was critical. Maintaining and enhancing routes to Scotland will bring key benefits, and more frequent and new routes will be served to help to improve connectivity.
Many businesses in my constituency depend on customers and staff from south of the border, so what discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about improving cross-border links on the A1, A68 and A7, and, crucially, the extension of the Borders Railway to Carlisle?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that cross-border connectivity is crucial right across the United Kingdom. He and his constituents will quite rightly expect the UK Government to commit to working closely and constructively with the Scottish Government so that we have a joined-up approach. We are working on a day-to-day level, and at an official level between the Department for Transport and Transport Scotland. As for long-term projects, the potential of the borderlands growth deal could stand to be transformative for his constituents.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the managing director of Glasgow airport, Derek Provan, who said that additional flights resulting from a third runway at Heathrow are “imperative for Scottish business”, and can he guarantee that a good proportion of those additional flights will go from Glasgow?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and so is the MD of Glasgow airport. The third runway is imperative for Scottish businesses, which is why we have set very clear expectations that 15% of the slots that are made available will be for domestic flights. It is disappointing that the Scottish National party did not vote for this expansion. [Interruption.]
I understand the sense of anticipation and excitement in the Chamber, but it seems very unfair on the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) that his question was not fully heard, and that we could not properly hear the mellifluous tones of a very courteous Minister. If there could be greater attentiveness to these important matters, it would be a great advance.
Will the Minister confirm his support for local councils, including my own of East Lothian, in their application for wave 3 funding for broadband roll-out from this Government?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman specific confirmation at this point, but I would be more than happy to write to him, if he would allow me to.
Does the Minister share the concern in Scotland that, although the third runway for Heathrow might be helpful to the south-east of England, the effect on the Scottish climate of those extra flights—rather than direct flights or improved rail services—could actually be damaging?
As the hon. Lady is probably aware, when we made the announcement and had the vote, we made a commitment to having a strong environmental plan. We will be looking at that very seriously.
Telecommunications: Rural Areas
May I first welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) to his role as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and thank his predecessor for his energy and the interest that he showed in Scotland? I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues regarding a wide range of issues relating to Scotland and look forward to working closely with the new Secretary of State on this issue.
The Secretary of State will be aware that mobile reception in my constituency is variable, to say the very least. The Home Office has given a company called EE a large amount of money to install infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State help other providers to access this infrastructure?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue for rural Scotland; it is also very important in my own Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. I will give him that undertaking.
Last month, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport warned that Scotland was due to miss its target of connecting every business and home in Scotland with superfast broadband. Does the Secretary of State for Scotland agree that the SNP is letting down rural areas such as my constituency of Angus?
My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for improved broadband in rural Scotland. Indeed, she is correct that the Scottish Government have let Scotland down on this issue.
According to thinkbroadband, 93.4% of premises in Scotland now have access to superfast broadband, which compares with 95% in the UK. This has been done with some of the most challenging geography in the whole of Europe, with some £580 million of Scottish Government money being put into the last 5%. Will the Secretary of State now congratulate the Scottish Government on achieving this and thank them for investing in a reserved area, which is his responsibility?
Rather than reading out Scottish Government press releases, the hon. Gentleman should be standing up for his constituents and people across rural Scotland who get a poor deal on broadband, which is primarily due to the ineffectiveness of the Scottish Government.
My ministerial colleagues and I frequently meet the Scottish Government to discuss a range of issues relating to the implementation of the Scotland Act 2016. Only last week, I gave my agreement to a section 104 order for the delivery of welfare benefits. This makes changes to UK legislation so that the Scottish Government can take on Executive responsibility for carer’s allowance.
I am sure that they are very grateful for that. The Secretary of State has said:
“The UK Government will continue working closely with the Scottish Government and other devolved administrations to develop a fishing policy that works for the whole of the UK.”
In reality, they were shown a copy of the White Paper with no consultation. Will he please define “working closely”?
My definition of “working closely” is that, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I met Fergus Ewing, the Minister responsible for fishing, at the highland show, it was very cordial.
As most people in the House know, the Smith commission will have the cross-party commitment to have more devolution from Edinburgh to local authorities, and not to centralise power. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the devolved Administration to ensure that that happens?
As my hon. Friend knows, these matters are devolved, but it is a matter of profound disappointment that, rather than devolving powers on within Scotland, the SNP Scottish Government have become one of the most centralised Governments anywhere in the world.
I see it is a five-way contest in the SNP ranks, but we have got to hear from the Select Committee Chair, and I hope he will be brief.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—you are a great man indeed.
Devolving powers over work visas would make a tremendous difference to the fishing industry and get people in from non-EEA countries such as, in particular, Ghana and the Philippines, who are very valued in Scotland. Will this Government get on with their job, stop the Brexit soap opera, lift the pin, get the men in, get the boats fishing, and get taxes being paid—and move now?
I have already advised the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—who, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard, is having a debate at 7 pm this evening; I am sure he will want to be there—that I take this issue very seriously. I am meeting the Home Secretary on it next week.
I do not think that meeting Fergus Ewing at the highland show can really count as consultation, so what formal consultation was carried out before the fishing White Paper was published?
As I think the hon. Lady will appreciate, the White Paper is itself a consultation, so let us hear her and the SNP’s views on fishing. But of course they do not really want to tell us, because their view is, “Take Scotland back into the common fisheries policy.”
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is attending the NATO summit in Brussels.
I know that Members on both sides of this House would like to join me in paying tribute to Lord Carrington, who died on Monday. His was an extraordinary life of public service, including as Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Secretary General of NATO.
I am sure, too, that all Members would also wish to commend the incredible efforts of the authorities in Thailand and the volunteers from the British Cave Rescue Council for their role in the successful rescue operation. We wish them, the boys and the coach who were rescued and their families well. I know that we would all wish also to offer our condolences to the family of the Thai diver, Saman Gunan, who sadly lost his life during the rescue operation.
Finally, I am sure that all Members, whichever part of the United Kingdom they come from, would join me in congratulating Gareth Southgate and the England team on their fantastic performance in the quarter-final on Saturday, and in wishing them the very best for this evening’s match against Croatia. I will happily buy the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) a flag to help her to join in.
In addition to my duties in this House, I have had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and will have further such meetings later today.
As someone who supports the principle of independence for England, I have no problem in supporting England tonight.
I thank the Minister for his role in helping to secure a public inquiry into contaminated blood. My constituent Cathy Young and many infected blood campaigners, however, remain concerned that the inquiry will be delayed, like Chilcot, by those who may have a case to answer through the Maxwellisation process. Does the Minister agree that truth and justice should not be delayed? Will he commit to the Government looking at legislative changes to the Maxwellisation process?
This is of course a tragedy that has caused unimaginable hardship and pain for the people affected. Let me say straightaway that we recognise the hard work that the hon. Gentleman and others from all political parties here have put into campaigning on this issue.
In relation to the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, I am sure he will understand that whether or not the inquiry adopts a Maxwellisation process is a matter for the independent inquiry itself. It is, as the term suggests, independent of ministerial direction, but having talked to Sir Brian Langstaff directly, I know that he and his team are very mindful of the need for speed. Victims of infected blood continue to die, and I know that Sir Brian is determined to complete the inquiry’s work as quickly as a thorough examination of the facts allows. The Government are committed to ensuring that the inquiry has all the resources and everything else it needs to complete that task as rapidly as possible.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the accessibility of local officers is a vital principle of British policing. He will know that we have provided a strong and comprehensive settlement that is increasing total investment in the police system by more than £460 million in this financial year, and for Lancashire police specifically, we have provided more than £6 million for 2017-18. As he says, decisions about resources, including the use of police stations, are a matter for police and crime commissioners and chief constables, but I encourage those who make those decisions to listen to their local communities to best assess their needs.
Before I call the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), I should mention that we are very fortunate today to be joined in one of our Galleries by two members of the Osmond family, Jay and Merrill Osmond. It takes some of us back to the 1970s. We are very pleased to have you—well done.
May I join the Minister in paying tribute to Lord Carrington, who served his country with such distinction in both the forces and in government and whose decision to resign the office of Foreign Secretary will be remembered as an act of great principle and honour?
I share the joy at the rescue of the boys in Thailand and salute the bravery and sacrifice of the diving teams, including the seven British divers.
On the question of tonight’s match, I am afraid that I am not going to be watching it. It will be the only game that I have missed, but I will be representing the Labour party at tonight’s memorial event for the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide—something very close to my heart, given my father’s role in trying to prevent it.
Let me wish Gareth Southgate and the England team the best of luck for this match and hopefully for the final on Sunday. I may know very little about football, but even I can see that England’s progress so far at the World cup shows what can be achieved when all the individual players work effectively as a team, when there is a clear game plan, when they are all working together and, of course, when everyone respects and listens to the manager. Can I simply ask the Minister what lessons he thinks the England team could teach this shambles of a Government?
I think that the England team does teach some good lessons about the importance of having a clear plan which the leader, the team captain, has the full support of the squad in delivering. We will of course be publishing tomorrow full details of the United Kingdom plan for Brexit, which we will be putting to the British public and to our 27 European partners. When the right hon. Lady gets up again, perhaps she will tell us what the Labour party’s alternative plan is, for at the moment that is one of the best kept secrets in politics.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but who does he think he is kidding? Even Donald Trump can see that the Government are in turmoil, and he has not even got to Britain yet.
May I ask the Minister once again the question I asked him at PMQs in December 2016, when he compared Labour’s shadow Cabinet to “Mutiny on the Bounty” remade by the “Carry On” team. By those standards, what would he describe his lot now as—perhaps “Reservoir Dogs” remade by the Chuckle Brothers? But let me take him back to our first PMQs in 2016, when I asked him how it was possible to retain frictionless trade with Europe without remaining in a customs union. I got no answer then. Let me try again today. Can he explain how frictionless trade is going to be achieved under this Government’s Chequers plan?
The right hon. Lady will see the detail in the White Paper but, if she had been listening to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Monday, she would have heard the Prime Minister explain very clearly that we believe a combination of the common rulebook on goods and on agri-food, coupled with the facilitated customs arrangement that we are proposing, will provide just that. What is more, that takes full account of the wish of United Kingdom business to ensure that frictionless trade will continue. If the right hon. Lady disagrees, will she stand up and say what her alternative proposal is?
I thank the Minister for that answer on the Chequers free trade proposal, but I was hoping today that he would go beyond the theory and explain in practice how it works. So let me check one specific, but important point. For the Chequers proposal to work in practice, based on what the Prime Minister said on Monday, not just the UK, but every EU member state will have to apply the correct tariff to imports, depending if they are destined for the UK or the EU, and then will have to track each consignment until it reaches its destination to stop any customs fraud. If that is correct, can I ask the Minister what new resources and technology will be required to put that system in place across the EU? How much is it going to cost, who is going to pay and how long is it going to take?
No, I am afraid the right hon. Lady is incorrect in her assumptions. For a start, the customs model that we are proposing would not, under the arrangements that we suggest, affect either imports or exports involving this country and the European Union. They would not involve exports from this country to the rest of the world. We are talking about imports to this country from non-EU member states. Our calculation is that when, in particular, we look at the importance of those sectors where either zero tariffs or very low tariffs already exist under World Trade Organisation arrangements, or where finished goods are involved and therefore it is easy to identify the final destination, we will find that 96% of UK goods trade is going to pay either the correct or no tariff at all at the border.
The Minister has, I believe, said something quite interesting, and I do hope that his Back Benchers are listening very carefully. He says that the Chequers free trade proposal will require no new technology and will involve no tracking of goods, but how can that be possible if there is no divergence on tariffs and no divergence on regulation—in other words, on trade in goods we will continue exactly as we are at present?
I am afraid the right hon. Lady might not have sat through all the Prime Minister’s statement and responses to questions on Monday, but my right hon. Friend made it very clear that we are actively looking in these new circumstances—frankly, we would, as a sensible Government, be looking anyway—at the opportunities that new technology offers, and will offer in the future, to minimise friction on trade for businesses of all kinds.
The Minister cannot answer these simple questions of detail because he cannot admit the truth. The truth is that the Chequers proposal is total delusion. The UK cannot set its own tariffs on goods and keep frictionless trade with the EU. The technology to do so does not exist. There will be no divergence on tariffs in a free-trade area and no divergence on regulation. It is a customs union in all but name, but it does not cover our service industries, because—the Government claim—that is the great area of potential to negotiate trade agreements with the rest of the world. Can I ask the Minister to explain why a country such as China would agree to import more of our services if we cannot agree, in turn, to lower tariffs on its goods?
First, I think that the right hon. Lady still misunderstands the customs arrangements that we are proposing, and I advise her to look at the White Paper when it is published tomorrow. The reason we are proposing to treat services differently is that it is in services that regulatory flexibility matters most for both current and future trading opportunities. Although the EU acquis on goods has been stable for about 30 years, the EU acquis on services has not been, and the risk of unwelcome EU measures coming into play through the acquis on services is much greater.
Well, I have asked the Minister why China would accept such a one-way deal on services, and the answer is that it would not. It is simply another Chequers delusion—a Brexit dream with no grip on reality. There is an easy answer to this mess: an alternative that will offer all the benefits of the Chequers free trade area with no new technology, no cost and no delay; an alternative that both this House and Europe will accept; and an alternative covering both goods and services. Can I appeal to the Minister to accept that alternative, do what I urged him to do two years ago, and, instead of trying to negotiate some half-baked, back-door version of the customs union, get on with negotiating the real thing?
Again, the right hon. Lady keeps silent about what the Labour party is proposing. The truth is—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear the reply of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I say, in the most genial spirit possible, to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) that she is allowing her blood pressure to rise unduly. I say in a humanitarian spirit, calm yourself, and let us hear the ministerial reply.
The Labour party says that it would strike new trade deals, but its plan to stay in the customs union would prevent that because it would bind us to the common commercial policy for all time. It used to say that it would control our borders, but it backed an amendment to the withdrawal Bill to let freedom of movement continue.
The Labour party also used to say that it respected the referendum result, but now it is toying once again with the idea of a second referendum. The Labour leader will not rule it out; the deputy leader will not rule it out; and the shadow Brexit Secretary will not rule it out. Nothing could be better calculated to undermine our negotiating position, and lessen our chances of a good deal, than holding out that prospect of a second vote. Whichever side any of us campaigned on in that referendum, the country made a decision, and we should now get on with the task in hand. That is what the Government are doing.
The Minister seems to argue that by leaving the EU the British people voted against a customs union, but that is the complete opposite of what he used to say. I take him back to 2011, when he said that a yes-no referendum would not give us that information. He said:
“that sharp division between the status quo and quitting the EU does not reflect the breadth of views held in…the country.”
For example, he said:
“If people voted to leave the EU would that mean having no special relationship with the EU or would it mean a relationship like Norway’s?”
He said it. My question is, we understand what he is saying, but when did he stop agreeing with himself? I fear that we will look back on this week as one where the Government could have taken a decisive step towards a sensible workable deal to protect jobs and trade. We have ended up with them proposing a dog’s Brexit, which will satisfy no one, which will not fly in Europe, which will waste the next few weeks and will take us—
Order. Thank you. [Interruption.] Order. No, I think we have heard it fully, and that is absolutely right.
The right hon. Lady gave away her misunderstanding, as her question seemed to imply that she thinks Norway is in a customs union with the European Union. It is not. What we have on the table from the Government is a comprehensive set of proposals that we believe will deliver for British business in terms of frictionless trade and will deliver on what people voted for in the referendum—to restore to this House control of our laws, control of our borders and control of our money—and achieve a new security partnership with our European neighbours that is in the interests of every European country. The right hon. Lady should get behind us, support us and work in the common interest instead of carping from the side lines.
Reports of crimes involving motorcycles, mopeds and scooters are clearly a concern. We have been working with the police, industry and other partners to develop a comprehensive action plan to focus on what works and what more needs to be done. The police are now using new tactics, including off-road bikes and DNA marker sprays, to catch those committing these crimes. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is now consulting on proposals to give greater legal protection to police officers pursuing offenders. It takes action to secure a reduction in these crimes, not just a press release from the Mayor’s office. Action is what the Government are undertaking.
Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Yesterday, I witnessed the heartbreaking testimony of two survivors of those heinous crimes against humanity, Dr Ilijaz Pilav and Nusreta Sivac. Today, we all must remember the victims who were tortured, raped and murdered. Will the Minister join me in remembering those victims, and will he commit, on behalf of the Government, to bring forward a debate before the summer recess to put on record our united position that we remember and to debate what measures we can take to help to make sure that such genocide can never be allowed to happen again?
The right hon. Gentleman reminds us that the horror of Srebrenica 23 years ago should remind us all of the intolerance that still exists in the world and why we all have a duty to do what we can to confront and overcome it and to promote genuine reconciliation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have heard his request for a debate. I hope that the whole House will also, while remembering the appalling tragedy of Srebrenica, take some heart from the fact that yesterday’s western Balkans summit in London, bringing together the leaders of all western Balkans countries in a spirit of co-operation and reconciliation, demonstrates that we have moved a long way in 23 years. The right hon. Gentleman is correct that we must never become complacent. We must always be aware of the need for continuing work and effort.
I thank the Minister for his response. Such anniversaries should remind us all of the dangers of extreme bigotry. The world that we live in today is a dangerous one. Tomorrow, the President of the United States of America will regrettably have the red carpet rolled out for him by this Conservative Government, but from the public, the welcome will be far from warm. With protests planned across Scotland and the United Kingdom against President Trump’s abhorrent policies and dangerous rhetoric, will the Minister follow the SNP’s lead and challenge President Trump on his abysmal record on human rights, his repugnant attitude towards women and his disgusting treatment of minorities, or does the Minister think that he will simply follow the Prime Minister’s lead and join the President hand in hand?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. This country’s relationship with the United States of America is probably the closest between any two democracies in the west. It has lasted through Democrat and Republican presidencies alike and through Labour and Conservative premierships on this side of the Atlantic. Because of the security co-operation that we have with the United States, UK citizens are alive today who might well not be alive had that co-operation and information and intelligence sharing not taken place. It is therefore right that we welcome the duly elected President of our closest ally, as we shall do tomorrow.
As my hon. Friend knows, shale gas has the potential to boost economic growth and support thousands of jobs across a number of sectors, as well as adding to this country’s energy security. The Government have outlined how we believe shale gas planning decisions should be made quickly and fairly to all involved. We are committed to consulting on further shale gas planning measures. Those consultations are planned to open over the summer, and I reassure my hon. Friend that these decisions will always be made in a way that ensures that shale use can happen safely, respecting local communities and safeguarding the environment.
First, I recognise the work that the right hon. Gentleman personally has put into campaigning on this issue. I am also aware of his personal experience of the devastating impact that this condition can have on families. I reassure him that the Government are committed to promoting the best possible care and treatment for people with diabetes as a priority. The National Institute for Health Research biomedical research centre in Cambridge is pioneering the development and use of the artificial pancreas, and the prototype system is now being tested by people in their own homes. I understand that the NIHR infrastructure supported more than 100 new studies and recruited almost 38,000 patients to help with those studies. That work is ongoing to test the efficacy of the artificial pancreas, and I shall certainly draw the right hon. Gentleman’s comments and campaign on this issue to the attention of the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. First, I am sure we would all want to salute the incredible work that firefighters, the military and other partner agencies have done in responding to the wildfires we have seen in various parts of the country in the past couple of weeks. I encourage all organisers of summer events to exercise caution in this hot climate, to follow Home Office guidance on outdoor fire safety and to take steps to prevent the risk of fire from lanterns and fireworks, and to think about both the fire risk and the impact that debris from lanterns has too often had on farmers’ livestock.
First, I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely committed to getting the Royal Liverpool Hospital built as rapidly as possible and to securing best value for money in doing so, and we are supporting the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust in that work, but I do not think that what he advocates, which is to buy out the interests of the banks that have lent money to this project, is the right approach. It would encourage irresponsible lending against the prospect of a Government bail-out down the line. It is important that risk be seen to lie with the banks and the lenders and not be underwritten by the taxpayer. We are working actively with the trust and the existing private sector funders to find a way forward for them to complete the remaining work on the hospital, and we hope that this work will conclude in the very near future.
I have known the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) for more than 30 years, so I fully understand that the comprehensiveness of his replies reflects his past distinction as a noted academic, but I gently make the point that I am determined to get through the questions on the Order Paper.
First, as far as this Government are concerned, NATO is, and will remain, the bedrock of our collective security, and certainly the threat posed by Russia will be one of the subjects that the Prime Minister and other leaders will be discussing at the summit in Brussels. I reflect with regret on the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has said on the record that he wishes that we were not part of NATO. The use of nerve agents in this country is appalling and impossible to excuse. The police continue to investigate what happened and how the attack was caused. The Government are fully committed to supporting the region and its residents and have announced new financial help to Salisbury and the surrounding area today.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned on the issue of DIPG for some time. I think the whole House will want to offer sympathy—which I certainly share—to his constituent and to anyone affected by that appalling condition. I will certainly draw the points that he has made to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I am sure that a meeting will be arranged for him with either the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the work that she continues to do, through the all-party parliamentary group on autism, to lead the campaign for better, more effective care and support for people with autistic spectrum disorders. I think that the changes in the special educational needs and disability system that were introduced four years ago have enabled us to join up state-provided services more effectively than in the past, but I am more than happy to welcome the new app and any other new technologies that will help people with autistic spectrum disorder.
The Information Commissioner’s report has only just been published, and the Government will want to consider its recommendations in detail before responding. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s point focused on the possible commission of criminal offences. We are in a country in which, rightly, it is not for Ministers either to initiate or to stop criminal investigations or potential prosecutions. When there is evidence, it should be drawn to the attention of the police and the prosecuting authorities, and then let the law take its course.
My hon. Friend is right. I think that those of us who campaigned on the remain side need to respect the decision that the people of the country took, and to ponder the damage that would be done to what is already fragile confidence in our democratic institutions were that verdict to be ignored. I am confident that when my hon. Friend reads the White Paper tomorrow, she will see that we have a vision for a future relationship that will meet the vote that the people delivered.
I am very happy to pay tribute to the work done at the Pendleside Hospice and hospices around the country. It is important that we see hospices as a very important element on a spectrum of palliative care and care at the end of life, which takes place sometimes in a hospice setting and sometimes in other settings. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will of course now be considering with the NHS leadership how to deliver on the ambitious long-term funding arrangement that the Government recently announced, and I am sure he will bear the hon. Lady’s comments in mind.
I confirm that any investment that is legally able to be made within state aid rules now would be able to continue in the future, and any United Kingdom funding for money currently received as EU regional aid would comply with those same state aid rules going forward.
We certainly recognise the hard work and incredible risks that miners took in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and many others. The important thing about the miners’ pension scheme is that it should pay out all the promised benefits in full. My understanding is that the scheme is funded to do just that and that no former miner will lose out.
The UK and the US have a uniquely strong relationship when it comes to security and intelligence services, the results of which regularly save lives not only in the UK but across Europe. May I ask that when our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meets President Trump, she thank him for that relationship and the results of it, but might also take the opportunity to share with him the many instances that I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office knows about, where it is UK intelligence and UK security services that have saved lives in the US?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the intelligence sharing and other security co-operation we have with the United States have saved lives in both countries, and it is vital to both our interests that those relationships continue.
My constituents in Brighton are, sadly, used to chaos from Govia Thameslink Railway, but the last seven weeks have been a new level of rail hell. Since the GTR franchise is, effectively, run by the Department for Transport, will the right hon. Gentleman shake up the Government so that they finally take some action and show some leadership: action in restoring the Gatwick Express services at Preston Park, which have inexplicably been slashed, and leadership in getting rid of the hapless Transport Secretary? The Prime Minister has been reshuffling her Cabinet over the last week; will she reshuffle it a bit more and get that Transport Secretary replaced by—
Thank you very much indeed.
As regards GTR, improvements are simply not happening quickly enough, despite the assurances that the operators have given. We have launched a review of Govia Thameslink, which will report in the next few weeks. If those findings show that Govia is at fault, we will not hesitate to take action, whether through fines, restricting access to future franchises or stripping it of the franchise. Passengers deserve a far better service than they are getting at the moment, and we will hold those operators to account.
Albania has one of the highest rates of honour killing in Europe. Will the Government look very closely at the case of Mrs Emiljana Muca, who was staying in the constituency of the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) and is now, thanks to the generosity of her therapist, staying in the therapist’s own house in south Norfolk to reduce the risk of self-harm? If she were to be deported to Albania, possibly as early as tomorrow, she might be the victim of an honour killing.
Obviously I do not know all the details of this case, but I am aware that this issue has brought together my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Norwich South and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). The Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister will be happy to meet the Members concerned to discuss the case.
I call Clive Lewis. [Interruption.] Well, that is a great self-denying ordinance on the part of the hon. Gentleman. He says that his question has been answered and that he is therefore satisfied. If that were a template for the House as a whole, just think of the possibilities!
Will the Minister explain what the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposals would mean for those working for two of the largest employers in my constituency, Bentley Motors and the NHS?
It would be very good news for both of them. In particular, the automotive industry has been arguing for months that we need a deal that ensures frictionless trade with the EU27, and that is what the model we are proposing will deliver.
I strongly welcome the extra £20 billion and the long-term plan for the NHS, but does the First Minister agree that, at a time when local authority budgets are under pressure, it would be attractive to have more pooling of budgets between health and social care?
It is important that the national health service and local authorities work closely together to ensure that community-based care, funded from whichever source, is effective and meets patients’ needs. I know that the new Health Secretary, like his predecessor, is determined to take that forward further.
Is the Minister aware that his Government have already taken more than £3.5 billion out of the miners’ pension? They are like Philip Green and Maxwell put together. Stop stealing the miners’ pension!
The benefits due from the pension scheme to all former miners have, as I understand it, been paid in full and continue to be paid in full, and the scheme is fully funded to meet those commitments into the future.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Afghanistan. The United Kingdom will never forget the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the thousands of innocent women, men and children killed in the atrocity. That barbaric violence prompted the UK, alongside our NATO allies, to enter Afghanistan to ensure that terrorists could not use it as a base from which to attack our citizens at home or abroad.
Before I continue, I want to pay tribute to the efforts of the tens of thousands of brave British men and women who have served in Afghanistan for the past 16 years. We will never forget what they did, particularly those 456 brave men and women who paid the ultimate price and those who suffered life-changing injuries in the line of duty. Their service and sacrifice has not been in vain. As I saw when I visited back in March, not only do millions of ordinary Afghans now have access to clean water, vital medicine and education, which would not have seemed possible less than 20 years ago, not only have they enabled the Afghan people to take charge of their own security, and not only is the capability of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces growing, but elections are giving a voice to the people of Afghanistan, who are increasingly calling for peace, which would have been unthinkable a short time ago.
Our commitment to Afghanistan remains an enduring one. Although UK combat operations ended in 2014, our troops are playing a key role in NATO’s Resolute Support mission by leading the Kabul security force. They are performing a vital role in training, advising and assisting the Afghan national army and air force and developing the nationwide security structures that will strengthen Afghanistan’s democracy. They have a quick reaction force that works alongside the Afghan army to provide urgent help in Kabul if and when required. They also continue to work alongside their Afghan, Australian, New Zealand and Danish partners to mentor staff at the army officer academy. Since opening in 2013, the academy has held 11 graduations, and more than 3,000 high-quality officers have passed out of that great institution, which is modelled on our Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. They are making a genuine difference in helping the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to maintain security and keep its citizens safe.
The momentum is with the Afghan forces, and the Taliban cannot win militarily. Ultimately, Afghanistan’s only chance for a better long-term future is through an Afghan-led peaceful negotiation, and significant progress is already being made. The UK welcomes the Government of Afghanistan’s offer to start a discussion on a political process with the Taliban, supported by the recent ceasefire. It is encouraging to see bilateral relations with Pakistan improving, which will help to build wider stability in the region. Critically, parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held over the coming 12 months, giving ordinary people the chance to shape their nation’s destiny very much for the better.
However, despite the growing confidence of the Afghan forces, atrocities such as the appalling attack against the Intercontinental Hotel at the start of the year, which killed 42 people, demonstrate that the insurgency has proven resilient. It still controls parts of Afghanistan and continues to conduct brutal suicide attacks, killing innocent people. Of equal concern is the fact that terrorist groups such as Daesh are seeking a foothold in the region in order to conduct operations against Britain and other nations. Given the upcoming elections and efforts by the Afghan Government to reach a political settlement, NATO has recognised that now is a critical time to give extra support.
So, in response to a NATO request and in recognition of the professionalism and competence of our armed forces, I can announce today that we will increase the number of troops to support our existing mission, sending an additional 440 personnel in non-combat roles to take the total UK contribution to around 1,100 personnel. That will make the UK the third largest troop contributor to the NATO operation. Around half of the 440 additional personnel will deploy in August, and the remainder will follow no later than February next year. The additional soldiers will initially deploy from the Welsh Guards, which already provides the UK’s contribution to the Kabul security force.
Today’s decision underlines our commitment to the people of Afghanistan. It will help to strengthen the institutions that preserve Kabul’s security and enable the Afghan-led peace process to develop. It will also send a signal to the Taliban that we will not abandon this proud nation and that they cannot simply outwait our departure. It also shows our commitment to NATO, which must remain the cornerstone of our defence in a darker more unpredictable world. Above all, however, it reiterates Britain’s commitment to strengthen the security of our nation. History teaches us that the prize of a more secure Afghanistan is peace and security for all. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it and join him in paying tribute to all the servicemen and women who have served and are serving in Afghanistan. We remember the 456 men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice there and those who continue to live with injuries sustained during the conflict. We commend the courage shown by our Afghan partners who work under the constant threat posed by insurgents.
As alliance leaders gather in Brussels today, we reaffirm our commitment to NATO and to the range of operations that it supports around the world. The UK has always played its full part in contributing to NATO missions, and we currently have personnel deployed in Kosovo and in Somalia, as well as on the Resolute Support mission. It is right that the skills and professionalism of our armed forces can be used to benefit our partners in Afghanistan by training Afghan forces to the same high standards.
May I ask the Secretary of State for some further detail on today’s announcement? Will he outline the planned timetable for our troops to remain in Afghanistan? Our armed forces have a range of technical skills, so will he say more about the specific work that they will be undertaking? Will the training offered to our Afghan partners focus on specialist activities or continue to be more general? As the Secretary of State will be aware, there has been some recent concern about the eligibility rules for operational allowances, so will he confirm that troops will continue to receive the allowance for their work in Afghanistan? The Resolute Support mission currently comprises some 16,000 personnel from 39 NATO member states and partners, so will the Secretary of State set out what discussions he has had with NATO allies about upping their commitment to the mission?
The work of the armed forces in Afghanistan must of course form part of a wider strategy to promote good governance there, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about how it and the Ministry of Defence can support one another? We welcome the U-turn in Government policy on locally employed staff, such as interpreters or drivers, whose work in Afghanistan has been vital to the UK and NATO’s efforts in the country, so will he update the House on the progress that his Department has made on that issue?
Members across the House support the important work of our personnel in Afghanistan, recognising it as part of the process towards reaching a lasting peace settlement, but we must also be clear that the work is quite distinct from the combat operations that ended in 2014. So, finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that the additional troops will be there for training, not in a combat role?
The hon. Lady raises several important points. We want to be in Afghanistan to ensure that we get the right outcomes for the peace process, and it is not possible to put a date on when that will be concluded. However, we continue to work closely with all our allies in the NATO coalition and, most importantly, with the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to try to promote the peace process and bring it forward as rapidly as possible. Work will be undertaken with the Kabul security force, which we have been leading. There is a rapid reaction force element that will support Afghan forces if there are incidents. We have a force there, but it is very much there to support Afghan forces.
All personnel will be in receipt of operational allowance, which is important when we ask service personnel to put themselves in harm’s way. They do such an important and valuable job. I re-emphasise that our work not just with the FCO but with the Department for International Development and other organisations across the international sphere is pivotal in bringing a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan.
I understand that this deployment sends a very strong signal, as my right hon. Friend put it, to the Taliban that they will not be allowed to win, but does it send a sufficiently strong signal to the Treasury—an even more formidable opponent—that an uplift in the defence budget towards 2.5%, and eventually 3%, of GDP is necessary to fund our global role adequately?
We are very much focusing on the Taliban with this announcement, which goes to show how Britain can make a difference in the world. We talk about global Britain, and this is a brilliant personification of how we can make a difference in different nations. It is to our armed forces that our nation so often turns. Whether in dealing with the recent difficulties in Salisbury or in Afghanistan, it is our armed forces that have the capabilities, the knowledge and the ability to deliver consistently for this nation.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I associate myself with his comments on the personnel and, of course, I extend our thoughts to their families, who I am sure will be having a tough time following this announcement.
May I press the Secretary of State slightly on the timetable? I am not looking for a date or a specific length of time for how long he thinks this increase will last but, in general, does he view this as a long-term or a short-term increase?
May we also have regular updates on Afghanistan? Afghanistan is one area of the world on which attention has perhaps fallen back. We regularly have updates in the Chamber on Syria, which is extremely helpful, and such updates might help us with Afghanistan, too.
The online community through which Daesh spreads its poison is clearly a massive problem. Can the Secretary of State give us any indication as to whether the training and resources going to Afghanistan will be used to seek to tackle Daesh’s online presence to prevent its poison from spreading and gaining the foothold that none of us wants to see?
Finally, on the political process and the offer of talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, can the Secretary of State lay out, in general terms, how hopeful he is that those talks will be successful? Where are we in the political process right now?
A number of those questions almost interrelate, especially the hon. Gentleman’s first and last questions. We will not prejudge the timetable, and we will continue working with other NATO allies. We constantly review our force structure not just in Afghanistan but in Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria. We will be constantly reviewing this, and we will be trying to encourage other allies to continue contributing. We have already had discussions with other partners. There will be a conditions-based approach to how long our forces remain there, but in my discussions with the Afghan Government, and in the previous Foreign Secretary’s discussions, there has been a real willingness and eagerness to try to sit around the table.
This was the first time we have ever seen a ceasefire during Ramadan, and it was a very short ceasefire, but it was a chink of light, and it showed that progress can be made. It is important not just for Great Britain but for other nations to support the Afghan Government at this critical time in seizing the opportunity for peace.
Although the increase in non-combat support is welcome, and the sacrifice of our own troops there should never be forgotten, should we not also acknowledge the massively greater contribution of the United States to the support of that very fragile democracy, and put on record this week our thanks to President Trump for the increase in United States troop numbers and missions, which help the operations in Afghanistan that help to keep us safe from the threat of transnational terrorism?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the role that the United States has played in doing so much to bring about and promote stability in Afghanistan, and to deal with terrorist threats that can manifest themselves at home. I put on record our appreciation not just for President Trump, but for US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and for General Nicholson, who has taken such an important and pivotal leadership role in dealing with the insurgency in Afghanistan over the past few years.
In supporting the Defence Secretary’s statement and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I urge the Defence Secretary to redouble his efforts to explain to the British public why we are doing what we are doing, and how it impacts on the security of our citizens in this country. There is a lot more to be done on that. I know that he is trying, but I urge him to redouble his efforts to explain it to the British people.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because an unstable Afghanistan leads to threats here in Britain. We saw how the ungoverned spaces that developed in Iraq and Syria were used to promote terrorist attacks on the streets of Britain. We have to deal with that at source, and we will do everything we can to explain to the British people the threat that such an Afghanistan presents.
Those of us who served in Afghanistan for many years saw the importance of the coalition of the willing, as it was then. Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO has provided the fundamental underpinning of not just the security of Afghanistan, but our own security? As the summit starts in Brussels today, this is the moment to remember that the only time the article 5 guarantee has been invoked was when the United States was attacked on 9/11. We are therefore essentially reinforcing not just our own security, nor indeed just the security of the people of Afghanistan but, fundamentally, the security of the people of the United States.
The NATO alliance has served every nation incredibly well, and my hon. Friend is right to point out the fact that article 5 has been invoked on only that one occasion following the 9/11 attacks. We must not underestimate the value or utility of NATO, and we must continue to invest in its future to keep us all safe.
As ever, we owe a debt of gratitude to our armed forces and their families who will be supporting them during this deployment. As the NATO summit continues, what efforts are being made to encourage our other NATO allies to increase their own commitments?
As soon as I complete this statement, I will be going to Brussels to have numerous bilateral meetings with our many NATO allies. We need to hammer home the message that, for NATO to work, we all have to invest in it. We cannot expect one country to carry the burden all the time. We all have to show that willingness to invest. The Prime Minister will be sending that message, and the United States will also be sending that message. I think that the message is starting to get through.
I thank the Secretary of State for delaying his arrival at NATO to make this important announcement himself from the Dispatch Box. I believe this is the largest deployment he has authorised since becoming Defence Secretary.
I share with everybody in the Chamber a great respect for the Welsh Guards, in particular—they will be playing a significant role. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the role that UK aid has played over the past few years, particularly in the education and training of young women and teachers? Do not the role of UK aid and that of our services personnel complement each other in helping to make Afghanistan a more stable country?
My right hon. Friend is correct to say that UK aid and our security forces have to work hand in glove in order to build a viable future for Afghanistan. We have to promote prosperity and education, and we have to support the Afghan Government in delivering an exciting and hopeful future for their people in order to have stability there.
May I remind hon. Members that one of my children is serving in the armed forces?
As the Secretary of State said, we will have 1,100 service personnel deployed in Afghanistan, some of whom will face lengthy deployments lasting months or perhaps even longer. By definition, that is stressful for them and their families. Will he therefore assure me that there will be a leave rota in place that will ensure that these people can come home to their families on a regular basis during their deployment in Afghanistan?
We will work closely with the families federations to ensure that that happens. If someone is on a six-month tour, they have the ability to come back for two weeks during that tour. Someone on a nine-month tour has the ability to come back for two sessions of two weeks. Obviously, we will be working with all forces to ensure that that is made available to people.
I welcome the statement that our involvement is limited to training. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be no mission creep and no return to combat duties? Drawing hard on the positive scenes in Kabul during the ceasefire, which were inspiring for ordinary people there, will he say, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, that we should increase our efforts to encourage the political process and try to get the two sides talking to each other, as that is the only way we are going to get peace?
I have been clear in my statement about our commitment. We do not have any intention to change what we are doing, as outlined in my statement. The point is that we all want to find a peaceful solution for Afghanistan, and that is why we will continue to support the Afghan Government in reaching that peaceful solution.
What is the Secretary of State doing with the Home Office to address the issues faced by the Afghan interpreters who have settled here under the Government’s scheme, but are now facing real difficulties in being reunited with their families here because of the normal spousal visa rules? The work of those interpreters was crucial and dangerous, and they deserve better.
As a Department, we have consistently worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that any issues brought to our attention have been resolved. We made a change in our policy just a few weeks ago that we hope will be of further assistance to more of those people who helped and supported the British armed forces. We will continue to review that and provide what help we can.
When I chided President Ghani over his lack of co-operation on the return of failed asylum seekers, he told me that as a war president his priority was the young men and women taking the fight to the Taliban, rather than those who had run away. It was a fair point, was it not?
We recognise the enormous contribution that so many people made—not just those working with British forces, but the Afghan security forces, who are taking the fight to the insurgents every single day. I am talking about not just the Taliban, but Daesh and other states that seek to extend their influence into Afghanistan.
May I associate myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s tribute to those who made the supreme sacrifice, including many from Northern Ireland—I think of several from my constituency? Given the deployment that is about to take place, what steps will he take to ensure that other nation states will share skills and training, as we obviously have, so that there is better future for everyone in Afghanistan?
This is very much a coalition effort. Last year, a number of nations stepped up to increase their effort and deployment in Afghanistan, and we will be pushing this point going forward. We want all nations to make a larger contribution to this NATO mission, and we very much hope to lead by example.
Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking members of the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards from the Aldershot garrison for their continued contribution to the security and stability of Kabul? Will he tell the House his assessment of the link between the Taliban in Afghanistan and elements of Daesh?
I certainly wish to thank all those tens of thousands of service personnel who have contributed to efforts to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe place for terrorism. As for the link between the Taliban and Daesh, we are seeing more and more Daesh fighters heading from Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan. That is why we need to be making these moves to ensure that they do not create a space in which they are able to operate.
When I was watching yesterday’s fantastic RAF 100 celebrations, I thought very much of the brave RAF pilots with whom I was lucky enough to be flying when I visited Afghanistan in the middle of the conflict. They played an incredible role and we should pay tribute to them. I am also delighted to see the Welsh Guards playing a crucial role in this new deployment. Will the Secretary of State give us clarity on the breakdown of reserves versus regulars in this deployment? What steps does he think will need to be taken to protect civilians, humanitarian workers and minorities in Afghanistan, as we have seen some horrendous attacks against the Hindu, Sikh and other minority communities, which is a point raised by my constituents? What role will this deployment play in increasing stability and security?
We see this deployment as a vital part of increasing stability and security, giving the Afghan forces the confidence to be more forward leaning in dealing with threats, but it is the political process that is so vital. This is about the Afghan Government sending the clear message that they are a Government who represent every part of Afghanistan, and can deliver peace and justice there. The reserves are such an integral part of everything we do. This deployment will be comprised predominantly of regulars, but many, many reservists will be part of it. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to provide further clarity on the breakdown of the numbers.
British forces are renowned for not only their military capability, but their ability to capture hearts and minds. Will my right hon. Friend therefore further explain our objectives and also tell us the expertise we will apply that is unique to Britain?
We have been pivotal to creating the ethos and template for the Afghan military academy, giving the country’s armed forces the skills, training and knowledge they need to be able to command forces in often hostile and difficult environments. Those skills, along with what we will bring in terms of command to the Kabul security force, will be vital, because people turn to us as a nation that has an understanding of Afghanistan and the ability to lead other nations.
Towards the end of his statement, the Defence Secretary described NATO as a “cornerstone” of our defence in dark and unpredictable times, and he also underlined our commitment to NATO. Will he assure us that that sentiment will be impressed upon the US President at the NATO summit this week? Will he assure us that we will stand by ready to defend our allies in NATO against any vocal attacks?
The unity of allies is the greatest strength of NATO, and I am sure that everyone will sign up to that message.
I briefly worked in New Zealand, so I am very conscious of the ties between our two countries. Although NATO is the cornerstone of our defence, will the Secretary of State comment on the importance of the wider military alliance?
We have a deep and enduring relationship with not only New Zealand, but all “Five Eyes” nations. We are seeing a deepening of that relationship in terms of not just operations, but the sharing of capabilities. Of course, we had the great news of the purchase of Type 26 frigates by the Royal Australian Navy. I was speaking to my counterpart in New Zealand just at the weekend, and we are looking at how we can operate more together to deal with the threats that are emerging in the world.
I echo the comments of other Members who have expressed our thoughts for the families of the Welsh Guards facing deployment.
Yesterday, frustrated by the lack of progress, the US Administration announced that they were going to conduct a comprehensive review of their Afghanistan strategy. The Secretary of State will be aware of Trump’s initial policy to withdraw from Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency. Given that we have now been at war in Afghanistan for 17 years, does this latest deployment indicate that in reality the current strategy is failing?
Over the past few years, we have seen the United States commitment to Afghanistan grow, along with the pressure that it is putting on other partners to contribute to a political solution. The true solution to the situation in Afghanistan is a political process, and that is what we, NATO and the United States are promoting.
Just over 13 years ago, I deployed to Kabul on my first Afghanistan tour, and I found it very rewarding indeed. I wish the Welsh Guards well. The frustration during that first tour was the imbalance in commitment and risk appetite between the NATO countries that made up the Kabul Multinational Brigade. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not just numbers and budgets that underpin NATO, but member states’ willingness actually to deploy their troops with rules of engagement and a risk appetite that allows them to contribute fully to alliance operations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his assessment of what is needed for resolute support work and to operate in the best possible way. We need those common rules of engagement, and we have to be forward-leaning to ensure that we give the Afghan Government as much support as is needed.
National Health Service
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to introduce a Bill to re-establish the Secretary of State’s legal duty as to the National Health Service in England and to make provision about the other duties of the Secretary of State in that regard; to make provision for establishing Integrated Health Boards and about the administration and accountability of the National Health Service in England; to make provision about ending private finance initiatives in the National Health Service in England; to exclude the National Health Service from international trade agreements; to repeal sections 38 and 39 of the Immigration Act 2014; and for connected purposes.
As we celebrate 70 years since the NHS was founded, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present to the House this Bill on the reinstatement of the NHS. It was founded in 1948 by a Labour Government, who recognised that, as Nye Bevan said:
“No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
The Bill honours that founding vision of the national health service.
In short, the Bill proposes to fully restore the NHS in England as an accountable public service. It is intended to give back to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care the duty to provide services, including hospitals, medical and nursing services, primary care, and mental health and community services. It would integrate health services under the Secretary of State, while allowing the delegation of public health services to local authorities. The intent behind the Bill is to take private profits out of the NHS by abolishing the purchaser-provider split and repealing the competition and marketisation provisions in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. It is intended to make sure that the NHS is properly funded and ready to deliver the comprehensive care that people need now and in future.
The Bill is about getting private, profit-making companies out of NHS service provision, ending contracting out and reversing nearly 30 years of marketisation. It would end private practice and pay beds in NHS hospitals, and end contracts for GP services with commercial companies. It would create truly accountable local NHS planning, re-establishing public bodies capable of providing integrated services and accountable to local communities. The Bill would abolish NHS England, clinical commissioning groups, NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts. It would scrap private finance initiatives and ensure that NHS assets and land remain in public ownership for future generations. The Bill is intended to make sure that no part of our NHS is up for sale, and would protect it from any forthcoming global trade agreement designed to asset-strip its resources.
For decades, core NHS values have been undermined. I was a nurse for 40 years before entering Parliament and saw this first hand. I was also a member of Unison and fought against it. We might hear that there is no privatisation because the NHS remains free, but believe me, it is being privatised. The fact that services are free to patients does not mean that they are not run by private companies for profit. That profit does not go back into the NHS. The money that we pay through our taxes should be spent on patient care and not go to shareholders. These are our hospitals, paid for out of our taxes and run by our NHS staff; they are not the Government’s to give away.
The Government downplay the amount spent by the NHS in the private sector but, according to the NHS Support Federation, in the year to April 2017, some £7.1 billion-worth of NHS clinical contracts was awarded through an NHS tendering process. The 2012 Act forced NHS contracts out to competitive tender in the marketplace, allowing private companies to cherry-pick profitable NHS services. Since that Act came into force, spending on non-NHS providers has totalled around £25 billion. That undermines NHS services and affects staff pay and conditions. The Government line is that only a trivial 7.6% of NHS services are run privately. According to the NHS Support Federation, for-profit companies won £3.1 billion-worth of new contracts in 2016-17. That is 43% of the total value of those advertised. The number of contracts awarded to the private sector has increased sevenfold since the 2012 Act came into force.
Under current arrangements, clinical commissioning groups do not have to serve a particular geographic area and are not required to tend to all illnesses and conditions. This is not the NHS that I understand and love. In some areas, certain treatments—such as hip and knee replacements and cataract operations—are already being rationed. It is vital to reinstate the Secretary of State’s duty, to provide the Government accountability needed to maintain a comprehensive NHS. An integrated structure would also mean we would have an opportunity to change the way social care is addressed. The NHS is for everyone, including the elderly and those with complex needs. Integrated health services and social services would be a welcome return to how the NHS previously gave care to those in need.
The Bill addresses the impact of the 2012 Act’s raising of the amount of income hospitals were permitted to make from private sources. That has shot up from 2% to 49%, which means that an NHS hospital could choose to devote 49% of its resources to private patients. That could be 49% of its precious beds. Such a scenario is almost upon us. For example, the Royal Marsden, with beds used by both NHS and private patients, has seen its income from private patients rise by 105% to £91.1 million—nearly a third of its total funding. That cannot have happened without an impact on NHS patients.
NHS trusts are almost £l billion in deficit, and it does not take much imagination to believe that NHS trust managers will see further increases in private patient care as a solution to this dire situation. The impact on NHS patients is obvious: it is the very embodiment of a two-tier system. With this ideology directed at it, no wonder the NHS is in crisis. The road we are travelling on is leading to a much diminished service. It is leading to a US-style health insurance system. That is not what I signed up to in 1977 when I started my training; I signed up to provide love, support and care to patients and their families, treating them all equally, whether they had money or not.
The Bill would impose a duty on the Treasury to minimise—and, if possible, end—the expenditure of public money on private finance initiatives in the NHS. Government Members might come back at me and say that PFI was wholeheartedly embraced by the previous Labour Government; well, not by me, and not on my watch. I was with Unison, fighting PFI every step of the way. Ending expenditure on PFI would contribute to returning the NHS to its founding principle and signal a return to the public service ethos that the NHS is famous for and that drives everyone involved to deliver the highest standard of care.
As a former nurse who is immensely proud of the NHS, I thank and pay tribute to the many patients, nurses, doctors, trade unions and campaigners across the country who have worked tirelessly to combat its privatisation. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for the work that they have done on this Bill. The Bill has been created with the Labour Front-Bench leadership team and we will continue to work together on its future development with campaigners, unions, professionals and stakeholders.
Although, apparently, Nye Bevan did not actually say these words, everything that he ever said and did suggests that he wholeheartedly believed in them:
“The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”
I have that faith. I left nursing and entered politics to fight for the NHS and to help to save it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Eleanor Smith, Bambos Charalambous, Mr Jim Cunningham, Caroline Lucas, Luke Pollard, Jo Platt, Matt Western, Laura Smith, Stephen Timms, Thelma Walker, Mohammad Yasin and Dr Rupa Huq present the Bill.
Eleanor Smith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October and be printed (Bill 250).
[16th allotted day]
The Secretary of State’s Handling of Universal Credit
I beg to move,
That this House censures the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Tatton, for her handling of the roll-out of universal credit and her response to the NAO report, Rolling Out Universal Credit; notes that the Department for Work and Pensions’ own survey of claimants published on 8 June 2018 showed that 40 per cent of claimants were experiencing financial hardship even nine months into a claim and that 20 per cent of claimants were unable to make a claim online; further censures the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for not pausing the roll-out of universal credit in the light of this evidence; and calls on the Government to reduce the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ ministerial salary to zero for four weeks.
The findings of the report “Rolling out Universal Credit” by the National Audit Office, published on 15 June, were damning: universal credit is failing to achieve its aims and there is currently no evidence to suggest that it ever will; it may cost more than the benefits system that it replaces; the Department for Work and Pensions will never be able to measure whether it has achieved its stated goal of increasing employment; and it has not delivered value for money and it is uncertain that it ever will.
The NAO report raised real concerns about the impact on claimants, particularly the delays in payments, which are pushing people into debt, rent arrears and even forcing them to turn to food banks to survive. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions took nearly a week to come to the House to respond to the report on what is the Government’s flagship social security programme and a major public project. When she did so on 21 June, on a Thursday when she knew that many Members would not be able to be here, she undermined the report rather than address the extremely serious issues that it raised.
Her approach was shockingly complacent. It was as though she was oblivious to the hardship that so many people are suffering. She referred to universal credit as an example of “leading-edge technology” and “agile working practices”. She said that it was
“a unique example of great British innovation”
“Countries such as New Zealand, Spain, France and Canada have met us”—
the Department for Work and Pensions—
“to see UC, to watch and learn what is happening for the next generation of benefit systems.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 491.]
I do hope that they will listen to the testimony given by our Members today.
I have listened to what the hon. Lady has said. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had the courtesy to come to the House to apologise. Mr Speaker accepted that apology. Has the Labour Front-Bench team the good grace to accept it, too?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He will be aware, and I will cover this further on in my speech, that she apologised for one of the three aspects for which an apology was necessary.
Last week, on 5 July, following my question at Work and Pensions questions on Monday, the Secretary of State said that she had made an error and wanted to report it to the House—as reported in column 500 of Hansard. Why does my hon. Friend think that it took 48 hours for her to come to the House when a written apology, or an apology on the Monday or Tuesday, could have done the job? Was it because the National Audit Office published its report at 11 o’clock on Wednesday?
My right hon. Friend raises such an important point. I was as shocked as he was to hear the Secretary of State say that it was when she had left the Chamber that she realised her mistake. She should have replied that afternoon. He is quite right on that point.
The Secretary of State adopted the same approach at Work and Pensions questions, as has been noted, leading the head of the National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, to take the extraordinary step of writing an open letter to her, taking issue with a number of claims that she had made in response to the report. The three key claims that he took issue with were, first, that the NAO report said that the roll-out of universal credit should be speeded up; secondly, that the report
“didn’t take account of changes made by the government in the Budget”;
and, thirdly, that universal credit is working.
Let us just think about the significance of this. The National Audit Office is an independent body that scrutinises public spending before Parliament. It is responsible for auditing central Government Departments. Its reports matter. I shall take each claim in turn.
On 21 June, the Secretary of State stated on several occasions that the report had said that the Government should speed up the roll-out of universal credit. She repeated that claim at Work and Pensions oral questions on 2 July, when questioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and me. Of course, the NAO report does not say anywhere that the roll-out should be speeded up. In fact, it says very clearly that the Government should
“ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
This is an incredibly important point. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we are seeing 100,000 households rolling on to universal credit this year and 200,000 next year, with 40% in hardship, we are talking about millions of real people, real families, whose lives are being affected by the speed of this roll-out?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is an issue of the utmost importance and the Government must take note.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the NAO report does not take into account what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Department have done recently in line with their “listen and learn” approach with the roll-out of universal credit?
I will come on to that point in my remarks.
The report, rather perversely in my view, complains that the roll-out has been too slow. Is it unreasonable for us to assume that it would like us to hurry up?
The right hon. Gentleman should go back and re-read the report.
On 4 July, the Secretary of State finally admitted that she had “inadvertently” misled Parliament in claiming that the roll-out should be speeded up. This matters not just because she admitted that she had misled Parliament, but, as I will explain later, because the Government have sharply accelerated the roll-out of universal credit since May and because, from next year it, they will start a managed migration of 3.9 million people on legacy benefits across to universal credit.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the evidence on the use of food banks needs to be urgently looked at before the roll-out can continue?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely pertinent remark. The prevalence of food banks in our society is a source of shame on this Government.
We have to put this whole debate on universal credit in context. In at least two general elections, the Government said in their manifestos that they would cut £12 billion off the national health service. What we have is a benefit system that is tailor-made for cuts and not for the benefit of the people who receive it.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about cuts.
The Secretary of State’s second claim was that the report did not take into account the impact of recent changes made by the Government. This is curious.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend is saying. She has already quoted the National Audit Office report. From that quotation, does it not sound to her as though the NAO’s view is that this project should be paused and fixed?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am going to make some progress now because there have been so many interventions, although I am pleased that so many people are here today.
The head of the NAO said clearly in his letter of 4 July:
“Our report was fully agreed with senior officials in your Department. It is based on the most accurate and up-to-date information from your department. Your department confirmed this to me in writing on…6 June and we then reached final agreement on the report on…8 June.”
The Secretary of State refused to back down and said again in a letter to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—dated only yesterday that, although she had full confidence in the NAO and its head,
“that does not mean the Department will always agree with all of the judgements reached by the NAO.”
Will she tell us now, once and for all, whether or not her Department agreed the report with the NAO in writing on 8 June?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am not going to give way; I want to make some progress. Thirdly, the Secretary of State claimed—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am not going to give way and I would point out that the right hon. Gentleman has called the report “shoddy”, so excuse me if I continue. Thirdly, the Secretary of State claimed that universal—[Interruption.]
Order. If the hon. Lady does not want to give way, it is completely up to her.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State claimed that universal credit is working.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a custom in this place, out of common courtesy, that when one hon. Member references another—either by name or by constituency—and that Member then seeks to intervene, the request is usually acceded to?
It is absolutely up to the hon. Lady whether to take any interventions. Hon. Members really should not be interrupting speeches with points of order over and again. It is becoming a bit of a habit, and not a very healthy one.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State claimed that universal credit is working. The head of the NAO said in his letter that this is unproven. The DWP’s own survey of claimants under the full service published in June shows that just under half of all claimants were unable to register their claim online unassisted, a quarter were not able to submit their claim online at all and 40% were falling behind with bills or experiencing real financial difficulties, sometimes even nine months into their claim. A recent freedom of information request revealed that a fifth of universal credit claims are failing at an early stage because claimants are not able to navigate the online system. These people are likely to be among the most vulnerable in our society, and this Government are failing them.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Precisely on that point—which I have raised repeatedly with Ministers, but to no avail—does she accept that the Government’s position of not allowing advice agencies to help people with their claims after they changed the implied consent rules is shown to be completely bankrupt when such a high proportion of people cannot get their claims sorted out online?
My hon. Friend makes an important point.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I have three minutes of my speech left, so I will take no more interventions.
The Secretary of State claimed that the NAO report did not take account of the impact of recent Government changes. However, there have been no recent changes to support people in making and managing their claim online, and we know that the Government’s universal support programme receives only limited funding. The payment delays that people are experiencing are shocking.
The DWP this week published figures on the length of payment delays for new claims due in February. The Library estimates that nearly 13,000 people were not paid in full on time and 7,500 people did not receive any payment on time at all. In December, two thirds of disabled people with limited capability for work were not paid in full on time, and last year 113,000 people—a quarter of new claims—were not paid in full on time. This is outrageous. Why were they not paid in full on time and what is the Secretary of State going to do about it? These are people on low incomes who often do not have any savings to rely on in these circumstances. The delays are causing real hardship for people, leading them to build up debt and rent arrears.
The Residential Landlords Association has made it clear that private landlords are increasingly reluctant to rent to people claiming universal credit. The National Housing Federation this week reported that nearly three quarters of housing association tenants in England claiming universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third of all other tenants. The Government claim that no one should have to suffer hardship because advances are available, although, as the NAO said, the Government
“has not measured the impact on claimants or assessed how much hardship Universal Credit claimants suffer.”
Should it not be the Government’s duty to understand the effectiveness of their own social security system?
Advances have to be paid back, often on top of debts for utility bills and council tax arrears built up while waiting for the initial payment. One of the Secretary of State’s senior officials told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday this week that the average monthly repayment of £35 a week is “not eye-wateringly large”. Maybe not to him, but what about someone on very low income struggling to cope with basic household bills? I have received so much testimony from people up and down the country on this issue. I have heard stories of people being sanctioned because they have accompanied their mother to a cancer treatment session and stories of people with special needs not receiving the support that they should.
I put it to the Government that their policy of managed migration of just under 4 million people on legacy benefits across to universal credit that is due next year risks huge problems for the people who transfer. Although they will receive transitional protection, it will only last for two years, and the DWP’s current plan is that those people will have to make a new universal credit claim. This could bring chaos.
The NAO has made it absolutely clear that the Government should not expand universal credit until they are clear that the system could cope with higher claimant volumes. If the Government fail to get this right, there will be many people whose lives are made a misery by a benefit that is meant to support them. That is why the Secretary of State’s inadvertently misleading claim that the NAO report says that the roll-out should be speeded up matters so much. Will she give an assurance that the Government will not start managed migration until it is clear that universal credit and her Department can cope with it?
Universal credit was created to simplify the social security system. Clearly, its complexity is so often defeating both claimants and the staff administering it. It was meant to lift people out of poverty; instead it is pushing many into debt. The Government claim that the Opposition are scaremongering whenever we raise issues about the suffering of our constituents. Well, the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have all raised major concerns about universal credit.
The Secretary of State repeatedly claims her Department is testing and learning, but this testing and learning is using people like guinea pigs. This is unacceptable. Where is the dignity? Her Government are causing hardship with scant regard for the devastation to families up and down the country. She must now take responsibility for the real suffering being caused by the roll-out of this flawed programme. She must call a halt to universal credit and put forward a credible plan to fix its many failings before many more people suffer.
The Question is as on the Order Paper. I call the Secretary of State.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for clearing that up—that we are discussing the Question as is on the Order Paper.
We are introducing a new benefits system to assist people into work in this new technological era—a system that will support people so that they can become more economically secure and progress in life. We are introducing universal credit to remove the problems of the old benefits system that we inherited and that put barriers in the way of people fulfilling their potential.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will not give way just yet, but I will in a moment.
There used to be the 16-hour rule, which we all know about. That barrier was stopping people working more hours, and then they would have to go through the disruption of coming off benefit to start another benefit. People on employment and support allowance could be faced with a choice between financial support and work, although we know that thousands of them would have liked to work as well. Once people were in work, they were too often caught up by another set of rules and hours for tax credits. Do we not all remember and know all too well the problems with tax credits, given the hundreds of thousands of letters that we received?
Universal credit cuts through all of that by bringing the six different benefits together and replacing them with a single system whereby claimants receive tailored support to help them into work—a system whereby claimants only have to deal with one organisation and a system that ensures that it always pays to be in work. This is what we are doing. Let me relay again how many people we have now helped into work since 2010—over 3.3 million people, or 1,000 more every day, through the support we are giving. The roll-out is slow. Where we need to slow down we have done, and where we have needed to make changes we have done.
I will give way, but I think we just need a moment to reflect. This is about getting people into work, and that is precisely what we are doing.
The Secretary of State will remember that back in 2013 I warned that this was not a benefit that was ready for wide-scale roll-out. In my Birmingham constituency, we have the DWP telling my constituents that they cannot apply for housing credit through universal credit. They get sent to Birmingham City Council, which then sends them back to the DWP. There is still a level of chaos on the frontline that meant that one of my constituents told me that not only could they not afford to eat, she could not afford to put socks on her children’s feet.
And this from the man who said there was no money left. But to be fair, he actually has some honour, because that was correct.
Before we go any further—
Hang on, everybody.
The comments that are being made today are the comments that we had to check for accuracy, which were sent out to scare people just before Christmas. An email from the Labour party on 6 December said that
“40,000 children will wake up in poverty on Christmas Day”.
It also sent out a video—checking the accuracy here—saying that
“millions of people are faced with poverty, debt and eviction as a result of Universal Credit”
and asking us to pause and fix universal credit. This went to the UK Statistics Authority, which said:
“It is clearly important that statements by a political party should be fully supported by statistics and sources…We do not believe”
they were. As I am in a generous mood today, will Opposition Front Benchers take this opportunity to apologise? They have not so far. It took me two days to apologise. Would they like to apologise?
Will the Secretary of State apologise for the two points she has failed yet to apologise for to the head of the National Audit Office?
The answer is no, they will not be apologising.
As it is about apologies today—and, as I said, I made my apology straight away—let us go back to another apology. I was hoping that the shadow Chancellor would be here today, because I was waiting for years for an apology for the lynching comment against me. Of course, we never got that apology. As the Opposition spokesperson knows all about that campaign in Wirral West, perhaps she would like to apologise on behalf of her party.
The point that the Secretary of State makes had nothing to do with my campaign in Wirral West in 2015.
So that is twice we have not had an apology from the Opposition.
I now move back to tax credits. Tax credits were introduced in 2003 with an error rate, I am told, of 10% to 14%. Some people call this Brown’s burden—or maybe it is just Labour’s burden. I offer this opportunity now: does anybody on the Opposition Front Bench want to apologise for those tax credits and the mistakes therein? Whether it is on scaremongering or on one of the reasons we brought in universal credit—the failings of the tax credits system—we see that nobody is prepared to apologise.
It is not that we cannot all make mistakes. We have all made mistakes on various scales. But for the only mistake I ever made in this House, I just apologised. Most people think you do that in everyday life, but in this House the Opposition do not apologise, whereas I am prepared to do so.
A constituent of mine recently asked when they would be able to move on to universal credit because they had heard very good things about the support and flexibility it could provide. Is it not important to continue to roll out universal credit to give more people the opportunity to go on to a better benefit?
My hon. Friend is quite right. She is referring to the real people who are going on this benefit who want an opportunity to have a chance. This is not about a politician who is here to oppose—and I understand that—but people who say, “We’d like to go on this new benefit and we’d like to have a simpler system.”
The motion on the Order Paper says that “20% of claimants” are
“unable to make a claim online”.
Well, I will break down the figures so that we all know what happened here. The claimants survey shows that 98% of people successfully make a claim online. Here are the figures that underpin that: 54% make their claim on their own; 21% had help from others, including organisations like Citizens Advice and family members; and 20%—I am assuming that this is the 20% the Opposition are talking about—had help from jobcentre staff. That is what this benefit system is about—people need help and support. We know that some of them might not be able to use IT. We have brought in this system because in this modern age where technology is vital, people can only get a job if they can go online. We are now going to provide that universal support to allow people to go online. We have put £200 million into local authorities to help and support people with budgeting and IT. I will offer Opposition Front Benchers the opportunity to apologise for putting out this information. Would they like to take that opportunity now? It seems they are not doing to be doing that now.
I go back to the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) about fact checks in the Department and what happened there. He is looking for the timeline. I left here having checked what was going on. I then asked the Department to go through the various bits that we did together and said that there were various elements within the letter. That night, I checked it again, and so it was Tuesday when I asked for permission to come to the House. The timeline on which I was allowed to do it—he is quite right—was 48 hours later, but actually it was Tuesday when I asked to come to the House. I then met Amyas Morse on Monday and we discussed the various elements of the report. As I said, I have faith in the organisation—of course I do—but that does not mean that you always have to come to the same conclusion—the same judgments—from a report. I am rather surprised—or maybe not—that so many Opposition Members talk about auditors in another way. People can look at different sets of facts and come to a different result, which is what we did.
I said it was unfortunate that the NAO could not have taken into account all the impacts of those changes; that was not anything against the organisation. Those changes came in in January, February and April, so the NAO could not have taken them into account. I was not casting any aspersions on the organisation. It is interesting to note that paragraph 2.34 of the NAO’s report says:
“It is too early to assess the impact of this change.”
It says that in the report. In that instance, which is what we were talking about, it was too early to have felt the impacts of all those changes, and that is the crunch of it. When I misspoke, I corrected myself, but the impacts of the changes could not have been felt.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. What does she make of the evidence about people who have fallen off benefits and are not good on computers, one of whom is sleeping in a tent in a bin chamber on the Vincent Square estate in my constituency but now has to be moved on? These people have no help. They do not have what it takes for this difficult set of benefit rules.
If people have fallen on hard times, we reach out to and support them. If that person is not getting the support, I ask the hon. Lady to work with me. We can go to the local jobcentre to see what has happened, because that is not right, and ensure that he gets his support and that we get him into housing and get him the benefits he needs. Rather than someone standing up and saying those things, let us work together, across the Floor of the House, to help that person who needs it. Is she prepared to work with me to help that person?
This is a matter for the public record. It has been on my Twitter feed in the last 48 hours. This is how people are living day in, day out—in a tent in a bin chamber.
I asked the hon. Lady if she would work with me. All I needed from her—I could not have said it in a more imploring way—was a yes or no, and she felt unable to say yes. She should have said yes.
We have been through what this benefit is about and how it is supporting people. It is about having a work coach. It is about personalised support. It is about having a universal support package. It is about getting more people into work: as I have said so many times, 1,000 more people into work every day since 2010. That is what it is about. The prize will be a cultural shift in welfare. The impact has got to be positive for each and every one of us. It has got to be about getting more people into work. It has got to be about a simpler benefit system. As we proceed with the roll-out, we look, we learn and we change. Even since January, I have listened and learned, whether that was about kinship carers, 18 to 21-year-olds or the latest change for the severe disability premium.
When we brought in the changes at the Budget—£1.5 billion-worth of changes, or thereabouts—to remove the waiting time and offer extra support through a two-week run-over and the advance, the Opposition voted against that. They would have denied vulnerable people £1.5 billion and all those changes. I will ask them now: do they apologise for that? No. Again, we do not have an apology for not wanting those significant changes for disabled people.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. She was talking about co-operation. Is she aware that in King’s Lynn, the DWP has moved into local council offices and now has a fantastic open-plan office that is a centre of excellence for service delivery? I visited last week, and every person I spoke to was 100% supportive of universal credit. They cannot wait for it to be rolled out. They have had nothing but good experiences in the offices around the country that they have visited, so they support the Secretary of State 100%.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment.
This is what it is about, and I keep saying that. It is not about scaremongering. It is not about saying things even the UK Statistics Authority says is scaremongering. It is not about making people’s journey to claim benefit even more difficult. We want to make the journey to claim benefit easier for people. While the Opposition would not apologise for voting to stop that £1.5 billion-worth of support, we now have changes coming through to support people through the severe disability premium. I want to ask the Opposition: will they be voting with the Government to make sure we support those people, or will they take a stance by voting against? We have no answer again.
You took the disability premium away!
Order. Mr Coyle, calm down. Moderation and good temper governs our debate. You are not showing much sign of that.
We are bringing in a new benefit system. We have helped 1,000 people a day into work since 2010. We have said that where we have got it wrong, we will change it and put it right, which we have done in instances where we felt it was wrong. The aim is to get people prepared for a modern technological age so that they can engage in work, and we will support people who cannot as best we can. That is what a compassionate party does—help people into work and support those who cannot work.
Order. Before I call the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, colleagues will be aware that a large number of Members wish to speak, so I will have to impose a five-minute time limit immediately.
I will take that on board, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for your comments in this debate.
I should begin by welcoming the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) back to the DWP. Even though it contributed to his return to Government, there surely can be no one gladder of the Chequers version of “Deal or No Deal” than the Work and Pensions Secretary. For a few days, the pressure to fall on her sword was off her, as her extreme Brexiteer chums climbed the altar of vanity to fall on theirs.
But now we must return from the Brexit bubble theatrics to the real world, where we have this week another set of reports following hot on the heels of the National Audit Office report, all condemning the current incarnation of universal credit. The Secretary of State’s position has been called into question, not just because of the failings of universal credit, but also because of her tin-eared response to the externally and expertly provided facts and criticism. I listened carefully to her speech just now, and it appears that there is still little contrition.
We come to the Secretary of State’s response to the National Audit Office report, which is the subject of the motion before us. We know that the NAO report blew a hole as wide as the Clyde in the Government’s defence of universal credit. The Government say that universal credit is about getting people into work quicker and will lead to 200,000 more people in work. The NAO says:
“The Department will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to 200,000 more people in work, because it cannot isolate the effect of Universal Credit from other economic factors in increasing employment.”
The Government say that universal credit will be cheaper to administer and reduce fraud. The NAO says that the DWP
“does not know whether Universal Credit is reducing fraud”
“It is not clear that Universal Credit will cost less to administer than the existing benefits system.”
The Government say they will save £8 billion from universal credit, but the NAO says that figure
“depends on some unproven assumptions”,
and that such benefits “remain theoretical”.
The NAO has directly contradicted the Government on the core aims of, and the central defences offered by the Government on, universal credit. It is therefore no wonder that the Secretary of State was so desperate to discredit the NAO on the Monday before last. For instance, in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) about the NAO recommending a pause in the roll-out, the Secretary of State said:
“The NAO made clear quite the opposite: it said that we need to continue with universal credit. It was also concerned that it was rolling out too slowly and said that actually we should increase what we are doing. So what the right hon. Gentleman says is absolutely not what the NAO said.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 8.]
Actually, the NAO report said that the DWP should:
“Ensure that operational performance and costs improve sustainably before increasing caseloads through managed migration. It should formally assess the readiness of automation and digital systems to support increased caseloads before migration begins, and ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
These are not debating points; these are facts and quotes in black and white. We have a Work and Pensions Secretary who is either unable to grasp the facts or unwilling to accept them.
When the Secretary of State said that to me in the House, some of my constituents were watching the proceedings, and they believed that I was factually incorrect in my comments. The Secretary of State had an opportunity to apologise to me, but she has yet to do so in writing, and this was all before the NAO issued its report. The question for me, which I raised in my intervention earlier, is: why did the Secretary of State wait 48 hours to put the record straight?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The honourable thing for the Secretary of State to do would have been to apologise directly to him for what might have been a slur on his character and reputation.
This is important, because we are talking about the central—the flagship—social security policy of this Government, which has been criticised in report after report for failing those it should be helping. We are talking about people who are living in poverty as a result. Getting the facts wrong—not just failing on a debating point, but misquoting what is there in black and white—is very serious whichever way we cut it. The House should remember that the last Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), recently resigned for something very similar.
The hon. Gentleman talks about facts, but is it not a fact that 83% of claimants are happier on universal credit, and they are more likely to be in a job within the first six months? Is it not a fact that universal credit is an opportunity for people to get back into work?
On the last point, the NAO entirely contradicted the hon. Lady’s point. One fact I would relay back to her is that the Government’s own figures—this is from the DWP—show that 40% of universal credit claimants are living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. I hope she will consider that fact as we build towards the autumn Budget, when I hope we can form a coalition around calling on the Chancellor to invest in universal credit.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. When we talk about getting people back into work, we lose track of the fact that people who have serious illnesses and will never work again are facing delays in their personal independence payments, but nothing seems to happen about it. I have a number of cases like that, and if the Secretary of State wants, I will send them to her so that she can see this for herself.
The hon. Gentleman makes some very fair points. We of course know from the recent statistics published by the DWP that 59% of claimants impacted by the two-child policy on tax credits and by universal credit are already in work. These are facts, and the Government should be considering them.
This is not of course the first time that this Government have tried to dismiss evidence placed before them showing the failures of universal credit. When the Trussell Trust said that food bank use was higher in areas where universal credit had been rolled out, UK Ministers described its evidence as “anecdotal”. In actual fact, the evidence came from 425 food banks across these isles, delivering 1.3 million three-day food parcels a year.
This week, the four housing association federations of these isles have called on the UK Government to fix the “fundamentally flawed” universal credit system. With colleagues, I met the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations this morning, and it revealed the scale and linkage of debt with universal credit. It is startling, and it is evidence-based. Ministers have replied that issues with debt were complicated and could not be linked to a single source, in spite of the evidence in front of them saying that nearly three quarters or 73% of tenants on universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third or 29% of all other tenants.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way one last time, because I am conscious that others want to speak.
Does the hon. Gentleman see, as I do, a pattern of reluctance on the part of this Government to collect evidence and information precisely so that they can deny the effects of universal credit, and somehow pretend that the evidence that is accumulating is anecdotal?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the central tenets of what the NAO called for in its report was that that type of evidence gathering needs to be done.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I said that that was the last intervention I would take.
The evidence is there—it is in black and white—with the clear researched correlation between universal credit and housing debt. It is not even close; any responsible organisation, never mind a Government, would look at that type of key performance indicator and say, “Right, how do we fix this, because it’s failing?” Why are this Government so determined to push back, ignore the evidence, plough on in the face of the evidence and pile more misery on more families? That is what is behind these statistics—people and families, such as the two constituents in tears at my Airdrie surgery a week past on Friday. For some reason, on universal credit this Government ignore the evidence and the lived experience, but are happy to deceive and never accept responsibility.
It is to responsibility that I turn in directly addressing the thrust of Labour’s motion. Labour has suggested that it tabled this motion to stop the Secretary of State’s salary for a month to replicate the experiences of people on universal credit who are sanctioned and, I suppose, so that the Secretary of State had a chance to make the same choices as those on whom she inflicts her policies, to paraphrase the right hon. Lady. The universal credit sanctions regime is utterly punitive, and in the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is akin to “destitution by design”. I was therefore hesitant last night, when contemplating the motion, about whether we should support it or rise above the deplorable conduct of the Secretary of State’s sanctioning regime. For the reasons I have already outlined, however, I think the Secretary of State should be considering her position.
Of course, a new Secretary of State will not necessarily fix the problems with universal credit. Perhaps the right hon. Lady could redeem herself by honouring the original concept of universal credit on which she worked, in a previous role, with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). He of course resigned because the Treasury was cutting universal credit to ribbons. In spite of this motion, I reiterate the calls I have made in the past about working with the Government to improve universal credit. I am sure all Members on both sides of the House would take such an opportunity should a genuinely listening ear be afforded to us.
Of course, the Government are not short of suggestions from expert agencies and the third sector. We have already heard about the suggestions of the NAO, which I have not actually heard the Secretary of State comment on or respond to. Those include improving the tracking and transparency of progress towards universal credit’s intended benefits, and working with delivery partners to establish a shared evidence base on how UC is working in practice, as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned.
Housing associations have talked this week about issues, on top of the process improvements, that the Government could easily sort out, such as getting payments on time or allowing housing associations and other advocacy organisations to negotiate on behalf of recipients. Housing associations want implicit consent restored and the two-child limit and benefit cap to be scrapped, and they also want to see work allowances restored and the self-employed protected. At my meeting with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations this morning, I was reminded of just how unusual it is for the four federations to campaign collectively on such an issue, given the devolved nature of housing policy. That is how seriously they see the threat of the further roll-out of universal credit without significant changes.
We in the Scottish National party have talked about allowing people the choice of split payments, restoring work allowances to honour the founding principles of UC and sorting out the disability elements. This call has been echoed by Scope, which wants disability premiums to be restored. It says that, once the Government transitions run out, a single disabled person who receives the severe disability premium and is in the ESA work-related activity group could lose up to £4,745.40 a year on universal credit.
The point of universal credit was to make social security easier to navigate: it does not. It was supposed to be easier and cheaper to administer: it is not. It was supposed to make work pay: it does not. In reality, the cuts being made to universal credit may be saving the Treasury on the DWP budget line, but they will be costing it significantly more in other areas. With worsening mental health, it is costing NHS services. In increased requirement for conditionality and cuts to income, it is costing our local authorities in welfare rights officers and rent arrears. In allowing children to go hungry, it is costing our education outcomes.
Rather than working in silos, we need a new cross-departmental and cross-party approach, and we need that before universal credit reaches our largest cities, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which are due to be migrated soon. The NAO stressed its concern about any further roll-out until the issues it raised are addressed. We agree. We have been saying so for years. So my appeal to the Secretary of State is to work across the House and with the third sector to take a strong coalition to persuade the Chancellor to invest in universal credit at the autumn Budget.
The only things that actually matter today are the life chances of people who have been failed for decades by the benefit system. People who have been trapped out of the workplace do not care two hoots for the politics on display here today.
In a previous life, I worked to support working-age people who had little or no opportunity of getting anywhere near the workplace and satisfying employment. Even those who had abundant talent and wanted to work dared not do so. They were locked out of paid work by the complete disruption getting a job would cause to their benefits, with weeks of no payment whatever until they were reassessed.
Will my hon. Friend reflect on the nature of his constituency? Some constituencies have a great many people earning a great deal of money, but that is not reflected in all constituencies.
My hon. Friend is right. I went into that work because in west Cornwall we have a significant number of people who could be described as vulnerable, some with severe learning disabilities, and who deserve the support and help that they are beginning to get today.
Under the benefit system that universal credit replaces, potential employers were encouraged to offer placements and pay people a pitiful £4 a day so as not to upset their benefit payments. For years, the welfare system demonstrated loud and clear that large numbers of people had nothing to offer. It was not thought worth the effort to help them into work and they were abandoned indefinitely.
I accept that the roll-out of universal credit has had some significant challenges, which is no surprise, given the complexity of the benefit system it replaces. It is clear that more must be done. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Ministers for the way they have engaged with Members who have taken specific cases to them. Ministers have engaged with those cases and worked hard to deliver them.
I secured a debate in Westminster Hall some time ago in which I asked the Government to look at the role of voluntary groups on the ground—they are at the coalface helping people—and, as a result, the dynamic purchasing system was introduced. I ask the Secretary of State to look at how well that is helping the charities that are working with those vulnerable people.
When individual cases go wrong, of course they should be fixed. At a time of record low unemployment this country spends some £90 billion a year on working-age benefits—as it should—but to put that in context, that is more than double what we spend on schools. In those circumstances, does my hon. Friend agree that the suggestion that somehow resources are not being applied is wide of the mark?
I agree, and I know from my experience of working with some of those vulnerable people that they have untapped talents and skills. Employers want access to those skills, but all sorts of barriers have existed. They are beginning to be broken down now, enabling people to move away from the support my hon. Friend describes and giving them much more control over their lives.
More must be done to improve the roll-out and support families towards achieving greater independence, but the truth is that when the transition from the old system to universal credit is completed, many of the people I meet and have met much prefer the new system. I will continue to support my constituents to transfer to a benefit system that gives them greater control over their finances, and better and smoother opportunities in work and life chances.
My ask of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that they ensure that local authorities and jobcentres use the resources they have, including the dynamic purchasing system, much more effectively to help all people who for so long have been locked out of the life chances that we want them to have.
An apology: I was in the House when somebody repeated that campaign phrase against the Secretary of State. I was stunned by what was said, and I hope that she will forgive me for not getting up immediately to object to it. I apologise for my total failure to respond as a human being when that was said, and I hope that she forgives me if I do not actually recite what was said, because such nastiness and evil is not directed just at her; it is directed at my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the neighbouring constituency to the one that the Secretary of State fought. What is occurring is a disgrace. How we stop it, I do not know, but we can at least apologise when it occurs. I am grateful that the right hon. Lady raised it today so that my saying that would be in order.
I know those words are heartfelt, and I accept that apology. It took a long time for people to come forward. I would have liked those on the Opposition Front Bench to have done so, because they represent the Labour party, and I know that such a thing is not at the heart of the Labour party.
We started off with a ding-dong in the Chamber today. I do not necessarily think that we are at our best in Parliament when we have a ding-dong like that. People watching outside do not understand the real reasons why we, on both sides of the House, came into politics. I put this on the record now: let us work cross-party to get universal credit right. Let us work with third sector organisations to get it right. Let us reach out and get it right, because it affects so many millions of people. We are doing our best, and lots more people are in work, but we can do more. Let us do it together.
One last point: Back Benchers can apologise only for our own action or inaction. That is my apology.
In this debate, one wonders what truth is and what facts are. When reading the NAO report, I reached totally different conclusions to the Secretary of State. I thought the message was that the Comptroller and Auditor General was perplexed beyond belief that he could not recommend to go back or to go forward. There was a clear recommendation that we should pause, and I ask the Secretary of State for that pause—not never to resume the roll-out, but to at least to ensure that we are not inflicting unnecessary suffering, horror and hunger on our constituents, which Opposition Members have certainly registered, and which must have been registered by Members on the other side of the House.
The Secretary of State said that this was a new benefit that was helping people into work. In my London borough of Hounslow, we have had full service roll-out for two years and three months, and three quarters of claimants are in work. It has caused huge problems. Many families have lost their homes and jobs, and many have been threatened with losing their children. Does my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee agree that a pause should have happened a long time ago in order to address the problems that were more than relevant and apparent in Hounslow?
Yes, indeed, but I am really anxious to respond to the Secretary of State’s wish that we work together. The building block of working together is to take that key sentence from the NAO report, whatever else it said, about a pause—not to scrap universal credit, but to have a pause—to make sure that in three respects we are not party to inflicting untold misery, horror and hunger on our constituents.
The first is that we do not continue the roll-out until we have universal support. We do not have universal support in the way in which all of us understand the word universal.
Secondly, on real-time information, the experience in my constituency—it must be the experience in other constituencies as well—is that real-time information is neither real nor on time. That is causing the most incredible problems with people’s claims. Might we have a pause until we make sure the Revenue can service the Secretary of State’s Department in a way that we need for a successful continuation of the roll-out of universal credit?
Thirdly, on debt, on which the Secretary of State could decide today, debts of yesteryear are being found and charged to people on universal credit. The repayment of those debts is overwhelming people. I am not saying that people should not pay their debts, but do we not think that feeding one’s children, and ensuring the rent is paid and the heating is on, ought to be at least equal in importance to the repayment of debt? Might I therefore make a plea to the Secretary of State that she looks at the rules—not to scrap the repayment of debt, but the amount that is reclaimed—on debts that most of us will have forgotten?
I give way willingly.
Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for saying that. I want to reassure him. I have not been in post that long to get to grips with absolutely everything on UC, but debt and how it is repaid is precisely what I am focusing on at the moment.
That is wonderful news, but after the right hon. Lady has considered debt and decided on it there is the business about real-time information. This is not under her control as the information is supplied to her by another Department. It is not real and it is not on time, so perhaps she could look at that as the next item on the list. There is also the crucial business of universal support. I tried to claim, but I could not do it in the time. A lot of us need that support to make sure we can make a claim successfully. If we are going to work cross-party on this, there has to be give on the other side as well as on this side.
Order. I am very sorry but, because of time constraints, I will now have to impose a three-minute limit.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who has done so much over many years to advance the cause of people on welfare.
There has been recognition over a great many years about the complexity of the system that people need to access for the support they need. In 2010, the then Secretary of State asked for an estimate of how many benefits there were. The estimates ranged from 50 to 60 different benefits. When people are trying to access support, that complexity puts people off. It makes it more difficult for people to access the benefits and support they need. I welcome the sense of “hiding the wiring” with universal credit to enable people to get that support.
The idea that work always pays is absolutely critical. The 16-hour rule is a perverse disincentive to people taking on more work. Not taking on more work means that individuals do not get the experience they need. Not taking on more work means that people will not receive the training that someone working 24 hours or 30 hours would receive. Training is an investment by the business in the individual, and getting extra hours enormously improves the chances of that individual receiving training. Better prospects mean that people will get better jobs and better pay, and have more job security.
Two jobcentres in my constituency serve my constituents. Both are pleased—delighted, in fact—to have had the roll-out of universal credit locally, because they find that they can more effectively serve the people they are there to serve. The barriers between the people gaining support and the people delivering that support have come down. It is incumbent on everyone participating in the debate to send out a clear message that increased support is there for people who need it most. The barriers have come down and people in jobcentres are far more able to offer and give that support. We need to tell people who need that support, “Go. Get that support, because it is there.”
I realise that today’s debate is very popular, and that shows the importance of universal credit and of this debate. The Secretary of State should carry on the good work she is doing. My constituency office team does a great deal of work with people in the welfare system. The work of all our constituency offices ought to be recognised, because they provide tremendous support to so many people.
Universal credit was a good idea, but the problems we are seeing in our constituencies are very significant. The Trussell Trust told us in its briefing for this debate that when universal credit is fully rolled out in an area, demand for food banks in that area goes up by 52% in the following year compared with 13% in areas where universal credit has not been fully rolled out. I noticed that the National Audit Office looked specifically at what the Trussell Trust said about demand for food banks where universal credit has been fully rolled out. The NAO states that its analysis
“aligns with the Trussell Trust’s.”
Indeed, the Department’s own analysis—the survey that the Secretary of State referred to, which was published last month—makes the point, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) has told the House already, that four out of 10 claimants in both the survey’s waves that were looked at were experiencing difficulties keeping up with bills. That is a much higher proportion of people facing hardship than has been the case with the previous system.
Why is universal credit causing much greater hardship than the previous system? Above all, it is for the very straightforward reason that people have to wait for five weeks before they are entitled to anything other than a loan once they have applied. A lot of people—I think we can all understand why—struggle to survive during those weeks. The theory was this: someone who has just left their job has a month’s salary in the bank that will see them through for a month; and after the usual waiting days, their money will start to come in. But a very large number of people do not have a month’s salary in the bank. There are a lot of good reasons why that is the case, but the most obvious is that people are often paid weekly. A very large number of people are paid weekly, but Ministers—I asked the former Secretary of State about this some years ago—have never had an answer to how those people are supposed to survive. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has told the House that she is listening and that she wants to work cross-party to fix these problems, and I very much welcome the fact that last October the delay was reduced from six weeks to five, but a gap of five weeks is asking too much of people who very often have virtually nothing in the bank when they make their claim.
Ministers have been saying that the advance payments solve the problem of the long wait, but the evidence we are getting from the Trussell Trust, among others, is that the high rates of repayment of those advances mean that they do not solve anything, but just prolong the debt that people are in.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If people are forced to depend on an advance right at the beginning of their claim, they are by definition plunged into debt right at the start. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has I think told us today, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), that she will look at the repayment periods and, hopefully, offer a less demanding repayment schedule than is the case at the moment. However, just plunging people into debt at the beginning of a claim is a very serious problem.
The Trussell Trust, which I have referred to, said that we should pause the roll-out of universal credit to fix the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) made that plea from the Opposition Front Bench, as she has done repeatedly and rightly. The Secretary of State can perhaps discount those representations, but she should weigh carefully what the National Audit Office said, to which attention has already been drawn today. Its report said that the Government should
“ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes.”
I very much hope that the Secretary of State and her fellow Ministers will weigh that cautionary note very carefully indeed.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who speaks with great experience on these matters. One of the burning questions this afternoon is whether the Labour party’s official position is to continue to support the principle of universal credit. Every time that Labour has the opportunity to endorse universal credit, it dodges doing that and seeks to tear it down from within.
The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, may be interested to hear the observation of one of the senior managers in my local jobcentre in Blandford Forum, which I visited a few weeks ago. He told me that he had been advocating and urging something like universal credit since he joined the service way back in 1986. This simplified approach, making it easier for people, is absolutely the right way. Likewise, the approach of roll-out, pause, reflect and revise that the Government and the Department have adopted is absolutely the right one. That is in sharp contradistinction to the dramatic roll-out, to trumpets and drums, of the tax credit system, and look at the absolute disaster that that was. The Department’s approach is the right one.
The shadow Minister, of course, has form on these matters. In a debate on the national health service in January this year, she told us:
“Let us have no more talk about taking the politics out of the NHS. The NHS is a political entity.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 373.]
I chastised her on that. She likes to come forward with crocodile tears, synthetic concern and outrage. Labour Front Benchers merely use this to prey on the concerns of very vulnerable people for what they believe to be cheap political advantage.
The hon. Lady may be interested to hear an email from a constituent of mine—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) wants to intervene, he is very welcome to.
I’m not going to give you more time.
Thank you for that. Let me quote from a constituent of mine:
“I went in great fear of UC. I thought it would be too difficult and cruel. I thought things would be made hard for me and my family. But I applied. It was easy and far simpler than I thought.”
He said that the only mistake he made was that he had listened to Labour and that it was Labour that had made him afraid of the process. That is the legacy of the approach.
In closing, I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider—the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and I have discussed this—the role and effectively the right of audience that those who work for the CAB have in this process. There seems to be some confusion. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that she convene, at a moment of her convenience, some form of roundtable to establish some form of protocol for those in the CAB who do valiant work for our constituents.
Members on both sides of the House have mentioned that, so I will answer my hon. Friend. I met the CAB the other day. In terms of what we are putting forward, I think what he is suggesting could be in my mind, too. We will be working on something that I can announce pretty shortly; we will be working together to help benefit claimants.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. That underscores the approach that she has outlined of listening and engaging. In that spirit, I urge her and her Department to issue—this may not be the right phraseology—some form of national guidance to all CAB offices and to all Members across the House on what the role of the CAB is. I take my hat off to them; I have two CAB offices serving my constituency. They often deal with very complex debt issues, which I am certainly not qualified to deal with. We owe those volunteers, who give up so much of their time, a huge debt of thanks. As I said, the hon. Member for Oxford East and I have discussed this. We came to different views on the advice that we had been given, so such guidance would be very welcome indeed.
Let us not forget the value of work and what should always be the temporary nature of state support for people with regards to welfare. It is not a way of life, but a helping hand. It is a safety net to self-determination, self-reliance and support for family. I am convinced that universal credit will deliver that, and it has my support.
The Secretary of State started the debate by asking for an apology about words used towards her by a senior member of my party. I add my apologies to those she has already received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). I am very conscious of the plaque that is right over my shoulder. The language of violence and threats to people has no part in our party or our politics, but the context of today’s debate is the Secretary of State’s inaccurate statements, which she has admitted were misleading.
This Government have misled the whole country about universal credit. They have claimed that it is on time. Its delivery to millions of people was meant to be finished in October 2017. We are about 12% of the way through. They claim it has public support, when one nickname locally in Southwark is “Universal Dread-it”. They claim that it supports people in work, when the Secretary of State is meeting a constituent of mine who was self-employed and made homeless as a result of universal credit. They claim that it is on budget, when it costs three times as much to administer a decision on universal credit as the legacy benefits, and it has cost £1.9 billion to get 800,000 people on to universal credit. The general public get that, even if Ministers still want to try to peddle misinformation, and people certainly get it in Southwark, which is a full service area and an early adopter.
In Southwark, the claim that it is a better system has been completely blown apart. The council is owed £5 million in arrears from universal credit recipients alone, and the average arrears are now £1,800-plus. The Government claim that those people were in arrears before, but that is simply not true. With a legacy benefit such as housing benefit, the average council tenant is £8 in credit—they have no arrears at all. For those who are on legacy housing benefit and in arrears, the average figure is less than half the average for those on universal credit.
The Government claim that universal credit is working well. Tell Citizens Advice: 50,000 people a quarter are going to Citizens Advice up and down the country for information and support on universal credit. Tell the food banks: Southwark food bank alone gave out 4,227 three-day emergency parcels last year, including to more than 1,600 children, the single biggest reason being universal credit. The Government also claim that most people get the right support quickly, so everything is hunky-dory. The NAO said that this year alone, more than a quarter of a million people will get payments late. That is completely unacceptable. The Department is ignoring those real problems and making increasingly desperate excuses and outlandish claims about universal credit.
We are here today because the Secretary of State made a false or misleading statement about what the NAO said. Actually, she has claimed multiple times, including this week, that universal credit gets more people into work. The NAO said:
“The Department will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to…more people in work, because it cannot isolate the effect”.
It also said:
“Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved.”
That is what the NAO said, so enough of the Trumptopia—enough of blaming, scapegoating and distraction through disinformation administered by a Department that is failing from bottom to top.
It is a pleasure to follow my colleague from the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), particularly after the remarks he made at the start of his speech. I very much welcome the offer that the Secretary of State made today to work cross-party to help to improve universal credit. I happen to think that that attitude has been prevalent in the Department for some time. That is what, quite frankly, led to its accepting a number of recommendations that the Committee, headed by my friend, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), made last year. It led to the reforms that we saw in November, which are now being implemented.
I do not want to go over this again, because this is the third time that I have to say this in the past week in the House. However, the NAO report, which raises some important issues, does not take account of the changes that were implemented at the start of the year. Its survey period was from March to September last year. It is a fact that test and learn, as implemented by the Department, has allowed the system to evolve in response to reports that our Committee made last year.
This is test and learn in action. It is a sign of a system that is capable of evolving and responding as we find out more about how it works. While there is always room for improvement and there are many things we can do to improve the system—I am particularly pleased to hear the Secretary of State say she will look at repayment periods, and I know the work she is doing on universal support to ensure that people can get out of debt—it is important to have a system that enables those changes to be made, and I take some solace in the fact that that exists.
I have had universal credit in my jobcentre since November. My office is in frequent contact with it, and in my area at least—I can only speak for my area—things are going very well: the work coaches are extremely pleased with the system and the claimants I have spoken to have been extremely pleased with the service they have received.
Today’s motion brings a personal censure against the Secretary of State. The House will remember that the Secretary of State has been in post since the start of the year, since when she has reinstated housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, introduced new support for kinship carers, discontinued PIP legal appeals and introduced protections for people with severe disability payments. That is what she has done in the past six months. I just say