House of Commons
Wednesday 17 October 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—
Leaving the EU: Devolution
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 confirmed that, where EU law intersects with devolved competence, those powers will flow directly to the devolved Administrations on exit day. This means that over 100 powers will go directly to the Scottish Parliament. We are also continuing to make progress in establishing common frameworks, which the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) discussed last week.
The Secretary of State is turning a blind eye to the depopulation crisis facing rural Scotland. His Government’s refusal even to consider devolving immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament will cause further damage to these fragile communities. Will he explain to the people and businesses in my constituency how ending freedom of movement will help to solve that depopulation crisis?
The Smith commission, which was supported by the Scottish National party at the time, determined that immigration would not be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am acutely aware of issues surrounding depopulation and the demographic challenges. Indeed, I heard them mentioned directly in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Migration is one part of the issue but, as I heard in his constituency, matters such as transport and housing are another part.
Is it not in fact the case that, by reappropriating powers to this Parliament without them going to Holyrood, he is the Secretary of State presiding over the biggest power grab since devolution began—not further devolution? Was his colleague Adam Tomkins correct this morning when he said that
“Scottish Tories are unionists first and Conservatives second”?
They never wanted the Scottish Parliament to succeed and now they are using Brexit to undermine it.
Not only have the Government taken the Scottish Government to court for trying to protect their own devolved powers; the Secretary of State is now saying that any measures offered to Scotland to reflect the overwhelming remain vote would cause him to consider his own position—a position confirmed this morning by Adam Tomkins as no idle threat made in the heat of the moment. Is he really surprised, therefore, that the Scottish people see this blatant Tory power grab for what it is, and will he follow through on his threat to go, and go now?
I make no apology for making it absolutely clear that the integrity of the United Kingdom is a red line for me and my Scottish Conservative colleagues in any deal on leaving the EU, and the position is exactly the same for our Prime Minister. I know that the preference of SNP Members would be a Brexit of the most disruptive kind, which they see as best able to take forward their cause.
The Migration Advisory Committee accepts the dangers to Scotland’s labour force and economy under the current UK system. Sixty-four per cent. of Scottish voters now want to see immigration policy devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Given that we have seen the reality of the cruel system that the UK Government have implemented, why not give the Scottish Parliament the right to do things differently?
I made it clear in my earlier response that, when these matters were considered in depth by the Smith commission, it was agreed that immigration would not be devolved. At the recent Confederation of British Industry Scotland dinner, which was attended by the First Minister of Scotland, the director general of CBI Scotland made it clear that business did not support the devolution of immigration and having a separate immigration policy in Scotland.
If the Secretary of State really believes that he is “fighting Scotland’s corner”, as he said in Holyrood Magazine, why is he supporting an Agriculture Bill that will remove powers from the Scottish Parliament, and simultaneously failing to honour Tory promises on funding made to Scottish farmers?
Obviously, the hon. Lady did not see yesterday’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that there is going to be a review of convergence funding. No powers on agriculture are being removed from the Scottish Parliament, but there is a complete and utter lack of policy from the Scottish Government in relation to Scottish agriculture. They have brought forward no proposals for post-Brexit agriculture in Scotland.
Given the non-answers so far, can the Secretary of State tell us whether there are any circumstances in which he would support the devolution of powers to protect Scotland’s interests after Brexit—or is it the case, given his threats to resign, that he would rather resign his own position than support any measure aimed at ensuring that Scotland is protected from a hard, right-wing Tory Brexit?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As you may be aware, on Monday, Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that she will order SNP MPs in this Parliament to vote for a no-deal Brexit. What they have to decide between now and then is whether they will blindly follow her through the Lobby or truly stand up for Scotland.
With reference to the fairy tale of a power grab, more than 100 powers that are currently held in Brussels are to be transferred to Holyrood after breakfast—after Brexit, I mean. The sooner the better! Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from removing powers from Scotland, leaving the EU will actually give the Scottish Parliament far more powers?
I will certainly use my best endeavours to ensure that those powers are transferred as soon after breakfast on the day we leave the EU as possible. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Only the SNP would complain that the Scottish Parliament will have significantly more powers after we leave the EU than it does today.
Welfare is an area where there is a very good track record of the two Governments working together. We recently met in the joint ministerial group on welfare, which I co-chair, and we will do so again in the coming weeks. People in Scotland clearly want to see that, where the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are given additional powers, they use those powers.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that north-east Scotland, the heartland of the UK fishing industry, received just 15% of grants made by the Scottish Government under the European maritime and fisheries fund? Can he assure me that, as we leave the EU, he will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that the fishing communities in the north-east get the funding they need to make the most of the sea of opportunity?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern. As he has set out many times, as a champion of the fishing industry, it is of course the policy of the SNP Scottish Government to take Scotland right back into the common fisheries policy. It is our policy to leave the common fisheries policy but also to support the industry to take advantage of that sea of opportunity.
We will leave the hated common fisheries policy, so does my right hon. Friend agree with me and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation that Brexit can lead to a fishing boom worth up to £2.7 billion to the economy? Does he share my concern that the Scottish Government’s proposal to keep us locked into the CFP, with decisions being made in Brussels, will betray our fishermen and our coastal communities?
Mr Speaker, you have heard me say many times at the Dispatch Box that I want a second independence referendum taken off the table. What I did not mean was the solution of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), which is that independence could somehow be declared without a referendum.
Holyrood will gain powers over agriculture after Brexit, but the Scottish Government have decided not to put a schedule into the Agriculture Bill. That is offensive and disrespectful to not only Scottish farmers, but my farmers in Northumberland who have cross-border farms. It will be incredibly difficult for them. Will my right hon. Friend support me in trying to encourage the Scottish Government to put a schedule into the Bill?
I think everybody outwith the SNP agrees that it would be preferable to proceed with such a schedule to the Bill, but Scottish farmers who speak to me have one clear question: what is the Scottish Government’s policy for agriculture post Brexit? The answer is that we just do not know.
Over the weekend, the Secretary of State threatened to resign and almost typically managed to make a pig’s ear out of it. Apparently he was so concerned that Scotland might join Northern Ireland in an outcome that would spare us the worst Brexit excesses that he would show them and go. Surely if anything requires his resignation, it is his inability to look after and protect the devolution settlement.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have to look the people of Scotland in the eye and tell them why they are voting for a no-deal Brexit. Day after day, we hear from them how damaging that would be for the economy of Scotland, but on Monday Nicola Sturgeon ordered the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to vote for it. He needs to show some backbone and stand up against her.
The Smith commission was signed up to by all five parties in the Scottish Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend believe that, instead of debating powers, the SNP Government should get on and make use of the powers they already have?
It is clear that the people of Scotland want to see the extensive powers that were devolved in the Scotland Act and the powers coming forward in relation to leaving the EU used, and agriculture, as we have just discussed, is a good example. The Scottish Parliament will have those powers, but we have no idea how the Scottish Government will use them.
In the Secretary of State’s first answer, he referred to progress at the JMC on the common frameworks, which will constrain the operation of devolved powers after Brexit. Can he update the House by saying in how many areas frameworks have been agreed, which they are and by which date he expects the remainder to be completed?
It sounds as if the Secretary of State does not know. The truth is that in only four of the 24 areas have frameworks been agreed, and it is now practically impossible for the exercise to be completed by 29 March. He has threatened to resign. This is something he should resign over but, if he does not resign, will he give an assurance today to rule out the use of section 12 orders to impose frameworks against the consent of a devolved Administration?
I ask for a moment of indulgence while I congratulate Kirkcaldy High School, which this week received the president’s award from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as a rights-respecting UNICEF school. Well done to everyone there.
The Secretary of State claims that protecting the integrity of the UK is the most important thing to him. The invisible man in the Cabinet got a few headlines for himself this week by flip-flopping over his threat to resign: sources close to him claimed that he would resign, but he denied it yesterday. Let us be clear—is it yes or no? If there is a deal that creates a border in the Irish sea and undermines the Union, will the Secretary of State resign?
I am very surprised that the hon. Lady should touch on the issue of resignation, since her resignation from Fife Council was such an unmitigated disaster for the Scottish Labour party. Her colleagues on the Benches opposite may not be aware, but the Scottish Conservatives won her seat.
On the issue of a border down the Irish sea, it would not be acceptable to me or my Scottish Conservative colleagues.
It may have escaped the Secretary of State’s notice, but that still leaves Labour in joint control of Fife Council.
The Secretary of State and his Government have just run out of ideas when it comes to Brexit, so let me give him a bit of advice: take a step further and support Labour’s suggestion for a customs union. He says that protecting the Union is his top priority, but he was silent on English votes for English laws and he has made a mess of Brexit powers coming back to Scotland from Brussels. If he really wants to protect Scotland’s place in the UK and stop a border in the Irish sea, he should back Labour’s plan for a customs union—so will he?
RBS Branch Closures
With permission, I will answer Questions 2 and 11 together. Our position on branch closures is clear. These should be commercial decisions, not those for the interference of politicians, but equally, we do recognise some of the difficulties that constituents face when this occurs. That is why we support the access to banking standard, which takes a number of steps both to support and to inform customers in that situation.
RBS often says that, to make up for its pulling out of a town, the local post office will carry out the services. However, in Bonnyrigg in my constituency, the post office has shut as well, and now many businesses fear that they are going to have to close. What is the Secretary of State doing to stand up for local communities in Scotland?
The hon. Lady raises a specific case of a closure of a post office in her constituency. I believe the Post Office is engaged in that particular matter but, on the general matter of post offices, they do provide a number of financial services, supported by the banking framework agreement, such that 99% of individual customers will have access for their financial needs and 95% of businesses likewise.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sorry for the confusion.
Given that RBS is 63%-owned by the taxpayer and the majority of branch closures are in Scotland or the north-west of England, could the Minister tell us: what does the taxpayer get for their money if not banks and banking services?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the taxpayer supporting the Royal Bank of Scotland to the tune of some tens of billions of pounds. It is right that the Government therefore expect the bank to show profitability and to come back into economic health. Our overarching principle is that the best way of achieving that is to leave commercial organisations such as the Royal Bank of Scotland to be in charge of their own affairs, rather than subject to political interference from Ministers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was wrong of the Royal Bank of Scotland to turn its back on rural areas such as Angus, specifically when online banking is simply not viable because the SNP Government in Edinburgh have not been fast enough at rolling out broadband?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the speed of broadband roll-out. Of course, on the broadband issue, the Government in Westminster have recently made available £1 billion across the UK to stimulate market delivery of fibre and mobile coverage.
Like rural Scotland, rural Cheshire has suffered from a number of branch closures that have left constituents without access to services that can be provided only by banks. What can the Minister do to ensure that my constituents can access those services?
As I have outlined, we support the access to banking standard, but post offices have also received considerable support from this Government and are able to provide a lot of the financial services that individuals and businesses require. In rural areas, for example, 99% of residents are within three miles of the nearest post office.
PIP Reassessment Cost
The Labour party and the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and of Scotland, all want PIP reassessments to be scrapped immediately. They are cruel, callous and entirely inhumane. Will the Secretary of State therefore agree that they should be scrapped?
I can advise the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish Government have had legislative competence over PIP since May 2017, as part of this Government’s continued commitment to implement the Smith commission in full. At the Scottish Government’s request, the UK Government will continue to be responsible for PIP until the Scottish Government are ready.
On top of the misery that PIP reassessments are causing, by the end of the year the number of people on universal credit across Scotland will jump from 91,000 to almost half a million. The 13 Scottish Tory Members represent 82,000 people still to be moved on to universal credit, and even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now admits that many will find themselves worse off. Will the Secretary of State continue to let the poorest people in Scotland down, or will he have the gumption to resign unless this cliff-edge roll-out is sorted out?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman and others will have the opportunity to debate universal credit later today, but I am satisfied, in relation to my constituents in Scotland, that universal credit is the right approach that allows people to move into work, which is the best way out of poverty.
Every week, I am approached by constituents who have been threatened with having their PIP either taken away completely or reduced, which results in stress and has serious mental health impacts. Does the Secretary of State agree that the interviews are simply not fit for purpose and should be scrapped?
Scotch Whisky Industry
The Government are entirely committed to the Scottish whisky industry, which exported over 1.2 billion bottles in 2017, raising £4.3 billion for the UK economy. We have provided cuts and freezes in duty since 2013, with the result that the average bottle of Scottish whisky is now £1.19 cheaper than it would otherwise have been.
Until Brexit, the biggest threat to the growth of the Scotch whisky industry was the right hon. Gentleman’s Department using it as a cash cow. It is absolutely imperative that there is another freeze on whisky duty in the Budget. Can he confirm whether the Secretary of State for Scotland has made representations to Cabinet colleagues to call for a duty freeze?
The hon. Gentleman has entirely overlooked the considerable support that we have already provided in duty cuts and freezes since 2013—a total of £4 billion. We will continue to support that vital sector, recognising its contribution to both the economy of Scotland and that of the wider United Kingdom.
Over the past five years, the Scotch whisky industry has invested over £500 million in capital projects in Moray and across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows how important a good Budget for Scotch whisky is for Scotland and the UK economy?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is another example of why we should support the Scottish whisky industry. I have received many representations, not least from Conservative Members who represent Scottish constituencies, standing up for Scottish whisky and making sure that we make the investments we need going forward.
The financial services sector is also critical for the Scottish economy and for my constituents in Edinburgh, but none of the Government’s Brexit plans mention this service sector. What can the Minister say to the financial services sector in Edinburgh, and to my constituents whose jobs depend on it, about the Government’s strategy for the service sector post Brexit?
If I interpret the question as relating to financial services specifically around whisky, Mr Speaker, the answer will be the same as for financial services generally. The Government are committed to achieving a Brexit deal with the EU27 that is in the interests of this country, that keeps trade flowing and that ensures we have an implementation period that will provide the opportunity for consistency and certainty going forward.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I reassure my hon. Friend that we have confirmed that, when we bring forward the vote on the final deal, we will ensure that Parliament is presented with the appropriate analysis to make an informed decision? With negotiations ongoing, it would not be practical or sensible to set out the details of exactly how the Government will analyse the final deal, but we will set out our assumptions and methodology when we present the analysis to Parliament and the public.
I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Patricia Hollis, Baroness Hollis of Heigham, who died earlier this week. She was a tireless campaigner for social justice and played a pivotal role in defeating the cuts to tax credits this Government were imposing on low-paid workers. We on the Labour Benches will miss her dearly.
Given that the Prime Minister did not once mention Chequers either in her conference speech or in her statement to Parliament on Monday, does this mean the Chequers plan is now dead?
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure the whole House, in expressing our sincere condolences to the family of Baroness Hollis? She was an outstanding parliamentarian. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will remember how she was a dedicated champion for the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.
The right hon. Gentleman asks if the Chequers plan is dead. The answer is no.
Well, that is most interesting. The International Development Secretary and the Work and Pensions Secretary have both refused to say that they back the Chequers plan. Maybe the Prime Minister could share a pizza with them and see if that can sort it out. Will the Prime Minister confirm the Treasury legal advice given to Cabinet that, in the event of no deal, the Government would still have to pay the EU a divorce bill of £30 billion?
We have been very clear, throughout the negotiations in relation to the financial settlement that led to the figure of around £39 billion that appeared following the December joint report, that this is a country that honours its legal obligations and we will do exactly that. But I would also remind Members that we have been very clear, as has the EU, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Last week, 63 Conservative MPs wrote to the Chancellor to complain that Treasury forecasts based on Brexit negotiations are too negative. I am just waiting for them to write to say that the legal advice is too negative as well. In December, the Prime Minister signed an agreement with the EU, which stated:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union.”
Will she confirm that this agreement still stands and that she signed up to it without any time limit?
If the right hon. Gentleman reads the December joint report, he will see very clearly that the first way to deal with the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is through the future relationship. As I said to this House on Monday, we have made good progress on aspects of the future relationship based on the plan that we put forward in July. We then said that there could be some Northern Ireland-specific solutions—there are already Northern Ireland-specific arrangements that take place—and that failing that, we would look at those UK-wide solutions. We were clear then, and we are clear now, that the purpose of the backstop is to bridge the gap between the end of the implementation period and ensuring that the future relationship is in place. As we have said, I expect—and intend to work for—the future relationship to be in place by 1 January 2021.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The car industry is clear that it needs a new customs union to secure investment in British manufacturing. Vauxhall recently said that it would continue to invest, but there are limits and:
“Those limits are customs barriers.”
Jobs are at risk. Why will the Prime Minister not back a customs union—supported not only by Labour and trade unions, but by businesses, and I suspect by a majority in this House—to protect those jobs?
What the automotive industry and indeed other industries such as aerospace have said is that they want to see frictionless trade across the borders. Frictionless trade across our borders is exactly what lies at the heart of the free trade deal that is proposed in the Government’s plan, put forward after the Chequers meeting in July. That is what we are working to deliver for people in this country. We want to deliver a Brexit that delivers on the vote of the British people and ensures that we protect jobs and security. What would Labour deliver? They are havering around. They think free movement could still continue. That will not deliver on the vote of the British people. They now want a second referendum, to go back to the British people and say, “Oh, we’re terribly sorry, we think you got it wrong.” There will be no second referendum; the people voted and this Government will deliver on it.
My question was about investment in British industry. Jaguar Land Rover is holding off investment until it knows the terms of the deal. Jobs are at risk and manufacturers and skilled workers have little confidence in this Government, because they cannot even agree among themselves.
Last week, the Public Accounts Committee reported that the Department of Health
“could not assure us of its plans to safeguard the supply of medicines after the UK has exited the European Union”.
Does the Prime Minister dispute its assessment?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman was talking about the position in relation to a no-deal situation. The Department of Health is working, as are other Departments, to ensure that we have the plans in place, should it be the case that we end up in the position that we have no deal with the European Union. We continue to work for a good deal with the European Union—as I say, a deal that delivers on the Brexit vote but also protects jobs and livelihoods, and crucially protects the precious Union of the United Kingdom.
The British Medical Association said that the NHS is woefully unprepared for this, and this week the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has suspended investments in Britain due to a lack of clarity over the future.
The Conservative party has spent two years arguing with itself instead of negotiating a deal in the public interest, and now, just days before the deadline, Conservative Members are still bickering among themselves. The Prime Minister and her Government are too weak and too divided to protect people’s jobs and our economy, or ensure there is no hard border in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister and her Government are clearly too weak and too divided to protect people’s jobs and our economy or to ensure there is no hard border in Northern Ireland, so she has a choice: she can continue to put the Tory party’s interests first, or she can listen to unions and businesses and put the interests of the people of Britain first. Which is it to be?
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken in a number of his questions about protecting jobs. I note that he has said nothing about the unemployment figures this week. I will tell him overall what this Government are delivering for the people of this country: the scrapping of the council borrowing cap, so that councils can build more homes for people; an end to austerity, so that people’s hard work pays off; a freezing of fuel duty for a ninth year, so that there is more money in people’s pockets; the lowest unemployment for 40 years; youth unemployment halved; and wages rising faster than at any time in a decade. Labour can play politics; the Conservatives deliver for the people of this country.
I am pleased that we are supporting my hon. Friend’s proposal on civil partnerships. We are working with him on his private Member’s Bill and will be supporting him on it. I understand that some small amendments are required, and officials will be discussing those with him.
It is in all our interests—and in the interests of jobs, in particular—that the Prime Minister comes back from Brussels with the right deal. We will act as a constructive Opposition—the enemy is behind her. Yesterday, the former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, said that Brexit would leave the UK a poorer and weaker country. Previously, another Conservative party leader told the BBC that “People’s jobs would be put at risk” as a result of Brexit. Does she agree with these statements?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the plan that we have put forward for our future relationship with the EU would protect jobs and livelihoods in this country and enable us to get not just that good trading relationship with the EU but good trading relationships around the rest of the world.
“People’s jobs would be put at risk”—those are the words of this Prime Minister in June 2016. No Prime Minister should negotiate a deal that threatens jobs. She must accept responsibility and avoid an economic catastrophe. Prime Minister, go to Brussels, act in the interests of all citizens across the UK and negotiate to keep us in the single market and customs union. That will command a majority in the House of Commons. Does the Prime Minister not understand that staying in the single market and the customs union is the only deal that will get through this House?
As I have explained in the Chamber on a number of occasions, and will continue to explain, our proposal delivers on the referendum vote, but also ensures that we protect jobs and livelihoods across the United Kingdom. However¸ if the right hon. Gentleman is interested in ensuring that the interests of everyone in Scotland are taken into account in the negotiations that we undertake, he should join us in recognising the importance of leaving the common fisheries policy.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for raising that issue. Inward investment in the UK is important because it supports jobs here, and we want to ensure that we remain an attractive place for that investment. We also want to encourage it through the deals that we are doing with countries around the world. Free trade deals mean greater choice, lower prices for British consumers, more export opportunities for British businesses, and increased investment here in the UK. Leaving the European Union gives us an opportunity to forge even better relationships and even better connections with the rest of the world, to encourage that inward investment and bring yet more jobs to the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do use a FreeStyle Libre, and it is now available on the national health service, but it is not the only means of continuous glucose monitoring that is available on the NHS. Yesterday I saw a letter from a child—a young girl—who had started on the FreeStyle Libre, but, because of the hypos that she had been having, had been moved to a different glucose monitoring system. There is no one system that is right for everyone; what is important is that those systems are now available on the NHS.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the seasonal workers pilot scheme that we have introduced. The horticultural sector is a particular British success story. Over the last 20 years we have seen a significant growth in soft fruit production: an increase of more than 130%. We have made clear that we are piloting the scheme and will assess how it will work. Obviously we will announce further details of the overall immigration policy that we have proposed, but we will ensure that we recognise the needs of the British economy.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue about hate crime, and we have been taking a number of steps over recent years. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has published an updated action plan, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and those young people meet the Home Secretary to discuss how that action plan can help to address the issues raised.
I thank my hon. Friend and the health and the local government Select Committees for their work on this important issue. It is important that we get social care on a sustainable footing for the future and alleviate the short-term pressures on both the social care and health systems. Obviously we have given more money to councils, but we will be publishing a Green Paper later this year setting out proposals for reform. It will look across the board at a number of proposals that have been put forward in this area, and we will certainly consider those put forward by the Committee.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the excellent news on employment: employment at a near record high, unemployment at its lowest rate since the 1970s, youth unemployment, as I said earlier, halved under this Government and at a new record low, and real wages rising. As my hon. Friend says, what that means is more people with the security of a job, more people with a regular salary, more people able to support their families. We are only able to ensure that that takes place by having a balanced approach to the economy, and that is the Conservative way.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Israeli ambassador on 11 October. He made clear the UK’s deep concerns about Israel’s planned demolition of the village of Khan al-Ahmar. Its demolition would be a major blow to the prospect of a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and I once again call on the Israeli Government not to go ahead with its plan to demolish the village, including its school, and displace its residents.
This is an extremely tragic case, and I offer my sincere condolences to Elliot’s family and friends. I understand that the condition is associated with an inherited metabolic condition. Some of these conditions are very rare and staff are not always on the lookout for symptoms of such rare conditions, but we are committed to ensuring that the NHS always seeks to learn when things go wrong, to ensure that such tragic events can be prevented for future parents. I am sure that a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and Elliot’s parents to discuss this.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Electoral Commission is an independent regulator, accountable to Parliament and not to the Government. There is a very important constitutional principle in this country that politicians do not interfere with police investigations, and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but we will be considering the wider implications for Government policy. We will review very carefully the Electoral Commission’s recent report on digital campaigning and the Information Commissioner’s recommendations on the use of data in politics. Also, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is conducting an inquiry, and we will look at its recommendations when it concludes. As regards the vote in the referendum, I must remind the hon. Gentleman that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, on a turnout of three quarters of the electorate, and it is up to this Parliament and this Government to deliver on that mandate.
First, I should like to thank my hon. Friend for his report on the use of technology in the NHS. We are dedicated to using this new funding to support technology transformation and modernisation, and capital funding is being provided to the NHS to upgrade equipment and to construct new buildings and refurbish existing ones. In the 10-year plan, we want to see the NHS embracing the opportunities of technology so that we can not only improve patient care but save more lives and deliver healthcare more efficiently.
As we announced earlier this year, we have asked the NHS to produce a 10-year plan, and we will be providing a multi-year funding settlement for the NHS. Within that, we are able to provide extra money to the NHS as a result of not sending vast amounts of money to the European Union every year when we leave the European Union. That is an advantage of Brexit.
Will the Prime Minister join me in acknowledging the tremendous amount of hard work being done by the Thame remembrance project in my constituency? Three hundred people have travelled 150,000 miles to commemorate all the 212 who lost their lives in various conflicts.
We have taken the price of parcel surcharges seriously, including those for more remote constituencies. We set up the consumer protection partnership to bring together various consumer bodies from the advice and enforcement world to look at the transparency, accuracy, level and fairness of delivery charges. I am sure that the relevant Minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further.
Could I ask my right hon. Friend to impress upon our European friends two points that I hope the House will think reasonable and practical? The first is that the European Union may not break apart the Union of the United Kingdom, and the second is that the EU may not direct how we regulate our economy and govern ourselves after we have left the European Union.
Certainly, I am very clear that when we have left the European Union we will be taking decisions here in the United Kingdom on all the issues that were previously decided in the European Union. We will be taking control of our laws, our money and our borders. On my hon. Friend’s first point, I made it clear earlier this year, have continued to make it clear and will carry on making it clear that we will not accept any proposals that would effectively break up the United Kingdom.
Given that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, does the Prime Minister accept that it would be difficult for the House to be asked to confirm a legally binding withdrawal agreement without having clear assurances and some precision about the details of the future trading relationship?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As I have always said, when we bring the withdrawal agreement package back to the House, it is important that Members are able not only to consider the withdrawal agreement, but to have sufficient detail about all aspects of the future relationship. The trading relationship is important, but our future security relationship, for both internal and external security and other issues, is also of importance. It is also important to me that there is a linkage between that future relationship and the withdrawal agreement.
Not long ago, we had the horror of three pigs’ heads being left outside a Muslim community centre in Solihull. Then English Defence League thugs came to my proud, multicultural town, but we turned our backs on them. In the light of such events, will the Prime Minister join me in utterly condemning the actions of a Solihull Green councillor, as reported in the Birmingham Mail, who has written a guide to attracting and tricking British National party voters? There is no place for pandering to racism in my town or in our politics.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There is no place in our society for pandering to racism of any sort, and that message should be sent out clearly by the whole House. He referred to what happened at one of his local mosques. The Home Secretary has been pleased to make extra money available for the security of places of worship, because we sadly see places of worship of different faiths being subjected to attacks all too often. However, my hon. Friend’s key point that there is no place for racism in our society is absolutely right.
The Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence that the lack of automatic split payments for universal credit means that women are being trapped in abusive relationships. That absolutely disgusts me, but how does it make the Prime Minister feel?
We take the issue of domestic violence and abusive relationships very seriously indeed. Split payments obviously are available when they are the right thing for couples, but we need to take a sensitive approach to cases on an individual basis. We all want to ensure that women in abusive relationships are getting the support that they need, and we should send a message of clear condemnation of that abuse from across this House.
The next time shroud-waving EU negotiators claim that a hard border is necessary on the island of Ireland, will the Prime Minister kindly ask them who would actually construct it? The Irish certainly will not and the British certainly will not, so unless the EU army plans to march in and build it, it surely can never happen.
I say to my right hon. Friend that we are all working to ensure that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That is the clear commitment of the United Kingdom Government as agreed by the European Union when we signed the December joint report.
My constituent Matthew Hedges, a young PhD student, has been held in a jail in the United Arab Emirates for more than five months, and this week he was charged with spying. Will the Prime Minister ensure that her Government make it quite clear to the UAE that Matt was in the country to do academic research, and nothing more? Will she also ensure that he receives full consular and legal support, and a fair trial, so that he can return to his wife, Dani, in England as soon as possible?
Obviously this is a very difficult and distressing time for Mr Hedges and his family. Foreign Office officials are supporting Mr Hedges and his family, and they have raised the case with the Emiratis at the highest levels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has personally raised this case with his Emirati counterpart. We are in regular contact with the Emiratis regarding Mr Hedges’s health and wellbeing, and we continue to push for consular access to ensure that he is given the support he needs.
In welcoming the Japanese Prime Minister’s suggestion that we can join the Trans-Pacific Partnership when we leave the EU, and in wishing my right hon. Friend well in the upcoming negotiations, will she please confirm that our joining and fully participating in the TPP will not be hindered by the common rulebook of the Chequers agreement and that the whole United Kingdom will benefit?
I have been pleased to discuss our potential membership of the TPP with the former Australian Prime Minister and with the Japanese Prime Minister. I am pleased that the Australian Government and the Japanese Government are welcoming us in joining the TPP. One of the issues we looked at when we put forward our proposals for our future trading relationship with the European Union was precisely whether it would mean we cannot join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—the CPTPP. I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we would be able to join the CPTPP under the relationship proposed in the Government’s plan.
My constituent came to see me earlier this year about being sexually harassed at work by a co-worker. Despite many months of meetings with her human resources department and line management, she has been treated like the problem rather than the victim. Can the Prime Minister advise me on what I can do to help my constituent to return to work and feel safe when her employer is this House?
It is important that everybody is treated with dignity and respect in their workplace. There is no place for bullying, sexual harassment or abuse in any workplace, including this Parliament. I am sure we are all very concerned about Dame Laura Cox’s report. We have been working on this issue here in this House, and I particularly commend my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has been working tirelessly to try to change our culture and practices. I hope there will be a very serious, very full and proper response to Dame Laura Cox’s report. This should worry all of us, and I want to see a situation where the constituent of the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) is able to come to work in this House and be treated with dignity and respect, and not be subject to bullying, harassment or abuse.
The UK Agriculture Bill is currently before this House. Wales, England and Northern Ireland are part of the Bill but, due to the Scottish National party, Scotland is excluded and isolated. Will my right hon. Friend commit this Government to working with all parties to deliver an Agriculture Bill that guarantees that Scotland and my constituents are not left behind?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I am happy to give him the assurance that we will work with parties in this House to ensure that Scotland is not left behind and that we have an Agriculture Bill that actually works for all of us and for all our agricultural sector.
The Prime Minister has an admirable sense of duty, so will she be honest about Brexit? There is now only one viable option in the short term that can reconcile the referendum result with the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom, with the genuine concerns of many Members on both sides of the House about the impact of a flawed deal or no deal, with our communities and with Labour’s tests. We should join the European Free Trade Association and the European economic area and seek EU agreement to remain in the customs union for a specified period from the date we leave. We should make it clear that, on joining the EEA, we will exercise our right to put an emergency brake on the free movement of labour. It may not be the perfect option, but our only consideration now should be the national interest.
The only consideration for this Government is the national interest. That is why we have put forward a proposal that delivers on the vote of the referendum; that ensures that we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 and will no longer send vast sums of money annually to the European Union; that ensures we will take control of our laws and borders; that ensures there will not be the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in this country; that ensures that free movement will end; and that also protects jobs and livelihoods, and protects the Union of the United Kingdom. That is in the national interest and that is what the Government have proposed.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance as to whether you have received notification from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that she will be making an oral statement on the employment and support allowance underpayments figures released this morning. The figures show that 180,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid by the Government—by almost £1 billion. That is significantly more than the 70,000 the DWP claimed were initially affected. I would be grateful for your guidance on how Members might have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State on these figures, as just under 200,000 disabled people may be affected.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her attempted point of order and for her courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise it. The short answer is that I have received no indication from a member of the Government of an intention to make an oral statement on this matter today or, indeed, imminently at all. Of course, a very important debate is to take place now. Whether she can use her legendary guile to highlight this matter while remaining within the terms of order is a test for her and perhaps also for others—that remains to be seen. The Secretary of State, who is in the Chamber, will have heard what has been said, and I feel sure that if the hon. Lady is persistent in seeking to raise this matter, there may be opportunities to do so in the coming days. I know she is new to the House, but she has already acquired great experience in that short time and she will know that there are mechanisms that enable Members to secure the presence of Ministers in the Chamber. We will leave it there for now.
If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) has been patiently waiting.
Collective Defined Contribution Pension Schemes
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No.23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable the establishment of collective defined contribution pension schemes; and for connected purposes.
Having worked as a solicitor specialising in pensions law for the best part of a decade before being elected to represent East Renfrewshire—yes, that was as exciting as it sounds—and as a member of the all-party group on pensions, I believe that the pension system is one of this country’s great achievements. Throughout the decades, both state and workplace pensions have existed to provide for people’s retirement, and to give them a comfortable and dignified later life. But over that long history there have also been times of great change. As circumstances change, as we live longer, and as new models and new approaches develop, the way we make that provision for people’s retirement has changed. This Bill is about the dry business of reform of private pensions and fiscal stability in a globalised complex business environment, but it is also about the 140,000 men and women working for Royal Mail across the United Kingdom, including the 143 in East Renfrewshire who serve more than 30,000 households from delivery offices in Barrhead, Clarkston and Newton Mearns, and ensuring that they get the best possible outcome in retirement.
Royal Mail currently operates a defined-benefit scheme, but as life expectancies have risen and the regulatory burden has increased, the risks and volatility inherent in a defined-benefit scheme, which provides a guaranteed level of benefits on retirement, are increasingly unaffordable. At the same time, defined-contribution schemes, in which the level of retirement provision is linked to the “pot” saved during the accumulation phase, shift pretty much the entire burden of risk towards the employee. For some time, the industry has toyed with a middle way. That is what the Bill is about.
Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have agreed in principle to introduce for the first time in the UK a new kind of pension scheme: a collective defined-contribution scheme, or CDC. The fact that this innovative development has come as a result of co-operation between employer and union is a testament to the power of constructive industrial relations in benefiting company and workforce. As a Scottish Conservative, I know that constructive action is more effective than needless confrontation, and the work of Royal Mail and the CWU in developing the CDC proposal bears that out. Indeed, I hope that this kind of positive employer behaviour and positive trade unionism can serve as an example to businesses and trade unions up and down the country. I have been greatly impressed by the modern, proactive approach to the issue taken by the CWU, and its work does the union great credit.
CDCs claim the much needed middle ground between defined-benefit schemes and defined-contribution schemes, balancing in a slightly more even way the risks, rights and responsibilities between employer and employee. That should mean higher-quality pensions that are affordable and sustainable for all involved. Although contributions, rather than benefits, are defined in CDCs, their collective aspect means that risks arising from matters such as longevity, investment and inflation are shared collectively, rather than borne by each individual member.
In an age of increased flexibility and choice, the flip from passive saver to engaged retiree can be difficult and the choice of retirement products confusing. Traditionally, annuities have offered poor value, while drawdown provides higher returns and is less reliant on market conditions at one snapshot, but the individual bears the ongoing investment risk and could exhaust their pot if they miscalculate their own longevity. If someone has a defined-contribution scheme, they effectively act as their own actuary and investment consultant or—more likely—they take a very low level of guidance on approaching retirement, having spent their entire working life invested in a default fund. That affects the level of their retirement saving.
Supporters of CDC schemes argue that they can deliver higher returns than traditional money-purchase schemes for the same level of contributions, partly because CDC pension pots would not need to take as cautious an investment approach as those in more conventional defined-contribution schemes. The need to de-risk in the years leading up to retirement to protect against a sudden drop in pot value is removed in a collective scheme. A report by the Work and Pensions Committee, which has joined the growing calls from employers, unions and others for action to allow CDCs to be established, has said that such enhanced freedom of investment could also benefit the wider economy, as CDC schemes invest more heavily in more innovative firms. It is clear that CDCs would offer major advantages for employees, compared with defined-contribution pensions. Understandably, unions and workers oppose the closure of defined-benefit schemes, but the reality is that were they to continue to open, many employers would go under and jobs would be lost.
In my seven years in practice, I advised a range of employers and trustee boards on the closure of dozens of schemes. In every case, the company in question made the same justification: the defined-benefit scheme was unaffordable and unsustainable in terms of cost and risk. Many such schemes are wholly legacy arrangements, often found in the industries least able to sustain them. Likewise, we must not ignore the fact that when a defined-benefit scheme becomes more and more of a burden on an employer, it restricts what else that employer can do. It is a drag on investment and a drag on the economy. Deficit-repair contributions and high levels of ongoing pensionable salary contributions reduce the ability to invest and to increase pay.
We need a solution that works for both employee and employer, and that is what I believe CDCs such as the one proposed by Royal Mail and the CWU to be. It would share the risks in a way that is fair and responsible. People might wonder why CDCs have not already taken off, why Royal Mail has not just gone ahead already or, indeed, why half the major employers in the UK are not rushing to set up CDC schemes. The reason is quite simply that they are not really possible under the current legislative framework. Innovative schemes of this kind cannot operate in the UK without primary legislation. Because of the way parts of the framework work, particularly in relation to the statutory funding regime, an attempt to establish a CDC would run into all kinds of practical difficulties.
There have been calls to use the Pension Schemes Act 2015 or the Pensions Act 2011 to introduce CDCs, but those pieces of legislation are bound up with various other issues. I firmly believe that the best approach is to introduce clear primary legislation specifically aimed at the introduction of CDCs of the kind proposed by Royal Mail and the CWU.
CDC pension schemes already operate in countries such as the Netherlands, Canada and Denmark, and we can learn from that experience—both good and bad. I am pleased that the UK Government have recognised that. The UK Government’s pension reforms, and automatic enrolment in particular, have been hugely successful, and I am glad that the Government have recognised that the introduction of these innovative and desirable pension schemes would build on that great success, but they are not a silver bullet. There are questions and considerations regarding the practical operation and scheme design, but that is not a reason simply to sit on our hands when employers and employee representative bodies wish to look seriously as this option for workplace pension saving. We should not be fooled into thinking that they are a magic solution to all problems—they are not—but they are a serious, credible and valid option that this Government should legislate to permit.
I very much welcome the announcement by the pensions Minister of a consultation this autumn on the introduction of CDC pensions—although I did kind of expect it to have been brought forward already—and I hope that the Government can make progress on that consultation as soon as possible. I hope that, by bringing in this Bill today, I can help to encourage that process along and give the Minister a helpful nudge along the way.
As a Conservative, I do not believe that we should allow the state and regulation to get in the way of employers and employees working together to develop an innovative solution that works to their mutual benefit. We should institute this common-sense, free market reform, so that this union-backed solution to a 21st century business problem can progress. [Interruption.]
No. The hon. Gentleman was just taking some exercise. We are very grateful to him—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) says that he is standing up for himself. Well, people often do not know whether or not I am standing up.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Masterton, John Lamont, Kirstene Hair, Nigel Mills, Richard Graham and Frank Field present the Bill.
Paul Masterton accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 274).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the urgent question on clinical waste incineration yesterday, in response to my question, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), assured me that the TUPE process was being pursued for my constituents in Normanton where they have lost the contract for NHS waste. However, I have heard from some of those constituents today that they have been told that they will not be TUPE-ed and that no process is being followed. This is clearly a very serious concern, given that we would expect there to be both legal and moral obligations towards hardworking staff who have great expertise and experience in waste management. Have you heard anything from the Department of Health and Social Care or the Minister about changing the answer that I was given yesterday, or about anything that has changed since?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for her point of order. The short answer is that, no, I have had no indication that a Minister intends to come to the House to correct the record. As she will be well aware, every Member of this House, including every Minister, is responsible for the accuracy of what he or she says in this place. If it is thought that an error has been made, it is the responsibility of the erring Member to put the record straight. May I politely suggest that the right hon. Lady seeks to engage with the Minister today? She may well find that that provides some satisfaction. If that turns out not to be the case, I know of no Member more versatile and experienced in this place in ensuring that what she wants to be aired in the Chamber is aired in the Chamber. This matter will have to be resolved sooner rather than later—either privately or publicly. I hope that that is helpful to her.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since I came into this House, I have campaigned on greater access to off-patent drugs for people with the most serious conditions. In recent years, the drug repurposing group has produced a very important report on this, and many people are waiting to see whether the Government will act on its recommendations. I put in a written question to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and the response I got was simply that there would be a Government response in due course. That was disappointing to many people. Mr Speaker, can you advise me on how I might get a more precise answer to the question?
Well, the opportunities available to the hon. Gentleman are very real. [Interruption.] They are almost endless, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) chunters from a sedentary position with due mindfulness of what he speaks. First, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) can table further questions to try to extract the information that he seeks and, secondly, if he is still dissatisfied he can of course seek an Adjournment debate on the matter. Who knows? He might find that his application for an Adjournment debate, which would give him an opportunity for concentrated focus on the subject and engagement with the responsible Minister, would bear fruit. I think we will leave it there for now. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and that he feels enlightened and inspired.
[17th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any briefing papers or analysis provided to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since 8 January 2018 on the impact of the roll-out of universal credit on recipients’ and household income and on benefits debts.
Universal credit, the Government’s flagship social security programme, has been beset by flaws in its design and delivery. It is causing immense hardship for many people wherever it is rolled out. It is hard to believe now, but universal credit was designed to lift people out of poverty and smooth the transition into work to ensure that it always pays. The reality is that universal credit is a vehicle for cuts: cuts in support for families with a disabled child for whom the basic rate of support is half what it is in tax credits; cuts in support for disabled people in work, such as the disabled person who wrote to us saying that they are more than £300 a month worse off since switching from claiming working tax credits; and cuts in support for lone parents bringing up children, who will get more than £20 a week less on average, with many losing far more.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to start with the issue on how universal credit is impacting on those with disabilities, the vulnerable and the unwell. I have a constituent who is caring for her disabled daughter and who has her own mental health problems. She was given the wrong advice by the Department for Work and Pensions and was left with £1,000 of rent arrears and universal credit not paid. What a shambles this policy is.
Let me make some progress.
Overall, 3.2 million families with children could lose around £50 a week. People are worried, but there is no clarity from the Government. The Prime Minister told this House that no one would be worse off, yet The Times reported that the Secretary of State told Cabinet colleagues that households could lose up to £200 a month. Being forced to manage on a low income that is then cut still further means tough choices for the families affected. The DWP’s own survey of claimants published in June showed that nearly half of new universal credit claimants are falling behind with bills. Even six months later, four in 10 are still struggling to cope financially.
I will make some progress and then I will take some interventions.
For more than a year now, Opposition Members have been calling on the Government to address the policy’s many flaws. I am talking about: the insistence on digital by default when many people trying to make a claim are either not able to use IT or do not have access to it; the monthly payment in arrears when so many people on low incomes are used to being paid fortnightly or even weekly; its inability to cope with fluctuating income that is part and parcel of life on low-paid, insecure work or self-employment; and the payment to a single person in a household that can make it more difficult for someone suffering domestic violence to leave an abusive relationship.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree, first, that we should call a halt to this process; secondly, that many people have been driven into the hands of money lenders; thirdly, that many people have found themselves in rent arrears; and, fourthly, that usage of food banks has gone up as a result of this policy?
My hon. Friend makes a number of pertinent points. He is absolutely right to call on the Government to halt the roll-out of universal credit.
Other flaws include: the online journal in which people have to record the jobs that they have spent 35 hours a week applying for, but which work coaches often struggle to find the time to monitor; and the five-week wait for a payment at the start of a claim. According to the latest Government figures, 17% of claims were not paid in full and on time, and one person in 10 did not receive any payment at all. Groups such as carers or parents who need help with childcare are more likely than others to have to wait for their first payment. The latest figures show that only a third of people who are ill or disabled were paid on time.
The hon. Gentleman is getting ahead of himself, because there is no evidence that the Government can demonstrate whether universal credit gets people into work.
The Government’s answer to the delays was to provide advances, but they have to be paid back, as do debts for utility bills, council tax or rent arrears that people will probably have built up while waiting. The maximum percentage that can be taken out of universal credit for repayments is 40%. How is someone already trying to manage on such low income supposed to cope when such a large slice of their support is taken away at the source? And yet—in the face of all of the evidence—the Government have insisted on pressing ahead and accelerating the roll-out of universal credit since May this year, at the same time as carrying out a rapid programme of closing one in 10 jobcentres. The Government plan to increase the workload of work coaches fourfold and that of case managers sixfold as the roll-out continues. Staff are under constant pressure and are switched back and forth between processing claims and answering phone calls about problems with them.
From next year things are set to get a whole lot worse, as the Government prepare to embark on the next phase of universal credit—so-called managed migration—which will require almost 3 million people claiming the benefits that universal credit is replacing, such as tax credits and employment and support allowance, to make a new claim for universal credit instead. As hon. Members are aware, there is nothing managed about it.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head; he is absolutely right to raise that issue.
The Government plan to place the entire burden on the claimants themselves to successfully make a claim, rather than the DWP automatically transferring them across. Under the Government’s regulations—as currently drafted—a letter will drop through the letterbox on to the mat, telling people that their existing claim will end and that they will have a month to make a new claim for universal credit. Labour believes that it is without precedent for a UK Government to place all the responsibility of making a claim on the millions of individuals who the Government know to be in need, putting people at risk of falling out of the system altogether. The Government are doing this despite all the evidence of the serious difficulties that people are facing when making a claim.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the strengths of the system is that people apply for only one benefit under universal credit, so it is much less complex? Indeed, many people will get a benefit to which they did not previously know they were entitled.
When the hon. Lady looks at the drop-out rate and the number of people who actually fail to complete a claim, I think that she will probably revise the comment that she just made.
Over half the households that will be required to move across will be working families—people in work whose income is too low support them—while over a third will have been claiming ESA, which means they have been assessed by the Government as too ill or disabled to work. Just receiving the letter will be very unsettling for someone with a mental health condition or a learning difficulty.
I am taking no more interventions. [Interruption.] Well, I am short of time and many people have applied to speak.
Receiving the letter will also be unsettling when people have been on their existing benefit for a significant period. Of course, some people may miss the letter altogether. Also, they may well struggle to fill the form in on time and to get the necessary advice because, due to this Government’s cuts, the advice agencies are stretched to the limit. There is provision for the deadline to be extended but many people will not be aware of that. The Government have admitted that they do not know how many people overall will need additional support to make a new claim.
The Prime Minister assured us last week that people required to transfer to universal credit would not be worse off because they will receive transitional protection—an additional payment that tops up someone’s universal credit to the same level of the benefits that they were previously receiving. However, that only lasts for two years and could be lost when someone’s circumstances change, which can include such basic life events as moving in with a partner or separating from them.
If people lose transitional protection, they will find that the support they receive under universal credit is often significantly lower. For example, there is no enhanced disability premium, which is currently claimed by over 1.4 million people, and no severe disability premium, which is claimed by another 500,000 of the most severely disabled people who live alone. There is even a danger that many of the most vulnerable will fall out of the social security system altogether and be left without any income at all. According to the latest figures, almost 30% of universal credit claims started are never completed. Do the Government not care about what happens to these people?
The Government say that universal credit will lend to greater take-up, but not if people cannot make a claim in the first place. People with low literacy skills, a learning disability or no IT access are likely to find it difficult to cope with a complex online system. [Interruption.]
This is a really serious matter and the hon. Gentleman would do well to focus on the issue at hand.
If we translate the percentage of claims that are closed before they are completed to the nearly 3 million people the Government want to transfer across, we can see that nearly 1 million people are at risk of falling out of the social security system altogether.
Food banks are reporting that they are running out of food. In August, Department for Work and Pensions officials carried out a study to identify areas where DWP operational practices contributed to a rise in demand for food bank services. I think that any Member of the House will know the answer to that.
I am going to make some progress.
When the National Audit Office raised the alarm with its damning report back in June, the Government misrepresented its findings and stubbornly claimed that it did not take account of changes that they had made, but they will not publish the figures that would enable the public and Parliament to hold them to account. This week in the Chamber, the Secretary of State met criticism of universal credit with accusations of scaremongering, so I will ask again: are Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers, Mencap, Mind, Scope, Parkinson’s UK, the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, the Resolution Foundation, the National Audit Office, the Archbishop of Canterbury and two former Prime Ministers scaremongering? The confusion of the last fortnight has caused families real concern about the transfer to universal credit and they deserve answers, so will the Government publish all reports and analysis that they have carried out into the effects of universal credit since the Secretary of State took office? People have a right to know.
The social security system should be there for any of us should we need it, yet the Government’s flagship programme has brought real hardship. How did it come to this—that people are facing hunger and destitution in the fifth largest economy in the world? It cannot be right. The Government must wake up and open their eyes to what is happening. That is why Labour Members are calling on the Government to stop the roll-out of universal credit.
It is good to be here again to update the House on universal credit—for the third time this week. I know that many Members want to speak in this debate. I know too, Mr Speaker, that you are always anxious to hear Back Benchers speak, as am I, so I will keep my remarks as brief as possible.
I have been forthright with colleagues across the House—and in my speech at Reform earlier this year—about universal credit’s strong merits and the areas that we need to improve. In fact, in my Reform speech, I said that I would improve universal support, and I delivered on that this month. Since becoming Secretary of State, I have changed the system to provide extra support for those with severe disabilities, vulnerable young 18 to 21-year-olds and kinship carers. I am also working with colleagues to identify areas where we can make more improvements.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, although the Government will always want to do more, eight out of 10 universal credit claimants are actually satisfied with their experience, and believe that it is good and helping them into work?
My hon. Friend is correct. Those are the figures and that is what people are saying. We know that universal credit is working and getting people into work because our employment figures that came out yesterday show that over 3.3 million more people are in work since 2010. So we know that we are moving forward.
I will continue just a little bit further.
In less than 10 months, my ministerial colleagues and I have met over 500 colleagues, charities and stakeholders. We have come to the House on 56 occasions; visited 46 jobcentres, service centres and pension centres; tabled 34 written ministerial statements; and appeared in front of Select Committees 12 times. My Department has published 637 responses to parliamentary questions, 153 pieces of guidance, 102 statistical releases, 30 research reports, and 23 consultations. We have gone to great lengths to be open.[Official Report, 22 October 2018, Vol. 648, c. 1MC.]
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, who is doing an excellent job in improving an intrinsically good system and dealing with the little difficulties we need to sort out. Given that it is crucial that there is enough incentive for people to get into work, will she confirm that one of the improvements is to lower the rate of withdrawal so that it is more worth while to work, and will she push for that to be improved further?
My right hon. Friend is quite correct. As he will know—and everybody in the House should know—under the legacy benefits there were punitive tax rates of over 90%. We have now brought that down to 63%. As an advocate of people who want to get into work, he is right: we should aim to get that taper rate down even further.
We also took the unusual step, earlier this year, of publishing a summary of the universal credit business case, which explained the economic case for universal credit, showing that it will help 200,000 more people into work when fully rolled out, and empower people to work 113 million extra hours.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, can I just point out that there are approximately 65 hon. and right hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate, and considerably less than four hours in which people can be called, so the less noise, the greater the progress.
One in four workers in my constituency is self-employed—obviously, they are working and contributing. Is the Secretary of State aware that the minimum income floor means that many of them will be ineligible for universal credit if they cannot pay themselves the living wage in any given month? Surely we should be encouraging self-employed people, not penalising them.
Obviously the hon. Gentleman will understand a lot about the minimum income floor because he was in the coalition when we came forward with those policies. We decided at the time that if people were not earning enough—if their business was not earning them enough and they were not on a minimum wage—we would then help them to go into work, and therefore they could have a better wage if their business was not working in that regard.
We published the information I mentioned alongside hundreds of reports on universal credit each year by outside bodies—independent organisations like the Office for Budget Responsibility, the National Audit Office, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation, the House of Commons Library, and numerous others. So we are open with our information.
One of the representations the Secretary of State will have received is from the Residential Landlords Association saying that a majority of its members are now not willing to let accommodation to universal credit claimants because they quickly get into arrears and cannot pay the rent. Is she proposing some change to address that specific problem?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we have made various changes to make sure that we can pay direct to the landlords—that we can give alternative payments. It is only right that we do that. However, when we talk about the difficulties that claimants have got into, it is good to look at the legacy benefits and Labour’s track record. Between 1997 and 2010, benefits claimants’ debt to local authorities increased by £1.8 billion through overpayment and errors in the legacy system. On tax credits, introduced by the Opposition, claimants got into £5.86 billion-worth of debt through error and overpayments. That is a shameful record from the Opposition.
Let me get back to the independent reports, what is happening, and what is being made publicly available. We are learning from the evidence, building on that evidence, and making decisions so that we can improve the system as it goes further. [Hon. Members: “Give way!”] The power to choose who is going to get a question!
Is not the real way to combat poverty to get people off benefits and into work, is not the evidence that people on universal credit are more likely to get back into work than people on the old benefits, and is not that the real test of this system’s success?
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), whose grinning countenance belies an aggressiveness of spirit in this matter, that it is not really in order to yell out, “On the same point,” as a way of trying to ensure that one is called.