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Commons Chamber

Volume 649: debated on Monday 19 November 2018

House of Commons

Monday 19 November 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Workless Households

May I take this opportunity to thank my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), for her great leadership of this Department and particularly for her work on the Disability Confident campaign, which she set up?

The number of workless households has decreased by 964,000 since 2010, and currently stands at 3 million; this is a decrease of 24%. As the Office for National Statistics reported last week, the employment rate now stands at a near record high of 75.5 %, with a record 23.93 million people in full-time employment. In fact, there are now more than 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and welcome her back to her place on the Front Bench. Worklessness can hold people back in so many ways. Does my right hon. Friend agree that having people in employment can broaden the horizons not just of the person in work, but of the whole household?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that children in workless families are disadvantaged in their development, as well as in their future prospects, which is why we will continue to develop policies that support and encourage employment, strengthening parents’ incentives to move into and progress in work.

May I also express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) for her service and welcome the Secretary of State to her new position? I look forward to welcoming her to Stirling in due course.

Children in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. Does the Secretary of State agree that work is always the best route out of poverty and that our reforms are beginning to transform lives for old and young?

I very much look forward to my visit to Stirling. My hon. Friend has made a good point; work is the pillar of a strong economy and a strong society. We believe that work should pay, but we need a welfare system that helps people into work and then supports them when they are in work. Universal credit will result in an extra 200,000 people moving into work and will enable people to work extra hours during the year, empowering a great working nation.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her position.

Regrettably, unemployment in Wolverhampton is going up and the numbers in my constituency remain stubbornly high. What are the Government’s policies and what are they going to do to bring down unemployment in areas such as mine?

The best way to bring down unemployment is to have a strong economy. The Government are focused on making sure that that is what we deliver, but I also hope that the roll-out of universal credit, with the benefit of work coaches, will help the hon. Lady’s constituents to find the work that they want to do.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position.

There are only 220 registered unemployed people in my constituency and nearly 2,200 children living below the poverty line, which tells us that poverty is far more complex in its causes than we sometimes think. Would the Secretary of State consider introducing mandatory poverty impact assessments for all Government policies, including those that have a specific impact on rural communities such as excessive transport and housing costs, as well as the likely impact of withdrawing the basic payment system for farmers?

The hon. Gentleman has raised quite a few points. Let me start by congratulating his constituency and celebrating the fact that there are only 220 people there without work. I hope that the roll-out of universal credit will help them to find the additional work that they seek. He has raised a number of issues about the cost of living in his constituency. If I may, I will come back to him on those matters.

Working-age Benefits

The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 froze the majority of working-age benefits for four tax years from 2016-17. Those provisions will lapse in 2020, and the pre-existing statutory arrangements will come back into force.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the value of working-age benefits has fallen by 6.4% since 2014. What does the Minister think it tells us about the Government of which he is a part that the Chancellor’s priority in the Budget was to give a tax cut to higher rate taxpayers like him and me, rather than addressing that?

The reality is that the poorest fifth in society are £400 a year better off in real terms, and the richest fifth in society are £800 worse off.

The report from the UN special rapporteur on poverty in the UK was scathing. Professor Alston referred to a

“punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach”

and the “misery” that it caused, in relation to the cuts and changes to the social security system, including universal credit and the freeze on benefits. Does the Minister agree with him that in the UK, poverty “is a political choice”?

We disagreed with the findings, but we did take the opportunity to share our record of delivering record employment, a simplified benefits system that helps some of the most vulnerable people in society and 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty, as well as our proactive work with stakeholders, which is delivering real life opportunities for all in society.

Universal Credit

3. What steps the Government have taken to support claimants through universal credit managed migration. (907657)

The regulations were laid before the House on 5 November, following consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee. We are working with a wide range of stakeholders on processes to ensure that vulnerable claimants are moved smoothly on to universal credit.

May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her well deserved return to the Front Bench? Croydon South is one of the constituencies with the highest level of universal credit roll-out, at 43%, and in general it is helping people back into work. There are, however, some technical anomalies relating to the timing of the assessment period as people come off work and into benefits or where they receive two salary payments in the same assessment period. Will the Secretary of State look into that particular anomaly and, if appropriate, make some small technical adjustments?

I have a number of matters that I will be looking into, having taken on this important new role. My hon. Friend raises an important point. I would point out to him that universal credit is successfully a dynamic assessment, so if somebody is paid twice during one month, the benefit payments will reflect that and then be adjusted the following month, but I am quite prepared to look at any issues he wants to bring me.

I am very glad that my right hon. Friend is back. Another thing to look into is the case of Emily Lydon, reported in The Sunday Times, because it is vital that the roll-out of universal credit is both measured and continually improved.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome. I share his view that it is vital that as universal credit is rolled out, we learn from any errors and adjust it, to ensure that it properly serves the people it is intended for. Of course I will look into that case—I saw the report—and, if appropriate, come back to him.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. I will ask her an easy question. The Government will bring forward regulations on the migration of beneficiaries of the existing benefits to universal credit. Will she not bring forward the debate on those regulations until we have received the Select Committee report and the Social Security Advisory Committee has had another chance to look at the Government’s important amendments?

I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman has properly badged that as an easy question. I will have to take a look at that and come back to him, I am afraid.

In Hull, we have the amazing Welfare Rights service, which gives free and impartial advice to the people of Hull, but one of its concerns at the moment is a decision to move all universal support to the citizens advice bureau, which will take funding away from fantastic services such as Welfare Rights. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how giving the money to the CAB will have a negative unintended consequence on our wonderful Welfare Rights service in Hull?

I am very interested in responding to specific cases such as the one the hon. Lady raises. It is important that we provide the additional service. That is why we are working with Citizens Advice to provide a consistent service, but certainly she should come to the Department and meet either me or the Minister to discuss that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend and neighbour back to the Front Bench, and I pay tribute to her predecessor, whom I enjoyed working for over many months. The Secretary of State will be well aware of Hastings Direct, a company that employs her constituents and mine. Will she pay credit to that company for holding a universal credit surgery with our jobcentre teams, which has helped people to find more access to benefits? One couple with a young child found that they were entitled to an extra £600 per month. Does that not show that universal credit works as a signpost, to help people into the benefits structure and increase their earnings?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for raising the important work that Hastings Direct has done. It is a really good example of a public-private partnership making sure that the benefits of universal credit are set out for employers in an environment in which the employer and the employed can work closely together to get the best outcome.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. Her predecessor suggested that a range of expert charities had welcomed the Chancellor’s intervention on universal credit, when in actual fact they wanted him to go further—much further. This new Secretary of State wields significant power, more than any of her five predecessors in the past three years, by virtue of the Prime Minister’s precarious position. Will she use that power to listen to those expert charities and halt universal credit until it is fixed?

I would not want to overstate what the hon. Gentleman calls my power, but I am certainly going to be listening very carefully. Part of the benefit of the universal credit roll-out will be making sure we get the expert guidance from the people who have been working in this field for many years, and we will certainly be doing that.

I welcome the Secretary of State on her return to the Government Front Bench.

The report of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said, when asked about the problems that universal credit claimants are facing, that:

“Government ministers were…entirely dismissive”.

Thus far, the Government have been determined to press ahead with the next phase of the roll-out, despite clear warnings from over 80 organisations working with disabled people who will be affected that many people could fall out of the social security system altogether and be in risk of destitution. Will the new Secretary of State end the Government’s state of denial, scrap the managed migration regulations and stop the roll-out of universal credit?

I have seen the report by the rapporteur—I read it over the weekend—and I must say that I was disappointed, to say the least, by the extraordinary political nature of his language. We on the Conservative Benches will always engage with professionals, experts and non-governmental organisations—we are not so proud that we do not think we can learn as we try to adjust universal credit for the benefit of everybody—but that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and actually discredited a lot of what he was saying. We look forward to working with experts in the area to make sure that we get the right outcome for the people whom we want to look after.

Care Leavers: Employment

This Government are committed to supporting care leavers. We have introduced a £1,000 bursary to those starting an apprenticeship, extended paid internship opportunities across Government, launched a care leaver covenant and are upskilling our Jobcentre Plus staff.

What work is the Minister doing with Barnardo’s, and what impact is the See Potential programme having?

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), who made it a personal priority of hers to introduce Barnardo’s not only to help train and improve the guidance for all of our frontline staff, but to offer a comprehensive work experience programme and opportunities for care leavers. This is a vital part of our See Potential work, as we unlock their undoubted potential.

What more can be done for constituents such as mine living in YMCA properties who are still going to college, yet cannot afford the bus fare or to feed themselves? That is exactly what has happened to a constituent of mine.

We are looking very carefully at all of the ways that we can make sure care leavers have the same opportunities that others take for granted. For example, through second chance learning, care leavers aged 18 to 22 are still able to access full benefits while having a second opportunity to learn. There is the £1,000 bursary for those who choose an apprenticeship, and the £2,000 bursary for those who choose higher education.

Universal Credit: Getting People into Work

5. What steps she is taking to measure progress on her Department’s objective of getting 200,000 more people into work through universal credit. (907659)

Under the universal credit business case, we expect universal credit to deliver an economic benefit of £8 billion a year in steady state, and result in 200,000 more people moving into work. We published a labour market evaluation strategy on 8 June, setting out how these impacts will be measured.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but a recent Public Accounts Committee report on universal credit found that the Department, as it has in fact admitted, cannot empirically measure the number of people who are going back to work. I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place, but may I encourage her to read this report? How on earth, if the data are not reliable, can we meaningfully achieve any kind of target?

I encourage the hon. Lady to look at the document we have published about what we will be doing to measure this number. However, I also point her to the record levels of employment: the fact that there are more people in work in the economy right now than ever before, and that unemployment is at a 43-year record low. Jobs are being created and people are moving into work, and that is largely due to the welfare reforms that we have introduced.

Will the Minister elaborate on how much better off families on universal credit are now as a result of measures introduced in the Budget?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Earlier this year we introduced £1.5 billion of support, and in the Budget there was £4.5 billion of support. I say to Opposition Members that it is all very well calling for support, but they also have to vote for these measures, which they never actually do.

The Minister knows that there are huge problems with the roll-out of universal credit in terms of debt, hardship and rent arrears. The new Secretary of State, whom I congratulate on her new post, needs to take time to look at those problems and address the severe poverty that is being caused, not to dismiss the UN report. I urge her and all the Work and Pensions Ministers to halt the roll-out. It will hit my constituency at the end of this month, and frankly, people are deeply worried that we are going to see delays, debt and hardship at Christmas. I urge Ministers: halt this roll-out now.

I hope that the right hon. Lady would also recognise that there are 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty now than in 2010, when she was in government. If she is concerned about her constituents, I would be happy to talk to her and her local jobcentre to provide them with the assurances that they need.

The target is getting 200,000 extra people into work through universal credit. How many have been delivered so far?

Since the hon. Gentleman is keen to talk about the number of people in work, I point him to the universal credit claimant survey, which we published in June. It showed that under universal credit, employment levels almost double between the point of the claim and nine months into it.

Pensions Dashboard

6. What steps the Government have taken to support industry to deliver the pensions dashboard. (907660)

The pensions dashboard is the great leap forward for the pensions industry, and the Government are 100% behind it. We have consulted the industry at length and will publish our feasibility study very shortly.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The pensions dashboard will be a welcome addition to the information available to Torbay residents about their retirement plans. What work will the Government do, though, to ensure that pension schemes relating to employers of all sizes are included?

In Torbay, 7,000 people now have the benefit of an auto-enrolled pension. We want to ensure that my hon. Friend’s constituents have online access to as much of their retirement savings in one place as is humanly possible through the pensions dashboard, and that is what we are going to do.

Many of my constituents contacted me to express concern that the Government were going to scrap the pensions dashboard. I welcome the Minister’s 100% commitment, but can he tell us exactly when it is going to be delivered?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that a feasibility study and consultation are pending, but I will be happy to discuss the dashboard with him in more detail if he will bear with me. There is no question but that the thousands of people in his constituency who have had the benefit of auto-enrolment, and the many thousands of employers supporting those employees, will be benefiting from the process.

Budget 2018: Disabled People

In the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a £1,000 a year increase in the work allowances under universal credit, which will provide a £630 boost to working disabled people and families on low incomes. That is in addition to the additional support for claimants in receipt of severe disability premium announced in June.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Will she join me in welcoming the success of the Disability Confident programme, which many employers in both the private and public sectors are embracing with enthusiasm? Is it making a difference to the number of disabled people who are in employment?

I am delighted to echo my hon. Friend’s words. We are determined that every disabled person has the opportunity to fulfil their potential, and Disability Confident has helped many employers recruit and retain talented disabled people. The latest data indicates that there are now 3.9 million disabled people in work, which is an increase of 973,000 since 2013.

Somerset’s economy is characterised by tens of thousands of small businesses and start-ups. How many start-up loans have been granted to people with disabilities, and what steps is the Department taking to help to ensure that those with disabilities across the Wells constituency have the support that they need to start their own small business?

That is an excellent question. The new enterprise allowance supports people to set up a business, and a quarter of the 220,000 new entrepreneurs have a self-declared disability. The personal support package, the Work and Health programme and Access to Work all support self-employed disabled people. A record 33,860 people were supported through Access to Work this year, an increase of 13% on last year.

That may be so, but the charity Scope reports that the disability employment gap has remained stubbornly at 30% for about a decade. Will the Minister make a bold commitment to disabled people up and down the country and reinstate the previous target of halving the disability employment gap?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, like Scope, welcome data published last week by the Office for National Statistics showing that, for the first time since records were kept, there are more disabled people in work than out of work. We are utterly determined to close that unemployment gap to make sure that the whole nation draws on all the talents of disabled people.

The Department for Work and Pensions was due to bring forward regulations to protect the severe disability premium. Can the Minister tell the House when we expect to see them published?

A very good question. The regulations will be published before Christmas, and I hope that everyone in the House will vote for them so that people on the severe disability premium will have that protected in universal credit.

The DWP has repeatedly ignored evidence of the devastating impact of cuts to social security on disabled people. The UN report into extreme poverty found that

“compassion...has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and...callous approach”

to social security. The Government have a history of dismissing UN recommendations on disabled people, but the Department now has a chance to end that. Will the Minister finally listen and accept the conclusions of the most recent UN report?

We are putting in place record levels of funding to support people with disabilities. In every single year of this Government we increase our expenditure for people with disabilities. I published a very full response to the previous UN report, and I utterly repudiate the conclusion that this country does not support disabled people. I am determined to make sure that every disabled person in our country has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

The UN report condemned the Government’s sanctions regime as “debilitating”, “draconian”, “harsh” and “arbitrary”, and urged the Government to conduct an independent review, yet Ministers recently admitted that they broke their promise and failed to carry out such a review. Has the Department learnt its lessons about creating a hostile environment, and will the Minister commit to carrying out an independent review of sanctions and conditionality on disabled people?

The benefit system is there to provide personalised and tailored support for its recipients. There were factual errors in the reporting by the UN rapporteur. For example, on mandatory reconsiderations, he absolutely denied the fact that decisions were overturned, yet 19% of mandatory reconsiderations found in favour of disabled people. We have undertaken a huge number of independent reviews of our benefit system and we do not hesitate in making improvements when they are identified.

Universal Credit Roll-out: Personal Finances

8. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the personal finances of claimants. (907662)

Universal credit allows claimants to work and earn more, and the evidence is that people on universal credit are moving into work faster. We believe that everyone who can work should be given every support to get into work. That is what the job coaches are doing.

The Child Poverty Action Group found that almost half of those moving on to universal credit needed support, which is often not available, to set up their claim. If they miss their deadline, they receive no transitional protection and no back-dated credit, and they have to wait a further five weeks for payment. With the new Secretary of State leading the Department, is it not time for the Government to pause the roll-out of this benefit and look again at wiping out these very, very serious wrongs in the system?

If the individual claimant is vulnerable, there can be backdating, but for those who need extra support, there are advances of 100% from day one and also budgeting support. We are creating a brand new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver a better universal support service.

New figures confirm that one in five jobs in London is now low-paid—below the London living wage. That is the highest proportion there has ever been, so working people are also in poverty and need the protection of universal credit, yet the qualifying period is casting many families into very severe hardship. What action will the Minister take to deal with that problem so that people can understand that work will pay, rather than casting them further into hardship?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government introduced the living wage, which is enhanced annually, and that we raised the tax threshold, which assisted individuals. She will also be aware that there is child support for education and that we are freezing fuel duty. All these cost-of-living measures have been of assistance to local people.

The UN’s damaging report highlights Wales as having the worst poverty rate in the UK, but because social security powers are not devolved to Wales, the Welsh Government are scarcely able to replicate the Scottish Government’s excellent work in alleviating Westminster-driven poverty. Will the Minister commit to stopping the roll-out in Wales until the present problems are resolved and propose the devolution of universal credit powers to enable our country’s Government to reduce poverty and suffering?

My understanding is that 46 out of 59 offices in Wales have now rolled out the full UC service. The hon Lady will be aware that household incomes have never been higher and that 1 million fewer people are living in absolute poverty compared with in 2010, including 300,000 children.

Universal Credit Managed Migration

9. What steps her Department is taking to identify people on legacy benefits with high support needs who will be required to transfer to universal credit managed migration. (907663)

We welcomed the recent report by the Social Security Advisory Committee and have accepted nearly all its recommendations. We are determined that all claimants are supported through this process, particularly the most vulnerable, and we will be working collaboratively with our stakeholders to ensure that those in need of additional support receive the assistance they require.

None of the changes to universal credit managed migration that were announced in the Budget will help people whose debilitating mental illness means that they are too anxious and unwell to open their post and are deeply fearful of any new assessment process. I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post, but what will she do to ensure that no one is left without income during the managed migration process, and will she commit to halt the roll-out until such a guarantee can be given?

I know that the new Secretary of State is very passionate about focusing on this particular area. There will be four to six months of comprehensive preparation for those looking to migrate. There will be personalised communication and information on the support available, and our highly trained and experienced staff will identify vulnerable claimants, such as those with mental health conditions, so that we can instead offer home visits or telephone calls, or even delay or stop the migration process if that is appropriate for the individual claimant.

Does the Minister agree that the system of implicit consent is absolutely essential for claimants with high support needs under the legacy system, and that it must be rolled out and extended to universal credit urgently and before managed migration begins?

There is real merit in that point. From talking to stakeholders, particularly social housing companies and local authorities, I think that when we can find a way to connect up stakeholders, including the most vulnerable claimants in particular, it increases the chance of making the process as smooth as possible.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post.

On 13 November, Mind wrote to me to outline its fears about how the approach of the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to the managed migration of universal credit created a real risk that many people with mental health problems could be left without an income altogether in the move to universal credit. Will the new Secretary of State take the opportunity to make a clear statement of independence from her predecessor, take note of the grave concerns of Mind, Macmillan and others, and withdraw these regulations immediately?

No, because these migrations will bring in very important additional supports, as each and every Member needs to bear in mind when the vote comes forward. We work closely with stakeholders, and I remind Opposition Members that under legacy benefits, more than 700,000 people, who include some of the most vulnerable claimants—the people who contact us as constituency MPs—are, on average, missing out on £285 a month because those legacy benefits are complex and not personalised. It is absolutely right that we do this, but in a controlled and sensible manner.

Universal Credit: Rent Arrears

10. If she will make an assessment of the effect of universal credit on trends in the level of rent arrears. (907664)

Many claimants come on to universal credit with pre-existing rent arrears, but we have introduced new measures to make additional payments of two weeks’ housing benefit to support claimants as they transition to universal credit, and to extend trusted partner status to social landlords to further support our claimants.

Universal credit rolls out in Hull just before Christmas, and the council is already preparing for expected increases in rent arrears. I am sure that the Minister will have watched Sean McAllister’s film “A Northern Soul” on BBC 2 last night. It featured Steve Arnott, a low-paid worker, and his work on the Beats Bus inspiring children on the council estates of Hull. The film showed in-work poverty, food poverty and child poverty. Can the Minister guarantee that the families in that film and in Hull will be better off when universal credit is introduced in December?

The key to universal credit is that, for the first time, a claimant will get personalised, tailored support that can help them navigate all the forms of support available. Under legacy benefits, more than 700,000 people, among whom are some of the most vulnerable people, miss out on an average of £285 a month. Those on universal credit will typically spend 50% longer looking for work. This is key to unlocking the potential of all claimants to improve their life chances.

Thenue housing association in my constituency tells me that errors in universal credit, such as the system retaining the wrong landlord details despite the claimant having asked for that to be corrected, have meant that some tenants have ended up two months in arrears through no fault of their own. What will the Minister do to fix the system before people end up in debt as a result?

I am very sorry to hear of that. If there are specific cases, please do not hesitate to highlight them. Through the roll-out of the landlord portal, which has been warmly welcomed by social housing companies and local authorities, there is an opportunity for claimants and housing bodies to work together to manage this migration process smoothly.

The Minister knows that the five-week delay under universal credit forces people into debt right at the start of their claim, which too often leads to rent arrears and other hardships. I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post. Will the Minister encourage her to take a fresh look at this indefensible five-week delay in particular?

As we have pointed out, those transitioning from legacy benefits will get the additional two weeks of housing benefit and, with the new measures announced, two weeks of either their employment and support allowance, their jobseeker’s allowance or their income support, as well as access to advance payments from day one. The key thing is that this system mirrors the world of work. For the vast majority of people, their aim is to get into work, and in work they would expect to be paid in arrears. They would have to deal with that at the same time as going back into work, whereas now the personalised work coach can provide support by giving them access to advance benefits and pointing them to the support offered by Citizens Advice and our wider universal credit support network. It is about providing that support as people prepare themselves for the world of work.

PIP and Universal Credit: Tribunal Appeals

12. What proportion of tribunal appeals for (a) personal independence payment and (b) universal credit have been successful in 2018; and what assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of those appeals having been successful. (907667)

In the first six months of 2018, 71% of PIP decisions and 51% of UC decisions heard and decided at appeal were revised. For context, of the 3.5 million PIP decisions made to date, 9% of all decisions have been appealed and 4% have been successfully appealed. We remain utterly committed to ensuring that we get decisions right first time and reduce the number of appeals.

The Minister may be committed to reducing the number of appeals, but the statistics she has just revealed show how awfully the system is working for many of the most vulnerable in our society. As she says, 71% of appeals are successful. That is putting a huge financial strain on the system but, more importantly, some of the most vulnerable are going through incredibly stressful processes. Will the new Secretary of State work with the Minister to improve the system so that the people who come into our surgeries every single week and tell us how awful the system is can stop going through the process as they are currently having to?

I am sure that I will have the support of the Secretary of State in continuing our comprehensive plan for improving PIP. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that, according to the most recent data from the Ministry of Justice, there has been a 15% decline in the number of appeals, and the customer satisfaction rating for PIP has risen from 76% to 87%. I have always said that one person’s poor experience is one too many, but we will continue to do everything that we can to get it right first time.

If 9% of PIP decisions are being appealed against, does that mean that more than nine out of 10 people do not appeal against theirs because they do not wish to challenge them? Will the introduction of video recording improve that rate so that there is even more confidence that the decisions are right?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I have said, the customer satisfaction ratings are high, and the assessments themselves consistently meet our quality target, which is over 90%. I am pleased to say, however, that our plans for the video recording of the assessments are going very well, and the live testing trial will start later this month.

Workplace Pensions

13. What estimate the Government have made of the number of people paying into workplace pensions. (907669)

Nearly 10 million people are enrolled in a workplace pension thanks to the success of automatic enrolment. In the Crawley constituency, approximately 48,000 eligible jobholders have been automatically enrolled, and thanks are due to the 1,600 employers who have fulfilled their duties locally.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Crawley-headquartered B&CE and its People’s Pension for playing such an important role in that roll-out of pensions?

It was a delight to visit The People’s Pension with my hon. Friend, to see the hundreds of local staff who are doing such a fantastic job and the work that the company is doing as a great local employer, to receive a Crawley Town football shirt—I must confess that I have not yet worn it—and to support a great local business.

Auto-enrolment was a landmark achievement, a creation of the last Labour Government. I welcome the progress that has been made, but does the Minister agree that the threshold is too high—37% of female workers, 33% of workers with a disability, and 28% of black, Asian and ethnic-minority workers do not enjoy auto-enrolment—and that it cannot be right for workers under the age of 22 to be excluded?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that while auto-enrolment has been a cross-party success story, it was this Government who actually introduced it. The issue that he raises was comprehensively addressed by the 2017 auto-enrolment review, which was conducted by three independent support organisations, and the key points that he raises are being addressed in the current AE review.

Budget 2018: People in Work

14. What steps the Government have taken in Budget 2018 to ensure that people in work keep more of what they earn when in receipt of universal credit. (907670)

In the Budget, the Chancellor announced a £1,000-a-year increase in work allowances from April next year. It will provide an annual boost of £630 for about 2.4 million working families across the country.

Does my hon. Friend welcome those announcements in the Budget? Does he agree that not all Labour’s legacies were as effective as those mentioned in the previous question, and that a system which penalised hard-working people with marginal tax rates as high as 90% was not effective?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the legacy benefits system, some people faced punitive marginal tax rates. The fixed taper rate under universal credit ensures that work always pays, and that is why we are seeing more people getting into work.

Work does not always pay—that is the problem. A million more children whose parents are working are living in poverty, and a million and a half people are relying on food banks. Why do the Government not implement Labour’s plan for a £10 minimum wage and ensure that work truly does pay?

As I said, we introduced a £1,000 increase in work allowances in the Budget. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), talked about the living wage, which was introduced by this Government and has risen by 4.4% this year. At the end of the day, however, we also want to ensure that people are getting into work. If the hon. Gentleman is particularly focusing on children, he will know that children living in workless households are five times more likely to be living in poverty than those in households in which the adults work.

Job Creation since 2010

Employment has increased by more than 3.3 million people since 2010 to a record high of 32.4 million. This is on average 1,000 more people in work every day under this Government. In the recent Budget, the Chancellor was able to confirm that our economy is growing strongly and that we will see increases in opportunities for people to be able to work.

Surely it is not enough for us to stress the record number of new jobs created; we have to convince people that these are real jobs, with workers’ rights being protected, and above all we have to convince people that the pay of indigenous workers is not being undercut by mass immigration.

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that it is really important that we want to build on our strong record of protecting and enhancing employment rights. We are determined to grow full-time high-quality jobs, and that is just what we are doing. The latest labour market statistics show that the number of full-time jobs is up 82,000 on the quarter, up 416,000 on the year and up almost 2.7 million since 2010. That is a record high. The statistics also show that average earnings are rising in real terms.

Notwithstanding the previous question, this country remains the jobs factory of Europe, creating more jobs than almost 12 other nations combined. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the youth employment figures and tell us how they compare with those of our European allies and neighbours?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is the future of our country. I am proud to say that the overall level of youth unemployment in the UK has nearly halved since 2010. Our youth unemployment rate is lower than that of France, Spain and Italy. The UK youth unemployment rate is 5.8 percentage points below that of the euro area, and 3.9 percentage points below that of the EU28 average.

As the Minister knows, many of the jobs created since 2010 are low paid and insecure, and the number of people in in-work poverty has risen. Will she therefore tell us what assessment her Department has made of the increase in the use of loan sharks and other illegal money lenders?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is just factually incorrect. The vast majority of jobs have been full-time, well-paid jobs. I have the honour of representing my home, the area where I grew up, and I can tell her that I have seen at first hand the growth of full-time well-paid jobs all around my constituency since 2010. That is what this Government are delivering all over the country.

We have seen an exponential increase in underemployment since 2010, through the growth of part-time jobs and zero-hours contracts. Does the Minister therefore agree that what we have actually seen is a jobs mirage rather than a jobs miracle?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is just factually incorrect. We have seen the growth of many full-time jobs, and the number of zero-hours contracts is going down. Speaking as a woman who raised her family, I can tell him that part-time employment can be an extremely good option for many people in our labour market.

Welfare System: Moving into Work/ Extending Working Hours

16. What steps she is taking to ensure that the welfare system rewards people (a) moving into work and (b) extending their working hours. (907673)

I want to start by thanking my right hon. Friend for the engagement and support that she gives to her local jobcentre. As I have noted, we recently announced in the Budget a £1,000 increase in work allowances. We also have the single taper to ensure that claimants are better off working, and working more. Evidence also shows an increase in earnings for those in work and on universal credit by an average of £600 a year.

Can the Minister confirm that claimants on universal credit are more likely to move into work and more likely to make progress towards longer hours in work under this system, compared with the old system that we inherited from Labour?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Under the legacy benefits system, around 1.4 million people spent almost a decade trapped on benefits instead of being helped into work, and much of that time was under the last Labour Government. Under universal credit, people get into work faster, they stay in work longer and, very importantly, they earn more.

18. May I say to Government Front Benchers that Christmas is coming and the goose is not going to get very fat for many of our constituents? The new Secretary of State lives in a more normal constituency than the Chancellor or the Prime Minister. Will she think about Christmas and what universal credit is doing to so many of her constituents and mine? (907675)

As we have pointed out, under universal credit people are able to get the one-to-one support with their work coach that was not possible under the legacy benefits system. Again, I reach out to the hon. Gentleman. If he has concerns in his own constituency, I am very happy to have a discussion with him and his local jobcentre, because we want to support absolutely every single person who is in the welfare system.

The welfare system undoubtedly encourages our constituents into work and rewards them in work, but the system does not always capture that because of the anomaly of the claimant count being used as a proxy for unemployment, whereas in fact many people who are on universal credit are working. What can the Minister do to try to improve the statistical way in which this is recorded?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. As he will know, we had a consultation on this particular point. We have published our findings, and I would be very happy to share those with him. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to write to all colleagues setting out the changes that we are proposing.

Is it not obvious how few questions we have had from Conservative Members today on some of the biggest changes to welfare reform in a generation? I have raised with Ministers many times now the fact that those who are getting a change of circumstance as they move on to universal credit do not have the transitional protections at the moment. Ministers keep telling me that they do, but they do not. I have had universal credit in my constituency for a long time, and I could give them a catalogue of cases where people are worse off on universal credit as a result of this. With the new leadership at the Department, can the tin ear now be opened a little?

If the hon. Lady is keen on protecting people who move from legacy benefits on to universal credit under the managed migration process, I would invite her to vote for the regulations, with me and my colleagues, when they come through Parliament later this year.

Universal Credit: Lone Parents

Lone parents are the primary beneficiaries of the Government’s decision to increase the help provided for childcare from 70% to 85%, which will help us to enhance the record levels of lone parent employment in this country.

The whole House will be aware that lone parent employment increased radically under the last Labour Government, but unfortunately lone parents now face being worse off because of universal credit. So can the new Secretary of State and her ministerial team guarantee that as part of their review they will make sure that no lone parent family in this country is worse off because of universal credit?

The lone parent employment rate is now at 67.6%, which is a record high and something this Government are very proud of. We will continue to try to push to see that figure go up further. We have made announcements on increasing the national living wage, which has seen a real-terms increase of 8% over the past three years, and changes to the income tax threshold worth £1,200, while the national living wage in itself, for somebody working full-time, is worth £2,000. That is making sure that lone parents who are working are getting the support to have more money available at the end of every month.[Official Report, 28 November 2018, Vol. 650, c. 2MC.]

Topical Questions

Three days in, and I know that the Department for Work and Pensions is a force for good. It helps people in need, helps people into work and out of poverty, and gives support at the end of their lives. This is what we want for our families, our friends and our neighbours. This is the country we are; this is who we are. It is good that employment has risen to record levels of 75%, as stated just recently.

But I know that there are problems with universal credit, despite its good intentions. I have seen them for myself. I will be listening and learning from the expert groups in this area that do such good work. I know it can be better. I will make it my role to ensure that we deliver that through our discussions within the DWP and through discussions with the Treasury. We will have a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system.

I thank the new Secretary of State for that response and add my congratulations to her on her return to the Front Bench. In her new role, will she, unlike her predecessor who was described by the UN rapporteur as

“almost entirely dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and universal credit,”

take seriously his report on poverty in the UK and heed his calls for changes to the universal credit system?

The rapporteur does no credit to his report by making personal comments about the former Secretary of State in this Department, who did a fantastic job. Having said that, I have already acknowledged that we can make changes to the UC system: despite the tremendous good that it does, I know that there are problems with it and we will be focusing on fixing them.

T3. A constituent of mine who is currently claiming the personal independence payment has been told that she will need to undergo reassessment just one month before she is migrated on to the state pension. She is concerned that this will cost more than the amount she will get for that extra month; is this process correct, and what will happen when she gets her state pension? (907682)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that really good question. People who qualify for PIP before retirement age are able then to carry on claiming PIP, so long as they are eligible, into retirement. That is in addition to pension or any other benefits to which they are eligible.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said in his report that the rising level of child poverty is not just a disgrace but is a

“social calamity and an economic disaster”,

and that Government policies are locking millions of children

“into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.”

According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation research published today, the current freeze on working-age benefits is the single biggest driver behind rising child poverty levels. Will the new Secretary of State end the benefits freeze and make tackling child poverty the priority it should be once again?

Of course, tackling all poverty is a priority for the Department for Work and Pensions, and we know that the best way out of poverty is to make sure people get into work. But more than that, we know that a strong economy will deliver the higher paid jobs, and that is what this Government are going to focus on, and we will listen and engage with non-governmental organisations and others to make sure we can deliver that.

T6. May I also say how nice it is to see the Secretary of State back on the Front Bench? Will she look at improving access to universal credit for those leaving prison, so that those who have left prison will not face delays in getting money in their pocket and thus be driven back into a cycle of crime? (907685)

My hon. Friend is being very active in this area, and it is a key priority for us that access to support is available from day one. We have 137 work coaches in prisons to help prepare for UC claims, and we now have three pilots—in Norwich, Wayland and Belmarsh prisons—to make sure we can test the difference that completing UC claims will make. This is a real priority.

We have always known that austerity is a political choice, but now, thanks to Philip Alston, we know that poverty is also this Government’s political choice as we consider his findings into areas like the near-£5 billion benefit freeze cut next year, the 1950s women who have been impoverished by pension changes, and targeting children with austerity via the two-child limit. What different choices can we expect from this new Secretary of State?

I have to say that I think the hon. Gentleman’s comments are outrageous. It is in no way our intention to do any of the things he set out in that way. The purpose of this Department—[Interruption.] It is what the hon. Gentleman said, and I think I have made my views on the UN rapporteur absolutely clear. The hon. Gentleman need only listen to what we are saying and actually look at the evidence—look at the evidence of people getting back into work, of people getting higher paid jobs. The political choice that we are making on the Government Benches is for a stronger economy to deliver the jobs that are wanted by his constituents and mine.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and suggest she pays attention to what the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said a bit earlier, because that is very important in terms of cash flow and the position facing people coming on to universal credit? The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), made some welcome points in response to that question, but we need to build on that for the future and also build on the work my right hon. Friend’s predecessor did in this respect.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and he is absolutely right: I am well aware of the need to ensure that people have access to those cash benefits as soon as possible. We have already made some adjustments to that, and I will do all I can to ensure that we do better.

T5. My constituent Natalie Tingle works hard in her job and as a student, but is £400 a month worse off after switching to universal credit and losing child tax credit. She now gets just £12 a month, as her student loan is counted as income, and she is getting into debt. Will the Minister investigate her circumstances and find a way to help? (907684)

T9. I am very grateful to Crawley DWP staff, who successfully helped with the transition to universal credit in June. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the support available to claimants who are transferring? (907688)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with the jobcentre in Crawley to ensure that claimants get the best benefits. We have had some changes from the Budget, as he will be aware, and will bring forward more details of regulations to help to deliver those outcomes as soon as possible.

T8. May I also welcome the Secretary of State to her post on the Front Bench? In the past I have mentioned the problem of the lack of online access in the remotest parts of my constituency, but in addition there is the problem of people in my constituency who cannot, as we say in the highlands, work a computer. They do not have the skills. What is going to be done to address that issue? (907687)

Yes, it is a very important point and one that we are well aware of. We cannot assume that everybody can, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, work a computer. We have made provision in the arrangements to ensure that people can have access and that job coaches can work with people remotely via telephone and also engage in their communities, perhaps in different places from the jobcentre. However, I will keep a careful eye on this issue to ensure that we are delivering a truly comprehensive service, so that everybody, whether they can work a computer or not, can access it.

May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her position and wish her every success? She will know that youth unemployment has fallen by half since 2010, so does she agree that ours is the party of opportunity and the party for young people?

Let me take the opportunity again to thank my right hon. Friend for the extraordinary work that she did in this Department, particularly on the Disability Confident campaign, but also on encouraging women into work. She is a particular champion of women and social mobility, so yes, I agree with her: it is this party that is the party of opportunity.

T10. I have received a letter from a constituent who is a universal credit caseworker. She describes overworked staff looking after so many cases that people receive payments only when they complain. Will the Minister respond to this whistleblower’s allegation of chaos? (907689)

If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case to raise, I am happy to discuss it, but I should say that I and my colleagues go up and down the country to jobcentres, and I am afraid that the characterisation that he described is not the one we find. We find work coaches who are really enthusiastic about delivering universal credit and supporting people on a one-to-one basis. When it comes to payments, 80% of people get their full payment on time for the first assessment period and 90% will be receiving at least part-payment, but of course we require information to be provided to us—for instance about childcare or other costs—before we can make those payments.

I have sat here patiently through questions, and there have been lots of congratulations from across the House, particularly to the Secretary of State and the previous Secretary of State, quite rightly, but the people who should be congratulated are those in jobcentres and those who have got the jobs. In my constituency of Hemel Hempstead, which is a new town—it is 70 years old, but we are a new town—we have the lowest unemployment ever. In 2010 it was 2,460; it is now 820. Those people should be congratulated.

I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out the real benefits seen over the past few years and how important it is that the system helps individuals into work. It is the people who have got the new jobs who need the congratulations, but also the work coaches, who for the first time provide a personal service to ensure that every individual is helped into work.

Professor Philip Alston talks about things that those of us who choose to see them see in our constituencies every time we are back there. The new Secretary of State comes into a Department where her Ministers are on autopilot, denying the real, lived experiences of my constituents. Instead of showing the signs of Stockholm syndrome, why does she not give us a break from the past and not misrepresent reports, but actually listen to the UN special rapporteur?

The fact that I think that the UN rapporteur’s report is wrong does not mean that we do not listen to other reports and experts in the area. The hon. Gentleman does not seem interested in the facts surrounding the success of the scheme. We can hold these two things in our heads: overall, UC is being successful and work is at record levels—these are good things—while also acknowledging that there are not insignificant areas that need changing and addressing. We can do both those things.

In Morecambe, we have had universal credit for the past two years; we were one of the very first places where it was rolled out. It is a success. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on going from the Back Benches to the Front Bench again, and I invite her to Morecambe to see Gary Knowles and his fantastic team, to hear from them at first hand how they are making universal credit a success in Morecambe.

I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation, and I would be delighted to take him up on it. I encourage all colleagues from across the House to take the opportunity, if they have not done so yet, to go into jobcentres and speak to the work coaches, who will show them how the system works and how this personal approach is so different from what has happened in the past and so much more constructive for individuals.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) has perambulated within the Chamber, but there is no dishonour in that.

In advance of the imminent urgent question, I want to say that universal credit is due to be imposed on the north of my constituency just before Christmas. I wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor twice asking for it to be delayed, if only until the new year. Will the new Secretary of State please look favourably on this request?

We are not stopping, ceasing or pausing the system, but we always make sure that we change it where it needs to be changed, to ensure that it operates in people’s best interests.

I am delighted to welcome the new Secretary of State to her place, and I thank the old Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: “Former!”] My apologies—I thank the former Secretary of State for all she did, not least in acquiring the additional money for universal credit. I am delighted to say that we now have record disability employment in this country. Will the Minister confirm that the Department will continue to work on giving assistive technology to disabled people to help them to find work?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question about a really important matter. It is great to see the use of the tech fund in access to work. We are always working on this, and on Wednesday we should have a really good announcement to make on expenditure through the challenge fund, which will enable even further use of technology to support people into work.

In congratulating the new Secretary of State, may I commend to her the “Panorama” programme that was filmed in my constituency last week? It showed chaos in the universal credit system, poverty and people being evicted, as well as landlords not accepting that the system worked in their interest. Will she watch that programme and report to me on its contents?

I am always grateful for suggestions of programmes to watch. I will try to do so, but I cannot promise to report to the right hon. Gentleman, as he requires.

Youth unemployment is at record lows; more women are in work; and we have the lowest unemployment rate in this country since the 1970s, with unemployment down by more than half from 2010 in Corby and east Northamptonshire. What role does my right hon. Friend believe universal credit has played specifically in delivering that success?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House of the tremendous benefits of universal credit and the tremendous advantages of an economy that is growing and providing so much new work for our constituents. Yes, of course universal credit has an important part to play in delivering those advances.

In March, I wrote to the DWP regarding a systematic error in the housing element of universal credit that was incorrectly deducting £70 from claims. I was assured that the fault was known and the fix was on its way, but eight months later my constituents are still having their money taken. When will the Government sort out this mess?

If the hon. Lady would like to have a discussion about this case, I will of course look into it. Quite a lot of the time, I find that when Opposition colleagues raise issues, they do not always follow up with the individual cases. I hope that on this occasion, she will do so.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, not for the first time and assuredly, I predict, not for the last. Demand massively outstrips supply, but time is our enemy and we must now move on.

The point of order will come after the urgent question. [Interruption.] I hope that it is not a point of argument or of advocacy, but a point of order requiring an authoritative ruling from the Chair. I am sure the hon. Lady is an honest seeker after truth.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Although I was very disappointed with the dismissive response from the Secretary of State and Ministers to the UN rapporteur’s report on poverty in the UK, it was nothing compared with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday in response to a question regarding the report and the dire circumstances faced by Emily Lydon. Emily is brain damaged, following her mother contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease when she was pregnant. She is being forced to sell her home as a result of transferring on to universal credit. The hon. Gentleman absolutely dismissed her plight, and he brought shame not only on the Government, but on this House by the type of remarks he made. Have you had any indication that he will be making an apology to Emily and to this House? If not, how can I take this further?

The short answer is: no, I have received no such indication of any plan on the part of the Minister or any other Minister to make a statement on that matter. However, the hon. Lady, using the parliamentary guile she has nurtured over a period of years in this place, has registered, with some force, her—and possibly others’— concerns, to which I feel sure, through parliamentary means, she will return before long. If there are no further points of order flowing from questions, or purporting to flow from questions, we come now to the urgent question.

Johnston Press: Administration

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the impact of Johnston Press going into administration.

As the House will know, on Friday Johnston Press confirmed that it was going into administration. Johnston Press has debts of £220 million that were due to be repaid in June next year. It operates, as the House knows, titles at local, regional and national levels. It has explored a range of refinancing options over the past 18 months, including a debt-for-equity swap with bondholders. In October, it entered into a formal sales process, but no suitable buyer was found. On Saturday, it was announced that the newspapers and assets owned by Johnston Press would be acquired by JPI Media, a new consortium established of Johnston Press creditors. JPI Media has said that the operation of the newspapers and websites will continue. It has also said that the debt will be reduced to £85 million, repayable by the end of 2023, and that it will be injecting £35 million into the company to help it operate, including supporting the transition to digital. It has also released a statement saying that the situation will have an impact on employees and pension holders on the defined pension scheme, and that it is working through what this will mean for about 250 current members of staff who are impacted. The Pension Protection Fund has been notified. As the House knows, this is a fund set up by the Government to provide pension benefits to members of defined-benefit schemes whose sponsoring employers have become insolvent. The PPF, with the assistance of the trustees of the scheme, will assess whether the scheme needs to enter the PPF.

Over the weekend, I spoke to David King, formerly the chief executive of Johnston Press and now the chief executive of JPI Media, and today I spoke to its head director. They set out that they believed this move was the best course of action for the long-term future of their staff and titles and that the only alternative would have been liquidation and redundancies. Like Members from across the House, I am committed to a vibrant and free press. Johnston Press, with more than 200 titles and 2,000 staff serving communities across the UK, plays a significant part in that—three of these titles serve my constituency. Its future sustainability is therefore very important to us all.

My deepest sympathies are with anyone who is facing uncertainty as a result of the changes. However, it is important to note that the takeover may come under the rules as set out in the Enterprise Act 2002. Under that legislation, where it appears that a relevant merger or takeover situation arises, the Secretary of State can consider, in a quasi-judicial capacity, whether it raises media public-interest considerations. As such, I am sure that the House will understand that at this stage I will not set out any views on the impact of this specific transaction.

What is clear is that this is an example of the challenges faced by the newspaper industry more broadly and in particular of the challenges faced by local papers. Such papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues, in communities, courtrooms and council chambers. It is clear, though, that such papers have to make difficult decisions to try to adapt to the changing market. At this challenging time for print journalism, we are working hard to ensure its sustainability. In March, we launched an independent review, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross. It will look into how the production and distribution of high-quality journalism can be sustained in a changing market, with a particular focus on the online space. Dame Frances’s report and recommendations will be published early next year. Next week, the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries will host an open session with Dame Frances, so that Members of this House and of the other place can share their views on these important issues.

At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. That is what this Government are working to support.

I, too, spoke to David King this weekend. Like many right hon. and hon. Members from Government and Opposition parties, I was alarmed at the plans for Johnston Press to go into administration. This centuries-old British company has more than 200 newspapers that report vital local, regional and national news and hold the powerful to account. Although, as the Secretary of State says, the buy-out by JPI seems to have averted the imminent closure of those publications, their long-term future, and that of hundreds of jobs, is far from certain.

This is part of a bigger, long-term global strategic question: in this digital age of information abundance, how can local democracy be preserved through quality local journalism? Since 2005, 200 local newspapers have closed and we have lost half all local journalists. For 10 years, we have seen the impact of digital disruption on local journalism. After eight years of the current Administration, all we hear is the Secretary of State referring to a process that they currently articulate as the Cairncross review.

Whilst Ministers prevaricate and hold open sessions, the tech oligopolies have consolidated their media advantage by dominating digital ad revenues. They continue to avoid fair taxes and will pay less once the Government’s corporation tax cuts are introduced under the Finance Bill. Some have even allowed criminal data breaches on their platforms. Worse still, they sneer at Parliaments around the world that try to hold them to account. I remind the House again that even Rupert Murdoch showed greater respect for our democratic institutions than Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to appear before our Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Specifically on the Johnston Press, which is a victim of the long-term strategic changes in the media market that the Secretary of State’s colleagues, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, seem to think are funny—

Or the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), sitting next to him, then.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that no one currently on a pension from Johnston Press will receive a shortfall in payments? Will the Government step in if they are going to? Will the pension regulator assess what obligation the new entity has to those employees set to lose out?

I understand that JPI Media was apparently established back in September. When was the Secretary of State made aware of that, because, clearly, the writing was on the wall for Johnston Press when the new entity was established, and what meetings has he or his ministerial team had since the creation of JPI Media, to protect the interests of Johnston Press workers?

There is a crisis in local newspapers that we have known about for many years and that, whatever our politics, it is all our civic duties to address. The Secretary of State has been in post for only 134 days. In that time, he has overseen the resignation of a respected Minister, made an obvious and humiliating policy climbdown on fixed odds betting terminals, while ignoring what everyone knew would be the inevitable crisis in local news. He should have given a statement to the House today, not been dragged here to give a woeful answer in an urgent question. After 134 days in post, he needs to wake up and stop sleeping on the job.

Let me start by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman that this is indeed a long-term problem that requires some long-term solutions. As he rightly says, local papers have been closing since 2005, but, if my memory serves me correctly, it was not my party in government in 2005; it was his. It really will not do for him to bring what is a serious issue—and a long-term one, as he says—to this House and try to make it into a bit of political point scoring against the current Secretary of State. I do not mind, but those who are affected by these changes will want to hear something a little more constructive from him and the Labour party.

Let me answer the pensions question. The hon. Gentleman asks me about current pensioners. As far as I understand it, they will not be affected. Anyone in receipt of their pension now will continue to be paid. The changes will affect those who are currently in employment, and we believe that there are 250 or so in total.

The next point that the hon. Gentleman makes is that this problem was apparent for some time. He is right, of course, and, as I said in my response to him, the problems affecting local media have been apparent for some time. They are structural problems, which is precisely why we believe that the right approach to take is to ask for an independent assessment of those structural problems, which Dame Frances Cairncross is carrying out and which will be completed shortly. When it is, we have asked Dame Frances to give clear indications of what she believes the answers may be so that we can consider what action a Government can properly take. That is the right approach to what is a structural and long-term problem, as he says.

In answer to another of the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I indicated to him in my initial response that I have had a conversation with David King, as he did over the weekend, and I spoke to JPI’s lead director today. Those are the conversations that I have had since this announcement was made on Friday. He seems to suggest that the Government should do more. He will be aware that, in addition to the Cairncross review, we have made concessions on business rates for newspapers, and we have looked at other ways in which we can help. He will be well aware that local papers were very clear that if the Government had brought into force section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, they would be significantly affected by it. Indeed, Johnston Press itself responded to the consultation on this matter. The hon. Gentleman may have seen what it said, but, in case he missed it, let me remind him. It said that the impact of section 40 could cost its business £6.7 million. It went on to say that it would force many of its papers that operate on the slimmest of margins to become unprofitable and that they would therefore have to be closed.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position on section 40. It is long held and, by him, deeply felt. What he cannot do is come to this House and accuse the Government of doing too little to help local papers when he himself would take action that would profoundly damage them.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s recognition that the economic difficulties facing Johnston Press are the same ones that are now affecting all local newspapers, and that this situation is contributing to a real threat to the proper functioning of local democracy. Will he consider that one way of addressing this is to build on the BBC’s local democracy initiative, which is already funding 150 journalists? The obvious people to make an extra contribution towards this initiative are the internet technology giants, which are responsible for at least some of the problems now affecting newspapers.

I will first address my right hon. Friend’s second point. He is right that we need to consider the impact on local news of the increasing transfer of particular advertising to online platforms. Of course, it is also important to consider how we ensure that content is properly paid for when it is used. He is also right that local democracy reporters have a part to play. It is important to note that the content they produce is made available to local newspapers, and I am sure that this assists those local newspapers in producing copy.

Local journalism and local journalists are the lifeblood of our media. I welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said, although we have not heard enough about the guarantee for pensions, workers’ rights and jobs, and I have spoken to a number of journalists who are deeply concerned. He will know that the National Union of Journalists has voiced significant concerns about the long-term intentions of the company’s new owners, amid fears that it has been purchased with a view to asset stripping. Does he believe that it would be prudent for the new owners to make a commitment to staff regarding their motivations for taking over and to offer assurances about their long-term plans for Johnston Press?

Much has been said about what can be done, and the demise of Johnston Press has largely been put down to the rise of digital media, so I am sure that the Secretary of State will find it more than passing strange that the previous chief executive will be the new chief executive in that new company. A company has failed, and I think we all find it very strange that it has shut down, moved on some of its debts and pension liabilities, and popped up with a shiny new name. We must be sure that the workers’ rights and pensions are protected.

The Secretary of State may know that Norway has the strongest penetration of digital news subscriptions of any country, as almost two thirds of Norwegians mostly find news by going directly to traditional news providers. He may therefore also find it strange that one of the major shareholders—the Norwegian investor, Christen Ager-Hanssen, who is in Parliament today—has been shut out and that his shares are now valueless. Will the Secretary of State meet me, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and Mr Ager-Hanssen to discuss the issues? I recommend Lesley Riddoch’s film, “Nation”, which looks at Norway’s model of funding the second newspaper in every region of Norway. Will he look at that model and compel Frances Cairncross to include it in the review in order to look at the options available for workers, who we think of today?

Let me pick up three of the hon. Lady’s points. First, she mentioned pensions. As I said, the Pension Protection Fund is now engaged with this, and the action it now takes is a matter for that body. It is important that the fund and the Pensions Regulator have the chance to consider this properly, as they are now doing.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about the long-term commitment of the new owners. Again, that is a matter for them. What I should have said is that, as she will appreciate, the headquarters of Johnston Press are in Edinburgh, so it is of course necessary for us to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that, if further actions are necessary, we take them in conjunction with the Scottish Government.

Finally, the hon. Lady invited me to meet her, the shadow Secretary of State and a shareholder. Earlier, I mentioned the risk that there is a quasi-judicial role for me to complete in this process. We do not yet know whether I will need to do so, but I think it best that I am prudent about that at this stage so, if she will forgive me, I will not accept her kind invitation at this point.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in case it is relevant. I am well served in my constituency by an excellent local paper, The Herald, and an excellent local radio service, provided by BBC Oxford. We have done a lot to try to support local newspapers, not least through the BBC reporting initiative and the alleviation of business rates. Can the Secretary of State comment on whether local councils and, indeed, Government will continue to place statutory advertising in local newspapers, which is a source of valuable income?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has personally done a great deal in this space, which the House should note. He makes a good point about what local government in particular can do. It is important that, in addition to putting pressure on central Government, as the House is doing now, we also seek to speak to our respective local authorities, to ensure that they play any role they can in the preservation of our important local newspapers.

We do not need a review to tell us that this is a story of pure greed. A handful of people have creamed off huge profits and left a debt-laden struggling company in the hands of hedge funds, with staff yet again paying the price. That hedge fund rescue package will be of little comfort to smaller titles like the Wigan Evening Post and the Wigan Observer that will not prove lucrative for asset strippers and face a very uncertain future at best. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure that long-term guarantees are provided for those smaller titles? They are not just the lifeblood of local democracy, as he rightly said; they are also the only talent pipeline left for young working-class people to break into journalism, and those young people are today left wondering what on earth the future holds for them.

These titles are important, for the reasons that the hon. Lady gives. As I have explained, there are good reasons why I must be cautious at this stage in what I say about this particular transaction, but she has my assurance that I will be looking for the new owners of these titles to give what assurance they can that they recognise what she has said, what I have said and what we have all said so far in this exchange about the importance of these local titles and the need to maintain them where we can.

May I first pay tribute to my two local newspapers, the Hunts Post, whose editor is Daniel Mansfield, and the Peterborough Telegraph, which is now owned by JPI Media, and in particular the editor, Mark Edwards, and his staff, who do a fantastic job serving the local community?

My right hon. and learned Friend spoke of the need to reduce debts by £85 million and the possibility of job losses. Will he give the House an assurance that the next time he speaks with Mr David King, he will press him not only to do the statutory minimum to help these people, but to do anything else that can be reasonably expected to help those who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs?

Following the news, there was widespread public support for the Sheffield Star, the Sheffield Telegraph and the excellent Yorkshire Post, and particularly for the staff who work for those papers. The Secretary of State said earlier that he believed that all those in receipt of a pension would be protected. There is concern that those in receipt of a final salary pension will not be protected when they move over to the new company. Can he provide clarity on that?

My understanding is that all those currently in receipt of their pension will not be affected by this change. As the hon. Lady will see, the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), is sitting next to me, and if that is incorrect, one of us will write to her to explain, but that is my understanding.

Having worked in the media for a great part of my life and for many years as a freelancer, I really understand the importance of our local newspapers and the type of publications that Johnston Press publishes, for not only disseminating news but training journalists. It is a place for people to start learning their trade, and they then go on to national papers. We need these people. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he is taking high-quality journalism to heart and that the review will look at the balance between traditional publications and online publishers? We need balance and fairness.

Yes, I am happy to do that. In fact, the first newspaper I ever appeared in was my hon. Friend’s local newspaper, so it has a particular place in my heart. She is right: one thing that we expect Dame Frances Cairncross to do, and upon which we will wish to act, is to preserve good-quality, well-sourced, authoritative journalism at local and national levels. It is fundamental to the way in which we hold power to account, and it is an important part of the antidote to so-called fake news, on which my hon. Friend’s Select Committee has done such good work.

I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

May I pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who asked what will happen to people who are currently in receipt of pensions? I do not think it is correct to say, as the Secretary of State has said, that their pensions will not be affected, because they will be uprated in line with consumer prices index inflation rather than retail prices index inflation for years to come. If someone expects to carry on taking a pension for 20 years, they will lose out on thousands of pounds if their pension is uprated at this lower rate. Will the Secretary of State confirm that people who are currently in receipt of final salary pension schemes at JPI Media, to which they have now been transferred from Johnston Press, may indeed lose out to the tune of thousands of pounds because of these changes?

Again, I must I am afraid remind the House of what I said earlier. There are good reasons why, at this stage at least, I need to be cautious about what I say about the detail of this transaction and the background to it. What I would say to the hon. Lady is that it is very clear that this business was having significant difficulty before this transaction was carried out over the course of the weekend, and were these businesses to have been liquidated there would have been very serious consequences for all concerned. As I say, it is important that I am cautious at this stage about what I say.

I am occasionally able to write in a local newspaper, and such newspapers occasionally write about me.

May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that Sir Ray Tindle, the founder and president of the Tindle Newspapers Group, is right in saying that from daily national newspapers we expect speed and from local newspapers we expect detail? As well as our concern for the journalists and the pensioners, should we not be concerned for local communities? Local papers cover catastrophe and they cover celebration, and they provide the details of ordinary community life that matters so much to so many of our constituents.

Yes. My hon. Friend puts it extremely well, and that is exactly why we are all concerned for the future of local journalism. We are concerned about the titles that we are specifically discussing this afternoon, but also for the broader future of local journalism. That is precisely why the Government are taking the actions I have laid out.

As we all know, it is the pensioners and the workers whom we care about, as well as the communities and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, the pipeline of journalists, with people from ordinary backgrounds getting into journalism. However, if we are looking at this whole media area, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the question whether the Cairncross review is broad enough, and as other hon. Members have said, the remit is right for looking at something like taking money from the BBC, to which another Member referred? I do not want us to take money from the BBC; I want to take money from Google, Facebook and all those people who do not pay their taxes.

We certainly expect Frances Cairncross to talk about online companies, too. That is a very important part of her remit, and she will look very specifically at what they do, particularly with regard to online advertising, which is a major component of the issue we are discussing. I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We will of course await what she says. I commend to him the opportunity next week, which I described earlier, of going to talk to her himself and to express his views directly.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must look carefully at the impact that online platforms are having on these titles, such as the Arbroath Herald and the Brechin Advertiser? What role can his Department play in trying to underpin a sustainable model for local news?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said, the online presence of different kinds of news and different kinds of advertising is a structural challenge to the way in which local papers are operating. That is precisely why we have asked Dame Frances Cairncross to do what she is doing, and I very much look forward to hearing what she has to say.