House of Commons
Monday 19 November 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
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
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.
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 sector 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 her 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.]
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 who 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.
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.
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.
I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss that particular case.
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.
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.
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.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
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 level. 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 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, some 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 as 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 a local and national level. 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.
Is the Secretary of State happy with the policy that is developing of companies running up a white flag, dipping into administration and then very quickly reappearing minus their pension duties?
No, if that is the intention I am certainly not happy. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the PPF and the regulator will need to look at this transaction and decide what they make of it, and there may come a time when I need to do so too. We will wait first for the PPF and the regulator to make their judgments.
The first page that many of my constituents turn to when they open their Whitby Gazette or Scarborough News is the family notices—the births, marriages and deaths—if only to check that they are still alive themselves. Does the Secretary of State recognise the importance of that element of local newspapers, particularly for those who do not have access to digital media?
Yes, I do, and that is one of the many reasons why we are all concerned to ensure that local papers have a presence in the media landscape and a long-term future.
May I stress to the Secretary of State the importance of regional newspapers? The Yorkshire Post, founded in 1754, has been essential in making the case for Yorkshire and the north in the latest rail timetabling shambles. It is important that we have regional journalism that allows pressure to be put on the Government, so what does the Secretary of State think he can do to ensure that there is strong, independent regional journalism in this country?
I rather agree with the hon. Lady that there is a significant role for the regional press as well as the local press. It is a part of the landscape that we need to consider carefully. She will be aware of the Hull Daily Mail, which does good work online. That is an important point, because we must accept, as the local press does, that people are increasingly consuming their news online. Local papers need to be able to adapt to that. Some, such as that paper, are doing so very successfully, and others need to learn similar lessons.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we should be celebrating a good news story today, in that all operations have continued and will continue in the future? Does he agree that the company has spoken clearly about both keeping employee rights and ensuring that the newspaper titles continue to be printed?
My hon. Friend is right—the alternatives available to Johnston Press at this stage were immeasurably worse. As I set out to the House at the outset, a number of steps were taken to seek an alternative course, none of which was successful. He is right to recognise that, at this point at least, all the titles continue and all jobs have been retained, but of course, as we have discussed this afternoon, there are many long-term challenges facing not just that company but others in the same space.
I declare an interest: I write a weekly unpaid column for The Scotsman, which despite its troubles is possibly still the proudest title among daily newspapers in Scotland. Along with its sister the Edinburgh Evening News, it is one of the titles affected by the changes. I have had communications over the weekend from executives of the former company and from the new owners, and from former colleagues, now constituents, who are concerned about exactly the issue that has been raised today. They fear that they stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds from their pensions now that they have left the company, because under PPF rules they could lose 10%. I appreciate the Secretary of State’s possible quasi-judicial position, but can he assure the House that he will bear in mind the position of both the staff and former staff of the titles affected?
I was hoping that the question mark was approaching, and fortunately it did, just in time.
I entirely understand the concern that the hon. Lady and others have expressed. We are particularly concerned for those employed now and those in receipt of their pensions. As I have said, the PPF will need to determine its view of the transaction first, and then, in conjunction with the trustees of the current pension scheme, it will need to determine what action should be taken. She is right to express concern, and we have too. We will continue to pay close attention to what all the relevant bodies say.
The Hemel Gazette in my constituency is a Johnston Press paper. Although no people in my constituency work on it, my thoughts are with those who are concerned about their future and their pensions. May I ask about a group of people we have not heard about, the small suppliers and the small creditors? They will have heard about everything going on this weekend, with the big creditors taking over the same management team. That must be of real concern to the small creditor—whether that is legal. They stand to lose thousands and thousands of pounds and may well go under because the big companies will get all the money, while it will operate in exactly the same way as before but under a slightly different name.
I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me—I am going to sound like a cracked record by the end of this urgent question—but there are reasons why I need to be cautious at this stage about what I say about the transaction and the way it has been conducted. There will be inquiries made into the way in which this has transpired, including the effect on small creditors. At this stage, we must await some of those conclusions before taking matters further.
Johnston Press pursued a very aggressive acquisition strategy over the past 10 years, which has partly put it in this position. It has left titles such as The Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News operating on very, very small numbers of staff. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether there is any liability to the public purse and if so what he will be doing to pursue the new company to ensure that the public purse is repaid?
For the reasons I have just given, I will not comment on the nature of the transaction itself. The hon. Gentleman is right that over the preceding years Johnston Press has acquired a number of different titles. That, of course, is a matter for its judgment. In the process of looking at the transaction, it will have to answer for judgments and decisions it has made. At this stage, however, we must await what the various bodies I have described conclude.
The Ilkeston Advertiser, part of the JPI Media group, is the last remaining weekly local newspaper in my constituency. What more support can my right hon. Friend offer such local titles to help them to survive, because they play such an important part in our communities?
We can all do our bit to ensure we support our local titles. It is right that some titles move more online, as that is where the reader is going, and it is right that the Government do what they can. We have mentioned some of the financial incentives that the Government have already brought forward. Beyond that, I look forward to more structural and long-term solutions emerging from the Cairncross review and our considerations of it.
Mr Speaker, your encyclopaedic knowledge should include the Belfast News Letter, the longest continuously printed English language daily paper, printed from 1737. It notably revealed that America had struck independence in 1776. It is one of the titles under consideration with Johnston Press. I hope the Secretary of State understands that there is more to this than just currently employed staff and future and current pension holders; there is an historical legacy and a contemporary contribution to the principle of a free press.
It is a notably illustrious organ, I feel sure. I also feel sure that the organ concerned will get to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—one that had not yet surfaced in this conversation. As he says, it is not just about those who work on these publications now, or even those who read them now; it is about those who have worked on and read them, over preceding centuries in the case of the publication he mentions. They are an important part of the fabric of our local communities. For that reason, we wish to see them preserved. As I have said, it may be that they are not preserved in quite the form they were in the 1770s, but there is an opportunity for local papers to grow with the times and for us to continue to support them even into the 21st century.
My constituency is served by seven local newspapers, all with separate circulations. Time means I cannot, like some colleagues, get them all into Hansard. However, five of them are owned by the Mirror Group. Last week, the editors of those five titles were made redundant. In light of what has happened with the Johnston Press, will the Secretary of State say what conversations he might have had with the Mirror Group to check on its ongoing commitment to local newspapers?
I am now alerted to that. The process that we described—in the form of the Cairncross review—is designed to confront some of the systemic challenges that affect not just Johnston Press, but many other companies in this space. There is nothing particularly unique, I think it is fair to say, in the experience that Johnston Press has been having. It is a structural challenge for local newspapers and one that we must address in a structural way.
The Batley & Birstall News has been serving my constituency for 140 years and, with the Spenborough Guardian, is a much loved title. They have fantastic campaigns such as “Love Your High Street”. My concern about the reconfiguration is that there will be some asset stripping and only the most profitable titles will remain. While The Yorkshire Post is fantastic—I applaud it for its journalism, which is very rigorous and wide-reaching—my concern is that the smaller titles, which provide a counter-narrative to some of the harshest, most polarising voices elsewhere, will be lost to our communities.
Again, I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and her enthusiasm for her local titles. As has been said, it is right to point out that at this stage all titles are preserved by this move. The alternatives, as far as Johnston Press could see, were all immeasurably worse, but both she and I will want to hear from the new owners about their plans for the longer term. It is only fair to give them space to develop those plans, but once they have done so, she and I will wish to seek further information about what they intend to do.
The Johnston Press group has four titles in my constituency—The Southern Reporter, The Berwickshire News, the Hawick News, and the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser, which provide excellent local news to my constituents—but in an increasingly competitive environment, particularly with BBC local platforms, which I know cause them great concern, what more can the Government do to support local journalism?
We can do more and we seek to find inventive ways of doing more to account for the changing circumstances in which all these newspapers find themselves. If I may, I will make a conditional point that my hon. Friend brings to mind. Those observing these proceedings might be surprised that Members of this House, who are held to account by local newspapers, would mourn their passing, but it is credit to our democracy that all of us believe that it is right that those in power should be held to account. That applies not just to those in Whitehall, but to town halls up and down the country and, dare I say it, to local Members of Parliament, who are held to account in some cases by four publications at once.
Johnston Press at Dinnington in my constituency was a crucial part of a £163 million coalfield regeneration project under the Labour Government in 2006. It currently boasts The Yorkshire Post—I believe it to be a national newspaper—and prints many other national titles for the north of England as well. The Minister said what he would like to do to make sure that the jobs are there—that is right and proper—but will he tell us what influence he has on the Pension Protection Fund and the regulator?
As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, both are independent. They make their own judgments and we must let them do that, but the Government will want to consider the position once they have done so, and to seek to know whether there is further action we can take. The right hon. Gentleman is right, as was his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), that there is an important regional component to our press. We might, as he says, argue that that verges on the national in some cases—[Interruption.] We should certainly not miss the argument that there is a regional layer to our press which adds considerably to oversight and scrutiny, and we must seek to preserve it where we can.
Torbay is well served by a mix of media, including a traditional newspaper, the Herald Express, a community-owned hyper-local newspaper, the Torbay Times, and the more citizen journalism-based The People’s Republic of South Devon, which is online—I suspect Opposition Members might prefer its editorials. Will the Minister look at how we can sustain local newsrooms by perhaps reviewing how local media operations can become more cross-platform, particularly by looking at such things as small-scale digital audio broadcasting?
Yes, we will look at that. We want to consider all possible ways of assisting the more general landscape that my hon. Friend describes. There may well be more that online companies can do to help, more that companies elsewhere can do, perhaps more that the BBC can do, and certainly more that local and national Government can do. We will look at all the possibilities.
This is just the latest example of what the Work and Pensions Committee described as “ripping off pensioners” using pre-packs. I understand that the Government announced they were holding a review into the impact on pensions of pre-pack administrations. Has the Secretary of State discussed when that review and its results are likely to be published, and when some of the pressure on the Pension Protection Fund will be relieved, as it is under enormous strain and going way beyond what it was intended to do?
The Pension Protection Fund has over £30 billion-worth of assets and can cover these liabilities. On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, again I am fortunate that my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister is sitting along the row from me. I am sure he will write to the hon. Gentleman with the timescales he seeks.
As a former journalist, it strikes me that the party that stopped section 40 and facilitated local democracy reporters has a great deal to be proud of in this House. On the subject of local democracy reporters, it occurs to me that the Cairncross review has a huge opportunity to propose far more of that sort of thing, and it would be much more profitable for all of us if we ended up with a set of measures that resulted directly in local democracy reporters, for instance, rather than a simple fund.
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable expertise, as he says, and I hope he will find time next Wednesday, or on another occasion, to come and speak to Dame Frances and discuss with her the matters he has raised.
I am very glad that neither the highly esteemed Northern Echo nor the excellent Teesdale Mercury is affected. Given that there is a structural problem, will the Secretary of State consider extending the Localism Act 2011 to local newspaper titles so that local communities and journalists can take them over, run them on a co-operative basis and protect them from this asset stripping?
That is an interesting idea. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will consider it.
Although Johnston Press being in administration is a source of concern, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming JPI Media’s statement that existing titles, such as the Crawley Observer, will continue? In his dealings with the new company, will he continue to press that point?
Yes, I will. As my hon. Friend says, those who work in publications such as the one he mentions could have found themselves redundant today, so this is a good start, but we will need to know a good deal more about the new owners’ intentions, and as I have indicated, I will continue to seek further reassurances from them.
The Yorkshire Post is a great example of the role that regional newspapers play in strengthening our democracy at all levels. What concrete steps has the Secretary of State taken to strengthen the industry, protect jobs and secure current pension rights at Johnston Press?
I have mentioned some of the things the Government have already done, such as introducing concessions on business rates and ensuring that section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 does not come into force and damage local journalism considerably, and we will do more. It is important that we consider these issues in the round, because they are structural problems that have been around a long time, as we have already discussed. I am sure that the hon. Lady will look carefully at Dame Frances Cairncross’s findings, as will the Government. We do not have long to wait, and when we have them, I think we will have a clearer idea of what the structural solutions might be to these structural challenges.
Like its Johnston Press stablemate, the Buckingham Advertiser, the Bexhill Observer hosts a fine selection of local contributors, as well as the occasional musings of its MP. I chair the all-party group on the BBC. What further steps can the Secretary of State take to discuss with the BBC how more content can be shared—not just writers’ content, but perhaps video packages as well?
In respect of the journals to which the hon. Gentleman referred, for personal and family reasons it is fair to say he has a foot in both camps.
My hon. Friend is right: there are further conversations that we can have with the BBC. Local democracy reporters have already been mentioned. I know that the BBC is very proud of what it has done in that regard and is keen to see what more might be done, and my hon. Friend’s suggestion is a very interesting and practical one which we will take up with it.
When I graduated from Edinburgh Napier university with a first-class degree in journalism, I was told that I would be hard pushed to find work in a rapidly declining industry, but I was lucky enough to get work experience at my local Johnston Press-owned newspaper, the Midlothian Advertiser. Such local titles are essential for young people starting out, particularly—as was pointed out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—those from working-class backgrounds. What is the Secretary of State doing to support those young working-class journalists?
I agree with the hon. Lady. The point about the talent pipeline is very important. We all know, from our experience as constituency Members of Parliament, very good young journalists who are starting their careers on local publications, and who will hope and expect to move on to national publications thereafter. That is one reason why it is important for us to maintain a route through local journalism, which is what we seek to do. As I have said, we have already taken a number of measures, but there are a further number that we can take. It is important for all those journalists who start where the hon. Lady did to see not just a future for themselves in local journalism, but a real career path that will excite them and make them want to continue.
Do the Government think that social media giants such as Facebook and Google should do more to support local and regional journalism, and what action are they taking to protect the future of the local and regional press?
You will not forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I answer the second part of the question all over again, but in relation to the first part, the hon. Gentleman is right: we expect companies such as Facebook and Google to engage with this argument. They are not entirely separate from it. It is fair to say that both those companies have already taken some actions to support local journalism—quite right too—but we shall expect them to do more. We shall want, in the course of the broader review that we are conducting, to look not just at the effect of the prioritisation of news on digital platforms, but at the way in which online advertising is working. All that has an effect.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As a former local newspaper journalist, I pay tribute to local newspapers, particularly the Reading Chronicle, the Henley Standard and The Wokingham Paper. When the Secretary of State’s review ends, will he commit himself to using all his powers to try to level the playing field between these very worthy but struggling local newspapers and the tech giants?
As I have said, I think that we need to look carefully at the balance between the elements that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. It is undoubtedly part of the structural challenge that we have been discussing this afternoon, and I do not believe that we can come up with the appropriate structural answer unless we have considered those elements properly.
There are three Johnston Press titles in my constituency—
Thanks. One of those papers, The Yorkshire Post, is vital to our campaign for One Yorkshire devolution. Without The Yorkshire Post, we would not have been able to bring forward a diverse set of parties.
On 14 October, in The Observer, Roy Greenslade produced a devastating critique of the way in which what has happened to Johnston Press came to pass. When the banks failed, they were deemed to be too big to fail. Now the same thing has happened. When Johnston Press ceased to be a family firm, huge acquisitions were made based on debt. Will the Secretary of State be looking at future acquisitions, whether they are debt-backed or not, and will he be looking into the media industries?
I think we must be concerned with all similar transactions in this space, because that is important for the reasons that we have given. The hon. Gentleman will understand why—as I have already said—I will not comment specifically on the way in which this transaction has been conducted.
There are Johnston Press publications in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) referred to the Belfast News Letter, which is a provincial paper. The unions have expressed concern about the defined-benefit pension scheme, and have also warned that any changes in future payments in line with Pension Protection Fund payment rules would be a terrible blow to affected staff. Will the Secretary of State keep the feet of JPI Media to the fire to ensure that pensions are protected?
Yes, I will certainly seek to do that. As I have said, I am grateful to the Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has been present throughout this urgent question. Many of the points that have been raised relate to matters surrounding the pension scheme, and my hon. Friend has been listening attentively to them. I know that he will wish to pick up on some of the points that have been made.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I asked the Secretary of State if he could confirm that no one currently on a pension from Johnston Press would receive a shortfall in payments. He said to me that current pensioners would not be affected, but I am afraid that during the course of this discussion the National Union of Journalists has contradicted his account and said that some pensioners who retired under the age of 65 would indeed be affected. Is there a remedy by which the Secretary of State could check his facts and come back to the House before Hansard hits the presses tonight so that we can have an accurate account of the facts of the Johnston Press administration?
The short answer is that every hon. and right hon. Member is responsible for the veracity of what he or she says in the House. The corollary of that is that if any Member has erred, and if it is a matter not of opinion but of indisputable fact, it is incumbent upon that Member to correct the record. I do not know whether the Secretary of State thinks he has erred, but there is recourse available, either now, if the facts of the case are clear, or after reflection. The Secretary of State is not under any obligation to come to the Dispatch Box, but if he wishes to do so, he can.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Perhaps I should simply say this. I, too, will check the record, but I recall saying that I gave my understanding of the current situation. I think that I also undertook to make sure that that was correct, and I shall do so.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker—
Very well. We cannot have an ongoing exchange on this, but the generosity of spirit for which I am renowned in all parts of the House gets the better of me, and I shall indulge the hon. Gentleman at this point.
I have an account of exactly what the Secretary of State said. He said, “The hon. Gentleman asked 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 250 or so in total.” So if it is in fact the case that current pensioners will receive a shortfall, will he agree to come back to the House and put the matter right?
The shadow Secretary of State is nothing if not persistent. His terrier-like quality is well known to all throughout the House and to many beyond it. I do not think anything he has said is incompatible with what the Secretary of State said. The hon. Gentleman quoted the Secretary of State as saying, “As far as I understand it”. I think that what I gleaned from the Secretary of State is that he will go away and check whether what he said was correct. In the event that a correction is required, there are many witnesses to his willingness to correct the record. I think we will leave it there for now. I hope that honour is served. The shadow Secretary of State has made his point with considerable force and alacrity, and the Secretary of State has displayed his customary courtesy.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have no doubt been observing with alarm and great concern the events in the House of Lords in which Members of the other place have overturned a decision of the Lords Privileges and Conduct Committee to suspend one of its Members for the most serious of sexual allegations. This sends the appalling message that these Houses of Parliament are not serious in tackling sexual harassment, and that we as an institution are prepared to defend our own and not take complainants seriously. Mr Speaker, I know that you have no responsibility for that undemocratic disgrace of an institution down the corridor, but there were allegations that a place in the House of Lords, in our legislature, was offered in return for sexual favours. You will know that the appointment of places in the House of Lords is a matter for the Prime Minister, supplied by lists from party leaders who all have a place in this House. What can this House do to ensure that this matter is robustly and effectively investigated?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his intention to raise this point of order. Let me begin by saying what I suppose will be universally acknowledged—namely, that these are serious matters. I know that there are strongly held views in the House, and outside it, on the case to which he has referred and on Thursday’s proceedings in the Lords. I hope he will not object if I note, en passant, that he is well known for having strong views on the nature, composition and source of membership of the other House, which he frequently expresses in colourful terms. However, I do not think that this House would be well served by itself pursuing serious personal allegations against a Member of the Lords, especially where the House of Lords has itself not decided on any outcome. The House of Lords has, as I understand it, referred this matter back for consideration. I am not justifying that; nor am I criticising it. I am simply noting what I believe to be the factual position. These are matters for the House of Lords. I urge Members to think how we would resent it if Members of that place raised an equivalent matter about a Member here that had been remitted to the Standards Committee for its further consideration. The issue is important, and it will be considered elsewhere. I respect the integrity of the hon. Gentleman in raising his legitimate concern.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that, but appointments to the House of Lords are a matter for this House, and there is a serious allegation that an offer of membership of the House of Lords was based on sexual favours. Surely that must therefore be a matter for this House that must be vigorously investigated.
The case will have to be determined. In so far as the hon. Gentleman is drawing to my and the House’s attention the fact that there is a role for Members of this House in relation to the other House, I think it fair for me, in neutral terms, to acknowledge that what he has said, as a matter of fact, is true. Perhaps we can leave it there for now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that he has made his point with force. On the assumption that the appetite of colleagues to raise points of order has now been exhausted, the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.
Finance (No. 3) Bill
(Clauses 5, 6, 8 to 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 22, 23, 38 to 42, 46, 47, 61, 62, 68 to 78, 83, 89 and 90, schedules 3, 4, 7, 8, 15 and 18 and certain new clauses and new schedules)
[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Basic rate limit and personal allowance
I beg to move amendment 6, page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (4).
This amendment would take out provisions removing the legal link between the personal allowance and the national minimum wage.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clauses 5 and 6 stand part.
Clauses 8 to 10 stand part.
Clause 38 stand part.
That schedule 15 be the Fifteenth schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 39 to 42 stand part.
New clause 1—Additional rate threshold and supplementary rate—
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, no later than 5 April 2019, lay before the House of Commons a distributional analysis of—
(a) the effect of reducing the threshold for the additional rate to £80,000, and
(b) the effect of introducing a supplementary rate of income tax, charged at a rate of 50%, above a threshold of £125,000.”
New clause 2—Impact of provisions of section 5 on child poverty and equality—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the impact of the provisions of section 5 and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.
(2) A review under this section must consider the impact of the changes made by section 5 on—
(a) households at different levels of income,
(b) people with protected characteristics (within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010),
(c) the Treasury’s compliance with the public sector equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010,
(d) different parts of the United Kingdom and different regions of England, and
(e) levels of relative and absolute child poverty in the United Kingdom.
(3) In this section—
‘parts of the United Kingdom’ means—
(c) Wales, and
(d) Northern Ireland;
‘regions of England’ has the same meaning as that used by the Office for National Statistics.”
New clause 3—Review of the effectiveness of entrepreneurs’ relief—
“(1) Within twelve months of the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the effectiveness of the changes made to entrepreneurs’ relief by Schedule 15, against the stated policy aims of that relief.
(2) A review under this section must consider—
(a) the overall number of entrepreneurs in the UK,
(b) the annual cost of entrepreneurs’ relief,
(c) the annual number of claimants per year,
(d) the average cost of relief paid per claim, and
(e) the impact on productivity in the UK economy.”
New clause 7—Review of changes to entrepreneurs’ relief—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the impact on investment in parts of the United Kingdom and regions of England of the changes made to entrepreneur’s relief by Schedule 15 to this Act and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.
(2) A review under this section must consider—
(a) the effects of the provisions on business investment,
(b) the effects of the provisions on employment, and
(c) the effects of the provisions on productivity.
(3) In this section—
‘parts of the United Kingdom’ means—
(c) Wales, and
(d) Northern Ireland;
‘regions of England’ has the same meaning as that used by the Office for National Statistics.”
This new clause would require a review of the impact on investment of the changes made to entrepreneurs’ relief which extend the minimum qualifying period from 12 months to 2 years.
New clause 8—Review of geographical effects of provisions of section 9—
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the differential geographical effects of the changes made by section 9 and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.”
This new clause would require a geographical impact assessment of income tax exemptions relating to private use of an emergency vehicle.
New clause 9—Report on consultation on certain provisions of this Act—
“(1) No later than two months after the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay before the House of Commons a report on the consultation undertaken on the provisions in subsection (2).
(2) Those provisions are—
(a) section 5,
(b) section 6,
(c) section 8,
(d) section 9,
(e) section 10,
(f) Schedule 15,
(g) section 39
(h) section 40,
(i) section 41, and
(j) section 42.
(3) A report under this section must specify in respect of each provision listed in subsection (2)—
(a) whether a version of the provision was published in draft,
(b) if so, whether changes were made as a result of consultation on the draft, and
(c) if not, the reasons why the provision was not published in draft and any consultation which took place on the proposed provision in the absence of such a draft.”
This new clause would require a report on the consultation undertaken on certain provisions of this Act – alongside new clauses 11, 13 and 15.
New clause 18—Review of public health and poverty effects of Basic Rate Limit and Personal Allowance—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the public health and poverty effects of the provisions of section 5 to this Act and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.
(2) A review under this section must consider—
(a) the effects of those provisions on the levels of relative and absolute poverty in the UK,
(b) the effects of those provisions on life expectancy and healthy life expectancy in the UK, and
(c) the implications for the public finances of the public health effects of those provisions.”
New clause 19—Personal allowance—
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, no later than 5 April 2019, lay before the House of Commons an analysis of the distributional and other effects of a personal allowance in 2019-20 of £12,750.”
This new clause would require a distributional analysis of the effect of increasing the personal allowance to £12,750.
What a pleasure it is, Mr Deputy Speaker, to speak first in this debate. I very much appreciate the way the selection has worked out in my favour today. I rise to speak to amendment 6 and new clauses 7, 8, 9 and 19 in my name and the names of my SNP colleagues. For the avoidance of doubt, should the Opposition press new clause 1, new clause 3, or new clause 18, we will support them.
As I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and those on the Treasury Bench will be unsurprised to hear, I would like to start by raising my concerns about the process. It is the case that the personal allowance is reserved while matters relating to the upper limit of basic rate taxation are devolved. I therefore have issues with the way that clause 5 is constructed. I request, as I did on Second Reading, that in future years these two sections of the Finance Bill are split and considered separately. I hope that the Minister and officials will take that on board in drafting future Finance Bills. It would make the debate cleaner and easier to follow for MPs and for those outside the House. As I have said previously, there are real issues with the way that the House scrutinises both tax and spending measures, and this would be a simple change that would ensure that better scrutiny could be brought to bear on these matters.
Amendment 6 would take out provisions removing the legal link between the personal allowance and the national minimum wage. The legal link between the two was put in place to kick in in years where the personal allowance was below £12,500. I have two concerns with the removal of this link. First, we have no guarantee that the personal allowance will not in future be reduced to less than £12,500, because this House cannot bind a future House of Commons and a future Government might decide to reduce, rather than increase, the personal allowance.
Secondly, the minimum wage that is in place still discriminates on the basis of age. It is not fair that those under 25 are paid less than those over 25, yet the UK Government are backing this age discrimination. I do not believe that an over 25-year-old can live on the minimum wage as it is set, and neither does the Living Wage Foundation. I also do not believe that a 16-year-old who might reasonably have the same outgoings as somebody over 25 can live on £4.35 an hour. It is also depressing to note that 16 and 17-year-olds have had an increase of only 3.6% in their minimum wage while the rise for those aged over 25 is 4.9%. I do not understand how the UK Government can justify that, and I think they should remove the age discrimination in relation to the minimum wage so that everybody is paid a fair wage and the minimum wage is enough to live on, instead of being at a level that people cannot live on.
I of course support my hon. Friend’s point on increasing the minimum wage for under-25s. Is she aware that the gap between the rate for 16 and 17-year-olds and the higher rate has widened over the past three years?
I am not surprised that that has happened, because any Government who believe that a 16-year-old can live on less than an over 25-year-old are not going to make rational decisions in relation to pay for those at the younger end of the age spectrum. It would be a very good move if the UK Government were to change their policy and move to a situation where 16 and 17-year-olds, and those all the way up to 25, and in fact those over 25, were paid an amount they could actually live on, rather than an amount that does not enable them to buy the day-to-day essentials.
This is a small, but I think important, point: does the hon. Lady accept that that minimum level is exactly what it says—a minimum level? Many people, including my apprentice, earn far more than that, but if we set the level much higher, we are likely to reduce the number of opportunities available to 16 and 17-year-olds.
I do not believe that that is true. I know somebody who went for a job interview, and at the end of it they were offered the job. The person offering them the job actually said, “How old are you, because I want to see how little I can pay you?” Those decisions are being taken because of the discriminatory nature of the way the minimum wage is set. What we should have—and this is an argument I have made to the Government on a huge number of occasions on a number of different things—is a situation where those on the bottom of the pile are protected first, and then we should get rid of discriminatory practices where people might discriminate against 16 and 17-year-olds. I would raise the bar, rather than lower it; that is generally an argument I have made to the UK Government.
New clause 19, which we hope to push to a vote today, proposes that the Chancellor brings forward a report that analyses the distributional and other effects of a rise in the personal allowance to £12,750 in 2019-20. It is Scottish National party policy that the personal allowance be raised to £12,750. Given the increasing, and staggering, levels of in-work poverty, given the UN report criticising the UK Government’s implementation of austerity, and given the fact that millions of families across the UK have savings of less than £100, increasing the personal allowance even by a small amount will have an impact on the individuals and families who are struggling the most.
It is no incentive to work if we know that when we work we will still not be able to get out of all-consuming poverty. We need a UK Government who recognise that those who earn the least are suffering the most. In Scotland, the SNP has recognised that and we have made progressive changes to the tax system.
I do not want to live in a country where children are going hungry. The UK Government have got their head firmly in the sand on this issue. I do not understand how they can continue along this track when we are having people come into our surgeries in tears because they have not eaten in days.
The hon. Lady is right. There are probably between 3 million and 4 million people in this country on poverty wages and a large number of them are driven to use food banks. Food banks were introduced for people waiting to get their refugee status sorted out, not for this purpose. Does the hon. Lady agree that they have, however, now become an institution in this country?
I absolutely agree and will come on to food banks, but on refugees and those seeking leave to remain in the UK, these are the people I see in my surgeries in the highest levels of poverty. They cannot work because the UK Government are not allowing them to, even though they have a valid immigration application. Concerns have been raised with me about individuals whose children are literally starving as a result of the UK Government saying that they cannot work or have recourse to public funds. This is a hostile environment that is impacting directly on the lives of children. The UK Government need to rethink. The bar should be set where children are not starving as a result, and then we can take action against those who are trying to swizz the system.
The only decent meal that some children receive is the meal that they have at school. The UK Government cannot continue to say that food bank use is increasing in European countries too, as if that somehow makes it okay. They have a responsibility to step up and to change the tax system, the minimum wage and the social security system to ensure that no child ever goes hungry.
Our new clause 7 would require a review of the impact on investment of changes to entrepreneurs’ relief, which extend the minimum qualifying period from 12 months to two years. Given that we have Brexit hanging over us and the massive uncertainty that that brings, putting another hurdle in the way of businesses is probably not the right course of action. Both the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Association of Taxation Technicians have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of the change. I believe that a review is the only sensible option going forward. The Treasury regularly makes tax changes, but it does not regularly review their effectiveness, even after they have been in place for a number of years, and when it does it rarely makes those reviews public. It is all well and good to think that something may have a certain effect, but it is necessary to check whether the intended effect has come about. If such changes are made, a review should be undertaken regularly—certainly in the following two years—and it should be made public, in the interests of transparency and good policy making, so that everybody can see not just that the change has taken place, but what its effect has been, so that we are up front and honest and everybody is clear.
New clause 8 concerns the geographical effect of clause 9. The UK Government often fail to recognise the rurality of many of Scotland’s communities, and I am not clear that this change will not have a significant effect on those in our most remote communities. These are places where it is hard to get the staff we need for our life-saving services and where depopulation is a real and ever-present concern. They are also places that will be hit incredibly hard by ending freedom of movement. Given the hit to our crofters over the convergence uplift that was supposed to be given to rural communities in Scotland but was allocated elsewhere, it is clear that the UK Government are not prioritising our rural communities. They need to sense-check any such proposals and change them to ensure that they do not cause further difficulty for those living in our most remote areas, not just in Scotland but in other areas of the UK where being far from centres of population is an issue.
New clause 9 would require a report on the consultation undertaken on certain provisions of the Bill. Glyn Fullelove, the chair of the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s technical committee, has been critical of a number of measures in the Bill that were not previously consulted on, saying:
“The effects of inadequate scrutiny in the past are visible in the amount of tinkering in the new Bill”.
That is something I raised on Second Reading. He goes on:
“would all these tweaks have been necessary if there had been adequate consultation and more thorough scrutiny in the first place?”
If the Government intend to take back control, they need to ensure that control is in the hands of MPs, with adequate advice provided by expert stakeholders. It cannot be appropriate for tax changes to be drafted by officials and put into a Bill by the UK Government, with no opportunity for stakeholders to give oral evidence, no amendment of the law resolution and a total lack of a review of these clauses. That is not a sensible way to run anything, let alone a country. I have severe concerns about this part of the Bill. My concerns are mostly about transparency and process, as well as the lack of scrutiny of many of the measures.
In relation to the changes to personal allowance, the Government have not been progressive. We would expect that from a Conservative Government, but if they look up the road in Scotland, they will see that the changes that we have made have benefited the people at the bottom of the pile. The UK Government need to do more to benefit those people.
Lastly, the UK Government need to take seriously the fact that the personal allowance is not devolved to Scotland but the basic rate is, and changes need to be made. I would appreciate it if the Minister committed to considering making changes in the drafting of the Bill to separate out the devolved and reserved issues, so that we can have proper debates and better read-across, so that we can have transparency in the discussion of tax and spend in this place and so that we can make better laws as a result.
It is an enormous pleasure to speak in this Committee stage of the Finance (No.3) Bill, and it is an even greater pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) in today’s debate. There are always many responses to a Budget and a Finance Act, and people often look at them and pull them apart over time. In this case, however, I think most people would say that the Budget and Finance Bill have been tremendously well received among financial commentators and many pressure groups. One of the areas that have been most well received is the bringing forward by a year of the increases to personal allowances. The increase to £12,500 for basic rate taxpayers and £50,000 for the higher—40p—taxpayers will make a direct impact on the lives of 32 million of our fellow residents.
Is my hon. Friend absolutely delighted, as I am, that this means that a basic rate taxpayer is paying some £1,200 less in tax, on an annual basis, than they were in 2010?
My hon. Friend is correct. The very recent change will benefit basic rate taxpayers to the tune of £120 a year—a direct tax cut for millions of hard-working Britons—and that is to be welcomed.
Does my hon. Friend—I nearly called him my right hon. Friend, but he is not yet; perhaps he will be in the future—agree that the difference in the figures is stark? The personal allowance was £6,475 when this policy kicked in in 2010, and it has gone way up to £12,500. Surely, that is of huge benefit to the people we want to give more money to.
I thank my hon. Friend for that short intervention. She makes a really good point, and it is almost the next point that I was going to make. The personal allowance will have nearly doubled in just eight short years. That is against a backdrop of trying to get the public finances under control from a debt of £152 billion a year—11% of GDP—which is an astronomical level outside wartime. It represents a real achievement for the Government to have been able to put this amount of money into the pockets of millions of hard-working Britons each year, so that their living standards can rise, despite the difficult decisions we have had to make.
Members from all parts of the House will probably know that I am no particular lover of the Liberal Democrats, and I am pleased to say that in my constituency of Solihull, we are now 24,000 votes ahead of them. However, I pay tribute to them in one respect. In the 2010 coalition agreement, we took on board what the Lib Dems had been proposing, and it was an excellent idea. I am pleased that the Conservative party was open enough to take on that idea and follow it through, from the coalition agreement, to raise those standards of living and raise personal allowances. I pay tribute to that sort of ideas process from the coalition. We have carried it on, as we see it as a key way in which to reduce inequality and expand opportunity.
The £50,000 higher rate tax threshold is also being delivered a year early. Opposition Members often criticise the new threshold, saying it is a tax cut for wealthier people and so on, but it will be taking many thousands of people whom one would not think should be paying the higher rate out of paying 40% income tax. For example, deputy headmasters and headteachers often earn more than the £50,000 threshold. It is wrong that so many hard-working public and private sector workers are dragged into the higher rate of tax. Furthermore, that has a damaging effect on the overall productivity of the economy, because someone who could earn extra by doing extra overtime, taking on a second job, or doing consultancy or freelance work is less likely to do so if they think the tax authorities would take half the money they would earn by doing so. This measure is therefore eminently sensible, to prevent the most productive in our economy from being penalised in this way and to allow them to continue to earn. We have seen fiscal drag in this country over the past 17 years, since the end of the first Blair Government’s sticking to the Major Government’s financial strategy. Since then, the fiscal drag has meant that more and more people who should not have been paying the 40% rate of tax have been dragged into it. I am pleased that has been acknowledged by this Government with this measure, and I am happy to support it this evening.
Labour Members have also talked about reducing the advanced rate threshold to £80,000, which is a fool’s errand. We know from history that, in general, when we penalise at the top end, our tax take comes down. Putting dogma aside, we know there is a sweet spot in the taxation system, where we should try to maximise our revenues while supporting productivity and ensuring there are sufficient incentives in the tax system. The placing of the original advanced rate was a political move in itself; for some 98% of the time that Gordon Brown was Chancellor or Prime Minister, he kept the rate at 40% and did not increase it, because he saw the reality of the situation, which is that the more we allow people to keep of their own money and the more they can keep in their pocket, the better it is for the economy more widely and the greater the tax take. This was political manoeuvring in advance of the 2010 election in order for my party to fall into a bear trap by suggesting we would not decrease the advanced rate of tax.
I should make another point about reducing the advanced rate to £80,000. The amount of money that that would raise would be negligible, if not actually negative, and the number of spending commitments tied to that proposal are disproportionate to any sort of potential income that could be raised, even in the best-case scenario. So the tax allowances as they stand in respect of the basic rate and the advanced rate strike the right balance for our economy in the future.
My hon. Friend talks about the incentives created by reducing the tax on individuals, but does he agree that this has an impact on businesses, too? Where high street businesses such as my local ones in Cheltenham now have a lower tax burden, with one third coming off their business rates, that provides an incentive for them to take on new employees, grow their business and deliver a more prosperous high street?
My hon. Friend is completely correct. The realities are that the more tax people keep in their pockets—the more of their earnings they keep, without that money going through the Government filter—the more efficient it is, the better it is for the economy, and the better it is for what is known as the multiplier effect through a local economy. My hon. Friend’s on-the-ground view, reported here in Committee, is testament to why the process really benefits high streets and wider local economies.
My hon. Friend has not yet touched on this, but the Government have kept down the corporation tax rate. Does he agree that in areas such as the south-west, where productivity is on average lower than it is in the rest of the country, it is crucial that we leave more money in local businesses so that they can invest, which will help with skills and eventually raise productivity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Not only does cutting corporation tax increase the tax take, as we know, but in the round it allows companies to employ more people—I think that it has made a major contribution to the jobs miracle in this country—which then feeds through the taxation system and the multiplier and into the economy more widely, thereby boosting growth and productivity, plus the tax take down the line.
The abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers of shared ownership properties worth more than £300,000 is an important step for our economy and for strivers in our country. We all know the difficulties that come about in respect of home ownership. I got my first home when I was 31—many years ago, I hasten to add—but I had to buy outside London to get on to the ladder. Even then, people were making enormous sacrifices to find their way on to the property ladder.
Frankly, the situation that I faced is nothing compared with what younger people face now. Not only is it now more difficult in respect of having the income required to get the amount of loan needed to buy, but many people have to rely on what is known as the bank of mum and dad. All that has a damaging effect on equality in our society and the passing down of wealth through the generations if we end up in a situation where those who gain housing wealth do so only if their fathers or mothers had that housing wealth themselves.
My hon. Friend is giving an important speech. Does he agree that in this context it is extremely important that we have embarked on the biggest programme of house building since the 1950s?
That is exactly right. The point may not be specifically germane to the amendments we are debating, but my hon. Friend is absolutely correct that about the context. This is just part of one strand of the strategy that we have to bring about an increase not only in home ownership but in the number of properties available to rent and basically for housing throughout the country. We know from the number of households that are forming that we need to build much more than we are building. This measure is part of considering the issues in the round, so I congratulate the Government in that respect.
We are now seeing the effects of things such as Help to Buy and of measures that—pardon the pun—build on Help to Buy, such as the abolition of stamp duty for shared ownership properties worth more than £300,000. According to the Financial Times—such an august newspaper that it never actually employed me—the rate of home ownership among first-time buyers is now at its highest in a decade. There is a long way to go before we get anywhere near where we were in the 1980s, for instance, but it has been a remarkable turnaround compared with where we were in 2010. The abolition of stamp duty for these properties sends a strong message, not only to people in shared ownership homes but to people more generally, that opportunities are out there and that we will help them by not imposing stamp duty.
Let me turn to tax fairness for individuals, which, I think, overarches the clauses and amendments to the Bill. We would not know this from hearing some of the arguments in this place, but the tax gap in the UK is one of the lowest in the developed world. That does not mean that there is not more to be done. Although we took some first steps in this Budget with internet companies and with organisations such as Amazon, everyone recognises that we need to go further, and we hope to move together in an international context to ensure tax fairness.
Since 2010, we have seen a cracking down on evasion—for example, in film investment schemes and schemes that collectively invest in property to avoid stamp duty. There has been a real concentration by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Treasury Ministers to ensure that people are aware that everyone should be paying their fair share in society. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) mentioned tax equality and how much people are paying at the top end. I find it very telling that the top 1% in our society currently pay 28% of the tax, whereas the top 10% pay 60% of the tax. People would not believe that given the discussions that go on so often. However, this Government have done more towards closing that tax gap and towards ensuring equality in the tax system than anyone else in my lifetime. They have been very laser-like in their focus, and they should be congratulated on that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that gap will get wider if answers to my written questions are correct? In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the Government admitted that the majority of their tax cuts would go to upper-rate taxpayers. Is that not exactly why we need the Government to publish the distributional impact of the tax cuts they are making?
I am afraid that I really do not see the hon. Lady’s point. What I do see is the fact that we are giving tax cuts to 32 million people across the board, and, instead of being so churlish, the Labour party should welcome that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Lady should check Hansard to see my question of a few moments ago in which I said that, since 2010, a basic rate taxpayer will pay £1,200 less in tax, which clearly shows that this Government are on the side of the hardest working?
My hon. Friend answered the hon. Lady’s intervention better than I did, so I do welcome what he said.
Let me sum up. In its treatment of tax thresholds and stamp duty, the Bill lays out a fairer tax system. It is a tax system predicated on a better society, and it is a system where people who can pay have to pay their fair share, but where that is achieved without being punitive and without, frankly, trying to put dogma over the reality of the situation.
I am glad to have this opportunity to debate the issues surrounding new clauses 1, 2 and 3 in my name and the names of others in the Committee of the whole House, and to discuss them in the context of the Government’s attempts to distract attention from their woes. We have just had a lesson in voodoo economics from the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight).
Members need to pay attention to Labour’s proposals in relation to new clauses 1, 2 and 3, but I must first point out that, in response to the Government’s authoritarian restrictions on amending this Bill, we had asked whether the entire legislation could be debated on the Floor of this House. That would at least have ensured a scintilla of constructive discussion among Members on the whole Bill. Alas, our request was denied by the Government, and we are left yet again asking for reviews and assessments as set out in our new clauses. It is important none the less to get these issues about child poverty out into the open. The Government increasingly seek to implement their austerity agenda—for that is what it is—behind closed doors. They will no doubt see our new clauses as an irritant that would highlight the differences between a slash-and-burn approach to public services by the Government juxtaposed with a policy of investment, renewal and rebuilding from this party based on a fair taxation system, as identified in our new clauses.
The Government have practised their manoeuvres in Committees that they have stitched up to give themselves the majority, which they do not deserve, and they do not have the guts to allow proper amendments to their Bill. No Minister has had the decency to defend that position and it is pretty pathetic. The electorate did not give them that mandate, but they arrogantly take it in any event, so it is important that we debate and tease out the issues that we have set out in new clauses 1, 2 and 3.
The hon. Gentleman mentions tax cuts. Will he describe whether the Opposition support the tax cuts laid out in the Bill?