Tuesday 27 November 2018
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Nigeria: Armed Violence (Rural Communities)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of armed violence against farming communities in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate—it is of the upmost importance that the House, the Government and the whole international community do not ignore such immense and devastating suffering. I am grateful to all hon. Members for participating in the debate, and I particularly thank the Minister for her esteemed presence and for her informative remarks last Thursday, when she spoke at an event that examined some of these issues, which was organised by the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
I imagine that some hon. Members will discuss the Boko Haram crisis, so I will focus on the conflict between nomadic herders and farming communities. According to some estimates, it has claimed up to 60,000 lives since 2001. I would like to discuss the scale of the violence, how to resolve the crisis, and the long-term consequences of failure to address the violence.
For decades, nomadic cattle herders from north Nigeria, who belong predominantly to the Muslim Hausa Fulani ethnic group, have been in dispute over land with predominantly Christian farming communities further south. However, in recent years, the scale and violence of these disputes has escalated dramatically, and we will want to look at the reasons for that in the discussions we have today. As many as 1,300 people have been killed in violence between these groups since January, and at least 300,000 have been displaced. The conflict is estimated to cost the Nigerian economy $10.5 billion a year. It is good to see the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) in his place; he is the Government envoy to Nigeria, so we look forward to his comments. We cannot ignore the impact on the Nigerian economy.
The International Crisis Group has said:
“What were once spontaneous attacks have become premeditated scorched-earth campaigns in which marauders often take villages by surprise at night.”
When we talk about these enormous crises, there is sometimes a danger that we forget about people and their families—we cannot do that. Real people have lost their entire families. Real people have seen their homes and villages destroyed. Real people have been devastated, disfigured and dismembered. In terms of sheer scale and horror, the violence we have witnessed in Nigeria is six times deadlier than the Boko Haram crisis of 2018 —six times more horrible, more horrific, more evil and more brutal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the scale of the difficulties, which he has articulated, has not made news? If it were happening in any part of the western world, it would make news.
My hon. Friend must have read the next sentence of my contribution, which says that we have barely heard about this—that is exactly right. That is why we are taking the opportunity today to highlight this matter. The scale of the violence is already extraordinary, and it has the potential to become much worse if it is not dealt with. This is a good place to discuss these matters.
To resolve the situation, one must first have a deep understanding of the drivers of the violence. The single conflict is actually a series of countless, smaller conflicts between many disaggregated, and often rapidly formed, militias. What drives these militias to violence in one area might not drive other militias in a different area, so we probably do not need a one-size-fits-all policy here. We need something a wee bit more delicate to address these complex issues. It is vital to remember the interconnected factors that have encouraged this extraordinary violence: increased pressure on resources, the collapse of traditional mediation mechanisms, and the failure of the Nigerian Government to respond effectively.
In last week’s APPG meeting, which the Minister attended, there was unanimous agreement among the speakers that religion is also a factor in the violence, and we cannot ignore that. They agreed that militias fighting over dwindling resources have been mobilised along religious lines. Some—not all—might be driven by religion, so I wholeheartedly agree with the Government’s previous statements on the issue: we must be very careful not to attribute religious motivations to actors unless we see substantial evidence. However, I would put it on record that there is a lot of evidence that many of the attacks are religiously based, which we cannot ignore.
Many issues need to be examined thoroughly, and the answers might not point to underlying religious motivations, but those have to be considered. The fact is that Christians and Muslims have been attacked, and we have to ask why that is happening. According to some reports, herder militias have claimed at least 6,000 lives since 2011, whereas the number of herders killed is much lower. It is important that such evidence is gathered; one must question why the violence in certain areas of conflict has been so brutal, so devastating and seemingly so one-sided. Why is it that members of religious groups are so often the victims of what is happening?
Some time ago, I was informed by some of the groups I have met and by some of people I have met from Nigeria and elsewhere that weaponry seems to be available in Nigeria. They said that Nigeria is probably the arms base for a great many conflicts across Africa and maybe further afield. Some of the militias are using sophisticated weaponry, and we have to ask how they can afford to do that. There are reports of some herder militias using rocket launchers, machine guns and large explosives. Both sides might be using such weaponry, but we hear reports only of the herders using it. Are these weapons extremely cheap on the black market, and which groups are financing the acquisitions? Are domestic extremist groups providing funding to militias? These questions warrant answers.
Reports also point to the difficulty in obtaining specific information about such a widespread and varied conflict. The mainstream and traditional media have been heavily criticised for a lack of thorough investigation of violent incidents. To resolve the situation, there is a great need to combat the spread of misinformation and to get to the truth of opposing claims. I therefore wonder whether the Minister might consider supporting a group of impartial international journalists to investigate many of the stories, as well as media content and contradictory claims, about the many conflicts in Nigeria. I and others in the House believe that it is crucial that such a group is international and independent of the Nigerian Government, so that its findings could not be easily dismissed or biased. It is important that we put that right.
On the motivation of certain militias, there seems to be unanimous agreement that the actions of the federal Government and state-level governments have been woefully inadequate, which is a key factor in the violence. The withdrawal of Government from rural areas has led to a collapse of the rule of law in many parts of the country. Security forces have hardly been mobilised—that is a fact—and perpetrators of violence operate with impunity. We need an active police and army presence in areas where these militia groups seem to roam at will. It is unacceptable that so many people should suffer simply because of a lack of political will to help them. It is imperative that much more pressure is applied by the UK and the international community to get the Nigerian Government to formulate a comprehensive and holistic security strategy that adequately resources and mobilises the security forces.
It is important to acknowledge that once people believe that religion is a motivating factor for violence, policy responses must adapt. My noble Friend, Baroness Cox of Queensbury, recently travelled to Nigeria and spoke to many people affected by these conflicts. They were convinced that they had been targeted exclusively because of their religion. That belief must surely lead to hostility and mistrust between religious groups. There must be reconciliation between them if there is to be peace between communities in the future. Stopping the perpetrators of violence must be the first step, but I encourage the Minister to consider the need for religious reconciliation and tolerance programmes in any long-term response plan. Had we not had peace talks in Northern Ireland, we could not have stopped the fighting.
It is important that we have that verbal interaction, as it will enable us to move forward constructively and stop those who wish to carry out violent acts. There are potential long-term consequences if the violence is not addressed in the short term. More and more Nigerian Muslims and Christians may begin to believe that they are being targeted because of their religion. In turn, that could lead more and more Christians and Muslims to believe that they are engaged in an existential battle. There are already reports that many leaders in Nigeria are calling for groups to arm themselves if they want to survive, so, worryingly, the whole thing may escalate.
We must do all we can to ensure that the violence, which is already at extraordinary levels, does not explode into an even wider religious conflict that spreads across the nation or even the region as a whole. It is sometimes difficult to express how devastating the conflict could be to Nigeria and beyond. What chance do we have of reducing poverty if there is long-term violence and instability? How will people feed themselves if farmers are too scared to go outside or have been driven from their lands? What happens when the hundreds of thousands of people in internally displaced persons camps decide that anything is better than their horrid conditions and turn to Europe in search of a better life?
I am conscious that several hon. Members want to speak, and I want to ensure that all those who made the effort to be here have the time to make a contribution. I repeat that the scale of the devastation is extraordinary, so we must do more to address it. I thank the Minister for the work that she and the Government have already done. We look forward to her response on how we can help the Nigerian Government to move forward and ensure that my Christian brothers and sisters in Nigeria are not persecuted or victimised because of their belief. I want to ensure that those with Muslim beliefs who are victimised, persecuted and targeted are free from that. I trust that the Minister will do all she can, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to wake the Nigerian Government up to this crisis and the plight of their own people. It is infuriating and perplexing that they have turned a blind eye to the violence, which is having a profoundly negative impact on their country and its future. They must realise how the world sees Nigeria.
I thank the Minister for the nuanced and inquisitive approach the Government have taken thus far. I encourage her to continue to strive to find the causes of the violence in the different areas, and not to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. That would not be a good way to do it—the Minister said that last week, but we need a commitment to a strategy that works. I wholeheartedly agree with her commitment to remain impartial and to assess events objectively. In that spirit, I hope she will ask tough questions about the asymmetry of violence and the funding of weapons, even if the answers are inconvenient to the Nigerian Government.
Similarly, I hope the Minister will consider what can be done to help independent journalists enter the hard-to-reach places in Nigeria to find out the truth and build an evidence base. On that point, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that, on 12 December at 10 am in Committee Room 7, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I chair, will be having a roundtable meeting with experts to discuss the impact that the media have had on the violence.
The fact that people are convinced that they are being targeted because of their religion means that religious reconciliation and tolerance programmes are vital for long-term peace. The long-term consequences of failing to take those steps and address the violence are unthinkable. Instability, displacement, death, famine, civil war and mass migration are all possible outcomes. They are all happening now, and will continue to happen unless action is taken. Now is the time to stop this. We in this House can contribute to an action plan and strategy through our contributions to this debate. I look to the Minister and our Government for answers on what we can do in the future. We must do everything in our power. We must act quickly so hon. Members do not find themselves back in this Chamber 10 years from now talking about all those who have lost their lives and about what we should have done to prevent the situation in Nigeria.
This House has an opportunity to come together constructively to beseech our Minister and our Government to act in Nigeria to help the Nigerian Government to grasp the nettle. In parts of northern Nigeria, Christian and Muslim groups have absolutely no protection. This House is duty-bound to speak up for those across the world who do not have the opportunity that we have. We must not be found wanting. I have often said that we are a voice for the voiceless. Let us be a voice for all these people.
Order. I will not impose a formal time limit, but as a guideline there are about nine minutes for each Back-Bench speaker. Observant Members will have noticed that the two clocks are slightly different, so we will go for the large clock as a guide.
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his excellent speech and his devotion to promoting freedom of religion or belief right across the world. Those of us who are people of faith are concerned about ensuring that we do that. We must seek the truth when we speak. The main theme of my speech is that we must find the truth about what is happening in Nigeria, and urge our Government to do all they can in that respect.
I fully accept that the escalating violence in central and northern Nigeria has many complex sources. We have heard that the failure of governance in the area has resulted in a sense of injustice and vigilantism. Population growth, urbanisation and desertification have put pressure on the grazing areas and water sources that the traditional nomadic herders—the Fulani—use.
In our meeting with the Minister last week, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I was pleased that she acknowledged that religion and religious identity form a part of the violence and are a cause of it. My concern is that the role they play is increasing, and we need to do more to recognise that; our Government must do the same and press the Nigerian Government to do so, too. There is a real risk of genocide, if indeed it is not already happening.
I use as my sources of support two reports that have been published in the past week. The first was produced by Aid to the Church in Need and was published last Thursday; I was privileged to attend its launch. Every two years, Aid to the Church in Need produces a report about religious freedom in the world. It is very well resourced, with on-the-ground references throughout. It is a detailed publication, and I hope the Minister will read it. About Nigeria, it says:
“Assessments of the violence have highlighted ethnic differences between Christians and the Fulanis and disputes concerning the grazing of the herdsmen’s cattle but”—
this is an important “but”—
“religion seems to have become an increasingly important factor…violence by Fulani militants in Central Belt has terrorized Christians.”
“Father Alexander Yeyock, parish priest of St. John’s Church, Asso, gave an interview after a Fulani attack in Easter Week 2018 left two of his faithful dead: ‘The attack has two dimensions. The first is to Islamize the Christian community...The second dimension is that Fulani herdsmen want to confiscate our arable land for grazing purposes.’”
Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of Makurdi told the African Christian Network:
“There is a clear agenda: a plan to Islamise all the areas that are...predominantly Christian in the…Middle Belt”.
That is really concerning, and I wonder whether our Government representatives on the ground really have an understanding of radicalisation and the spread of Islamist ideology that is taking hold, not only in Nigeria, but in other parts of the world.
The report goes on:
“A core finding of this report is the failure of the international community to recognise the scale of the problem, which is compounded by the inaction of the authorities in the countries concerned… One bishop warned the international community: ‘Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda.’… Nigeria’s violent hotspot—the Middle Belt—is predominantly Christian, and human rights observers suggested that the militant action there is intended to achieve the imposition of Wahhabi-style Islam. Church leaders suggested that the attackers were ‘jihadists imported hiding under the guise of herdsmen and sponsored by people from certain quarters to achieve an Islamist agenda.’ As evidence, commentators pointed to the swift upgrade in weaponry from bows and arrows to AK-47s and other high-tech arsenal.”
There is more in the report that I cannot go into today, but I hope that Ministers will read it and provide a response to it. One of its important findings—we have heard of this in the actions of Daesh elsewhere—was the way that militant Islam uses women, subjecting them to violence as part of a process of forced conversion.
In that respect, I refer to a report from the charity Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, which was also released in the last two weeks. The charity’s inspirational leader is Baroness Cox, who has had a 20-year involvement in Nigeria and went there specifically to produce the report, “Hidden Atrocities: The escalating persecution and displacement of Christians in northern and central Nigeria”. In the report, she talks about the atrocities that have been perpetrated. This is one example she gives:
“My sister was raped and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart. They took my brother, his wife and all their six children, tied and slaughtered them like animals.”
I concur with the hon. Member for Strangford. During a recent discussion, someone from Nigeria said to me:
“The Fulani herdsmen are far more violent than Boko Haram. Boko Haram don’t mess with them.”
In the report, there are many other descriptions of similar atrocities, which are deeply concerning. Yes, there are many reasons for this violence, but, as Baroness Cox said,
“Less well known, however, is the escalation of attacks by Fulani herders against predominantly Christian communities in the middle belt region.”
The Bishop of Bauchi, an Anglican bishop representing many of the worst affected areas said that
“The conflict between herdsmen and farmers has existed for a long time. But the menace in recent times has jumped from a worrisome itch in the north to a cancerous disease, spreading throughout the country, claiming lives and threatening to spiral into a monster.”
The human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that in the first quarter of 2018, the Fulani perpetrated at least 106 attacks in central Nigeria. The death toll, purely from Fulani militia violence, stands at 1,061. The Christian Association of Nigeria estimates that between January and June this year, around 6,000 people have been killed by the Fulani. In Nasarawa State alone, in the first six months of 2018, 539 churches were destroyed, and on July 4, the Nigerian House of Representatives declared killings in Plateau State to be a genocide. That is deeply concerning, and there are a number of recommendations in Baroness Cox’s report, of which I hope the Government will take note.
In the light of Baroness Cox’s report, does the hon. Lady agree that the people of Nigeria—indeed, many people of faith on the African continent—will be looking to countries such as the United Kingdom for a unified response that is emphatic and robust, and which not only expresses solidarity, but takes action internationally to try to bring pressure to bear on the Nigerian authorities?
I could not have expressed that better myself. Indeed, to warn of the risks of this escalating into a serious genocide, there is a responsibility on the part of the international community to respond to the reports that we are receiving. I am particularly anxious that the Department for International Development does so responsibly.
I was in Nigeria in 2016 with the International Development Committee, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who cannot be here but asked me to put on record that he shares the concerns that I, and others, are expressing. DFID representatives and fieldworkers on the ground arranged a roundtable meeting with civil society for us. I was extremely concerned, because I knew even then about the region’s escalating violence and the religious element developing within that, that there was no representative from the Christian Association of Nigeria at the meeting, and it took considerable effort on my part to persuade DFID officials to involve one. Even then, I was deeply concerned that that representative did not have an opportunity to express his concerns about the religious element of those attacks, the nature of which we are now seeing developing in the area.
I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because in recent years it has responded to many debates in this very Chamber, developed an understanding and demonstrated its commitment to freedom of religion and belief all around the world, but I do not have the same confidence in many of the DFID staff posted around the world. I urge the Minister to ask her colleagues at DFID what their staff on the ground in Nigeria are doing to address the situation and to engage with faith leaders and others to ensure that they can find the truth, which, as I have said, is what we seek to establish in our consideration of the issue. We need to know the truth about what is happening in Nigeria—such as the information brought to bear in the reports that I have referred to—so that our Government has the information and can respond.
Order. When I give a guideline for speaking, I hope that hon. Members will adhere to it. If some Members go over the time limit, other Members have less time. As a result, I now have to reduce the guideline to eight minutes. I call Dr Drew.
Thank you, Mr Betts; I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship. I acknowledge your guidance and will try to be brief.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) —my hon. Friend in this respect—not only for securing the debate but for his assiduous questioning. The situation in Nigeria is something that we should be concerned about and we quite rightly highlight it today.
I visited Nigeria a long time ago, in 2006, with Christian Solidarity Worldwide—it is good to see Mervyn Thomas, the CEO, in the Public Gallery—and to my knowledge, this issue is historic. We saw the antecedent of what is happening today. As part of that visit, we went to Jos and to Kano, and we saw, even then, burnt out churches and loss of life because of religious conflict. The situation is complex and is partly about the conflict between pastoralists and farmers; it just so happens that the pastoralists tend to be Islamic while the farmers are Christian. The issue dates back a long time.
During that visit, I met the then Archbishop of Jos. During a debate in the other place on 17 July, which was initiated by the noble Baroness Cox, who has taken a strong interest what has been happening in Nigeria, no less a person than the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to alert the House of Lords to yet another attack on the Archbishop of Jos, who is a very brave man. He and his predecessor have been through all manner of conflict and lived with it. We must recognise that it is not just people out in rural areas who are affected; in the cities too there are regular attacks, and prominent Christians are subject to all aspects of that conflict.
I have one simple point to make. Even in the days when I visited, clearly the federal structure of Nigeria meant that much of the power lay in the hands of the state governors. As much as I would say that President Goodluck Jonathan and now President Buhari could do much more—I hope that the Minister will tell us what the UK Government are doing to lobby directly—we must also recognise that the different state governors have enormous influence, even to the extent that when I was there, a long time ago, it was common to hear of some Christian governors helping Islamist extremists because it was politically advantageous to do so. My visit clearly predates much of the terror of Boko Haram, but even then some extremist groups on the ground were well organised. State governors could have done much more to deal with them using the police and, dare I say it, the army, but they refused to do so.
I hope that the Government will say what they are doing to engage with not only the federal President but the state governors, because they are the key to dealing with some of the violence on the ground. Unless we ensure that our lobbying of those people is effective, that violence will continue and get worse, and the Christians—a minority now, sadly—will be driven further and further from where they have always lived and had their livelihoods. I hope that our Government will do that and ensure that this issue is dealt with appropriately. We must stop the violence to allow people to live in peace and harmony, as they have done for generations, and to get on with their lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It is also a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall again for a debate on protecting people’s ability to express their religious faith freely, which was initiated by my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I know it is rare that we get the chance to hear the hon. Gentleman—[Laughter]—at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning, but it was a particular pleasure today. I make that comment in jest, but the laughter is probably a sign of how often he has managed to secure a debate on oppressed communities around the world. Such communities are often oppressed purely because they have made a choice about their faith, or to have no faith—I am always clear that this issue is not just about the faith that we share.
The problem is, sadly, not a new one. We only have to look at the Open Doors website to see articles from the past few years about Fulani attacks on those from a Christian background. The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the huge impact not only on people’s freedom to express their religious faith but on the economy in an area to which poverty is sadly not a stranger for many people. Conflict is continuing and feeds into wider concern about the stability of Nigeria.
Some colleagues and Members in the Chamber are old enough to remember the appalling Biafran war, when Nigeria suffered horrendous loss of life. We have seen the impact of Boko Haram and how it has used its extremist ideology to cow people and try to make them bend their knee, rather than make free choices. Boko Haram has also, famously, sought to deter girls from seeking an education. We reflect regularly on the fact that this debate is about groups seeking both to take away religious rights, to force people to agree with their particular faith or belief, and to remove every other right—not only to religious faith but to supporting oneself, freedom of expression, choice of person to lead one’s country and, generally, to living life as one chooses.
People might wonder why this is an issue for us here in the United Kingdom, but some of us believe that it is important to protect the right to express faith and political views anywhere. Most of us rightly take the view that if people cannot do that somewhere else, the threat is always that such an ideology might spread to this country. For me, it is also about the migrant flows towards the Mediterranean. The fundamental reason for much of that is conflict and war in sub-Saharan Africa, which makes people feel that they have absolutely no hope of making a better life for themselves if they remain in their own country, that they might not be able to progress economically, or that their life will be in genuine danger. It is therefore right to focus on this subject.
It will be interesting to hear from the Minister about the Government’s work with the Nigerian authorities to tackle the problem. The obvious question is about what support our military in particular might supply, which is not so much boots on the ground as capacity building. Support to Nigerian forces could include provision of capabilities to do with surveillance and reconnaissance that might not be available to them but are to us. Furthermore, how are we working with the Nigerian authorities to build their capability to strengthen enforcement of law and order? Ultimately, without the ability to enforce the law in parts of Nigeria, problems will remain. How can confidence in the state authorities, which the information we have read shows is clearly damaged, be built up? How can we as the UK work with the authorities to do that?
We can help not only to achieve short-term security but to support long-term development, particularly through our international development programme. It is all very well stopping the conflict today—perhaps with a better security operation, dealing with specific armed individuals, or tracking down where weapons come from and blocking a particular supply—but if the underlying economic issues that drive people towards conflict remain, that conflict will re-emerge in the future. As the UK looks towards a future as more of a global trader, how can we use aid to stimulate trade and, in turn, economic development, which can be as vital to ending conflict as merely carrying out an operation to prevent attacks in the short term?
It has been a pleasure to make a contribution to this debate and, as always, to be in the Chamber with some familiar faces to talk about defending the rights of others to express their religious beliefs freely. This debate shows that the issue extends beyond states such as North Korea, where people face formal persecution by the state they live under; in so many other cases, in particular in parts of Nigeria and the middle east, non-state actors are the source of persecution. How can we work with the Government of Nigeria to ensure that we are not still debating this subject in 10 years’ time?
Order. We can now go back to nine minutes as a guideline. Hon. Members have been very helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. It is a great pleasure to participate in it.
I will leap in straightaway, since we do not have much time. I, too, believe that President Buhari has not done enough to focus on the problem. He came to power with a radical agenda to get rid of Boko Haram, and he has been partially successful. As hon. Members have pointed out, however, some Boko Haram insurgents have transformed into terrorists in the country, and they might well be fuelling this particular crisis.
Since we last spoke in this Chamber about the issue, one of the major things to have emerged is the intensity of the problem and of the killings that are taking place. It is always possible to blame the President for what happens in a country, but let us remember that President Buhari faces action in the International Criminal Court for what he has done against Boko Haram. That is quite remarkable, but it is not surprising that his focus has been elsewhere. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) pointed out, the real focus in Nigeria is not the national Administration but the state governorships. I particularly condemn the governor of Ekiti state, Mr Fayose, who encouraged farmers to take up arms against the Fulani herdsmen. That was not helpful—it just increased tensions and killings in the country. We should ensure that we condemn that.
I have said several times in this Chamber that President Buhari was summoned to Parliament and condemned following the recent killings, and that a no-confidence motion was passed in respect of his advisers because they had done nothing to solve the problem. President Buhari was the first African leader to go to the White House, in April. I am afraid that President Trump’s involvement with the situation in Nigeria was less than helpful—he made a rather simplistic judgment and did not put pressure on President Buhari to take action. We need to put pressure on the state governors and the national Government to do something.
One good solution to the situation would be for the national Government not to look at it solely in military terms. I do not think it will be solved by a military operation. It will be solved by political activism. There is a Bill before the Nigerian Parliament, which is known in shorthand as the land grazing Bill, that would allow national grazing reserves to be set aside for Fulani herdsmen to use without coming into contact or conflict with Christian farmers. We should support that and other actions the Nigerian Parliament is taking to solve this problem.
The situation is complex. It is wrong to characterise the conflict just as a religious one. It certainly has strong religious elements and overtones, but it has been going on for many years—it was going on before Open Doors became involved and long before we became aware of it. We can see that it is more than just a religious conflict by looking at the timing of the killings, which increase around national elections. That is instructive.
I always have poverty in my mind when I carry out my work in Nigeria. I am absolutely committed to trying to help the Nigerian Government improve the impoverished situation of many of people. I have explained on a number of occasions that that is in our best interests, because it enables us to prevent mass migration from Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, but it is also in Nigeria’s best interests. We need to put pressure on the Nigerian Government and the state governors to solve this problem in order to deal firmly and finally with poverty.
Given his knowledge of Nigeria, can the hon. Gentleman see any reason why the Nigerian Government have been reluctant, unable or unwilling to respond to the high levels of violence?
That is an interesting question. There is an ethnicity element to it. President Buhari comes from the area that identifies with the Fulani. I am not going to make that point more strongly. I do not know the extent to which that ethnic belonging influences him and his actions. All I will say is that I agree that less action has been taken in this area than anyone would have liked.
Since I am running out of time, let me conclude by saying that this issue is enormously important. I know the high commission raises it very frequently with the Nigerian Government. It is technically outside my remit as trade envoy, but in a country such as Nigeria, one cannot focus on one issue—they all interlock and play a part. I will continue to put pressure on the Nigerian Government to ensure that something occurs to resolve the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank and commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. It was a pleasure—indeed, it was rather humbling—to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is a true expert on matters pertaining to Nigeria. I certainly do not want to detract from anything that has already been said.
Much was said about the situation in Nigeria, especially in the so-called middle belt, which straddles the divide between the largely Muslim north and the majority-Christian south, and which is the scene of an escalating cycle of violence between settled farmers, who are mostly Christian, and the mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani are an ethnic group of about 20 million people across 20 west and central African countries. Exacerbating factors include the environmental impact of climate change and the proliferation of armaments—especially those that were looted from the arsenals of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, which are smuggled across the region and used to dreadful effect.
We have already heard that the 2017 global terrorism index estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed across west Africa in clashes between Fulani herdsmen and settled communities since 2001. The number of violent deaths in Nigeria is again spiralling. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimated in a report in the summer that armed Fulani gunmen had killed nearly 1,000 people so far this year—more than Boko Haram. Those killings, which take place in villages and small farming communities, include the cold-blooded murder of women and children, of which we have heard accounts.
The Nigerian Government blame the violence on armed banditry and organised crime, but there are clear ethnic and religious issues at play. The violence seems to be based on economic insecurity, but its root causes run deeper. The conflict is rooted in the complex religious history of the region, going back to the Sokoto caliphate in the 19th century and the missionaries who brought Christianity to the region at that time. The long-standing conflict has been brutal and most inhumane.
Who can forget the atrocities of Boko Haram, which are funded by the most horrific crimes of kidnapping, slavery, human trafficking and rape? In June this year, 86 people were killed and 56 homes destroyed by herders. However, the situation is not without hope. I read an interesting and inspiring story about Christians who fled the scene of an attack. Brutal raiders descended on their homes in the middle of the night, but many of them got away by running for their lives. Shelter came in the form of an imam from the local mosque, who took them in and gave them sanctuary, and protected them within the walls of the mosque. In that instance, the family survived.
That is the paramount value of faith—that in the sight of such adversity and violence we can still see humanity in each other. When we acknowledge our common humanity, we can truly achieve peace. Peace with each other is one thing, but we also need peace within ourselves, which is another transcendent value. Despite claims to the contrary, the central truth of Islam, as with the message of the Christian gospel, is about love for one another and our common humanity.
One thing to come out of our recent trip to Pakistan were three words that were used by those of the Islamic and the Christian faiths: love, tolerance and respect. If we get those three things together, and we believe in them and act them out through our faiths, people in society can move forward with respect for each other.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
The situation in Nigeria is riven with mixed signals. The Government make claims about reduced violence and say that the situation in the north is improving, and a significant amount of UK aid has been spent trying to help the Nigerian authorities fight the insurgents. However, the late Catholic bishop, Joseph Bagobiri, accused President Buhari’s Government of actually siding with the herdsmen, saying Buhari
“unabashedly takes sides with the armed herdsmen, his kinsmen, thereby failing in his responsibility as a true statesman.”
That is quite an accusation, and such allegations of complicity between the Nigerian President and those who perpetrate these acts of violence must be shown to be unfounded, as there is no room for such complicity, if it exists at all. As long as there is endemic corruption in Nigeria, there will be conflict, and if the Government have no moral authority, there is a vacuum into which extremism will step.
The attacks take place on an ethno-religious basis, but there are no doubt also economic and political aspects to them. In a country such as Nigeria, in which 90 million Muslims and 76 million Christians live together, under- standing and tolerance are essential. The attacks will dissipate only when there is a sense of fairness, a Government who have moral authority, and a world community that stands alongside the decent people of Nigeria.
I have some questions for the Minister, which are concurrent with other points that have been raised today. What is the UK Government’s assessment of situation on the ground in northern Nigeria and the middle belt? What is the Minister’s assessment of the effectiveness of the part played by the UK to strengthen internal security and encourage cross-border co-operation to control the movements of marauding terrorists and the illicit trade in armaments? What are the Government doing to strengthen existing local machinery to support conflict resolution? My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) raised a point about DFID. What are we doing to build sustainable solutions to the issues impacted by climate change? That point was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) in relation to the establishment of grazing reserves. Such things would be significant steps.
I will conclude with the haunting words of Lord Alton. Speaking in the other place earlier this year, he quoted the Archbishop of Abuja, who described the escalating violence as “territorial conquest” and “ethnic cleansing”, and said that
“the very survival of our nation is...at stake”.
Lord Alton went on to ask:
“Are we to watch one of Africa’s greatest countries go the way of Sudan? Will we be indifferent as radical forces…seeking to replace diversity and difference with a monochrome ideology that will be imposed with violence on those who refuse to comply? We must not wait for a genocide to happen, as it did in Rwanda. Ominously, history could very easily be repeated.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June 2016; Vol. 792, c. 286.]
I repeat his warning today.
I thank hon. Members for their co-operation. We will now move on to the winding-up speeches, for which there are a good 10 minutes each, and we will leave a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to respond to the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing a debate on this important and grave issue. I also thank other hon. Members for their invaluable contributions today.
Without doubt, the farmer-herder conflict has become Nigeria’s gravest security challenge. The tensions and violence between nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslim, and farmers, who are predominantly Christian, over land and natural resources have a long history throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As we heard from the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), and at the start of the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford, there have been 60,000 deaths since 2001, and attacks have escalated dramatically this year.
According to a report released by the International Crisis Group in July, violence between Nigerian farmers and herders killed at least 1,300 people in the first half of 2018 and claimed
“about six times more civilian lives than the Boko Haram insurgency”.
Outside this Chamber, very few people are aware of the current conflict in Nigeria, yet we are all very much aware of Boko Haram. Indeed, when researching for this debate, I found only a small number of articles in the press, so the first question to ask is: why is this conflict largely unreported?
In June, 86 people died in just one incident in Plateau state after violent clashes broke out between farmers and cattle herders, and the violence has continued unrelentingly during the second half of the year. It is clear that this violence has evolved from spontaneous reactions to deadlier planned attacks, particularly in Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Nasarawa and Taraba states. The conflict’s roots lie in the degradation of land due to climate change, and increasing violence in the country’s far north, which has forced herders south. As farms and settlements expand, they swallow up grazing reserves and block traditional migration routes, and farmers’ crops are damaged by the herders’ indiscriminate grazing.
Three immediate factors explain the escalation of violence this year. First, there is the rapid growth of ethnic militias bearing illegally acquired weapons—that point has already been made. Second, there is the failure of the Nigerian Government to prosecute past perpetrators or notice early warnings of impending attacks. Third, there is the introduction in November last year of anti-grazing laws, which were strongly opposed by herders, sparking further clashes with farmers.
Nigeria’s Administration, led by President Buhari, have been accused of not doing enough to stop the violence. The report in September 2017 by the International Crisis Group analysed the roots of the conflict and laid out detailed recommendations for resolving it. Those recommendations remain largely valid, and I suggest that the Minister reads the report if she has not already done so. It focuses on immediate priorities—tasks that both the federal and state authorities, as well as community leaders and Nigeria’s international partners, must urgently undertake to stop the violence spinning out of control. It recommends that the Nigerian Government deploy more police in affected areas, improve local ties to gather better intelligence, and respond speedily to early warnings and distress calls. In addition, they should begin to disarm armed groups, and closely watch land borders to stop the inflow of firearms. The Nigerian Government should also order an investigation into all recent major incidents of farmer-herder violence, and may need to expedite the trials of anyone found to have participated in violence. They should expand in detail the new national livestock transformation plan and implement it immediately. It is also important that they encourage herder-farmer dialogue and support local peace initiatives.
Where do the UK Government fit in? They can play a leading role in tackling this conflict, and it goes without saying that they must do all they can to put a stop to this violence. Can the Minister tell us today what co-ordinated and practical actions DFID is taking to alleviate the tensions around resources and whether it is providing enough aid to ensure that people are not at risk of starvation or of losing their cattle or harvests? It is important that more resources should be committed to internally displaced persons in Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau states, with special attention to women and children, who constitute the majority of the displaced.
I am reminded of the abduction of schoolgirls and young women, probably into forced marriages and forced conversions, which has not been mentioned so far. One young girl who is on our minds and who I pray for every morning—many others probably do too—is Leah Sharibu, who was kidnapped and has still not been freed. I think that the Government need to look at that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree? In her response, can the Minister indicate what help has been given in terms of her discussions with the Nigerian Government to provide protection for schools in northern Nigeria, where people are very vulnerable to abduction and kidnapping?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I share his concerns and look forward to what the Minister has to say. Over the last couple of years in particular, we have often heard about Boko Haram and the kidnapping of schoolchildren and women, who are forced into marriage and are often never seen again. I particularly want to hear what the Minister has to say on this point.
Can the Minister tell us what action DFID is taking to explore the link between water shortages and climate change and to review UK climate justice policies accordingly? In particular, I recommend that she considers the success of Scottish Government innovations in this area. Can she explain how the UK Government are encouraging and supporting the development of effective Government mechanisms and policies that are able to arbitrate fairly and earn the confidence of all the people of Nigeria in finding a resolution? Finally, what actions are being taken to grow and strengthen the UK’s capacity or the capacity of international agencies as observers, to ensure that such escalations can be reasonably identified in advance? We have heard today about the question of genocide, and it is potentially imminent. The SNP would support the introduction of a 12-point system for gauging genocide risks instead of the traffic light system currently used by the UK.
In conclusion, despite escalating at an alarming pace, the farmer-herder conflict has been completely under-reported, which is why we must speak out more loudly against these atrocities. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to what has become Nigeria's gravest security challenge. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what actions the Government are taking to make sure that the UK is playing its part to help put an end to this deadly conflict and to explore further what is behind the underlying tensions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr Betts and to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the Opposition in this important debate and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his eloquent and passionate introduction to the debate. It is clearly an issue about which he is knowledgeable and passionately concerned.
I pay tribute to my constituent, Mr John Wilkins, who shares the hon. Member for Strangford’s passion for and interest in the situation. Although many hon. Members in the Chamber have remarked that this issue has not made the news, Mr Wilkins ensures that I am kept well informed of the terrible situation, and he is very grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for calling the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Members and hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate. I particularly mention the contributions made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is no longer in her place, who voiced legitimate concerns about the situation developing into genocide and about the role of religion in the violent attacks, which has been acknowledged by many in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) gave us an insight into the development of the situation, drawing on his visit to Nigeria in 2006. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke about historical instability in Nigeria. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke about the intensity of the problem and the actions of President Buhari, who is facing the International Criminal Court for actions against Boko Haram. The hon. Gentleman, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, raised the important issue of the role of state governors in facilitating the violence. Finally, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) spoke about the role of climate change in the conflict and about the illegal supply of weapons to Fulani herdsmen.
It is immensely important that we discuss the intercommunal violence of Nigeria’s volatile middle belt, which divides the largely Muslim north from the Christian south. The area between Kaduna and Plateau states has witnessed internecine violence over the past two decades which has claimed too many lives. As has been noted, violence between Nigerian farmers and herders killed at least 1,300 people in the first half of this year. It has been said that this is
“about six times more civilian lives than the Boko Haram insurgency”.
The fact that this intercommunal violence has claimed more lives than one of the most dangerous terror groups in the world means that this issue deserves our most urgent attention.
As we have heard in the debate, disputes between pastoralists and farmers have historical roots and comprise many issues, such as land and natural resources, as well as the struggle for cultural and religious control. More recently, the effects of global warming have driven much of the intercommunal conflict. Longstanding and complex issues like these will not be solved by quick fixes, but instead will need a collaborative approach to implement initiatives with a long-term focus. This is likely to be a major election issue when Nigerians go to the polls early next year.
I welcome President Buhari’s condemnation of the violence and his commitment to justice. However, it is important that we now aim to achieve solutions to the decades-old conflict that are durable and settle disputes for all those involved.
The hon. Lady reminds me that some 300,000 men, women and children have been displaced. I do not think we can ignore the problems, which are having an impact on other parts of Nigeria as well. People hope to return to their homeland, but just how will that happen? Does the hon. Lady think that the Government should be addressing the issues of the displaced in the discussions with Nigeria?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point, which I think has also been made by several hon. Members during the debate, with reference to the genocide in Rwanda and the situation in Sudan. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some idea about what action the UK Government are able to take to help those who have been displaced. It would be helpful if the Minister explained specifically what assistance the UK Government and DFID are giving to the Nigerian Government in general, to help deal with these violent episodes.
The Minister will know that the Most Reverend Primate set out three recommendations for addressing the violence during a recent debate in the other place. He recommended that the Nigerian Government strengthen their role of enforcing security and local mediation; ensure reconciliation between farmers and herders; and actively and tangibly support regional efforts to combat the effects of climate change, which is exacerbating ancient rivalries. Would the Minister explain what steps the UK Government are taking to support Nigeria in the three points raised by the Most Reverend Primate?
I am sure it will be possible to give the hon. Member who moved the motion a couple of minutes to respond at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, on a matter that he has pursued tirelessly not only in the Chamber but through his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on religion or belief. He has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to Nigeria and to the issue that we are debating today. I pay tribute to the wisdom and experience of the hon. Members taking part in the debate, as they have shared a range of perspectives, and made excellent points based on their own engagement with the issue—the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Henley (John Howell) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), and of course the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). I also thank Mr Wilkins for his continuing engagement with what is an important, complex and complicated issue.
We have heard the concern of all the hon. Members who spoke about the current situation. That concern is well founded because intercommunal violence is the biggest internal security challenge facing Nigeria today. In fact, as we heard repeatedly, in 2018, more lives were lost as a result of that conflict than in the separate conflict with Boko Haram. As the UK is a long-standing partner of Nigeria, it is right that we seek to understand the reasons for the violence, and I appreciate and welcome the inquiry undertaken by the all-party parliamentary group.
The key point that I want to make clear, as I did last week when I met the all-party group, is that the situation is not a straightforward, binary religious dispute between farmers and herders or Christians and Muslims, although it is sometimes portrayed in that way, particularly in the local Nigerian media. We heard from colleagues that there are a range of causes. We also heard—and it is true—that farming communities are not the only victims, as the rather unequal media reporting tends to suggest. Sadly, there have indeed been a number of reports this year of attacks by Fulani herders on farming communities in Benue state, Berom and Jos that have led to serious loss of life and deserve clear condemnation.
The causes of the conflict are complex. Herder communities have also been victims of the violence, and both communities are believed to have suffered hundreds of casualties. Colleagues have cited assessments, and Amnesty International assesses that last year intercommunal clashes resulted in about 550 deaths. This year, the number of incidents and the level of violence are rising. Reports suggest that the number of deaths has already exceeded 1,850. The source for that figure is the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Incidents have been reported in all regions of the country.
Why is the conflict escalating, and what are the underlying reasons? As we heard in the debate, one reason is that herders, who for centuries have followed ancient migration routes across west Africa, have been forced to divert south, owing to a range of factors including population growth, urbanisation, desertification and failures of governance. That has brought them into direct competition with farming communities for scarce land and water, and their cattle have encroached on farms, causing costly damage to crops. That has understandably led to tensions, then to a cycle of violent reprisals, criminal banditry and cattle rustling. The religious identity of the groups involved is certainly a factor, but again it is not as clear-cut or as dominant as it might seem. Not all herders are Muslim Fulani, and not all farmers are Christian. If religion were taken out of the equation completely, the violence would not go away.
That is because other issues are also involved, including ethnic prejudices, the growing availability, mentioned by several colleagues, of weapons—many of them smuggled through criminal networks from neighbouring conflict zones—and discontent with the way in which the violence is dealt with by the authorities. Both farming and herding communities complain that their demands for justice have not been met. That is feeding a sense of victimhood and encouraging vigilantism on both sides. All those factors and grievances, some old and some new, are fuelled by partial media reporting and a narrative that portrays what is happening as a religious conflict. There is a real risk that the violence could escalate further if it is not addressed effectively.
Colleagues have asked about the role of the UK Government, who are of course extremely concerned about the violence. It is destroying communities and poses a grave threat to Nigeria’s stability, unity and prosperity. It poses significant risks to the peaceful conduct of next year’s important presidential elections; so we take every opportunity to raise our concerns with the Nigerian Government at every level. When the Prime Minister and I were in Nigeria in August, she discussed the issue with President Buhari, and I was able to raise it with the Vice-President and Foreign Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked about the defence and security partnership. Of course we have a strong defence and security partnership with Nigeria—specifically focusing on joint work to defeat Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, in the north-east of the country. In addition, we have offered UK assistance and repeatedly called on the Government to demonstrate a clear strategy for ending the bloodshed, resolving the conflict and ensuring that the needs of all affected communities are met.
May I ask the Minister, as I asked the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) when I intervened on him, about the abduction and kidnapping of schoolchildren? What is happening—kidnappings and abuse—is abhorrent. I am ever mindful of Leah Sharibu, a young Christian schoolgirl, who was abducted and is still in that situation. Did the Minister or Prime Minister have an opportunity on their visit to Nigeria to raise her case, and the issue of protection for schools in northern Nigeria? I am a father and grandfather and I ask the Minister, who is a mother, what could be worse for anyone than knowing their child or grandchild had been abducted and taken away, never to be seen again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case, which, in relation to the conflict in the north-east and Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, would merit a debate of its own. Our hearts go out to Leah Sharibu and the 113 kidnapped girls, some four years after the original kidnapping. Of course the hon. Gentleman will know that the UK is passionate about promoting the value of education for girls around the world, in particular.
Our high commission in Abuja is engaging closely with religious and traditional leaders from a range of communities and faiths. We are working with international partners to support the Nigerian Government in their strategic response, and encouraging them to address all the complex causes of violence. Colleagues asked about the role of DFID programming. Of course that is focused very much on ending poverty and tackling the drivers of poverty. In that context, this year, our programming bilaterally in Nigeria is some £235 million, but that would be added to by the multilateral programming that we engage in through other organisations. The emphasis is on the kinds of approaches known to be best for addressing the causes of poverty in the long term, such as education, nutrition—particularly for under-fives—and healthcare programmes. There are programmes on adaptation to climate change; access to safe water and sanitation for many communities; governance at federal and state level and, for next year, ensuring that free and fair elections are held. Many programmes are about human trafficking. There is an extensive range of DFID programming in Nigeria, but it requires political will in Nigeria. Political will to deal with the situation at the federal level is vital.
We have heard clearly in the debate that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The causes of the violence vary across all the states, and so must the solutions. I welcome the call from the hon. Member for Strangford for objective journalism to play a role. He will be aware that the BBC World Service is expanding its footprint in Nigeria, based in Lagos but broadcasting on a wide range of Nigerian issues. I draw colleagues’ attention to an important report by the BBC’s “Africa Eye” that was put out recently on the role that Facebook and fake news are playing in spreading unreliable reporting and inflaming tensions in this area.
I asked the Minister in my contribution, as have others, whether it is possible to have an independent inquiry in Nigeria, bringing together the evidential base of what is happening and the reasons for it, and then to present that to the Nigerian Government, while ensuring that the inquiry takes place without the overbearing influence of the Nigerian Government—that it is independent, in other words. Is that something the Minister could help us to achieve?
I welcome the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman’s committee is undertaking, but in terms of an inquiry within Nigeria, which I think he is alluding to, we are exploring options for how the UK could support the dialogue and peacebuilding efforts, working closely with like-minded international partners. That offer is definitely on the table and we would welcome ways of providing constructive engagement on this issue.
I thank the UK Government for the support they give in Nigeria through DFID. The Minister has listed a number of key areas—education, nutrition, health and governance, but also adaptation and saving water, which I want to focus on specifically. A number of hon. Members in this House are concerned about the root causes of the security issues in the north and the bloody violence that has ensued, and I want to know specifically how much of that funding goes toward adaptation and mitigation in the north, and what lessons could be learned about what funding will be needed in future to support a peace process?
I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as he will know, the focus on this important area is one where the UK has been at the forefront of international commitments. He will know that we are committed to spending some £5.8 billion on the international climate commitments we have signed up to through the Paris accords. That means that there is a range of programming and we can increase the programming in parts of the world that are particularly vulnerable. I do not have time in this debate to go through the long list of ways in which we work in this area, but he should be reassured that it is an area where UK Government commitments and programming are only growing in the years to come.
Will the Minister give way?
It is almost like a conversation. I give way to the hon. Gentleman once more.
It is always a pleasure to be in a conversation with the Minister. One of the things that I and others have mentioned is how different faiths can react better together. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I, along with others in the audience and around the Chamber, see that we need to have that dialogue. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the Nigerian Government to encourage that dialogue between Christians and those of Islamic faith? Sometimes when we talk and have a dialogue about things, there is a respect, tolerance and love that come from that. Can I get her thoughts?
We are exploring options for how we could support that dialogue and those peacebuilding efforts. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the next two to three months in Nigeria are part of an election campaign and that the UK is concerned that the politics around this issue sometimes exacerbates and drives the conflict. We welcome the commitment of both main candidates for the presidency to tackling this important issue.
What we have heard today is that the causes of this violence are many and complex, and have been fuelled by a wide range of factors. We have mentioned over-simplistic media reporting and inflammatory disinformation on social media, the political context and the frustration in communities with the official response so far. As we go into the Nigerian election campaign period, there is a real risk that intercommunal violence will only worsen and become increasingly politicised.
The UK believes that Nigeria needs to put in place long-term solutions and that those solutions need to be addressed urgently, in consultation with all groups. That must be done in a way that respects the rights and interests of all groups and lays the foundations for a sustainable and peaceful future for all Nigerians. I can assure colleagues who have raised this important issue in today’s debate that the United Kingdom Government will continue to support the Government of Nigeria as they work towards that long-term strategic solution to the underlying and complex causes of this violence.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their significant, heartfelt, sincere and conscientious contributions on an issue that touches all our hearts and our persons; that is why we are here. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), as always, for her contribution. I know it is her job to be here, but she is also here because she has an interest in the subject matter, as I know from my discussions with her. I thank the Minister for her response to what has been said on the issues of poverty, education, the environment, land grabs and human trafficking, the escalating violence and the brutality. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) and others referred to that escalation of violence; it is something that we cannot comprehend, but it is even worse than what Boko Haram has done to the Fulani tribesmen. That issue, and the genocide that has taken place, affects us all.
I thank the representatives from the audience, from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and their contributions. I met the hon. Gentleman many years ago on a trip we had to Egypt, looking into a similar issue in that country, and I know he has an interest in Nigeria. We thank him for his contribution and his help with this debate, and we thank the staff of the APPG, particularly Amro Hussain, for putting the evidence and information together to make this debate happen.
As I always say, because it is so important, this House always shines when we come together, from both sides of the Chamber, and collectively show what we are here for. Our job is to speak on behalf of others, and as an MP, like other MPs in this House, I do so regularly, every day that we are here in this House. Our job is to speak up for those who have no voice, to ensure that those people, our Christian brothers and sisters and those of other religions, facing conflict in Nigeria will know that this House has come together to speak on their behalf and hear a significant response from the Minister to help us to move forward. We hope that over the next period of time, the dialogue we have initiated through this debate will bear fruit and the people of Nigeria will be free from the violence that plagues that country and will be able to have that love, tolerance and respect that we think are so important and that this House often proposes as a way forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of armed violence against farming communities in Nigeria.
Carer’s Allowance Overpayments
I beg to move,
That this House has considered overpayments of carers allowance.
I called for the debate because of cases that have started to emerge and reports that there are hundreds more, if not thousands. It was reported earlier this month that George Henderson from Preston, who is 58 and cares for his mentally ill son, who is also a heroin user, is being taken to court for an overpayment of carer’s allowance of £19,500. George was not aware of the earnings limit and claimed carer’s allowance for six years until a Department of Work and Pensions compliance check discovered that he had exceeded it.
Not only was George taken to court earlier this summer, when he was told to pay back £106 a month out of his disability payment, but the DWP prosecuted him again earlier this month under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, seeking repayment of the full amount of overpaid carer’s allowance by Valentine’s day next year, forcing him to sell his house or face seven months in jail. His house is now up for sale, and he faces being unable to continue to care for his son, either because he will have to work more hours—if he can; if he gets the operation he needs—to be able to pay rent and afford a house, or because he will be in jail.
The Guardian reported last month that DWP plans to go back over its records for the last eight years—the period since such a check was last done properly—will result in at least 10,000 cases of historical overpayment of carer’s allowance, with around 1,000 carers facing criminal prosecution. I ask the Minister, as I ask the House: is that the message that we want to go out to carers?
There are 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK—estimated to increase to 9 million by 2037—who save the economy an estimated £132 billion a year. The “better care, closer to home” model for the NHS and social care relies heavily on unpaid family or friends, in spite of more older people living alone. We therefore need to encourage more carers to come forward who are not necessarily the partner or even the child of the person they care for.
I pay tribute to all unpaid carers. They are indispensable to the person they care for and vital to society. Less than half of carers work, and one in six has given up work at some point to fulfil their caring role. The benefits of their caring roles are well recognised, as are the benefits of work both to carers, in providing some respite from their caring role, boosting their self-esteem and providing them with more interaction with others, and to society, because helping carers into the labour market prevents their skills from being lost. Work also provides income, which is important, as 35% of carers are in poverty, which is 14 percentage points higher than adults overall.
By caring for someone full time, a carer saves a local authority the cost of a care home place, which is about £750 a week in my area in Derbyshire, but much more in more expensive parts of the country. For that minimum of 35 hours of care a week, a carer can receive carer’s allowance of £64.60 a week—about £700 a week less than the cost of a local authority care home. It is also equivalent to, at most, £1.85 an hour, or £3,360 a year, so obviously many carers must work to make ends meet. The person they care for will be on disability benefits, which have not kept pace with the cost of living for people of low incomes, and they will have no way to increase their income.
Most carers cannot work full time so they seek part-time work to fit around their caring duties. That is often necessarily low-paid shift work. A carer can earn a maximum of £120 a week while also claiming carer’s allowance, so their maximum income from both work and caring is £184 a week, or £9,600 a year. It is no wonder that carers are disproportionately poor. However, unlike almost every other benefit and despite the principle enshrined in universal credit, a carer earning just £1 over the £120 threshold ceases to be eligible for any of the £64.60 carer’s allowance. That cliff edge causes huge problems. When I worked for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, I saw people receiving a pay rise of just 1% or 2% unwittingly going over the earnings limit and being due to repay hundreds or sometimes more than £1,000 in carer’s allowance at the end of the year, causing huge hardship.
There is a case online of a carer desperately seeking advice. They had a 10p an hour pay rise, meaning that they unknowingly exceeded the earnings threshold over nine months by just £1.08 a week. For the extra £42.12 that they earned, they were forced to repay £2,500 in carer’s allowance. How does the Minister think that fits with the principle of a fair benefits system in which someone is always better off in work? The distress that it has caused is obvious from the post. The carer’s partner says:
“We are not criminals, we simply didn’t realise. We have enough to do looking after our disabled daughter, we can’t afford to pay this back, what can we do? Please, please help. Why have we got to pay so much back? Will it be a black mark on our credit rating? Will it be a conviction against my wife, who works in a school and may not be able to do so anymore? We are so upset.”
Their being upset is understandable.
If someone on carer’s allowance earns £120 a week, their total income will be £184.60, but if their pay goes up by just £1, their total income will be £54.60 a week less—just £121. With such a cliff edge, it is vital that carers are well aware of the earnings limit, but there is lots of evidence that they are not. Carers UK does a great job of supporting carers with an online forum on which carers report their problems. It told me of one carer who looks after someone who is severely disabled and who knew that they would earn more than the threshold for two months running. They dutifully contacted DWP to report their change in circumstances, but then received a notice of overpayment over the previous year, which came as a total shock and surprise. They had not realised that they were earning several pounds over the threshold. They are now paying back the overpaid allowance over 18 months while on a severely reduced income, putting them even more into poverty.
When the Work and Pensions Committee quizzed the DWP’s permanent secretary, we were told that a letter that carers receive about carer’s allowance gives them the full information about the earnings threshold and what they have to declare every year. I have with me the standard letter, which has been the same for six years. Yes, on page 1 of that four-page letter it says:
“From 09/04/2018 you can earn up to £120.00 each week from work you do for an employer or as self employment, after taking off certain expenses, before your Carer’s Allowance is affected.”
For starters, it does not set out what the “certain expenses” are, and nowhere that I can find, other than in the regulations, does the Department—the Government—actually do that. The information on the gov.uk website is certainly very unclear, and even when people receive a compliance form to complete, they are simply asked, “What expenses do you incur?” They are given no guidance on what those expenses might be.
The standard letter, which sets out the changes of circumstance that the DWP needs to know about, does not set out that people need to inform the Department if their earnings exceed £120 a week. Yes, under the heading “Changes we need to know about” it says, “When you start work, whatever your earnings, you need to let us know,” but it also says:
“If you have already told us that you are working, you must tell us if your earnings go up or any expenses already claimed change. You must also tell us if you work any overtime or receive a bonus.”
That simply does not fit with the reality of today’s low-paid shift work, whereby people’s hours go up and down all the time. There is rarely a concept of overtime anymore, because people do not have set hours of work. There are very rarely bonuses for people doing such work. The advice fits with a long-gone era in which people had a contract for set hours of work and received extra in overtime. Also, nowhere does the letter say clearly, “If you earn £120 in any one week, you will cease to be eligible for carer’s allowance that week, unless you pay out certain expenses”—with those expenses set out—“and you must inform us.”
It is therefore not surprising that carers are unaware of the rules. Even if they are aware, the letter, which comes from the DWP—its logo is at the top—is signed simply by a “Manager”. It does not inform the claimant that they have to inform the Carer’s Allowance Unit specifically of any changes. Among the examples that Carers UK has come across is that of a carer who said:
“There is a very strong possibility that I have been overpaid Carer’s Allowance for almost three years. As you can imagine I feel sick to the pit of my stomach.”
I am not surprised: they will have been overpaid about £10,000. The carer continues:
“I did not realise that it was ‘means-tested’. I thought because I’d had contact and had updated the DWP when I was moving from Income Support into work that they’d know.”
Claimants are informing the Department for Work and Pensions of their work circumstances, but they are not informed in the letter that they need specifically to inform the Carer’s Allowance Unit.
With the lack of information and the huge cliff edge, it is obviously imperative that the Department takes a responsible attitude to compliance checks for carer’s allowance—there are such huge losses for people if they are overpaid. When I worked at USDAW, we would see difficult cases, but for a maximum of a year. Now, we see cases lasting three or four years and racking up thousands of pounds in overpayments. I ask the Minister: why is that the case when real time information has given the DWP monthly earnings data since 2014? In 2014, the number of cases taken up dropped drastically. In 2011-12, there were more than 30,000 cases of overpayment of carer’s allowance, but in 2014, 2015 and 2016, that more than halved to just 14,500 cases, despite the Department having much more detailed, and electronic, information. Bearing it in mind that two thirds of cases of carer’s allowance overpayment involve earnings over the threshold, it seems like thousands of cases have been missed in the last few years, since the dramatic drop in 2012-13 when cuts were made to administrative staff in the DWP. Staff have been drafted in from the compliance unit in Ramsgate and from pensions offices in Motherwell and Ilford to deal with the backlogs, but those backlogs can now go back over several years, costing carers thousands of pounds. Carers are starting to come forward and, on the evidence seen so far, are being dealt with extremely harshly. A case reported a couple of weeks ago from Belfast was of a carer from whom a payment of more than £14,000 of carer’s allowance is being sought in full by 5 January or—again—they face a jail term.
I have some questions for the Minister. Does he think that the information given to carers about the earnings threshold is clear enough to be fully understood and acted on by individuals who are in a very demanding role and combining that with paid work, while doing all the juggling that people have to do when they are on a very low income? Will the Minister please commit to looking at that information, both in the letters received by all carers and online, and making it clearer? Does he believe that the DWP has used all its ability to seek to ensure compliance with carer’s allowance earnings rules and to keep overpayments to a minimum? Does he think that, in the circumstances, it is proportionate to seek such huge sums from low-paid carers? One compliance officer working in the Carer’s Allowance Unit has calculated that more than 30% of recent overpayments were for amounts of earnings less than 20% over the threshold, so for less than £24 a week, people are being prosecuted for £64.60 a week going back over many years and thousands of pounds.
Will the Minister please look again at the policy for these people who have been overpaid as he looks at the information for carers? Also, I hope that, with a new regime in the Department for Work and Pensions and a new Secretary of State, the Department will look again at the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on carer’s allowance and the cliff edge, and reconsider the possibility of a taper so that we cease to see huge overpayments, cliff edges and the impoverishment of carers, to whom we owe so much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for opening the debate. She displays a huge amount of knowledge, passion and care in this area, and she has raised many points that the Government and I would agree with.
Carer’s allowance actually falls within the remit of my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. There is an outstanding relationship with Carers UK, both at ministerial level and with among officials. There are regular meetings with Carers UK, and many of the points raised in this debate have been raised previously and are being looked at and reviewed, so the debate is very timely.
As an individual, I share much of the passion that we have heard today. Not a lot gets me emotional, but I remember, in my early days as a constituency MP, meeting young carers, who are often forgotten in debates about carers. I am talking about children who have often lost the things that we all took for granted when growing up, as they have taken on caring responsibilities. It was a particularly moving meeting, and one that I have never forgotten, so I was happy to step in for this debate.
The Government recognise and appreciate the vital contribution made by informal carers, who provide invaluable support for relatives, partners, friends and neighbours who may be ill, frail or disabled. We also recognise the important role that many carers’ organisations play across the country in supporting carers, including those in the hon. Lady’s constituency, such as the Blythe House and Buxton carers’ support groups, which I am sure that she, as a diligent constituency MP, will have had much involvement with.
The Government are already supporting carers in a number of ways, including through the benefit system. About 850,000 people currently receive carer’s allowance. Since 2010, the rate of carer’s allowance has increased from £53.90 to £64.60 a week, with a further increase to £66.15 planned for April 2019, meaning an additional £635 a year for carers since 2010. By 2023-24, the Government forecast a spend of around £3.4 billion a year on carer’s allowance, which is a real-terms increase of more than one fifth since 2016-17.
Carer’s allowance offers a measure of recognition of the vital contribution that carers make to our society, although we fully appreciate that many make substantial sacrifices to care for their loved ones. That is why in June 2018, the Government published “Carers action plan 2018 to 2020: supporting carers today”, which sets out a two-year programme of targeted work to support unpaid carers. The plan puts a focus on practical actions to support carers and gives visibility to the work already under way or planned within Government.
However, I recognise that there are concerns about carer’s allowance, particularly around earnings and the possibility that a number of claimants may have been overpaid. Again, I pay tribute again to the hon. Lady, who raised some of those issues, which have been raised in the media, through the work of the Work and Pensions Committee and through her own recent, diligent parliamentary questions. It is in everyone’s interest that we deal with fraud and error effectively, preferably by stopping it happening in the first place.
We have been discussing updating our measurement of carer’s allowance fraud and error with the National Audit Office over the last year or so. We now plan to start the measurement during 2019, with the intention of publishing revised estimates during 2020. This is vital, because the last time we did this was in 1996-97. A huge amount has changed since then—not only the technology, but the way people work and their circumstances, as the hon. Lady mentioned. We suspect that the estimate of 5.5% fraud and error, which was set in 1996-97, does not reflect the reality today. The new measure, which will come in next year, can accurately set out where we should be, and where we should then target and prioritise our resources to prevent, identify and counter fraud and error even more effectively and efficiently.[Official Report, 6 December 2018, Vol. 650, c. 12MC.]
However, we are not complacent about fraud and error and already have a number of measures in place to deal with it. We are also reinforcing to carers their responsibility to inform us of changes to their earnings and other circumstances. Our priority has been to try to clear new carer’s allowance claims as quickly as possible, including during a period where the number of carer’s allowance claims has increased significantly. In part, that increase is due to the great work of stakeholders to raise the profile of carer’s allowance. We have also done our part by introducing the new online claim system, which is easier to use and—perhaps surprisingly for a Government online system—has a 90% satisfaction rate, so there are certainly some lessons for us to learn there.
Our performance here has been consistently improving, partly as a result of recruiting new staff—an additional 150 in the last 12 months alone. Many of them are based in the Preston, Blackpool and Swansea offices. I know that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work visited the Preston office in the summer, in her role as the Minister responsible for carer’s allowance. She was very impressed with the enthusiasm and hard work of the staff.
The Minister says that performance is improving. In what way is it improving? Does he mean that they are now going back over these historical overpayments and requesting them back from carers? Most carers and most people in this House would not see putting right the wrongs of previous years by finally investing in compliance to be a performance improvement, at least not for the carers that it affects.
I am coming on to what those staff will be doing and the improvements that we are bringing forward. As well as focusing on new claims, we are working hard to reduce backlogs elsewhere in the system, remind carers of their responsibilities and make better use of available technology.
The Department for Work and Pensions takes every care to explain a claimant’s responsibilities when they apply for carer’s allowance. This includes the need to report changes on time. Our annual notifications help remind claimants how important that is. We also provide information on the website gov.uk, while customers who need additional advice can contact the Carer’s Allowance Unit for further information, and we encourage stakeholder groups to help to share that information.
I absolutely understand the points the hon. Lady made about whether the guidance is perfect. When the Work and Pensions Committee raised questions with the Minister, we recognised that there were improvements to be made in this area. We have already made significant changes to the website. I also accept the points made about the letter, which the hon. Lady went through. I will encourage the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to meet with her personally to discuss the specific points about the quality of that guidance and information. We absolutely have to get that right, and it was a fair point to raise.
The consequences of not keeping the DWP up to date, including the need to repay overpayments, are clearly stated during the initial claim process and in our annual uprating letters. Therefore, every claimant has an obligation to tell us when their circumstances change. As with all benefits, the DWP has a responsibility to recover an overpayment where a claimant has failed to disclose a change that would affect their entitlement. Where there is an overpayment, the DWP will always look to recover the debt through a sustainable repayment plan. Where a claimant is having difficulty repaying a benefit overpayment, they can request a reconsideration of the amount that is being taken. It is also important to note that once a claimant has told us of a change of circumstances, they would not be responsible for overpayments from that date. However, we must recognise that we need to work with claimants to help them avoid overpayment and to ensure that we pay the correct amount.
In recent years, the DWP has introduced new technology to make it easier to identify and prevent overpayments, with cases checked against earnings information held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The new verify earnings and pensions—VEP—system, allows us better to check earnings declared by carers to the DWP against tax records, and it allows staff to quickly take any action to clear up any discrepancies. Where we do have arrears from previous exercises, our priority is to ensure that the benefit is being paid at the correct rate in order to provide regular financial support. Once we have done this, we can determine any overpayment that might have accrued. Even when there has been a delay in dealing with a change in circumstances, as a carer’s allowance claimant can earn £120 net of allowable expenses a week, many of these claimants will have been paid correctly anyway. We will be increasing the carer’s allowance earnings limit again from £120 to £123 a week from April 2019. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that average earnings will increase by around 5.1% between 2017 and 2019, whereas we will have increased the carer’s allowance earnings limit by 6%.
The Government acknowledge the vital role played by carers and the valuable work that carers’ organisations carry out on behalf of carers. We recognise that the UK’s 6 million carers play an indispensable role in looking after friends or family members who need support, which is why it is so important that carers should continue to have access to a dedicated benefit that recognises their particular contribution to society. Our staff work hard to support carers and pay people the right entitlement. I know that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is very passionate about this, and it is a real priority for her. Equally, there are improvements in place that mean that we are tackling arrears and have a much smoother process for taking account of any earnings changes going forward. I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the chance to talk about carer’s allowance.
Question put and agreed to.
Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit: Two-child Limit
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the two child limit in universal credit and child tax credits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It is surreal still to be here debating the two-child limit in universal credit and child tax credit. When I saw the limit and the cruel and pernicious rape clause that stands part of the policy laid out in the Chancellor’s Budget in 2015, I was sure that I had made a mistake. After all, no humane Government would propose such a blunt instrument as limiting support to the first two children in a family, or making a woman prove that she has been raped just to put food on the table.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. It is three years, four months and 20 days after that Budget, and the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has found that the UK Tory Government is exactly such an inhumane Government. Despite warnings from all manner of groups, cross-party support and U-turns on other policies over the years, the two-child policy is apparently the one that the UK Tory Government will stick to through thick and thin.
The policy stands in judgment on people’s lives and suggests that those who are less well off
“cannot have as many children as they like”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 October 2018; c. 52.]
as Tory social security spokesperson Michelle Ballantyne MSP said. The policy is damaging in the extreme, and I will outline to the Minister exactly why. I would also like to give him the opportunity to think again before the policy hits its next phase in February.
From February, all new claims will be subject to the two-child policy, regardless of when children were born. That means that, although someone might have planned their family in good times, when they could well afford to support three children, the UK Tory Government do not care—they will support only two. Life is unpredictable: it only takes somebody to get ill or die, a partner to leave, or someone to lose their job for life to turn upside-down. We note the plight of the Michelin workers in Dundee, who were not expecting to lose their jobs. None of us would be prepared for such eventualities.
Contraception can also fail. I note research from the Advisory Group on Contraception, which has produced stark figures on cuts to sexual and reproductive health services in England, so help is being lost to many on the ground. I challenge any hon. Member present to plan out exactly and specifically the financial situation for them and each of their children up to the age of 18. It is impossible.
My hon. Friend has been a tireless champion of tackling this issue. Does she agree that cutting child tax credits is tantamount to directly targeting children with austerity?
I absolutely agree. It breaks the link between need and what somebody receives. These families are no less in need, but their money is being cut.
It is impossible for just about anyone, other than the super-rich and perhaps the royal family, to make plans in the way I described. The UK Tory Government are hacking away at the safety net that a social security system ought to be.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Women are carrying the brunt of austerity—let us be frank about that—whether we are talking about nursery provision, tax credits or the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. The list is endless. Women have made a major contribution in terms of austerity, in the sense that they have carried the burden of the £14 billion of tax adjustments. It is the same with the WASPI women and the savings that have been made on their pensions.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The Womens Budget Group has found that 86% of welfare cuts have come out of women’s pockets. The Government are taking a gendered and targeted approach, and they should be wary of that.
The charity Refuge found that the two-child limit is forcing domestic abuse survivors and their children into poverty as a result of an increased financial dependence on their perpetrators. Does my hon. Friend agree that women are ultimately fearful to leave abusive relationships because they cannot support themselves, and that that is another example of where the policy has gone wrong?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will talk about some of Refuge’s evidence later, because it is stark and the Government should take heed of it.
A social security safety net ought to be there for everybody—each one of us—when they need it, but by April 2018, the two-child limit had already affected 73,530 households. Well over half of those households—43,420 of them—were in work, so I will not have it if the Minister, or anybody else on the Tory Benches, which I note are remarkably empty, gives us the old Tory trope that the policy is about people on benefits making the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work. The benefit is designed to give people in the lowest-paid work a top-up, to help support them and to make sure that their children are fed and clothed.
Of those 73,530 households, 2,900 were able to keep their entitlement for a third child by claiming an exemption to the policy. There are largely three exemptions to the two-child limit. None of them is entirely logical, and I would recommend that hon. Members check out the Child Poverty Action Group’s page on the exemptions to see how mind-bendingly arcane they are.
The first exemption is the rape clause. I put on record again my absolute disgust at a policy that forces women to fill out a form to say that they have conceived their third child as a result of rape. It is absolutely inexcusable as a policy. For someone to have to put their child’s name on a form and say that they were conceived as a result of rape is beyond contempt, and the Government should know better than to treat women in that way. We know from the figures that, up until April, 190 women across the UK claimed under that exemption. That is 190 women who have had to replay the most traumatic experience of their life to put food on the table. The Government should hang their head in shame.
The second exemption is for twins, but it is not as simple as it ought to be. It applies if twins are born after a single birth, but not before. If someone has twins after two previous children, only one twin is eligible for payment, but both those twins need to eat. There may be two almost identical families with three children—one that had twins and then a single birth, and one that had a single birth and then twins—but only one is worthy of support from the Government, which is completely illogical.
The third exemption is for adoption, but not if someone has adopted from abroad or if they were a step-parent before they adopted the third child, so that is not simple either. An additional exemption has been made for kinship care. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who successfully campaigned for that on behalf of her constituent Alyssa Vessey, who lost an entitlement for her own child after taking on caring responsibilities for her three younger siblings. The clear result of the policy and the exemptions is discrimination. Families may have similar circumstances and needs, but some will lose out simply due to the order in which their children were born—something that those children certainly have no control over.
I understand that CPAG will be back in court on the issue before Christmas, and I wish it the very best with its case. It believes, and I agree, that the two-child limit breaches articles 8 and 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is also beyond me how the limit could possibly be compliant with the UK Government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child.
There will also be an impact on blended families and families who may be encouraged to separate to avoid being hit by the limit. A friend also pointed out that women who have children from previous relationships will be caught should they wish to have a child with a new partner, which is very common, whereas the male partner may be able to go off and start a new family more easily without having the children with him.
Is it not depressing that we have debated this issue two Tuesdays in a row? I thank the hon. Lady for coming to the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families. She talked about blended families, which will be hit hardest. The Government abolished the cross-departmental work on child poverty; they are trying to abolish these things, but they have really mismatched priorities. The churches have been very vocal about it, and the Bishop of Oxford spoke last week. Does she have any comment about that?
I absolutely agree, and I commend the hon. Lady and her colleagues for their work in the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families, because those families will be hugely hit by this. It provides huge disincentives for those families to go into work or to progress. It simply puts them further into poverty and makes it harder for them to get out of that poverty.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that this obscene policy is fuelled by the Government’s abolition of the child poverty target, which would have compelled them to look at such policies and realise that they could not possibly be compatible with such a target?
Absolutely. I will return to the issue of the policy’s objectives and how unmeetable they are, given the child poverty that will result from the policy.
It is absolutely clear that nothing in the policy fits with the Government’s objective of giving people a more stable family life. In fact, it plunges families further into uncertainty and crisis, and puts them under tremendous strain.
It is also clear that it will be children who lose out as a result of this policy. It is estimated that this policy will affect—in time, when transitional protections run out—around 3 million children. The Church of England estimates that in my constituency alone 1,600 families and 5,500 children will be affected, which amounts to 36% of the children there. I cannot begin to say what impact this policy will have on the health, education and life chances of those young people.
Once again, my hon. Friend is making a passionate speech on this issue. Does she share my concerns that there is another issue here, namely that families expecting a third child might be forced to have an abortion as a result of this policy? Often, those are people in faith communities, who are likely to have larger families.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and there is clear evidence on this issue, which I will touch on later in my speech. The ends that this Government are forcing families into, and the decisions that those families are being forced to make, are really disturbing.
The cut in this benefit is £2,780 per child, per year, which is a sum that families will struggle to make up through taking on extra work. The Church of England calculates that a single parent with three children who is working 16 hours at the minimum wage—I should say the Chancellor’s pretendy “living wage”, because it is not an actual living wage that one could live on—would need to work 45 hours to compensate for the loss of income and for this Government’s cut. That is assuming that work is available to them in their community and that their children can be looked after by somebody when they are not home. If not, who will do the homework with those children? Who will tuck them into bed at night? Who will make sure that the family is looked after? And what is the mental health impact on that family and the impact on the physical health of the parent, who will be absolutely exhausted after working 45 hours a week and looking after three children, which is a job in itself? The impact on family life must be taken into consideration by the Minister.
There are also real disincentives within this policy, because it will be much harder for families to move into work. The policy will take away the incentive to try to get around the benefit cap, as families will end up losing more if they try to work more.
There is also a disproportionate hit on particular minority groups. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are particularly badly hit by this policy, losing thousands of pounds. For years now, I have been flagging up concerns that 60% of Muslim families and 52% of Jewish families have more than two children. There are also concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned, among religious faiths that will not use contraception for moral reasons and clearly cannot access abortion services. Therefore, they have very little choice in the decisions that face them.
Of course, this is a particular issue for women in Northern Ireland, where family size is traditionally larger than in the rest of the UK and where, as we in this House well know, women cannot access abortion services on the same basis as we can here. I wonder what the Minister expects women to do in such circumstances.
I want to mention a further point about abortion, because it is becoming the reality for many women. I would like to read directly from the testimonies of women who have spoken to the benefits helpline, Turn2us, because they are absolutely stark and I want the Minister to pay particular attention to them. One woman said she had
“to have an abortion as”
she “can’t afford” another child. Another said:
“It makes me want to give up my child for adoption.”
Another woman said she was:
“already due another baby when the new tax credit cap came into play. Now I worry I can’t afford to budget for a baby as I won’t get any extra help.”
“I found out I was 5 months pregnant and now in a complete panic. I’m too far on for an abortion but I have no way of supporting this child. I was taking precautions and definitely did not plan or expect to have any more children. The marina coil is meant to be more effective than being sterilised.”
One woman said she was
“worried that I will not be able to afford the child. I am pregnant at the moment but I am worried it may be twins.”
Another woman said:
“I was already pregnant so I could not reconsider.”
“I didn’t plan this child but it’s beaten all the odds to get here and I believe in things happening for a reason and also do not believe in abortion, so here we are expecting our 3rd child any day and no help financially. I have worked since I was 15 years old and I can’t get help when I need it.”
Another woman said:
“This was a surprise and an unplanned pregnancy and I only found out at 20 weeks that I was pregnant due to an NHS mistake and I don’t have the money to raise a child. But due to religious reasons I cannot terminate the pregnancy, especially this far along.”
How can the Minister possibly justify that? Could he look each woman in these circumstances in the eye and tell them that this policy is about fairness?
Furthermore, Refuge has outlined the risk of this policy to women who are at risk of domestic violence, because the two-child limit exacerbates the control that perpetrators of abuse have over a woman and puts more pressure and risk on the woman. [Interruption.] I would like to share that experience, too, with the Minister, if he wants to stop shuffling his papers and pay attention. Refuge has said:
“Women have felt more trapped and unable to stay as there was no available money to help them move and leave. The 2 child cap means that some women will be pressured into having more children and becoming financially reliant on the partners for support.”
One resident said that
“whilst pregnant with a 3rd child her ex demanded she have an abortion because he said they could not get any more money for it and when she said she didn’t”
“he tried being violent to enforce a miscarriage.”
Refuge also said:
“Women struggling to manage after fleeing if they have three children feel like they have no support and no money to support the family. It means they feel like they should stay or return to the perpetrator.”
I remind Members that the rape clause form itself states that women are not eligible for support if they are living with the father of the child, which forces women to leave their home before they can do so safely, and we all know that the evidence suggests that that is the most dangerous time—the time that women are most likely to be murdered—if they leave without any kind of safety planning.
Before I finish, I want to tackle the suggestion that the Scottish Government should set about mitigating the two-child limit. First of all, we do not have full control over the welfare benefits system. Why not? Because Labour, through the Smith Commission, would not trust us to have it. We therefore end up being lumbered with a system that Scotland did not design, with policies that Scotland did not vote for, and with the ability only to tinker round the edges, thanks to the work of the Labour party.
For those on child tax credits, which is still the majority of people within the system, we have no way of mitigating these things, because that is a function of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. For universal credit, at the moment we have “administrative flexibilities”. The Scottish Government have changed payment schedules and allowed for direct payment to landlords and separate payments to tackle financial abuse. However, the use of those flexibilities incurs a payment to the Department for Work and Pensions for the administration of them—money I am sure all of us agree could be spent directly on the frontline.
I want to make it absolutely clear that I want this policy to go everywhere and not just throughout Scotland. I have campaigned on a cross-party basis to that end, particularly for women in Northern Ireland, who have often been unrepresented in this place and who have to fill out a separate rape clause form, because they were at risk of prosecution just for filling out the original form. That is why I want to make sure that no woman in the UK gets left behind by this policy. We should be campaigning against this Tory Government and focusing all our fire on the Conservative party, which wants to make women go through this trauma.
However, let us not forget that the Labour party’s official position back in 2015 was to support the two-child limit. Perhaps if Labour Members had voted with us back then on the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, we would not be here—three years, four months and 20 days later—discussing this issue today.
I am coming to the end of my remarks; I am sure that Members will get in later with what they want to say.
All of this policy is illogical and bad for the economy. In other parts of my casework, I see working people being denied leave to remain with their families. I see EU nationals being scunnered and moving away from the country that they had called home, due to this UK Tory Government’s Brexit shambles. On DWP policy, I see people being discouraged—actively discouraged—from having children. Who will participate in the labour market in the future? Having children is an economic good. Who will look after the Minister and his family when he is old and in need of care? The UK Government should wise up to the demographic time bomb they are creating with this policy and so many other policies that make no sense. The “Unhappy Birthday!” report produced by End Child Poverty, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England states:
“If you set out to design a policy that was targeted to increase child poverty, then you could not do much better than the two-child limit.”
I would like to know what assessment the Minister has made, other than the numbers released in April, of the impact of the two-child cap on all the areas I have mentioned in my speech—not just one or two of them, but all of them—because there are still too many flaws in the two-child cap, as I have laid out, and as I am sure other Members will wish to. I want to know how he can roll this policy out without that assessment having been done. The assessment has been left to the third sector, the Church—as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out—and to so many other organisations. The Government have not taken on this work; they have left it to others to do, which is absolutely unacceptable. They need to know what the impact of their policies will be on the ordinary people we represent.
I also want the Minister to explain why he is pressing ahead with extending this policy to all families come February next year, because, on the basis of this policy, people could not reasonably have planned the children that they have had. It is completely unreasonable to expect somebody in good times to think, “Perhaps six or seven years after I have had my child, I might—might—be made unemployed and I might need to claim universal credit.” That would not be in their head; that is not how people make decisions about their families. It is an absolutely flawed notion that people can do that. I want the Minister to pause and reflect, and to tell us that he can pause the policy, stop it rolling out further and end it for good.
Order. Seven colleagues at least have notified me of their intention to speak, and one or two more are rising. The winding-up speeches begin at 3.30 pm, so please use a voluntary time limit of four or five minutes each, if you would not mind.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on her tireless campaign on this very important subject and on securing today’s debate.
The issue sits in the context of the wider debate about universal credit, which will affect 1 million homeowners, slightly fewer than 750,000 households on disability benefits and 600,000 single parents. On universal credit, two in five households will lose about £52 a week in payments, and across many constituencies entire families will be severely affected—if they are not already. In areas where universal credit has already been rolled out, food bank use has increased by 52%. As the hon. Lady said, as part of the 2015 package, from April 2017 low-income families with a third or subsequent child lost their entitlement to additional support through child tax credits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that contrary to what the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) suggested, Labour did not support the two-child limit? We abstained on the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill but voted against Third Reading. Does she agree that we should place that on the record?
I concur. It is really important that the Scottish National party, the Labour party and other parties that oppose the policy continue to work together, so that we can protect families. More families will be affected from February next year, as universal credit is rolled out, and the retrospective element, which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned, will be devastating. No family could have prepared for a policy that was to be applied retrospectively; nor is it right that children should be retrospectively punished in that way. This, in short, is a punishment of children, and it is totally inhumane. No Government should be standing up for such a policy. Given that the Minister has recently taken on his role and the policy was not his idea, I urge him to reflect carefully on what is being said and on the representation being made to him, to ensure that the policy is reviewed and reformed.
If the Government are concerned about family size and think that families should not be as large as they are, just as with teenage pregnancy, public education exercises can be more successful than punitive measures that punish children. In developing countries, where there is a case for encouraging smaller families because families cannot provide, families sizes have been brought down through education and women’s empowerment, but that is a different debate from what is happening here.
Philip Alston the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently said of the two-child limit that it is “in the same ballpark” as China’s one-child policy, because it punishes people with more than two children. Reports also state:
“The UK government has inflicted ‘great misery’ on its people with ‘punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous’ austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity, the United Nations poverty envoy has found”.
It cannot be right that in one of the wealthiest economies of the world, our children face hunger and punishment.
In encouraging the Minister to reconsider, does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that he understand that most people—most of those I meet, anyway—are in favour of reform, because of the complexity of what preceded universal credit, and are in favour of encouraging people into work, but are most definitely not in favour of stigmatising or of ensuring that the very vulnerable in society are punished as a result of the first two?
I agree. I do not think that policies that punish vulnerable people are ultimately likely to succeed, which is why the Minister needs to rethink both this aspect of the universal credit policy and the policy more generally. In their attempt to simplify, the Government have found ways to cut funding. People will be worse off under universal credit.
Since implementation, the policy has already affected 400,000 children, and some 3 million children are likely to be affected. That is why I echo the points the hon. Member for Glasgow Central made, calling on the Minister to review the policy and put a stop to it, certainly until the extension of the policy next February, which will be devastating for families.
In my constituency, a large number of children and families will be affected by the policy. We have a large Muslim population and, as has been mentioned, people of other faiths are also affected. I call on the Minister to take into account the unequal impact the policy will have and the fact that the equality impact assessment is flawed.
I will have to conclude, to give others the opportunity to speak. The equality impact assessment does not recognise the negative consequences for certain groups. More than 100 MPs wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, copying in the then Work and Pensions Secretary and the Chancellor, and we have still not had a response, which is really unfortunate. I encourage the Minister to go back to his Secretary of State and ensure that she responds to it and seriously rethinks the policy so that children in our country are protected.
Five minutes each. Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). She made a very reasonable speech, but I do want to correct the record. Even as she was speaking, I found an article from 2015 on the BBC News website entitled, “Harriet Harman: Labour to back child tax credit curbs”. I am happy to place a copy of it in the Library, so that the House can correct the record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this important debate. Before my election to the House, I had the privilege of working for her for two years, and it was then that I saw at first hand how tenacious she was in pursuing the issue, when no one else had seen it and it was buried at the back of the Red Book. It is fitting that, three years on, she is still prosecuting the British Government for one of the most outrageous policies ever to emanate from Westminster.
Before I speak specifically about universal credit, I want to say a few words about the very concept of the two-child policy. Even three years on and having developed a degree of knowledge in the subject, I still cannot fathom how the policy got through Cabinet, let alone on to the statute books. In the past, the Conservative party could, probably quite justifiably, lay claim to the mantle of being the party of family values, but the two-child policy is so anti-family that I hardly know where to start.
I will start with the Conservatives’ outrageous claim that people should have only the number of children they can afford, as if that is a calculation people make when planning a family. If we followed that logic, we would be left in a position in which the only people who had more than two children would be the likes of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). What kind of society would we be looking at then?
The two-child policy is deeply offensive to those of us from a faith community. No matter whether it is Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, who forbid contraception, or Orthodox Jews, who for religious or cultural reasons favour larger families, the policy completely disrespects them and their views. I also argue that the two-child policy is short-sighted from an economic point of view. At a time when we have an ageing population, it is important that we also have a growing population that contributes to the tax base and helps to fund public services.
The reality is that the two-child cap is an ideological policy pursued simply to drive a wedge through society and cause a distraction from the real issues. It perpetuates the myth that there are millions of families out there breeding for benefits, when the evidence just does not back that up. The two-child cap breaks the fundamental link between need and the provision of minimum support, and it implies that some children, by virtue of their birth order, are less deserving of support. It is a large direct cut to the living standards of the poorest families of up to £2,780 per child, per year. At a time when people are struggling financially, that is a huge blow for household incomes and shows that the Government are not committed to the very concept of a social security system.
Whether it is the pernicious two-child policy, the medieval rape clause, or the wider shambles of universal credit, which is due to be unleashed next month in Glasgow, families across Scotland are rapidly concluding that social security being administered by the Westminster Government is akin to putting a lion in charge of an abattoir. I argue that a different path can be taken: one that says that social security exists for the good of all in society, and one that values every child, not just the first two. I think that people in Scotland are rapidly concluding that the only path to delivering that fairer society, with a comprehensive, fair social security system free of family caps, rape clauses and universal credit, is through an independent Scotland. Frankly, with policies such as the two-child cap and universal credit, the British Government are only hastening people more quickly along the path to independence.
I have to declare an interest as the mother of four children, albeit spread out over a period of 17 years. I can personally testify that large families have close and deep relationships, and the benefits of having a larger number of siblings are many and varied. However, this Government are seeking to punish families who have had three or more children. With only three children, those families will be losing £2,500 a year from their child element, on top of the cuts to universal credit that mean that 3 million families are set to lose over £2,000 a year. Families with four or more children will lose an average of £7,000 a year. Those families are already on a low income: they have already experienced cuts to tax credits of £1,500 on average, and a further £2,000 under universal credit.
This is not just an issue of child poverty. This is an issue of families facing destitution, with rising numbers of families with three or more children going to food banks. Families do not go to food banks unless their children are hungry. Can the Minister look not just those families in the eye, but look those children in the eye, or the parents who are trying to get their children to sleep at night when they do not have enough food in their stomach? It is absolutely inhumane. The policy will have a similar impact on large families as the benefit cap has on families in households with no work, but large families cannot escape that impact through work. In the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, we have heard of children in families to whom the benefit cap applies being taken into care because, given their levels of income, their parents cannot give those children the basic, decent standard of living that they need to survive. Is that a danger for all large families? It seems to be a return to Victorian times, with families punished for having more children and for not being able to earn enough.
Child tax credit and the child element of universal credit, which stands at £2,780 a year, is paid because successive Governments have recognised that doing so goes some way towards meeting the costs of a child, and have signed up to the ambition of reducing child poverty and increasing children’s life chances. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a study that showed the impact of reducing incomes on children’s outcomes. Having reviewed over 34 studies, it concluded that increases in income appear to have an impact on cognitive outcomes comparable to the impacts of spending on early childhood programmes or education. However, income influences many different outcomes at the same time, including maternal mental health and children’s anxiety levels and behaviour. Few other policies are likely to affect such a range of outcomes at once. It is sad that the Government did not see fit to do an impact assessment on this policy, or to publish that assessment, before they went ahead.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work of the all-party parliamentary group on universal credit, which she chairs. Is she aware of the figures that show that 60% of Muslim children and 52% of Jewish children live in families with three or more children? My hon. Friend is doing a great demolition job on this Government, who balance their books on the backs of the poor.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The policy will certainly have a disproportionate impact on some faith groups, but also on anyone who, for whatever reason, has chosen to have three or more children—people like my constituent who posted on my Facebook page comments regarding this policy. She wrote that her husband died when she had three children and he was just 40. Why are the Government seeking to punish those children even more? They have already suffered the death of their father, and can now expect to see their income reduced as well. This policy simply does not make sense for the long-term economy of this country, which needs to invest in our children’s future in order to grow its way out of the economic mess that the past eight years have left us in. This country also needs to look at the interests of those children, and the impact of poverty and destitution on the 3 million children who will be affected by this policy. Please do not roll this out next February.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this timely debate. As others have said, hon. Members might find themselves experiencing a sense of déjà vu, having once again gathered in Westminster Hall to highlight a Government policy focused on hitting the poorest families the hardest. There are 870,000 families with more than three children currently claiming these benefits, with the bottom fifth of the income distribution expecting to lose the largest proportion of their income. We know the policy is set to save the Government £1.6 billion by 2020, which is no small amount. However, compared with the £2.7 billion that the Government are spending on giving an income tax cut to the highest earners, they continue to make it clear that they are not governing in the interests of ordinary working people.
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I have House of Commons Library extrapolations of the budget impact of the 2017-18 tax giveaways. The figure for inheritance tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax is £80 billion over the period 2017 to 2025. Does that not show how wrong the Government’s priorities are?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister often talks about supporting those who are striving and working hard, but unfortunately in reality, the consequences of Government policy are the precise opposite.
We know that the Government are targeting minority and religious groups with this policy. In my constituency, the Haredi community will be the hardest hit. There is a substantial differential impact on religious communities for whom family size is determined by beliefs and for whom culture is also a determining factor. That was omitted from the Government’s impact assessment, and the Minister might want to respond to that in his concluding remarks. Some 31% of all children live in households with three or more children. For families of the Jewish faith, the proportion is 52%; for families of the Muslim faith, it is 60%; and we know that many families of the Christian faith also have three or more children. We do not expect that those families will change their behaviour because of this policy, which significantly penalises them for their religious beliefs. What has it come to when a Conservative Government are attacking the concept of religious freedom in our society, which is precisely what this policy does? I know that sometimes people do not like talking about faith, but we should say that the concept of religious freedom is central to British values. This policy goes right to the heart of undermining that principle, but it was not even part of the Government’s impact assessment, which is absolutely shameful.
Families with more than two children face a cruel poverty trap, as others have said. They are unable to work their way out of poverty because, for every extra pound they earn, the Government will reduce their two-child allowance by 75p. Those changes severely undermine the financial security of larger families, who stand to lose up to £2,780 for each additional child beyond the first two. Many families will be unable to meet their children’s essential needs. An estimated 200,000 more children will be in poverty as a direct result of this policy. Children raised in poverty, as many hon. Members know, face many disadvantages: worse life expectancy, worse educational performance, and poorer health. Although the policy may make some short-term savings, in the long term it causes tremendous economic and social costs to our society.
One of the most shameful things about the Government’s record is the abandonment of any notion of a child poverty strategy. Right at the heart of any Government that sought to govern in the interests of all of the people of this country, as a top priority, whatever one’s ideology, should be the fight against child poverty. The Government have abandoned strategy and a cross-Government approach. They no longer have targets, which means there are consequences. There is no focus whatever in Government to tackle child poverty as a policy priority. We then end up with policies such as those we are debating today, where no impact assessments have been done, adding to child poverty. What kind of society is the Government seeking to create? Most of those affected are working families who are in the just about managing group. Again, the Prime Minister talks about that all the time, but there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Substantially cutting support sends an unhelpful message about the rewards of work.
In conclusion, the policy does a number of things. It hits the poorest the hardest. It increases child poverty, risks an increase in abortion, undermines religious freedom and causes vulnerable women to be even more vulnerable. The Minister must surely accept that now is the time to U-turn on such an appalling policy.
I call Jim Shannon. You have five minutes.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this debate and for her perseverance in this matter. She has been an absolute stalwart and it is a pleasure to come and support her in these debates in Westminster Hall or wherever they might be.
As soon as I heard of this proposal, my immediate thoughts went to China and its child limitation policy. I can remember thinking, “How can we say that the state should help a mother to work and care for two children, but not three children or four? Why should the state and we in this House make that decision?” My parliamentary aide is the youngest of five children and she takes great pride in saying her parents kept going until they reached perfection, and Naomi is undoubtedly perfection. I can never say anything other than that. She will listen to this debate and that will confirm it. Probably I will be in her good books on Friday morning when I see her once again. I say that tongue in cheek, of course, but the principle is that her parents wanted a large family. It was their decision. Mum worked a little and dad had a full-time job. Today mum would not be able to work at all. That is a fact. Is that what we seek to promote? I say to the Minister with great respect that we must review this.
In the short time that I have I want to speak specifically about one organisation that contacted me. I will provide some background on the organisation called Refuge and what its opinion is. I had not considered entirely the implication of the rule for families experiencing domestic abuse until I read a briefing by Refuge. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh reality for families throughout the UK. I sincerely hope the Minister hears what I say about the facts of the case. I hope it will open Government eyes to the situation and how we must change it to address the issues in my constituency of Strangford and in every other constituency in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The briefing highlighted opinion based on experience in Refuge centres throughout the United Kingdom. There is vast experience in the service that supports more than 6,500 women and children on any given day. That is the magnitude of what Refuge does. The services that Refuge provides include a national network of 42 refuges, community outreach, independent advocacy, child support services, and the freephone 24-hour national domestic violence helpline run in partnership with Women’s Aid. It does tremendous work. Refuge highlighted the problem:
“Policies which limit what is typically women’s income will inevitably lead to difficulties for survivors of gender-based violence. The two child limit inhibits and deters survivors from fleeing their abusers, where some cannot even afford to travel to a refuge. Once women have decided to leave, the added financial barriers to rebuilding their lives lead some women to question their decision, and sometimes return to their abusers.”
That is unfortunate. We do not want that to happen and I know that the Minister would not want that to happen. Refuge further explained:
“The policy itself has also been used as an excuse to perpetrate abuse. Refuge has supported a survivor whose abuser attempted to induce a miscarriage with violence because they wouldn’t get money for another baby.”
We must not let that happen, nor would the Government agree to that. That example shook me to my core, and it should shake everyone in this House to their core. It is clear that consideration must be given to circumstances such as those, and the limit must be changed.
The Refuge research found that the two-child limit is forcing survivors and their children into poverty and increases financial dependence on perpetrators. The two-child limit and lack of adequate support also act as a deterrent for many women who do not want to leave, as they fear they will be unable to support themselves and their children. Women’s lack of economic resources when they decide to flee and the added financial barriers to rebuilding their lives leads some women to question their decision to leave, which for some leads to their return to abusers.
In conclusion, the experience of Refuge, Women’s Aid and other charitable institutions must be recognised and must drive a review of the policy. I wholeheartedly ask the Minister to consider that. Life is tough for families and tougher still for those in abusive situations. We need to do what we can to help, and imposing a two-child limit on help to enable women and families to be financially secure is not helping. If we listen to the charitable institutions, it actually does harm. We must make a change, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this very important debate and for highlighting the appalling impact of the policy. Her speech was very emotional. She covered the exemptions very well, so I will not touch on those because time is tight, but I want to voice my disgust at the rape clause and echo what she said in her speech about how unfair and unjust the other exemptions are. We agree that the Tory cuts are abhorrent and must be scrapped immediately.
In 2018-19, families with three children will lose up to £2,780 each year per child who does not qualify. I am not sure what impact that would have on some Cabinet members, but for families in my constituency in Midlothian it will have a massive and detrimental impact on their lives. An Institute for Fiscal Studies study from last year estimated that relative child poverty would increase over the next four years by 7%. It highlighted the two-child limit as a major factor in that rise. The Government’s own impact assessment in 2015—there have not been any more recent impact assessments—in the section entitled “Impact on protected groups”, acknowledges that the policy will probably have a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities and people with other protected characteristics, yet there are no measures set out by the Government to mitigate that impact.
We have heard about the retroactive element of the policy. Households with three or more children who make a new claim will be required, as of February 2019, to claim universal credit, so they will be impacted by that and affected by the two-child limit, even if their child was born before April 2017. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central highlighted a letter from a constituent and the absurdity of the impact. Last month, I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how the retrospective implementation of the policy would
“encourage families to reflect carefully on their readiness to support an additional child”,
Which is one of the stated aims of the policy, but I was given no coherent answer. Will the Minister answer that for me today? Scottish Labour would scrap the two-child cap in the upcoming Scottish Budget. That is we will call for.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is absolutely right to get stuck into the Government over this abhorrent policy? As in the case of the bedroom tax, whether there is anything at all that the Scottish Government can do to help, we simply cannot and must not look our constituents in the eye and say, “We can act, but we are not going to because we should not have to.”
I agree with my hon. Friend.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I only have two minutes left, so I must press on.
The SNP have argued against covering for Tory welfare reform, and I agree that it should not exist in the first place; but such political posturing helps no one. The powers of the Scottish Parliament should be used to stop families struggling.
On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I must press on. I am quite confused about SNP policy, because the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said she cares about families and children across the UK and wants the policy to be stopped across the UK; but the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that the only way to end the situation was independence for Scotland. I should like to know whether they care about people across the UK, or only about people in Scotland.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not. I want to ask the Minister how he thinks the retroactive application of the policy will affect families who already have more than two children. How will it achieve the policy’s stated aim of making the system fairer and changing people’s financial choices about having children? In addition, there is no evidence that that would happen. What steps are being taken to ensure that women, ethnic minorities and other protected groups are not affected disproportionately by the cap? Have the Government made any assessment of the mental health and wellbeing impact of the policy?
The policy pushes more children into poverty. It targets women with no real assessment, and it is a good example of the Government engineering society to punish the less privileged for having children.
Order. There are eight minutes to go and two Members left to speak. I call Paul Sweeney; there are four minutes each.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on obtaining the debate and on her tenacious campaigning on the issue over several years.
The policy is totemic, highlighting the callousness of conservatism at its core. By contrast, the previous Labour Government reduced child poverty from 3 million in 1998 to 1.6 million in 2010. That was a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in modern history—an amazing societal achievement for our country. It was not done by accident. If support for households had increased only with inflation, child poverty would have been 4.3 million by 2010. The reduction happened because of huge, sustained above-inflation increases in targeted support for families and children. That is how we were able massively to reduce child poverty in this country and it is why I am proud to be a Labour party Member of Parliament. It will always be the party that defends the most vulnerable in society. We can look towards the contrast between what was achieved under Labour, and the disgusting policy of the Tory Government with the introduction of universal credit, which the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) praised, saying it would allow the poorest families to make the same financial decisions as other families who are not reliant on welfare. That is clearly absurd, when we consider that approaching half the workers in this country earn less than £13,000 a year.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the record of the Labour Government; it has a strong record on the issue. However, does he regret the comments of his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), when she was acting leader of the Labour party during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, that she could not oppose the Government’s plan to reduce the benefit cap and would back the two-child limit?
Let me make one point clear: the evidence is that we voted against the Third Reading of that Bill, when it mattered. The rhetoric at the time is irrelevant. Also, the Labour party is of course now under very new management, with a radical approach to abolishing the policy. The point is irrelevant.
A Government who react to children’s pain in the way that is the subject of the debate—by callously making a comparison with a market decision such as buying a car or a house—are not fit to govern. That is what we face when the Conservative Government take that attitude towards children’s pain. The children do not make those decisions. We have a duty to establish a welfare state that goes back to its founding principles of drawing a line below which no one will fall, and above which everyone can rise. That is the fundamental principle of the universal system of welfare in this country. While I want a UK Labour Government who fulfil their pledge to end the rape clause across the whole UK, we should use powers wherever they can be found to mitigate the policy and reduce harms in society where possible.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but I have already given way and have only five minutes for my speech.
We have the opportunity to make an impact in the Scottish Parliament, where there are powers to mitigate what is being done. It is four years since the Smith Commission, and the SNP has delivered only a single payment to carers. Families suffering the evil Tory cap on welfare need help right now. Indeed, that is not beyond the realm of possibility: to eliminate it in Scotland would cost £4,000 per child, which is less than less than 10% of the budget underspend of the Scottish Government. It is very much in their gift and they can achieve it, with the £10 billion extra they achieve from the Barnett formula. We must take action on all fronts to oppose the callousness of the Conservative party. Let us not pretend we cannot take robust action at all levels of Government to deal with the matter and minimise the harms faced by children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on an interesting speech that combined elegance and passion.
I am a father of three: they enrich my life, and my wife’s life. A point was made in the debate about twins, which struck home with me, because I am the father of twins. I can see what a big difference the order of their birth could make. I have a certain reputation in this place for talking about universal credit, and I have so far concentrated on the rural issue of lack of IT access and perhaps of people trained to use it. I make no apology for always stressing the issue of remoteness, given the constituency that I represent.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given that in rural areas across the UK employment can be a challenge, and that 30% of benefit claimants are in work, the policy will disproportionately affect families in rural areas, where depopulation is a huge challenge?
That is an entirely fair intervention, and I accept it for what it is.
Let me give the example of a family, perhaps living in a remote strath in Caithness, Sutherland or Easter Ross, and consider the problems they would have. The cash, as we know, is limited after the birth of two children. The mum would almost certainly face increased costs for transport—to school or to use the NHS—and for food, because sadly prices get higher the further a place is from Edinburgh and Glasgow. There would be higher costs for heating and delivery. I want to raise with the Minister this afternoon the fact that we pay an extra charge for having some basic things delivered to our homes in the remotest areas. There would be higher costs for the children’s clothes or—let me put it this way—for getting to the charity shop, which is the challenge for many families. Even harsher still is the cost of getting to the food bank—not that I approve in any way of the fact that we have to have food banks in this day and age. It is a concept that was unheard of in my parents’ time in Scotland.
In fairness to the Scottish Government, I am aware of the good work that has been done on the bedroom tax, and I know there is a limit in absolute terms to what the Scottish Government can do. Having been a Member of the Scottish Parliament for some years I recognise that, and it is best to be absolutely straight about it.
I had a happy childhood, and am extremely fortunate to have done so. It was free from anxiety. There is no doubt that anxiety can scar today’s children for the rest of their lives. To quote the hon. Member for Glasgow Central—I hope I do so correctly—the social security safety net should be for everyone. That includes people in my constituency in the remotest parts of the UK, as well as those who live in more central areas. I hope and trust that the Minister will take my points on board. I mean them sincerely, for the sake of the people I represent.
We now move to the speeches of the three Front-Bench spokesmen—one speaking from the Back Benches, I see, which is fine. We will leave a minute and a half for Alison to have the final word. I call Andy Gray—I mean Neil Gray. I beg your pardon.
I wish I had Andy Gray’s left foot, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to receive that footballing accolade. That was some light relief after a stark debate.
I welcome, congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who secured the debate. She has been tenacious, dogged and diligent in her campaigning, and it has been a pleasure to be on the Benches with her as she has gone about that in the past three years, and to provide what support I have been able to give for her work. It has merited awards at all levels, although I know that is not why she does it. She does that work to make the lives of her constituents and of the people up and down these isles better. She recognises injustice when she sees it, and she seeks to tackle it. I commend her campaigning efforts, which continue today.
My hon. Friend’s speech, as ever, was detailed. She highlighted the fact that next year this abominable scheme is set to get even worse, as children will be targeted regardless of when they were born. She is right to challenge people—Ministers in particular—to state the circumstances in which those children will be living for the duration of their childhood and the ways parents should budget for them. I would love to see an 18-year family budget in front of me. She was also right to say that 73,500 households have already been affected, a large proportion of which already include people in work. The apparent principle behind this policy, which is to get more parents into work, is self-defeating as it is already happening. I suspect there is an ulterior motive that the Government do not wish to discuss.
My hon. Friend was right to mention the rape clause exemption, because that despicable, disgusting example of UK Government policy has meant that 190 women have had to note the names of children who were born as a result of rape. That we allow that to continue is a stain on us as a society. I find it extraordinary that the Minister can sit and listen to the stories that my hon. Friend read out and the examples from Turn2Us of people in desperate need of help, and then shrug his shoulders as if this is not an issue and nothing needs to be done. I suggest that he comes to one of our constituencies to hear how this policy is impacting on our constituents. Perhaps he could do a shift at Turn2Us and listen to people in desperate need of help as a result of policies that he continues to support. My hon. Friend was right to say that the children impacted by this policy have no say over events that control their lives. They have been targeted by austerity, which is shameful.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) was right to point out how incompatible this policy would have been if the Government had targets to reduce child poverty. No wonder that the new Secretary of State and Ministers were so desperate to attack Philip Alston personally for the initial findings in his report. I think they protest too much, because they know all too well the problems with child poverty that they are causing.
Again, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, and thank her for securing this debate. It has been a good, positive and largely consensual debate, not least because no Conservative Member chose to speak. From the Labour Benches, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) was absolutely right and made an interesting speech, and I welcome her support for my hon. Friend’s campaign. The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) made another helpful speech, and I commend her work as chair of the all-party group on universal credit. She gave good, if horrible, examples of the traumatic devastation caused by this policy. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) was right to point out the poor choices made by this Government. We made those points clear during a debate on the Budget, and that was reinforced by the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who highlighted that between 2017 and 2025, £80 billion will have been spent by the Government on tax giveaways. That should give us all pause for thought.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) was right to say that the policy will have a disproportionate impact on women and people from ethnic minority groups, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) was right to point to Labour’s record in government, which I acknowledged, although Labour policy has perhaps been rather sketchy from then until now. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) was right to ask how on earth, when discussing policy around the Cabinet table, nobody stood up and said, “Actually, you know what? I see where this is going. This is a disaster of a policy. This is disgraceful, not just from a social perspective but economically in terms of forcing people, including children, into poverty.” How did nobody round that table, or since then, speak up and say that this is wrong? I find that incredible. My hon. Friend was also right to highlight the religious discrimination at the heart of this policy, and I commend him for that.
This would not be a Westminster Hall debate if I did not sum up a good speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The question why we should make these choices for families was at the heart of his remarks, which is absolutely right. This policy is not about people making choices about being in or out of work, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central so eloquently put it; this is about limiting the choices of people on low incomes and their families, and about how many children they can have and what they do in their circumstances. The hon. Gentleman was also right to highlight evidence from Women’s Aid and Refuge. The list of organisations that the Government are ignoring and being tin-eared about could go on.
In conclusion, let me mention the work that the Scottish Government have done since 2010 to mitigate the UK Government’s disastrous austerity policies. Work on the bedroom tax involving more than £100 million a year has been mentioned, but something that is often forgotten about, and one reason why Scotland performs much better than the UK on child poverty levels, is the council tax reduction scheme. That scheme has cost the Scottish Government £1.4 billion in recent years—a substantial investment to ensure that people on low incomes do not suffer the burden of council tax in the same way as other people across the UK, whose council tax reduction scheme has been scrapped by the Government. In Scotland we have also utilised some of the flexibilities available to us for universal credit, which costs another £1 million a year.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am just about to conclude my speech and I am conscious of time.
The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government will continue to do all they can to ensure that we do the best possible, and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was right in his bipartisan and measured speech. He said that the Scottish Parliament cannot be a Tory mitigation Chamber; it has to be more than that. There must be a limit to saying that the Scottish Government must always paper over cracks that have emerged from Tory policies. We must go after the problem at source. Therefore, rather than having a party political fight with the Labour party—I am not interested in that—I want us to continue with what, for the majority of this debate, was a cross-party attack on the Government’s policies. If Scottish Labour Members continue with that focus, instead of attacking a Scottish Government who are already mitigating the effect and doing what they can to reduce child poverty in Scotland, we will have a fair debate. We must end this two-child cap and the benefit freeze, and ensure that the Government do what they can in terms of work allowances and universal credit. Until that time we will not stop campaigning against this Government, and I hope Labour Members will join us in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing such an important debate. She shares my view, and that of many colleagues, that the two-child limit is unfair and adversely affects tens of thousands of families. That policy stands out, tragically, as a clear example—perhaps the clearest example—of a Tory welfare system that is failing and unsupportive of those most in need. That view is shared not just by those of us in this debate; it is shared by charities and many advocacy groups, and much of civil society.
Earlier this year, 60 Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders strongly condemned the policy, arguing that it sent a message that some children matter less than others. Disappointingly, however, some do not share that view. The former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), described it as a “brilliant idea”, and believed that it would force claimants to make the same life choices as families who are not on benefits, and incentivise them to seek work or increase their hours. We have heard from this debate that it is certainly not a brilliant idea. The claims about life choices and incentives show nothing but disdain for the people and families who our welfare state should be supporting and show no understanding of the precarious reality of the world of work for many at the sharp end.
While the two-child limit was possibly the most pernicious element of the approach, we should not forget that it was part of a package of welfare reforms to tax credits and universal credit announced in the 2015 Budget. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) pointed out, that the two-child limit alone will lead to 200,000 more children growing up in poverty by 2020. It is also a policy that causes one sibling to lose out at the expense of another, with one child being of more value than another. Surely that is not fair or right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a simple unfairness at the heart of the policy? We should no more support it than support one child in a family getting access to education and another not, or one getting access to health services and another not.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and neighbour. Children are children.
From April 2017, low-income families lost entitlement to additional support through child tax credits or the child element of universal credit for a third or subsequent child born after that date. If the family was already claiming support for three or more children before that date, in principle they continue to receive support. However, to demonstrate the absurdity of the policy, if a third or subsequent child born after April 2017 is disabled, the family will receive child tax credits or the child element of universal credit for that child, but one of the other two children will lose out. As was rightly pointed out by hon. Friends across the Chamber, that is an attack on some of the most vulnerable in society: children. The policy also discredits the claim of this Conservative Government that they are the party of the family and of religious freedom. It is yet another example of why the roll-out of universal credit needs to be stopped.
The Government must end the delays in payment, and it must also end one of the most shocking consequences of the legislation: the rape clause. Another former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), made the extraordinary claim that the policy potentially offered rape victims double support: social security and “an opportunity to talk” about the assault. That was insensitive to say the least. As hon. Friends have pointed out, it was absolutely appalling.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point. Does he agree that it is a very special kind of grim hypocrisy for a Government who have scrapped the child poverty targets and are heading towards a Brexit disaster that will see tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs lost to then target the most vulnerable in society? They will no doubt be losing jobs as a result of Brexit, but the Government have brought in a policy that marginalises and breaches the human rights of so many vulnerable members of our society.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. What the former Secretary of State said demonstrates how out of touch Ministers are. Perhaps more of them should have attended the debate today, because they would have heard many contributions that have laid bare the misery the policy is causing. We heard contributions from 10 Members: my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Bury South, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). They are all very powerful voices for vulnerable children in this place.
This weekend, the leader of Scottish Labour called on the Scottish Government to mitigate the impact of the two-child limit. I urge the Scottish Government to use their powers to do so in advance of the budget on 12 December. They are already planning to use the new social security powers to introduce an income supplement. I urge them to help the 4,000.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the early points made about the limits to what the Scottish Government can do? He should bear in mind that they are not only trying to mitigate Tory cuts; these things are happening against a £2 billion cut to the Scottish budget in real terms. They are trying to mitigate Tory cuts with both hands tied behind their back.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, there is a £10 billion supplement from the Barnett formula. We have heard the stories, and I have questions for the Minister.
I am sorry, I cannot give way any more; I must move on.
Some 59% of the 73,500 families who lost financial support are in work. What does it say about the Government’s claim that they are encouraging people into work if their policy chastises those very people? According to the Government’s own figures, each family claiming benefit lost up to £2,800 in 2017-18 as a result of the two-child limit. How is such a callous approach helping to support families and helping to tackle poverty? Some 2,820 households were exempted during the first year, the majority because they had breached the two-child limit after having twins or triplets. It would seem that Government policy is divorced from reality. In fact, it is divorced from biology. It is yet another example of a policy conceived out of ideological spite and prejudice, rather than an understanding of real life, of what motivates people’s choices and outcomes and even of basic biology.
From February 2019, all households with three or more children who make a new claim will be required to claim universal credit and will also be subject to the two-child limit, irrespective of when their children were born. That cannot be right. It is not fair that the policy is applied retrospectively. Finally, yesterday, the Bishop of Durham and a cross-party group called for a ministerial direction to delay the February 2019 deadline. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister apply such a direction?
We have seen the effect that the policy is having on many households across the UK. We have seen how it is just one example of how Government social security chaos punishes rather than provides and focuses on savings, not support. The Government need to accept that their approach to social security has failed. They need to stop it, they need to fix it, and they need to fund it. Our communities, our families and, as we have heard today, our children deserve nothing less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this debate. I know she has a long-standing interest in the subject, and earlier this year we met at the Department for Work and Pensions to discuss issues relating to this particular policy. Yesterday, as the shadow Minister just pointed out, there was a cross-party roundtable led by the Bishop of Durham to discuss these issues and I took part for some of the time, as did the hon. Lady. I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate.
My style is generally not to feed rancour in a debate, because I think it is important that we have a civilised discussion and colleagues have an opportunity to raise issues that are important to them, but the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) talked about the fact that an economic mess has been created over the past eight years. I respectfully say to her that she was not in this House in 2010. A number of us were, and I would say that the economic mess we inherited was from the previous Labour Government. I must point out that 3.3 million jobs have been created since 2010—I see hon. Members shaking their heads in disbelief, but that is a fact—and wages are now outpacing inflation. The vast majority of those jobs are full-time and permanent, at a high level of education. That is not an economic mess.
Will the Minister address the social mess that his Government have created? That includes not only this policy, but welfare and policing—the list goes on. Will he respond to the serious concerns that hon. Members have raised today? That is what we are after: not looking backwards, but addressing the problem at hand.
Of course I will address the issues, but it is important to look back and see where we have come from to reach the policies that we are now putting in place.
Several hon. Members mentioned universal credit. I know that this debate is not about universal credit, but I am afraid I must point out that the legacy benefits system is not really fit for purpose. It is incredibly complicated, and as a result 700,000 households are not claiming—or are not able to get hold of—the full amount owed to them. Under universal credit, those households will be £285 better off on average per month. Likewise, 1.4 million people spent the best part of a decade on unemployment benefits under the last Labour Government, but that is changing.
I accept there has been discussion about finances, but I must say to SNP colleagues that, as Labour Members have pointed out, the Scottish Government have the power to create new benefits in devolved areas. They are able to provide assistance to meet short-term risk and they have the ability to top up reserved benefits from their own resources.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I point out for the record that the hon. Gentleman did not give way when Labour colleagues wished to raise that precise point with him.
The Minister points out that I did not give way, but of course I was at the end of my speech; I was winding up to allow him enough time to contribute to the debate. He says that the Budget interventions will make people better off, but the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), suggested that people on universal credit were £2,400 worse off. If the Government are suggesting that their intervention will make people £600 better off, does that not mean that people will still be £1,700 worse off as a result of their actions on universal credit?
Again, I must respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman and to other Opposition colleagues that it is one thing to say that they want to support their constituents and that I should be prepared to look people in the eye—but they too should be prepared to look their constituents in the eye and explain why they would not vote either for the additional £1.5 billion that we brought in earlier this year to support people on universal credit or for the Budget measures, which I will talk about in more detail.
If I may, I would like to make some progress.
The fundamental aim of our policy is to strike the appropriate balance between support for claimants with children and fairness to taxpayers and families with children who support themselves solely through work. Colleagues may disagree, but a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is ultimately not sustainable. Our benefits system needs to be fair both to those who need the support and to taxpayers, but ultimately it needs to be sustainable. Parents who support themselves solely through work would not generally expect to see their wages increase simply because of the addition of a new child to their family. Of course we recognise that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children they have; that is why we have exceptions in place for additional children in multiple births and children likely to be born as a result of non-consensual conception.
The Minister makes his case about children who are due to be born. What arguments does he make to parents and families who already have three or more children, who are all going to be affected by this policy and who have absolutely no choice about it?
The hon. Lady raises a perfectly valid point, which I will get to if she gives me the opportunity.
From 28 November, exceptions will also apply to children in kinship care, regardless of the order in which they joined the household. The exception will also be extended to children who are adopted who would otherwise be in local authority care. It is also worth noting that as a result of natural or managed migration to universal credit, families’ existing entitlement will be protected as long as they remain responsible for the same children and remain entitled to benefits; that will apply regardless of the number of children in their household or their date of birth.
As hon. Members will know, a judicial review of the policy was heard in the High Court earlier this year. The Court found that it was lawful overall—a judgment that the Government welcomed. Several colleagues have spoken about the impact of the policy on particular groups, but I should point out that the High Court judgment on 20 April found that the policy did not breach the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The Government remain committed to providing support for families. Under universal credit, 85% of childcare costs are covered—up from 70% under the old system—and, for the first time, people in part-time work can get help. That comes on top of the Department for Education’s 30 hours of free childcare provision for 3 and 4-year-olds in England.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
The flexible support fund is available to help eligible parents who are moving into work to pay up-front childcare costs or deposits. Child benefit continues to be paid to parents regardless of the number of children within the household. There is also an additional amount in universal credit designed to support disabled children, again regardless of the total number of children in a household.
To return to the Budget, we have listened to feedback about the support available for families on universal credit and we have acted. In last month’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that an extra £1.7 billion a year will be put into increasing work allowances for families with children and disabled people, strengthening universal credit work incentives and providing a boost to the incomes of the lowest-paid. This will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn.
Does the Minister concede that a reduced cut to someone’s income is still a cut?
I have just explained how, as a result of these work allowances, more money is going into the system. As I say, if the hon. Lady wants that to happen, she should help us and vote for these policies.
Given the points made about poverty, it is worth pointing out that 1 million fewer people are living in absolute poverty than in 2010, including 500,000 working adults and 300,000 children. That is a positive outcome. Children living in workless households are approximately five times more likely to be in poverty than those living in households in which all adults work. There are now 637,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010—a 33% decrease. The number now stands at a record low.
The Government continue to take action to help families with the cost of living through the national living wage, through reducing the universal credit taper to 63%, through raising the income tax personal allowance, and through childcare support, which I have already spoken about.
Several colleagues raised the changes to be made in February. I will simply point out that the High Court has found the policy to be lawful. From the Government’s perspective, this is an issue of fairness, but I will reflect on all the discussions that we have had in this debate.
This has been a useful debate in which colleagues have had the chance to air their views. I hope that I have demonstrated that we are a Government who listen. We have introduced support for families in the system and, of course, we will continue to listen and reflect.
Alison Thewliss has the final word.
I thank all hon. Members who have come along today and contributed to the debate. The opposition to the policy is overwhelming; the fact that not one Tory MP could be bothered to turn up and defend it tells us all we need to know.
The Minister continues to be in denial about this indefensible policy, which takes no account of people’s circumstances, instead punishing them for circumstances that they can do nothing about. It is based not on the reality of people’s lives but on an entirely twisted perception that poor people should not have children and that women should be forced into having abortions rather than proceeding with healthy pregnancies.
There is overwhelming evidence of the harm that the policy will cause. Figures suggest that it will move the dial on child poverty from 33% to 42%. It has united people across all faiths and all women’s organisations around the country—a very unusual thing to achieve. It leaves people in a poverty trap; as has been outlined, a single mum with three kids would have to work a 45-hour week to make up the gap that the Government are leaving in her budget.
I plead with the Minister, as we have all done today. He has the option to halt the policy and prevent it from proceeding in February. I beg him to do so.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
South Eastern Rail Franchise
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the South Eastern rail franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Residents in Bromley have had real concerns for years now about the state of service that they get from the current franchise holder of the south-east London and Kent franchise. I know you are not unfamiliar with this area from a past life, Mr Hollobone. It involves the trains going up from the Kent coast, through the London suburbs, particularly in my case, the lines through Chislehurst and Grove Park to London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross, on the one hand, and, on the other, the line through Bromley South to Victoria.
Southeastern has operated the franchise since 2006. It is one of the largest in the UK with some 1,900 services each weekday. Some 65% of those are commuters travelling at peak times; it is essentially a commuter franchise. My constituency is essential commuterland. It has the second largest number of rail commuters of any constituency in England and Wales, following our neighbours in Lewisham West and Penge. There are a cluster of not dissimilar constituencies in the area because, of course, we have no underground provision and Southeastern is effectively a monopoly provider.
The truth is that it has been a lamentably poor monopoly provider in recent years. There are failings in the train operating company and in Network Rail’s operations as well—something like 60% of the failures are probably attributable to the failings of Network Rail. We can put the two together, because it makes little difference frankly for my commuters standing on a platform waiting for a cancelled train or sitting on a delayed train to have any degree of blame shifting between the two. As far as they are concerned, it is one railway and they have no alternative.
What the hon. Gentleman says about Network Rail and Southeastern is true. People buy a ticket from Southeastern, but the issue may often be with Network Rail, and the two do not work together. I am sure that he will not be surprised that, a few years ago, Network Rail spent a fortune extending all the platforms so that they could take 12-car trains, but Southeastern did not buy 12-car trains. That is the sort of not-working-together that makes the lives of our constituents miserable.
That is absolutely right. A number of us have raised these issues in the past, and we raise them today because the franchise is due for renewal. It was consulted on in 2017 and is due for a decision imminently.
My constituents are deeply concerned that we will simply get more of the same. I have said publicly, and I have said it to his face, that the Secretary of State missed an opportunity to shake up the franchise when it was re-let on its current geographical basis. I believe, as do many of my constituents, that there is an inherent tension between the needs of those commuter trains that come up from the coast and those that are part of the London metro service, where they are fulfilling a function similar to that of the tube. It is very difficult to reconcile the inevitable conflicts between the two in the current configuration of the franchise.
I am a Member of Parliament who represents one of the areas where the train comes up from the coast. Along with colleagues from Maidstone and the Weald and Tonbridge and Malling, I have significant concerns about the amount of house building going on. The train service infrastructure is not necessarily there to support that. Does my hon. Friend agree that when a commuter is paying more than £5,000 a year to get into work in London, they expect the service to match the cost?
That is absolutely right, and I have total sympathy with those further down the line. Investment has not matched capacity. The few trains that come up from the coast and stop at somewhere such as Bromley South are crowded by the time they get there. Despite the promise that the London Bridge rebuild would solve the congestion, it has not, and all too often, it is necessary, for whatever reason, for the signalling arrangements to let trains from the coast go through, sometimes not full, while people are sitting on commuter metroland trains that are absolutely rammed. That is not working for anybody. We also frequently get points failures in that first six miles out of London, and that affects everybody who uses the network, however far they are going.
It is no exaggeration to say that I could probably fill the whole of this half hour by reading out emails, tweets and messages from social media sites that I have received since this debate was announced. I have had scores and scores. The numbers are perhaps exaggerated this time because of the publicity, but it is more or less a normal arrangement for me. There is not a day on which I do not see some complaint or other about some failing on the trains.
I commute up every sitting day from Chislehurst and I see it myself. I got the 8.09 from Chislehurst today. That is supposed to be a service of about 25 minutes, but I allow half an hour, to Charing Cross. That is not what it is supposed to be, but nobody expects these trains to run exactly to time—that is how bad it is. It is an exception if it runs to the minute. As it was, we arrived at 8.55, so it took nearly three quarters of an hour. My maths is not brilliant this afternoon, and I will be generous, but that is a 30% or 40% increase on what the journey time is supposed to be. That is not an exception; all too often, it is the norm.
Constituents say to me that they like the area, but are seriously thinking of moving because the trains are unreliable. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) said, that is compounded by the failure to invest in stock. Short train formations are a regular bane on both my lines and those going into north Kent, which creates serious overcrowding at peak hours. There is also pretty poor communication in terms of making people aware of last-minute cancellations and changes. The one shining light of Southeastern is the quality of the station staff at our local stations. I have found every one of them to be absolutely excellent; they really do their best and are well linked into the communities they serve. It is not their fault. It is a case of lions being led by donkeys, as far as the operation of the franchise is concerned. They deserve better leadership and could do with better investment in some of their stations. They have to bear the brunt of the frustration of passengers who pay a lot of money and are simply not getting the service they are paying for.
The issues have been well documented. The Department conceded that the number of responses to the consultation on the proposed renewal of the franchise was “unprecedented”. It is not surprising, given the amount of anger and angst. There are assurances that the new franchise documents will meet the concerns and that they will be taken on board. People’s trust is running pretty thin. The Minister is new to his post, but trust in the Department is running thin as well, as is trust in the regulatory apparatus and the operator. We were told that there would be much more joint working. The reason given for not redesigning the franchise and putting the metro services into Transport for London was that the Secretary of State wanted to bring train and track together. Although there have been efforts at joint working and there is a joint board, in practice what I seem to get is senior managers from both sides coming and giving me their excuses together rather than separately. I am not sure that it makes much difference to my constituents on the platforms.
There are some pretty blatant examples beyond the daily grind of cancellation and failure. When I was sitting on the train waiting to get into Lewisham about 10 minutes behind time, I had a tweet from one of my constituents, Tommy, who is known to Network Rail because it tried to block him once, because it did not like the fact that he was calling it out for the errors that it was consistently making. He tweeted about three trains delayed in the Lewisham area. He was spot on. That was because they had all been held to allow a late-running Dartford train, which was already behind schedule, to come through. Owing to the way it was operated, there were now four trains behind schedule. Clearly, that joined-up working is simply not happening.
We have had other errors on basic things such as timetabling. A lot of my constituents travel from Bromley North and Sundridge Park, then change to the mainline at Grove Park. That is a busy station, because even trains that start from Orpington are pretty full by then. The timetabling means that often people have one or two minutes to get from one side of Grove Park station—it has about four mainline tracks plus a baby platform stuck on one side—to the other. It is a very short period for people to have to go up a lengthy walkway and then on to a footbridge. That is assuming that the mainline trains run to time. When they do not, the shuttle service leaves without people. People either run—and sometimes slip, as I have seen on the footbridge—and pile on to an overcrowded train, or else they are left hanging around for perhaps half an hour until the next shuttle returns.
Local MPs and I have repeatedly raised the issue of timetabling. Time and again, I have said, “Why can you not align the timetables properly on the Grove Park branch?” but nothing has ever happened. Only three stations can be saved on the app’s dashboard, yet most people would like to have a choice of which London terminal they go from if there are going to be problems. That has been raised time and again with the most senior level of management. They say, “That’s an interesting idea,” but nothing ever happens.
About a year ago, there was a scandalous incident that ended up being investigated by the rail safety authorities. Just before Christmas, about half a dozen trains were stranded for up to four hours in the Lewisham area, affecting both sets of lines. There was very heavy snow and there were poor weather conditions—I accept that the central rail form of electricity on that line is particularly susceptible—but there was a complete failure to rescue people from the trains in any decent time, as my constituents regularly point out to me. A plan was supposed to be put in place to get people out of those trains—it should have been activated within an hour and got people out within two—but it failed. We had people sitting on those trains for five to six hours with no power.
One might think that something would have been done about that after the report was published by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, but my constituents remind me that there have been another four incidents of people being stranded for two hours or more. The basic procedures for getting people off delayed trains are still being ignored—there is no other word for it. That seems to be an extraordinary failure.
I could go on at length. An excellent councillor for Bromley Town, Will Harmer, has just tweeted me. He says of the Grove Park scenario:
“Yes, it happened again last night. Train just left as the first person got on to the platform.”
How many times do people have to say that before it sinks into the minds of the people who run Southeastern trains? Another message reads:
“Thanks for raising this, Bob. The delay problems have been steadily getting worse. Southeastern trains have been getting away with murder.”
My constituent Alex Le Vey commutes, and he says:
“The service is getting worse—more overcrowding, more delays.”
Another constituent says:
“Trains are late almost every day. The 17.52”—
it goes down to the Medway towns—
“is 15 minutes late on average, and only on time 20% of the time.”
I mention that because managers, Department officials and Ministers often come out with statistics and say, “Actually, things are improving. Things are getting better. Statistics show that reliability has gone up.” That is not the lived experience of people on the trains and platforms. On the operation of Southeastern trains, I am inclined to take the view that there are
“lies, damned lies and statistics”.
Looking at that scenario, it is understandable that we have real concerns about the franchise renewal. We might well get the same operator or one very much like it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Many of my constituents are disappointed that the Government changed their mind and ultimately decided not to hand responsibility for the service to Transport for London. Knowing that the franchise will be renewed, they are worried that the renewal might be delayed. Earlier this year, we were promised that there would be an announcement this month—we have four days left. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns that we need a decision to be made, and that the new franchise cannot be delayed? In the minds of my constituents, the worst possible scenario would be the current operator extending the service far beyond April next year.
I agree. The Minister will not be able to tell me the likely outcome, but some of our problems are with the franchising process. I was a believer in franchising out because I thought it would bring competition, but there are only about three big conglomerates that are capable of bidding for those franchises. Competition is non-existent—those big conglomerates have a nice, captive market, and there is nothing like the incentive that there should be for them to come up with the goods for paying customers.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is uncertainty and no guarantee of the investment that the network is crying out for. The thought of simply renewing franchises for operators that have failed would be, I think, pretty outrageous to most of my constituents and to most people who commute on that line. They do not want just a change of badging or a renewal or change with lots of promises that things will be better this time; they want to see precisely what is in the franchise document when it is published. We have seen the consultation, but we need to see the contract itself. What benchmarks is the operator being held to, what will be the penalties, and will those penalties genuinely be applied at this time? What more incentives will be offered to Network Rail to keep their end of the bargain? That is a big part of it, too.
What penalty will we sensibly apply to the public sector? When the private sector fails, franchises can be taken away—it should have happened more often in the railway network in the past—but we must also have proper recompense when the publicly owned Network Rail is at fault. What delivery timetables will ensure that overcrowding will be reduced and that the number of signal failures on the Network Rail side will be reduced, and over what time period? When will we have investment in the new carriages and the extra rolling stock? When will we have upgrades to the communications system? I recognise that we have seen some changes, such as to the delay repay system. With respect to the Minister and the Department, that is just skirting round the edges.
It is genuinely a pleasure to see the Minister back in his place. I hope it is not too much of a displeasure for him to have to come and listen to a debate on Southeastern trains again, because he did so a good deal in his previous incarnation. There must be a sense of déjà vu for him, as there is for me. Above all, there is a sense of déjà vu—not in a good way—for my constituents who are commuters. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues, and after the debate I will happily supply the Minister with a detailed list of all the complaints that have been sent to me on social media platforms. I will get that across to his office tomorrow—it will set out what has happened in the past 14 days or so to one Member of Parliament. I suspect that there are plenty of other Members across the franchise area who can say exactly the same thing, and I look forward to the Minister’s response so we can find out what is happening, when we will have some action and real promises, and how those promises will be delivered—frankly, people in our area have had enough.
Order. I am sorry, but I have not been notified that the hon. Lady wanted to speak. In half-hour debates, Members may speak only with the permission of the mover of the motion and the Minister. I am sure she can intervene during the Minister’s speech if she so wishes. I ask the Minister to bring the train into the station no later than 4.30 pm, because that is when the debate will end.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. The world of transport provides a wonderful array of images.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for securing this debate and for being a champion for his constituents and the users of this important franchise, which, as he said, has been operated by Govia since 2006. It is the third-largest of all the departmental franchises. There were more than 450,000 passenger journeys per day in the first quarter of this year, so we are dealing with a railway of scale.
The franchise agreement between the Department and train operators includes key performance benchmarks —they all do—to ensure that the franchise delivers with passengers at its heart. I do not think that claim could be made consistently throughout the history of British railways. That is our objective, and that is how I will approach the whole industry.
Despite what my hon. Friend said—I look forward to receiving that dossier, as I am keen to hear direct feedback—Southeastern’s performance, as we measure it, is consistently above the average for London and the south-east. Of course, that should never be a cause for complacency. One should always try to improve, and the Department has regular conversations with Govia.
I anticipated that the Minister would make that point. Will he consider one point? Many commuters on the line firmly believe that the statistics are skewed by, for example, changes to the timetable, which actually lengthen the journey time to give more dwell time between the stations so as to avoid penalties. They feel that there is an element of questionable counting. Once we have sorted this issue out, will he sit down with us to get a common view of how the statistics are calculated? People are beginning to lose faith in some of them.
I understand that, but it is important to have a set of statistics that give us comparable data from franchise to franchise over time so we can measure performance. Dwell times obviously influence journey lengths, and they are nearly always to do with how quickly people are able to get on and off changes at a platform. That is to do with the capacity and the popularity of the network. I will look at the statistics. I want a set of customer statistics that we can trust so we can hold the rail companies to account. My job is to speak up for the passenger. We are spending a huge amount of public money, with £48 billion of investment in the next control period, which starts in April, so we need to focus that to ensure we deliver for passengers, including those represented by my hon. Friend.
We have talked about the new franchise, which has been designed with a specification to ensure that Southeastern joins up with the new Thameslink routes across Kent. That will ensure the best possible service for passengers, in terms of services, space on trains and reliability.
Questions have been asked about the timing of the award of the franchise. It will be made not this week, but in the new year. I will keep all colleagues who are served by the franchise posted on the timing. The reason for the delay is that the evaluation of the agreement for the next franchise has taken longer than anticipated because we wanted to ensure that passengers get the best deal possible.
I completely share my hon. Friend’s view that we need reliability. The new franchise recognises the importance of reliability to passengers. As such, bidders must jointly appoint an alliance director with Network Rail, who will be responsible for overseeing joint teams, including one focused solely on performance. That individual is expected to be the single public face of the railway to its passengers. The point about communication in the industry was made clearly. We all know that it has broken down at times, but this is a positive move to address those concerns. Bidders are being asked to work with Network Rail to develop proposals for a digital traffic management system to allow more trains to recover from minor delays and still meet the published timetable.
All those measures are expected to deliver a railway that is more reliable and accountable to the passenger. If my hon. Friend is interested, I would like to invite him to join me on a visit to the Kent Integrated Control Centre at Blackfriars—not too far away—to see the excellent joint working that is already going on between Southeastern and Network Rail. It will be enhanced and built on in future franchises. He may wish to consider that; we can discuss it outside this debate.
The specification for the new franchise is intended to allow room for an additional 40,000 passengers in the morning rush hour by December 2022. It is designed to tackle the crowding levels and uncomfortable conditions on services today.
The introduction of High Speed 1, which runs through my constituency, has helped to alleviate the pressure on the branch lines. In fact, it has been so successful that we have managed to get it to stop at Snodland, around which there has been a vast amount of house building, and it has been enormously popular. I raised the issue with the Minister’s predecessor, but there are now concerns that, as part of the new franchise, High Speed 1 will no longer stop at Snodland. Given that there is a delay in announcing the next franchise, will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure my constituents in Snodland are still served by an incredibly successful and important part of the South Eastern franchise?
I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We will set up that meeting promptly.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and others asked how we will deliver more capacity. It will be through longer trains. The new trains will be able to carry more passengers because we are increasing the number of the longer 10 and 12-car trains at the busiest times. First-class accommodation will be converted to standard class on commuter services to increase space for passengers further. That builds on the point that this is a hugely busy and hugely successful commuter line.
Incremental changes are being sought to today’s timetable that will deliver a more operationally robust daily plan. For example, we are reducing instances where services must cross at congested track layouts, such as those at Lewisham, which are a significant cause of passenger delay. The intention is that the next franchise will deliver a more regular service where possible. The key thing we are trying to get across is that this is about predictably and reliability. I know full well that passengers need a service they can rely on, and that is our plan.
Hon. Members will be interested to know that Sunday services will be enhanced and will be comparable to the level of service on Saturdays—a significant increase from today. There will be a Sunday service on the Bromley North branch for the first time in a considerable number of years. I hope that is of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the constituents he serves. Services on the Medway line will also be improved, and an additional two trains per hour will run to Ashford via Tonbridge outside the peaks. That will allow Hastings services to miss some stops to improve journey times. I know from my visit to Hastings that that is a key passenger aspiration.
A significant amount of work is being done to deliver an enhanced railway. It is clear that travellers are impatient to see the new services. I fully understand that. We are focused on placing the passenger at the heart of everything we do and working with the existing management of the franchise to maintain and improve its performance before the new franchisee is announced.
The new franchise will offer the passenger very significant benefits. I have urged my officials to ensure we get those benefits as soon as possible. Everybody is impatient for them; that is certainly a message that I have taken from this debate. I thank my hon. Friend and all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Their contributions have been heard and understood, and we will take them on board as we work to make this rail franchise better.
Question put and agreed to.
EU Settled Status Scheme
I beg to move.
That this House has considered the EU settled status scheme.
This debate is about Europe, which is apparently why everyone is leaving the Chamber—I do not blame them—but at its heart, it is about people. It is about the millions of people across this country who have come from other European countries and made their lives and livelihoods here. It is about people who the Government have been clear from the off that we want to stay and whom we welcome.
In my constituency of Boston and Skegness, Boston itself has grown by one third over the last eight or 10 years, largely down to immigrants from other European countries. With them in mind, I wanted to secure this important debate, in part—I should be frank—to place on the record some of the success of the EU settlement scheme. My constituents are holding their breath because, in the eyes of some, the scheme will decide whether they can stay in this country and carry on living their lives. That is not the case. For the vast majority of them, it is a formality that will provide certainty and the necessary paperwork to confirm the fact that they live here, are welcome to stay, and will continue—we all hope—to be active and vibrant parts of our communities.
That is in the spirit of the question that I asked the Prime Minister immediately after the vote. Hon. Members should bear in mind that I am the Member of Parliament for a constituency that has a very large number of people from eastern Europe and who cannot vote in parliamentary elections but who I and other MPs in the same situation are privileged to represent. As I have said, some of those constituents are worried, but they should take some heart from the initial stages of the settlement scheme. I do not want to steal all of the Minister’s thunder, but as I am sure she will be keen to emphasise, in the first part of the beta stage, of the 1,000 or so people who took part, over 900 saw their cases resolved in the first 19 days. On average, it took just nine days to complete that process and, of the people from 12 hospital trusts and three universities, 94% said that they had had a good experience.
The process is expanding and another 55,000 people have taken part in the scheme. We stand on the brink of an expansion, with 250,000 more people potentially entering the scheme. While it been a success so far, it is right that we ask questions today rather than allow the scheme to go unscrutinised.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and those of the residents in my constituency who cannot prove continuous residence or employment and therefore worry that they might be failed by the current process?
I agree with the hon. Lady that there are people for whom proving the five years’ continuous residency is harder, and we need ensure that in future, the scheme treats those vulnerable people appropriately. We should bear in mind that there is, so far, no evidence of failure. Guarding against failure is one of the many things on the Minster’s plate, and we should be careful in a debate such as this not to worry constituents—as some have done unnecessarily—when there is no evidence. We should, of course, bear in mind that it is our duty to stay on our guard on this issue. In that sense, we have to welcome what is clearly a success so far, but as the scheme expands by another quarter of a million people, more people will inevitably be in the position that the hon. Lady describes.
With that in mind, I will highlight two or three positive things, before asking the Minister a number of questions, which I hope she will be able to answer and demonstrate that this is a rare example of a Government IT project that not only has not yet fallen over, but shows that the Government can build systems that are scaleable, that will be successful in the future and, when they are coping with millions of people, that we will be able to look back on as a model. It is worth mentioning in passing that this could be a model for the European Union itself, because to my knowledge at least—perhaps the Minister knows more—there has not yet been a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad to register in the same way that EU citizens can do here. It might not be a model for Government just in the UK, but for Governments around the world. We should bear in mind that this is not simply about EU citizens in the UK, but about UK citizens in the EU.
I will highlight two positive elements in particular. The system links directly into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and allows people who have the continuous residency mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) to demonstrate that they have the settled status, which clarifies their position and enables them to continue living life in the UK in exactly the same way. It also provides what might be called the “digital signature”, which allows people to easily reassure employers wishing to take them on that they are settled in this country, and which means that they are not in the unfortunate positon of having an identity card or papers that might be stolen by people with bad intentions towards vulnerable people. The system is digital for the convenience of both the user and the Government, but in a way which genuinely benefits the user. There are a number of very good elements.
I have some questions for the Minister, the first of which I hope will be clarified in the future if not today. The reason that the scheme has been in the papers so much is the attitude of Apple and the inability of its phones to support the scheme, which is slowing down the process. We must not pretend that the rival operating system, Android, is the minority—it is a massive part of the market—but Apple should surely be co-operating with the Government and allowing the necessary chip to be used in a way that would make life easier for an awful lot of my constituents and for the constituents of other hon. Members in the Chamber. That is an issue than Apple must address, and I hope the Minister will tell us a little about what will happen on that front.
It would also be useful if the Minister said a little more about the Government will spend the £9 million that they have recently committed to helping vulnerable people use the scheme. That commitment is hugely welcome. Many constituents are not able to use the internet or go online as easily we—or they—might wish, and although I welcome the Government spending to assist those vulnerable people, a little more information on how that money will be spent would be helpful.
I would also like the Minister to indicate what plans are being made for the self-employed or for the dependants of those in the scheme, so that we can have confidence, as it expands beyond the 250,000 people being added in a couple of days’ time. I know that a lot of work has already been done on that front, but it remains the case that the majority of people who will be part of the scheme are not yet part of it. I hope we are in a position to reassure them that their futures are in good hands.
Finally, it is important to say that the report from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants makes one legitimate point and several points that I regard as less legitimate. People who have been, for example, the victims of human trafficking might get their fees waived in other circumstances; will that be the case in this scheme? What specific provisions will we make in future as more and more vulnerable people in different categories come into the scheme?
I end as I began, by saying that, contrary to claims made by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, this scheme will give people a number of years to settle their status. It will, I hope, allow them to gain the peace of mind that we all want them to have. As the Prime Minister said, we welcome them as part of our communities and we want them to stay. I and many other MPs are keenly aware that our job is to represent people who live in our constituencies, whether they are able to vote for us or not.
In that vein, I pay particular tribute to the work of Migration Matters and PwC’s Julia Onslow Cole, who helped me a bit with this debate. They have keenly scrutinised the scheme already and been involved in it to some extent. They have been eager to praise it where it is worthy of praise and, like many of my constituents, they hope that the future will go as well as the past. We should also pay tribute to the progress of the scheme so far, and remind our constituents that it is providing a small number now—a large number in future—with the security that they need and deserve. I hope that the message that goes out from the debate today is that this is an example of a Government IT scheme that, for once, is delivering on the ground quickly, providing people with the peace of mind that they deserve.
At its heart, the settlement scheme might not sound as though it is a profoundly emotional matter, but many people worry that the Brexit vote has fundamental consequences even for those who came to this country many years ago. We as a House of Commons should do everything we can to reassure them that they are welcome in the communities in which they have settled and that the Government will not put unnecessary barriers in the way of their future life in this country. With that, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing an important debate.
Frankly, it is appalling that people still face uncertainty about settled status. Recently, I held Brexit public meetings throughout my constituency and shared with my constituents all the information available from the Government website. They did not feel reassured, and only asked more questions. The continued uncertainty about settled status is costing communities families who contribute socially and economically. In the public meetings, I met EU nationals who are doctors, nurses, teachers, service workers and many more. They remain terrified by the uncertainty. They still have no answers to the most basic questions about their future.
The uncertainty about settled status has already had a devastating impact on the ability of our local employers to recruit the workforce they need among people from the EU countries. Instead, those people who would be taking up opportunities and jobs in part of the highlands where 20% of our economy is based on tourism, are choosing to go elsewhere in the EU for work. I have heard from countless business owners in my constituency, particularly in tourist towns such as Aviemore, about their staff shortages and the impact of the uncertainty on their businesses.
The uncertainty is particularly frustrating for employers who cannot get a straight answer on the rules. The Home Office has said:
“Employers will not be expected to differentiate between resident EU citizens and those arriving after exit.”
That contradicts comments made by the Immigration Minister, who only days ago told a parliamentary Select Committee that employers would be required to do
“rigorous checks to evidence somebody’s right to work”.
If they cannot agree among themselves, how do they expect employers to know what to do? We are not talking only about those who want to employ EU nationals but about EU nationals who are themselves business owners.
This is a profoundly personal situation for many people. Shortly after the referendum, I was approached by constituents who ran an import-export agricultural business. The uncertainty about their future has forced them to close their business, and now they are concerned about the fact that they have primary school-age children. They are worried about their status and whether they are able to live and work here at all. Based on the warm words of the UK Government so far about protecting EU citizens, I have tried to reassure them, saying that I imagine that they will be okay in future, but the lack of any evidence to back that up with fact means that the people affected are, and remain, deeply unsettled.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness described the situation as profoundly personal. This is a profoundly personal problem for people, but in my constituency and many like it in Scotland, it is also a profoundly personal situation for the communities in which EU citizens reside as our friends and neighbours. We have the pain of trying to work with them through this Brexit mess.
Is it not true that we might also be failing the most vulnerable? Some of the processes are difficult to understand; some of our more vulnerable EU citizens might not understand them all, and legal aid is not available. Should we request that legal aid be made available to our more vulnerable citizens who find the process difficult to understand?
I completely agree. For public service workers in Scotland, the Scottish Government have stepped in to support EU nationals, but that is something that should simply be done as a matter of course across the nations of the UK, because there is a big problem. The lack of information and clarity from the UK Government has posed a significant problem.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone. The UK Government need to get a grip on this. People cannot be left in their current state of uncertainty and worry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate.
My party and I obviously very much regret the need for a settled status scheme at all but, for so long as we are heading down that road, we all have an interest in ensuring that it works as well as it possibly can for the sake of all those caught up in it. I congratulate hon. Members who have raised a number of concerns and issues that still require resolution or clarification, while also commending the scheme’s positive features. I acknowledge that a lot of hard work has gone into the scheme so far, but my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) reflected the overriding and pervading sense still of worry. As an Opposition MP, I will focus on that side of things, rather than on the more positive aspects highlighted by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness.
First, there is the issue of who qualifies for settled status. The Government did a lot of work to build trust, but every now and again they seem to shoot themselves in the foot. The latest problem has been a discrepancy between what is committed to in the statement of intent and what is delivered by the immigration rules. The intent was clear—that all EU citizens bar serious criminals would be allowed status, and only proof of identity and residence and a criminality check were to be required. However, the immigration rules reserve for the Home Office the right to refuse all who are subject to removal for not exercising treaty rights. That comes across as a breach of trust, which should be remedied. This is not a hypothetical matter—29% of permanent residence applications are refused for non-exercise of treaty rights, so hundreds of thousands of people, if not a million, may be caught by that.
I came here from another interesting meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, at which the permanent secretary and the Home Secretary again went out of their way to reassure us that their intention is simply to stick to the statement of intent, and that all that will be required is ID, residence and a criminality check. I put to the Minister what I put to them: why not ensure that the immigration rules reflect what is in the statement of intent and remove this ambiguity and dubiety altogether?
I have not yet established whether certain classes of people will qualify. I have raised some of these issues before, but I am still not clear whether a number of carers will qualify for settled status, including Zambrano, Teixeira, Chen and Ibrahim carers. I raised that at the Home Affairs Committee and was promised a letter, which never arrived, so it would be useful if the Minister clarified that. The number of people involved is very small, but the consequences are just as important for them as for everybody else.
I turn now to cost. My party has long called for the scheme to be free. I do not expect the Minister to announce that that will happen. We welcome the waivers and reductions that have been introduced, but we continue to call for the Government to go further. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness mentioned some vulnerable citizens for whom it would definitely be appropriate to seek a waiver. After all, we are requiring these people to apply to remain in their own homes and jobs. Charging them for the privilege seems to me to be rubbing salt in the wound. Although £65 does not seem a massive amount, we are talking about a family of five having to pay £230. On top of that, at least 100,000 people will have to apply for renewed passports and so on, and there may be other costs related to the scheme. When all those expenses are taken into account, the cost could add up.
My hon. Friend mentioned the £65 charge for applications, but there is a £32.50 fee for children. Does he find that unpalatable?
That is a fair point. I reiterate that our party believes the scheme should be free of charge altogether.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Scottish Government, but there are other employers that want to support their EU employees by paying the fee for them. For example, this morning I met the University of Cambridge, which is among those employers that want to pay for EU employees to achieve settled status. Actually, it will go further and apply for family members, too, so hats off to it. I understand there may be a technical issue with that, but I think employers want to be able to pay the fee as their employees make the application rather having to reimburse them after the event. I do not know whether that is possible, but it would be useful if the Minister commented on that.
There is a concern that if employers reimburse their employees, they will be charged tax by the Treasury. Obviously, that would be awful from all sorts of perspectives. It will cost the University of Cambridge around £1 million to reimburse its EU national employees. For the Treasury to tax that would be wrong in principle, and it would not be good for the Government to be seen to be taxing settled status applications funded by employers. It may also discourage other employers from doing the same. I think the Home Office is keen for as many employers as possible to support their employees through the scheme, so it would be useful to hear what the Minister has to say about that. Again, I raised it with the Home Secretary a few moments ago in the Select Committee. He said he would be willing to raise it with the Treasury, and it would be good if the Minister was on side with that, too.
On evidence and advice, I have absolutely no reason to doubt that this process should prove simple in straightforward cases. However, like the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I am worried about cases that are not simple, such as those involving elderly EU citizens who achieved permanent residence many years ago but are long retired and lack documentation. Why exclude any sort of evidence—evidence of family, friends and other sources, for example—from consideration? Why not allow caseworkers to look at all the evidence in the round in cases where the Home Office’s preferred type of evidence is not submitted?
Some people will have very difficult decisions to make. For example, they may be offered pre-settled status by the Home Office and have the choice of either challenging that and continuing to look for settled status or just going with what the Home Office offers them. Advice will be very important. Although the practical advice offered by the Home Office is helpful, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey that there should be provision for independent legal advice via legal aid for those who need it but cannot afford it. That will be available in Scotland as normal through the advice and assistance process, but it should be available to all throughout the UK.
More generally, we need a concerted and ongoing outreach scheme to ensure that everyone who needs to apply applies. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness mentioned the £9 million that has been spent so far, but I am dearly worried that that will not be enough. I recently read an alarming paper from the British Medical Association, which suggested that 37% of EU doctors were blissfully unaware of the Government’s settled status scheme. Imagine what that figure is among people who are not brilliant at English, elderly or vulnerable people, and people who never use the internet. There will be many who simply do not think they need to apply, including children who think they are British because they were born here but are not.
That leads us to what is probably the pivotal question: what happens to those who fail to register by the cut-off date? That includes both those who do not apply at all during the initial period and vulnerable people who get pre-settled status but fail to apply during the subsequent five years. Again, that will include children and other vulnerable people, such as trafficking victims. I asked in the Select Committee why we need a cut-off date at all. Surely, the end of the implementation period provides all the motivation we need to encourage people to apply. If even 2% or 3% fail to make it—for most Home Office schemes, we would be lucky to get 80% to 90% of people applying—tens or hundreds of thousands of people who should have applied will not have done so. Those people will face all the same consequences the Windrush generation faced, but the numbers involved absolutely dwarf that horrible episode. There is no need for a cut-off point. People should continue to be able to apply afterwards.
There are significant concerns about those who obtain status not being provided with a proper document. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness talked up the positives of the digital document, but there is another side to that. These people, too, fear the hostile environment. The Residential Landlords Association, the 3 million, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Exiting the European Union Committee have all warned that if a landlord is approached about a property by one person with a British passport and another with a bit of digital code that requires further investigation, the person with the British passport will get the property. We are already seeing that sort of discrimination, and the big fear is that EU nationals with a bit of code will get it 10 times worse.
Finally, we have the issue of enforcing the deal on citizens’ rights. We need to know what form the independent monitoring authority will take. Obviously, it should be independent of the Government. When will it be established? Is there any prospect of that happening prior to the end of the implementation period, given that most applications will be made during that time?
There are many other things I could mention, and lots of issues will continue to arise. My final ask of the Minister is simply that she makes a statement to Parliament early in the new year to update us—and, most importantly, our constituents—about the progress that has been made so we can continue to push and raise concerns on behalf of EU nationals.
It is an honour and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this important debate.
The UK will leave the EU in four months’ time, but significant uncertainty remains for the 3 million EU citizens in the UK. I will focus on three areas: the Government’s failure to protect EU citizens from the hostile environment; broken promises on citizens’ rights; and the roll-out of settled status so far. To avoid another Windrush scandal, those issues must urgently be addressed.
First, it is clear that EU citizens will be subject to the full force of the Prime Minister’s punitive hostile environment. Will the Minister take this opportunity finally to clarify what checks employers will be required to carry out on EU citizens after Brexit and what evidence will be sufficient for EU citizens to prove their status? At any point during the transition period, will employers be required to differentiate between EU citizens who are already here and those who arrive during the transition period? Will an EU passport or identity card be enough for any EU citizen to prove their right to work until the end of the transition period? Have any business groups raised these issues with the Minister or anyone in her Department?
Right-to-work checks are a fundamental plank of the hostile environment that was directly responsible for Windrush. We know that EU citizens have already faced discrimination in the job and rental markets. The lack of detail from the Government is contributing to this climate of uncertainty and confusion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many EU citizens are so concerned about their future that there have been cases of people deciding instead to apply for British nationality, to give them an extra guarantee of being able to stay in this country, such is the level of concern to them and their families? I raise an anonymous example from my constituency, of a young, highly-skilled family with three young children, where the mother has had to pay £1,500 to gain British nationality. It has been a huge cost to them and been very distressing. Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole process is causing undue distress?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this process is causing difficulties. I know from past experience that the regime of charges in operation, which are being increased, almost seems to some people to be a profit machine rather than providing good service to the public.
I would like to ask the Minister what would happen if applicants lost their access to digital proof of their settled status, for example in the case of Home Office errors in record keeping or loss of data? Would there be alternative ways for them to provide proof of status?
Secondly, the Government have broken a promise to EU citizens and gone against assurances given to the House on settled status checks. We have been told multiple times by different Ministers that the Government will not check that an EU citizen is exercising their treaty rights under free movement. In a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the Prime Minister wrote:
“You asked me whether resident EU citizens and their family members applying for UK immigration status under the EU Settlement Scheme will be required to show that they meet all the requirements of current free movement rules. I can confirm that they will not.”
However, in recent changes to the immigration rules the Government granted themselves the power to reject settled status applications if someone was not doing this.
In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), the Minister for Immigration said:
“The draft Withdrawal Agreement does not protect those who are not exercising or are misusing free movement rights. This means that, while free movement rules continue to operate to the end of the planned implementation period, there will remain scope, as a matter of law, for a person to be removed from the UK on those grounds.”
There are a number of people—for example carers, stay-at-home parents or retired people—who are not exercising treaty rights and are at risk of having a removal decision made against them. Can the Minister tell us why she has granted her officials this power? Either the Government are going to use this power for at least some applicants, in which case Ministers have gone against significant assurances to EU citizens and to this House, or this power will never be used, in which case why grant it in the first place?
Thirdly, on the roll-out of settled status so far, am I right in saying that the settled status app is still not available on Apple products? Is the Minister aware that the facial recognition feature on the Android phone is not working in some cases and the Home Office has required people to send in their original passports just weeks before Christmas? What measures are being put in place to ensure that privacy of biometric data is protected, especially where the Government share this data with their contractors?
The campaign group, the3million, has raised concerns about the accuracy of the Minister’s report on the first phase of settled status. It is misleading to say that “no cases have been refused”, as 129 people—over 12% of the applicants—were still awaiting a decision. Can the Minister clarify the situation that these people are in now?
There remains significant concern about how vulnerable people will register. The Minister has emphasised that it will be a “simple, straightforward process”, but even simple processes can become complicated very quickly for people with complex lives. During a Home Affairs Committee hearing, one of the Government’s immigration advisers said:
“It is possible that in a few years’ time when the scheme has been implemented, we won’t really have any idea how inclusive it’s been and whether there are significant numbers of people who fall through the gaps.”
How will we know how many EU residents are left without status when the Government do not collect or release the necessary data?
On Sunday, a withdrawal agreement was published that fails to address significant issues with EU citizens’ rights. Onward free movement for UK citizens in Europe has not been resolved. We have not had guarantees of what will happen to the agreement on EU citizens’ rights in the event of no deal. EU citizens will be subject to the hostile environment, may be required to prove they are exercising treaty rights and the Government will have no idea how many people remain undocumented come December 2020.
We have been told that the immigration White Paper may come as early as next week. Can the Minister confirm this? How will it affect EU citizens who are already here? We have already suffered months of uncertainty because the Government cannot get their house in order. The Government have failed to protect EU citizens in the UK.
It is a pleasure as ever to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on having secured this important debate on the EU exit settlement scheme. My hon. Friend has raised this with me previously in the House, and I recognise his particular constituency interest, with the population of Boston and Skegness having increased by one third.
I would like to thank Members from both sides for their contributions to the discussion today and to put firmly on the record how much work has gone into the EU settlement scheme. It is a good news story that the scheme is open for private beta testing well ahead of EU exit day.
EU citizens make a huge contribution to our economy and communities. It is not just that they can stay, but that we want them to stay. Since the 2016 referendum, there has been a great focus by the Home Office on securing citizens’ rights and delivering the scheme so that EU citizens can obtain their UK immigration status quickly and easily.
Members will know that in December 2017 we reached a deal with the EU on citizens’ rights. In March 2018 we agreed to extend that deal to those who arrive during the planned implementation period, which will run until 31 December 2020. The full legal text of the draft withdrawal agreement, published on 14 November, secures the rights of more than 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and around 1 million UK nationals living in the EU.
The scheme we have been discussing today enables those who are resident in the UK before the end of the planned implementation period to obtain UK immigration status in a straightforward process. Anyone who already has five years’ continuous residence in the UK when they apply under the scheme will be eligible immediately for settled status. Those who have not yet reached five years’ continuous residence will be eligible for pre-settled status and will be able to apply for settled status when they reach the five-year point.
The scheme is a simple and streamlined application process, which draws on existing Government data and processes to minimise the burden on applicants. Caseworkers will be looking for reasons to grant, not for reasons to refuse. We expect the great majority of the 3.4 million currently resident EU citizens who will be eligible to apply to do so and to be granted status. They will have plenty of time to apply before the deadline of 30 June 2021.
I would like to give some feedback on the first pilot of the private beta testing phase that we ran in the north-west of England, which has now finished with excellent feedback from participants. Some 1,053 applications were received, with a decision now granted in 1,046 cases, which were dispatched by 19 November.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments about the testing phase. Will she agree to meet me and a selection of constituents with EU nationality who have concerns about the scheme, as part of the feedback?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Throughout my time as Immigration Minister, I have always been pleased to meet as many interest groups as possible, so I will be delighted to meet him and some of his constituents. I would like to reassure him that I also have a constituency in the south-east of England and regularly meet my own constituents, who raise their concerns with me, and understandably so. Since the referendum, it has been a time of uncertainty and upheaval for some people, and it is important that the Government make ourselves as accessible as possible, so that we can give a reassuring message to our residents.
I hear what the Minister says about making the message as encouraging as possible, but does she agree that when language is used, either deliberately or lazily, saying that EU nationals are “jumping the queue”, it sets back that objective quite considerably?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are moving forward shortly with a new immigration system. Sometimes it can be very frustrating in the Chamber, because we end up on time limits and with either the Chair of a debate or the Speaker urging us not to take up too much time, but I am always very conscious in the language that I use that we must be welcoming, careful and tolerant. Immigration is an emotive and difficult subject, and I always regret it when my time limit means that I speak in what I refer to as tabloid headlines, which I never welcome. It is important that we set out in due course—hopefully very shortly—our future immigration system, which will certainly be based on skills that people can bring to the UK. That is our position going forward.
As I was saying on the update of the private beta testing phase 1, the average time taken to reach decisions was just under nine calendar days, and the fastest decision was made within three days. All applicants successfully proved their identity and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said, around 94 per cent of those who provided customer feedback found the application process easy to complete.
The second pilot began on 1 November and will test the online application as an integrated, end-to-end process. It will significantly scale up the testing, with EU citizens working in the higher education, health and social care sectors across the whole UK, who make such a huge contribution, being able to apply. I would like to thank them and their employers for assisting us in this way. This phase will also enable us to consider the support that some vulnerable applicants may need. The Government have already announced grant funding of up to £9 million to enable voluntary and community sector organisations across the UK to provide such support.
We are also using the remaining months before exit to scale up our communications and outreach. Millions of people have already seen Government advertising encouraging them to visit gov.uk for easy-to-understand information, and there will be a comprehensive set of communications materials next year. As I have travelled the country over the past few months and met EU citizens, I have been pleased to hear that they have already received communications, and many are confident about the settlement scheme’s progress.
My hon. Friend raised a series of questions, all of them important ones that he is absolutely right to raise. We continue to work with Apple to deliver the identity verification functionality that is currently available only on Android. He may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was in America only recently, and I am conscious that this is an issue that he continually raises at the highest level.
The £9 million grant funding to those groups helping vulnerable people is incredibly important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness asked how, specifically, it was to be spent. On 25 October we announced the grant funding to enable voluntary and community organisations across the UK to support EU citizens who need additional help to apply. We have been working really closely with charities and community organisations representing the needs of vulnerable EU citizens. These grants will help them to inform vulnerable individuals about the need for status and to give practical support in enabling them to complete their applications.
I visited the Barbican library some months ago to look at the Assisted Digital service, and I was impressed with the commitment of people there to ensure that individuals were getting the support they needed. We currently have a pilot running with five local authorities, including Kent and Lincolnshire county councils, Sheffield City Council and Waltham Forest and Haringey borough councils. We are also working with seven non-governmental organisations, including the Cardinal Hume Centre, St Vincent de Paul, the East European Resource Centre, Coram, Rights of Women and various other groups. Our aim is to ensure that grants are awarded across the UK to communities where support is most needed and where organisations are able to provide it. The lots are specifically designed so that a diverse range of organisations are able to apply; eligible organisations can be charities, non-profit organisations, community groups or religious organisations.
The second phase of testing will finish on 21 December, which will enable us to have, in technical terms, a fire break between phase 2 and a further phase of testing, which will occur in the new year. Self-employed people can prove their residence via our automatic data matching at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and family members will be able to use a range of evidence not necessarily linked to employment to prove their residence.
My hon. Friend and, I believe, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who spoke for the Scottish National party, raised the matter of fee waivers and the cost of applying. This matter was raised with me in the House, specifically in relation to victims of human trafficking, by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). She made, as indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness has made, an important point. I undertook then to look at the specific issue of those who had been victims of human trafficking, and I would like to reassure hon. Members that it is a point well made and something I am looking at very closely.
However, having agreed the level of fees with the European Union, we believe that our approach is reasonable, proportionate and fair to all EU citizens, and application is free of charge for those who hold valid permanent residence documentation or indefinite leave to remain, and for children looked after by local authorities.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time; she is very generous. She is highlighting the fact that the scheme, or elements of it, has been agreed with the European Union. Can she give a cast-iron guarantee that all the measures she is talking about will be in place, regardless of the outcome of the meaningful vote and what happens after this place has decided on the deal brought forward by the Prime Minister?
It is important that we give reassurance to EU citizens living here. As the former Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), made very clear, I believe, in one of his Select Committee appearances, this is a solid commitment to EU citizens, who we want to stay. I think one hon. Member might have raised the spectre of this, but we are certainly not going to remove EU citizens.
Moving on to some of the comments that hon. Members have made, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) spoke about employers. That is an important point. I was pleased to be at the launch of the employers’ toolkit that we have been making available to employers since much earlier in the summer, which was designed hand in hand with employers. I am conscious that they play a significant role in communicating to their employees how the scheme will work. We are already working with specific employers, NHS trusts and now universities as part of the testing phase. The toolkit has been welcomed and is useful, and it is designed to enable employers to help their employees through the process.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East raised a number of points. I want to focus on a productive meeting that I had yesterday with the Scottish Government Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, as part of a series of meetings I have undertaken to have specifically with him, but also with representatives of the Welsh Government and local government. It is important that we engage widely both with parts of the United Kingdom and with local authorities where there is a significant impact. We know that when people feel uneasy at times, they are likely to turn to local government or the devolved Administrations for support.
The Scottish Minister raised with me, as indeed he did in the summer, the question of fees and the undertaking by the Scottish Government to pay the fees for those working in certain sectors and perhaps for their own employees. He and I discussed yesterday the issue of taxation, and I undertook to raise that matter with the Treasury. I understand, and I hope I am correct in this, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the same undertaking to the Home Affairs Committee this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman also specifically raised those who exercise rights as carers as Zambrano, Chen, Ibrahim or Teixeira cases. We have indicated that those resident as Zambrano cases are not protected by the draft withdrawal agreement, but we have decided as a matter of domestic policy to protect them. We consider that their current rights do not lead to a right of permanent residence under EU law, but a new UK status will be made available to them, as it will be for Chen, Ibrahim and Teixeira cases.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of landlords. I was very pleased, as Immigration Minister, to reconvene the landlords panel, which I co-chair with Lord Best. We met recently and, with a group of representatives of landlord organisations, went through the digital right-to-work check, which we will mirror for landlords with a digital right-to-rent check. It is a straightforward process, and the landlord representatives present were impressed with the way the right-to-work check already works. We will roll that out for landlords to make their checks as easy as possible.
The test phases majored on by some Members are exactly that—tests. It is very important that we make sure the scheme works as it is rolled out. We started deliberately in a very small and controlled way, and have expanded it significantly in phase 2. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness mentioned, it will be expanded much more widely in the second part of phase 2 testing. We expected there to be bugs and to need to make technical fixes. That was part of the reason for testing.
I asked the Minister many questions, many of which have not been answered. Will she undertake to get those answers to me? She also mentioned the discussions taking place on Apple phones. Is she able to enlighten us on how long those discussions will carry on? Is she aware of the face recognition difficulties with Android phones that I mentioned?
As I indicated just a moment ago, we are conscious that there have been several technical bugs. A good example was the system not recognising hyphenated surnames, which we were able to fix in phase 1 of the scheme. Some additional technical issues have been flagged up in phase 2, and we are working extensively to overcome them. I will not give a timeline for the resolution of the challenges with Apple phones, suffice it to say that a really constructive discussion is ongoing. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is a very persuasive man, and I am sure that we will reach a resolution as soon as possible.
The Minister has made a lot of helpful comments in response to some of our questions. Two remain, but I do not know if she can answer them today. First, will she simply clarify why there is a discrepancy between the statement of intent and the immigration rules in relation to the non-exercise of EU rights being a ground for refusal? Secondly, will she revisit why we have to have this severe cut-off point? What will happen to people who do not apply in time before the end of the scheme?
We have indicated that there will be a proportionate approach to those who do not apply in time, which I am very conscious could be for very good reason, such as ill health. It is important that we do not penalise people who have every right to be here. We are determined to be as welcoming as possible. We are working to make sure that we articulate that properly, not only through our communications but through the immigration rules.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I reassure hon. Members that at no point throughout this process have we underestimated the challenge of granting immigration status to more than 3 million people. However, we have made a strong start, and we have everything in place to make this whole process a success.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Minister for giving actual answers to questions—that is not unusual for this Minister, but it is unusual for some—and I am pleased that that thanks was echoed by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson as well. Some of these interesting and important questions have been answered.
However, I end with the point that I made earlier. When people are worried that their lives and livelihoods will be affected, we in the House have a duty to communicate that, while this scheme is not perfect, it has made a very strong start and will, I hope, provide those 3 million people with rapid reassurance. For us to scaremonger would be irresponsible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the EU settled status scheme.