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Commons Chamber

Volume 656: debated on Monday 18 March 2019

House of Commons

Monday 18 March 2019

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Support

1. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909829)

3. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909831)

23. What comparative assessment her Department has made of the levels of financial support available through (a) universal credit and (b) the legacy system. (909851)

When fully rolled out, universal credit will be £2 billion per year more generous than the support it replaces. As a single system that integrates six legacy benefits, universal credit will enable 700,000 households to access approximately £2.4 billion of welfare that previously went unclaimed. Our welfare reforms are about targeting support at those who need it most.

At the Budget, additional funds, which are to come into effect in the new financial year, were allocated to pay for work allowances,. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when those work allowances will come in, how much they will be, and how much extra the working people in my constituency who receive universal credit can expect to receive each week?

My hon. Friend is right that an extra £1.7 billion a year will be put into work allowances to increase them by £1,000 from April 2019. That will provide a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid that will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn.

It is not just the financial support that is key, but the support provided by jobcentres in getting people work-ready. One of my constituents was languishing on benefits for a decade with no interventions. Now, under universal credit, she is being helped and supported to become job-ready. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we continue this approach, and that we reach out and support the work coaches in jobcentres?

I thank my hon. Friend and near parliamentary neighbour for pointing out the excellent work done by work coaches. The defining difference between universal credit and the legacy benefits that it replaces is that tailored, personal approach, which really helps individuals to get back into work.

What support is being given, through not only universal credit but schemes such as Access to Work, to those who experience mental ill health?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out this important element of universal credit. We are determined to make sure that universal credit really supports the most vulnerable. We are piloting a new scheme in Milton Keynes in which people with mental health difficulties are given an early referral to make sure that their needs are dealt with early on, so that they can be given the appropriate, personal, supportive care that they need.

The five-week wait for universal credit assumed that everybody would have their last month’s pay cheque in the bank, but reality is not like that. Most claimants have to take an advance—a debt to the Department—the repayment of which often forces people to use food banks, as the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged, or go into rent arrears. Will she scrap the five-week delay?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue; we have addressed concerns about the five-week wait by putting in additional measures. One measure now in place relates to the receipt of legacy housing benefit over two weeks. All universal credit applicants can get an advance, and we now find that 60% of applicants take up that opportunity. That obviates the need for concerns about the early amount of cash that people get.

I spent most of Saturday collecting a third of a tonne of food for our local food banks as part of our Winter of Compassion campaign. It is already clear that we will have to run such food-bank collections all year round. When will the Secretary of State join us in Birmingham to help collect the food needed to end the hunger that her policies are causing?

I totally reject the right hon. Gentleman’s assumption and comments. The issue with food banks is partly that the early roll-out of universal credit had some difficulties. We now know that 85% of applications for universal credit are paid on time and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, 60% of people get advances. I hope that that combination will enable people to access the cash that they need straight away.

Despite the recent funding, the levels of work allowances have still not recovered from the cruel cuts made to them back in 2015. Does the Secretary of State recognise that although the principle of simplicity behind universal credit is a good one, if universal credit is to have credibility, it needs to be funded properly?

It is because universal credit needs to be funded properly that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has, since 2016, put another £10 billion into different areas of it, to ensure that it does what it sets out to do, which is support the most vulnerable and help others into work.

The UK Government have removed the higher rates in universal credit for lone parents under 25. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), the Minister for Employment had the audacity to claim that under-25s have lower living costs, and that

“this reflects the lower wages that younger workers typically receive”

as a result of state-sanctioned age discrimination, including through this Government. Will the Secretary of State tell me in what way it costs a 24-year-old less to be a single parent than it costs a 26-year-old?

I point out to the hon. Lady that we have made available more childcare that is both better and lower cost. A person can now have 85% of their childcare costs paid under universal credit. We have also made sure, as I said in a recent announcement, that work coaches have the wherewithal, through the flexible support grant, to give that money to people who need it early on in the process.

Ministers may like to claim that nobody will be worse off on universal credit, but people transferring through natural migration get no protection against loss of income, even though they may just have moved home. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the Government will do to ensure that nobody is left worse off?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to engage with the change that is universal credit. People were left to languish on previous legacy benefits, and were not helped into work at all. We now have a system where the money is focused on trying to help people into work. That is why we have seen the changes with the work allowance, and why we have seen additional support from the Chancellor. It is a different system from that point of view.

Universal Credit

2. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. (909830)

12. What steps she has taken to ensure that universal credit is tailored to individual claimants’ needs. (909840)

Under universal credit, our work coaches provide vital one-to-one support to all claimants. Work coaches receive appropriate training to ensure that they can offer support to claimant groups with a variety of characteristics.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he say what support he is giving to people in my constituency to help them back into work?

I thank my hon. Friend and her parliamentary office for engaging with their local jobcentre in Stockport. I know that she has visited it and seen the one-to-one support provided. She asked for a specific example; in the past week, Stockport jobcentre has been working with claimants to prepare them for a sector-based work academy opportunity with the NHS, which will lead to 20 guaranteed interviews.

I have seen the positive effect that the roll-out of universal credit has had in the jobcentres in both Boston and Skegness, but it remains the case that some applicants’ assessment is overturned on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get this right first time more often, and can he tell me what he is doing to make that happen?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know that earlier this month, the Secretary of State announced a range of measures to better support people with disabilities and health conditions, which of course included exploring whether we can improve the mandatory reconsideration process to reduce the volumes of cases going to appeal.

When I last read the claimant commitment, it was like a prison manual. The duties were all on the claimants’ side, with none on the Department’s. Will the Minister meet me and community groups that have designed a fairer commitment, in which there are duties on the Department to make a success of universal credit, as well as duties on claimants?

Of course I am always happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I would say, though, that claimant commitments are agreed with claimants. It is work that is done together; that is what is important.

15. In 2015-16 in Wales, 22,000 households were eligible for homelessness assistance. In 2017, universal credit was introduced. By the time the roll-out finished in 2018, the figure was 28,000—a 30% increase. Will the Minister acknowledge the harm that universal credit has done in promoting homelessness in Wales? What immediate help can he give to those people who are suffering? (909843)

The hon. Gentleman will know that, across Government, we have a strategy to tackle homelessness. He will also know that we have introduced measures such as the landlord portal, so that payments for rent can be paid directly to social landlords, and that, just a few weeks ago in January, the Secretary of State announced a further change that will allow rents to be paid to private landlords much more easily. We are keen to make sure that this works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for both coming to my Harlow jobcentre to see how universal credit works in practice. May I ask the Minister specifically what he is doing to help single parents who are moving on to universal credit?

My right hon. Friend is a huge champion for his constituents. He is extremely well regarded in the jobcentre, interacting with constituents and indeed with those working there. The Secretary of State has already referred to the fact that, from 1 April, we will be increasing work allowances by £1,000.

Four single mothers won a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions in January because their universal credit payments did not take into account the way in which their incomes changed from month to month, yet the Government decided to apply for permission to appeal. This was turned down, with the judge saying that the way in which the Secretary of State had interpreted and applied the legislation

“was not only wrong as a matter of language, it produces absurd results”.

Why did the Government choose to spend public money seeking to appeal the original decision, and what are they going to do now to address this grotesque injustice?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are considering this case, so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage.

Universal Credit: Disabled People

4. What assessment her Department has made of the financial effect of universal credit on disabled people. (909832)

20. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the introduction of universal credit on disabled people. (909848)

More people who are severely disabled will receive higher payments under universal credit. This means that around 1 million disabled households will gain on average around £100 more per month on universal credit than on legacy benefits. The universal credit rate for the most disabled people is up to £328.32, which is up from the employment and support allowance level of £163.15.

I have a constituent with a severe brain injury who applied for universal credit in August 2018 and immediately lost his severe disability premium. Since then, he has lost over £1,500 in benefits. What are the Government doing to ensure that extremely vulnerable claimants who have lost their severe disability premium are given the back payments to which they are entitled?

If the hon. Lady writes to me personally, I will ensure that officials sit down with her and go through what seems to be a very difficult case. I have suffered from a brain injury, so I know the difficulties involved. The hon. Lady will be aware that the transitional payment and the gateway are available for those receiving the severe disability premium, and that these elements provide protection long-term. Over 1,200 staff are working to ensure that repayments are made.

Our experience in Sheffield is that many people with learning disabilities cannot manage digital applications and are not easily granted access to non-digital routes, and that others who start on digital applications with support, but struggle once they are on their own, are not allowed to return to non-digital routes. Will the Minister therefore agree to assess demand for non-digital applications, and to publish clear guidance for jobcentres to make it easier for people with learning disabilities to be granted access to non-digital claims?

It is a pleasure to answer this question, because both the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, and I have suffered from the disabling effects of brain tumour. The House will be aware that this is Brain Tumour Awareness Month and that it is Wear A Hat Day on Friday. I will ensure that the points he raises are addressed. He will be aware of the help to claim service, which is already in existence, and of the work that we are doing with Citizens Advice, which will come up to speed in April. A great deal of effort is also going into home visits for vulnerable claimants. However, he raises a legitimate point that we will most definitely look into.

The Employment Minister will recall the case of my constituent Ben Seaman, who received a payment following underpayment of ESA; his parent was concerned that as a result, he would be unable to receive ESA in future. I am very grateful for the letter that the Secretary of State has written to me, which arrived today. Will the Minister confirm that those transferring from ESA to universal credit, who have to log this collection of underpayment within a month, will be told in advance of transferring?

I am delighted to hear about the very welcome development that has been communicated by the Secretary of State today. I can confirm what the Employment Minister has set out today, and I am delighted that this progress has been made.

I am glad that 145,000 more people with disabilities have found work in the last 12 months, leading to a total of 930,000 moving into work in the last five years. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s declared target of helping 1 million people with disabilities into work could be rather more ambitious than it is?

One million is a great start, but I believe that there is capability for more. I encourage all employers up and down the country to consider the many talented disabled people who want to join the workforce. The numbers are up all over the country already, as my hon. Friend outlines, but there is a lot more that can be done.

Those with disabilities have been contacting me from across the United Kingdom in my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, telling me that they still find it extremely difficult to access home assessment for benefits, and that they are then being penalised by having to provide GP letters, for which they are charged. Will the Minister respond to this situation and ensure that these people are not being penalised twice for their disability when accessing the benefits system?

I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that her concerns will be taken up by the Department; a Minister will meet her to go through her complaint.

I was recently visited by a constituent who was very distressed during his personal independence payment assessment because he felt that the assessor had not understood his case or his records and did not have the full facts. When will we introduce video recordings, so that our assessors can be held to account?

My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. Video recording is an important step forward introduced by this Government. The pilot from last November appears successful, and we are looking to do a full roll-out later this year.

Universal Credit: Telephone Applications

5. Which criteria her Department uses to decide whether people can make an application for universal credit by telephone. (909833)

Any claimant may claim universal credit by telephone. Each request will be considered on its merits, through discussions between the Department and individuals to see which method of claiming is most suitable and beneficial. After those discussions, phone claims are available to any individual who wishes to proceed with one.

What efforts are made to engage by telephone with those who are considered to be in need of making a claim, who may include elderly, disabled or rural claimants with poor or no internet access?

There is a freephone line. Last month, in February, 1.2 million calls were received on the universal credit full service line, and for those who are particularly vulnerable, home visits are also available.

We are starting on this work; I made reference to the speech that the Secretary of State made earlier this month. However, if my right hon. Friend has a specific case to raise, we will be very happy to take it up.

Welfare Support: Kettering

6. How many people in Kettering constituency receive (a) personal independence payment, (b) employment and support allowance and (c) universal credit. (909834)

I am pleased to say that since 2013 the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Kettering has decreased by over a third. The latest published statistics show that there are 3,520 people on PIP in Kettering, 35% of whom are getting the highest rates, compared with 14% of working-age disability living allowance recipients in the area when PIP was introduced.

It is taking too long for those who are refused PIP to successfully appeal against the decision. Across the country, it takes 190 days, and the worst 10% of cases in the east midlands now take 300 days. What percentage of PIP refusals are successfully overturned on appeal?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern that it is taking too long, and that too many appeals are indeed overturned. That is why I committed in my most recent statement to making sure that we look again at mandatory considerations to make them more effective, so that we can start to reverse this. I share his concerns and I am addressing the issue.

By his deployment of the words, “Across the country”, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has helpfully enabled the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to come in on this question, as it now refers to a wider area, and not simply to Kettering.

The Secretary of State is a fair-minded person. This morning, I have been looking at her constituency stats, the Kettering stats, and my stats in Huddersfield. However, I appeal to her to raise her vision beyond just the stats and the data, and to look at the evidence from children’s charities such as Action for Children, which will tell her that in her patch, in Kettering and in my patch, child poverty has not diminished.

I am very mindful of what we are delivering on the ground to individual constituents, families and children. We attempt, we hope, to protect the vulnerable and help people into work, but I know that my Department has a part to play in reducing poverty, and I am focused on that.

Employment: Hampshire

There are more people in work across our country than ever before, wages are growing at the joint-fastest rate in a decade, and Office for National Statistics data estimates that in the year to September 2018 there were 938,400 people in work in the great county of Hampshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That is great news, but what more will the Government do to help people who find themselves out of work into new jobs?

Under universal credit, as we have noted before, work coaches provide that vital one-to-one support and advice to help people into work. The disincentives of the legacy system are gone, and the reforms are working. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of North East Hampshire, the number of claimants is down by 42% over the past five years.

Poverty

8. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of her Department’s policies on levels of poverty. (909836)

Household incomes have never been higher. In 2016-17, there were 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty than in 2010. In Scotland, whichever way we look at poverty—relative or absolute, and before or after housing costs—in the three years to 2016-17, no measures are higher than in the three years to 2009-10; in fact, three are lower.

A few weeks ago, a young family with a newborn baby appeared at my constituency office in Helensburgh. They were halfway through their four-week universal credit assessment period. This was a family in crisis. They were penniless, and the father had not eaten for three days. They did not even have enough money to buy baby milk and had been refused healthy start vouchers because they ticked the wrong box. Is that not the reality of the poverty being created by the Government?

I am sorry to hear about the circumstances of that case, and I am happy to look into it further. One of the recent announcements we have made is that there will be Citizens Advice support within every jobcentre from April onwards. That is the sort of case where Citizens Advice can step in and provide independent support and advice, to ensure that people get their full entitlement.

Be it universal credit, the benefit freeze or Brexit, the poor are being hit the hardest at the moment, yet according to research from the Resolution Foundation, overall tax and benefit changes will take £100 from families in the bottom fifth of income distribution and give £280 to those in the top 10. Does the Minister think that that is fair?

That is not something I recognise. Through the additional money being put into universal credit, record employment, the changes to the income tax personal threshold and rising wages, the poorest fifth in society are now £400 better off in real terms than in 2010.

Does the Minister agree that, with employment at record levels and wages rising in real terms, the best approach to helping people out of poverty is the one that this Government are delivering?

My hon. Friend is spot on. Only 5% of children whose parents work full time are in poverty, against 63% for families where there is only part-time work, which is why our delivering record employment in all regions of the UK is making a real difference.

Next year, the benefit freeze will leave the poorest 20% of families with children £900 worse off on average. In January, the Secretary of State said that the benefit freeze was the right policy at the time, but both she and the Chancellor have signalled that it will not be renewed in 2020. If it is not the right policy now, why are the Government continuing with the freeze for another year?

The hon. Lady continues to object to any measures to restore fairness to the benefits system. Under the last Labour Government, we saw welfare spending increase by £84 billion and an additional tax burden of £3,000 per hard-working household. This is about fairness and supporting people, while having a good safety net for those most in need.

Universal Credit: Debt

9. What assessment she has made of the effect of the five-week wait to receive universal credit on claimants’ levels of debt. (909837)

No one has to wait five weeks for the first part of their benefit because, as the hon. Lady is aware, they can get an advance of up to 100%, and 60% of people do that. We have also introduced a two-week run-on of housing benefit, and from next year a further two-week run-on of employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and income support will be available. Those payments are in addition to each claimant’s universal credit benefit award.

I am afraid to say that the five-week wait issue is not going to go away until the Government recognise that it is driving some people to food banks. I was in Glasgow on Friday with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and we will continue on our tour of the UK, taking a camera crew with us and shining a spotlight on poverty until the Government change their mind on this. For the most vulnerable in society who have zero financial resilience, the four-week assessment period makes no sense at all—they have to wait four weeks to prove they have no money. I have suggested that there is a need to identify the most vulnerable claimants—those with no financial resilience—and hand-hold them through the system, and either make the assessment period start minus four weeks or make those advance payments non-repayable grants, not for everyone but for the vulnerable.

I am always willing to look at suggestions for how to improve universal credit. The hon. Lady is well known for bringing forward a lot of suggestions for us to look at. However, we need to be careful not to create incentives that are counter to our intention to help people into work. I do believe that advances work well, and the work coaches I talk to—I also go around the country talking to people about it—do tell me that they make a significant difference.

A constituent of mine, a working mum with two little girls, had to wait the five weeks for her universal credit claim and then a further month for assistance with childcare costs because the Department insists on paying childcare in arrears. We all know that, in the real world, nurseries have to be paid in advance, so why cannot the system recognise that simple reality?

We have acknowledged that issue. I have announced that work coaches now have access to the flexible support fund so that they can give that money in advance and do exactly what the hon. and learned Lady is suggesting—giving that money to the people who need it when they are ready to pay for childcare to get into work.

Benefit Cap

10. What assessment she has made of the financial effect of the benefit cap on claimants who are not required to undertake a work search. (909838)

An evaluation of the cap, covering these groups, is expected to be published in spring 2019. Some claimants might not be required to look for work, but they are expected to undertake activities designed to help them prepare for and move closer to the labour market. Those needing additional help adjusting to the cap can apply for discretionary housing payments.

But this is really missing the point. As the Work and Pensions Committee report made absolutely clear, the benefit cap should not apply to people who are not required to undertake a work search. Why are constituents such as mine having to find £50 out of their child benefit and child tax credits when they are in homeless accommodation and have no say over where they are accommodated and how much rent they are paying, or when they are exempted from a work search, including, in one case, when a mother had been fleeing domestic violence.

There are automatic exemptions for claimants on DLA, PIP, carer’s allowance, guardian’s allowance, working tax credits working when over 16 hours a week, universal credit when earning over £542, ESA support or the UC higher rate. Where they are not covered by that, discretionary housing payments can be used, and in that case they certainly should have been looked at favourably.

On 29 January, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Department does not know how many resettled refugee families may be subject to the benefit cap. Can he give me an assurance on the Floor of the House that the Government will start to look at that data and guarantee that no such family will be left unable to access the financial support they need?

I thank the hon. Lady. I have met a number of stakeholders to discuss this issue and wider issues connected to refugees. It is an area of priority for the Department, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Older Pensioners

11. What steps she is taking to increase the income of older pensioners; and if she will make a statement. (909839)

This country spends £121 billion on pensioners every year, with an increasing budget. My hon. Friend will be aware that the state pension is up well over £1,000 per annum in cash terms since 2010. In addition, there are 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of about £2 billion, specifically for the over-80s, with a payment of £300 a year to the individual.

I thank the Minister for delivering that good news to the House. While automatic pension enrolment will certainly help people as they move into retirement, can we make sure that we do not take our eye off the ball with older pensioners, with particular reference to fuel poverty, because there is still a problem?

My hon. Friend makes two points. The first is that auto-enrolment is a massive success in Tewkesbury, with 23,000 men and women now saving up to 5%—going up to 8% in April—for their long-term retirement. In addition, on fuel poverty, he will be pleased with the warm home discount scheme, which supports over 2 million low-income and vulnerable customers each year with direct assistance with their costs. However, I accept that there is always more that we can do.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in six pensioners now lives in poverty. Last year, 46,000 pensioners died prematurely, and the winter fuel allowance has not been increased for 15 years, so what is the Minister doing about that? The Government are cutting pension credit for couples at the same time.

The reality is that pensioner poverty is at an historically low level. The hon. Lady will be aware of the 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of £2 billion, with £200 for households with someone who has reached state pension age and £300 for households with someone who is over 80. In addition, there is the warm home discount support I just outlined.

I welcome the Government’s response this morning to the collective defined-contribution scheme consultation. What does it mean for posties in East Renfrewshire, a number of whom are looking forward to meeting the Minister when he comes up to Barrhead on Friday?

We believe that collective defined-contribution schemes are a positive step and a welcome innovation to help postmen and women up and down the country to have a sustainable long-term retirement. I welcome the support of the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail, and the role my hon. Friend has played in the House of Commons. I look forward to meeting some of his posties early—very early, I believe—on Friday morning.

My constituent Christine Paris is a vulnerable 60-year-old women, who has a rare birth defect causing severe learning disability. She has never been able to work and she cannot even travel alone, yet she is being placed in the work-related activity group and forced to face yet another humiliating fit for work assessment. Will the Minister look into her case personally? Does he agree with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, which says that the assessment process is unfit for people with learning difficulties, and will he conduct an urgent review?

If the hon. Lady sends that case to the Department, I and the Minister concerned will look into it specifically.

In legislating to allow 140,000 Royal Mail workers to benefit from the CDC scheme, will the Government also legislate as soon as possible to compel employer contribution with the pensions dashboard and to strengthen powers and criminal penalties available to the regulator, to provide a better pension for tens of thousands of workers, to help all workers to plan for their retirement, to protect workers and to send an unmistakeable message to the Philip Greens of this world that those who rob workers of their pension security will end up in the dock?

The hon. Gentleman and I are united in our desire for a Bill that addresses collective defined-contribution, compulsion on dashboards and the defined-benefit reforms that we all agree are both required and necessary. I am confident that with a constructive, cross-party approach, over the next few months, with the hon. Gentleman and other political parties, we can introduce those measures very soon.

Universal Credit: Food Banks

13. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks. (909841)

18. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the level of referrals to food banks. (909846)

Our own evidence does not show a direct link between the increase in food bank use and the roll-out of universal credit. As the Trussell Trust has said, it is impossible to identify one single cause. Universal credit spends £2 billion more than the system it replaces, and it incentivises work, providing a pathway out of poverty.

In my surgery on Friday, I met a family with very young children who have been without benefits to which they are entitled since before Christmas, due to mistakes by the DWP. They are already in housing rent arrears and reliant on the local food bank. Without resolving those errors, the DWP is now moving them on to universal credit, where the terrifying prospect of a five-week wait and no funds to repay an advance pose a real risk of homelessness. I want the Secretary of State not only to look into this case but to deal with the incompetence and cruelty in her Department, which are causing such misery for far too many people.

First, I give a commitment that, yes, I am very happy to look into that specific case. It highlights the problems with the legacy benefits, whereby £2.4 billion a year of benefits were missed. It was a complex, bureaucratic process where mistakes could happen and claimants—particularly vulnerable claimants —did not take what they were entitled to. Under universal credit, with personalised, tailored support, mistakes can be rectified more quickly.

Rent arrears are deducted from jobseeker’s allowance at £3.70 a week, but for universal credit the deduction is £31 a month, while overpaid benefits and advance payments are deducted at even higher rates. Some of my constituents are having over £100 deducted from their monthly universal credit payments, forcing them to dip into their rent money and use food banks just to get by. They would not find themselves in this position if they were not waiting up to five weeks to receive their first payment. The Secretary of State says she has put in measures to address it, but they clearly are not working. When will Ministers face the facts and scrap the five-week wait?

Those transferring from legacy benefits would get two weeks’ housing benefit run-on, no strings attached, in addition and would automatically be offered the advance payment. We have lengthened the time over which that would be repaid and lowered the rate at which it would be claimed back.

Employment

The number of people in employment has never been higher, with a record 32.6 million people in employment. That is up by more than 3.5 million since 2010. The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.8%.

More people in Southampton, Itchen are in work than has been the case for years, but many of them are in jobs with poor prospects and low pay. What are the Government doing to create jobs with higher pay and better prospects, not just in Southampton, Itchen, but across the country?

Well, 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are permanent, full time and in high-level occupations that attract high wages. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that we need to do even more to upskill people and help them enter better-paid work. That is why, across the Government, we are investing in higher level apprenticeships, technical skills and a national retraining scheme.

Last month’s unemployment figures showed rises in six areas, including the north-east. There are more than 800,000 people on zero-hours contracts and wages are £9 a week lower than in 2008. Will the Minister describe how he intends to address job insecurity, low pay and the clear failure of the Government to tackle regional inequalities?

The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be aware that since 2010 employment has gone up in every region and country of the United Kingdom. As I have pointed out, 75% of the new jobs are in high-level occupations. He talked about zero-hours contracts. He will know that there has been a drop in the number of zero-hours contracts over the past year. Ultimately, he talked about failure. The only failure we recognise is that absolutely every Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they entered office.

We are glad to hear that employment has gone up in every region of the country. Will the Minister at some stage, if not today, put out a written statement on why it is thought that unemployment always rises with a Labour Government and employment increases with a Conservative Government?

We can all have our theories, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is precisely what happens. What the Labour party should be doing is congratulating the Government on the work we have done over the past nine years to get employment up.

Health Assessments

17. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. (909845)

25. What recent assessment her Department has made of the (a) accuracy and (b) efficiency of contracted-out health assessments for (i) employment and support allowance and (ii) personal independence payment. (909853)

We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high quality assessments. Providers are closely monitored against a range of measures, including through independent audit, to improve the accuracy of the advice they provide to decision makers. We continually look to improve the efficiency of the assessment process by working closely with our providers.

Quite apart from the problems with and maladministration of work capability and PIP assessments, I have requested that Ministers consider the passporting of people who were affected by the contaminated blood scandal, so that the benefits they are currently on are passported on to the new benefits. I do not understand, when there is a public inquiry into the scandal, why these people are still having to go through the assessments.

I know that the hon. Lady has campaigned for a number of years on this incredibly important issue, and I pay tribute to the diligence of her work. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the matter further.

Some 72% of personal independence payment appeals were successful in the first three months of last year, which is an appalling failure rate. It is my understanding that Scottish Ministers have had power over the administration of personal independence payment since the Scotland Act 2016 came into effect, and that they would have the power to usurp the failed system and adopt a new one. Why is it taking so long to do it?

From my former role as Minister for Disabled People, I know that Scottish Ministers had the opportunity to take that forward. We are willing to work with their officials to make that possible if they wish to proceed. The ball is very much in their court.

I declare a family interest in the answer to my question. The undoubted problems with health assessments are causing delays in the appeal process right across the board, not just with PIP and others, but with disability living allowance and mobility allowances. Will the Minister agree to see me and discuss how we can accelerate the process, because some appeals take more than 39 weeks to come to fruition, with the effect that children have to wait over a year before they get their proper allowances?

I am sure that the Minister will agree to see the right hon. Gentleman. It would be extraordinarily reckless and foolhardy to refuse to do so, and I am sure that the Minister would never be reckless or foolhardy.

It will be a pleasure to meet my right hon. Friend. We have been working very closely with the Ministry of Justice to improve the capacity within the tribunal system, to speed up the process. The Secretary of State has set out ambitious plans to improve the mandatory reconsideration stage to reduce the number of decisions that are going on to the independent appeal part.

Will the Department and Ministers join me in paying tribute to Disability Support Project in Redditch, which does some great work to help disabled people to navigate the bureaucracy surrounding the system? Will the Minister outline when we will see a difference on the ground from some of the measures that he is putting in place to improve transparency of the assessment procedures?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the fantastic work that her local organisation does. Those with that frontline experience have to be at the heart of the improvements that we take forward. We engage very proactively and constructively with stakeholders, national and local, and they are helping to shape the improvements.

22. In a written answer, the former disability Minister, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), said that DWP auditors can grade health assessment reports as amendments required and that the DWP is not prescriptive in how changes should be made to health assessment reports. Will the Minister confirm that while changes are not prescriptive, the auditors, who are not present during assessments, can mandate required sweeping changes that can drastically affect a person’s claim? (909850)

We are always reviewing that process and we work very closely with stakeholders, with their wealth of experience, to make sure that we continue to deliver improvements.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Welfare

21. What steps the Government are taking to support victims of domestic abuse through the welfare system. (909849)

Domestic abuse is a devastating crime and my Department will always do what it can to support victims of domestic abuse. Departmental training and awareness is now better than ever, but I can confirm that, by the summer of this year, we will ensure that we have domestic abuse specialists in every jobcentre to help everybody who needs it.

What steps are the Government taking to increase the provision and quality of supported housing for such vulnerable people?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Of course, supported housing is essential for vulnerable groups, including those fleeing domestic abuse, which is why we announced in August last year that we will maintain funding for all supported housing and housing benefit. I am going to work closely with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Chancellor and local authorities to ensure that quality and value for money is always available in supported housing provision for domestic abuse victims.

Making sure that the system prevents domestic abuse, including financial abuse, is as important as supporting those, rightly, who are affected by it. The Secretary of State made a statement a few months ago regarding single payment of universal credit. What progress has she made on that to make sure that women and the children they support as main carer can directly receive the support that they so rightly need?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She is right and I announced recently that I want to make sure that it is the main carer who receives the benefit. I am working with jobcentres to ensure that we have a new approach so that there is effectively an early question in their process where they find out who the main carer is, who is usually a woman, so that we can ensure that potential victims of domestic abuse are more likely to have access to the overall funds.

Universal Credit

Universal credit is now available in all jobcentres across the country and is helping people into work. The universal credit claimant survey published last year showed that, under universal credit, the likelihood of being in work almost doubles between the point of making a claim and nine months into the claim.

Of the claimants who have been transferred from legacy benefits on to universal credit, what proportion are now receiving more money than they were under legacy benefits, what proportion are receiving the same and what proportion are receiving less money than they were?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to where people have a change in circumstances. That is not anything new under universal credit: changes in circumstances exist within the legacy benefits system. People get a different calculation in terms of the amount of money, and that has not changed under universal credit.

The Minister will know that universal credit uses Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs real-time information to determine the amount of money a claimant will receive each month. Late submissions by employers have led to claimants having reduced or cancelled payments because of money they earned a long time ago. Does the Minister not agree that this issue needs to be looked at if universal credit is to be an effective system that does not increase poverty?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We make sure, working with our colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury, that employers are made aware of the fact that they need to get the right date into the RTI system.

Topical Questions

Today I can announce that this Conservative Government will deliver on their promise to legislate to create a new type of pension scheme: collective defined contribution schemes. These schemes will help improve retirement outcomes for members, while also benefiting employers. Savers’ contributions are paid into a pooled fund, which is invested to achieve a target benefit. At retirement, savers receive a regular pension income. This is a major promise delivered. It shows this Government are meeting their objective to protect private pensions and provide security for hard-working savers in retirement.

I thank my right hon. Friend for updating us on her Department. Will she comment on how the Government are helping young people in my constituency into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I thank him particularly for the great work he does in his constituency for young people. I have looked into this, and there are many different initiatives taking place in his constituency, but I particularly commend the Prince’s Trust, which does such great work across country, and which attends the jobcentre fortnightly to provide targeted support for 18 to 24-year-olds.

Shocking reports have emerged today that ill and disabled people are being left without vital social security, as the Department for Work and Pensions has sent misleading letters to GPs advising them that they no longer need to provide fit for work notes to patients who are refused employment and support allowance. Patients need those notes to access the assessment rate of ESA if they are appealing the decision, and this obviously results in many being left close to destitution and in rent arrears. Will the Secretary of State commit today to reword these letters and immediately prevent any further harm to any ill and disabled people?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work, and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes. To claim otherwise is inaccurate. We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners. However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.

T7. Several constituents have arrived at the disability assessment centre in Coventry only to find that they are not able to access their appointment because the centre is on the first floor. Will my right hon. Friend look at this issue to see what more can be done to make sure all these assessment centres are on public transport routes and are completely accessible to disabled people? (909860)

Of course. My hon. Friend is right. I will take a careful look at that issue to ensure that is the case. We care enormously about making sure there is correct access for disabled people. If I may say so, nobody cared more than my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who did such great work for everybody with disabilities and who will be sorely missed in the Department.

My SNP colleagues and I have been seeing a growing number of constituents who are EU and European economic area nationals and who were previously entitled to social security payments but who are now seeing their universal credit claims rejected because they have failed the habitual residence test. Can the Minister tell me categorically whether DWP guidance has been issued or changed on this matter, and whether this is just an extension of the hostile environment?

The hon. Lady may have written to me about this previously, but let me just make it clear that the right of EEA nationals under freedom of movement is not an unqualified one. EEA nationals who stay in the UK beyond the initial three months must be exercising treaty rights, and this means they must be working, studying, self-employed or self-sufficient.

A mother in my constituency is struggling due to a lack of financial support from the father of her children. The woman’s ex-partner is not in work, but he gets considerable income from several properties he owns. However, that income is not considered by the Child Maintenance Service when calculating maintenance for his children. What can the Minister do to make sure the Child Maintenance Service focuses on not only salaries but other forms of income?

I will be very happy to look personally into this case and to report back. Actually, we do have powers to investigate further—these powers were opposed by the Labour party in January. We believe that everything should be done to help the receiving parent get the support they are entitled to.

T2. Like many WASPI women, my constituents Jane Yates and Glenys Daly have worked hard for 45 years and still cannot get the pensions for which they have paid. They feel robbed of their hard-earned money, not to mention the loss of benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and bus passes. The Secretary of State often talks about her support for the economic empowerment of women. When will she give WASPI women the pensions that they have paid for? (909855)

The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Act 1995, the 2007 Act, introduced by the Labour Government, or the 2011 Act, introduced by the coalition. A High Court ruling on this matter will proceed to a full hearing on 5 and 6 June, so further comment would be inappropriate.

Is my right hon. Friend’s Department holding up the transfer of welfare powers to the Scottish Government?

Absolutely not. We work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that their proposals, which sometimes differ from ours, are met, and we are bending over backwards to ensure that we assist them. We are still waiting to receive further information so that we can deliver on their ambitions.

T4. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I did not quite hear you at first. In the west midlands, workers involved in the administration of universal credit recently voted to strike over an oppressive workplace culture and understaffing. Does the Minister believe that the roll-out of universal credit has been affected by understaffing, and is there an oppressive workplace culture coming from the top? (909857)

Our frontline staff deliver vital support to more than 20 million people across the country, and of course we are committed to supporting them in their roles. That includes monitoring staff levels and ensuring that their caseloads are indeed manageable.

T5. When Bright Blue surveyed claimants for its new universal credit report, it found that the five-week wait was their biggest concern. According to the report, “Only a handful of interviewees said they had enough…to cover their expenses in this period.”The Secretary of State cannot justify the five-week wait. Will she scrap it? (909858)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are introducing measures to help people gain early access to money so that that eventuality does not occur. They can receive benefit advances of up to 100%, which 60% now access, and can access the housing benefits run-on, which is additional money, and, from next year, other legacy benefits, which are also additional money and which will be paid within that two-week period.

T6. Council tax payers in the highlands are continuing to bear the burden of additional administration expenses amounting to many hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of universal credit. The Minister met me in January, and his officials have subsequently met council officers. The situation is clearly unfair. When will it be sorted out, and the money reimbursed? (909859)

I thought that we had a constructive discussion. As the hon. Gentleman says, my officials have also talked to the council, but I am always happy to have another discussion. I should add that the total amount of new burdens funding is increasing from £14 million to £18 million in 2019-20.

T8. Disability Direct, an advocacy organisation in my constituency, has a staggering 89% success rate at tribunals where its clients appeal against judgments on employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. Do Ministers really not accept that when they are losing nearly 90% of the time, their system is not working? (909861)

That, of course, applies to 4% of the overall decisions that are made. However, I acknowledge that we need to do better, for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of the rest of us. That is why I have already announced that we will look again at the mandatory reconsiderations to ensure that fewer people proceed to the necessary tribunal reviews.

T9. Given that 72% of PIP assessments are overturned, and that, as we have heard, many of those who are assessed are vulnerable or have learning disabilities, what support is available to them when they are faced with highly paid DWP lawyers at legal tribunals? (909862)

I have just answered that question, in terms of making sure that we do better and that the mandatory reconsiderations will have additional support to ensure that a greater proportion of those reviews do not have to go forward and so are not overturned.

George Osborne said in his 2015 Summer Budget that the welfare system should always support the elderly and the vulnerable. Does the Secretary of State agree? If so, why are we seeing stealth cuts to pension credit for mixed-age couples—a loss of £7,320 to some of our poorest and most vulnerable pensioners?

These changes were introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. We have always made it clear that mixed-age couples already claiming pension credit or housing benefit for pensioners immediately before 15 May will not be affected for as long as they remain in receipt of either benefit after that date. Just to be clear, there is no impact or effect on their state pension.

Were the Secretary of State to get a tax rebate she would be very surprised if she was taxed on it, but my constituent saw an abatement by 63%. Will the Department sort out the reductions to universal credit when people get tax rebates?

I am very happy to look at the individual case the hon. Lady raises, but, as she knows, under UC we have a taper that works: it incentivises people to take on extra hours because they get to keep more of the money that they earn.

Like the Secretary of State, I will miss the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton); she was working with me on my Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill—a critical Bill at a time when the Scottish Government are consulting on new standards for clinicians to decide when someone is terminally ill. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Bill and move it forward?

I am aware of the good work that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth was doing with the hon. Lady; I am aware of the campaign and how important it is, and I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see how we can move it forward.

My constituent received a UC sanction for accompanying her younger sister, who has severe cerebral palsy and for whom my constituent cares, to an appointment at the children’s hospice at Loch Lomond. Surely that is an inhumane way to treat young carers under the UC system.

I am very happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, he will be aware that easements are available in the system, but I will be very happy to talk to him about that specific case.

My constituent has a connective tissue disorder that has left her bedbound for three months because she regularly dislocates her joints. Despite evidence from her GP and chiropractor, the Centre for Disability and Health Assessments has refused a home assessment because she takes taxis to her GP appointments. Does the Secretary of State think that decision is fair? If not, will she look into it to overturn it?

It sounds to me like the hon. Lady’s constituent should have had a home visit, but I hope that the hon. Lady will have received the email I sent out inviting Members of Parliament to an open hour that I am having tomorrow so that they can bring any individual cases. Sometimes it is best to have a one-to-one over individual cases, rather than deal with them on the Floor of the House.

I would like to press the Secretary of State further on the assurances she gave to the Opposition Front Benchers. As part of the review, will she be prepared to ensure that the original wording is reinstated so that claimants are not left without benefits while appeals are pending?

I am always willing to look at new ideas on how to improve the offer we have, and I will certainly take a look at what the hon. Lady sends to me.

Speaker’s Statement

I wish to make a statement to the House. There has been much speculation over the past week about the possibility of the Government bringing before the House a motion on Brexit for another so-called meaningful vote under the statutory framework provided in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. On 13 March, however, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) asked on a point of order, at column 394, whether it would be proper for the Government to keep bringing the same deal back to the House ad infinitum. I replied that no ruling was necessary at that stage, but that one might be required at some point in the future. Subsequently Members on both sides of the House, and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument, have expressed their concerns to me about the House being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition.

The 24th edition of “Erskine May” states on page 397:

“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”

It goes on to state:

“Attempts have been made to evade this rule by raising again, with verbal alterations, the essential portions of motions which have been negatived. Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgment of the Chair.”

This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April 1604. Last Thursday, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) quoted examples of occasions when the ruling had been reasserted by four different Speakers of this House, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. Each time, the Speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same Session of Parliament. Indeed, “Erskine May” makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.

One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes. Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. In many cases, they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents. Absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it; thus, as “Erskine May” notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same Session.

So far as our present situation is concerned, let me summarise the chronology of events. The draft EU withdrawal agreement, giving effect to the deal between the Government and the EU, was published on 14 November and the agreement itself, together with the accompanying political declaration on the future relationship, received endorsement from the European Council on 25 November. The first scheduled debate on what I will hereafter refer to as “the deal” was due to take place on 11 December. However, on 10 December the vote was postponed after 164 speeches had already been made over three of the five days allotted for debate. That postponement was caused not by me or by the House, but by the Government. Indeed, I pointed out at the time that that was deeply discourteous to the House and I suggested that the permission of the House for that postponement should be sought. Regrettably, it was not.

Over five weeks later, following a further five-day debate, the first meaningful vote was held on 15 January, which the Government lost by a margin of 230 votes—the largest in parliamentary history. Subsequently, the second meaningful vote was expected to take place in February, but once again there was a postponement. It finally happened only last Tuesday, 12 March. The Government’s motion on the deal was again very heavily defeated.

In my judgment, that second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same Session. This was because it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on 15 January. It contained a number of legal changes which the Government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the European Union after intensive discussions. Moreover, the Government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents—two issued jointly with the EU and a unilateral declaration from the UK not objected to by the EU. In procedural terms, it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week. The Government responded to its defeat, as they had promised to do, by scheduling debates about a no-deal Brexit and an extension of article 50 on 13 and 14 March respectively.

It has been strongly rumoured, although I have not received confirmation of this, that a third, and even possibly a fourth, meaningful vote motion will be attempted. Hence this statement, which is designed to signal what would be orderly and what would not. This is my conclusion: if the Government wish to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the House on 12 March, that would be entirely in order. What the Government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes. This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject; it is simply meant to indicate the test which the Government must meet in order for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held in this parliamentary Session.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I make three points following your helpful statement?

First, at the beginning of it, you used “may” and not the word “must”. At the end, you used the word “must” and not the word “may”. Those are the first two points.

The third point is this: when Sir Ian Gilmour put forward a provision in effect for putting carpets and coffee in betting offices, the puritans objected, so the Bill was withdrawn. Shortly afterwards, a Bill on miscellaneous premises and miscellaneous provisions was passed because no one noticed that it was to do with coffee and carpets in betting shops.

Therefore, there are times when the title of a Bill has been changed. Perhaps if the long title of something that the Government proposed was changed, that might be accepted by the Chair, rather than it having to be ruled out.

I am not sure there were three points there—I detected only two. I do not wish to be unkind or discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, whom I hope I always treat with the utmost respect, but I am somewhat foxed and befuddled by his first observation, which was not as overpoweringly clear to me as manifestly it was to him. I certainly referred to “Erskine May”. I was not conscious that I had used the word “may” early in my statement and the word “must” at the end of it in a way that would brook of contradiction or, indeed, be open to the suggestion that the words were contradictory. If he wishes to labour under that impression and can subsequently convince me, over either a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, that I have erred in some material respect, I shall always be prepared to profit by his counsel. As for the point in respect of the late Ian Gilmour, I am not familiar with that particular example. I suspect it would be interesting reading, and I will add it to my list for the period of days that lies ahead. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for the courtesy with which he has said it.

I will come to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) but first let us go to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems to me that what you have said makes an enormous amount of sense, given that this has been defeated on two separate occasions. Unless there is a substantial difference, it must follow that what you have said, in a very important statement, makes an enormous amount of sense. I just wondered about one thing with regard to the precedent of 1604, which was whether there was any connection between that and the gunpowder plot being very shortly afterwards. [Laughter.]

Well, the hon. Gentleman is a far superior historian, and he may know this—I will not say. I appreciate also his sense of humour on what is, nevertheless, an extremely important occasion. I thank him for what he has said. I have always respected him as a principled and indefatigable parliamentarian. In fact, I think that across this House, whether people agree with him or not, they know of one thing, which I once said, as he knows, on the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to this place. As I said directly to her, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) speaks and votes only and always as he thinks the national interest requires. There can be no greater compliment to a Member of Parliament than to say that to him or her.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you for your statement this afternoon? We do indeed live in interesting times. However, it is fair to say that we are in a constitutional crisis, and I seek your advice on how we can convey a message to the Government that the issue of leadership is now most important and, indeed, imperative. What can we do to prevail upon the Prime Minister that she must immediately call a meeting of all Opposition leaders in order that we can react to this crisis and find a way ahead, and, moreover, that she must immediately meet the Heads of Government in Edinburgh and in Cardiff?

The right hon. Gentleman has made his point with force and alacrity. It is not for me to say whom the Prime Minister should or should not meet, but that point is registered and on the record. If I know the right hon. Gentleman as well as I think I do, it will be repeated by him with some passion and vociferousness in the days ahead and, not least because of the force with which it is articulated again and again and again, I feel certain that it will be heard. Whether it is heeded remains to be seen, but it will be heard.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, may I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favour of? Dare I say that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who are not in need of repentance. I wonder whether you might help the House with two points of clarity. First, would your indication today prevent the Second Reading, or even the First Reading, of the so-called withdrawal agreement Bill, which may have the same effect of confirming the meaningful vote? Secondly, would I be right in thinking that a new Session after a prorogation would allow the motion to be returned to the House?

The House would decide on the principle of the withdrawal agreement Bill at Second Reading, if we got to that point. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the—if he will forgive my saying so—partly rhetorical question accompanying it about post Prorogation and a new Session seem to me to be self-evidently valid. I am not advocating that, but that point is self-evidently valid and I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm to the House that the point of the rule in “Erskine May” was to stop the bullying of the legislature by the Executive? We should exclude the fact that MPs may be either strong-armed, bullied or bribed with issues such as the sacking of the civil servant who is currently in charge of the Brexit negotiations—who, by the way, was overheard in a Brussels bar predicting that what we have seen with meaningful vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ad infinitum, would be the Government's way of getting this botched deal through the House. The “Erskine May” rules are there precisely to avoid the kind of spectacle we have been witnessing in the past few months. Will you take all the Government’s other behaviours—ignoring votes of Parliament, making a distinction between votes that somehow are binding and others that are not binding, refusing to grant Opposition days, and beginning not to vote on Opposition days and to ignore the motions that the House passes, thereby devaluing Parliament’s opinion—into account as you judge meaningful vote 3 and any motion that the Government bring forward?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I will reflect carefully on what she said to me. She is an extremely experienced and seasoned parliamentarian and, of course, a former shadow Leader of the House, so I will factor into my thinking the considerations that she has adduced. I do not think there is one single rationale for the emergence and continuation of the convention. I touched on some of the thinking behind it in my statement. It would be true to say that a concern with the judicious use of parliamentary time, when that time is finite, and the avoidance of its wastage is an important factor. Another important factor is ensuring clarity and consistency so far as the statute book is concerned. Associated with and underlying all that is a concept of respect for the importance of decisions made by the House and the weight to be attached to them. I will reflect carefully on these matters.

I say gently to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—because I failed to respond to this point, which was very good and wittily delivered—that so far as tradition is concerned, he has a perfectly fair point. A tradition does matter and is important. What I would say to him is that just because it is not desirable to follow precedent in every case, irrespective of circumstance, that does not mean it is justified not to follow it. It depends on the particular circumstance. For example, it depends whether one is facilitating the House and allowing the expression of an opinion that might otherwise be denied, as was the case on 9 January.

In this case, of course, where we are talking about the same-question rule, I have already explained that this matter has been treated of by the House, so the question of whether a subsequent motion is the same, or substantially the same, is a live matter for consideration and judgment at the appropriate time. In fact, that seems to me to be so obviously commonsensical an observation that only an extraordinarily sophisticated person, perhaps bereft of such common sense, could fail to grasp it. The hon. Gentleman most certainly would not fall into that category, because he is both extraordinarily sophisticated and blessed, I feel sure, with a very large supply of common sense.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have said memorably in the past that, sometimes, we have to take the rough with the smooth. Well, it seems to me that, today, that applies to others. May I ask whether this principle applies in other contexts as well? For instance, the House voted a few weeks ago on what became known as the Cooper-Boles amendment to overturn Standing Order 14(1), essentially to take control of the Order Paper for a day. That was rejected. Last week, the House then voted against what became the Benn amendment, which was, I would argue, substantially similar to the original Cooper-Boles amendment to take control of the Order Paper and override Standing Order 14(1). Now you on that occasion, Sir, judged that it was permissible to ask this question because it was not exactly the same as the first one. May I offer you a thought that if there were to be a third variant of that, if it were to be substantially the same, then, to be consistent, Sir, you would have to rule that out, too?

I am always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have often reminded the House, and I say this for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, that I first came to know him in September 1983 when I unkindly and wrongly suggested that, intellectually, he was knee-high to a grasshopper. That was very unfair of me and, to his great credit, he did not appear to bear any grudge and we have got on pretty well over the ensuing 35 and a half years. I always listen to his advice. The answer is that everything depends on context and circumstance—[Interruption.] Yes, of course it does; manifestly and incontrovertibly it does. It is a question not of abstract principle or wallowing, as Edmund Burke would say, in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but of attending to circumstance, and I would look at that with the important considerations and principle of which he has reminded me in the forefront of my mind in making a judgment. He is absolutely entitled to raise that point and I would indeed have to weigh up very carefully whether a proposition was in fact the same or substantially the same or whether it could credibly be contended that it was different.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is what happens when you do not seek consensus and compromise from the beginning, but lay down red lines and doggedly stick to them with an act of stubbornness and brinkmanship that has brought us to this point. The crisis that is now upon the country has to be unprecedented. We are due to leave the European Union in 11 days and there is no plan and there is no certainty, and this country, especially business, is crying out for them.

Mr Speaker, what would you now expect the Government to do? We are relying on tweets, rumours and spin from No.10 and, as I have said, the clock is ticking. I say with no disrespect to those sitting on the Treasury Bench that there is no senior Member here from Government who can help us with a timetable—[Interruption.] I said a senior Member who can help us with a timetable. [Interruption.] Now, we have that senior Member—the Leader of the House—with a timetable. I meant no disrespect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Mr Speaker, what do you now expect in terms of this timetable so that, in this crisis, we can make progress and do the right thing by the country?

What I have to say to the right hon. Lady is threefold. First, there was already present in the Chamber—before the arrival of the Leader of the House whom we welcome to our proceedings—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who, by any standard, must be considered to be senior. I will not get into a vulgar argument about the respective levels of seniority of different hon. and right hon. Members, and there are, of course, different forms of seniority, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was already present and the Leader of the House has now joined us.

I say to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that it is not for me to say what the Government should do, but it would be helpful to the House to have the earliest possible indication of how the Government intend to proceed in this important matter. Of course, we may learn more about the Government’s intentions as a result of the upcoming urgent question that I have granted to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who applied to me for that question this morning. I have every expectation that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe and many others will be in their places for that, so we will learn more anon.

Colleagues’ disposition—in other words, what they choose to do and how they wish to proceed—is a matter for them. The role of the Speaker is to seek to facilitate the House and, if I may say so—and I will—to have a particular regard for the concerns of Back-Bench Members, who should be heard in this place. Part of the responsibility of the Speaker is, frankly, to speak truth to power. I have always done that and, no matter what, I always will, because I think that is the proper thing to do. Others can proceed as they wish, but I have never been pushed around and I am not going to start now.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As a newish Members of this House, I thank you for the clarity of your statement, and for confirming that everything depends on context and circumstance. Since the vote last Tuesday, this House has voted against a second referendum, against the Cooper-Boles amendment—twice—and against a no-deal Brexit in 11 days’ time. Are those the sort of decisions that, in your view, affect the context and circumstances on which this House might make its own decision?

I think the context is a freestanding matter. It depends on the situation at the time, and that is partly a matter of opinion. All government—all influence of human beings upon another—ultimately rests upon opinion, and it depends on what the situation is more widely. I know that the hon. Lady would not seek to entice me—because that would be unkind of her and she would not do that—to pronounce on other questions that are not today before the House. I would not do that, but I would reflect on them in the circumstances of the time, and it is perfectly reasonable that I should be asked to do so if that situation arises.

I do apologise to the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, whom I should have called several minutes ago.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In distinguishing between the character of the first meaningful vote and the second, in your statement you drew attention to the fact that, in the second meaningful vote, the Government had brought back additional documents, assurances and legal agreements that had not be contained within the first. Does your statement suggest in any way that, in order for a third meaningful vote not to fall within the statement that you have just made, it would require further changes to be agreed with the European Union, rather than, for example, the Government saying that they are prepared to make an offer to a particular party represented in this Chamber about its participation in future arrangements? In other words, would there have to be new political agreement under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 in order for such as motion to be in order, as opposed to not in order?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I would say—preliminarily and off the top of my head—that, in all likelihood, the answer to his question is yes; I do think that a demonstrable change to the proposition would be required. For example, simply a change in an opinion about something would not itself constitute a change in the offer. I would have to look at the particulars and make an honest assessment of the circumstances, and perhaps of the competing claims made as to the veracity of one proposition, argument or another, but, fundamentally, for something to be different, it has to be, by definition, fundamentally different—not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance—and this is in the context of a negotiation with others outside the United Kingdom. That would be my initial feeling.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not envy you in trying to make these difficult decisions. First, can I press you on your understanding of what is substantively different? For example, were the Government to come back with a proposition that they would write into law the Stormont lock, would that be substantively different? If there were to be commentary that changed our opinion of this at the European Council, would that be substantially different? Many Members of this House feel that having taken no deal off the table, which I voted against, already makes the situation substantially different, so will you say a little more about that?

Secondly, Mr Speaker, you listed some precedents starting with 1604, which is very interesting to new Members. Some Members were already here; I was not, as a new Member. We are in an unprecedented situation in which we have voted for a referendum, giving sovereignty to those it belongs to—the people—and we are now bound by that decision. How will you deal with this unprecedented situation? My constituents who are worried about their jobs, or worried about losing the Brexit they voted for, will always prefer you, instead of rigidly sticking with precedents from 1604, to be a modern Speaker for modern times who cannot stand in the way of delivering the early deal that I believe will solve this problem.

With the very greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I have demonstrated, over a period of nine and a half years and more, that I am not a stickler for tradition. I do not believe in doing everything the same way forever more just because people say to me, as so many have, “Oh, Mr Speaker, it’s always been done that way, or, “Oh, we’ve never previously had X.” I have been ready to countenance change. I remember once being told many years ago by a retired and senior Clerk of this House that she was very pleased that I had secured support for the establishment of a nursery in the House that Members and staff could pay for. She said to me that she did not know whether I was aware that throughout her four decades’ service in the House, the idea of establishing such a facility had periodically been discussed but unfortunately nothing had ever happened, which was not helpful to her in terms of work/life balance—her professional commitments and her childcare responsibilities. So I think I can say, with the very greatest respect, that I have attempted to be a progressive change-maker. As for the particulars concerned, it has to depend on the circumstances. I would have to look at the specifics. It would be reckless and foolhardy to pronounce in the abstract.

I would say further to the hon. Gentleman, just to remind him of the context of my statement, that, as regards the use of time, we have been addressing this matter for a period spanning four months. In so far as time has been lost during that period—for example, at one point, a loss of five weeks without the matter coming to the House—that was not a result of fiat by the Chair or folly by the House; it was the express decision of the Government. I cannot, off the top of my head, remember for certain whether the hon. Gentleman supported the Government’s position on that matter. I have a very high regard for his ability, because he is an extremely able man. I hope he will not take offence if I say, in the nicest possible way, that he has always seemed to me to be a keen supporter of close regulatory alignment with the Government Whips Office.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your guidance today. Here we are in the gravest constitutional situation that I have seen in my nearly 40 years in this House, and were it not for your good guidance today and over the past few weeks, I think this House would have been very badly served indeed. The fact of the matter is that what you have said today has great repercussions for the business of the House. What is your advice from the Chair, or could we have an early statement from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, on what is the next step? We are leaving the European Union and we have only a few days. What is the best way that we can represent our constituents at this grave time of crisis?

The short answer is: let us debate these matters sooner rather than later. Of course the Government, for the most part, control the Order Paper—we know that, and the Leader of the House is the Government’s representative in the House—but there are situations in which Members can give voice to their views, whether the Government particularly want that to happen or not. For example, on more than 570 occasions over the last nine and a half years, I have seen fit to grant urgent questions, believing that that is in the interests of the House, is beneficial to Back Benchers and secures ministerial presence in the Chamber, so that the Government can be legitimately questioned, probed, scrutinised, challenged and held to account. There will be further such opportunities today, and knowing the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman, who will have served 40 years in the House in less than two months’ time, I feel certain that he will be well up to the task of posing suitable inquiries and expressing his views on this matter in the days ahead.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are correct that “Erskine May” says:

“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”

That is absolutely clear. When you allowed the second meaningful vote, your ruling was clearly a balanced decision, but “Erskine May” seems to be clear that it is about whether the motion is substantially changed, not whether something else has happened—that is irrelevant; it is what has happened to the motion. We have in this House the procedure of use of the previous question, which I was thinking of using. The reason why we have it is so that the same question can continue to be debated another time. Can you confirm that this is about the substance of the motion, not something else happening?

It is about the substance of the motion—what it is commending to the House, and what proposition is being put. It is not a question purely of the words, but of the meaning, the intention and the purpose.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have made today a very important and dramatic statement. Already constituents are getting in touch with me to ask exactly what that means, and we have to be clear with the country about what you have said. The Government cannot bring back another meaningful vote if it is the same in substance as the last one. The Government’s one and only intention is to achieve and secure that. This week, they intended to do that very thing, and now you have said that that cannot happen. Stressing that for clarity would be abundantly helpful.

My experience of this Government—I do not know whether it is yours—is that they will try anything to get this through, and they will have the impertinence to try to bring this back once again in any guise that they think will be possible; perhaps it will be under the guise of the DUP agreeing with their deal. How do you intend to be vigilant about that prospect? Under what criteria will a motion be assessed, if the Government bring one back and try to present it as being significantly different from their last one? How do we judge what they are doing, so that this ruling can stand? It is an important ruling, and it is correct.

It seems to me that it is principally a question of whether the proposition is the same, or substantially the same. I would confer. I would of course seek advice. I would have my eyes and ears open. I am looking to serve the House, to reflect its interests and to demonstrate respect for its wishes. I simply repeat that the convention is there for a purpose, and that purpose seems to me to be an honourable and valid purpose. I am afraid that I will have to look at the particulars in the light of what is presented, but I hope that the Government would feel that respect for procedure matters.

I note that, as the hon. Gentleman asks his question and I respond, the Leader of the House is playing with her electronic device, as is the Deputy Chief Whip. I did not include him in the category of very senior people in the House, but I readily grant that that is a debatable proposition. It would seem to me to be helpful if people showed respect for each other in these circumstances, and if, when in the Chamber, they listened to what others had to say. However, if they choose not to do so, so be it. I try to show good manners, and I hope others will try to do so as well.