House of Commons
Tuesday 2 July 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Poverty: Social Security
Thanks to our welfare reforms, we have been able to get more people into work, we have the lowest unemployment rate since 1974 and more than 667,000 fewer children are living in workless households than in 2010.
Some £30 billion of support to working-age people has been cut from the social security budget, and there is more still to come. Eight out of nine disabled people will not benefit from the measures introduced in last autumn’s Budget and over 4 million are living in poverty. In the Chancellor’s last few weeks in post, what will he do to right this wrong?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis. The fact is that income inequality is lower now than it was in 2010 and absolute poverty after housing costs is at a historic low for children.
Can the Chief Secretary confirm that the number of children living in workless households is now the lowest ever record achieved in our country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of our welfare reforms and economic policy that more people are now in work and are benefiting from our cuts to basic rate tax, giving working families £1,200 a year extra in their pay packets.
The Chancellor has been brave recently, speaking out on how no deal will impact our economy. Poverty will only get worse if we face no deal, so will the Chief Secretary be as brave as the Chancellor and tell this House the truth about poverty and no deal?
I can tell the hon. Lady what would lead to greater poverty in this country: a Government who wanted to overthrow capitalism, declare business the enemy and ruin the private sector businesses that are employing people and giving them extra wages.
The Chancellor has been at the forefront of arguing that a decade of austerity was necessary. This has led to 24% of Scottish children and 30% of English children being in poverty. If the Chancellor believes that this pain was not ideological and unnecessary, will he vote against a Tory tax cuts for the rich Budget, as proposed by the Prime Minister’s most likely successor?
With respect to the hon. Lady, she clearly did not hear my earlier answer, when I said that absolute poverty after housing costs is at a historic low for children. That is true right across our country. Of course, the Scottish National party Government in Scotland could take steps to help children by improving educational standards; that is what they should be focusing on.
The Minister might not want to tackle inequality, but the Scottish Government do. The polls show that a majority of Scottish people support the tax changes that mean the Scottish Government can fund a £10 a week payment to families with the most vulnerable children, mitigating the ideological austerity obsession of this Conservative Government. If the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) becomes Prime Minister, 53% of Scots will support independence. And who can blame them, given the Scottish Government’s plans to support and help young people and this Government’s ideological austerity obsession?
The reality is that the Scottish Government are now forecast to bring in lower rates of income tax than expected, because they have not followed through on our raising of the threshold to £50,000, so people in Scotland on £50,000 are now paying £1,500 more tax. The fact is that raising tax reduces incentives for people to get up the earnings ladder, reduces economic growth and means that we do not have the opportunities and funding for public services.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, the poorest, most vulnerable people in society, even those who are in work but struggling to make ends meet, will be hit particularly hard by a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. The Minister cannot get away with simply deflecting this into an attack, which I would share, on the economic policies of the Labour party. This is the clearest, most present danger facing our country, and surely she will not happily move towards a no-deal Brexit.
What the hon. Gentleman is missing is the fact that if we continue to delay Brexit, first, we would not be delivering on what British people voted for over three years ago; and secondly, there will be continued delay in our economy—a continued lack of investment—due to a lack of certainty.
Yesterday, the Chancellor slapped down both Tory leadership candidates for making irresponsible spending promises. Has the Minister noticed, as we have, that not one of those promises was aimed at lifting the 4 million children out of poverty? She is responsible for the management of Government finances—heaven help us! What does she think this says about the Tory party and the next Prime Minister?
I am incredibly proud of our record, as a Government, of reducing inequality. Income inequality is now lower than it was in 2010. We have also cut taxes for basic rate taxpayers by £1,200 a year and put an extra £630 into universal credit for working families.
Leaving the EU: Scotland
I regularly discuss EU exit with the Secretary of State for Scotland and other members of the Cabinet. The Government remain committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom.
There might be two people competing to be Prime Minister, but I think there are at least five who think they will be the next Chancellor, so perhaps right hon. Gentleman should just get to stay in post and then they will all be equally disappointed. He seems to be concerned that they are somehow going to ruin his deal dividend, but is it not the truth that there is no real dividend from any Brexit, that the best possible deal for Scotland and the rest of the UK is the one we already have, which is membership, and that that is the case that he and other sensible Government Members should have the courage to be making?
I have consistently made the case and explained to this House that there is fiscal headroom within the current fiscal rules. If we have a smooth exit from the European Union through a transition that will remove the economic uncertainty that is hanging over our economy, it will then be safe to release that headroom and make it available for additional public spending or, at the choice of the next Government, to reduce taxation. Either way, we have the headroom available once we have removed the Brexit uncertainty.
Is it not the case that Scotland, like everybody else, will know the plans for future public spending, for fiscal headroom and for the economic effects overall if the comprehensive spending review were to be started sooner rather than later? Is the Chancellor able to tell the people of Scotland, the people in this House and the people beyond when the comprehensive spending review will be starting?
I announced at the spring statement that it is the Government’s intention to conduct a three-year spending review concluding this autumn, subject to a deal with the EU being completed. Departments are already commissioned to carry out the work necessary for such a spending review, but it will be for the new Government to decide whether the circumstances make it appropriate to conduct a full three-year spending review or a single-year exercise.
As I have consistently said in this House, I do not believe that a no-deal exit would be in the interests of this country, and I will do everything I can to ensure that we avoid it, but an exit based on a negotiated deal that allows us to continue a close trading relationship with the European Union can work for Britain, and that is what I will be arguing for.
Is the Chancellor aware that only 18% of Scottish exports go to the rest of the European Union but 61% go to the rest of the United Kingdom? Is not the Union that really matters to Scotland the Union of the United Kingdom?
Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. The Scottish economy would be far more adversely affected by a breach of trading relationships with the rest of the United Kingdom than it will by a breach in trading relationships with the European Union.
Shared Prosperity Fund
The Government will establish a UK shared prosperity fund to spread prosperity and opportunity across all four nations once we have left the European Union and the EU structural funds. The fund will seek to raise productivity, focusing on levelling up parts of our country whose economies are further behind. More details will be announced following the spending review, and the Government will consult widely on the funds.
Analysis of local enterprise partnerships by the charity think-tank NPC found that only 26% of board members were women and that only 5% were black, Asian and minority ethnic. When will the Government finally come forward with their consultation on the shared prosperity fund? Does the Minister agree that funnelling the UK fund through the LEPs would be a mistake unless they are made more representative?
We intend to consult later this year, following the spending review. Officials at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have already held 26 engagement events and have met more than 500 representatives from across the United Kingdom.
With respect to the hon. Lady’s very important point about representation on LEP boards, I should say that the LEP review conducted by MHCLG jointly with the Treasury last year did conclude that they needed to have broader representation from the groups that she mentioned—and from private sector businesses, large and small. Those rules and guidelines are now in force.
Shortly after the referendum on Europe, I asked the then Prime Minister David Cameron what would happen to the £726 million of European funding that we were due to receive in the north-east. He could not answer. We are now three years on and none the wiser about the supposed replacement—the shared prosperity fund. How can anyone have confidence in this Government and their handling of Brexit if they cannot give even that basic information to the region that is set to be the worst hit by any form of Brexit?
The people of the north-east of England voted to leave the European Union; I know that the hon. Lady takes a different view, but we are trying to deliver on the outcome of the referendum. Had she voted for the withdrawal Bill, these matters would, of course, be progressing. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already said, we are guaranteeing funding to the beneficiaries of all EU structural funds to 2023, so there is a degree of certainty as we move forwards. But the sooner that this House can coalesce on a good deal and that we can leave the European Union in an orderly fashion, the sooner this matter can be cleared up.
My constituency and the rest of Cornwall continues to be one of the less developed areas, even though there is much going for where we are and where we live. What would the Minister say to my county, the Duchy of Cornwall, about how soon it can expect to really contribute to the process of the shared prosperity fund?
As I have already said, we intend to consult later this year. I strongly encourage my hon. Friend’s constituents to take part in that consultation; he and I have already spoken about this. I have met representatives from Cornwall Council, for example, to talk about the issue and some of the projects that they care strongly about—including, of course, the stadium in Cornwall, of which my hon. Friend has been a strong proponent.
Rebalancing the economy is not just about north and south or the different nations of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister ensure that the shared prosperity fund is distributed using a range of indicators, such as gross value added, the regional human poverty index and disposable income, so that areas in the west midlands in need receive their fair share?
Absolutely—those are exactly the kinds of questions that we dealt with in the consultation.
Some of the problems in our United Kingdom can be traced to the disparity between the regions and nations of the UK. Will the Minister ensure that the shared prosperity fund is not the end, but just the beginning, of ensuring that there is prosperity across the entirety of our nation?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there are disparities of income and productivity across the United Kingdom, and what he mentions will be one of the key objectives. But the shared prosperity fund is not our only intervention in this area: we are taking a range of measures, including significantly increasing the amount of public investment in infrastructure—to the highest levels in this country since the 1970s.
Despite pledges that the Government would provide details on the shared prosperity fund by the end of last year, the Chancellor has been silent on how much communities could lose from the £17 billion-worth of structural funds. The Chancellor has only now woken up to the danger, splurging nearly £10 billion, almost half that amount, on tax cuts for the well off—as advocated, of course, by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Surely the only shared prosperity under the Conservatives is for those who are already well off.
Clearly, it is not possible to progress this matter until we have greater certainty about our exit from the European Union. Those Members of this House who want to see this matter progressed should be voting to leave at every opportunity, as we on the Government side have done. The important thing to point out on regional disparities is that this Government are investing far more than the previous Labour Government. In fact, £430 million a week more in real terms is being invested by this Government than under the previous Labour Government on infrastructure in all parts of the UK.
The Government are supporting the northern powerhouse through devolution deals for, among others, Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands and, most recently, North of Tyne, as well as through over £13 billion of investment in better transport across the north. In addition, we have invested over £3 billion from the local growth fund in the region since 2015, and we committed at the Budget to announce a renewed northern powerhouse strategy later this year.
It is quite an achievement for the Minister to get up and say that without any sense of irony whatsoever. The truth is that we have had the incredibly disappointing news this week that Pacer trains in the north of England will not be removed by the end of this year, as previously promised. Despite the warm words about the northern powerhouse, the truth is that since 2014 spending on transport in the south of England has risen twice as fast as in the north of England. Will the Minister use the spending review as an opportunity to rectify these imbalances and finally give meaning to those words, “the northern powerhouse”?
With respect to the hon. Lady, she is not correct on the numbers. This Government are investing more in the north than the previous Labour Government. Over the course of this Parliament, central Government investment in transport infrastructure will be higher in the north of England than it will be in London and the south-east on a per capita basis. We have seen a 40% increase in central Government funding per person in the north under this Government.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that this Government have invested more than £500 million in the northern powerhouse, attracting more businesses and creating more jobs?
Over the course of this Parliament and the last, this Government will have invested £13 billion in transport for the north. With respect to Northern Powerhouse Rail, which was mentioned earlier, over the last two years we have given £97 million to Transport for the North to build the business case and prepare the ground for that project. In the course of the spending review—our zero-based review—we will be considering how to take forward that project.
My constituents in Barnsley Central and people right across the north of England will judge this or any Government on deeds, not words. Does the Minister agree with me that if the northern powerhouse agenda is to be taken seriously, we need to see schemes such as Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan, which includes Northern Powerhouse Rail, properly resourced by the national Government?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is why we have given funding to Transport for the North to prepare a properly thought-through business case. We of course have decisions to make in the spending review about which of those projects should be taken forward and which provide good value for money. In the hon. Gentleman’s own city and city region of Sheffield, we have of course given money through the transforming cities fund to improve inter-city connectivity for his constituents.
My constituency and the wider Humber region would greatly benefit if there were improved rail-freight connections east-west. What plans does the Minister have to fund those?
We have received representations from the midlands engine, and from Midlands Connect in relation to transport, about both road and rail east-west connectivity. We are considering them carefully, and they will form part of the spending review.
I spot the Leader of the House on the Treasury Bench, but I do not know whether he wants his old job back.
The Exchequer Secretary talks a good talk on fiscal steps to support the northern powerhouse, but the broader facts speak for themselves. Since 2015, for the first time in 50 years, the UK Government no longer provide regional investment aid in England, according to the Industrial Communities Alliance’s evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry. What is his explanation for that?
We give many other funding streams to northern communities, including £3.3 billion through the local growth fund and £13 billion for wider transport schemes.
So that’s an unambiguous no. The north is home to 15 million people in five major city regions, 265 towns and 1,000 villages and smaller communities. It has 29 universities, the UK’s largest airport outside the south-east and eight major ports, one in my constituency. Does the Exchequer Secretary agree that changing those eight ports, as suggested by the Foreign Secretary and the former Foreign Secretary, into not economic hubs of excellence but potential revenue-draining, tax-avoiding, money-laundering free ports—more like free-for-all ports—is no substitute for a focused, well-resourced and sustainable economic strategy for the north?
Perhaps unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am interested in any proposal that can drive economic growth in the north of England. Free ports are an interesting proposal, which we have discussed with a number of communities. We have urged them to come forward with well-thought-through business cases. We have yet to receive them from many places, but we have received one from Teesside and we will consider them carefully in future.
The loan charge tackles so-called disguised remuneration arrangements, which use loans to avoid tax. It applies in the same way to people in the public and the private sectors. A tax information and impact note published in 2016 and a report on disguised remuneration published in March 2019 both considered the impacts.
What more can be done to tackle the promoters of loan schemes who gave workers and businesses assurances, even though the Treasury had made it clear that the schemes were unacceptable? Should not they be brought to book? Have any of them been convicted yet?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right and HMRC will continue to take firm action against those who promote tax avoidance schemes. As he will know, and I think has been made public, it currently has more than 100 promoters under civil inquiry. It is important to be clear that although there are no criminal offences of promoting or marketing tax avoidance schemes specifically, HMRC may conduct criminal investigations and make referrals to prosecuting authorities where, for example, there is evidence that promoters have deliberately misrepresented the facts to it.
Perfectly innocent working people are caught in a terrible trap here and there have already been several suicides. HMRC said that
“teams are trained to identify customers who are anxious, worried or need extra support to ensure they get the help they need.”
Will the Minister confirm whether those people have had that training? Will a dedicated helpline be set up to help people who are under huge stress?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is stress, but he should also be clear that a large number of people have been systematically using those means to avoid paying tax, and the potential amount payable is more than £3 billion. He should be protective of the tax base more widely when he reflects on those matters. He is right that HMRC is taking careful steps to ensure that it protects and supports those who may be in genuine difficulty, and those who have other personal concerns can of course be referred to outside agencies.
The reality is that many people caught up in the loan charge scandal were effectively mis-sold schemes that they were told had been QC vetted and were perfectly legal. That is underlined by the fact that no criminal charges are being pursued against any of the individuals who sold the schemes. Is not it time for this fresh Minister to take a fresh look at the Treasury’s approach to all this?
I think that my right hon. Friend misstates the case. A disclosure of tax avoidance number was associated with a large number of those cases. The people knew that they were in schemes that were potentially suspect. Every person is responsible for signing off their own tax return. I trust that my right hon. Friend will be reassured by the fact that recently six individuals were arrested on suspicion of promoting fraudulent loan charge arrangements. That speaks to a wider picture.
I can only admire the ingenuity of a man who can crowbar in a question about the Ministry of Justice, unrelated to the loan charge, into this issue. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that regardless of what may be the case on that, HMRC is taking tens of billions of pounds, relating to avoidance and evasion matters, that are due. He should be very grateful and delighted about that.
The loan charge all-party group claims evidence for four suicides relating to the loan charge and HMRC has referred itself with respect to one. When I asked a parliamentary written question on the assessment the Treasury had made of the impact of the loan charge on the mental health of the people subject to pursuit, the answer was, to put it mildly, less than satisfactory. Will the Minister now tell us what effect the Treasury believes its policy has had on the mental health of all the people subject to pursuit in both the public and private sectors?
May I put on record my surprise that a former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, with its concern for the public finances, should take that view? Some people may have been very adversely affected in mental health terms and we must protect them at all times using all proper measures. HMRC is attempting to do that. However, there is a much larger number of people who are simply seeking to avoid paying tax due.
People were told that they could work particular jobs if they took on this way of remuneration. Will that be considered? Will the Minister take on board what the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) said and just take a fresh look at this issue?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that there were other signs that indicated to people that they were in tax avoidance schemes—for example, a very low or relatively low effective rate of tax. The signs were there and people would have been right to pick up on them. Even if they were mis-sold, that does not have a bearing on the question of whether tax is now due.
Off-payroll Working Rules
In response to stakeholder representations at Budget 2018, the Government announced that the extension of the off-payroll working rules reform would not take effect until April 2020. That was designed to allow organisations more time to prepare. The reform will also not apply to the smallest 1.5 million organisations. The Government have now consulted on the detailed design of the reform. Responses to that consultation will be taken into account when drafting the legislation.
Nevertheless, there are concerns within the private sector about the forthcoming adoption of IR35. What lessons are there from its application to the public sector?
That is a very important question. I hope my hon. Friend will be reassured. Independent research shows that the public sector reform has been meeting its objective of improving compliance with existing off-payroll working rules without disrupting public services or reducing labour market flexibility. The Government recognise that the private sector is much more diverse, but HMRC will continue to work with stakeholders to improve employment status checks and associated guidance. It will also provide a significant package of education and support to businesses to help with implementation.
It is only correct that contractors pay their fair share of tax, but the IR35 rule fails to equalise tax equally between them and employees, and is overly bureaucratic. Will the Minister join me in urging the Chancellor to ensure that the 2019 Budget and Finance Bill improve the rule or scraps it altogether?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is only about a 10% compliance rate with proper tax payable in this sector. He should therefore be applauding, as I am, the means to raise the level of compliance. In many ways, this is a simplification of the rules, which is being carefully and deliberately handled.
Early Years Education
I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Education to talk about education funding. This issue will be settled as part of the spending review.
I hope the Chief Secretary has learned from those conversations and will go out to talk to early years providers. The shortfall in funding is having a huge impact. I visited a nursery in my constituency recently and it is clear that it is the staff who are bearing the brunt of it. They are on only just above minimum wage. I cannot help thinking that if the people working there were not women then perhaps their work would be valued more. Will she ensure that she makes representations, when the spending review comes, on lifting the freeze?
I point out to the hon. Lady that we are spending a record amount on childcare and early years support—£6 billion a year, which is £700 million more than in 2015—but of course we will look at representations as we go forward into the spending review and make sure we treat all parts of education fairly.
Will the Minister look particularly at funding for two-year-olds? Providers of early years education in my constituency tell me they lose money on providing that service for two-year-olds because there are significant additional costs in looking after two-year-olds but only a small uplift in the rate paid.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We will look at that. It is important to acknowledge the progress this Government have made by introducing 30 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds with working parents and 15 hours of childcare for children with parents on low incomes. Those are important steps. Of course, we will look in the spending review at the rates and ensure they are fair right across the country.
Children with higher educational needs are losing out even more. My local authority overspent by £760,000 last year and will overspend by £1.3 million this year and £1.9 million next year. Those children need this vital support in order to grow. Will the Minister look at the funding of the higher needs budget to ensure that local authorities can support those families?
The hon. Lady is certainly right that we have seen demand for special educational needs funding rise. We need to look at that as part of the spending review, from both a local government point of view and a Department for Education point of view.
Access to Cash
I welcome the benefits that electronic payments are bringing to people and businesses across the UK. However, the Government recognise the importance of cash to many, particularly the most vulnerable members of society. That is why we have committed to safeguarding access to cash for those who need it. In the light of changing payment trends, the Government have created the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group. That Treasury-led group will seek to bring together the regulators and the Bank of England to inform and co-ordinate members’ activities related to cash and safeguard access for those who need it.
I recently sent a survey about access to cash to thousands of my constituents. There was an overwhelming response, because they are terrified that we are going far too fast into a cashless society. The next time the Minister meets banks, will he raise with them the impact that rural banking hubs could have on our local communities, just as the pilot business hub has had in Birmingham?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s excellent campaigning on this matter, which we have had meetings to discuss. The Government have no direct role in the matter, but we recognise the role that banking hubs have played for businesses across six trial sites. We are looking at that carefully, and I will be very happy to raise it with the banks when I meet them next.
Will the Government commit to working with cash machine suppliers to ensure that cash withdrawals remain free across the board? Charges disproportionately affect those on lower incomes, who make lower cash withdrawals.
Absolutely. We are looking into that. The Payment Systems Regulator, which was set up four years ago, is responsible for overseeing LINK. It has two schemes in place to safeguard access to cash in the most impoverished communities and to ensure that, when an ATM is vulnerable to closure, there is a responsibility to keep it open if constituents would have to go more than 1 km to access cash.
I acknowledge the difficult situation that my hon. Friend has in Bungay. The Government-established Payment Systems Regulator is closely monitoring developments in ATM provision and, as I said, there are mechanisms in place to intervene. I am very happy to meet him to discuss the application of those to the situation in Bungay.
Given that post offices and credit unions provide easy access to cash, is it not now time to offer business rates relief to both to enhance the provision of cash and other affordable financial services?
Of course small businesses receive that relief. The Chancellor will have heard that representation for the next fiscal event, but it is not a matter that I can comment on specifically at this point.
High Street Bank Closures
While branch closures are commercial decisions for banks, I regularly engage with all key stakeholders on this issue and I recognise that it can be very difficult for some constituents, particularly if a branch is the last one in a community. The major banks have signed up to the access to banking standard, overseen by the Lending Standards Board, and that commits them to work with communities to minimise the impact of branch closures.
When the Government bailed out the banks, it was partly in recognition of the fact that banks were public services as well as profit-making businesses. I am disturbed—as will be the people of Staveley—by the Minister’s hands-off approach. Do not the Government either need to sit down with the banks and ensure they have a real commitment to having a bank branch in towns such as Staveley or adopt Labour’s proposal for a post bank so that we can have some Government control to make sure we have services where they are desperately needed?
I have looked into the situation in Staveley and it will be served by a mobile bank following the closure. The post office, where a 24-hour ATM is available, is just a six-minute walk from Lloyds. The number of people visiting the counter at Lloyds bank in Staveley reduced by 22% in the last year, so it is understandable why Lloyds has made that decision. The Government’s investment in the Post Office and its banking services facility is our solution.
The Minister should make no mistake: communities up and down Britain are being deliberately starved of cash and banking services as the banks, with the support of Government, are trying to create a near cashless society. Can he say a bit more about what he is doing to help the more than 1 million poorer people who do not have access to a bank account?
A bit more, but not too much more.
I recognise the difficulty and I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the issues in his constituency. We have invested considerably in the post office network and I am meeting the Lending Standards Board to look at the mechanism for transfer to the Post Office and to consider solutions on a case-by-case basis.
As the right hon. Gentleman would have heard me say if he had been in his place earlier, I announced in the spring statement that it is the Government’s intention to conduct a three-year spending review, concluding this autumn, subject to a deal with the EU being completed. He asks whether I plan to launch the spending review before the summer recess: I can tell him that Departments have already been commissioned to carry out the work necessary for such a review. It must be for the new Government to decide, in the circumstances, whether it is appropriate to conduct a full three-year spending review or a one-year exercise.
I can assure the Chancellor that I saw him give that response on television earlier. What would be the impact on the comprehensive spending review of either the proposal of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) for a £13 billion cut in corporation tax and a £12 billion increase in defence spending, or the proposal of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) for a £9 billion higher rate income tax threshold cut, £11 billion national insurance contributions cut and showing the public sector “some love”? Would those unfunded bribes be paid for by tax increases, cuts in services or both?
I fear that the right hon. Gentleman is manifestly asking the wrong person that question. I literally cannot answer it. The purpose of a spending review is that such matters can be looked at in the round, and the responsible way to do a spending review is first to set the envelope of what is affordable, and then to look at the different bids, which will—I can confidently predict—greatly exceed the available spending power, and prioritise. That is the difficult business of government, and that is why I am not in favour of ad hoc spending commitments or tax cut commitments being made.
The Chancellor is a clever chap, but his capacities do not include the capacity to penetrate the minds of colleagues, especially those in competitive vote-seeking mode.
Homes England indicates a current pipeline of some 15,000 community- led homes in England. That shows the significant positive impact of the community housing fund. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the continuance of the fund so that those much-needed homes can be built?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have signed off the Truro funding decision, and I am sure she is happy about that. The Prime Minister has made very clear that dealing with the challenges in the housing market is a priority for the Government, and in the spending review we will continue to prioritise funds to support both the housing market and the provision of social and affordable housing.
If the UK leaves the EU without a deal and the Chancellor is still in his post, does he envisage there being enough fiscal headroom following the spending review to give the top 10% of earners a tax cut worth more than £9 billion? Surely that is wholly unjustified.
I think the hon. Gentleman has sketched a highly unlikely scenario, but I can answer his question. We have built up about £26 billion or £27 billion of fiscal headroom, and the purpose of that headroom is precisely to protect the UK economy from the immediate effects of a possible no-deal exit. I have no doubt whatsoever that in the event of a no-deal exit we will need all that money and more to respond to the immediate impacts of the consequent disruption, which will mean that no money will be available for longer-term tax cuts or spending increases.
Let me go further: the Government’s analysis suggests that in the event of a disruptive no-deal exit there would be a hit to the Exchequer of about £90 billion, and that will also have to be factored into future spending and tax decisions.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that we need to be careful with our spending pledges, but I think that investment spending is different, particularly when the investment is in the north. Has my right hon. Friend had time to consider our letter of 29 April—signed by 80 parliamentarians—which calls for £120 billion of investment spending over 30 years and a bringing forward of the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme?
We are committed to investment in infrastructure. One of the things that I have done in my three years as Chancellor is move the balance of spending towards investment in economic infrastructure, and we now have the highest level of public capital investment for 40 years. We have a National Infrastructure Commission to set long-term guidance for the Government on how to invest in infrastructure investment, and that will be considered in the zero-based capital spending review that sits alongside the main spending review. However, I assure my hon. Friend that this Government are committed to investing in the productive capacity of the UK economy, because it is the only way to raise real wages and living standards, and that is what government is all about.
The Government’s decisions on tax, welfare and spending on public services have benefited households across income distribution, with the poorest gaining the most as a percentage of net income. That is supported by the distribution analysis published by the Treasury at the time of the most recent Budget.
That is nonsense. The UK is already the most unequal society in Europe, and the gap is becoming wider. In order to mitigate the worst welfare cuts and reforms, the Scottish Government are having to pay out £125 million this year alone. The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has said that the situation is “unsustainable”. Does the Minister agree that instead of arguing about tax cuts for the rich, Westminster needs to reverse those welfare cuts?
The United Kingdom is not the most unequal society in Europe; it is not anything like that. The Government’s policies, such as our policies of investing in infrastructure and in boosting productivity, have been designed to level up the parts of the UK that need it the most. When it comes to poverty and living standards, things are improving. Real wages have been rising for 10 consecutive months, and more people are in work. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, unemployment has fallen by 60% since 2010.
Our priority has been getting young people into work. In 2010 we inherited a youth unemployment rate of 20%; we have almost halved that. The priority for this Government will be ensuring young people get a great education; more young people are in good or outstanding schools than when we came into power in 2010, and we want them to get apprenticeships and get into work and get on in life.
Charities: VAT Refunds
Having run a capital project myself, I am keenly aware of the importance of good cash flow; I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. HMRC receives more than 2 million VAT repayment forms a year, and in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, over 90% of them were paid within five days of receipt. A supplement is paid if it takes more than 30 days before payment is made, and HMRC also has a free dedicated charities help desk designed to help organisations with their tax inquiries.
4Louis is a charity set up in Sunderland in the memory of Louis, who was stillborn in 2009. It fundraised and built the Louis bereavement suite at Sunderland Royal hospital at a cost of £75,000, some £12,500 of which was paid in VAT. Another suite is planned at Durham at a cost of £100,000 and £20,000 of that is VAT. These huge amounts of VAT could be used by the charity to build another bereavement suite. What advice can the Minister give to it specifically on how it can attempt to get this VAT back?
The hon. Lady will understand that a range of schemes is available for some parts of the charitable sector. We recognise the concern that the hon. Lady is expressing; I cannot deal with individual cases, but obviously if she wants to write to me on the wider issue I will be happy to take it up with HMRC.
A much loved local provider of employment for my constituents with learning disabilities has been forced to consider closure after a change in interpretation of the VAT rules regarding the provision of services under the personal payments arrangements; the retrospective VAT bill of around £150,000 means that Spokes, the trading arm of the charity the Emily Jordan Foundation, faces closure with the subsequent loss of a very important local resource. Will my hon. Friend consider meeting with Chris Jordan on behalf of the charity in order to discuss a way forward that can save this incredibly important local business?
Again, I absolutely recognise the concern, although of course I am not familiar with the details. I cannot get involved in a specific case, but my hon. Friend is welcome to write to me and I will refer the matter to HMRC.
My principal focus is to ensure the continued resilience of the UK economy and public finances at this time of uncertainty. Thanks to the hard work of the British people, our national debt is now falling sustainably for the first time in a generation, but it is still too high and it is vital that the Government continue to get debt down to ensure that the economy is resilient against future shocks, to prevent the wasting of billions of pounds more on debt interest payments, and to avoid burdening the next generation.
Since 2013 this Government have given tax handouts worth £4.1 billion to the big alcohol corporations at a time when the NHS is short of 40,000 nurses. Would it not be a sensible choice to invest in the nurses, doctors and police officers who have to deal with the problems caused by cheap alcohol?
We have done so: by 2023-24 we will be spending an extra £34 billion a year on the national health service. That is a record cash injection to our national health service, which represents this Government’s commitment to it.
Yes, it is a vital cornerstone of our institutional structure that the Bank of England remains independent, and those who have suggested that they would seek to politicise appointments to the Bank of England would be doing a great disservice to this country and our economy.
The Chancellor, like most of us, has been watching the accumulation of spending promises by the Tory leadership candidates. They amount now—[Interruption.] They amount now to nearly £100 billion, and one of the Chancellor’s colleagues commented yesterday that they make me look like a fiscal moderate. May I ask the Chancellor what impact this level of unfunded commitments would have on his economic strategy, or can he tell us how they could possibly be funded?
There are many people who could comment on spending commitments that have been made by candidates in the Tory leadership competition, but the right hon. Gentleman is not one of them.
Let me try this one. Both Tory leadership candidates are threatening no deal. This morning, the Chancellor has eloquently set out the consequences of no deal. Bearing in mind what he said, may I ask him very straightforwardly whether he will join us and commit himself to doing everything he possibly can to oppose the prorogation of Parliament to try to sneak no deal through, and also to voting against no deal?
With your permission, Mr Speaker, if I may: this might be the Chancellor’s last Treasury questions and I just want to thank him for the civility with which he has always maintained our relationship. I also admit that there have been times when we have enjoyed his dry sense of humour. I gave his predecessor a little red book as a present. We have another red book today, but this is a guide to London’s rebel walks and we hope that he will enjoy it in his leisure periods.
That is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman; I much prefer this little red book to the one he gave my predecessor, although I have to say that I have not read this one and I have read the other one.
On the broader question, I have been consistently clear that I believe that a no-deal exit would be bad for the UK, bad for the British economy and bad for the British people. We cannot rule out that happening, because it is not entirely in our hands, but I agree with him that it would be wrong for a British Government to seek to pursue no deal as a policy. I believe that it will be for the House of Commons, of which I will continue proudly to be a Member, to ensure that that does not happen.
Borrowers who believe that they have been mis-sold a shared appreciation mortgage are able to take their complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service. The Government are unable to comment on group action cases relating to this issue as we have no role in deciding whether cases may be heard in court. I note that the annual review of the Financial Ombudsman Service in 2003-04 said that in most cases it had not upheld complaints of shared appreciation mortgage mis-selling due to the information being satisfactory. That is the situation at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to storm clouds over the global economy. We tend to focus on Brexit-related issues and the domestic agenda, but I have just come back from the G20 in Osaka, and looking more widely, we can see that global growth is slowing and that global trade growth is slowing even more dramatically. A great deal hinges on finding a solution to the disputes between China and the United States. It is hugely in our interests that that dispute is resolved and that normal trading relations are resumed between the world’s two economic superpowers. As a middle-sized open economy, we are bound to be adversely affected if global trade slows down.
I am delighted to hear the news of new investment in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I take my hat off to Dean’s shortbread. As he knows, the two-year increase in the annual investment allowance, which the Chancellor announced in the Budget, is helping firms right across the country to invest in new plant and machinery. It gives 100% first-year tax relief on the first £1 million of eligible investments and helps small and medium-sized firms such as Dean’s shortbread to continue to grow.
I reassure the hon. Lady that we have already put additional funding into the police grant, and we have raised spending power such that it increases in real terms. Additional surge funding has been put into the west midlands to acknowledge the specific issues in that area.
We made an announcement this morning about our plans for green finance. Over the coming months and years, it will be essential to demonstrate how we are able to mobilise our capital markets and the instruments of a market economy to deliver on this huge enterprise. If we do not demonstrate how the market economy can provide solutions to decarbonising our economy, there are others with alternative solutions to present.
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, that position is enshrined in statute, and only this House of Commons could change it.
More of my Southampton constituents are in work than ever before, but many of their jobs are low-paid, with few career prospects, if any. What are the Government doing to improve employment opportunities for my constituents?
We have worked hard to build a stronger, fairer economy, dealing with the deficit that we inherited, helping people into work and cutting taxes for people, families and businesses, and the result is that the economy has grown continuously for the past nine years. Employment is currently at record high levels, unemployment is currently at the joint lowest rate since 1975, and real wages are rising again. We have created 3.5 million new jobs, but the next stage must be about increasing real wages by raising productivity, because that is the only sustainable way to raise the living standards of working people in this country.
The reality is that that we have got a record number of people into work. Universal credit has been shown to help more families get into work, and it has made work pay. We have also made adjustments to universal credit to shorten the wait time, and we have put in an extra £630 a week for families.
It has been a while since I asked the Chancellor about the blockchain and distributed ledger technology, so I was hoping that he could present an update on how the Treasury is embracing this new technology.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK’s digital economy is thriving and is growing 10 times as fast as the wider economy. We are pursuing a range of measures to reinforce that leading position, and that involves implementing a 10-year action plan to unlock over £20 billion in finance growth in innovative firms and a further £7 billion for research and development since 2016, with internationally competitive research and development tax reliefs to support investment.
As my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has just pointed out, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) has made £30 billion-worth of spending pledges and the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) has made £13 billion-worth of pledges. The Chancellor has said it will not happen on his watch, but that seems to suggest that a magic money tree has been found in the barren soil of the no deal for which we seem to be heading.
I want to ask the Chancellor about the pledges announced by the current Prime Minister in the past few weeks, which unfortunately have not included any compensation for the infected blood community. How have the Chancellor and the Treasury prioritised and costed those announcements?
The Prime Minister has made a number of announcements since 23 May, including on modern slavery and mental health. All these announcements have been costed and are affordable within existing budgets for 2019-20.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that dementia care is adequately funded in the next spending review?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about dementia care, which is one of the issues that will be looked at as part of the long-term plan for health. Due to the fiscal responsibility exercised by this Government, we are able to put extra money into health services to deal with issues such as dementia.
I welcome the Chancellor’s remarks about a no-deal Brexit and the disaster it would be for our country, costing jobs and livelihoods. Does he agree that both Conservative leadership candidates, who support a no-deal Brexit, should stop selling out the country to serve their own political ambitions? Will he commit to joining us in voting against a no deal when and if he returns to the Back Benches, and to voting with us on a no-confidence motion, if it comes to that, to stop a no deal?
At this stage of my career, I will not speculate on my future actions. What I will say is that the Government’s analysis shows that a no-deal exit would mean that all the regions, nations and sectors of the UK economy have lower economic output compared with today’s arrangements and compared with the White Paper scenario that the Government set out. It is important we all understand that preparing for a no deal, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do because it might happen to us without our volition, is not the same as avoiding the effects of a no deal.
Net zero emissions by 2050 is a desirable but very costly policy. Does the Chancellor agree that we must do everything to protect low-income families in my Cleethorpes constituency and elsewhere from bearing an unfair burden?
Yes. This is a huge commitment, but it is the right commitment to make. The Committee on Climate Change recommended that the Treasury should undertake a review of the funding and financing mechanisms to ensure that this huge undertaking can be funded, and that it will be funded in a way that is fair to families, households and businesses across the UK, which is exactly what we will do.
The “All Kids Count” report, on the impact of the two-child limit after two years, was published last week by the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Aid, Turn2us and the Refugee Council. The report illustrates the devastating impact of the two-child policy, particularly on working families who are unable to compensate for the £2,780 a year cut by working longer hours. Before the Chancellor leaves office, will he scrap the two-child policy and its devastating impact on families?
The universal credit policy has been designed to make sure that people who are being supported by the Government are in a similar position to families who have to make their own financial decisions based on the wages they earn every week.
The decision by the European Union to suspend the equivalence agreement with Switzerland seems to be very damaging. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done a fantastic job over the past few years. Will he confirm whether the United Kingdom was consulted on whether the decision should go ahead?
We have been closely involved in this issue, discussing it both in the EU and with the Swiss. I can tell the House that although on the face of it the withdrawal of equivalence had a very significant effect on the ability of UK shareholders to trade Swiss shares on the Swiss stock exchange, the measures that the European Securities and Markets Authority announced on Friday significantly mitigate the impact. So we very much hope that the European Union and Switzerland will be able to reach agreement, and of course there is a very direct relevance to the UK’s own negotiations with the European Union.
Will the Chancellor commit to enabling the 120,000 families on very low incomes who find out about a tax credit overpayment when they claim universal credit to have a fair chance to appeal against those deductions averaging £1,500 being made and to giving them a chance to raise themselves out of poverty?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, and I am happy to refer her to the welfare Secretary on the matter.
Does the Chancellor share my concern about the way some local councils are misusing Public Works Loan Board loans to speculate on commercial property, including many in Surrey?
My hon. Friend knows that I do share his concerns on this matter. The Public Works Loan Board is there to support local authorities’ capital spending. Some of the development activities of local authorities are perfectly legitimate: for example, the regeneration of urban areas. What is not legitimate is local authorities arbitraging the low interest rates of the PWLB to buy commercial property for yield, in order to develop income-yielding property portfolios. The Treasury is looking at how we can manage that situation.
Order. We have now had 20 topical questions. Whether this is the Chancellor’s last appearance at the Dispatch Box as Chancellor remains to be seen, but whether it is or not, he will always be able to tell his children that demand for him exceeded supply of him. He can say to them proudly, “I always left them wanting more of me.”
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to yesterday’s protests in Hong Kong.
For a number of weeks now, the world has been watching massive yet largely peaceful protests in Hong Kong in opposition to the proposed extradition legislation. Unfortunately, a small number of protesters chose to vandalise the premises of the Legislative Council yesterday. Her Majesty’s Government strongly condemn any such violence but also understand the deep-seated concerns that people in Hong Kong have about their rights and freedoms. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the 1 July march yesterday did so in a peaceful and lawful manner.
The UK is fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms under the “One country, two systems” principle, which is guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration of 1984. We reject the Chinese Government’s assertion that the joint declaration is an “historic document”, by which they mean that it is no longer valid, and that our rights and obligations under that treaty have ended. Our clear view is that the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 obliges the Chinese Government to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, and we call on the Chinese Government to do so. In respect of the recent demonstrations, the main responsibility for addressing this tension rests with the Government of Hong Kong, including the Chief Executive.
I thank the Minister for that statement. May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for again allowing an urgent question on this ever-increasing and serious matter, which is heard not just in this country, but throughout the world? Last night, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) organised a meeting in the House under the auspices of Hong Kong Watch, and she and I co-chaired it. It was a very well attended and, sadly, timely meeting, with more than 100 people, mostly Hong Kongers, present. The message from that meeting, especially from activists such as Tommy Cheung and Willis Ho, was clear: they worry that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will see yesterday’s events as an excuse for ever more direct intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs. They want to hear that this country will continue to stand with them against that threat.
Unfortunately, the images that dominated our television screens yesterday were those of the occupation of the Legislative Council building. There was much less coverage of the fact that on Monday, half a million families, young children and older people marched down major roads in peaceful protests. In his representations to Carrie Lam’s Administration, will the Minister make it as clear as possible that any consequences for the actions of the hundreds of protesters in the LegCo building should not be visited on the many thousands—in fact, millions—of people who have protested on Hong Kong’s streets in recent weeks?
The images broadcast around the world yesterday were ones of violence and vandalism, but they were also images of fear and frustration from people who are increasingly desperate that the world looks on at their plight and will do no more than wring its hands. Will the Minister make it clear to Carrie Lam that there is much more that she and her Administration can do to reassure her own population? It is surely clear to all that a suspension—even a suspension sine die—of the Bill to allow for the amendment of the extradition arrangements is not enough. The people of Hong Kong need to hear that the Bill has been abandoned completely.
The Hong Kong police have described the victims of police violence in recent weeks as rioters, when we know that they were peaceful protesters. Will the Minister impress on the Executive that such use of language must be withdrawn? Will the Executive instigate an independent inquiry into the police violence on 12 June?
Finally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry yesterday declared the Sino-British joint declaration to be meaningless. I welcome the Minister’s repudiation of that from the Dispatch Box, but will the Government will now consider all meaningful sanctions at our disposal, including the possible use of Magnitsky powers, to ensure that those who infringe the human rights of the people of Hong Kong will have no hiding place in the United Kingdom?
First, I genuinely acknowledge and recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in and deep knowledge of this issue, and I commend him for the activity that he generates in the House, which is shared in by so many other Members from all parties. I thank him for his analysis and for what I consider to be a measured series of questions that go very much to the point. We all agree with him that any actions taken in response to the vandalism that took place should be proportionate and within the rule of law, and should not be taken against larger numbers than those who were actually involved in that vandalism.
As the right hon. Gentleman recognises, and as I said in my opening remarks, a lot of the ability to address the tension rests with the Government of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in respect of the extradition legislation that has generated so much protest. Whereas we fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the joint declaration remains valid—again, I said that in my opening remarks—we are not here to dictate and instruct either the Chinese Government, or that of Hong Kong itself, to do what we believe they should be doing within the autonomy that has properly been granted to them. I am sure the House will appreciate the delicacy of our wanting to uphold the rule of law while having to be careful not to instruct either Government about what they should do in specific detail.
It is good to see my right hon. Friend responding on this matter; his broad wingspan now covers yet more of the planet.
The disgraceful behaviour of the demonstrators who entered LegCo yesterday and the misuse of the Union flag should be noted by Parliament, as should the damage done to the case that they are making. I looked at the statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, who said that
“the SAR government decided to suspend work on the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.”
He also said:
“The Chinese Central Government expresses its support, respect and understanding for the SAR government's decision”.
Surely a period of dialogue and discussion is now required to try to reach a mutually agreed solution to this complex problem.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out that I am answering questions that do not normally fall within my responsibility. My wingspan has stretched wider than I or any Member would normally expect.
My right hon. Friend is far more expert on this issue than I am, but the one point on which we can all agree is that a period of de-escalation and dialogue would be far preferable to any continuing tension and violence. I very much hope that all those who are involved in this issue can pause for thought and try to plot a way through this without further escalating any kind of conflict.
The Hong Kong situation is spiralling out of control very fast now. It is unfortunate that, in the absence of a Minister with responsibility for the far east, the Foreign Secretary is not in his place. I agree with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). He set out well the events of yesterday. I want to concentrate on four questions for the Government. First, Hong Kongers have made it abundantly clear that they want the disastrous extradition laws to be abandoned for good. That is not an unreasonable request. Will the Government finally take the side of the Hong Kong people and call on Carrie Lam to scrap this legislation?
Secondly, I welcome and agree with the Foreign Secretary’s call for a public inquiry into the actions of the Hong Kong police force. Evidence has emerged that the order to fire tear gas on the protesters was given by Superintendent Justin Shave, a British expat now serving with the Hong Kong police, and that two other expat chief superintendents were two of the most senior officers in charge of crowd control on that day in June. What are Ministers doing to bring to book these British citizens who ordered the police brutality?
Thirdly, after firing rubber bullets on the protesters, the Hong Kong authorities accessed hospital data records in order to arrest them. That is random and unfair. Will the Minister join me in condemning this appalling behaviour? Clearly, yesterday, the events in the Legislative Council were unacceptable, but the police tactics appeared to have been totally confused. Finally, the root cause of the chaos is the fundamental democratic deficit in Hong Kong. The rights enshrined in the Basic Law and the promises to move towards universal suffrage are being trampled on. When will the Government listen to the voices of the citizens of Hong Kong and put democratic reform back on the agenda?
First, let me point out to the hon. Lady that, of course, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would like to be here, but there are compelling reasons for him not being here given that there are hustings for the leadership after which I very much hope that he will be picked as our next Prime Minister. The hon. Lady’s first question is a matter for Hong Kong and its Government. In respect of an inquiry, my right hon. Friend has already urged the Hong Kong Government to establish a robust investigation into the events of 12 June. With regard to universal suffrage, we believe that the terms of the joint declaration should, of course, be fully upheld.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is not unknown for Communist regimes to insert agents provocateurs into popular movements in order to discredit them? Will he bear in mind that the messages that we send to Communist China—for example, in sucking up to it over issues such as Huawei and our telecommunications infrastructure—need to be looked at through the prism of its human rights abuses?
It is not for me to speculate on whether agents provocateurs have been going about such business. That is a matter for the Government of Hong Kong to investigate. In respect of the Chinese Government, the Prime Minister did speak to Chinese Vice Premier Hu on 17 June, and we do speak very directly to them about Hong Kong and, of course, about human rights in general.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for once again raising this issue, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This is a deeply serious matter, and I think that that has been expressed by Members across the House. I welcome the remarks of the Foreign Secretary and of his deputy at the moment, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, that the authorities must engage in a meaningful dialogue and that the preservation of rights and freedoms are critical. I also welcome what was said by our partners in the European Union who have said that these rights need to be respected. There is never an excuse for violence—there cannot be an excuse for violence—but we must reflect on the concerns of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about the use of torture and also, as has been reflected on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the concerns of the overwhelming majority who have undertaken peaceful protest; their voices must not be drowned out over the coming days. It is more important than ever that Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the judicial system are respected. It will be good to hear the Minister’s plans to put that case, and also to urge the Hong Kong authorities to listen to legitimate concerns. The Foreign Office must do what it can to facilitate that and to work, where appropriate, to de-escalate tensions. Now is the time for calm heads.
I think that I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has just said. The autonomy of Hong Kong is very important. Hence we have to strike a balance between seeing what is happening but not dictating to Hong Kong how it should respond. On listening to concerns, it is, of course, the responsibility of the Hong Kong Government to listen to the concerns being expressed by their own people, but in terms of us expressing our concerns to them, we do so very forcefully and properly through proper diplomatic channels.
The Minister has couched his response in sensibly balanced terms. Does he agree that the Hong Kong Government have said that the extradition Bill will not be brought back to the Legislative Council until it lapses and that it is, therefore, effectively dead? Does he also agree that, whatever the frustrations of some protesters, the vast majority of the half a million people who marched yesterday do not want to see the vandalism that happened at the Legislative Council; and that Her Majesty’s Government should continue to balance strong support for the six freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration with support for the rule of law against violence, and encourage efforts to rebuild trust between the Hong Kong Government and the people of Hong Kong so that that the territory can revert to its peaceful and successful path under the one-country, two-systems formula?
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent and well-informed question. His experience in the far east is very well known and understood by this House. He mentioned the procedural definition of whether the legislation is suspended or effectively dead. That is not quite for me to speculate on. From our own experience, we know the importance of procedure in this House, particularly as we are dealing with certain big issues at the moment that rely on it. As for the freedoms, indeed, the autonomy under the joint declaration is something that must be respected and not in any way diluted.
May I reiterate the calls from around the House for a calm head and for the violence that started last night to stop? What is being done to try to encourage talks between the student protesters and the LegCo? In particular, how can the Government stress the importance of young people? With just 1,200 people having a say over the leader of the LegCo, how can the concept of democracy, or even a consultation about democracy, get on to the agenda so that young Hong Kong people can feel that they have some hope?
The basic law specifies that the ultimate aim is for both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council to be elected by universal suffrage, and that objective would be in the best interests of Hong Kong. In the meantime, as the hon. Lady sensibly says, we want to see a cessation of violence and the emergence of a dialogue, which has already been mentioned. In terms of us trying to persuade people to take those steps, I very much hope that this very moment in this House will be noticed in Hong Kong and elsewhere, so that people can see that a wider voice across the world is calling for such things.
Both Carrie Lam and the Chinese Government have repeatedly referred to the importance of upholding the rule of law in response to the protests. The Minister himself has spoken about and affirmed that principle at the Dispatch Box this afternoon, but does he agree that upholding the rule of law cannot be used as a pretext for suppressing legitimate and peaceful protest, and that when we speak about the rule of law we mean respecting absolutely the principle of one country, two systems and protecting basic civil freedoms in Hong Kong?
Yes. In addition to one country, two systems, the same principles about the rule of law that we would apply here should apply in Hong Kong—that is, that peaceful protest is legitimate and violence is something that we condemn. We can quite understand the grievance felt, and the millions of people who have been taking to the streets shows the intensity of that opinion, but in order to be effective protesters must, in their own interests, stick to peaceful protests and not allow a small number of people to destroy the credibility of their actions.
Behind the specifics of this incident, is there not a bigger, wider and more problematic concern, which is that the Chinese Communist party is fearful of losing its grip on its people? That is why it is tightening its grip—squeezing harder and harder—and Hong Kong is just a tiny aspect of that. Is there not an irony in the fact that China is trying to argue in favour of the rule of law when it constantly flouts the rule of law around the world, even though Hong Kong has done China proud over the last 50 years?
There is, of course, ample scope for analysing what is going on in Hong Kong within the broader question of what is happening in China and what role China wishes to play within China itself and across the world more widely, so the hon. Gentleman’s question is a valid one. However, with regards to the specific question we are addressing today, we should better keep our focus on trying to de-escalate tension in Hong Kong itself so that a path forward can be mapped out for the benefit of everybody there.
Is China in breach of the joint declaration?
We obviously call on China fully to adhere to the joint declaration. I hope that will lead to the implementation of the full details under the basic law.
I welcome the decision of the British Government to prohibit the sale of tear gas to Hong Kong. However, the South China Morning Post reports that approved British export licences of lethal weapons to Hong Kong include grenade launchers, mortar bombs, sniper rifles, machine guns and gun silencers. Are the British Government considering those export licences as well?
The primary focus of anything we have said so far in the context of these demonstrations has been about crowd control equipment. The Foreign Secretary announced on 25 June that we will not issue any further export licences for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong unless we are satisfied that our concerns raised on human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed.
We all condemn the terrible violence that has occurred in Hong Kong over recent days. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential for Hong Kong’s future success that the full extent of its autonomy and rule of law as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the basic law is implemented? What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage more dialogue between the parties in Hong Kong?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on Hong Kong’s autonomy and upholding of the rule of law. It may well be that the most constructive way forward is to establish a dialogue in the next few days between the Government of Hong Kong and their own people that can help to reduce the tensions in Hong Kong that we have seen erupt on the streets over the past few weeks.
It is very good to see the Minister spreading his wings. In fact, I hope he will soon return to the Dispatch Box to say something about the disgraceful and disturbing decision by the Japanese to start whaling again—killing hundreds of whales this year.
On Hong Kong, the fact of the matter is that what we have seen in the last few days is out of character. My suspicion is, who is going to gain from instability in Hong Kong? Of course, the answer is the Chinese Government, not the Hong Kongese.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that China should see Hong Kong as something that can benefit China itself. A prosperous and stable Hong Kong is not only good for Hong Kong; it is also good for China. There is a symbiosis that can be mutually beneficial. I very much hope that in honouring the terms of the 1984 agreement in the years ahead, that mutual benefit can be put into practice and that everybody can win from it.
Hong Kong is a really important partner for the UK because of our past ties and Hong Kong’s potential future prosperity. Will the Minister therefore confirm to the House that freedom of speech will continue to be enshrined in Hong Kong’s basic law as part of the one country, two systems principle, as we would expect from any partner that we trade and work with?
The basic law will not change. It is there in the 1984 agreement. I hope that all its elements will be fully upheld, and that should include freedom of speech and the proper implementation of the rule of law.
At a time when democracy and human rights are under attack by authoritarian regimes across the world, it is critical that Britain sets out clearly whose side we are on. I welcome the Minister’s statement that the Sino-British agreement is still valid, but what steps is he taking to validate that validity, as it were? Does he agree with the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, that that might be more effective if we were not simultaneously trying to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement with China?
I do not think that it is really appropriate to link the two. We have the joint declaration in place; it is legally binding until 2047, and we expect China to uphold it. If there were to be a breach, we would pursue some resolution bilaterally, but in the meantime I hope that there can be an improvement of exchanges and dialogue between the Hong Kong Government and their own people to try to improve the situation that they are currently confronting.
What estimate does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have of the number of Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel in Hong Kong, and has there been any suggestion of an increase in that number?
I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am not in a position to give him an exact number. In as much as we have such an estimate, I will certainly write to him and give him the benefit of what we believe we can pass on.
I welcome much of what the Minister has said today. Of course, we cannot in any way condone the vandalism or violence of recent days, but the Minister will be aware of assertions that those who are in control of the police have orchestrated the police response over the past 24 to 36 hours to aggravate the consequences of the situation. Will the Minister comment on whether he has any evidence that those assertions are true?
I am unable to confirm that I have any such evidence; I have not been advised as such. Obviously, it is very much our view that any police response should be proportional and lawful. Of course, if the demonstrations are peaceful, we hope that no such violent, or forceful, response is in any way needed, but if there are acts of vandalism, that would then put any such engagement into a different context.
While the escalation in violence in Hong Kong is deeply regrettable, and every effort should be made to de-escalate it, it is clear that there is continuous provocation by the Chinese side, particularly with regard to the repudiation of the validity of the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration that underpins the highly successful one country, two systems structure that has guaranteed Hong Kong’s success. Far from simply asserting Britain’s continued recognition of that declaration, what will we do to enforce it in practice?
We are not a position to, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, enforce it, but if there were a breach, as I said, we would engage China in a proper bilateral discussion. We speak very forcefully and loudly about upholding the 1984 agreement, and, in doing so, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in what he calls for.
Before I make my statement, Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to send my best wishes—and, I am sure, those of the whole House—to the Lionesses in advance of their semi-final match this evening. As you know, sport so often brings us together. The men’s football team did so at their World cup last summer and the women are doing so at their World cup this summer. We salute them for that. We congratulate them on their successes so far and wish them well for the game tonight.
This statement is about today’s announcement on support for those affected by problem gambling. While we all want a healthy gambling industry that makes an important contribution to the economy, we also need one that does all it can to protect those that use it. Problem gambling can devastate lives, families and communities. I have met those who have lost more than the UK’s annual average salary during one night of gambling online, and parents who are now without a child as a result of gambling addiction.
Over recent months, I have also met representatives from the gambling industry and colleagues from right across the House to discuss what more needs to be done. We can all agree that it is best to prevent harm before it occurs and to step in early where people are at risk, but we also need to offer the right support for those people who do experience harm. We have already acted to reduce the minimum stake on fixed odds betting terminals to £2 from £100. We have tightened age and identity checks for online gambling websites—an important step in protecting children and vulnerable people who may be at risk.
Today, five of the biggest gambling companies have agreed a series of measures that will deliver real and meaningful progress on support for problem gamblers. This announcement has been welcomed by the Gambling Commission, GambleAware and Gamban. These companies, together, represent about half of the British commercial gambling industry. At the heart of this package is a very significant increase in their financial contribution to fund support and treatment. Last year, voluntary contributions across the whole industry to problem gambling yielded less than £10 million. Now, five operators—William Hill; Bet365; GVC, which owns Ladbrokes Coral; Flutter, formerly known as Paddy Power Betfair; and Sky Betting & Gaming—have said that over the next four years they will increase tenfold the funding they give to treatment and support for problem gamblers. In this same period, they have committed to spending £100 million specifically on treatment. The companies will report publicly on progress with these commitments, alongside their annual assurance statements to the Gambling Commission.
Last week, as the House knows, NHS England announced that it is establishing up to 14 clinics for those with the most complex and severe gambling problems, including where gambling problems coexist with other mental health problems or childhood trauma. It has also been announced that the first NHS problem gambling clinic offering specific support for children is set to open. The funding announced today enables a huge boost for the other treatment services that complement specialist NHS clinics, and it will help us to place an increased focus on early intervention.
I know that Members across the House have argued for a mandatory, statutory levy to procure funds for treatment and support of problem gambling. I understand that argument. However, as the House knows, legislating for this would take time—in all likelihood, more than a year—to complete. The proposal made this morning will deliver substantially increased support for problem gamblers this year. It may also be said that receipts from a statutory levy are certain and those from a voluntary approach are not, but it is important to stress two things. First, these voluntary contributions must and will be transparent, including to the regulator, and if they are not made, we will know. Secondly, the Government reserve the right to pursue a mandatory route to funding if a voluntary route does not prove effective.
This is a clear financial commitment from industry to addressing the harms that can come from gambling. But this is not solely about spending money: it is a package of measures spanning a number of different areas to ensure that we tackle problem gambling on all possible fronts. First, a responsible gambling industry is one that works together to reduce harm and wants customers to be safe, whichever platform they use or however they choose to gamble. The companies already identify customers whose gambling suggests they may be at risk and take steps to protect them—their licences require this—but they will go further. We have already seen the successful launch of GamStop, the multi-operator self-exclusion scheme. I am pleased that companies have committed to building on this through the greater sharing of data between them to prevent problem gamblers from experiencing further harm.
Secondly, the five companies will use emerging technology to make sure that their online advertising is used responsibly. Where technology exists that can identify a user showing problem gambling behaviours, and then target gambling adverts away from that person, they have committed to using it. More generally, the industry has already committed to a voluntary ban on advertising during live sport during the daytime that will come into force next month.
Thirdly, operators have committed to giving greater prominence to services and campaigns that support those in need of help. They have pledged to increase the volume of their customer safer gambling messaging; to continue their support for the BetRegret campaign, which is showing promising early results; and to review the tone and content of their marketing, advertising and sponsorship to ensure that it is appropriate.
These are welcome commitments that represent significant progress in the support that operators give for those impacted by problem gambling, but as technology advances, we will need to be more sophisticated in how we respond. The five companies that have proposed these measures today will be working closely with the Government, charities and regulators so that we can address any new or developing harms. I commend the leadership of the five companies who have put these measures forward. They are proposals from some of the industry’s biggest companies. I believe that it is reasonable for the biggest companies with the largest reach and the most resources to do more and show leadership, but the industry as a whole needs to engage in tackling problem gambling, and we want other firms to look at what they can do to step up. And I repeat: it will remain open to the Government to legislate if needed, so this is not the end of this conversation. We will keep working hard as a Government to make sure we protect users, whether online or in the high street.
There is still much more to do, but today’s announcement is a significant step forward. It means substantially more help for problem gamblers, more quickly than other paths we could take. We must and we will hold the companies that have made these commitments to them, and we will expect the rest of the industry to match them. They will change lives for the better and contribute to the ongoing work we are doing to make gambling safer for everyone. I commend this statement to the House.
The whole House is united in supporting the Lionesses in their game at 8 o’clock tonight. The Opposition believe that we must capture the energy created by women’s football; 10 million people will be watching tonight. That is why we think that the next women’s World cup should be added to the “crown jewels” list of free-to-air sport.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Last September, Labour announced that we would introduce a 1% mandatory levy on gambling companies to pay for research, education and treatment of problem gambling. We stand by that commitment today: only a mandatory levy will do.
I am glad that the gambling industry has sat up and listened to what we and other campaigners, on both sides of the House, are saying on this issue. Credit where it is due: the big five companies have shown leadership and responsibility, which are sorely lacking in some other parts of the industry. Gambling addiction costs the economy an estimated £1.2 billion a year, yet the amount that the industry currently contributes to treating addiction is paltry.
The voluntary levy, as it currently operates, asks for 0.1% of gambling yield. That target is never met. The industry turns over £14.5 billion a year, yet contributes less than £10 million a year to GambleAware. Some companies contribute amounts that are, frankly, insulting to the voluntary system. SportPesa, which sponsors Everton, and Fun88, which sponsors Newcastle, gave only £50 each last year. Both are white labels of the company TGP Europe. Best Bets gave £5, while GFM Holdings Ltd gave just £1. Given that there are 430,000 gambling addicts, 55,000 of whom are children, that is completely unacceptable and deliberately insulting to those leading players in the industry who are trying to take responsibility. Will the Secretary of State tell us how he will make such companies take more responsibility if not through a mandatory levy?
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care now supports a mandatory levy; Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, supports a mandatory levy; the Gambling Commission supports a mandatory levy; and Gambling with Lives supports a mandatory levy. However, I cannot quite understand from his statement whether the Secretary of State, who has responsibility for this policy area, supports a mandatory levy—does he or not?
We in the Opposition believe that a mandatory levy is the only way to provide the structure and consistent funding that a proper system of research, education and treatment needs, and with the NHS at the heart of the process. In the announcement today, the so-called big five have said they will fulfil the 0.1% donation to GambleAware, but where will the rest of the funding go? Who or what will establish the proper clinical models and guidelines for service provision? Can the Secretary of State tell us how the Government will ensure that the money does not just go on the companies’ pet projects?
After today, we will still have inadequate regulation and a Gambling Act that is outdated and not fit for the digital age. Gambling companies licensed in the UK are sponsoring UK football teams yet operating entirely abroad, behaving irresponsibly and fuelling addiction in countries such as Kenya. Companies are allowing customers to lose tens of thousands of pounds on multiple credit cards in a single sitting. There are companies that bombard customers who try to self-exclude with advertising emails and offers of free bets, then make them sign non-disclosure agreements when they settle.
The gambling market is broken, and it is up to the Government to fix it. We do not need a voluntary patch, but a full overhaul of rules and regulations. I fear that the Secretary of State and the Government will fail in that task.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for some, at least, of what he has said. I reassure him on a number of points. First, as he says, he has always been in favour of a mandatory levy that will raise 1% of gross gambling yield. The commitment being made by the five companies in question this morning is to fund 1% of gross gambling yield, so they are offering him what he has asked for. It seems sensible and reasonable to accept that that is what they are doing; I shall come to his other points about where the money goes in a moment.
It is also right, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the rest of the industry needs to do better—I said as much in the statement. It is important that other companies follow the example set by the five who have spoken this morning. They need to take more responsibility in the way that he suggests. As I have made clear, we do not take off the table a mandatory levy, particularly for those companies that are not prepared to proceed on a voluntary basis as the five now are.
I do not doubt that the reason why those five are proceeding in this way is a result of pressure applied by many in this House, including those of us in government who have met repeatedly with them to make clear what our expectations are and to say that, if those expectations are not met voluntarily, they will be met in other ways. I make the same clear to all those companies that have not yet come forward as those five have.
The hon. Gentleman makes the fair point that people will want to know that the funding goes to the right places and does not simply find itself recycled back into the budgets of the five companies. As a result of what has been announced today, there will now be consultation with the NHS, the Gambling Commission, GambleAware and others on where the funding should go. Those organisations, of course, are best placed to indicate where the funding can best be used. Then, of course, it will be for the Gambling Commission to audit how that spending is distributed so that we all know where it is going and we can all judge whether it has been sent to the right places. If it has not, we reserve the right to continue to act in a different way.
Some years ago, as shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I was sitting where the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) is now. I witnessed the then Labour Government and their mammoth explosion of gambling, both online and elsewhere.
Despite repeated warnings, successive Governments have failed to tackle what is a pernicious problem, particularly among less well-off people. Historically, people with gambling and other addictions who have health insurance or money can get treated, so I very much welcome the fact that some of these companies are now going to fund treatment for the less well-off. But will the Secretary of State say a little more about how he envisages these clinics? Will they be sustained on a long-term basis? What is the geographical spread? Will the money be hypothecated? Critically, will the NHS match the money from the five companies to date?
I welcome the move today, but I have to say that I am not convinced that we will not need some kind of mandatory levy in the longer term.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to be sceptical: we are all sceptical and remain sceptical in government about this. However, it would be wrong not to recognise the significant step forward that this announcement represents.
In answer to my right hon. Friend’s point about hypothecation, I should say that it has been made clear that £100 million of the money announced today will be reserved for treatment over the four-year period. We will want to make sure that the requirements for treatment are met via this contribution and those that we expect the rest of the industry to make.
As I mentioned in the statement and as my right hon. Friend knows, commitments have already been made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to spend money on gambling, which is a recognised and real health problem. The money I have announced today is to supplement that. We must make sure that there is not duplication but rather that these contributions reinforce the money that is already committed.
I thank the Secretary of State for foresight of his statement. I appreciate the progress that is being made. Having discussed many of these issues with the Secretary of State and his Department, I genuinely believe that he gets it and is improving the situation, but I would take issue with a number of points. The statement touches on the argument for a mandatory levy, but undermines it by saying that it would take a year to complete. That reminds me of the old adage that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) often reminds me of: “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty-five years ago.” If we do not start now, we will not be any closer a year from now. Is the Secretary of State suggesting that the gambling companies would withdraw their offer? If not, there is nothing to lose by starting the ball rolling now.
What we have now is an unacceptable compromise. Any amount that cannot be guaranteed, cannot be budgeted. If we are to provide education, research and support, it cannot be done piecemeal. We need to employ people, provide training and rent premises, and we need a strategy that can be followed over a five, 10 or even 15-year period. A voluntary levy does not provide such a platform. There is no continuity or security.
This offer is an attempted pay-off—a bribe—to appease the conscience of the gambling industry, and it takes the heat off. I fear it also allows the UK Government to absolve themselves of their responsibility. It leaves the commissioning of services to organisations favoured by the Gambling Commission, which is funded by the gambling industry. That is not a good model for commissioning harm-reduction services, or education and research. Will the Minister review the role of the Gambling Commission and its funding model to make sure it is effectively regulating gambling companies, including by legislating, if necessary, to ensure that responsible working practices are in place?
The draft statement says:
“I have met users who have lost more than the UK’s annual average salary on credit cards during one night of gambling online.”
Are we going to address gambling on credit cards? I see no word on that. It mentions fixed odds betting terminals, for which the maximum stake was set at £2, but let us not forget that the gambling industry was dragged kicking and screaming to the table on that particular one. I hope the same will not be said about harm reduction in years to come.
The hon. Gentleman started his comments with the mandatory levy. He is right, of course, that it will take time to do this. If someone is interested in how quickly they can do things, the sooner they start, the sooner they finish. All of that is true. I said it would take at least a year; it may in fact take nearer to 18 months because any of these changes will need to begin at the start of a tax year.
A mandatory levy would deliver a return of 1% of gross gambling yield. What is being put forward today—except by only five companies, but that represents about half of the commercial gambling industry—is exactly for that: 1% of gross gambling yield. We would not derive any more income from a mandatory levy than we will from this process, but via this process we will derive it more quickly, and that is a real advantage for the problem gamblers whom I know he and I are both very concerned to help.
I do not accept that this is a piecemeal commitment. It is a four-year commitment, which we—all of us; not just the Government—will have the opportunity to monitor. If it is not being met in the way we all expect, we can and will take further action.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the Gambling Commission receives its funding from the industry; that is generally the case with regulators. If we had a mandatory levy, it would still fund the same activities. However, I believe the Gambling Commission is the right body, as the regulator, to be able to give us the assurance, which the Opposition spokesman properly raised, that the money is being spent on the right things, not simply ploughed back into the activities of the five companies.
The hon. Gentleman knows I take the view that there is more to do in relation to gambling on credit. He knows, too, that the Gambling Commission is in the process of looking at this in detail. I want to see what it concludes, but I believe a lot more can be done on gambling on credit to make sure that those who are particularly vulnerable do not find themselves more vulnerable by gambling on credit.
The Opposition spokesman mentioned an estimate of 55,000 children addicted to gambling. Do the Government accept that this terrifically large figure is accurate? If so, what proportion of it is a result of the advent of online gambling and what age verification measures are in place to supply at least part of the solution?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is difficult to be precise about the number of young people in particular who have problems with gambling, as my right hon. Friend will recognise, but it is a fair assumption that online gambling contributes significantly to that problem. As a result, we have already seen improvements in identification and age verification. We need to see further improvements to make sure that the trend decreases.
I have been contacted by the family of a constituent who is addicted to online gambling and is trying to recover. There are some measures, to which the Secretary of State referred, to prevent online gambling, such as the website GamStop, which allows users to put controls in place to restrict their gambling activity. However, it is not compulsory for betting companies to sign up for this, and it is far too easy to bypass the current controls. Will the Secretary of State look at making GamStop mandatory, and will he support tougher controls?
We will certainly look at what more we can do. The five companies we have talked about are signed up to GamStop, and it is important that more accept this as a useful mechanism to help those with problem gambling. It is also right that we look at banks to make sure mechanisms are in place to allow the people who choose to do so to indicate to their bank that they do not wish to spend money in these areas. We have already seen banks such as Monzo and particularly Barclays, which is a large bank, doing exactly this. Other banks are now looking at it, at our urging, because it is important that we have additional safeguards in place.
While I understand the arguments made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and sympathise with many of them because they are in the spirit of my ten-minute rule Bill, I cautiously welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, because I believe it will deliver money to start proper independent research and analysis on what can and should be done to protect the vulnerable.
With caveats, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to confirm: first, when will the voluntary levy start happening; secondly, can it be front-loaded, so that there is a pool of money to do the research as soon as possible; thirdly, who will determine who does the research; and, fourthly, how will those who have not yet volunteered be implored to join the party and to contribute a voluntary levy? Lastly, and slightly separately, what progress has been made on a ban on all gambling adverts during live sports?
Perhaps I may start at the end. My hon. Friend will know that in a few weeks—on 1 August—we expect to see instituted a ban on advertising during the currency of live sporting events before the watershed. Progress is being made, and we are pleased to see it.
I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the considerable pressure he has continued to apply to the industry. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the credit for this announcement goes not just to those making it, but to the many Members of this House on both sides who have applied consistent pressure to the gambling industry.
My hon. Friend asks when the voluntary levy will begin. As I indicated, one of the advantages of this approach in comparison with that of a mandatory levy is that we will start to see the fruits of it very shortly. By the end of this year, we expect to see additional funding coming through for the targets we wish to see addressed.
Secondly, my hon. Friend asks about front-loading. Of course, we want those who are going to be able to use this money to be able to set the parameters for how it should be used, so we must make sure that demand is met. At the moment, it is not likely that those who would be spending this money could spend £60 million a year. However, we of course want the industry to be receptive to requests for money as and when they are made, and it has indicated that it will be, so we must make sure we meet demand as it grows.
Thirdly, in relation to research funding and who will decide where it should go, as I have indicated, it will be for the industry to propose where this money should be spent, but it can be spent only in areas where the Gambling Commission and indeed others believe it is appropriate expenditure.
Last Friday, the inquest opened into the death of my constituent Jack Ritchie and I spoke to his parents shortly before the statement. He is one of too many young men who have taken their lives as a result of gambling addiction.
The BBC reports that a gambling industry spokesman has said that the welcome but modest—let us admit that it is modest—action today is to protect it from further, tougher action from us such as that on the tobacco industry. The gambling industry is right to draw the comparison with tobacco because it makes billions by creating misery and taking lives. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that we need to go further? That would include banking the concession on the voluntary levy, but preparing now for a mandatory levy; effective, independent regulation of gambling products, and moving towards the comprehensive ban on advertising and sponsorship that applied to tobacco?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he may know, I have met Jack Ritchie’s mother, and I am grateful to her, too, for the considerable work she has done with immense dignity and courage in this field. I reiterate that the credit for the changes is to be shared widely. It is not simply for those in the House to take; it is for many beyond it, and Jack Ritchie’s parents are foremost among them.
The hon. Gentleman’s points are fair. I will not comment on what people may have said to the BBC. We must stick to the facts of the proposals and what they really mean, which is that we will recover from those five companies—as I have said, they comprise about half the commercial gambling industry— at least the same amount of money as we would if we had a mandatory gambling levy. There are questions about how we can be sure that the money finds its way to the right targets. We have sensibly dealt with those this afternoon and we will need to keep our attention on them. However, the amounts involved are similar if not identical to those that a mandatory levy would recover.
The proposals do not protect the industry from tougher action, and we will need to pursue matters further in a variety of ways—through advertising and other protections. We are not insulating anybody from further action on gambling. The Government will continue to do what we believe it is responsible to do to protect those who are vulnerable. However, it is fair to accept that the proposals are a significant step in the right direction and will produce a significant step up in the funding that gets to those who most need it, whose lives have been damaged by problem gambling and who require help now. The change will help us to deliver that assistance.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and the progress that he and the Department have made on this urgent problem, which blights the lives of many people in my constituency. Will he explain the steps that he is taking to ensure that the rules around online gambling keep pace with those for offline gambling?
Yes. My hon. Friend is right that we all need to address the increasing prevalence of online gambling in the mix. She will know that the Department is currently concerned with a variety of so-called online harms, which we are trying to address more successfully than has been done thus far. However, one of the advantages of online gambling is that those companies know more about their clients because it is account-based gambling. Our expectations of them should therefore be higher, and they are.
It is right that the gambling industry fulfils its responsibilities in tackling addiction, so today’s news is welcome, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) that much more needs to be done.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the unique position of horse-racing and its relationship with gambling in terms of the levy, sponsorship and live advertising? Does he also agree that millions of people like me enjoy a flutter on the gee-gees, a bet on the football and a visit to the casino or arcade without any difficulties, as an enjoyable pastime?
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is important to recognise that not all gamblers are problem gamblers and that we must focus our attention on those who are in difficulty. It is also right to recognise that, as I said at the outset, we want the industry to be successful. However, we also want it to be responsible, and I believe that the changes will lead to greater responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to focus on horse-racing. I know that he is a huge supporter of the industry and does a great deal in this place to raise awareness, which he has done again today. He will recognise that the Government have introduced several measures, including last year’s changes to the levy itself, which brought in substantially more income—about £45 million more. We want to ensure that gambling can continue for those who enjoy it and do it responsibly and that companies take full responsibility for ensuring that any problems are properly addressed.
I welcome today’s announcement, which will lead to the biggest injection ever of funds to help with the treatment of problem gambling. I also welcome the commitment to take further action if required. Will the Secretary of State comment further on how we can use data to help solve the problem of gambling, particularly working with banks, credit card companies and the online sites, perhaps providing for the voluntary allowing of the use of data when people sign up to them?
My hon. Friend is right that we are in danger of missing some of the other important aspects of what has been proposed today. One of the proposals is that companies should share between themselves, with the consent of the individual gambler, information on any warning signs about problem gambling so that action can be taken by any provider of gambling services to which a problem gambler turns after starting with a different operator. It is important that that data is made use of so that people can be helped as soon as they arrive at the second gambling operator. If we can get consent to share that data, that will be a significant step forward.
First, I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the Lionesses. I have enjoyed their performances, with the obvious and I am sure understandable exception of the Scotland match.
I give the statement a small welcome. It goes some way towards addressing the problem, but not nearly far enough, and Liberal Democrats will continue to argue for a compulsory levy. Gambling addiction is a public health problem, with clear links to mental health issues, and it needs a public health response first. The real cuts in public health under the Government are estimated to be between £700 million and £1 billion. Does the Secretary of State believe that today’s commitment will somehow help reverse the damage done by the Government?
First, I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s gracious comments about the Lionesses. I appreciate that she would not have enjoyed their first match, but I hope that she enjoyed the subsequent matches much more.
The hon. Lady is right that we are considering a public health problem. As I said a moment ago, the Government are approaching it as such, and further action will be taken in the NHS plans to deal with problem gambling, for both adults and children. She is also right about the significant overlap with mental health problems, which of course we need to address in parallel. The money we are discussing is to enhance and add to that provision, not to replace it. It is important to say that. It is £100 million that will be diverted to treatment over four years and I hope that it will add considerably to what can be done for people who suffer from those serious problems.
I invite the Secretary of State to consider a mandatory levy from a slightly different point of view. In the statement, he rightly said that the five companies represent half the British commercial gambling industry. Would not it be fairer, under a mandatory levy, to spread that contribution across the whole industry, bringing everyone on board sooner rather than later, rather than expecting those five to pick up the bill for others, including overseas companies?
The point is that those companies are taking the action voluntarily. I welcome that positive step forward. However, no one in the House has said that that lets anybody else off the hook—quite the reverse: it demonstrates that if those five companies can do it, so can others. It is important that all others across the industry look carefully at the proposals and that we hold them to account for producing a similar commitment. If they are unwilling to do so, I have made it clear that we do not put away the prospect of further action.
The growing nightmare of online gambling, which is destroying lives and families, has been successfully halted in places across the world, in Germany and elsewhere, by simply banning it in law. May I suggest to the Secretary of State that the problem of online gambling could be solved at a stroke simply by making all gambling cash only?
I think there is a different set of questions in relation to online gambling as an entire concept and gambling on credit. As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say, there is more we can look at specifically in relation to gambling on credit. I think we have to accept that the industry, like all others, is changing. As we live more of our lives online, people wish to exercise their leisure activities more online. I do not think it would be right to suggest that we should prohibit people entirely from gambling online if that is what they wish to do. As has been observed, most gamblers are responsible and able to gamble in a way that does not put them in difficulty. However, for those who do not have that capacity and do get into difficulty, we need to offer help. That help needs to be funded by the industry. That is what is being proposed here. For the rest of the industry that is not prepared to make the same commitment, we need to take further action.
The gambling industry is one that disproportionately preys on communities with the least disposable income and least able to afford the social harms caused. Glasgow, which is home to 26% of Scotland’s most deprived communities, has the highest per capita density of betting shops of any part of the UK outside London. Indeed, there are 2,588 people per betting shop in Glasgow, compared to the richest council area in Scotland where there are 12,000 people per betting shop. There is a clear statistically significant correlation with the impact that is having on poorer communities. In Glasgow, the social harms of gambling addiction alone are estimated to be £35 million a year. That accounts for half the revenue proposed to be generated from the levy. It is certainly inadequate to deal with the extent of the social harm caused. What will the Secretary of State do to redress the £35 million loss and social harm to the city of Glasgow?
The Government need to do a number of things, and I indicated that there are actions we need to take in relation to the health service, but I believe that a substantial amount of the responsibility lies with the gambling industry itself. Again, I stress that this is a very considerable increase in the funding that is being offered. The £100 million is what is specified over those four years for treatment, but the general commitment is to 1% of gross gambling yield—exactly the same commitment that is asked for by those who argue for a mandatory levy. This is an acceptance by the industry that it bears a share of responsibility. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not get the sense from anything I have said that the Government intend to let up the pressure. We do not.
The online gambling problem is significant, but betting shops present a problem on the high street. Will any of the levy go to help local authorities to tidy up the high street not just physically but in terms of crimes committed in the vicinity, such as drug dealing and violent acts, which do break out a lot around betting shops?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the wider issues that occur. She will recognise that the commitment being made here and the conversation around the mandatory levy relates specifically to research, education and treatment. It is focused on those who are already problem gamblers and who need assistance in its treatment sense and in a research sense more broadly. We expect all partners—there are many—to work together to deal with some of the social problems she has identified. I take the view that the gambling industry is one of those partners.
I, too, give a cautious welcome to the Secretary of State’s statement. It is good news, as everyone says, that £100 million over four years has been pledged by gambling firms. However, does the Minister believe that that is not enough? Does he agree that the best way of dealing with this is not through a voluntary levy based on the least that can be gotten away with, but, rather, additional tax legislation on every gambling firm—those that have committed and those that have not—to help offset the cost to the NHS of dealing with gambling addiction?
The hon. Gentleman notes that the £100 million is specifically in relation to treatment, but more money is being pledged than that. He is right to draw attention to tax. As he will know, tax measures are already in place to derive revenue from the gambling industry. They raise about £3 billion a year at the moment and it is open to any Government to reconsider the tax regime if they think it appropriate to do so. At the moment, however, I believe we should approach this with an open mind. We should seek to ensure that not just these five companies make the contributions they are offering but that the rest of the industry does so too, so we can funnel that money to where it is most needed.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would very much welcome your advice. You will be aware of the considerable issues with the Department for Work and Pensions processing all manner of benefits, including universal credit and employment and support allowance, and the huge impact delays can have on people across the country who are left in extreme poverty as a result. Sadly, yet another of my constituents is affected by what I can only see as incompetence. I wrote to the DWP on 18 April asking when my constituent John Russell could expect an answer to a personal query about his employment and support allowance of several months before. Despite several contacts, he has not yet received a reply. My own intervention has been ignored by the Department for some 13 weeks, even though we have chased it up. Can you tell me how I might break through this barrier of ignorance and get my constituent the answers he needs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me notice of it. It is obviously very concerning that it appears that the Department for Work and Pensions has been unresponsive to the concerns he has quite properly raised on behalf of his constituent. He has raised those concerns and they are on the record. I very much hope that those on the Treasury Bench have heard those concerns and will report them back to the DWP as a matter of urgency.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder if you might be able to give me some advice. It has come to my attention that yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the noble Lord Dubs of Battersea arriving in Britain on the Kindertransport on one of the last trains from Czechoslovakia. I wonder how I might be able to place on the record my admiration for Alf and his contribution to British political and civic life over many years, and to pay tribute to him from his many friends in this place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order regarding a former Member of this House. I would say that he has very successfully expressed the views of the House and all our admiration for Lord Dubs.
Breast Cancer Screening (Women Under 40)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to entitle women aged under 40 and with a family history of breast cancer to breast cancer screening services; and for connected purposes.
May I begin by putting on record my thanks to the charity Breast Cancer Now, which has given me such a great amount of support in preparing the Bill? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and the all-party group on breast cancer for their support. I thank all cross-party MPs who are backing the Bill. Even the Whip on duty, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is a two-time survivor of breast cancer. The issue affects so many in this House and I am grateful for such great support for the Bill.
I was moved to introduce the Bill thanks to an incredible young lady called Nicola Morgan-Dingley. Nicola was one of the most inspiring young women I have ever met. She was a healthy 36 year old non-smoking, marathon-running wife and mum when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, or as she called it on her blog, “the killer boob”. She came to see me not just about her own care, but about the care of all the other young women across the country. She had a passion, a calmness and a sense of spirituality that I have rarely seen in anyone. It was impossible not to want to help her.
I raised Nicola’s campaign with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions, and Nicola and I went off together to see the Health Secretary about her campaign to ensure that young women get the early screening and early detection that could save their lives. As we sat on the terrace after that meeting, and Nicola enjoyed a glass of wine and we put the world to rights, I would never have guessed that just two weeks later, at the age of 38, Nicola would lose her battle with cancer. I am here today as a tribute to Nicola, to carry on her campaign with what I am calling Nicola’s law.
The good news is that we are winning the war on cancer—more women are surviving the disease than ever before—but breast cancer remains the leading cause of death in women under 50 in England and Wales, with more than 920 losing their lives to the disease in 2017. Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer, with around 55,000 women and 350 men—it does not just affect women—diagnosed each year in the UK, and it is estimated that 5% to 15% of cases are linked to a family history of the disease.
We all know that the sooner a cancer is identified, the sooner treatment can begin and the greater the patient’s chance of surviving, so early detection is surely a vital part of any national strategy to reduce breast cancer deaths. Professor Gareth Evans recently undertook a major UK trial funded by Breast Cancer Now, which provided the strongest evidence yet that women aged 35 to 39 who are at moderate or high risk of developing breast cancer could benefit from annual screening, and that screening those women annually could pick up tumours earlier. The study found that when tumours were picked up through screening, most were smaller and less likely to have spread to lymph nodes than those in women who were not screened. Importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) has pointed out, such screenings are an opportunity also to screen for ovarian cancer, which is often linked to the same gene.
We know that women with a family history of breast cancer have a higher risk of developing breast cancer themselves and are more likely to get breast cancer at a younger age. The degree of extra risk varies according to whether breast cancer was diagnosed among someone’s first-degree relatives, such as their parents, siblings or children; their second-degree relatives, such as their grandparents, aunts or uncles, or half-siblings; or multiple family members. Breast cancer risk is also inherited from the father’s side of the family. Familial breast cancer tends to be more aggressive than non-familial breast cancer. Prognosis also appears to be partly heritable: women whose mothers died of breast cancer are more likely to die from it, even adjusting for tumour characteristics. We know that women who have breast cancer in their family are more likely to develop it and more likely to develop its most aggressive forms, and we know that detecting breast cancer early gives women the best possible chance of survival.
Based on a thorough assessment of the available evidence, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—NICE, as we all know it—recommends that women with a confirmed family history of breast cancer should be offered annual mammograms from age 40, and that women at the highest risk may be offered MRI scans from age 30. That one word—“may”—literally means life or death to some women, because not all young women are offered that screening. Despite all the evidence, young women are not getting screened. Not all women with a family history of breast cancer get access to the extra breast screening currently recommended by NICE. Screening can save lives, so why is that happening?
NICE guidelines are not implemented uniformly across the country. We need to tackle that. There is a lack of clarity about the provision of family history clinics. Only some women at the greatest risk receive family history screening though the national breast screening programme. Other women at high risk, and those at moderate risk, may—again, “may”—receive family history screening through local family history services instead. However, some might not receive it at all, and it is those young women that the Bill aims to help.
The inconsistent provision of screening is risking lives. Some young women, because of where they live and the treatments available to them, will have their breast cancer spotted early and treated; some will not. Some will survive; others will not. Imagine having to bury your wife, your daughter or your granddaughter because early screening was not available in their town or area.
In reality, neither I nor the Secretary of State, NICE or the Minister knows the scale of the hole in provision. If the Minister does know, I would be interested to hear it, but everything I am told indicates that there is a lack of national oversight of family history screening for women at all levels of risk, which may result in women not being able to access screening in some areas. We just do not know where or why.
This issue may be exacerbated by the fact that some family history clinics, which assess and support women with a family history of breast cancer, may be at risk of closure. Those clinics are not supported by national funding, and there is lack of clarity about the current governance arrangements for the provision of those services. As a result, some clinical commissioning groups may choose to stop funding family history clinics in their area. I am sure the Minister agrees that that cannot be allowed to happen.
The Bill is intended to strengthen oversight of family history services for women with a family history of breast cancer by introducing a duty on the Secretary of State for Health to ensure the rigorous and transparent implementation of current NICE family history guidelines. The purpose is to ensure that every woman in the country with a family history of breast cancer is able to access services with a proven life-saving benefit, to which they should be entitled regardless of where they live. The Bill would also require NHS England to provide clarity about the current governance arrangements for the provision of services for women with a family history of breast cancer, including the obligations CCGs have for funding family history clinics.
Thanks to Nicola, I have met or corresponded with the people she called her “warriors”. I have been astounded by how they support one another through difficult times, in person, online and in chatrooms, and I was humbled to see so many of them at Nicola’s funeral, still supporting her and one another. They are watching on today, and they want action, so I beg the Minister to support the Bill, to help to deliver Nicola’s law and to help save the lives of thousands of young women in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That Andrew Griffiths, Steve Brine, Fiona Bruce, Maria Caulfield, Marion Fellows, Carolyn Harris, Anna Soubry, Craig Tracey and Anne-Marie Trevelyan present the Bill.
Andrew Griffiths accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 413).
[7th Allotted Day]
Department for Work and Pensions
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2020, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £48,180,879,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 2154 of Session 2017-19,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £362,104,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £49,265,200,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Jeremy Quin.)
I inform the House that Mr Speaker has not selected either of the amendments listed on the Order Paper.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to lead this debate on the Department for Work and Pensions public spending estimates. In so doing, I shall explain what I think are the purpose and principles of the Department; where I feel that, unfortunately, it is currently failing; and what needs to happen to change that.
Today is about public spending. Most people in the House will know that the Department for Work and Pensions is the largest spending Department of all; it spends around a quarter of the Government’s money. However, although this is an estimates day debate, we should not focus on the money. The money is interesting really only in so far as it is for something—in so far as we spend it for a purpose and we carry out that purpose in accordance with our principles.
My hon. Friend has probably noticed that there is nothing in the estimates to help the women born in the early 1950s who lost out on their pensions. Does she agree that there will be a round of estimates coming up shortly, and we would like to know from the Minister what the Government are going to do about that, and whether the Department will include it in its estimates to the Chancellor for a future Budget?
My hon. Friend makes an effective point—which I will come to—about the position of the WASPI women, born in the 1950s. They dealt with challenges in the labour market that I have never faced. They fought for the changes that my generation benefited from, and at their point of retirement the Government undermined them. I will say why I think that is contrary to the principles on which we operate the welfare state in this country and I thank him for that appropriate intervention.
Before I come to the principles, I shall address the purpose. What is the purpose of all the money spent by the UK’s biggest spending Department? What is it for? The spending has a simple principle—and Beveridge articulated it in his report, which really commenced the modern welfare state in the UK—and that is to smooth incomes. The idea is that we spend to allow people to take money from the system when their income is low and to pay in when their income is high. It is very simple. If we allow people to smooth their potential for getting wages and income over their lifetimes, on average people will be richer than if they have to cope alone in the hard times. If we allow people to use social insurance to smooth their income, we are all better off. We pay in when we can, we take out when we need: that is how it works. It has a simple purpose. How does the system do that? It operates by some simple principles. It is a huge amount of money, but our welfare state adheres to a straightforward and simple principle—the contributory principle, one that any student of Beveridge will know all about. The idea is that we all pay in when we can and we are all entitled to take out when we need.
Why have I made those points about the simple purpose and principles of the welfare state? I do not think that very much has changed since Beveridge’s time when it comes to the fundamental way that the labour market operates and the risks that people face in their lives that will make them poorer if we do not have an effective welfare state. We are still fighting the same evils that Beveridge identified, and the reasons people might not have enough to get by are fundamentally the same as they were when he wrote his report. The one that we all know about is old age, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has already mentioned. That is why it is right that, in the 10 years since the crash, the incomes of pensioners in our welfare state have—by and large, with one notable, shameful exception—been protected. We have seen pensions keep pace with earnings and with the general movement of our economy. When the economy is growing, pensioners’ incomes have kept pace. We know that the uprating, the increase in spend on pensioners, has protected them from the possibility of poverty. No one wants to see people who have worked hard all their lives go without and struggle with poverty in their old age.
Of course, the WASPI women are an exception to that. The principle that they have paid in and that they should be able to take out in an equitable way has been undermined for them. For the reasons that have already been mentioned, that is shameful and must be changed.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for the way she is introducing the debate. Does she agree that at a time when the Conservative leadership contenders are splurging billions of pounds in spending commitments, not a single penny is available for the WASPI women and that really shows where their priorities lie?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Conservative leadership election feels like the reversal of politics as I had come to know it. I had always expected that Labour would be on the defensive when it came to public spending. I thought that my party would always have to prove that we were the ones who would deal responsibly with the economy, that we would always be on the defensive and the Tories would always be on the attack. But those competing in the Conservative leadership election seem to want to reverse that principle. They seem to want to be accused of splashing the cash. Given that one of the candidates found nearly £10 billion to be spent on tax cuts, I suggest that the debate should never again be about whether austerity was necessary, but should instead be a simple question of political priorities.
The hon. Lady is making some powerful points, many of which I agree with, and I am also concerned by some of the pledges in the leadership contest about the spending of taxpayers’ money. What does she think about Labour’s election manifesto pledges of £1 trillion of spending?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the 2017 manifesto. I simply remind him that before the publication of the manifestos in that election most people expected the Conservative party to get a stonking great majority so that it could push through its version of Brexit based on the quality of their manifesto as opposed to ours. I point the hon. Gentleman to the historical facts, as it did not turn out at all like that.
To return to the point about the WASPI women, I completely accept that we all want to make sure that people have dignity in retirement, but does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the Government’s figures show that reversing the impact of the decision to raise the state pension age in line with rising life expectancy would cost £181 billion? Where on earth would we find such a sum of money?
The hon. Gentleman is a fellow member of the Treasury Committee and I thank him for his intervention. That is an interesting forecast. I do not think that dealing with the injustices would cost anything like as much, but if he wishes to have the discussion, we have many hours on the Committee together and I will happily discuss his spreadsheet any time he wishes.
Before my hon. Friend gets to that spreadsheet, she is making an important point. The budget has been brought more into balance by the cuts in welfare benefits, which have been concentrated on families with children. In our constituencies, many people have been pushed into hunger and destitution for the first time in their experience, not because they have lost talent or the ability to manage, but because for the first time in a century we are cutting benefits to the very poorest.
I thank my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention. He brings me to the point that I was just about to make, which was what Beveridge might have thought of what we have done to family benefits. When we have children, life costs more. Beveridge knew that in the 1930s and 1940s, and family benefits were always designed to be a solid part of the modern welfare state that would help our country rebuild after the second world war. That is also because those benefits rely on the contributory principle. How on earth do we expect to get responsible adults who are able to use their talents for the benefit of our country and get to the point in their lives when they can adequately pay back to the welfare state if children’s ability to grow and learn has been undermined at the very point when they needed the welfare state to pay out for them? We take out when we need, and we pay in when we can. That goes for family benefits along with everything else.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, as I would expect of her. Last week the Scottish Government introduced a new Scottish child payment which, when delivered in full, will mean an extra £10 a week for more than 400,000 children. The Child Poverty Action Group has described it as a “game changer” for tackling child poverty. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is the sort of proposal that this Government should be implementing for the whole of the United Kingdom, and to which the Labour party should commit itself?
The hon. and learned Lady will know that I believe in the pooling and sharing of resources across the United Kingdom. If the Scottish Government have found evidence that there is a way of aiding children that can work, I will be learning the lessons, but I firmly believe that the way the United Kingdom’s welfare state pools and shares resources is the most powerful tool that we have with which to tackle the child poverty that worries me today.
We know that the projections for child poverty over the next few years are a disgrace. We will see it rise to record highs, and if we do not make a decision and do something about it, it could affect more than 5 million children by 2024. I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am not prepared to stand by and see the welfare state that this country has built over many years fail at that level. I am not prepared to see the contributory principle that says that we pay out to people in need so that they can pay in when they can, become fatally undermined by the growing wound in our country that is child poverty.
I should like all Members who are present today to ask themselves a simple question. On the basis of the purpose of the welfare state and the principles by which it operates, is the DWP’s current spending a success? We all know the answer to that question. It stares us in the face when we think about what is going on in our own constituencies, and the people whom we see in our surgeries. It stares us in the face when we walk through the doors of the House of Commons and see the destitution, and when we know that a person died on our own doorstep. It stares us in the face when we hear from the Trussell Trust that last year it handed out 1.6 million food bank parcels.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) made exactly the right point. Do we think that there were 1.6 million incidences of fecklessness? Do we think that there were 1.6 million incidences of people being so unable to deal well enough with their lives that they had to turn to food banks and beg for help? Do we think that there were 1.6 million incidences of error, or mistake, or confusion? Quite clearly not. What we have seen are 1.6 million incidences of injustice and unfairness.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again; she is being very generous.
One of the main contributions to poverty is poverty wages, as a result of which people have been driven to food banks. A couple of months ago, I visited a food bank in my constituency. Think about it: in a semi-rich city like Coventry, 22,000 people used a food bank last year. Does that not tell us a story?
My hon. Friend has made his point well. We all know that the DWP is failing because we see it every day, but why is that failure happening? I think it is pretty obvious from the DWP’s policies that it has radically misunderstood poverty. While its aims and objectives in dealing with poverty are all absolutely worthwhile and worthy, they will never get to the root cause of it.
The DWP’s policy paper sets out its next steps for action on poverty. It wants to help through the troubled families programme, and it wants to identify people with complex needs. It talks about addiction, and it talks about education. The problem is that while those are factors in people’s lives that are associated with poverty—of course lower educational achievement is a risk for people who grow up in poverty, and of course addiction is a problem in communities that have less wealth—it is possible to do very well at school and still be poor, and it is possible to be poor and not addicted to anything. It is possible for people to have excellent family relationships, to look after each other and be able to take care of their families, but still to suffer the consequences of low incomes, because the root cause of poverty is not any of those other things; it is not having enough money. What my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South said about poverty wages was right, and that is why the DWP must change course.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and no one would question some of the things that she has said, but does she not understand that when people suffer from addiction—the terrible pain of addiction—that is why they struggle to get into work, and to earn and look after themselves? Addiction is a root cause of poverty. [Interruption.] Of course it is; don‘t be ridiculous.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because he has illustrated exactly the point that I am making. I have every sympathy and every empathy with people who suffer from addiction and associated mental health conditions, but those conditions affect everyone in society. They are not solely about people who are poor. Moreover, there are plenty of people who just do not have enough money, and who do not suffer from any of those problems. The point that I am trying to make is that the DWP is failing because it has missed the central point. The cause of poverty is not having enough money, and it is our duty in the House to do something about it.
If the hon. Gentleman really wants to argue with me, then be my guest.
I very much want to argue with the hon. Lady. The truth is, is it not, that poverty is a result of some of the problems that people face in society. If those problems are removed, people are considerably less likely to be poor, because they are more likely to be able to work. I have met people who have started out in life from a very good position, but have suffered terrible heroin addiction and have consequently been unable to work. The reason those people have no money is that they have suffered from heroin addiction.
Let me try this another way. The people whom the hon. Gentleman has mentioned who are suffering from addiction deserve our sympathy, empathy and solidarity, and they deserve help, but so does the kid at school who is working hard, who has great teachers, but who goes home and sees his parents struggle. The cause of poverty is a simple thing: it is not having enough money. It is possible for the Government to have brilliant programmes in all other spheres and still fail to deal with the wound in our society that means people turning up at food banks and children who are unable not to be hungry during the holidays because they can no longer rely on free school meals.
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, “Ask yourself this question: if we had dealt with every addiction problem in our country, would that necessarily solve the problem of poverty if wages were still too low and this Government were still hellbent on taking money, year after year after year, out of the welfare state which is there to support the family of that child who is working hard at school?”
What, then, has to change? We have to reassess the contributory principle as it affects families, and we have to decide that in this country we will ensure that families can make ends meet. That is why I—along with a number of other Members and the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown—have set out over the summer to try to establish the principles of a programme that could enable them to make ends meet.
I believe that the programme should look like this. Step one must be to end the policies that are breaking the principle of Beveridge’s welfare state. We know what they are. The two-child limit means that 800,000 families with three or more children who are currently receiving tax credit are at risk. While the Government say that the two-child policy will save them billions of pounds, we know that every child matters—every child counts for something—and that is why that policy cannot be allowed to continue. If it does, we know from all the evidence and the child poverty forecasts that it will drive up poverty for children in this country living in a household with three children or more. If anybody thinks that somehow knowing that the Government are going to punish the third child in a family will help to guide families as to family size, I simply say they have probably missed the fundamentals of reproduction. We do not hold children responsible for the actions of their parents, and our welfare state should not do that.
The hon. Lady is making a very important point extremely well. Does she agree that one of the unbelievable aspects of the two-child cap is that it does not take into account that not everyone who has two children and decides to have a third is on benefits when they make that decision? A family’s circumstances can change overnight through no fault of their own, yet the Government seek to punish them for that.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point, and that is the entire point of the welfare state at all: our circumstances can change overnight through no fault of our own. And the idea that the Government have set up this arrangement of the two-child policy because they want to send some sort of political message to people about having children or not is crazy; there is absolutely no evidence that it works.
The second thing that has to change immediately is the benefits freeze for working-age people, specifically families. We know the cost to families of the four-year freeze that people have already lived through. That should come to an end this year, but who knows—who knows what the next Tory Prime Minister will choose to do; who knows if they will still choose to punish families. But we know that the reality is that working-age families have not had that lock that pensioners have had; they have not had that connection between the wages going up for everybody else in society and the money that they have to support them. It is simply neither fair nor effective to have a welfare state that does not help families grow up with enough to get by. We are simply undermining the ability of our next generation to contribute to the welfare state when it is their turn.
Thirdly, we need to reappraise the welfare state and find a balanced approach of universal benefits and targeted benefits. We do not have time to go into the intricacies of the ways in which universal credit has failed, but we know that it has. We know that the sanctions regime has caused destitution, and we know that so many of the ways in which UC was supposed to make life easier for people have not turned out to work like that in practice, which is why the Government are yet to deliver the UC roll-out; we know it and they know it. That is why for the future we need a range of benefits, some of which are simpler to claim, like child benefit. Child benefit is easy. Those who have a child are, by and large, apart from the highest earners, entitled to it; it is easy and straightforward, and it would be an excellent way to stop child poverty rising if we were prepared to invest in child benefit while we also still use targeted means-tested benefits to get money to the poorest.
Finally, we need a mix of the work that the DWP does through the welfare state and through cash transfers to deal with poverty with all the other things that we know help families to get along and move forward, whether that is services for early years, nursery school, childcare or skills development, so that people can move on and move up. We know that the problem is not just low pay; it is also families being able to have enough time to build up their skills so that they can move on to the next job and get higher wages. So we need that balanced approach of universal benefits, targeted benefits and a balanced mix of the welfare state and other services that the Government can provide to help families.
But in the end my point here today is really very simple: the DWP has failed in its purpose of helping people balance their incomes throughout their lives simply because it decided that families in the UK would carry the burden of the cuts they wanted to see to the state. It has failed to adhere to that simple Beveridge principle that we pay in when we can and we take out when we need, because if we cannot fund children who really need help and support, how on earth will they grow up to be able to pay in when they can? The DWP under this Conservative Government is a failure; it is time that changed.
Order. This is a well-subscribed debate, as is the next one. I do not want to impose a formal time limit at this point, but if colleagues could take eight minutes or less that would be very helpful.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern).
In speaking today I want to commend the excellent work of my local work coaches whom I recently met at the Whitehaven Jobcentre Plus office in Copeland. They are doing a tremendous job in helping many hundreds of people in my constituency into work.
I think back to the time when I owned and managed my own children’s day nursery and remember speaking with women who did not want to work for more than 16 hours a week because it would scupper their benefits. The benefits system was a clear disincentive to work, and that has been one of the greatest changes from the introduction of UC. Under the previous welfare system people could lose over £9 of every £10 they earned, creating no financial incentive whatever to get up in the morning and go to work.
As my business was looking after other people’s children, I heard the experiences of many parents. Under UC 85% of childcare costs can now be paid regardless of how many hours a parent works, which is a huge increase in support compared with tax credits. Under the previous system it often made no financial sense to work more than 16 hours a week; now, under UC, work pays.
The recent decision to remove the two-child limit under UC for those born before 2017 is welcome. When my four daughters were all aged under five I had to combine my full-time employment with taking care of my young girls. As a direct result of this Government’s intervention a working family with two children can now receive up to £13,000 a year for their childcare costs because we have increased the available support from 70% to 85%.
We must also remember that an extra 15 hours of free childcare has now been available to working parents of three and four-year-olds since September 2017, which is enabling more parents to make work pay. Particularly for women, this makes all the difference; we now have more women in the workplace than ever before—since records began in 1971—which is making a significant difference to families’ take-home pay.
One of the greatest influences on a young person seeking employment themselves is seeing their parents enthusiastically going out to work in the morning and positively speaking about their work when they return home, as I do with my own daughters, their friends and boyfriends. There are 458,000 fewer young people out of work than in 2010, which amounts to a 50% decrease in unemployment, and welfare reform has supported the impressive figure of 1,000 jobs on average being created every day since 2010.
Will the hon. Lady kindly cite the evidence to support her statement that welfare reforms have actually led to the increase in employment, because I have evidence to show that employment has increased in spite of the welfare reforms?
I explained earlier in my speech that previously women in particular were restricting their working hours to 16 hours a week because of the benefit system, and in terms of the evidence the hon. Lady is surely not doubting that the unemployment record is at its lowest since 1971.
UC is one of the most important reforms the Government are making. I want to see high quality, affordable, flexible childcare in every town and village, and I would like to hear from the Minister what steps he and his Department are taking to make that possible. Certainly the welfare reforms are making it a more achievable goal in my community, and I welcome the Government’s efforts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on her absolutely excellent speech. She set out what social security should be about. It is about the type of society that we want. The key thrust of her message was to ask whether it is acceptable that so many children are living in poverty—one in four currently grow up in poverty, and one in five are in persistent poverty—when we are the fifth richest country in the world. Is this the sort of society we want them to grow up in, when, despite being the fifth richest country in the world, we also have the highest child mortality in western Europe?
We know the causal relationship between poverty and early childhood death. Is this acceptable? To my mind, it is not, and I am sure that many people across the Chamber agree with me. That is why I asked the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) for her evidence. We have to look at the evidence. There will also be issues with addiction, but are we seriously saying that all poverty issues relate to addiction? There is no evidence to support that. I shall get back to the point of whether this poverty is acceptable. If it is not, we need to look at mechanisms that will ensure that in the civilised society that we aspire to lead we have the policy measures to ensure that this does not happen.
Is it acceptable to be in a party that has always left office with unemployment higher than when it entered office, or is it acceptable to be in a party that has delivered record numbers of jobs?
I respond to the hon. Gentleman by asking whether it is acceptable that we have the highest level of in-work poverty and that two thirds of the children living in poverty are from those working families. I throw that back at the Government.
The hon. Lady makes the point that I was about to make, which is that we are in the completely unacceptable situation in which two thirds of the children living in poverty in this country live in households where at least one parent is working. Does she agree that that is not just a failure by the Government to protect those children but an abject failure on their part to protect the welfare state and provide a continuing welfare state that works for the people who need it most?
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more.
I am going to carry on with my questions about what we deem acceptable in our country. Is it acceptable that sick and disabled people are being isolated and excluded across our society? I believe that, in addition to children, it is sick and disabled people who have borne the brunt of this Government’s cuts. That shames us all. Nine out of 10 disabilities and illnesses are acquired. Would we want this for ourselves or for our nearest and dearest? I am sure that the answer is no, so what does that mean for our policies for sick and disabled people? Many of us on both sides of the Chamber do not think that this is acceptable. We need a thriving economy, but the present levels of inequality are stifling the growth that we need—[Interruption.] That is evidence based. I can provide evidence for the fact that inequality is stifling growth in the economy.
We need a social security system that is there for all of us. I would like to see our social security system held in the same esteem that we have for our NHS. It should be there for each and every one of us, providing dignity and security in our retirement and the support we need if we become sick or disabled or if we fall out of work. Let us face it: with the current flexibility in employment, people are going in and out of work, and the system needs to be able to reflect that. It also needs to be able to protect us from poverty, because that is what a civilised society does. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South said, this should be about smoothing out our incomes so that we do not have to be plunged into poverty when we experience extreme events. A decent social security system is a vital weapon for tackling the poverty and inequality that are now rampant across the UK.
We know that, although work and pensions spending has increased since 2010, working-age support has actually been reduced by £30 billion because of the decisions that the Government have made. We also know that those savings are set to increase even further to £38 billion by the end of the forecast period in 2023-24. These figures should include the effect of the measures announced in the 2018 Budget, which included annual spending of £1.9 billion by 2023 on universal credit. Unfortunately, although some people have benefited from universal credit, 3 million people will still be worse off under it. As I mentioned in Treasury questions this morning, 87% of all disabled people will not benefit from those Budget measures and will remain worse off under universal credit, alongside 640,000 self-employed households and 475,000 working lone-parent households.
As my hon. Friend so eloquently put it, we have seen the rise and rise of food banks and an increase in in- work poverty. We know that 4 million sick and disabled people are living in poverty, as are 330,000 more older people. I mentioned the stifling effect that this is having on the economy. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s own model has shown that the independent effect of austerity has been to stifle economic growth by at least £100 billion in 2018-19, which is the equivalent of £3,600 per household. That is my evidence to the House.
I have mentioned the human toll of these policies. In Work and Pensions questions yesterday, I mentioned Amanda, a lone parent who was pregnant and had significant mental health issues. She had her universal credit claim closed in the final weeks before she was about to deliver her child. She did not know why this had happened, but it was revealed that it was because she had not undertaken an independent review. I am pleased that the Minister said that he would take the matter up, but let us just imagine if this happened to us. How would we feel if we suddenly had our income ripped away from us and we did not know what was happening, just as we were about to have a child? This is simply unacceptable.
We know that, between 2013 and 2018, 60 disabled people a month died after their personal independence payment claims were rejected. Many others have died after being found fit for work. A Government’s first duty is to keep their people safe, and that includes their vulnerable citizens. They are failing to do this. Poverty and inequality are political choices. Many of us have made suggestions on how we can tweak the current social security system, but I believe that we need a radical transformation. As my hon. Friend said, we need a new social contract with the British people, built on the Beveridge principles, to define a 21st century social security system that treats its citizens with dignity and respect and protects them from poverty, destitution and even death.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this important debate. It is always good to have the opportunity to debate the vital work of the DWP.
The hon. Lady set us a really good challenge because—I hope I have got this right—she was basically asking, “What is the DWP for?” She articulated well Beveridge’s aspirations in the creation of the welfare state, but in addition to what she said about ensuring the smoothing of income and providing a good safety net for people when they need it and for those who are unable to work, the DWP is also about promoting the health and wellbeing of people in employment. It is that important part of the DWP’s work that I will spend some time discussing today, because it seldom gets debated in the House.
The health of the nation’s workers has never been more important. Modern society and the world of work are changing rapidly, bringing new challenges for our physical and mental health. We all spend at least a third of our lives at work, so employers have an important role to play to help workers stay healthy. Fulfilling and meaningful work can be a huge source of wellbeing and having a supportive employer can make a real difference to someone grappling with a physical or mental health condition. Crucially, four in five UK workers say that support from their employer could help them to recover quicker from an illness. Much is being done by employers but, of course, there is so much more that we can all do together.
Recent research conducted by the John Lewis Partnership revealed that, by working together, Government and industry can unlock £38.1 billion for the UK economy by 2025 through fast access to psychological services and physiotherapy for employees grappling with a physical or mental health condition. We know that the main two reasons for people falling out of work is poor mental health or a musculoskeletal condition.
The Working Well coalition is a new and growing group of MPs, charities, employers and think-tanks, and together we are committed to do more to improve the health of the nation’s workers. To achieve that, we all need to play our part. We need businesses to take a leadership role in promoting good physical and mental health at work, and I saw during my time at the DWP what some of the UK’s best employers are doing, supported by the Health and Safety Executive. Business can be a real force for good in society, and we want to do more to support other employers, large and small. We want to galvanise others behind the business case for action and to work in partnership with our public services to promote a healthy society.
The Government have an important enabling role to play to make free occupational health services for workers a non-taxable benefit in kind to promote investment from employers. Currently, such services are subject to employment taxes at an effective rate of 40%. Government and employers need to explore and draw together practical advice on physical and mental health to help employers, building on existing good practice. Many employers want to invest in health and wellbeing, but they just do not know where to start.
The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership has started a beacon project, backed by £500,000 of DWP investment. It was launched last September at Cornwall’s GrowthFest, and it aims to provide businesses with tailor-made support to enable them to build inclusive workforces. The Evident Agency is developing a scalable digital project that will deliver advice and ongoing support for businesses, working with the Cornwall growth hub and other partners to provide a single point of contact for employers developing an inclusive work place.
With record employment, many businesses in my constituency and across the country are struggling to recruit. We want to make it easier for businesses both to find the right person and to support existing employees who may have a disability or long-term health condition. In developing a digital solution, Evident Agency has engaged with several local businesses through surveys and face-to-face interviews to explore how businesses respond to mental health and disability in the workplace. It is clear that no two businesses are the same and that a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. Navigating businesses through the range of advice and support and following through with ongoing support is key. Developing a peer to peer network will be part of the solution, as will the support that large businesses could give to small businesses in their supply chain.
I welcome the recent announcement made by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions of a consultation on new measures to help employers better support people with health conditions in work. Much-needed reforms to statutory sick pay will enable it to reach those on the lowest incomes, to be more flexible, and to offer the support that people need to help them return safely to work. The Government propose to extend occupational health so that more employers are able to offer the service, and I hope that my suggestions about changing the tax system to incentivise those changes will be taken into consideration as part of that consultation, because this is the perfect opportunity to spark a revolution in workplace health and wellbeing.
A healthy society underpins a healthy economy, and we hope that this can be the start of a new dynamic partnership between the Government, employers and charities to support the physical and mental health of our 32.7 million workers and, most importantly, to close the employment gap for people with disabilities and health conditions who really want to work and play their full part in society. Surely that is a goal that everyone across the House can unite in achieving.
I welcome this opportunity to scrutinise the DWP’s spending, because when I sit in my surgery, week after week, listening to the stories of people living in poverty and struggling to survive while facing a continual battle with the benefits system, I find myself wondering just where nearly a quarter of all Government spending is going. It is certainly not reaching the people who need it most in my constituency. People have had overpayments, underpayments, long initial waiting periods, inaccessible and complex online forms that lead to uncompleted claims, a lack of support with claims, and cruel disability benefits tests, with fines consistently being overturned at appeal.
We have had plenty of debates about universal credit, and it is not working. The five-week wait for initial payment is driving people into poverty, debt and rent arrears, forcing them to turn to food banks to survive. We have already heard about the number of people using food banks. In my constituency, like everywhere else in the country, the numbers are going up year on year at an alarming rate. Despite the Government’s claim that nobody will be worse off under universal credit, we now know, thanks to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that 1.9 million adults will be at least £1,000 worse off.
While the Office for Budget Responsibility’s report at the start the year upheld the Government claim that 1 million ESA households will, on average, receive an extra £110 a month, it also showed that exactly the same number of ESA households will lose, on average, £217 a month. It is no wonder, therefore, that the UN special rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, accused Ministers of window dressing to minimise the political fallout. That is both damning and shaming.
I have spoken on many occasions about the cruel, unfair disability benefits tests that my constituents have to go through, and for what? Record numbers of people are winning appeals against the Department, and it just looks like the whole process is a stick to beat people with. As we have heard, more than 70% of personal independence payment and employment and support allowance appeals will find in favour of the claimant. One of my constituents was assessed five times in eight years of being on ESA, and despite being found fit for work each time, they won every time on appeal. How flawed must the assessment process be to be so consistently wrong? How can the cost of defending five separate appeals be justified when the decision is the same each time?
More than 16,000 appeals have overturned a PIP decision in the first three months of this year, and nearly three quarters of the 22,000 that went through a tribunal also ruled against the DWP. Waiting times for a PIP appeal are coming up to a year in my constituency—nearly a year in which some of the most vulnerable people in our society are denied the financial support that they need. Things can get worse, because if they have a Motability vehicle, they can lose that as well. I met someone last week who clearly could not get to her job on public transport, but she now faces losing her car due to a PIP assessment. I have little doubt that she will win her appeal, but what consolation will that be if she loses her job in the meantime?
Does my hon. Friend agree that this poor decision making fatally undermines the relationship between the citizen and the state, and that it must make his constituents wonder what kind of country we live in?
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for her intervention. I do sometimes wonder what kind of country we live in when vulnerable people feel the cards are so stacked against them that it is not even worth their while to appeal. Those are the people who come to see me. I do not know what happens to the people who are so beaten down by the system that they just give up, which I feel is the unintended consequence—or possibly the intended consequence—of this policy time after time.
We know that the cost of successful PIP appeals was £27 million last year. ESA is not included in that figure, but 74% of those claims were successful, too. Let us not forget the figures I uncovered towards the end of last year, which show that the Department is not even turning up to four in five appeal hearings. We know what would happen if my constituents did not turn up to four in five appointments with the DWP: they would be sanctioned straightaway.
I also hear from parents whose children are not eligible for free school meals because their household income is just a little too high, and they are struggling to provide their children with a school lunch because they cannot afford it. Many of these families are struggling to make ends meet.
We now come across parents who are eligible for help but who are not getting it due to the complicated application process and the long waiting times. I have constituents who, in the period before the first universal credit payment is made, are desperate for support but are told that they are not eligible for free school meals. Surely we can do this better and provide eligibility for free school meals when the universal credit application is made, rather than waiting until the first payment comes through.
Briefly, on access to benefits for people at the end of life, the current special rules for terminal illness—SRTI—exclude many people with terminal illnesses. I am meeting the Minister next week to discuss this, and I hope we have a constructive conversation, but I raise it now so that people are aware of some of the difficulties and of the money and time being wasted on inappropriate and unnecessary assessments.
Only 45% of people with motor neurone disease are claiming personal independence payment under SRTI. The majority of people in that situation are still using the standard claims route, which is inappropriate for their situation. They are required to fill in a long form, attend a face-to-face assessment and then wait weeks before the benefits are received.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his speech. Is he aware of Social Security Scotland’s plans to ensure that all medical evidence is available to decision makers at the application stage, so that a correct decision can be taken without the need for often demeaning, demoralising and horrible assessment processes such as the one he describes? Will he support my call for the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead?
The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful suggestion. Certainly those who have, by definition, a very short time to get these matters sorted due to terminal illness should have as much of the process done at an early stage to avoid such difficulties.
It is highly insensitive that people who have been diagnosed with what can be a devastating condition that will end their life, possibly within 12 months, have to face this extra hoop-jumping when they should be focusing on spending what time they have left with their loved ones.
The majority of people with motor neurone disease are awarded the enhanced rate of PIP anyway, so we need to make it easier for them to claim through SRTI instead of the standard route, which many are currently going down. There are a number of helpful suggestions that we can discuss with the Minister next week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) spoke passionately and eloquently about the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. She rightly drew attention to the scandal, which will not go away. The WASPI women are there, and they are growing in number. She is right that, while the Tory leadership candidates continue to spaff cash up the wall with spending promises on tax cuts for the most well off in society, for big corporations and for whatever else they decide when they wake up in the morning, it is damning that not one penny has been committed in the leadership hustings to the WASPI women.
Ultimately, it comes down to priorities, and it is clear that WASPI women are not a priority for this Government and will not be a priority for the new Prime Minister, either. The hardship, the injustice and the erosion of the contributory principle that underpins the welfare state are clearly not a priority for this Government, and it is to their shame that they continue to ignore this campaign in the face of overwhelming evidence that a real injustice is being done.
It is a privilege to take part in today’s debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on opening it. This is an important issue, and we all know that the DWP goes to the heart of so many of our constituents’ lives.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) to the Front Bench. He has done important work on all the issues surrounding bereaved parents over the past few weeks, and I think everyone on both sides of the House welcomes the Government’s new position.
Over the two years I have been an MP, I have seen at first hand the hard work, considerable commitment and personal dedication put in by the staff at Loftus jobcentre. I have seen it in the context of the redundancies at the Boulby potash mine in my constituency, which were caused by the move from mining potash to mining polyhalite. The way in which the emergency response team moved, and the work it did to support the workforce into productive and fulfilling jobs was impressive.
That speaks well for the professionalism of the men and women in our jobcentres, many of whom are sometimes unfairly miscast as people who either do not know or do not care about the lives of the people they help—that is certainly not my experience. I do not recognise the Opposition’s characterisation of so much of the front-facing work of the DWP. I tend to find that, if anything, the jobcentre workforce are unbelievably adept, graceful and kind.
To be clear, not one thing that I or any Opposition Member said criticised the work of the people on the frontline for the DWP. It is the Conservative party’s policies relating to the DWP that are at issue.
I would not ascribe it to the hon. Lady’s speech, but I have heard speeches in this place from Labour Members that have come very close to blurring the line between the policy and the people. There is sometimes a real determination to make people afraid of their experience of programmes such as universal credit by stoking up concerns, rather than pointing out the progress on rolling out this fundamentally important reform, which originally enjoyed the Opposition’s support—mainly because it is the right thing to do.
The hon. Lady rightly referred to the Beveridge principle of a welfare state that acts as a strong safety net to help those in need when the chips are down. That is not what we had under the last Labour Government, when the cost of welfare benefits rose by some £84 billion—an enormous sum of money. Welfare has to be fair to the taxpayer, as well as to recipients. This is an important issue. The balance was lost, and the public knew it was lost.
That was one reason, among many, why we won the 2010 general election. There was a widespread perception that the welfare system had strayed from its moorings and was no longer necessarily about helping people into work, or helping them to stay in work longer. For too many, it allowed a lifestyle based on the trap of dependency—my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) referred to that trap. For too many people, the logical incentive created by the system was not to work, or not to work more hours. There was nothing kind or moral about that. It was, in fact, profoundly the opposite, as the system did not help people take the true route out of poverty, which is, of course, work.
The hon. Gentleman is being characteristically generous with his time. Will he answer a simple question? How does the two-child policy provide an incentive to work when children, by definition, cannot work?
Child benefit is, obviously, a sensitive issue, but the point is that a family not in the welfare system, perhaps just above the entitlement level for welfare support, has to make rational choices in their life. All families have to make rational choices in their life about the size of the family they can afford and the choices they want to make. Lots of people find it wrong that the system would allow people to have any number of children, whereas those people not in the system have to make budgetary choices. That is not a principle I am uncomfortable defending.
Let us go to the wider point, as we need to go back to first principles on this. I do not doubt the sincere differences we have and Labour Members’ concerns, but they have to justify the fact that under their Government 1.4 million people spent most of 2000 to 2010 trapped on out-of-work benefits, with some receiving more than the average wage. Some 50,000 households were allowed to claim benefits worth more than £26,000 a year. I represent a low-wage constituency in the north of England and I simply cannot justify a situation whereby the logical thing was for people to stay earning that amount of benefits rather than to be in work. That has profound and adverse social consequences.
I think what we are trying to do with this debate is look at where we are now. The hon. Gentleman is right, and we did not get everything wrong, but what we need to do is look at the system now. It is clearly not fit for purpose. The way he was talking made it sound as though he also had concerns about the number of children, and the number of sick and disabled people, living in poverty. I am sure he was not suggesting that all the sick and disabled people who require support are shirkers or scroungers, and that there is nothing wrong with them. So what do we do now?