House of Commons
Wednesday 10 July 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Scottish Local Authorities: Communication with UK Government
We continue to work collaboratively with local authorities in Scotland. For example, the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city and region deal will deliver £45.1 million of UK Government investment to the region, demonstrating effective working between Governments, local authorities and stakeholders.
I thank the Minister for that reply and may I say how proud I was to stand up for the principle of devolution yesterday in this House? I know that the people of Stirling want their Governments to work together at all levels. Will the Minister tell us what meetings he and his officials may have planned with COSLA—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities— so that the voice of Scotland’s local authorities can be heard in Whitehall?
The National Cyber Security Centre is providing advice and practical guidance on how to improve standards of cyber-security to organisations in both the public and private sectors.
The Minister will know that the cyber-defence of the Government and industry is stronger when the best skills from around the country are deployed. With that in mind, what is he doing to encourage women and those from a black and minority ethnic background in the UK to develop their mathematical and IT skills from an early age, and to enter the cyber-security field, to protect our country and businesses?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We do need to improve our cyber-skills capacity. I am very pleased that more than 55,000 young men and women have now taken part in the CyberFirst and Cyber Discovery schemes that the NCSC helps to organise, but he is right that we need to make a particular effort with under-represented groups, including bright young men and women from our ethnic minority communities.
Given the shocking leaks we have seen from the National Security Council and of diplomatic telegrams, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office give some reassurance to our civil servants on the cyber-security of crucial confidential documents and their ability not to be compromised by foreign states or insider jobs?
The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on individual cases, but he is right about the need both for the highest possible levels of technical cyber-security in protecting those systems, and for the highest standards of discipline and respect for the confidentiality of advice on the part of everybody who has access to such material.
Cyber-security is one of the biggest threats facing not only the Government, but our major and smaller companies. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the private sector has access to the ability of state services?
The great strength of the NCSC is that it makes available the expertise developed by our agencies, in particular GCHQ, in a way that permits open access by private sector companies and third sector organisations. I held a roundtable in recent months with directors of FTSE 350 companies to highlight concerns and challenges, and to learn from their experience. There is a range of materials targeted particularly at small and medium-sized enterprises.
I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that I cannot make any comment about an inquiry that is in progress. I will say, however, that I hope the person or persons responsible will be found out and that they will be subjected to all appropriate disciplinary and, if necessary, legal sanction.
Strengthening the Union
Our commitment to continued work to strengthen the Union can be seen in practice through such initiatives as scrapping the Severn tolls, delivering city deals across Scotland and the entire United Kingdom, and investing in digital connectivity in Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the long-standing and hugely successful Union, which has seen the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English standing shoulder to shoulder and taking on the world for generations, should not be trashed by those in other regions of this great country who seek to pursue their own populist and secessionist ends? We are stronger together, are we not?
Every part of the United Kingdom gains from the membership of each other member nation of the United Kingdom. It is important that those in Government now and those who will be in Government in the future work for an outcome that respects the devolution settlement and is confident about the United Kingdom and the great strength that that collective endeavour brings.
A number of my constituents have expressed concern that Scottish National party colleagues will use our departure from the European Union to justify their agenda of breaking the country apart. Can my right hon. Friend assure this House that everything is being done to anticipate potential devolution consequences of Brexit, in order that the SNP cannot exploit it to shore up its own narrow agenda of breaking up the United Kingdom?
There is no doubt that the success of the SNP agenda of separation would do enormous damage to businesses and living standards in Scotland. I can reassure my hon. Friend that there has been good co-operation on frameworks to ensure that the United Kingdom single market continues to function after we leave the European Union, but also that it is in the interest of every part of the United Kingdom that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion, in a way that protects jobs, living standards and investment in our country.
Regional Ministers right across England—not only in areas such as that covered by the northern powerhouse—were a successful initiative before 2010 and could be introduced virtually immediately. Will the Minister look at that idea, perhaps supplemented by regional Select Committees in the House of Commons?
I am always happy to look at evidence that is brought forward on how we can improve our arrangements further. As I have said before, both the devolved nations and individual areas within each of the four nations of the United Kingdom have a lot to contribute.
I have a lot of time for the right hon. Gentleman, but these answers are a disgrace. While he is giving us these platitudes, both Tory leadership contenders are willing to sell the rest of the country down by prioritising a no-deal Brexit over the rest of the Union. Will the Minister now give us the assurance that he has previously given, that no deal will cause potentially fatal damage to the Union and that he will fight against it?
I have been very clear in a number of public statements that I believe that a disorderly no-deal exit from the European Union would not only cause significant economic harm in all parts of this country, but place further strain on the Union. I believe it is in the interest of everybody in every party in this House and in every part of the UK that we deliver on the referendum result of 2016, but do so in an orderly fashion that protects jobs, investment and living standards.
My right hon. Friend told The Times last week that he feared that what he called “English indifference”, if I recall correctly, was something of a threat to the Union. The reports that my Committee has produced about devolution and Brexit have called, with the support of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, for much more concrete machinery to exist between the Government of the United Kingdom and the devolved Governments, and for there to be inter-parliamentary machinery. I must say that I have found the response of the Government to be slow and somewhat indifferent. I appreciate that he is battling on many fronts at the moment, but can he speed up his enthusiasm for dealing with these issues?
Much of the work of the UK and devolved Governments in the last year and a half has involved making practical arrangements for Brexit through the completion of work on the UK frameworks on the various matters that will come back from Brussels and intersect with devolved competence. I would have hoped that my hon. Friend, given his views on Brexit, would welcome that. It is important that we and the next Government press forward with work on the intergovernmental review. I would welcome efforts by this Parliament to work more closely with devolved Parliaments in the future.
I have recently participated in events to celebrate 20 years of devolution, which has transformed the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom. Devolution has successfully brought decision making on key public services closer to the people who use them while keeping the benefits that arise from the strength of our United Kingdom.
It is nice to hear the Minister say it like he means it. The Scottish Government are launching an innovative, engaging and participatory programme of citizens’ assemblies to look at what direction the devolution settlement in Scotland might go in. By contrast, this Government have appointed Lord Dunlop, an unelected peer, to review devolution. Does that not tell us everything we need to know about this Government’s attitude to devolution? They never really wanted it in the first place.
Dearie me! The SNP need to stop misrepresenting the review. A key part of its terms of reference states that it will
“need to respect and support the current devolution settlement”.
It is about how the UK Government can work better with the devolved Assemblies and Governments. The SNP should be welcoming the review, instead of trying to foster yet another false grievance.
The Scottish and Welsh Governments recently wrote to the Minister expressing disappointment that 15 months on a review about intergovernmental relations has stalled owing to the Government’s unwillingness to make reforms. Will the Minister commit to addressing in detail each of the points in that letter, including the one on a strengthened dispute resolution process?
Constructive discussions continue on the intergovernmental review and its structure, although it has been slightly hamstrung by the lack of a Government in Northern Ireland. We hope that that can be resolved in the near future. We will of course consider all submissions with respect, because ultimately we all need to agree the way forward.
Health and justice are both devolved areas, but the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is not. Will the Minister help to remove the blockage in the Home Office, which is preventing the Scottish Government from opening a drug consumption room? The drug death figure to be released next week is set to be over 1,000 for last year.
I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be visiting to look at this issue. As we have discussed in other areas of common frameworks, there will clearly need to be some consistency on these types of issues, as crime does not respect political boundaries or borders.
I wish the Front Bench all the best in the coming reshuffle. We will be watching their futures and careers with interest. In recalling Labour’s achievement in introducing devolution, we are reminded that our country is still very over-centralised, power being concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite governing at the expense of the rest. For example, in the north and south-west alone, more than 1 million children are now living in poverty. If power was truly devolved, that situation would not arise. Basic social justice requires us to recast the constitutional contours of the British state. When will the Government finally abandon their top-down, old-fashioned ways and help to build a modern decentralised state based on a partnership with the nations and regions that reflects our diversity, instead of suppressing it, as they do now?
I do not recognise the shadow Minister’s description, not least given that we have been driving forward devolution settlements and devolving power to combined authorities in England, as well as what we have seen happen in devolution in the nations. Only this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales met those in the potential great western powerhouse to see how that could be taken forward. I find it ironic, however, to be lectured on control from the centre by a party whose leader wants to take control of the entire economy from Whitehall.
We understand that the Dunlop review is to look at the organisation of Departments and whether they are optimised for devolution. Do the Government have any plans or intention to review policy with regard to the constitution that underpins the Union and to the devolution settlement in particular?
As I said a few moments ago, the review will need to take into account and support the current devolution settlement.
I wish that, in my assessment of devolution, I could have said that it had produced better education standards in Scotland. In fact, however, Scottish schools have fallen in international rankings, and a smaller percentage of Scotland’s most deprived children go to university than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is not devolution that is at fault; it is the Scottish National party.
Innovative Technologies: Public Services
Last month I launched the Government’s technology innovation strategy, which sets out how we will approach the use of emergent technologies in future. I also launched an artificial intelligence guide which will help Departments to build on areas in which artificial intelligence is already being used effectively across Government—for example, to improve MOT inspections and prison safety.
Chichester Careline is the only telecare monitoring centre in West Sussex. It operates Mindme, a service that GPS-tracks vulnerable people, usually those with dementia, so that families, friends, carers and Careline staff can locate them 24/7. It has saved lives, and countless hours of worry. Will the Minister look into how innovative technology of that kind can be used across Government to support the most vulnerable in our society?
It is very important to highlight that sort of work. It is just another example of the impact that innovative technology can have in improving people’s lives. The purpose of the GovTech Catalyst challenge is to explore the use of technologies for adult social care, and the Geospatial Commission is helping the Government and the private sector to make better use of GPS data.
Any innovative technology is welcome if it is applied appropriately, but will the Minister ensure that when such systems are being considered, account will be taken of whether or not they make a service less personal than it is already?
Experience of innovative technology suggests that it can make services more personalised and more tailored to individual circumstances. However, it is important for us to continue to make services accessible to everyone, which is why they will always be available in a non-digital format as well.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that while our country has always been at the forefront of innovation, to allow businesses to thrive and flourish we need a sound and successful economy, which would then result in innovative public services?
I regret to say that I am not a Secretary of State; I am but a junior Minister. However, I will be looking into the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health examining precisely those issues, and the Government have set up NHSX, which oversees the use of innovative technology for that very purpose.
Speaking at the Law Society of Scotland’s conference entitled “20 years of devolution and Scotland’s parliament”, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out the Government’s clear vision of a union of strong devolved Parliaments within a strong United Kingdom, and of Scotland’s two levels of government working together to deliver for its citizens.
Devolution means that Scotland’s two Governments can work together to deliver more, and city and growth deals are an example of that. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will visit Moray tomorrow, and we are eagerly awaiting news of the Moray growth deal. Will the Minister urge him to use his visit as an opportunity to confirm the UK’s commitment to a deal that will transform our area?
As we mark 20 years of devolution, the UK Government are committing more than £1.36 billion to support economic development in Scotland through city and growth deals. All Scotland’s seven major cities now have deals, and heads of terms are expected to be agreed for Moray very soon, thanks to my hon. Friend’s tireless campaigning.
Contaminated Blood Inquiry
I am pleased that the inquiry is now hearing evidence. Sir Brian Langstaff is right to put those who have been infected, and affected, at the heart of his inquiry, and I am glad that their voices are being heard. They have been waiting for too long.
The Minister is absolutely right, but with one victim dying every 96 hours and compensation still not being paid, I wrote to the Prime Minister, along with seven Opposition party leaders, to ask for compensation to be paid now. The Prime Minister has refused. I then wrote to the two Conservative party leadership candidates on 21 June, because they are making huge spending commitments, but I have not had the courtesy of a response. Perhaps the Minister could help me with that.
I am happy to try to prompt a response to the hon. Lady’s letter. She will know that the Department of Health and Social Care has announced a major uplift in the financial support available to beneficiaries of the infected blood scheme in England, and talks are now going on with the devolved Governments about trying to get a UK-wide agreement. Questions of legal liability fall therefore to compensation and are expressly a matter for the independent inquiry.[Official Report, 22 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 12MC.]
Last week the Government responded to Lord Holmes’s independent review of access to public appointments for disabled people. We have accepted in principle all of Lord Holmes’s recommendations and will use them to update our diversity action plan, which is aimed at increasing the number of people from under-represented groups on the boards of public bodies right across the United Kingdom.
Cornish minority status was granted in 2014. The Minister will be aware that the Office for National Statistics is resisting giving Cornish people the ability to recognise as Cornish on the census. The six Cornish MPs will be submitting an amendment to the census Bill. Will the Minister apply pressure on the ONS to ensure that Cornish people can recognise as Cornish?
I recognise the passion with which Cornwall’s champions in this House put the county’s case, but the Government will be guided by the ONS’s recommendations to Government and Parliament regarding the demand for particular questions in the next census.
This morning’s Committee on Climate Change report should make stark reading for the Cabinet Office, which has a responsibility to co-ordinate the cross-governmental response to climate change. What steps is the Department taking to meet the climate change demands on the country?
As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads within Government on climate change matters, but the Government have a good record of delivery, having overseen a cut in emissions of more than 42% since 1990 and with the United Kingdom being the first member of the G7 to sign up to a legally binding net zero target.
My hon. Friend asks a fair question, and I will update the House: the Government encourage Departments and other institutions to fly the Union flag on designated days, but no others. The flying of flags is deregulated outside planning controls, and as we will be leaving the European Union on 31 October I share what I suspect is my hon. Friend’s view: that it is unlikely that we will be seeing it flying anywhere, particularly with enthusiasm, after then.
I just wish that the Labour party had been less grudging in its response to the net zero target, which was a historic step by the Government, endorsing explicitly a recommendation from the independent Committee on Climate Change. I was in south Wales just over a week ago, and I talked there to businesses and scientists who are working at the sharp end to deliver emissions reduction technologies that will make a real difference. We should all, regardless of our politics, get behind that work, welcome the achievements we have made so far and commit ourselves to future change too.
As my hon. Friend knows, small businesses are the backbone of our economy and we are determined to level the playing field so that they can win Government contracts. That is why, for example, we have introduced tough new prompt payment requirements and simplified the procurement process, and through our digital marketplace we have spent £2.5 billion, with £1.28 in every £3 going to SMEs.
I think the most important thing is that we encourage as many people as possible from the most diverse backgrounds as possible to enter the civil service and that we mentor them through, but at the end of the day it should be ability to do the job that wins out. Frankly, that matters more to the public interest than which school somebody’s parents sent them to.
The 5G testbed in the west midlands is working with the car industry in Coventry and with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of the Mayor of the West Midlands, who brought the 5G testbed there, and visit the system?
I am delighted to congratulate Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, on that initiative. It is a telling example of the importance of business and academic professionals working closely together, and I would be delighted to accept my hon. Friend’s invitation.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I was in the other place only last week, meeting Members there on a cross-party basis to discuss electoral funding issues. We have already announced a consultation paper on this, and we will look to achieve what broad cross-party consensus we can.
On the subject of strengthening the Union, does my hon. Friend share my determination to deliver Brexit and provide a new era of sovereignty and a sea of opportunity for fishermen across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland?
We look forward to the powers that will be coming back from Brussels and going to Scotland’s Parliament. Of course, there is one party that opposes that and wants those powers to stay away from the devolved level of government, and that is the Scottish National party.
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the latest figures as we have them, but I can assure her that the work that has been put in place on achieving higher Government cyber-security standards and on outreach to the private and public sectors is having a demonstrable impact on improving our resilience.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning I have spoken to Sir Kim Darroch. I have told him that it is a matter of great regret that he has felt it necessary to leave his position as ambassador in Washington. The whole Cabinet rightly gave its full support to Sir Kim on Tuesday. Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice, and I want all our public servants to have the confidence to be able to do that. I hope that the House will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.
The whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Tammy Minshall, the student paramedic who was killed in a traffic accident last week while on duty. This is a reminder of the members of all our emergency services who risk their lives each day on our behalf.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
First, I associate myself with the comments regarding the tragic accident last week.
I am pleased to see the Prime Minister is wearing green. I hope it is not merely a greenwash, as I welcome the Government legislating for net zero by 2050. Before they did that, when the target was weaker, the Committee on Climate Change had already reported that they would miss their target, and today it says that the
“policy ambition and implementation now fall well short of what is required”.
Targets are helpful, but what we need is policies that actually deliver. Clearly the Prime Minister wants to leave a climate legacy, so will she bring forward the ban on diesel and petrol cars from 2040 to 2030 or sooner, and when will she end her Government’s opposition to cheap onshore wind power?
In fact, we have an excellent record on dealing with climate change as a Government. We outperformed on our first and second carbon budgets, from 2008 to 2017; we are on track to meet the third, and the latest projections suggest that we are on track to deliver more than 90% of our required performance for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets; and we are the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. The UK is leading the world on climate change; I want other countries to follow our example.
I know my hon. Friend has been campaigning on this matter for some time and has met Ministers to discuss it. I understand that the area is about to benefit from refurbished modern trains on the Crewe to Derby line from December this year, as part of the new east midlands rail franchise. The Department for Transport will have heard my hon. Friend’s call to reopen the station at Meir, and I know that he will continue to campaign on behalf of all his constituents.
I too regret the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch. I think the comments made about him are beyond unfair and wrong. He has given honourable and good service, and he should be thanked for it. The whole House should join together in deeply regretting his feeling that he has to resign.
I join the Prime Minister in passing condolences to the family of Tammy Minshall, who died providing emergency services to our people.
Many people welcomed the powerful points the Prime Minister made when she was first appointed about burning injustices in Britain. Does she agree that access to justice is vital in order to tackle burning injustices?
There are many burning injustices and they can be tackled in a variety of ways. That is the action I have taken not just as Prime Minister but as Home Secretary. I will give the right hon. Gentleman one example: the race disparity audit, which shines a light on inequality in public services, is enabling us to put into place action that helps to ensure that people across this country, whatever their background, have access to the public services they need.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. That Act, introduced by the post-war Labour Government, gave all people access to justice, not just the rich, and was an essential pillar of a welfare state and a decent society. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition slashed legal aid in 2013 and the results are clearly very unfair. The number of law centres and other not-for-profit legal aid providers has more than halved, and there are now legal aid deserts across the country. Does the Prime Minister think that has helped or hindered the fight against burning injustices?
The point I was making to the right hon. Gentleman, which he seems to fail to recognise, is that the whole question of burning injustice is not about just access to the legal system—[Interruption.] It is all very well Opposition Members shouting about this. If the Labour party really cared about burning injustices, they would have done a darned sight more when they were in power to deal with them.
Some people have very short memories; the Tory-Lib Dem coalition cut legal aid but also brought in fees for employment tribunals. The then Minister for employment relations, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), piloted that through the House. Since that time, my union, Unison, took the Government to court and won, and, as a result, employment tribunal fees were cancelled. The cuts to legal aid affect people such as Marcus, a 71-year-old on pension credit, a leaseholder who is threatened with being evicted. He says:
“I’ve paid taxes and national insurance all my life. How is it right that when I’m being bullied and threatened with homelessness, the state won’t protect me?”
He goes on to say:
“I’ve been working to 2 am every night for the past six months collecting evidence…I’ve got no idea if I’ve prepared my evidence correctly”.
Doesn’t Marcus, trying to save his own home, deserve legal aid, in order to get proper representation in a court and be fairly heard?
Obviously I recognise the concerns that Marcus has about taking his case, but the right hon. Gentleman might reflect on the fact that a quarter of the Ministry of Justice’s budget is spent on legal aid. We spent £1.6 billion on legal aid last year. We are committing to ensuring that people can access the help they need into the future, but that is only one part of the picture. We have published a plan for legal support, to maintain and improve access to support for those in need, and we are conducting a fundamental review of criminal legal aid fee schemes, which will consider criminal legal aid throughout the life cycle of a criminal case. So there are aspects of this issue that we are indeed looking at, but it is important that we ensure that we are careful with the provisions we make for legal aid, and as I say, a quarter of the MOJ budget is spent on legal aid.
Just so that everyone is aware of this, Labour is committed to restoring legal aid funding for family law, housing, benefit appeals, judicial review preparation and inquests, and real action on immigration cases. And, as we announced yesterday, we will end the leasehold scandal.
The Department for Work and Pensions is failing disabled people. The MOJ has spent tens of millions of pounds each year defending appeals, over two thirds of which were won by the claimants. Rather than spending millions defending incorrect and often immoral decisions, would that money not have been better used increasing poverty-level benefits and providing legal aid to disabled people wrongly denied their basic dignity?
I am not going to take any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman on what this Government have done for disabled people. We are committed to tackling the injustices facing disabled people, so that everyone can go as far their talents will take them. Our spending on support for disabled people and people with health conditions is at a record high. We are seeing many more people—over 900,000 more disabled people—in work as a result of what this Government have done. If he is really interested in tackling injustices, let me tell him that the biggest injustice he should tackle is in his own Labour party—he should deal with antisemitism.
This is one lecture the Prime Minister might not want to take from me, but she might care to listen to what the United Nations said when it condemned the UK Government for their “grave” and “systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. The Windrush scandal has resulted in the Government having to allocate £200 million in compensation to people wrongly deported from this country and denied services, with their lives totally pulled apart. These are people who have given their life to this country and our services. Does she think that scandal would have happened if legal aid had not been slashed by the Government and so many of those people had not been denied any representation in court?
The right hon. Gentleman really needs to think rather more carefully about his arguments. Let us look at the issue of people of the Windrush generation. I have apologised for what happened to people of the Windrush generation. I have been very clear that they are British, they are here and they have a right to be here, and that these things should not have happened. We have apologised for the mistakes that have been made.
The right hon. Gentleman raises issues relating to people who were incorrectly deported. The initial historical review looked at around 11,800 detentions and removals and identified 18 people who were most likely to have been wrongly deported or removed. Of those, six were removed or detained under the last Labour Government.
The way the right hon. Gentleman talks, we would think he was a man of principle, but what do we actually see from him? Labour policy is to ban non-disclosure agreements, but his staff have to sign them. He was an anti-racist; now he ignores antisemitism. He has been a Eurosceptic all his life; now he backs remain. He is truly living up to the words of Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others”—
Coming from the Prime Minister who created the hostile environment that brought about the Windrush scandal, who ordered “Go home” vans to drive around London, who refuses to acknowledge Islamophobia in her own party, and whose party consorts with racists and antisemites in the European Parliament and sucks up to those Governments across Europe, we do not need those kinds of lectures.
One legal aid firm said:
“We see people more desperate and in more extreme need than they were five years ago, and there is nowhere to send them. Those people are invisible to the system.”
That is a denial of people’s basic rights. The United Nations says that legal aid cuts have
“overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities”.
Without equal access to justice, there is no justice. Today, in modern Britain, millions are denied justice because they do not have the money. Isn’t that a disgrace? Isn’t that a burning injustice?
The right hon. Gentleman may do his best to ignore the antisemitism in his party, but I think—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] I think he should listen to the words of the former Labour party general secretary, the noble Lord Triesman, who said:
“We may one day be the party of anti-racism once again but it certainly isn’t today.”
The right hon. Gentleman has asked questions about injustice; let me tell him about an injustice. It is an injustice when you force people who are working hard day and night to earn an income for their family to pay more taxes because of a Labour party economic policy in government that led to the destruction of our economy. What do we see from the Labour party? You earn more; they want you to pay more tax. You buy a home; they want you to pay more tax. You want to leave something to your children; they want you to pay more tax—Labour’s £9 billion family tax. Labour used to have a slogan of “Education, education, education”; now, it is just “Tax, tax, tax. Injustice, injustice, injustice.”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The SNP promised people in Scotland in 2014 that the independence referendum was a once-in-a-generation vote. Now it is laying the foundation for another vote in just 18 months’ time. SNP Members often claim—they stand up and claim it here in this House—that Scotland is being ignored. It is being ignored by an SNP Government, obsessed with another referendum against the wishes of a clear majority of Scots. I agree with my hon. Friend that people in Scotland want a Scottish Government who focus on improving their schools, improving their health service and improving their economy—not one obsessed by separation.
I must say, every time the Prime Minister speaks in Scotland, our vote goes up.
Today is Srebrenica Memorial Day. I trust that everyone in this House will want to recognise the unbelievable sacrifice that so many faced. Yesterday, I met some of the survivors of genocide. We must do all we can to make sure that we call out the genocide-deniers, and that we learn the lessons from man’s inhumanity to man that we witnessed in the continent of Europe. Never again should that happen in Europe, or anywhere else.
May I join the Prime Minister in her words to Kim Darroch? It is a pity that the former Foreign Secretary, the candidate for leadership of the Tory party, did not stand up for our leading diplomat in the United States yesterday.
I also pay tribute to Winnie Ewing, who has her 90th birthday today. She is the only parliamentarian to sit in this House, in the Scottish Parliament and in the European Parliament. We remember the words of Winnie:
“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
Mark Carney has said that the UK economy does not appear to be growing. Danny Blanchflower, one of the few to predict the financial crisis in 2008, has said:
“The early evidence suggests the UK is already in a recession.”
The dark clouds of Brexit are with us. Will the Prime Minister continue to ignore all the warning signs of recession?
First, in relation to Srebrenica, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Every time we see a massacre of this sort, we hope that humanity will learn from it. Sadly, all too often we see that that is not the case. I was at the Western Balkans summit last Friday in Poland, working with the countries of the western Balkans, encouraging them and working with them to find peaceful ways of working together so that we can ensure that those countries see political stability and prosperity for their people in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman then talked about the state of the UK economy. I am very pleased to see that we actually have the best record in the G7 in terms of growth. We have the longest period of growth of any of the countries in the G7. We also have record numbers of people in employment, a record low in unemployment, and investment in our economy. This is an economy that is doing well, but it could really take off, and it would have done if the right hon. Gentleman had actually voted for Brexit and voted for the deal that we put to this House.
Perhaps we should look at the facts: we have record food bank use; Ernst and Young tells us that the Brexit bill so far for financial services companies alone is as much as £4 billion; foreign investment projects into the UK have dropped 14%, the lowest level in six years; car production fell 15.5% in May, the 12th straight month of decline; UK retail sales have experienced their “worst June on record”; and the near stagnation of the services sector in June is one of the worst performances we have seen over the past decade. We have the evidence, Prime Minister, on how your legacy will be driving the UK economy over the cliff into another recession. Has not this Prime Minister sacrificed the jobs and livelihoods of people across the UK in order to please her Brexiteer Back Benchers? Take no deal off the table, and take positive action to restore confidence in the economy. The blame for any recession will lie at the door of this Brexit-obsessed Government, who are incapable of doing their day job.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the car industry; I am sorry that, in referencing that industry, he did not reference the fact that in the last week we have seen the announcement by Jaguar Land Rover that it is going to manufacture electric vehicles in Castle Bromwich, preserving 2,700 jobs at the plant. We have also seen BMW announce that it is going to manufacture the electric Mini in its Oxford plant, preserving 5,000 jobs in that plant.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that he could have taken no deal off the table by voting for the deal. But if he wants to talk about economic forecasts and the future of economies, perhaps he should give a little more reflection to the fact that the forecasts for Scotland show that its economy will grow more slowly than the rest of the United Kingdom over the next four years—under an SNP Government in Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point. What we have seen in the example that he has cited is the benefit of cross-party working. This can be immensely good—immensely positive—for local communities. I am delighted to hear that Bolton Council’s bid for Farnworth town centre has been successful in progressing to the next phase of the future high streets fund. My hon. Friend is right: we believe in our high streets—that is why we have created the high streets fund. This cross-party working by Conservative-led Bolton Council has shown what can be achieved.
We are indeed continuing our work on tackling modern slavery. I was pleased that the Government responded yesterday to the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act; we have taken on board the majority of the recommendations from that independent review. That includes, of course, looking at the independent child guardians—a concept that we created—and how they can give support.
The issue that the hon. Gentleman references of the criminalisation of those forced to undertake criminal activities was addressed in the Modern Slavery Act when it was put through this House, but we continue to look at what more we can do to ensure that we are bringing an end to that crime—not just in the UK, but internationally as well.
Due to extreme pressure on services across Cornwall, leaders of our health and care services have declared a critical incident. The pressure has impacted on the Royal Cornwall Hospital in particular. That is extremely worrying for all families across Cornwall who rely on Treliske. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she will do everything she can to enable Health Ministers to support leaders in Cornwall to resolve the situation as soon as possible?
Obviously, this is a very important issue for my hon. Friend and her constituents. We are aware of the issues at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, and we know that the hospital is taking steps to rectify them. Of course, last winter Cornwall Council was supported with over £2 million of additional funding to help alleviate the pressures on the local NHS trust, but I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is going to meet MPs to discuss this matter and recognises the importance of this issue for my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Obviously, we recognise the importance of ensuring that children have access to high-quality care. We have been putting extra money into social care, including for children. But it is also about the sorts of services that are delivered. It is important for us that we have taken a number of steps to improve the facilities that are available for looking after children in communities where those children require that—for example, the standards we have set for social workers. We do see the number of children’s services that are rated “outstanding” growing across the country. I think that is important; that is a Government who are actually looking at the issues that matter to parents and to children.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that the live animal export season out of Ramsgate port is, shamefully, in full swing, with a further shipment due out tomorrow. Does she agree that long-distance live animal exports, particularly across the channel to an unknown future, should not form part of any future post-Brexit agricultural policy, when we can be free of single market strictures that treat animals as mere goods?
Obviously, my hon. Friend has raised an issue that I know is of concern to a lot of people. We are committed to maintaining our high standards on animal welfare, and food standards, once we have left the European Union. We will be replacing, of course, the EU’s common agricultural policy. What we will be doing is enabling ourselves, by being outside the European Union, to take decisions for ourselves, so we will be able to determine needs. That is an important first step towards a better future for farming—for our natural world. It is important for us to be able to do that and to maintain the high standards and quality standards for which we have a very good reputation across the world.
As the hon. Lady knows, we are already putting more money into our schools. We are already putting more funding into special educational needs. I recognise the importance of ensuring that special educational needs are properly catered for, and that the needs of those children can be properly supported. That is why I am proud of the fact that we have been putting more money into our schools. What is also important, of course, for schools is what standards of education are provided within those schools—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Lady talks about teaching. Yes, teaching is an important element of that, and we thank all our teachers, both in mainstream schools and in special educational needs schools, for the work that they do, day in and day out. I am pleased that we are seeing improved standards in our schools. That means more young people, whether they are in mainstream schools or with special education needs, having an opportunity to go far in life.
The consequences of not leaving the European Union are profound, from the loss of trust in our democracy and institutions to the economic impact of civil unrest. Can my right hon. Friend help to dispel the myth peddled by some in this House that we could simply go back to the way things were, and could she share what assessment the Government have made of these risks?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is imperative for this House to deliver on the vote of the British people in 2016. I have said that on many occasions, standing at this Dispatch Box and elsewhere. I think it is important that we do that. We could already have done that—I am sorry, but I am going to return to this theme. We could already have done that, had this House supported the deal. It will be up to my successor to find a way through this to get a majority in this Parliament, but I agree that it is important that we do deliver trust in politics by saying to people, “We gave you the choice, you told us your decision, and we will now deliver on it.”
Many of my constituents deeply oppose the Mayor of London’s plans to build over station car parks at High Barnet, Cockfosters and Finchley Central. Will the Prime Minister urge the Mayor to drop those plans, which would only make life harder for long-suffering commuters who just want to get to work and provide for their families?
I am sure my right hon. Friend appreciates the emphasis that the Government have put on more homes being built. We want to meet the ambition for 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s—it is a top priority for us—and London is a crucial part of achieving that. While it is important to get the homes built, it is also vital that the impact on the local community is properly assessed when planning decisions are made. We want to see more homes. They need to be built in the right place, and local concerns need to be properly taken into account.
I have answered the question in relation to Cambridge Analytica on a number of occasions, and it has been answered in writing to the hon. Lady by the appropriate Minister. Elections in this country are not rigged, as she puts it. The referendum was not rigged. These are the views of the British people who go to the ballot box and put their votes forward. If she is so interested in ensuring that democracy is respected, she needs to ensure that she votes for a deal, so that we can deliver on the 2016 referendum.
The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust is an academy schools trust that operates across the Witney and Maidenhead constituencies. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating its successes, such as at Holyport Primary School in her constituency and “outstanding” rated Brize Norton Primary School in my constituency? Does she agree that that is an example of how academisation can really work in rural constituencies like ours?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust on its success. I am also happy to congratulate Holyport Primary School on the recognition it has received as a good school and Brize Norton Primary in his constituency, which was rated outstanding. It shows that smaller schools in rural areas can provide an excellent quality of education and that the academy movement can provide for those schools and those children. It goes back to the point I made earlier: what matters is the quality of education our children receive, and in Holyport and Brize Norton they are receiving a first-class education.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. As he will know, I believe that universal credit is a better system than the legacy system we inherited from the last Labour Government. It helps people into the workplace and ensures that, as they earn more, they are able to keep more of that money. On the back of the Augar review, which looked at post-18 education, I have indicated that I think it is important that we ensure that our further education colleges are funded and are able to provide an alternative route through education for those young people for whom that is right.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the hard work and dedication of staff at West Cumberland Hospital, the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, the working together group and my fantastic community for their innovation and commitment, which, in addition to the over £100 million of investment from this Conservative Government, mean that consultant-led maternity services will be staying open for future generations?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend: I know she has been campaigning long and hard on that issue on behalf of her constituents. We welcome the clinical commissioning group’s decision to retain those consultant-led services in west Cumbria. Better Births has established that personalised care means safer care, and greater choice should be made available to women accessing maternity services. They should be able to make decisions about the support they need during birth, and where they would prefer to give birth. I think that a good decision has been taken, and I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign she has run.
Of course, as the hon. Lady has made clear, there has been a case recently in the courts in relation to public sector pensions—on particular aspects of public sector pensions. We will of course have to look at the implications of that judgment across public sector pensions, and it is right that we take our time and that the Government make their decisions based on that careful consideration.
I am extremely proud to represent a constituency with world-leading defence manufacturers that underpin our country’s credibility as an ally and strategic partner. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that, as we contemplate our fantastic future role in the world as an independent, self-governing and sovereign nation, the UK must continue to be a credible partner and ally in an increasingly dangerous world? Does she also agree with me that her successor should commit our country to a fully funded defence budget, so that we can remain a tier 1 military power?
I commend our world-leading defence manufacturers. They are an important industry, not only in creating and supporting jobs here in the United Kingdom, but in terms of significant exports. It is important that, as that independent, self-governing, sovereign nation, we are a good partner and ally in what is an uncertain world. We always have been that, and we will continue to be that. We continue to meet the NATO requirement of spending 2% of our GDP on defence. We are one of the few NATO countries that does that. We are the biggest European contributor to NATO, and we are the second biggest contributor to NATO. We are a leading military power, and we will remain a leading military power.
The Eden Project wants to come to the north of England—to Morecambe. I would like to have a meeting with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to talk about putting Eden into Morecambe to make sure it is the jewel in the north-west that it should be.
I commend the Prime Minister for her leadership in ensuring that this Government have legislated on the net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050. I am sure she would agree that the next step is to make sure we improve our economy and our living standards, rather than destroying them. I am hosting a conference in my constituency to talk about this issue. Will she agree to be the guest speaker?
First of all, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that such initiatives at a local level are an important part of the wider work we are doing on climate change and on making sure we leave the environment in a better state for the next generation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation, and I will look to see how busy my diary is in the autumn. [Interruption.] Well, you never know. I may have a bit more free time in the autumn. This is an important issue, and I commend him for taking this initiative at a local level, because raising awareness of climate change at a local level is important for all of us.
A number of steps have been taken over the years to legislate in relation to dangerous dogs, and we all recognise the problems that some postal workers face, including being subjected to attacks by dogs when they are just going about their business—going about a job that is of benefit to the people of our constituencies.
This week has been a game changer in the politics of Northern Ireland, with this place legislating on devolved issues and with the sad death of Sir Anthony Hart. Sir Anthony chaired the historical institutional abuse inquiry, which investigated the rape and sexual abuse of thousands of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995. Some were raped over a period of months, and some over decades.
Will the Prime Minister commit to bringing forward legislation before the summer recess to compensate those victims and to give them the justice they deserve?
First, I would like to pass on my condolences to the family and friends of Sir Anthony, who did an excellent job in the Hart inquiry of shining light on some horrific incidents that took place in Northern Ireland. Obviously, this issue was addressed by an amendment made to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill last night. As the Bill passes through Parliament, the Government will look carefully at these issues.
The next leader of the Conservative party will be an excellent Prime Minister, whichever candidate wins, and they will ensure that they take this country through Brexit, deliver on the 2016 referendum, ignore the attempts by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to try to go back on the democratic vote of the British people, and lead us forward to a brighter future.
Early diagnosis is key to further improvements in the survival rates for breast cancer. With that in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of the change and check campaign being run by Helen Addis, a member of the ITV show “Lorraine” team, and will she join me in congratulating Helen on that excellent initiative, which is already saving lives, especially at a time when she is going through her own breast cancer journey, as she describes it?
A Nottinghamshire woman whose husband is in prison for her attempted murder was yesterday served with a letter from his lawyers demanding £100,000 as a settlement in their divorce. She would have to sell her family home to give him that money, and it is simply wrong. Would the Prime Minister support a change in the law to remove automatic entitlement to joint assets in such cases?
The hon. Lady invites me to comment on a matter that is currently before the courts and will be determined through our justice system. We have careful legislation on divorce and the associated arrangements, and it is right that this is a case that is obviously, as she says, going through the courts.
It is incumbent on all of us as we look to the future to ensure that we take into account the needs of all parts of our country, of all industries and of all sectors of employment. I continue to believe that the deal that was negotiated, which would indeed have ensured the continuation of our agricultural sector, was the right way forward. Post Brexit we will be able to establish our own rules in relation to support for the farming industry in the United Kingdom, which will be to our benefit.
My constituent Lizanne Zietsman, who has made her home on the island of Arran with her husband, has been told by the Home Office that she must leave the UK by Friday 12 July. Arran residents are understandably angry and upset at the prospect of losing a valued member of their community and a petition has garnered more than 16,000 signatures in a few days. Will the Prime Minister urgently intervene and instruct the immigration Minister to meet me so that we can ensure that Lizanne can continue to contribute to, live and work on the island of Arran?
Universal Credit Fraud
Universal credit is now in all jobcentres, with around 2 million people claiming this benefit. In accordance with our approach to test and learn while rolling out universal credit, we have made several changes to the advances claimants may receive while they wait for their first payment. If they need it, people can now claim an advance from day one of their claim. They can apply in person, by phone or online—a facility we introduced in July 2018. On Monday, the BBC published an article that described cases where fraudulent applications had been made to acquire advance payments. The figures quoted are unverified.
Those who defraud the benefits system take taxpayers’ money from the poorest people in society. We have a dedicated team of investigators working on this issue, and are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that, where appropriate, perpetrators will be prosecuted: we have in fact already secured our first successful prosecution. We frequently raise awareness among frontline staff to be vigilant to fraud risks, and raise concerns where appropriate.
I remind hon. Members, and their constituents, that DWP staff will never approach a claimant on social media, or in the street, to discuss their benefit claim. Claimants should never give out personal or financial information to a third party unless they are certain they work for DWP, and have followed a password or security protocol. Anyone with concerns about their benefit claim should contact their local jobcentre directly.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for granting the urgent question. I am also grateful to the BBC whose investigative journalism uncovered this scandalous situation. The cases we have seen in the news are truly alarming and heart-breaking. The Minister says that the figures are unverified, but according to the BBC the figures come from a member of his jobcentre team, who released them to the BBC. One jobcentre reported that a third of all claims are the result of such scams by criminals operating on behalf of claimants, while at another £100,000 a month is being lost to criminals and not going to claimants who actually need it.
Those people already desperately need help. They have been pushed into serious debt by the actions of those appalling scammers and it is clear from the leaked communications that staff, and perhaps Ministers, in the Department for Work and Pensions were aware that the scams were happening. It is also worth pointing out that, from the cases that we have heard about, claimants have been doubly hit by their money being stolen by the scammers and then having to pay back the advance payment, which— as we all know—is in fact a loan. The SNP has consistently condemned the system of advance payments and feels that it is counterintuitive. The advance payment needs to stop being a loan.
The BBC has uncovered what we have been talking about for years—people being left in desperate straits by cuts to universal credit, which have seen increased food bank use and, now, people being driven unwittingly to criminals to help them to get the money they need to survive. The cases highlight the failure of universal credit to protect those who most desperately need the support that it is supposed to offer. Can the Minister not see that until universal credit is properly fixed, such desperation will continue?
The DWP says that it has already secured its first conviction, so it already knew about this situation. The Minister was quoted in a BBC article on 20 May about another heart-breaking individual case. Why did the Department not identify the loophole and attempt to correct it sooner? Why was a statement not made to the House so that we could have helped to advise our constituents? What is the scale of the fraud? When were Ministers informed? Has this activity gone unnoticed or unchecked because of the 21% cut in staff numbers reported by The Independent? Of course, Social Security Scotland has a clear commitment that when an error or fraud occurs that is not the fault of a claimant, they will not be penalised or out of pocket. Will the Minister follow that lead for the people who have been affected?
The Government’s initial response, and the Minister’s response today, has put the onus on the claimants, and that is wrong. They cannot wash their hands of this responsibility. What will the Minister now do to ensure that those affected are not left out of pocket, those who have ripped them off are brought to justice and practices are put in place to ensure that it cannot happen again?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a proactive approach to this important issue. I share his comment that it is alarming. These are criminal actions by what are, frankly speaking, parasites who target some of the most vulnerable people in society. I give the House an assurance that the Department will do everything in its power to protect those vulnerable people, and I am sure that all hon. Members would support that.
There have been 4.4 million universal credit claims and, as it stands, 42,000 staff referrals for fraud have been made, which is less than 1% of all universal credit claims. That said, each and every one of those has the potential to be a serious case. We take them seriously, they are all fully investigated and, where appropriate, we will take action. We are in talks with the CPS on several cases and, as I have said, we have already had a successful prosecution. We will look at each of the cases raised and, where it is clear that the claimant is an innocent victim who has been targeted, there would be an expectation that they would not pay the money back.
I refute, however, the broader point about universal credit. We will spend £2 billion more than the legacy system, and I very much welcome the introduction of the help to claim scheme to provide an independent additional tier of support across the jobcentre network, provided by Citizens Advice.
We are actively making improvements to the system. We are using more real time information. We are working with data suppliers. We are doing more data matching. We are using the DWP landlord portal to verify housing costs and we are developing risk models to help to assess confidence in information that is provided. There is a balance, however. In debates we have had in recent years, hon. Members have rightly pushed to make advance payments available as quickly as possible. It is the balance between being able to support people who need funding—under current rules, a vulnerable claimant in need of financial assistance can access that funding on the first day of their claim—while ensuring that we have 100% confidence that the money goes to the right person.
We are not complacent. We take this matter very seriously. We have a team of 120 staff dedicated to working on advanced payments. As I said, every case referred to us is taken very seriously and we will use the full force of the law where appropriate.
There are people offering help to those applying for benefits in exchange for a cut of what they subsequently receive—sometimes a very big cut. Will my hon. Friend consider outlawing that activity, and consider a public awareness campaign to warn people against this harmful exploitation and to signpost people to free, qualified benefits advisers such as Citizens Advice?
I thank my hon. Friend, who works tirelessly in this area. This is yet another example of a really helpful, constructive and proactive suggestion. I know the Secretary of State is very keen to see that brought forward, so that is a big yes from us. In terms of raising awareness, we are increasing training and guidance for frontline staff. Working in partnership with Action Fraud, we will be doing further national and regional press releases, social media and stakeholder engagement to raise awareness of the potential risk of fraud and of how to report it as quickly as possible.
The Government claimed that universal credit would reduce social security fraud and error by £1.3 billion. Now we know that they are clearly failing to do that, just as they are failing to protect people from poverty. The Government’s own figures show that the rate of fraud in universal credit is far higher than the rate of fraud in the benefits it is replacing. According to the BBC, fraudulent applications for advances are leaving claimants scammed and at risk of destitution, costing millions of pounds of public money.
Labour Members have repeatedly highlighted the hardship that the five-week wait for an initial payment causes, pushing many people into debt and rent arrears or forcing them to turn to food banks to survive. The Government’s stock answer is that people can apply for advances—indeed, on 28 March, the Secretary of State said that he felt the system of advances was working well. What does she think of it now?
When the National Audit Office highlighted delays in paying people last year, the right hon. Lady’s predecessor claimed that they were largely due to the need to verify identity. In June 2018, she said:
“Verification is a necessary part of any benefits system…We need to make sure we are paying the right people the right amount of money.”
How is it, then, that advances have been made to claimants with names such as Lisa Simpson, Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson?
Will the Minister tell the House how much the Government estimate this fraudulent activity is costing the taxpayer? How does that cost compare with the cost of abolishing the five-week wait? What action are the Government now taking to make sure they verify correctly the identity of people who request an advance? What action are the Government taking to support claimants in financial hardship who have clearly been the victim of a scam?
It is clear from this report that advances are not the answer to the five-week wait; they are loans that have to be paid off by claimants—in this case, the victims of scams. The Government must finally listen to the evidence and stop the roll-out of universal credit.
I am afraid there was a bit of a muddle, mixing the difference between the verification process with advance payments and the main claims for universal credit. As a Government, we take the issue of fraud, error and overpayments seriously. We anticipate that by the time we have full roll-out of universal credit, there will be a reduction of over £1 billion.
Be patient. I am answering the questions. I can only address one point at a time.
The legacy benefits system was complex. Claimants had to deal with local authorities, HMRC and the DWP. The majority of welfare issues that led to fraud, error or overpayment related to failing to provide information on changes of circumstances. Under the legacy benefits, there was an increased likelihood that people would fail to report changes of circumstances. Universal credit, however, with a single point of contact on a digital interface, makes it easier for claimants to report changes once, and it is easier for us to proactively identify when there are changes. The Government are still on target to see, with the full roll-out of universal credit, a reduction of £1 billion.
We talk about the principle of advance payments, but remember that under legacy benefits at the end of the claim the payment came too soon. We saw that claimants would in many cases be going into work, having spent a long time out of work, being anxious. They were often paid in arrears at work, so would not have access to funding. People who were desperate to work and do the right thing were financially unable to do so. Under universal credit the wait for the money is at the beginning, but with advance payments to bridge that wait. That is vital to ensuring that claimants can transition into work. As I said in my earlier response, it is the need to balance making advances available to claimants quickly and ensuring that payments are paid based on the correct circumstances.
The shadow Secretary of State raised a point about children. When verifying advance payments, we will verify identity, bank accounts, national insurance and, where they are declared a non-UK national, nationality. However, to make sure we can provide support to those who are often the most vulnerable people in society, there is manual checking of housing and children. That is the bit that can take time beyond when we have issued the advance payment, although it would be checked before the actual main claim. As I have said, by using greater access to real-time information and data matching, we will be able to speed up that process to improve confidence that all claimants for advanced payments are valid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. It is absolutely vital that we strike the balance between having absolute confidence that money is being correctly paid out and ensuring that we do not leave vulnerable claimants without access to money. Rightly, the Government have listened to the constructive work with stakeholders to ensure that on the first day of a claim people who need financial support can get it. That is the right thing to do.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We treat every case seriously and we encourage claimants who feel they may be a victim of fraud to report it immediately either directly to jobcentre staff or to Action Fraud, with which we work very closely. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with a full response.
It is obviously really important that people who need benefits should not have to wait for long periods with no money in their pocket. Will my hon. Friend confirm that any new measures to prevent fraud will not prevent our constituents receiving the advance payments they desperately need?
I think the general public will be incredulous at the level of incompetence around the universal credit system. How can it be possible that, as has been revealed this week, a brand new system is open to grotesque fraud at these levels? Does the Minister seriously expect us to accept that it is somehow acceptable for the universal credit system to recognise the “Bank of Springfield” and allow payments to be made into it?
I understand the hon. Lady’s passion on this subject. She is right that we should be doing everything we can to protect vulnerable claimants, but I remind her that there have been 4.4 million universal credit claims, that as it stands today there have been 42,000 referrals, each of them very important, and that to put it in context, since January, every month we have had more than 110,000 requests for advance payments.
We will continue to tighten up the procedures, using real-time information, data matching and the digital platforms, so that we are as robust as we can be, but we must not lose sight of ensuring that vulnerable claimants have access to funding as quickly as possible. Nobody in this House would want people not to be able to access vital financial support.
I have been raising this matter with the Minister for some time, and I welcome the fact that he says that claimants who have made a claim in error, or not made one to their knowledge, will not have to repay the advance. Will he also confirm that those claimants will be allowed to return to their legacy benefits, since they have not made a valid claim for universal credit that they are aware of, and that he will deal with these cases much more quickly than the eight weeks that my very vulnerable constituent has been waiting since I first raised this with him?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who raised this case with the Minister for Employment, who is responsible for this area. It helped to focus our minds on what more could be done. Every individual will be treated individually, and we will look at the unique circumstances. Where it is clear that they have been a victim of fraud through no fault of their own, no, we would not expect them to pay it back, and yes, we would consider putting them back on to the legacy benefits if they were better off under those.
There is huge potential for fraud in Northern Ireland, especially around the border areas; in fact, traditionally there has been a lot of social security fraud in those areas. Given that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not meeting at present and therefore the opportunities for scrutiny are limited, what contact has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and the Social Security Agency of Northern Ireland, first to identify whether fraud has been taking place, and secondly to share the methods being used and indicate the steps that the Department is taking, so that those can be used in Northern Ireland?
On the specifics of the meetings, I will have to write to provide a full answer. However, we are seeing that the cases that are being reported are clustered around particular areas, so there is a real focus in those areas on raising awareness and on targeting often very sophisticated criminal activity. As we bring forward prosecutions, we are finding that that is making a significant difference as a proactive deterrent, and rightly so.
Ministers have made one monumental misjudgment after another with universal credit. The five-week delay is forcing people into debt and dependency on food banks, and now we learn that it has opened up a bonanza for crooks and fraudsters. Will the Minister now urgently review the catastrophic five-week delay policy?
As is very clear, any claimant can access financial support from day one where it is needed. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure that everybody benefits from the personal, tailored approach that universal credit offers, which is an integral part of how we are helping to deliver record employment across all regions of this country.
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that, where there has been fraudulent activity and claimants have been transferred on to UC, he will consider revoking that. Can he explain and enlighten us all on the testimony of the DWP officials at the most recent Select Committee hearing, who said exactly the opposite?
This is in relation specifically to the cases of fraud relating to advance payments. I understand the point that the hon. Lady raises, and as ever we will continue to consider all our operational activities to ensure that we continue to deliver much-needed improvements.
The bit about this that I find most difficult is that the whistleblowers were themselves jobcentre staff. What does it say about the culture in the DWP that they felt that they could not come to the Department and had to go to the BBC? My question is simple: did the Department know about any of this or any of these cases before the BBC revealed them, and if so, what did it do about it?
Yes, of course we did. That is why we have created a team of 120 dedicated members of staff specifically looking at the area of advance payments, why we have been improving training and awareness for both claimants and our frontline staff, why we are working with Action Fraud on our communications strategy and why, rightly, we are using the full force of the law to undertake prosecutions against the parasites who are targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The advance payment fraud was reported in the media as long ago as last November, so whatever has been happening over the past eight months, as the Minister has set out, has simply not been good enough. What would it take for him to conclude that, rather than having this advance payment system, we should take away the five-week wait altogether?
But the hon. Gentleman would then have the problem of the legacy benefits: at the end of the claim, as someone moved into work, they would not have the run-on of financial support, which would leave a gap, since the majority of people who go into work are paid in arrears. With legacy benefits, we saw that people who were desperate to do the right thing and to unlock their own talent were left with a financial gap at a point when they could not get financial support. It is not a good thing to advocate going back to a legacy system that trapped people in generations of unemployment.
In responding to the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on this shocking and disgraceful criminal activity, the Minister said that he would do everything he could to “protect vulnerable people in society”. If that is the case, he will be aware that the all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness published its report last week on his Government’s six-month rule, which is causing harm and heartbreak for the dying and their families. Has he read the report’s damning evidence? If so, how can he justify his Government’s continuing with this policy?
I pay tribute to the work of the APPG and in particular the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has campaigned tirelessly with organisations such as the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Marie Curie, Parkinson’s UK and a number of others. As the Minister for Disabled People, I have had a number of meetings on this matter, particularly on the process as somebody claims through the special rules. We are aware of it, and the Secretary of State is personally passionate that we should do everything we can. This is an area in which we will be making significant improvements in the very near future.
The Minister’s defence of this system increasingly sounds absurd. The reason so many advance payments are necessary is the five-week wait introduced by his Government, which has left people in Wigan completely destitute. It is humiliating to have to beg for money at a time when they most need help, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Why does he not just give up on this defence, do the right thing and get rid of this degrading five-week wait?
The hon. Lady simply does not understand what has happened. Under the legacy benefits, people at the end of their claim as they moved into employment would lose the financial support while they waited to be paid, as more often than not people in work are paid in arrears. That left people without financial support. Under universal credit, while there is a five-week wait for the full payments, people can access advance payments.
Those moving from legacy benefits can also benefit from two weeks’ run-on, no-strings-attached additional money from housing benefit. Since the announcement in the Budget, that will also be extended to an additional two weeks of jobseeker’s allowance, income support and employment and support allowance funding. Again, there will be no strings attached to that, so potentially, combined, that means four weeks of additional funding.
The people who have suffered in this, the claimants themselves, had no part in the design of the system, and feel increasingly disempowered by the whole system. The system fraud that is being applied was originally targeted against the banks. The banks have been criticised across this House for their slowness in protecting individual customers, but they are now moving to a stage where they reimburse immediately and then look into any fraud. Why cannot the DWP do the same for each and every claimant, to take the stress of debt away from them?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is being constructive with his two suggestions. I recognise the point about people engaging with the formal process, which is one reason why I was so passionately supportive of the roll-out of the Help to Claim scheme, putting in a level of independent support across the jobcentre network, particularly for vulnerable claimants, delivered by Citizens Advice. I think that will make a significant difference.
On the broader point about learning lessons within the banking sector—at times, I am afraid, the banking sector had to be dragged and cajoled into doing the right thing —we continue to look at what more can be done. If there are vital lessons that can be taken from that, those are things that we should give serious consideration to.
I cannot at this stage, but we are looking at this as we work through the cases referred. Regardless of the amounts, for each and every victim it is incredibly serious, which is why I reiterate our commitment to do everything in our power to use the full force of the law to target the criminal gangs targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
I recently spoke to somebody who works for Jobcentre Plus, who said they felt that universal credit was not designed to support people and that the five-week delay was an example of that. She said that people were turning instead to prostitution and crime to top up their money. In the light of this recent fraud, it is time the Government abolished the five-week wait.
When we talk to work coaches up and down the country, they tell us that for the first time in generations they feel empowered to deliver a personalised and tailored level of support that treats everybody as an individual. It is an integral part of how we are delivering record employment and doing everything possible to reduce the amount of unclaimed benefits. Under legacy benefits, £2.4 billion a year was being left unclaimed, which for 700,000 of the most vulnerable—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members are laughing, but this £2.4 billion amounts to £280 per month on average for some of the most vulnerable in society. By delivering through universal credit we can get support to the people who need it.
This latest problem exposes the need for greater safeguards for anyone moving on to universal credit, be it through natural or managed migration. The Secretary of State told the Work and Pensions Committee that we would have a vote on those safeguards this month. When will that vote take place?