House of Commons
Monday 27 January 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Many powerful speeches were made in the debate on this subject last Thursday, highlighting the personal stories of those terrible events. We remember the millions of people murdered during the holocaust under Nazi persecution and in the genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
I remind hon. Members that the deadline for nominations for Select Committee Chairs is today at 4 pm. Nominations must be handed in to the Table Office.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Pension Fund Investments: Climate Change
With over £1.6 trillion in assets, UK occupational pension schemes have a significant role to play in supporting the Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. Our environmental, social and governance regulations, introduced by this Conservative Government in October 2019, mean that schemes are now required to disclose their policy on climate change. In March, we intend to publish game-changing guidance on climate-related financial disclosure. I have written to the 50 largest schemes in the country to urge them to act on their investment duties and to tackle climate risk.
I welcome the progress that has been made on pension funds addressing climate change and ask the Minister to meet me concerning a constituent who is unable to access her pension fund without paying in excess of £2,000 in fees for independent financial advice —money she does not have until she accesses her fund.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, and I am happy to meet him—that will happen very soon. His constituent should understand that Parliament collectively required a £30,000 threshold whereby no individual can withdraw their defined benefit pension without first receiving advice from an independent financial adviser. As a Conservative, I am of course very keen for individuals to make their own decisions about their own money, but this decision was made and it ensured that an individual is protected from a decision without advice.
As my constituents in Rushcliffe save for their retirement, they want to know about the potential financial risk to their pension pots from climate change and that their savings are helping to tackle, rather than embed, the climate crisis. My hon. Friend has done a lot to ensure that ESG plays a key part in pension providers’ decision making. Will he consider requiring them to disclose their exposure to climate-related risk to their members?
It is a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to the House. She obviously knows that Ken Clarke was a legend to us all, and I am sure that she will be a great champion on behalf of the citizens of Rushcliffe.
Sadly, too few schemes are making any form of disclosure about their environmental investments and their climate risk, and I am determined to change that. Every private occupational pension holder should be able to know, individually, how their fund is invested and be able to hold the trustees and asset managers to account.
With Australia burning, South sea islands drowning, millions suffering from pollution and many dying, the world faces an unprecedented climate crisis. The power of pension funds is immense and, while I welcome the funds that have demanded that investment managers must, in the words of the Minister, “do the right thing”, so much more can, and should, be done. Will he therefore agree to cross-party, Front-Bench discussions, including on convening a pensions summit of all those with power, urging them to discharge their responsibilities to clean up our world?
I have been fortunate to work with the hon. Gentleman on a number of policies over the two and a half years that we have both held this portfolio. Clearly, I will wait to see the details of his proposals, but I would be delighted, subject to having read and considered them properly, to meet him and, at the very least, discuss how we take these matters forward.
It is important that there is cross-party working on things that are as long term as pensions, but will the Minister assure the House that this transparency, which we all welcome, will not be paid for by massively increased fees charged to savers?
The hon. Lady will understand that there are two points to her question: the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures is a voluntary arrangement that organisations have already entered into, and ongoing disclosure takes place; and in respect of the fees, the Government have agreed to review the matter in 2020, and we will look at that.
Self-Employed People: Support
Our work coaches provide tailored support to self-employed claimants, helping support new businesses to thrive and working directly with them to increase their earnings. We have ensured that those who are gainfully self-employed and moved to universal credit are exempt from the minimum income floor for 12 months. We are extending that to all claimants who are gainfully self-employed from September this year.
I thank the Minister for that answer and am pleased that she is supporting self-employed people—not only in Rother Valley, but across the country. However, does she agree that the current blanket approach of the IR35 rule will lead to some damaging unintended consequences? Will she ensure that no one forced to take a permanent job under IR35 will lose out, and that we will continue to be the party of business and entrepreneurship?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to his place. I am delighted that more than 5 million people are now self-employed; that is fantastic news. This issue is the priority for me, alongside progression and youth opportunity. The Chancellor has announced a consultation in January and I urge all Members to take part; it concludes in the middle of February. We are keeping a close eye on this sector, and it is absolutely right that we should stand up for the self-employed.
Work Capability Assessments: Claimant Health
We recognise that attending a work capability assessment can be a stressful experience and have put measures in place to address that. Where possible, we will determine benefit entitlement based on written evidence alone.
Jodey Whiting took her own life in 2017 when her social security support stopped after she missed a work capability assessment that she did not know about. Last week, a psychiatrist said that Jodey’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by the DWP’s decision.
Last week, Errol Graham’s death was reported in the news. He died in 2018, of starvation. He weighed four and a half stone—again, under similar circumstances. Will the Secretary of State consider, as a matter of urgency, an independent inquiry into the deaths of claimants in these circumstances?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question; she has been a long-standing campaigner against Labour’s work capability assessment, introduced in 2008. We agree: that is why we commissioned five independent reviews and implemented more than 100 recommendations. Working with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are making sure that our frontline staff are fully trained to be in the best place to identify people at risk of suicide.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), for his ministerial visit to Macmillan call centre, which is based in my constituency. During his visit, he discussed the idea of people from the jobcentre and others having a dedicated helpline to the call centre so that they could discuss cases urgently. Will the Minister and his team make that a priority?
Macmillan do fantastic work and engage regularly with both me and the Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery. I am delighted that there was such a productive visit to the call centre, which is making a real difference to people in need of support.
I urge the Minister to look specifically at how those with acquired brain injuries are treated in the system. A woman constituent has come to me and said, “I know that I am meant to be using all my energy to try to heal my own brain, but I am having to use it all to go through the welfare system.” Is there nothing we can do to ensure that these people are treated more humanely in the system?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who, as I know from first-hand experience, has raised this issue repeatedly. We are working with stakeholders, charities and claimants on how we can continue to improve the system, particularly when it comes to gathering evidence, so that we can get support to the people most in need as swiftly as possible.
Homelessness and Rough Sleeping
As my hon. Friends will know, reducing homelessness and ending rough sleeping is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but it is a key priority for the Government and the Prime Minister. I enjoy working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the approach to delivering housing support to reduce homelessness, and I look forward to supporting his conversations with the Chancellor.
Last Friday, I visited Northfield Community Partnership and The Project, which are doing fantastic work on reducing homelessness, especially focusing on mental health, access to welfare and debt. Will the Minister continue to commit to working with voluntary organisations to reduce homelessness?
I commend my hon. Friend for the important work he does with the community partnership. Birmingham South West Jobcentre has an excellent relationship with the city council, delivering surgeries three times a week to help claimants with housing issues. My hon. Friend will be aware of the £6.5 million that the council received specifically to tackle the issue he raises. However, we will continue to work further with the organisations that he mentions, potentially through the new transformation challenge fund.
My local jobcentre in Yeovil is very proactive in assisting the smooth transition to universal credit, but I still encounter cases in which rent arrears are a problem. What more can we do to ensure that we can intervene in cases in which arrears threaten to make people homeless?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the money given to councils—including £359,000 for his own council—to help them to support homeless people. Issues such as this can often be addressed not only by discretionary housing payments but by the flexible support fund which provides hardship payments through local jobcentres.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s earlier response, but will she please tell us what is being done to help ex-forces personnel into work?
My hon. Friend—indeed, my hon. and gallant Friend—raises an important point. Last year we secured about £5 million in the spending review to bolster the role of our local armed forces champions, which means that in the forthcoming year we shall be able almost to triple the resources to support full-time champion posts so that we can try to ensure that veterans are given work that is fruitful and long-term.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her responses so far. Thanks to the work of the Government, the west midlands Mayor Andy Street and local authorities in the region, the Housing First project has made great progress so far, enabling 137 people across the region to move into their own homes and get back on track, apply for work and rebuild their lives. Will the Secretary of State join me in supporting Andy Street’s mission to end homelessness in West Bromwich East and the wider west midlands, and will her Department work with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government so that we can reach the Prime Minister’s target of ending homelessness and rough sleeping during the current Parliament?
My hon. Friend is right to praise the work that is being done in the west midlands through Andy Street, and I commend her support for it. I shall meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government later this week, and our officials are already working together on a programme to tackle homelessness.
The Scottish Government are spending £50 million to ensure that no one has to pay the bedroom tax, which is helping more than 70,000 households to sustain their tenancies. Will the Secretary of State make it her policy to abolish the bedroom tax so that we no longer have to mitigate this unfair policy in Scotland?
I actually think that the spare room subsidy was an important part of a change to deal with the challenges of homelessness, which we have just been discussing. I absolutely believe that we will continue that policy, but, as ever, when there are problems, part of the role of the discretionary housing payments is to deal with them. The hon. Gentleman will be aware—I think I am right in saying this—that the Scottish Government have not introduced that policy quite yet, but intend to do so later in the year.
Anyone who has visited a food bank or has met homeless people on their streets will know that welfare policy is the No.1 reason for the appalling rate of homelessness in our towns. As a simple starting point, if the housing element of universal credit were paid to landlords, we could make a start towards ending the appalling problem of homelessness that welfare policy is currently inflicting on our streets.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, it already can be.
One of the real concerns in my constituency is the inability of people who want to rent to do so privately with the money that is available. Will the Secretary of State look at local housing allowance rates to ensure that families who could be living in the private sector—because they cannot obtain social housing—are not living in single hostel rooms, as many of my constituents have been for many years?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the increase in the local housing allowance from April 2020. I am conscious of the fact that two thirds of the people who are homeless are in London, and I really wish that the Mayor of London and his devolved authorities would get on and help to sort this out.
Would the Minister consider using all the orphan funds swilling around in pension funds to create a new fund that could do something about this issue? On Wednesday night, I counted 15 people sleeping rough right outside our door in the tube station. Has she been to ask those men and women what brought them there? Could we not use orphan funds for that purpose and for fighting climate change?
On a broader point, we are considering aspects of liquid assets, and we have seen the example of Legal & General, which is starting to get into the housing sector. I reiterate that when the Prime Minister was Mayor of London he made it a personal priority to ensure that no one spent more than one night outside. We have not seen quite that emphasis under this Mayor, but I am sure that he will seek to do this before the elections in May.
People with Disabilities: Assessments
We have made improvements to reduce assessments for work capability and personal independence payments. This includes reducing review frequency for pensioners and people with severe or progressive conditions. We are also exploring our manifesto commitment to ensure a minimum award review duration for PIP awards.
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks, but I would like to tell him about a constituent I met recently who suffers from a progressive condition and is bothered about the frequency with which she is required to provide information, often the same information, on a form that is both lengthy and complex. Does the Minister agree that once an award has been made, the frequency of assessments should be reduced? Might that be considered in the forthcoming Green Paper?
My hon. Friend has worked hard in this area for a number of years. As part of the forthcoming Green Paper, we will be looking at how we can better use evidence, how we can continue to improve the claimant’s experience, and how we can reduce the need for unnecessary face-to-face assessments through the integrated assessment principle.
The Government’s national disability strategy finally recognises that the assessment process for PIP and ESA is burdensome for disabled people. Given that the Government now admit to the failures of these assessments, given the mental distress that they have caused, and given that more than 70% of decisions brought to an appeal tribunal are overturned and thousands of disabled people have died after being found fit for work, will the Minister now do more than simply lessen the number of reassessments? Will he scrap these unfit-for-purpose assessment frameworks for ESA and PIP once and for all?
The hon. Lady calls for something to be scrapped while not setting out what the alternative would be. We recognise that when Labour introduced the work capability assessment it needed significant improvement. That is why we had five independent reviews and implemented more than 100 recommendations. We are now exceeding 92% claimant satisfaction with the work capability assessment, and 82% of PIP claimants are satisfied with the service they get. That is why, as a Government, we are now proud to spend an additional £10 billion a year supporting those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.
I often have constituents come to see me who suffer from ongoing conditions that might be considered invisible disabilities. They tell me that the current assessment process does not accurately capture their conditions. Will the Minister continue to keep the assessment process under review, to ensure that it is fit for purpose in assessing people with invisible disabilities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have seen under PIP, 32% of claimants now access the highest rate of support, compared with just 15% under DLA. It is the hidden disabilities that have seen the most significant growth in that regard. For example, with mental health, 33% of claimants now get the highest rate, compared with just 6%—that is five times less—under the legacy benefits.
May I welcome you, Mr Speaker, and the hon. Lady to your respective places? Since 2010, there have been more than 3.8 million more people in work and 730,000 fewer children growing up in workless households. Over three quarters of this employment growth has been in full-time work, which has been proven substantially to reduce the risk of poverty. But it is not enough to have just any job: we want people to be able to progress in the workplace. To do this, we are investing £8 million to develop the evidence about what works to support people to progress.
Just 33 working hours into January this year, FTSE 100 bosses had already earned more than the average worker makes over the entire year. Since the Conservative party came into power, wages have faced their biggest peacetime squeeze since the Napoleonic era, and more than 4 million people are now in work but none the less still in poverty. It should be no surprise that the economy works for the super-rich and fails for everyone else, when the Conservative party is funded by a third of UK billionaires. Given that shameful record, why should my constituents believe a word that this Government say about tackling the scourge of poverty pay?
As far as I am concerned, one person or family in poverty is one too many, and I will work to tackle that while I am in this role. The statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of poverty. The absolute poverty rate of a child when both their parents work full time is only 4%, compared with 44% when one or both parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work where possible by offering, for example, 30 hours of free childcare to parents of three and four-year-olds. The jobcentre in the hon. Lady’s constituency is doing incredible work in this area, and I strongly recommend that she visit.
What impact does the five-week wait for universal credit have on levels of in-work poverty and on poverty overall?
Nobody needs to wait for an initial payment. An emergency or urgent payment of up to 100% of the first indicative award can be made within the first day in many cases. It is interest free and repayable over 12 months, increasing to 16 months as of next year.
I am unsurprised that the Minister did not know the answer to that question because, in response to a freedom of information request from the Poverty Alliance, the Government said that they did not hold that information. Following on from the National Audit Office saying that there is no evidence that universal credit has any link to increased employment levels, we now know that the Government have done precisely nothing in an area in which MPs, expert charities, the Scottish Government and local authorities are screaming for change. Will this Minister encourage the UK Government to open their tin ears and fix universal credit?
I recommend that the hon. Gentleman visits his local jobcentre and speaks to work coaches, because they will tell him about the impact of universal credit. More people are getting into and staying in work. Importantly, we do listen to hon. Members from across the House and to stakeholders within the Department. In addition to the measures I mentioned earlier, we now have a two-week run-on for housing benefit and will have a run-on for other legacy benefits as of October next year.[Official Report, 30 January 2020, Vol. 670, c. 8MC.]
The reality of the so-called jobs miracle is nothing but a mirage for families up and down the country. Two thirds of children living in poverty are in working households, earnings have not even recovered to 2008 levels, and the use of zero-hours contracts went up by 15% last year. Will the Minister have a word with the Prime Minister and get zero-hours contracts kicked into touch once and for all?
Employment has increased by over 3.8 million since 2010; the employment rate is 76.3%; unemployment is at its lowest rate since the ’70s, wage growth is outstripping inflation and wages are increasing at their fastest rate in a decade; and we have around a million fewer workless households and a record low 730,000 children in workless households. That is a record that we should be proud of. The hon. Gentleman talks about zero-hours contracts, but they account for 2.7% of the labour market and work very well for many people.
With average weekly earnings having risen by 3.4% compared with last year, and with the national living wage set to receive its largest cash increase in April, does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party and this Conservative Government can rightly claim to be fighting poverty for hard-working Britons?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right that real wages have risen for over a year—22 months in a row. Total wages have risen by 3.2%, but we want to go further, which is why the Chancellor announced that the national living wage will rise to £10.50 by 2024 as part of our drive to end low pay.
Trapping families in welfare year after year, which was a key feature of the last Labour Government’s welfare policy, never got anybody out of poverty. Does the Minister agree that the surest foundation on which to build a true anti-poverty strategy is to have an expanding workforce and increasing incentives for people to work?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Institute for Fiscal Studies slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap universal credit as uncosted and
“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”
We believe that work should always pay. We need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help and is fair for everyone who pays for it. Let us remember that no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.
Can the Minister confirm that this Government’s numerous increases to the personal allowance since 2015-16 have taken a further 1.74 million people out of income tax altogether?
Absolutely. Income inequality has been falling under this Government in real terms, and the national living wage will rise to £8.72 in April and to £10.50 by 2024. My hon. Friend rightly points out that our tax changes have made basic-rate taxpayers over £1,200 better off than in 2010. We have doubled the free childcare available to working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week, saving them up to £5,000 per year per child.
Universal Credit Roll-out
A record 32.9 million people are in work in this country, up by over 3.8 million since 2010. Universal credit has successfully rolled out and is now available in every jobcentre, with a caseload of 2.8 million claimants. We continue to build evidence on the experiences of claimants through our ongoing programme of research and evaluation. The next phase of delivery is to learn how to safely move people across from legacy benefits, which we are doing through our “Move to UC” pilot.
I have some extra information for the Minister’s research and evaluation. A problem regularly raised in my constituency surgeries is that claimants who receive two payslips in one month find themselves in real difficulty the following month. That is happening far too often for it to be loaded on individuals. Can something be done to alleviate these difficulties?
The hon. Gentleman characteristically asks a very good question. Universal credit is based on real-terms earnings information, so it is a complex problem. We are subject to litigation on this matter, so I cannot go into too much detail, but I would be happy to meet him at a later point to discuss this issue further. I am keen to find a solution.
The Government pushed through regulations on the managed migration of universal credit pilot only days before the summer recess without giving Members of this House a vote, as promised. In October, the Secretary of State said she was “surprised” by the small number of people who transferred in the pilot. How many claims have now been processed, and how can a pilot of up to 10,000 households possibly give a realistic picture of how transferring more than 2 million people could work?
Universal credit provides a safety net but, importantly, does not trap people in welfare. The hon. Lady is right that we are running a pilot in Harrogate. The numbers are relatively small at the moment: just under 80, with around 13 having moved on to universal credit. [Interruption.] I can see that she is shocked, but it has been rather deliberate. My clear instruction to officials was to take this slow and steady, and to go at the pace the claimant requires. I want us to ensure that we have the information necessary to roll out universal credit without leaving anybody behind. We have to get it right.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raises an important point. This often occurs at Christmas, when helpful employers want to pay their staff early so they can afford to pay for all the things they need. Can the Minister assure me that the system will be fixed by next Christmas at the latest?
As much as I would love to give my right hon. Friend that assurance, I cannot do so, but I assure him that I am working on it. Universal credit is based on real-time earnings data, so it is a tricky issue. No one loses out over the course of a year—that is an important point—but I understand that it causes budgeting issues for claimants.
I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting staff at the jobcentre in Holyhead on Ynys Môn. Can the Minister please confirm that universal credit will be more generous than the system it replaces?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I welcome her to her place. Compared with the system it replaces, universal credit will, in total, give claimants an extra £2.1 billion a year once fully rolled out. Around 1 million disabled households will receive, on average, around £100 more per month, and 700,000 families will get the extra money to which they are entitled. In short, the answer is yes.
Benefits: Administrative Errors
Each UC or PIP application is judged on its own merit, taking into account the information provided by the claimant, and robust quality assurance processes are in place to reduce administrative errors.
My constituency was a pilot and trial area for UC, and my office is still receiving complaints about simple administrative errors that have resulted in constituents losing money. When will the Department get its act together on this?
Last year, administrative errors in UC fell from 2.3% to 2.1% in respect of wrong payments. We recognise that this is still a relatively new system, and we will continue to work with claimants, charities and stakeholders to make sure that UC can continue to offer personalised, tailored support to unlock all people’s potential.
The day after the general election, the Government had the audacity to sneak out the fact that more than 650,000 disabled people lost out financially when transferring from the disability living allowance to PIP, which is 46% of all former DLA complaints. This should not be swept under the carpet, so will the Secretary of State explain why the Government have cut support for more than half a million disabled people?
The reality is that under PIP 32% of claimants now receive the highest rate of support compared with just 15% under the legacy system—that is worth £15.05 per week—and there are now 257,228 more people benefiting from PIP than did so under the legacy system.
UC smooths the transition into work and it smooths progression in work. Since it became the default benefit for newly unemployed people, we have had month after month after month of positive employment news. Is it not bizarre that Opposition Members want to scrap that system and return to the Labour system that saw millions of people either trapped in the 16-hour economy or shut out of work altogether?
Obviously this is all tied in with Hartlepool.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says, and it is absolutely clear to someone who visits a jobcentre anywhere in the country: for the first time, work coaches feel empowered to offer personalised, tailored support, working with external agencies to provide as much opportunity as possible. We must remember that under the legacy benefits £2.4 billion per year went unclaimed because the system was too complex for some of the most vulnerable people in society. That was not acceptable.
Some 45% of disabled claimants in my constituency have, as was mentioned in a previous question, lost out when they have moved from DLA to PIP. I ask the Government: has a target been given to assessment centres to take money off the disabled?
I can confirm that there is absolutely no target, and on PIP, DLA and attendance allowance combined we are now spending an £6 billion more than we did in 2010 and rightly so.
Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination
I remind everyone in the Chamber that the law is clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful. This area is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I can confirm that this Government want to do more and we have set out plans to boost vital legal protections.
By some margin, Dudley North is not showing the same fantastic rate of progress we are making with people on employment in the black country and around the country. Will the Minister use all the business-friendly measures she can, such as promoting shared parental leave, to encourage people back to work?
Whether it is shared parental leave or flexible working, we need to do everything to get more people into work and progressing. In a recent survey, four in five employers felt that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and bring them back to work. I remind the House that, under this Government, unemployment, in all nations and regions, has fallen since 2010, with 80% of employment since then in higher-skilled occupations—we are talking about 3.1 million people. If my hon. Friend is not seeing this in his constituency, I am keen to meet him to explore why.
Universal Credit: Monthly Assessment Period
Monthly assessment periods align to the way the majority of employees are paid and also allow UC to be adjusted each month. They scrap the “cliff edges” that blighted the legacy benefits system and mean that if a claimant’s income falls, they will not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC.
Salary payments that do not align with assessment periods have caused real problems for my constituents, not only in respect of the actual money that they receive but in respect of cash flow. Why will the Government not follow the recommendation of Unison and the Child Poverty Action Group and allow people to adjust the dates of their assessment period when they are paid very close to the end of the month?
As I have already said in answer to two other colleagues, the amount of universal credit paid to claimants reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, so over the course of a year it levels out and people do not lose out. I appreciate, though, that there is a budgeting issue, and I am keen to find a solution.
Universal Credit: Personal Finances
In total, universal credit is £2 billion a year more generous than the legacy system it replaces. For those who can work, universal credit ensures people take home more of their earned income and are supported to work more hours, whereas for those who cannot work, the higher disability element is more generous, meaning that 1 million disabled claimants will gain, on average, £100 a month.
Last week, a report from the debt charity StepChange found that 65% of clients said that universal credit had made it harder for them to budget and manage their finances. Given the DWP’s oversight of the UK financial wellbeing strategy, what will the Department do to ensure that universal credit helps people to recover from debt and does not make the problem worse?
I know that the hon. Lady has focused on this issue for a lot of her professional career, as well as for a lot of her parliamentary career. We do important work through the Money and Pensions Service to make debt advice available, and that is an important avenue to which people can be referred. We also work closely with Citizens Advice on the Help to Claim service, to help to provide that alternative holistic approach for which we fund the CAB.
Contracted-out Health Assessments
We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high-quality assessments that are used to decide entitlement. Providers are monitored against a range of measures, including independent audit, to improve accuracy of the advice they provide.
Atos, Capita and Maximus constantly fail to meet their targets for acceptable standards of assessment, and many claimants in North Tyneside have suffered as a result. Will the Minister tell my constituents how his Department will remedy such failures and explain why the Government have seen fit to reward those companies with extended multimillion-pound contracts?
As I have set out in previous answers, we are now spending an additional £6 billion through personal independence payments to support some of the most vulnerable people in society. Under the work capability assessment, we have 92% satisfaction, and under PIP it is 82%. We are ambitious for more and will continue to work with claimants, stakeholders and charities to improve the experience.
Universal Credit: Transitional Support
The Department is working with a range of organisations to support claimants transitioning to universal credit, building on the success of the Help to Claim scheme, which is delivered by Citizens Advice and has helped more than 180,000 people. From April 2020, a new £10 million transitional fund will provide extra help to the most vulnerable, improving access to welfare and labour market opportunities.
If someone is on a four-weekly payment cycle, they will be paid twice in one month every year. That cocks up their universal credit claim as well as their cash flow. Until we fix the system, would a simple solution not be to give an interest-free loan to tide them over that period?
I am getting a strong steer that Members would like me to take a good look at this policy area, and I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. As he knows, we are always looking at ways to improve the UC system. The amount of UC paid to claimants reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period, and those periods align to the way that the majority of employees are paid. I am of course willing to look into the issue, though, and am happy to meet my hon. Friend in due course.
The Minister will know that Warrington was one of the first pilot towns to move to universal credit, back in 2013. Today, the town has record levels of employment. However, problems have been reported to my office: new claimants often have to wait beyond a reasonable timeframe to access help. Will the Minister come to Warrington to work with me to identify changes that will speed up the process for claimants, so that we can help even more people back into work?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome him to his place. He is a strong local champion, hence his election. I would of course be very happy to visit Warrington.
Universal credit and transitioning to universal credit are causing real hardship in Nottingham, with more than 26,000 people using food banks for emergency supplies in the past year alone. Will the Minister accompany me to my constituency to see for himself the destitution and desperation caused by his Department’s policies?
I visit constituencies all around the country. Only last week I was in Scotland visiting numerous jobcentres.
We were not notified!
SNP Members were certainly notified that I was coming.
If I get the opportunity, I would very much like to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency. It is important to say that, once fully rolled out, universal credit will give claimants an additional £2.1 billion a year. It is a more generous system and I would be happy to work with her and her jobcentre to see how it is working with her constituents.
In 2013, I set up a food bank with various community leaders, not only because of the poverty and deprivation that existed, but because, at that time, there was the impending prospect of universal credit. Do the Government see food banks as a long-lasting feature for those of our population who happen to be dependent on universal credit?
I do not want anyone to feel that they have no choice but to visit a food bank. What is really important for me is understanding the drivers of food bank use. I work very closely with the Trussell Trust and independent food bank providers. Representatives of the Trussell Trust, whom I regularly meet, tell me some of the issues involved, and we are looking at addressing them. Also important for me is understanding food insecurity, as it is the key to tackling the root causes of the problem. We have also put a question on the family resource survey, which launched in April.
Benefits: Tribunal Awards
These are the figures for the most recent period for which data is available: DLA 69%; ESA 77%; and PIP 76%.
These numbers are far too high, and I suspect that one of the reasons that they are so high is that requisite paperwork is not provided until it reaches the tribunal stage. What can the Minister do to ensure that the paperwork from the applicants is provided earlier ?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often the case that additional written and oral evidence is presented at the tribunal stage, which is why we have made significant changes to the mandatory reconsideration stage where we proactively contact claimants to try to assist in gathering that data. We rolled that out halfway through last year. It is now in all the mandatory reconsideration assessments, and we have seen a significant uplift in the number of appeals overturned at the MR stage, and that is a good thing.
Since PIP was introduced, 30,000 people in Scotland have had to undergo stressful appeals, with 21,000 people having to go to court to receive their correct entitlement. Will the Minister’s Department overhaul the PIP assessment so that it works for disabled people, and not against them, or does the Minister intend to wait until Scotland can fix that for itself?
I have just set out the answer. The hon. Lady does not need to wait. We actually made significant changes last year to gather that missing additional written and oral evidence proactively, making a huge difference, and we will continue to work with claimants, stakeholders and organisations to identify other areas to improve the experience.
In the week that we leave the European Union, I am pleased to say that our labour market continues to thrive. Employment has reached a new record high of 76.3% matched by a record number of people in work, pulling Britain forward into the new decade. That includes 15.5 million women—more than ever before—and 1.3 million disabled people have joined the labour market since 2013. This shows a bright outlook for our buoyant economy as we continue to grow and enhance the labour market in this new era for our country.
Discrimination against women during pregnancy or periods of maternity leave remains a particularly problematic form of workplace discrimination, and it has affected many of my constituents. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the take-up of shared parental leave to remove the onus and the spotlight from new mothers at that particularly vulnerable period in their working lives?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads on this issue. I assure my hon. Friend that we encourage people to take up the options and we support their efforts. We will continue to do more with our work coaches on helping people to get the most out of working.
The Government have said that the aim of the Pension Schemes Bill is to support pension saving, putting the protection of people’s pensions at its heart. However, this weekend, we learned that the Financial Conduct Authority is preparing to write to just over three quarters of firms that advised individuals on pensions between 2015 and 2018 about “potential harm” in their defined benefit transfer advice. How can the Government claim to have a joined-up pension policy when pension freedoms can be exploited, giving licence to rogue financial advisers to put at risk people’s savings for retirement? Some have paid a terrible price, impoverishing them for years to come.
The hon. Gentleman will realise that FCA rules already require an individual to seek independent advice when making a DB transfer, but I urge the FCA both to crack down on transfer scammers and to ensure that the quality of advice is fit for purpose. I welcome the FCA’s action at this stage.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that important point. We already publicise pension credit as much as we can, but we are working hard to get material into jobcentres and local authority premises to ensure that take-up is as high as possible.
As I said earlier, no one has to wait five weeks for their first payment. People are able to get their initial payment on day one, repayable over 12 months—16 months as of next year. We have the two-week roll-on of housing benefit and a further two-week roll-on of additional benefits starting next year. I am considering other measures we might take, all of which will require Treasury approval, but I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss any ideas he has.
My right hon. Friend is right to point to the creation of the shared prosperity fund. Discussion is ongoing within the Government. I know that the Wales Office is already engaged in conversation; we will engage in due course, once we have got through the initial design internally.
The hon. Gentleman flagged up that issue with me earlier. We are investigating urgently, because that should not be the case.
I recently visited a jobcentre in Birmingham, where I found an incredibly vibrant and positive labour market, particularly ahead of the Commonwealth games, working with women in construction and reaching out for youth employment opportunities. I am happy to speak to the hon. Lady if that is not her experience, but I implore her to pop into the jobcentre, where she will hear a very different, vibrant message.
The hon. Lady is right to praise volunteers at her local food bank who support vulnerable people in their area. I visited a similar food bank in my own constituency that has been working together with food redistribution schemes. Marrying the two is a perfect way to try to address the challenges that people face at difficult times in their lives. The hon. Lady will be aware of the work that we have been trying to do with the Trussell Trust, and I am pleased to say that we will also be having a roundtable of independent food banks to understand how we can help them and their customers to move forwards.
We rightly welcome the fact that we are now providing an additional £6 billion to some of the most vulnerable people in society through the PIP system, but we recognise that more needs to be done to gather evidence early. Through the forthcoming Green Paper, we will be looking at how we can work better with claimants to ensure that as much evidence is presented as early as possible in order to get the right decision first time.
To be open, I am not aware of the study to which the hon. Lady refers. I will find out about it after questions, so I can send her an answer in writing. As I have mentioned to the House before, food bank use is not what we want to see in the long term. The best way to get out of poverty is through work, which is why we will continue to help people up the escalator of career progression.
Disability Direct in my constituency has a success rate of more than two thirds when helping claimants to overturn disability-related assessment decisions. Do Ministers not recognise that a welfare system that is so wrong so often is simply broken?
The proof is in the pudding. Under PIP, 32% of claimants get the highest rate; that figure was only 16% under the legacy benefit. However, we have rightly identified that the majority of people whose cases have to go to appeal are providing additional written and oral evidence, which is why we are now more proactive at the mandatory reconsideration stage. That is already making a significant and welcome difference for claimants.
The Scottish Government have used 15% of social security that has been devolved to Holyrood to exempt the war disablement pension from the assessment of income, meaning that our veterans get the full worth of that pension in Scotland. When will the Department and the Secretary of State make the same commitment for all social security benefits?
The Scottish Government are already undertaking a series of policy changes that they recognise will take some time to work through the system, while they also create their own. I think it is best to ensure that those policies are well established before we consider any further devolution.
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there are no plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees?
I am not aware, because as the hon. Gentleman will know, employment tribunals are basically managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, rather than the Department for Work and Pensions. I therefore encourage him to table a written question to BEIS instead.
My constituent did not wait five weeks for a universal credit decision. She waited five months and then started to receive payments, but there has been no mention of the backdated five months or whether a decision has been made. Will the Secretary of State urgently look at that case? If she lets me know the next time she sends one of her Ministers to my area, I will take him along with me and he can explain to my constituent why she nearly went bankrupt.
I suggest that the hon. Lady lets the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), know directly about her constituent’s particular circumstances so that he can follow up on that individually. I know that he believed that he had let hon. Members know about this matter. We take the issue seriously, and we will check after Question Time what happened regarding the communication.
Greggs in Newcastle has, as we know, given its workers a £300 bonus to share in its success as a company. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the right thing for employers to do? Does she see why so many of the employees who are on universal credit will lose so much of that bonus because it is treated as a monthly income rather than an annual income, which is what it is?
It is a one-off payment, so, in effect, it is treated as income as it would be for tax purposes. Over the course of a year it would of course balance out. It is important to stress that under the legacy benefits system it would have attracted a marginal tax rate of 91% maximum as opposed to only 75% under universal credit.
The Secretary of State’s answer to my earlier question about homeless people’s universal credit payments going to their landlords missed the point completely. Many people who are homeless have alcohol or drug abuse issues. Giving the money to them directly is not solving the problem; it needs to go to the landlord. Rather than saying that it is a choice for them, that choice should, in many cases, be made for them.
I will have to repeat the answer: that can happen.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am going to take points of order. This is exceptional—it would not normally be the case—but the Minister wishes to respond so it makes a lot more sense.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) pointed out, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), was in several of our constituencies last week and did not give any of us the courtesy of informing us. I would suggest to the Minister that rather than gadding about eating deep-fried Mars bars and patronising us, he might want to meet the Glasgow Disability Alliance, whose hustings I attended during the election campaign. Its fury at Tory incompetence on the benefits system is well known in the region, and he should meet it rather than disrespecting all of us.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister was also at Ibrox stadium in my constituency, where he met the Rangers Charity Foundation, and again we were not notified. For the benefit of new Ministers, can you inform the House of the protocol for Government Ministers visiting constituencies for which they are not the home Member?
The protocol is that all Members—whether they are Ministers, shadow Ministers or Back Benchers —who are carrying out political business in those constituencies should inform the MP that they are going there. I think it is wrong to break that protocol. I do frown upon it. It is not good practice, and it is a practice that I do not want to see happening again. In fairness, I am going to allow the Minister to come back on this, but we certainly know my position.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have now checked with departmental officials and I apologise unreservedly that such notification was not given. I think that the hon. Members know me well enough to know that such notification would have been given. In fact, they would have been very welcome to join me on those visits, which were very interesting and very informative. When I return, I will certainly be giving notification and inviting them along.
5G Network and Huawei
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for this question. I know he has a deep interest in this issue, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has corresponded with him about it over the past few months. She will address this issue herself in the other place later today.
New telecoms technologies and next-generation networks like 5G and full fibre can change our lives for the better. They can give us the freedom to live and work more freely, help rural communities to develop thriving digital economies, and help socially isolated people to maintain relationships, so the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance. The UK has one of the world’s most dynamic digital economies, and we welcome open trade and inward investment. However, our economy can prosper and unleash Britain’s potential only when we and our international partners are assured that our critical national infrastructure remains safe and secure.
As part of our mission to provide world-class digital connectivity, including 5G, my Department carried out a cross-Whitehall evidence-based review of the telecoms supply chain to ensure a diverse and secure supply base. That review’s findings were published in July 2019 and set out the Government’s priorities for the future of our telecommunications. Those priorities are strong cyber-security across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and diversity across the entire 5G supply chain. It considered the UK’s entire market position, including economic prosperity, the industry and consumer effects, and the quality, resilience and security of equipment.
However, in July, the review did not take a decision on the controls to be placed on high-risk vendors in the UK’s telecoms network. Despite the inevitable focus on Huawei, that review was not about one company or even one country. We would never take a decision that threatens our national security or the security of our allies. The Government’s telecoms supply chain review is a thorough review into a complex area that made use of the best available expert advice and evidence, and its conclusions on high-risk vendors will be reported once ministerial decisions have been taken.
The National Security Council will meet tomorrow to discuss these issues. This work is an important step in strengthening the UK’s security frameworks for telecoms and ensuring the roll-out of 5G and full-fibre networks. I know that Members on both sides of the House feel strongly about this issue, and the Government will make a statement to the House to communicate final decisions on high-risk vendors at the appropriate time. We will always put national security at the top of our agenda.
I am aiming to run this urgent question for around 45 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The interest shown in the House demonstrates the interest that many of us have in this question. As the Minister made clear, a decision will be made tomorrow which we will not have any further say on. That decision may or may not nest a dragon in our critical national infrastructure, and it will not be reversible by a future Government with any ease; we will live with this decision for the next 10, 15 or 20 years. That is why this question is so urgent and why I am so glad that you allowed time for it to be asked, Mr Speaker.
The question for us has to be: is the risk worth it? We know the stories about Huawei’s co-operation with the state apparatus of China in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia. We know stories about its connections to the intelligence services and the police state currently running in Xinjiang. We know that there are strong accusations effectively of tech-dumping, with market subsidies allowing Huawei to compete against other companies on an unfair basis. That might be an example of charity by the Chinese Communist party, but if even the Communist party in Vietnam decides to reject Huawei and set up its own network, perhaps we should beware of strangers and the gifts they bear.
This is a really important decision not only for the UK but for our allies. Today, Germany is making a similar decision. New Zealand and Australia have already made decisions. The Czech Government have already rejected Huawei. Over the coming months, more Governments will be looking at our stance on China when considering the threats that some of their institutions face.
Of course, we must work with China and find ways of co-operating in areas such as environmentalism, energy policy and technology, but when we see China’s aggressive moves towards the UN bodies that control the regulation of information and the way in which subsidies are used to take control of important networks, we should be concerned. I hope that the Minister will understand the concern that the whole House feels about Huawei and the idea of nesting that dragon and allowing a fox into the hen house when we should be guarding the wire. I hope that he will see his responsibility clearly.
I agree with some of what my hon. Friend says. He is right that this is a serious and important decision, and it will not be taken lightly by any means. I know that he does not think that I take this matter lightly, and neither does the Secretary of State. He is also right that Parliament should have its say. We are talking about this issue today, but the Intelligence and Security Committee has been writing reports on this since 2013 and made statements as recently as July last year. There have been UQs, and we have had debates in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall. It is right that Parliament expresses its view.
My hon. Friend is right to say that our agencies look carefully at how best we manage this situation and its effects on the global landscape. Britain is in a unique position, so comparisons with other countries can only go so far, but he is right to make those comparisons. I can only reinforce that this decision will be taken with the utmost seriousness.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this important urgent question, though I am deeply dismayed that the Prime Minister is not making a statement on this matter, which is of critical national importance. It is difficult not to agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) that the Prime Minister is “doing a runner”. Can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will take full responsibility for any decision reached at tomorrow’s National Security Council meeting, and not seek to hide behind his Ministers or the civil service?
Any decision to allow Huawei’s involvement in building our 5G network will require concrete assurances about the integrity and safety of the network. The most recent report from the company oversight committee concluded that it had made “No material progress” on these issues. That was last March. Since then, what assurances have the Government received that the situation has changed? If, as has been reported, the Government’s solution is to limit the company’s involvement to non-core parts of the network, how will that be enforced?
According to Mobile UK, any restriction on Huawei’s involvement could result in an 18 to 24-month delay to the 5G roll-out, at a cost to our economy of up to £6.8 billion. How then will tomorrow’s decision affect the Government’s ambition for the majority of the UK to have 5G mobile coverage by 2027? Part of the reason why the delay would be so long is Huawei is already embedded in our 4G network, so where are our alternative homegrown suppliers? What are the Government doing to build the sector, and does the Minister accept that chronic lack of investment and leadership from the Government has brought us to this parlous situation? Finally, what is he doing to ensure that we are never again dependent on foreign powers to secure our critical national infrastructure and security?
There were a number of sometimes contradictory strands in that statement, but I will attempt to address them all. The hon. Member asked whether the Prime Minister will take responsibility for the decision that is made. Of course he will. The Prime Minister not only takes responsibility for his Government; he takes responsibility for an election campaign in which Labour’s position on national security was profoundly rejected by the British people.
The hon. Member asked how we will enforce any decision. We will enforce it in the same way that we have enforced previous decisions. She also asked what this Government are doing to make sure that we have further investment in our own cyber-security. She will know, as the shadow Secretary of State, just how much this country is investing in cyber-skills, cyber-security and digital skills, and in a whole host of the aspects that have made sure that this is the fifth largest digital economy. I am completely reassured that our position on that will continue to drive such progress.
On the substantive matter, however, it is of course right that we make sure that we address this situation with all the seriousness that it deserves, that we take all the advice from our allies and from our agencies that has been offered, and that we come to a conclusion tomorrow. National security will always be at the top of that agenda.
The Minister hinted at a possible way out of this impasse for the Government when he referred to the Intelligence and Security Committee. I am the only Conservative Member of the House to have taken part in the previous full-scale investigation of Huawei, and we reported in 2013. It is true that there was a statement in July 2019. I have just looked it up, and it was three pages long. Surely the Intelligence and Security Committee is the body that is tailor-made to represent the concerns of this Parliament through an in-depth study and report—both publicly and, in the classified version, privately, as we did before, to Parliament and the Prime Minister, respectively—so that we can come up with a robust, rigorous and resilient solution.
I pay tribute to the 2013 Malcolm Rifkind report; it was a thorough piece of work for that period. And of course my right hon. Friend is right that the ISC is one of many forums that could look at this issue. [Interruption.] For instance, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has also looked at our relationship with China. He is right, too, to say that the ISC as an independent body could choose to look at this, and the Government would of course welcome and co-operate fully with any such inquiry.
I thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for raising this crucial issue. He was right, of course, to say that sovereignty extends beyond land and also includes information. Members from all sides of the House have expressed very grave concerns about establishing such a fundamental part of our digital infrastructure with a Chinese-owned technology giant.
With reports that the Prime Minister will be seeking to include only core parts of the network in any ban, will there be any clear guidance as to what is and is not included in that definition, and in the absence of the Secretary of State—who does not seem to be in the Gallery; I thought she might give us another hand signal to tell us what she feels—what assurances have the UK Government sought to answer concerns on the impact that this could have on the security and autonomy of data in the UK and what measures are in place to ensure that these are completely credible? Is it really the case that this is the only firm capable of providing this technology, and does this heavy reliance on one company not give the Government cause for concern in the event of any future escalation of geopolitical tension or disagreements between the United Kingdom and China?
The hon. Gentleman will of course know that I cannot pre-empt any decision that could be taken tomorrow.
I won’t, but am grateful for the invitation.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) is also right to say that maintaining the security of this country’s data is one of the many important ways in which we preserve our national security. On his final and most important question, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this is by no means the only company that Britain looks to for this sort of infrastructure. That is one of the reasons why we talk about high-risk vendors, rather than one individual company. Success in many ways over coming years looks like a more diverse, more competitive market supplying these things. We already use other companies in UK networks; we should continue to do so to a greater extent.
The strategic goal of our policy towards China must be interdependence, not isolation, in order to reduce the risk of future conflict, so will the Minister confirm that a proper security risk assessment has been made and will continue to be made about Huawei’s role in our adoption of 5G? Will he also confirm that, unless the Americans can make a legitimate security case, we should quietly ignore their current public position that thinly disguises a protectionist trade position built on supposition, and proceed on the evidence? We should also gently let our American friends know that we are not leaving one dependent economic relationship on Friday to immediately enter another?
My hon. Friend invites me to stray perhaps further than my DCMS brief and into global geopolitics. However, he is right to say that we should make this decision with an eye on what our allies have advised us as well as what our agencies suggest, and of course on the global situation.
As a member of the ISC up to the last general election, I can say that the Committee has looked at this. Unfortunately, the ISC is not in being at the moment; it is up to the Prime Minister to call and set up the new Committee? My personal point of view, from the briefings and information that I have seen, is that any risks can be mitigated by our current services. The bigger issue however, which I think does need addressing, is around sovereign capability. In the new defence and security review, what emphasis will be put on sovereign capability, not just in this area, but in a host of other areas? To date, this Government have not been good at investing in sovereign capability. That should be considered rather than simply looking at price as a factor in making decisions.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the evidence to which the ISC has pointed, and of which I hope the House will take note. When it comes to sovereign powers, when we assess our national security, there are of course some industries that we should consider of strategic importance. We do that in some areas; I suspect that in future we will consider whether we should do it in others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on his urgent question. Given that we are, in a sense, at war—there is a cyber-war going on in which China is arguably the biggest participant; maybe Russia as well—the idea that we should think of giving a company that is heavily subsidised by China, a country that has set out to steal data and technology non-stop, the right to be in what is essentially a very delicate area of our technology seems utterly bizarre. I was led to believe that the Government would not make that decision. I hope that they will now reject Huawei immediately.
I cannot pre-empt the decision, as my right hon. Friend knows, but it is important to say that our agencies have managed the relationship that he talks about over a number of years and will continue to do so. We should of course pay tribute to them, and I look forward to seeing a decision made that fully engages with all their advice.
Can the Minister assure me that this decision, the one on the digital tax and all the other important decisions facing our country will be based on what is in our national interest and not on threats and bullying from the White House?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that this Government will always make decisions in the national interest.
Why is it argued that we can limit Huawei to the periphery of the network, when Australia and the United States do not agree and when the head of Australia’s cyber-agency says that
“the distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G,”
“a…threat anywhere in the network”
is a threat everywhere? Why is it said that the risks are manageable, when our allies say not? Why have previous Ministers claimed that Huawei is a private firm, when in no way is that true? Why are we told that there are no alternatives, when there are? Why are we told that the quality of Huawei’s work is high, when its Cell in Banbury says that its work is sloppy? Why do we need high-risk vendors in our network at all? Whoever controls 5G will significantly affect our rule of law, our data privacy, our security and our freedom to support our allies. We have had so little parliamentary debate on this issue.
There are a number of questions there. My hon. Friend is right to allude to the fact that there are alternatives to Huawei, and we would of course seek to use them as much as possible. He is right to say that we have to consider the unique nature of a 5G network, and that is precisely what our agencies will do when they offer advice to Government. He is also right to say that we have to look at this decision in the round, and that is what we will do.
In addition to legitimate security concerns, the human rights implications of granting access must not be ignored. Huawei has been implicated in mass oppression in China, selling infrastructure that has allowed it to build a surveillance state and disseminate disinformation and racially charged propaganda. To ensure that we continue to defend human rights here and abroad, what steps will the Government take to ensure that all foreign firms wanting to bid for public contracts in the UK or run critical infrastructure are subject to the most stringent human rights impact assessments and also that those assessments consider information provided by our key allies, including the Five Eyes alliance?
Although the hon. Lady raises issues that are not directly related to national security, she is absolutely right to do so. This country has ensured that it has a robust relationship with all our partners and allies, and with every other country around the world, so that we can have precisely the sorts of conversations that she asks for, because we know just how important they are.
It would be wrong to suggest, would it not, that this decision is simple. It is far from straightforward, but can I ask my hon. Friend to give us two pieces of reassurance about how it will be made? First, will he reassure us that it will be made in accordance with, and not in contradiction to, the advice given by our intelligence agencies? Secondly, will he reassure us that the Government will have considered, and will be able to share with the House, their assessment of the long-term commercial viability of Huawei equipment, given the entity listing decisions of the US Administration?
My right hon. and learned Friend very much invites me to pre-empt the decision. I can, of course, say with absolute certainty that any decision will be made after intense engagement with the advice of the agencies. That will, of course, by its nature, have to consider the long-term consequences of the decision, so the short answer to his question is: yes, and yes.
I am puzzled by the accusations of US protectionism, because European companies, such as Ericsson and Nokia, have a long record of technical expertise. Is not the real problem the Treasury’s short-term doctrine of cheapest is best, even if the company is heavily subsidised and supported by its Government? Why are we putting our security and our economic relationship with long-term allies at risk just to save a few bob?
The right hon. Gentleman is right on one level—there is a cost component to any of these decisions—but these decisions are made primarily by commercial organisations, when it comes to the roll-out of their networks. The Government have a crucial role to play in making sure that they have the best possible advice. As I said, we as a Government will always put national security as the top consideration.
Is not the long-term strategic question: why have we come to a point where we have no recourse to sufficiently viable and cheap technology of our own, or from any of our allies? Should we not have been developing that for the last 20 years? [Interruption.] A lot happened under the last Labour Government, if I may say so—Huawei got into BT under the last Labour Government. What are the Government going to do now to reverse the trend of technological dependency on China, which is not an ally of ours in upholding western values and western democratic institutions?
It is reasonable to ask how we got here, and one of the answers is decisions made under the Labour Government. However, it is right to say that we have to make sure that the decision that is made tomorrow produces, over the coming years, a more diverse landscape that means that more options are available to this and future Governments. In that context, it is right that we consider our investment in research and development and in building the UK’s home-grown capabilities.
It is true that there are clearly documented risks in dealing with certain Chinese companies, including intellectual property theft, theft of industrial secrets, and pressure on Chinese citizens in third countries. Huawei has been involved in our 2G, 3G and 4G networks and it clearly has the capacity to be involved in the 5G network, particularly if any potential risks are mitigated. Will the Minister tell the House if he is aware of any potential risk of Huawei being involved in the non-core part of the 5G network that cannot be mitigated?
In a sense, I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me about an unknown unknown, so I hesitate to get into the detail. However, the principle point he is making about the extent to which we can be confident about our future abilities to mitigate potential problems is at the core of the decision that will have to be made tomorrow.
We are in a period of constant conflict. The character of war is changing, with terrain being replaced by the digital as the prize. This question is not about today; it is about long-term security and where China is going. In our lifetimes, it will become more militarily, technologically and economically powerful than any other country in the world. It is already causing the splintering of the internet. Does not the issue of Huawei raise bigger questions about where China is going and about the need for greater transparency on the international stage?
My right hon. Friend is very experienced in these matters and gets right to the heart of the issue. The issue of this country’s relationship with other countries of varying friendliness around the world will only become more pressing. We have to make the right decision now.
I declare my interest as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The issue of internet-connected devices in our critical national infrastructure is related not just to 5G and Huawei, but to water, electricity and supermarket food distribution systems—every part of our way of life. Yet we are caught in the middle of a China, European Union and United States policy approach to developing these technologies. The Minister has been asked a few times today—he has not quite answered the question—what representations he has made to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to include in the Government’s industrial strategy sovereign capability in the manufacturing of technologies. We want absolute reassurance that technologies are safe in our critical infrastructure.
I hoped that I had hinted at an answer earlier. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Britain has to have an eye on the importance to our strategic interests of certain areas of our economy and of certain small companies growing in this country. We will continue to do that. It is a statement of the obvious that the areas where we will have to take an interest will grow over time.
I invite the Minister, in making this technical assessment, to look at the work of the Worcestershire local enterprise partnership, which has been running a 5G testbed in Malvern for the past two years. In making the security and diplomatic assessment, I ask the Minister to urge the Foreign Secretary to make sure that we have an ambassador in Washington as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend is right that this country is already doing important work in our 5G testbeds and trials programme; Malvern is one of the excellent examples of that. Britain, of course, makes sure that it has the best possible diplomatic network around at all times.
Huawei bought its way into the 2G, 3G and 4G networks by bidding to sell at only a quarter of the price of its competitors. Clearly, that was China trying to take control of the market. Where is the Minister’s scepticism? Not only will our security be at risk from a hostile power if Huawei is allowed into the network, some of which it could switch off even if it was not spying; it wants to control the commercial market as well. Where is his scepticism?
Sometimes when things look too good to be true, be they economic or security-related, we should realise that they in fact are too good to be true.
I find this absolutely extraordinary. Sir Richard Dearlove, formerly of MI6, has said that there is such a risk, and we know that there is a risk of losing key intelligence from our closest allies. What is the overwhelming advantage of the equipment that makes us consider taking the risk?
As my right hon. Friend will know, a number of eminent former Government employees have spoken out on this issue in the past weeks and years. It is a hugely complex area, but he is, of course, right to imply that we should not put any one interest above our national security.
We are talking about 5G, but a lot of my constituents would quite like to see some 4G—or, frankly, any G at all.
In China, we face a political party, running a country, that believes it is perfectly acceptable to mount regular cyber-attacks on the network of the House of Commons and on key infrastructure in the UK. It frequently decides to engage in state-sponsored industrial espionage. It is difficult to see that it is a fair and honest broker for us to do business with.
I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to welcome the shared rural network that we announced the other week, but he missed that opportunity. He is, of course, absolutely right that we have to put national security at the top of this agenda. That is what we will continue to do. Sometimes, we have to beware of some of the particular concerns around countries such as China.
The report last year from the Huawei oversight board to the Cabinet Office cited serious and systemic failings in cyber-security in the current Huawei network; even though those had been highlighted to the company, it had no credible plan to put things right. Does the Minister still share today the concerns raised by the oversight board? If the Government do share those concerns from advice they seek, why are they prepared to give a company such as Huawei more work? There are still serious concerns about the work it has already done.
It is the existence of bodies such as the oversight board that demonstrates just how concerned the Government are. That is one of the many aspects that will inform the decision that could be made tomorrow. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: when it comes to the penetration of the network by any one vendor, we should be sceptical about a decision that could look too good to be true.
I agree with the Minister about the necessity of national security above all else, but will he outline the impact on current 5G networks that make use of Huawei equipment, and will he tell us how much influence the United States dossier has had on his decision?
The hon. Gentleman has invited me to pre-empt a decision that has not yet been made, but I can say with absolute certainty that the Government pay very close attention to the advice of all our allies and will continue to do so. As for the impact of Huawei on the current network, the oversight board, and other organisations that were mentioned earlier, will of course ensure that any potentially adverse impact of one vendor or another is managed as well as it possibly can be.
The first and foremost job of Governments is to keep their people safe. Can my hon. Friend assure me that this Government will always prioritise national security? Has he noted that China allows no foreign involvement in its critical national infrastructure, and does he agree that that should at least give us pause for thought?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She has a background of real expertise in this area, and she is an asset to the House in that respect. We should of course put national security at the very top of the agenda in all cases, and we should consider the approaches that all countries take to their own critical national infrastructures.
Let me first thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for organising what seems to be an unofficial hustings for the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees. It was very good of him. I think that the importance of this issue to both Committees, and to those standing for election as their Chairs, is that the Government have put freedom of religion and belief at the heart of their foreign policy. How, therefore, can they justify granting their investment to a company owned by the Communist party of China, who have been complicit in the brutal suppression of an ancient minority religious group, namely the Uighur Muslims?
I think that some candidates here will be disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks it is a hustings for just one Select Committee. However, he is absolutely right to focus on the incredibly important issue of human rights, which is a cornerstone of this country’s foreign policy and will continue to be so. In this instance we will, of course, put national security at the very top of our agenda, but we should never, and will never, forget the very important issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
If Huawei were to obtain the 5G contract and if it were to breach our national security, presumably the priority would be to ensure that the future contract, whoever obtained it, would be at the cost of Huawei. Would it therefore be sensible to seek some kind of bond—if Huawei were to obtain the contract—to ensure that it would pay for someone to replace it quickly if that were necessary?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is inviting me to enter into contractual negotiations already, which I am reluctant to do. However, he is of course absolutely right to say, or to imply, that the decision that will be made will have ramifications for many years. He is right to take that strategic long view, which is what the National Security Council will also do.
Any Members who chose to visit China—and I encourage all colleagues to do so—would, for instance, be advised by our security services not to take their smartphones. They would be told that even if the phones were turned off and the batteries were taken out, they would be compromised immediately upon landing on the Chinese mainland. In that context, how can we explain to our constituents that the Government are even considering allowing Chinese state-backed entities further access to critical UK infrastructure?
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to that guidance, but it is of course the case that this country is profoundly different from China, and indeed any other country, in that we manage our relationships with mobile phone networks and technology in a very different way. Our agencies will continue to do that, and it is the right thing to do. However, I understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the comparison, and I know that the National Security Council will consider it during its own deliberations.
I hope, not least in the light of these exchanges today, that when the Cabinet comes to consider the NSC’s recommendations—the Minister talked about the NSC making a decision, but actually the Cabinet should take this decision—it will in this instance decide that security considerations outweigh economic ones. Can my hon. Friend assure me that this country still has the capacity to provide a significant part of its own communications infrastructure?
My right hon. Friend is right to point out that this is technically a recommendation. He is also right to say that it is hugely important that we continue to provide large chunks of our own expertise, in regard to personnel as much as to the kit itself, and over the coming years, thanks to the investment of this Government in R&D, we will be providing more.
Huawei surveillance technology, as practised in Xinjiang, represents a massive public security cloud that is oppressing hundreds of thousands of Muslims in what can only be described as a repressive dystopian police state. How do we justify importing tools of mass surveillance and mass oppression that could still have foreign control? It just does not seem right.
To a certain extent, the hon. Member pre-empts the next urgent question that you have granted, Mr Speaker, but the principle of what he is talking about underneath that is that 5G is a revolution in a huge number of aspects. We need to get that right when it comes to everything from surveillance to industrial opportunity.
A report in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2018 revealed how Chinese firms had illicitly placed tiny chips on server motherboards intended for other countries. This revealed the impressive and terrifying capabilities of the Chinese state. Does the Minister agree that sometimes strong fences make good neighbours, and that we might legitimately want to trade and have good relationships with China but retain some core capabilities in our own state, in exactly the same way that it does?
My hon. Friend’s quote from a great American poet emphasises that it is important to get these decisions right, but it is also important to ensure that we get the boundaries right, and that is what we have to do, not just for now but for the years to come. That is what the National Security Council will recommend to Cabinet, I hope tomorrow.
Each day in this place, a Minister talks from the Dispatch Box about the importance of building a high-skilled economy, but it does not say much about the Government’s industrial strategy that we are not even considering our own domestic provider in this case. The Minister has said that that will change in time. What year?
I am tempted just to say “a coming year”, but the hon. Member is absolutely right to say that when it comes to growing our own talent, we have to look around the world and ask what countries other than Britain have done to deliver huge advances in infrastructure such as 5G. We also need to ask how we can ensure that, when it comes to 6G and 7G, a British company is on that spectrum as well.
Surely it is essential that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies. Huawei is already involved in our telecommunications network, so if the Government decide not to go further, how on earth do we get it out?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that we have to pay due regard to the great relationship that we have with the US, but we also have to pay attention to the unique position that we are in now, in order to determine the best way to manage this not just for the moment but for the long term. I know that that is what the National Security Council will be thinking about tomorrow.
Let’s cut to the chase. Can the Minister offer this House a 100% cast-iron guarantee that the resilience and security of digital connectivity in the UK will not be compromised by any future deal with Huawei?
The Government will always put the interests of our national security at the very top of their agenda.
Does the Minister agree that, however cheaply Huawei is offering this country the benefit of its 5G technology, if as a result of its participation in the project we risk jeopardising our position within the Five Eyes or our access to shared intelligence, Huawei’s price will be too high for us to pay?
My hon. Friend articulates well the value of our national security. This is not just about Britain, but about Britain’s place in the world among our allies. That starts in many ways with Five Eyes, but it goes a lot further. When we make this decision, we must ensure that those considerations are put at the top of the agenda.
Away from security concerns, many communities across the UK, including my constituency, have concerns about the risk to human health. Is the Minister aware of any way in which Huawei is addressing such concerns?
The hon. Lady provides me with an opportunity to point to Public Health England and World Health Organisation advice that properly implemented 5G technology does not pose any significant risk to human health. The often genuinely worried people who have raised such concerns should be pointed to that advice, because the roll-out of 5G will not be done in a way that poses any risks to human health, regardless of the manufacturer involved.
Robust exchanges have obviously taken place with the United States and we know its opinions, but what discussions have the UK Government had with other Five Eyes allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, which have blocked the use of Huawei in their future 5G network, and Canada, which is still considering its options?
My hon. Friend is right to point to a whole host of countries. Germany is another one that is having a similar conversation, and I was there last week. Such conversations will be ongoing, but we should bear in mind that Britain starts in a unique position. International comparators are valuable, and the words of our allies should be given close attention, but none of them is in the unique position that the United Kingdom stands in at the moment.
From Hong Kong to the horn of Africa, China and its front companies have form in using technology for espionage and cyber-disruption. Given that some of our most important major allies have said no thanks to Huawei, and given that the costs of cyber-attacks can ultimately far outweigh the outlay on networks and hardware, what exactly is the downside of shopping around for a low-risk vendor from a country we can call an ally?
My hon. Friend highlights the dilemma that everybody faces in a world in which there are not as many vendors of this kit as we would all like. We have to balance the primary interest in national security against other things. He is right to say that we must consider the long-term consequences when it comes to cyber-attacks and the reputation of this country’s infrastructure around the world.
Will my hon. Friend assure me that rural areas and islands such Ynys Môn will not be left behind as we roll out 5G across the country?
That question provides me with the opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend to her place representing that great constituency. Our 5G test beds and trials programme looked at rural areas and constituencies such as hers, so that we ensure that Britain leads the world when it comes to rolling out this technology.
The Minister quite rightly supports the case for open trade, but do we not also need fair trade? When making such decisions, should we not take into account the fact that companies such as Huawei receive significant financial support from the state, which puts western companies at a competitive disadvantage?
My hon. Friend is right to underline just how complex the decision will be, and that is yet another aspect to be considered. It is also important to say that national security will come top of the agenda.
Many Birmingham businesses are hugely excited by the roll-out of 5G, especially because of the productivity and job creation opportunities, but they are also nervous about what they read in the press. Will the Minister assure me and businesses in Birmingham that he will do everything within his power to ensure that the 5G network will be sufficiently safe?
I have spoken to Andy Street, the great Mayor of the West Midlands, about precisely this topic. The roll-out of 5G in the west midlands will bring huge potential benefits to businesses, but of course it will bring no benefit at all if people doubt the security of Britain’s infrastructure, which is why we will always put it at the very top in Birmingham and beyond.
Automated Facial Recognition Surveillance
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on police use of automated facial recognition surveillance.
The Government are supporting the police and empowering them with the tools they need to deliver on the people’s priorities by cutting the crime that is blighting our communities. We have already pledged 20,000 more officers, new powers and the biggest funding increase in a decade, but embracing new technology is also vital and we support the use of live facial recognition, which can help to identify, locate and arrest violent and dangerous criminals who may otherwise evade justice.
Live facial recognition compares the images of people passing a camera with a specific and predetermined list of those sought by the police. It is then up to officers to decide whether to stop and speak to those flagged as a possible match. This replicates traditional policing methods such as using spotters at a football match. The technology can make the search for suspects quicker and more effective, but it must be used strictly within the law.
The High Court has found that there is an appropriate legal framework for the police use of live facial recognition, and that includes police common-law powers, data protection and human rights legislation, and the surveillance camera code. Those restrictions mean that sensitive personal data must be used appropriately for policing purposes, and only where necessary and proportionate. There are strict controls on the data gathered. If a person’s face does not match any on the watchlist, the record is deleted immediately. All alerts against the watchlist are deleted within 31 days, including the raw footage, and police do not share the data with third parties.
The Metropolitan Police Service informed me of its plans in advance, and it will deploy this technology where intelligence indicates it is most likely to locate serious offenders. Each deployment will have a bespoke watchlist made up of images of wanted people, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences. It will also help the police to tackle child sexual exploitation and to protect the vulnerable. Live facial recognition is an important addition to the tools available to the police to protect us all and to keep murderers, drug barons and terrorists off our streets.
We must not allow the UK to become a society in which innocent people feel as though their every movement is being watched by the police. We must not throw away UK citizens’ right to privacy or their freedom to go about their lawful business without impediment.
An independent review of the Met’s facial recognition trial was published last July, and its conclusions are damning. Does the Minister agree with the report that the legal basis for this roll-out is questionable at best and is likely to be in conflict with human rights law? According to an analysis of the Met’s test data, 93% of supposed matches in the four years of trials have been wrong. As well as being inaccurate, facial recognition technology has been shown to be much less accurate in identifying women and ethnic minorities than in identifying white men. This means that women and black, Asian and minority ethnic people are much more likely to be stopped without reason than white men. Given that a black person is already 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, does the Minister share the Liberal Democrats’ concern that this technology will increase discrimination and further undermine trust in the police among BAME communities?
The biometrics commissioner, the Information Commissioner and the surveillance camera commissioner have all raised concerns about facial recognition surveillance, and all three have argued that its impact on human rights must be resolved before a wider roll-out. What steps has the Minister taken since those warnings to examine and address the human rights issues they raise?
The hon. Lady rightly raises a number of issues that need to be addressed in the operation of this technology. I assume she is referring to last year’s statement by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The commissioner reviewed the Met’s operation and raised some concerns about how it was operating the pilot of live facial recognition. Happily, the ICO put out a statement on Friday saying that it is broadly encouraged by the fact that the Met has adopted some of its recommendations in this deployment, although she is right that the ICO remains concerned about the legal basis.
Since the ICO report was published, we have had the judgment in a case brought against South Wales police’s deployment of this technology, in which the High Court found there is an appropriate legal basis for the operation of facial recognition. However, I understand that there may be an appeal, and there is a suspended judicial review into the Met’s operation, which may be restarted, so if Members do not mind, I will limit what I say about that.
As for disproportionality, there is no evidence of it at the moment; the Met has not found disproportionality in its data in the trials it has run, and certainly a Cardiff University review of the South Wales police deployment could not find any evidence of it at all. The hon. Lady is, however, right to say that in a country that prides itself in being an open and liberal society, we need to take care with people’s impressions of how technology may impinge upon that. As she will know, live facial recognition has an awful lot of democratic institutions looking at it, not only this House: the London Assembly has a policing ethics panel; we have the Surveillance Camera Commissioner and the Information Commissioner; and there is a facial recognition and biometrics board at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which brings people together to look at these issues. There is lots of examination to make sure that it is used appropriately, and I am pleased to say that the Met will be operating it on a very transparent basis. As I understand it, the Met will be publishing information about which data was gathered and the success rate, and other information that will allow the public to have confidence that where the technology is deployed to identify wanted criminals it is having the effect intended.
If I am wanted for questioning, what difference does it make to my rights if I am fingered by a police officer or a bit of software?
In his usual pithy manner, my right hon. Friend puts his finger on the button. As Members will know, the police have used facial recognition since their establishment. There is an analogue version—a wanted poster. We will have seen those and they crowdsource the identification of wanted criminals. The only question here is whether a human being does it, such as a spotter at a football match, or a machine does it. We acknowledge that if a machine is doing it, more circumspection and democratic control are required, and that is what we will be providing.
Facial recognition technology is potentially an important crime-fighting tool, but not without the correct safeguards, and the Minister has failed to persuade the House thus far that all the correct safeguards are in place. Does he accept that the random use of facial recognition technology requires not just a High Court judgment, but a specific legal framework and specific arrangements for scrutiny? After all, when blood, saliva or hair samples are provided, they are done voluntarily or under compulsory detention and charge. Facial recognition evidence is given involuntarily. He will have heard different reports about the unreliability of the evidence. Does that put people at risk of being wrongly accused of a crime? He will have heard the reports that the facial recognition technology finds it difficult to recognise black people and women, and that the technology deployed is often inaccurate. To bring in technology that might be inaccurate and mean that the guilty go unapprehended and the innocent are wrongly identified would be a spectacular own goal, leading to a breakdown of the bond of trust between the police and public.
The right hon. Lady is right to say that the police must deploy technology so as to increase the trust of those they seek to protect, rather than to diminish it. We certainly believe that the use of this technology could, as she said, have enormous potential for crimefighting, if deployed in the correct way. She asked whether the random use of facial technology could undermine that confidence. It might, but of course we are not intending to use it in a random way and the police are not doing so. In effect, they will be operating it in a very specific intelligence-led way, with lots of notification in the area in which it is to be deployed against a known list of wanted suspects or criminals; a specific area will be identified where the police have intelligence that that person might be passing through. Those very specific and focused arrangements will be authorised by a very senior officer above commander rank.
As for unreliability, as technology is rolled out it obviously becomes more and more effective and reliable—[Interruption.] Well, I am the lucky owner of a telephone that allows me to make banking payments on the basis of recognising my face. That technology was not available in the last iteration of the phone—it is an iPhone—which used my thumb instead. So there are developments in technology. South Wales police found in trials that there was a 1:4,500 chance of triggering a false alert and more than an 80% chance of a correct alert. It is worth bearing in mind that even when the system does alert the police to a possible identification, the final decision as to whether to intervene with an individual is still taken by a human being.
Will my hon. Friend explain how the proportionate use of facial recognition technology could help to tackle the offences, such as county lines drug offending, that are the scourge of many communities, including those in my constituency?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The British people want to see the technology used, as he rightly says, in a proportionate way. It is certainly the intention that live facial recognition is used against the most violent and serious criminals, who are often wanted urgently when the police are having problems locating them. One key area of LFR governance will be the surveillance camera code, one of the key tenets of which is that LFR is used proportionately to the offence committed and, specifically, that it is absolutely necessary—that is, the police have no other way of locating that person or have had trouble locating them in the past. We all have a duty to monitor this development carefully, see how it is rolled out and judge it by its results, which we hope will be spectacular.
As we have heard, there are huge concerns about the impact of automated facial recognition technology on privacy and freedoms such as the freedom of assembly, and about the danger of bias and discrimination because, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) said, there is evidence that AFR technology can disproportionately misidentify women and BAME people, which means that they are more likely to be wrongly stopped and questioned. Those concerns are widely held, including by the independent Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group, which advises the Home Office on facial recognition.
The Scottish Government are employing an approach that involves a comprehensive, up-to-date legislative framework and a regularly updated code of conduct with strong oversight through a commissioner. In that way, my colleagues in Edinburgh hope to ensure that the use of the technology is proportionate, necessary and targeted, and that it respects human rights, privacy and data protection rules. Will the Minister follow suit?
Finally, so far as I am aware, there is no evidence that the use of this technology in the manner contemplated is effective in fighting crime. If I am wrong about that, will the Minister direct me to the evidence that says that it is effective? If not, why not employ less risky measures, such as following the Scottish Government’s example and employing more police officers in a meaningful way?
The identification of individuals at large, by any method, is a standard policing technique—whether it is done by a human, a machine or, indeed, a member of the public—so increasing its effectiveness is absolutely key. I am pleased that the Scottish Government are mirroring many of the arrangements that are being put in place in the rest of the United Kingdom to deal with this technology because, as the hon. and learned Lady said, it has enormous potential for us. We have seen the successful use of the technology in pilots elsewhere. I was even told of an occasion on which a police force—I forget which it was; it might have been South Wales police—advertised the use of live facial recognition at a rock concert where in the past there had been significant problems with what they call “dipping”, which is in effect the pickpocketing of wallets and phones. The mere advertising of the technology resulted in there being no offences committed.
If it is subject to the appropriate ethical controls and privacy requirements, I see this technology more as a benefit than a threat. It is another tool in the police toolbox for fighting crime. Does the Minister envisage its application in order to deal with the more than 300,000 people in this country who went missing last year, who were predominantly children? Speed is of the essence in locating them for their own safety.
My hon. Friend highlights an extremely important opportunity for us. As he quite rightly points out, many, many people go missing every year. Some people want to disappear for various reasons, but, often, young people do not want to do so. Where it is proportionate, necessary and in line with the code, the identification of missing vulnerable people, particularly young people, would certainly be an incredibly good use of the technology.
I welcome you to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not yet had the chance to congratulate you on your new role.
In the previous Parliament, the Science and Technology Committee looked at this issue as part of the biometrics and forensics strategy review. All of the key stakeholders recognised that a biometrics strategy that was not fit for purpose and not of the quality required to provide a regulatory framework for facial recognition technology was at the root of the issue. Can the Minister confirm whether that strategy has been updated since last April?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise concerns about the framework, and I will have to get back to him on whether the strategy has been updated. I do not think that it has, but I will check and make sure. He will be pleased to know that, at the recent general election, the Conservative party manifesto did contain a commitment that, while we wanted the police to use the ever-increasing capabilities that technology was presenting to them, we wanted them to do so within a strict legal framework. We will be giving consideration over the months to come about what form that will take.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that liberty also means freedom from crime and antisocial behaviour? That is why I strongly welcome these measures. Will he expand on how the technology will deal with antisocial behaviour and drug running, on which he has touched before, as we face those problems in my constituency of Harlow?
At the moment, this technology is being deployed only by the South Wales police and the Metropolitan police. However, as I explained earlier, where the police do have a wanted, serious and violent criminal who they believe may be moving around in a particular location, they will deploy this camera and a wanted list and, hopefully, identify that individual. For areas that surround London, which often suffer from the movement of violent criminals mainly to deal in drugs, their identification as they move through particular areas and therefore their apprehension will no doubt pay benefits to many towns such as his and, indeed, such as the one in my constituency that exist around the capital.
Like all artificial intelligence, and unlike the spotter in a football crowd that the Minister cites, facial recognition technology automates the prejudices of those who design it and the limitations of the data on which it has trained. If it is not diverse by design, it will be unequal by outcome, so what minimum standards is he placing on this technology before it is rolled out?
The hon. Lady is quite right to raise what has been a concern in the media, but none of the evidence from the trials thus far—[Interruption.] Okay, the concern has been elsewhere as well. However, none of the evidence in trials thus far is pointing to that disproportionality. One of the key things that the Met will be doing, however, is that, after every deployment—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, I am trying to answer the hon. Lady’s question, but she is still barracking me from a seated position. I would like, if possible, to explain it. I understand that it is a very sensitive issue, but we are, nevertheless, dealing with very serious crime and this may help the police in apprehending those people. Frankly, if the police were seeking to apprehend the killer of my child, I would want them to consider using this technology. We owe it to people to make the police as effective as possible. However, the Metropolitan police will be publishing the results of every deployment on their website. The democratic scrutiny will be exposed through the London Assembly and, indeed, I am sure, through this place. As the technology is rolled out and we consider what changes may be needed to the legal framework so that it operates in a position of confidence with the public, no doubt Members here will have their say.
Policing sporting events such as the Cheltenham festival, which will soon be upon us, presents unique challenges for the police. How does the Minister see this technology, once appropriately considered and reviewed, acting to assist the police to ensure that those who might wish to do harm to large numbers of people can be properly apprehended?
My hon. Friend, in his usual way, raises an extremely important point. It is worth reiterating that there is no intention of our having random surveillance using live facial recognition. The deployment of a camera will be against a known wanted list and against intelligence that an individual is likely to be in a particular location and is either wanted or is intent on harm and causing a crime or, indeed, perpetrating some sort of awful event in a large crowd. This is a tool we would be foolish to neglect, given its potential, but we in this House have a duty to set a framework that strikes a balance between protecting our invaluable civil liberties and keeping the public safe.
I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Does he agree that although personal privacy is a right, anything that is used in the correct manner to prevent crime and apprehend those who have committed a crime must be considered and utilised where appropriate?
I do. It is worth repeating what I said at the beginning about how the system works. If an individual passes in front of a camera and there is no match, the information that that individual is there is instantly deleted; if there is a match, the information will be retained for 31 days and then deleted; and even if there is a match, it is for the police officer on the scene at the time to decide, on viewing the evidence, whether to stop the individual. We will see how this goes over the next few months and years, but we hope and believe it will be of enormous benefit in fighting crime.
Does my hon. Friend not accept the view of the surveillance camera commissioner, who has said that the guidelines are insufficient at present and there is no transparency? Do the Government plan to update the guidelines to take account of developments in technology?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, which points to the heart of the matter. As he knows, there is a facial recognition and biometrics board, which is soon to have a new chair. As part of that renewal of leadership, we will review the board’s terms of reference and its mission, especially in the light of technological developments. What emanates from that, and whether it is a change in the terms of the code, we will have to wait and see, but as I said at the start, I am very aware of the duty we have in this House to strike the right balance between security and liberty.
The approach of trying it out and seeing how it goes is exactly the wrong way to maintain public trust. Many of my constituents use King’s Cross railway station, and last year they discovered that they were, in effect, being spied on. The legal framework is not in place. When even the head of Google is saying we should move more slowly, because we need to keep the public with us, is it not right that we follow the example of the European Union and put it on pause while we work out the right way to proceed?
No, it is not right. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect to say that there is no legal framework, and in saying that he disagrees with the High Court, which only last year certified in a case that there was and therefore the police could roll it out. The Information Commissioner looked at this and issued a report, and the Met has adopted many of recommendations of that report. Like every development in crime fighting, the technology is not static; we have to be agile and sensitive to its use. For example, the past 100 years have seen enormous developments in fingerprint technology—in detection and retrieval and in the identification of individuals using fingerprints. We keep fingerprints in a way that we do not keep facial recognition information, and there are good reasons for that, but these things should be kept under review at all times, and that is what we intend to do with LFR.
Whether it is county lines gangs or cyber-fraudsters, we know that criminals are using technology to spread crime. People expect us to ensure that our police can use the best technology to tackle crime. Will the Government work with expert organisations such as the Ada Lovelace Institute on ensuring that we develop world-class ethics governing how best to use technology to tackle crime?
Of course we want to maintain public confidence in the use of the technology, and that means that we have to be as transparent as possible about both its deployment and the results obtained from it, but we must get this in proportion. Those who believe that the technology should not be used at all must ask themselves why we publicise the faces of wanted criminals on programmes such as “Crimewatch”, and use the wisdom of crowds to identify criminals as quickly as possible. There are circumstances where the police have a duty to try to find people quickly, effectively and efficiently, and this will help them to do that.
We are aware that facial recognition is used in Xinjiang in China for mass oppression through mass surveillance. People who oppose war or the climate crisis are concerned that their assembly will be systematically recorded and used, or misused, against them—that liberty will be oppressed in the name of security. What assurances can the Minister give to people who want legally to participate in such assemblies that we will not go down the road of mass surveillance and oppression under a new, more authoritarian regime?
As I understand it, the use of this technology in such circumstances would be illegal, and we are the guardians of what is legal in this country.
In the age of smartphones, automated number recognition and especially CCTV, is it not already virtually impossible to preserve one’s privacy when one is out in public? As it is only a matter of time before CCTV becomes pin-sharp, is it not inevitable that this technology cannot be stopped, because we are already going to be recorded on systems that will provide exactly the same technique for identifying people for whom the authorities are rightly searching?
It is definitely the case that in a world where identification technology of all types is accelerating, one of the challenges we face is the preservation of our privacy, and there have been many debates in this House and in the public realm about how we do that. We believe that we have a good, strong and transparent framework in which data can be gathered legally but then kept private, and through which individuals can seek their own privacy by way of the deletion or amendment of data. As I said earlier, we are the guardians of the system. This House is the crucible in which the decisions are made, so we must look sharp about it and not assume that these technological developments are outwith our control.
Congratulations on your election to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Has the Minister seen the concerns raised by the think-tank Future Advocacy that the deployment of this technology may infringe upon the rights of Muslim women who wear the niqab, and wider concerns about technology being less accurate, particularly with women and ethnic minorities?
I understand that that specific issue has been raised with the Metropolitan police, and they have made it clear that nobody will be required to remove their niqab or other facial coverings. It is worth remembering what the police are seeking to do with this deployment. They are looking for wanted criminals, suspects in crimes, and possibly missing persons. When the system makes a match, it is then for a human being to decide whether intervention is proportionate or not. It is not a kind of conveyor belt. Human judgment is still required, as it will always be in sensitive and proportionate policing.
There are clearly data privacy and human rights issues bound up with facial recognition technology, which I admit will be very useful for solving crimes. However, technology moves on quickly, and it is my understanding that bodily recognition is already being developed, in which faces will not actually count as the cameras will look at people’s movement. Are we not just behind the curve on all this? As a Parliament, should we not be looking to put in place a framework that will envelop all the new technologies as they move on, rather than being one step behind? I think we should be doing a little bit more, proactively.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important and useful point. He is quite right that the acceleration of technology needs to be embraced by the House in a way that perhaps it has not been in the past. Both he and I stood on a manifesto that contained a commitment to the enabling of technology in a strict and controlled legal framework, and we will be thinking about that over the next few months. Some years ago, I came across a company that was working on online financial security. It had a system that identified someone not only from their password when they entered it, but from the way in which that person typed their password, because apparently the way we type is very characteristic. Those are the sorts of technologies we can deploy to great effect, but with democratic control.
This technology is potentially a very powerful tool to fight crime, including serious crimes like knife crime where deprived and minority ethnic communities are, sadly, disproportionately likely to be the victims. It could also help to clear up cases like the awful recent murder and aggravated burglary in my constituency. However, will the Minister reassure the House that we will use this powerful new technology only in a proportionate way?
I can absolutely give that assurance. The police, who are of course operationally independent and have devised the system themselves, have reassured me that there is, first, no mass retention of movement data. As I say, if there is no match on the system someone’s presence in the area is instantly deleted, and any other data is deleted after 31 days unless evidential requirements are taken forward. There is no intention that we should use this other than for the apprehension of the most serious and violent criminals which, as my hon. Friend says, will pay benefits across the country.
And the prize for patience and perseverance goes to Richard Fuller.
The usual prize—thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) made an important point. The embedding of bias in technology is a major issue that will worsen with the early widespread adoption of artificial intelligence. The Government will inherit these biases as a user of these technologies, so will my hon. Friend, noting that the American studies show that the disproportionality of false recognition for ethnic minority women was between 10 and 100 times that for Caucasians, look seriously at how those technologies are improving as he progresses the adoption of this technology?
Of course I will. I recognise the possible controversy that my hon. Friend points to. As I say, in the trials and deployments thus far there is no evidence of bias either way that we can see, but in a world where technology is to come under democratic control, we all have a duty to watch for these unintended consequences and correct them when they occur—and he has my undertaking that we will do exactly that.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In response to my question about health inequality and the need for a new hospital in Stockton, the Prime Minister told MPs that the gap in life expectancy “is a disgrace.” He then added:
“None the less, it is coming down, and it will come down.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 300.]
The Independent newspaper reminded us on Friday that in fact official statistics last March showed that the discrepancy between men in the richest and poorest areas has actually widened by about three months. I remind the House that there is 14 years’ difference between men in parts of my constituency and those in parts of the Prime Minister’s constituency. We know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Prime Minister likes to make things up on the hoof, but is there anything that you can do to have him come to the House, admit his mistake and apologise?
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that what Ministers, or even the Prime Minister, say in this Chamber is not a matter for the Chair. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make his point and make it publicly, and he has done so. He knows that if he wishes to ask a question of the Prime Minister, he will find a way of asking that question of the Prime Minister, who will of course be here as usual on Wednesday.
Speaker’s Statement: Select Committee Chairs
The House will be aware that the deadline for nominations of Select Committee Chairs was 4 pm today. The following Committees received a single nomination, and therefore the following candidates will be elected unopposed:
Committee Elected Backbench Business Ian Mearns Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Rachel Reeves Education Robert Halfon Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Neil Parish Exiting the European Union Hilary Benn Home Affairs Yvette Cooper Housing, Communities and Local Government Mr Clive Betts Public Accounts Meg Hillier Scottish Affairs Pete Wishart Standards Kate Green Treasury Mel Stride Welsh Affairs Stephen Crabb Women and Equalities Caroline Nokes
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Exiting the European Union
Housing, Communities and Local Government
Mr Clive Betts
Women and Equalities
I congratulate all Members who have thus been elected. The ballot for the remaining posts will take place on Wednesday 29 January between 10 am and 4 pm in Committee Room 16, and a final list of candidates and their supporters will be available shortly in the Vote Office.
NHS Funding Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, before turning to the Bill I would like to update the House on the ongoing situation with the Wuhan coronavirus. The chief medical officer continues to advise that the risk to the UK population is low and that, while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them. As of 2 pm, there are currently no confirmed cases in the UK. We are working night and day with the World Health Organisation and the international community and are monitoring the situation closely. Our approach has been guided by the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty.
As I set out in my statement on Thursday, coronavirus presents with flu-like symptoms including fever, a cough and difficulty breathing, and the current evidence is that most cases appear to be mild. However, this is a new disease, and the global scientific community is still learning about it. I have therefore directed Public Health England to take a belt-and-braces approach, including tracing people who have been in Wuhan in the past 14 days. Coronaviruses do not usually spread if people do not have symptoms. However, we cannot be 100% certain.
From today, as concerns have been raised about limited pre-symptom transmission, we are asking anyone in the UK who has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days to self-isolate—to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people—and to contact NHS 111. If you are in Northern Ireland, you should phone your GP. If you develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of travel from the area and are now in the UK, call your GP or ring 111, informing them of your symptoms and your recent travel to the city. Do not leave home until you have been given advice by a clinician.
Public Health England officials continue to trace people who have arrived in the UK from Wuhan. Having eliminated those who we know have since left the country, we are seeking to locate 1,460 people. The Foreign Office is rapidly advancing measures to bring UK nationals back from Hubei province. I have asked my officials to ensure that there are appropriate measures in place upon arrival to look after them and to protect the public. If you are in Hubei province and wish to leave, please get in contact with the Foreign Office; there are details on the gov.uk website.
The UK is one of the first countries in the world to have developed an accurate test for this coronavirus, and PHE is undertaking continuous refinement of that test. PHE has this morning confirmed to me that it can scale up, so we are in a position to deal with cases in this country if necessary. I want to stress that the NHS remains well prepared. The NHS has expert teams in every ambulance service and at a number of specialist hospital units with highly trained staff and equipment, ready to receive and care for patients with any highly infectious disease, including this one. The NHS practises and prepares its response to disease outbreaks and follows tried and tested procedures, following the highest safety standards possible for the protection of NHS staff, patients and the public. Specific guidance on handling Wuhan coronavirus has been shared with NHS staff.
This is a timely reminder of why it matters to have a world-class healthcare system—to be able to plan and prepare for such situations.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for updating the House and for letting me intervene at this point, before we move on to the substance of today’s debate. First, could he offer some further clarification? According to the newspapers, there are suggestions that France, the United States and Japan are airlifting their citizens out of Wuhan tomorrow. I emphasise that I am going off newspaper speculation and I appreciate that that is not his portfolio, but how advanced are the Foreign Office’s plans? Secondly, could he update the House about whether it is correct that the treatment of coronavirus would need a number of extra corporeal membrane oxygenation beds to be open? ECMO beds are in high demand in winter. Could he update the House on how many ECMO beds are currently open, and on what preparations the NHS is making on that front?
The Foreign Office is working with international partners both in America and other EU countries, keeping open about the procedures and what it will do for the estimated 200 UK citizens who are in the area in China in which this is currently contained. On the point about the readiness of the NHS here, four centres are stood up and ready should there be a need. The centres are in Guy’s and St Tommy’s, Liverpool, Newcastle and the Royal Free, and there is a further escalation if more beds are needed. So we are ready, but of course we keep all these things under review.
The Secretary of State will know that we are all looking forward to lots of celebrations of the Chinese new year. What communication has he had with Chinese organisations that are arranging these, so that they can get in contact with people who may have come from Wuhan so as to try to identify risk and pre-empt problems?
We are using all possible means to get in contact with the 1,460 people whom we need to contact, and who we know have travelled to the UK from Wuhan and who have not as far as we know left the country. We are collaborating with Border Force, the airline and others, including universities, schools and cultural organisations to try to make contact.
My constituency borders Heathrow, and many of my constituents will be working at Heathrow with the airlines and in many other roles. I appreciate that the risk may be low, but could the Secretary of State update the House on whether advice has been given to Heathrow and airlines on how to give advice to their staff who may have come into contact with people who might be affected so that everybody can be assured that all is being done and that any support they may need is available?
The hon. Member is quite right to raise this. There is a Public Health England unit or hub at Heathrow to meet all flights from China now; it met the one flight that has come from Wuhan directly since news of this outbreak reached the level it did last Wednesday. The advice is clear to anybody who is worried about having coronavirus, and that is to call 111. If they have travelled to Wuhan or elsewhere in China recently, they should declare that to the 111 service when they call, and the 111 service has the full advice available. It is important for them to call 111 or to call their GP rather than going to a GP or to A&E, for exactly the reason that we want people to self-isolate if they have been to the region or if they think that they may have the virus.
I will now move on to the Bill. As we have been highlighting with the NHS work on the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, few things in life are certain. However, it is the job of Government to plan for the future, even though we cannot fully see it. We do not know for instance exactly how many babies will be born in four years’ time, but we can anticipate demand for maternity services. We do not know exactly how many people will make a 999 call in four years’ time, but we can and must plan for that. Indeed, we do not know if the Labour party will have a competent leader in four months’ time, let alone four years’ time, but I hope for the country’s sake to see the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on the Opposition Front Bench well into the next decade. There is one institution that, with this Bill, knows it will get the funding it needs in 2024, and that is the NHS, because this Bill injects the largest and longest cash settlement ever granted to the NHS and will enshrine it into law—£33.9 billion extra a year by 2024.
Does not this excellent Bill ensure that people will never again be misled into thinking that we are selling off the national health service to Donald Trump? Does the Secretary of State also agree that the money guaranteed in this funding Bill will ensure that places such as Harlow will have a new hospital, as has been guaranteed by my right hon. Friend?
Yes, I am delighted to be able to assure my right hon. Friend that, on both counts, he is absolutely spot-on. This Bill makes it clear that we will be funding the NHS with its long-term plan and making this long-term commitment as a minimum. The election result put paid to the scaremongering put about by Opposition Members in relation to the NHS in trade deals, because the NHS is not on the table. When it comes to Harlow, my right hon. Friend and the people of Harlow well know that I am delivering: we will have a new hospital in Harlow.
On the same theme as that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—privatising the NHS—will the Secretary of State confirm that the disastrous private finance initiative deals done by the last Labour Government were not only the largest privatisations the NHS has ever seen, but that they cost various NHS trusts billions of pounds? Will we be reversing that, and will the money go into the local NHS trusts?
Yes and yes; my hon. Friend anticipates my whole section on Mr PFI sitting over on the Opposition Front Bench. During his time in the Treasury, the hon. Member for Leicester South, managed to sign off some of the worst PFI deals. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman sighs, but I do not think he understands the damage he has done.
This Bill confirms that spending on the NHS will rise from £115 billion last year to £121 billion this year, to £127 billion, then £133 billion, £140 billion and £148 billion in 2023-24.
To clarify the point, are the Government committed to buying out the PFIs that are currently a burden on health boards and trusts?
We absolutely will be looking at doing that where we can. Unfortunately, that is difficult to do, because, over time, and especially during the time that the hon. Member for Leicester South was in the Treasury, the legals on these PFI deals got tighter and tighter. There are 106 PFI deals in hospitals and we are going through them. We will work towards making them work better for patients, and if that means coming out of them completely, I will be thrilled.
My right hon. Friend might know that I am a vice-president of Combat Stress, the charity for the mental welfare of our armed servicemen and veterans. Until recently it had a very tiny contract compared to the vast sums he has just announced—£3.1 million a year—and was treating some 250 patients a year with PTSD and other mental illnesses related to combat stress. Combat Stress is now having to discontinue taking referrals because the contract has come to an end. What prospect is there that there will be a new contract as soon as possible so Combat Stress can carry on its brilliant work?
I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter, because I was concerned to read the reports in the newspapers and have had a briefing this morning. There is work on a new contract to replace the old one, and I very much hope that that is settled and agreed as soon as possible.