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 does 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.
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 removing 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.
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 employment and support allowance 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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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?
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 in 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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 parts 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?
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.
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 principal 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?
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.