House of Commons
Tuesday 4 February 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Issues raised by Paterson, dated 4 February 2020.—[Rebecca Harris.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
NATO protects nearly 1 billion people across 30 countries. It is the most successful alliance in history, and we are proud to be a leading member.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Non-US defence investment has increased by £130 billion between 2016 and 2020. It is expected to rise further, by £400 billion, by 2024, and that is progress, but allies need to increase their defence spending in the way that he described. Of course, the UK is one of nine NATO allies meeting its 2% commitment, including a 20% increase in investment in new capabilities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO is the cornerstone not only of UK security, but of Euro-Atlantic security? Will he prioritise it—I ask on behalf of Montgomeryshire constituents who have been asking me—to strengthen that alliance, to deal with the malign Russian threat?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to use NATO, and it will require reform to adapt to meet new threats. The way to do that is to strengthen and reinforce NATO, so that it can deal with state actors, including Russia, cyber, and all the modern threats. We are absolutely committed to doing that, and bringing our European and north American allies together.
With the American primary season upon us, political tensions both within and between our NATO allies seem to be higher than ever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that means we have a greater responsibility than ever, here in the UK, to promote diplomacy between our allies, and to speak judiciously when commenting on their internal politics?
My hon. Friend is right. He knows, from the last NATO leaders’ meeting, which the Prime Minister hosted and chaired, that we take that very seriously. We contribute to every NATO mission. We are the top defence spender in Europe, the second-largest in NATO as a whole, and the leading contributor to the NATO readiness initiative.
During the recent NATO summit, there was a concerted effort by President Erdoğan of Turkey to block progress unless fellow NATO members agreed to label our Kurdish heroes in northern Syria as terrorists. After my last visit to Syria, the Secretary of State dismissed me and my concerns to try and reach out on that point. So maybe, if he refused to take advice from me and other members of the Opposition—and his two colleagues who came with me on that trip—he might take a lead from the Belgian court case that said that the Kurds were not a terrorist force; or the French, who objected publicly at the NATO council, as did Poland, the Baltic states, and even Donald Trump. I ask the Foreign Secretary: why did our own Prime Minister say nothing to defend the British interest and our Kurdish allies?
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We have raised our concerns in relation to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, which obviously has affected some of our Kurdish partners in the region. We had a very successful NATO summit, precisely because the Prime Minister and the UK Government are focused on making NATO work, bringing all our allies together and making sure that our foes cannot exploit weaknesses or divisions between us.
Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies is becoming ever more strained. Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, which we have just heard about, and an increasingly close relationship with Russia are two clear examples of how tension is being created within the alliance by Turkey. As we are a leading member of NATO, how do the Government think NATO should respond to the situation?
As with all strong partnerships within NATO, if we have issues we raise them candidly and clearly, and the relationship has the depth and the maturity to enable us to do so. We have expressed our disappointment, for example, that Turkey chose to acquire Russian S-400 air defence systems. None the less, Turkey remains a valued NATO ally, on the frontline of some of our most difficult security challenges, and I raised with the Turkish Foreign Minister on 5 January the positives and our concerns.
The Minister rightly speaks of the success of NATO as an international peacekeeping force. Does he agree that part of the problem is that it does not get the international recognition for being that successful alliance? What more can we do to ensure that that is the case?
The hon. Gentleman is right: a lot of the solid, steady work that NATO is doing, and the work in bringing our allies together, goes unnoticed, as is often the case in security. The most important thing the UK can do is continue to lead by example. We contribute to every NATO mission. This includes: leading the enhanced forward presence battle group in Estonia; contributing to the US battle group in Poland; and working with our NATO allies on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will continue to do all those things.
Following the protocol at international meetings to make sure that the UK is asserting its voice confidently, and in tandem with but independently of our allies, is absolutely the right thing. That is what the referendum required and that is what we are doing.
The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and President Zelensky’s commitment to reform and fighting corruption. We have provided financial support to the tune of £38 million this year, across multiple areas, and we lead robust sanctions on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty. We look forward to welcoming President Zelensky to the UK as soon as a date can be found.
Will my right hon. Friend welcome President Zelensky’s decision to extend the visa-free regime for UK citizens for another year? Does my right hon. Friend share his ambition for Britain and Ukraine to conclude a new framework agreement as soon as possible, including possible liberalisation of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens?
My right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of Ukraine’s determination to look westward and be a modern European country. We will certainly welcome, as soon as we can, the ratification of such an arrangement, and I congratulate the President on his announcement on visa-free access for UK nationals. That will certainly help trade with the UK, which we want to ensure is successful, but we also need to protect our own borders. The Home Secretary is responsible for border control, but we keep our border policy under constant review, and visas to and from Ukraine is something I discuss with her regularly.
On political development and the importance of having human rights protected, including in Ukraine, I am aware of a number of examples where Christians have been persecuted, injured and politically challenged for their beliefs. What has been done in discussions with Ukraine to ensure that human rights are protected and people have the right to express themselves?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We of course discuss these matters with Ukraine. I am particularly concerned about the repression of fundamental human rights—the right to speak the Crimean language—in Crimea by the annexing forces, and I raised that issue when I went to Kiev last year. We will always place these issues, be they in Ukraine or elsewhere, high on the agenda.
Climate change is not a distant threat. We must act together to accelerate action. The UK has already doubled its international climate finance funding from £5.6 billion to £11.6 billion, and is investing £220 million in a new international biodiversity fund.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that increasing the UK’s climate diplomacy capabilities is important for a successful COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, so that we can be more successful than last year’s conference in Madrid?
The UK was disappointed at the lack of progress made at COP25 in Madrid. The UK and Italian diplomatic efforts will be squarely focused on achieving a successful COP26. COP is about more than negotiations; it is about real change happening across countries, civil society and the private sector. These broader elements will be a primary focus of COP26.
At the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a Stroud Greenpeace exhibition about climate change and protecting our oceans. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continue to advocate for international agreement on climate change at the United Nations? Will the Minister tell us more about the Government’s commitment to protecting our oceans and the work on the UN global treaty negotiations?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. This is the first time I have answered a question from her, so I welcome her to her place.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s view on international oceans. We are looking for a maximum ambition on oceans to protect them for future generations, and I am working hard with Lord Goldsmith on that ambitious project.
Both the councils in the Sedgefield constituency—Darlington and Durham—have declared climate change emergencies, but given the relatively low impact of the UK on climate change compared with places such as China, how do we convince our constituents to engage? Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that we not only challenge other countries to make progress but share the efforts that our international colleagues are making, in order to motivate and share good practice?
I hope my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his place, will excuse my having my back to him as I speak to the Chair.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges we face today, so no country can solve the problem alone. COP26 in November will bring together more than 300,000 delegates from around the world to tackle climate change. It is vital that all countries come together and come forward with increased pledges and nationally determined contributions in the coming months. The UK has committed to increasing our international climate ambition and NDCs before COP26.
We meet today on the 75th anniversary of the Yalta conference, at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up post-war Europe, and in doing so unwittingly created the conditions for half a century of cold war between east and west. Their mistakes were eventually fixed, but when we have conferences that affect the climate emergency today, we have to realise that it is too late to fix any more mistakes as we rapidly approach the point of no return on global warming, so let me ask a specific question. When the Prime Minister hosted the UK-Africa trade summit just a fortnight ago, he told its delegates that
“we all suffer when carbon emissions rise and the planet warms.”
Will the Minister tell us what percentage of the energy deals that were struck at that summit were based on the mining of fossil fuels?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that question. She always puts her questions so perfectly; her diction is superb for the House. Everybody was clear about what she said.
We are weaning all the world off coal. The Powering Past Coal Alliance, which is clearing away from coal, is very important. We are leading on that and my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa, who led at the Africa conference, has managed to secure an amazing deal on that. We are looking towards the bright future that that Prime Minister has been talking about today.
The hon. Lady focuses on coal and boasts about the announcement on coal, but according to the Environmental Audit Committee, UK Export Finance has not supported a single coal project since 2002. I do not know whether she is uncertain about the answer or just too embarrassed to answer, but the reality is that more than 90% of the £2 billion of investment in energy deals that was agreed at the UK-Africa trade summit was committed to new drilling for oil and gas—more fossil fuels. None of that was mentioned in the Government press release, which focused instead on the paltry figures for investment in solar power. Does the Minister accept that she is part of a Government who talk the talk on climate change but never walk the walk? They make symbolic moves on the domestic front but will never take any global lead. Worst of all, they refuse to stand up to the climate denier—
Shall I be succinct, Mr Speaker? We recognise that countries will continue to need to use a mixture of energy sources, including renewable energy and lower-carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas, as part of the transition towards a low-carbon, sustainable economy. I am afraid the right hon. Lady is making too much hot air today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are working very closely with countries around the world. I have been to five of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations so far, and, at every opportunity I have asked them to have more ambitious targets for reducing their carbon emissions, and that is exactly what will happen when our Secretary of State meets representatives in China very soon.
Wuhan: UK Nationals
I spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 28 January about the evacuation of UK nationals from Wuhan and also about UK medical supplies to help the Chinese authorities tackle the coronavirus.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his reply, but does he agree that the safety and security of British nationals must be our primary concern, and will he therefore press the Chinese authorities to co-operate in granting any assistance necessary to ensure that our nationals are looked after while they remain in China?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and those are precisely the issues that I raised with the Chinese Foreign Minister. In fairness, we have seen 83 British nationals repatriated on Friday, and another seven British nationals and four dependants evacuated on a French flight that returned to the UK on Sunday. I can also tell him that we have been allocated 14 places on an Air New Zealand flight today for UK nationals and their dependants.
The evacuation of British nationals and their families from Wuhan has been nothing short of a shambles, given the delays, the lack of information and the terrible cases of family separation that have occurred. Why on earth does the Foreign Office not have protocols and plans in place to manage these crises when they occur?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong on everything that he has just said. I visited the crisis centre yesterday. We have an excellent cross-Whitehall team, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care working with our consular officers. There are challenges dealing with the Chinese authorities in relation to the permissions to get the charter flight in and to get people to the muster points. We hired four coaches for the first flight that arrived on Friday, and we delayed the flight for three hours on the tarmac to ensure that all the people who needed to get on could get on, and of course we will continue working with our international partners and the Chinese to get those who need to come home out of the country.
Prosperity in Africa
Increased trade and investment in Africa will improve African Government revenues, and support job creation and economic growth, which is beneficial for African states and the United Kingdom. On 20 January, the Government hosted the UK-Africa investment summit, where £6.5 billion-worth of commercial deals and £1.5 billion-worth of Government funding initiatives were announced. Commitments announced at the AIS will help to drive prosperity across the continent.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and everyone involved in the very successful Africa investment summit. Will there be another one and, if so, what would the African countries that were not invited to this one need to do to get an invite to the next one?
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor for the work that she did in the early preparations for the summit. The summit achieved its objectives of laying the foundations for a new, stronger relationship between the United Kingdom and Africa, based on mutually beneficial trade and investment. Following our departure from the European Union, the Government will build further on those foundations in a range of ways, and we are currently looking at the feedback from the summit.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on the Africa investment summit. Too often, Britain’s interests when it comes to Africa are piecemeal and we are not good enough when it comes to sustained engagement, so what plans does the Minister have to engage with the African Union on a regular basis?
Excellent. I very much welcome that question. The African Union is justifiably seen internationally as a strong and influential partner, able to bring African countries together. During the Africa investment summit, chairperson Faki met the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. To support the development of the African continental free trade area, the Secretary of State for International Trade announced a £200 million southern African regional trading connectivity programme and a £20 million trade connect programme at the summit, which will further and deepen our partnership with the African Union.
May I ask the Minister how much time during the UK- Africa investment summit last month was dedicated to discussing the elimination of corruption and the protection of human rights, as two of the key preconditions of any new trade deals, especially given the presence of a notorious human rights abuser such as Egypt’s President Sisi?
The subject of human rights was raised by the Foreign Secretary in every single one of his bilateral meetings. Corruption is a barrier to business and growth, which is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through the prosperity fund, is investing in extensive anti-corruption projects in Africa, including legal reforms, policy reforms and transparency reforms, and operational work to recover the billions that have been stolen from the African people over the years.
As trade negotiations progress with Africa, there will be conflicting pressures with our trade negotiations with the US and South American states. What reassurance can the Minister give me that he will put pressure on the Department for International Trade to ensure that Africa is prioritised when it comes to trade deals, and does not lose out as a result of US or South American deals?
The very fact that we have hosted an Africa investment summit indicates the Government’s strategic priority towards Africa. We are opening five new missions in Africa, and are increasing the number of our staff—including Department for International Trade staff—across the continent by 400. Africa is a key trading partner, and UK-Africa trade increased by 7.5% last year to £36 billion.
UK Nationals: Consular Support
Our consular staff help more than 20,000 British people abroad every year. The support is tailored to the individual circumstances of each case, and prioritises those who are most in need. We constantly strive to improve our support, and use customer feedback to improve our services and staff skills.
I very much welcome the assurances that this Government have given to the 3 million EU nationals who will continue living in the UK after the transition period, but we have heard far less about the rights of the 1 million UK citizens living in the EU post Brexit. What work is the Department doing to help preserve those UK citizens’ futures?
Protecting citizens’ rights in the EU is absolutely a priority for the Government. The withdrawal agreement provides certainty for UK nationals living in the EU about their rights going forward. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is proactively engaging with EU member states to ensure full and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement.
There is currently no legal right to consular assistance. Domestic law would not improve the outcomes for our most complex cases. Even if there was a right to assistance, the Government’s ability to provide it would remain dependent on other states respecting that.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but with respect I disagree. In December last year, the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and assistance—which I founded and chair, and of which many of the Minister’s colleagues have been members—published its report, with 92 recommendations. We took evidence from more than 60 families from across the UK whose loved ones died abroad in suspicious circumstances or are being incarcerated against their will, and they said that they feel they are being let down by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. With Brexit set to make international co-operation harder and this Government’s cuts resulting in the reduction of more than 1,000 diplomatic staff, UK citizens deserve better. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister meet me to discuss enshrining into law—
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have already agreed to meet her, as did my predecessor, but neither offer has been taken up. On 23 January, the consular murder and manslaughter team held a workshop bringing together key stakeholders, including Murdered Abroad, the Help for Victims homicide service, the Ministry of Justice, the Metropolitan police and the Chief Coroner’s Office to focus on always improving our support for bereaved families. I participated in that meeting. We will always strive to improve the service that we provide to those who have loved ones murdered abroad.
One of the consular cases most on the minds of people in this House is that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Does the Minister agree that western countries need to work together to call out the vile practice of hostage-taking by countries such as Iran? Article 4 of the NATO treaty says if that one country is invaded, all have to treat it as if they have been invaded. Should we not do the same when our innocent citizens are taken hostage?
I applaud my right hon. Friend for his question and the work that he did on this case when he was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister met Richard Ratcliffe on 23 January. We continue to make strong representations to send a clear signal in this case that Iran’s behaviour is totally wrong and unacceptable.
Middle East Peace Plan
We welcome the US proposals for peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on recognition of the two-state solution. We support this initiative to get both sides around the negotiating table.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the United States’ “Peace to Prosperity” plan is a set of serious and constructive proposals that deserves more than instant rejection, and that whatever the pros and cons of the plan, if we are to secure a lasting peace, the only way to do so is through direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
I thank my hon. Friend. This is a first step on the road back to negotiations. The absence of dialogue creates a vacuum that only fuels instability and leads to the drifting of the two sides further and further apart, so whatever the different views, we want both sides to get around the negotiating table to work to improve the plan and to get peace in the middle east.
A peace plan without Palestinian participation is not a peace plan—it is an annexation plan. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government will not accept either this plan or any unilateral annexation plan, and perhaps take the step now to recognise an independent Palestinian state before there is no state left to recognise?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that any annexation unilaterally would be contrary to international law, damaging to peace efforts, and cannot go unchallenged, but the answer is to get both sides around the negotiating table. That is why not only the UK but the French, the Italians, EU High Representative Josep Borrell, Japan, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman have all called for the parties, based on this initiative, to come back to talks.
I am sure that the Secretary of State considers himself a friend of the people of Israel, as I do, and of America, and, I hope, of Palestine. Does he agree that it is the duty of real friends to speak the truth at difficult times? The truth is that this is no peace plan: worse, by making the Palestinians spectators in their own land, annexing illegal settlements and destroying hopes, it paves the way for further conflict. Will he speak that truth to Israel and America?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to speak candidly on all sides of this debate. I have spoken to the Americans. I also spoke to President Abbas on 27 January. The reality is that whatever concerns any side has about this set of proposals, they will get resolved and improved only with both sides around the negotiating table. Rejectionism—the current vacuum—is only making matters worse. We would like to see peaceful dialogue and a negotiated solution, and that must be based on the two-state solution and the principles of international law.
The 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation have both rejected the so-called Trump peace plan, because they recognise that it has no benefit for the Palestinian people, so why do the British Government continue to support it?
We support it along with—the hon. Gentleman failed to mention this—the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Omanis and Qatar. They have all given statements saying that it is a first step on the road to negotiations that can resolve the conflict. [Interruption.] They put out two statements. I heard the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) chuntering from a sedentary position. The reality is that rejectionism—the vacuum that currently exists—will only make matters worse. We want to see a negotiated two-state solution. That will happen only if both parties come to the negotiating table.
Libya: Peace Process
The Berlin conference attended by the Prime Minister on 19 January showed wide international support for a ceasefire, resumption of UN-led political talks and an end to external interference. International actors agreed to freeze military activity on the ground, not to send reinforcements and to respect the UN arms embargo. All parties must honour their Berlin commitments and demonstrate their support for the UN-led political process.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Libya seems to have drifted out of the headlines somewhat, and this war has been going on for 11 years. The Russo-Turkish Libyan initiative has now failed, and we must not take our eyes off the ball. Are we sure that we are not being short-sighted and piecemeal, when what Libya really needs is long-term international efforts diplomatically and on the ground?
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a very busy region indeed. However, I disagree that the international community is taking its eye off the ball—witness the Berlin process and activities at the United Nations. I shall be going to Ankara tonight, and I will of course be talking about Libya, among other things, with my Turkish interlocuters tomorrow.
Gambia: Arrests of Protestors
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are concerned that the political protests on 26 January turned violent. We are monitoring the investigations into that incident closely through our high commission. The UK is clear that the right to peaceful protest and media freedom must be upheld without recourse to violence and intimidation.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
Now that we have left the EU and regained control of our sanctions rules, we will be bringing into force our own global human rights Magnitsky-style sanctions regime, which will give us a powerful new tool to hold the world’s human rights abusers to account.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any new Magnitsky legislation must be targeted at the worst human rights abusers, including those perpetrating terror against minorities in China, most notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans? To that end, will he support my Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, mirroring legislation passed in the US which is throwing a spotlight on some of the worst human rights abuses against the Tibetans within China?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his tenacious efforts in this regard. When I was in Washington, on the hill, I had a number of conversations about US legislation and the approach it is taking. He is right to say that our regime should target the worst human rights abusers. He will see the individuals designated in due course, but I can reassure him that our approach will be universal in its scope.
The 6,500 children fleeing Idlib in Syria daily, where barrel bombs are being used on hospitals and schools, must wonder where on earth the protectors of their human rights are. Unfortunately, in this House we have all but forgotten them. What is the Foreign Secretary’s plan to ensure that those children know that their human rights are protected?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the situation in Syria. We encourage all the actors—whether it is the Russians, the Turks or, indeed, the Assad regime itself—to find a peaceful way through. We support the UN efforts to find a peaceful solution and, in particular, the humanitarian relief, which will provide relief to the children and other vulnerable people suffering in that terrible conflict.
The security situation in Iraq is deeply worrying. The threat from Daesh remains, and the recent attacks by Shi’a military groups on diplomatic premises are unacceptable, as is the use of disproportionate force against demonstrators. We are committed to supporting the Government of Iraq to face its profound security challenges. The Prime Minister reaffirmed that with his Iraqi counterpart on 5 January, and we stand ready to work with the new Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi.
Members of the Kurdish community in Newport have contacted me as they are very concerned that the recent vote in the Iraqi Parliament on expelling foreign forces will leave the Kurdish people, scarred by war over many years, even more vulnerable. What will Ministers do to act on their behalf?
I thank the hon. Lady for her supplementary question. I spoke to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masrour Barzani, recently—last month—and we discussed this issue, among others. She is right to say that the security of the region is of vital importance, and we will do all we can to work with our friends to assure that, including helping to train the peshmerga.
As I said on 14 January, our strategic aims remain to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, constrain Iran’s nuclear development and hold Iran to account for destabilising activity in the middle east. We remain fully committed to the joint comprehensive plan of action. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and I have all spoken to counterparts in the United States, Iran and across the region to underline the need for de-escalation on all sides.
Any unified and prosperous Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel is unrealistic as long as the Hamas terror group continues to be committed to the destruction of Israel. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for renewed international pressure on Hamas to renounce violence and to disarm?
My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. The renunciation of violence and the return to the political process are of crucial importance in trying to get towards what I think we all want in this House, which is a peaceful and amicable settlement that respects the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and in particular a deal that gives refugees, of whom there are a huge number in the region, a proper future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways we can help to secure a long-lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is by working with our allies to support initiatives that promote dialogue and co-existence, such as the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money is not misdirected or misused but goes to the people who actually need it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are of course a large number of projects and initiatives, many of them funded by the United Kingdom, that are aimed at promoting peace. He will be aware that we are one of the major contributors to the humanitarian situation—we hope, of course, pro tem—before we get a definitive political process that enables a viable Palestinian state to live alongside the state of Israel.
In relation to de-escalating tensions, may I thank the Minister for having met my constituent Mr Robert Cummings, the grandfather of Luke Symons, who is being held by Houthis in Sana’a? May I convey, through him, a request for an opportunity to meet the Foreign Secretary himself to discuss the case further?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We have discussed the case of Luke Symons at some length, and of course my door always remains open. We continue to do what we can in a very difficult and challenging situation with our interlocutors and partners to secure the outcome that I know the hon. Gentleman wants for Mr Cummings.
The UK deployed a team of experts on 8 January to assess what support Australia needs, and we are working with Australia to establish where we can work together on this issue.
I welcome the Government’s pledge to create 500 new hectares of vibrant ecosystems here, but Australia’s ecosystems are facing unprecedented threats following these bushfires. What steps is the Department taking to assist the Australian Government in the recovery of these precious habitats?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. One of the pieces of work we are doing with Australia, I hope, is on biodiversity and specifically on seeds. We are hoping to work with Kew so that the re-energising of that biodiversity area, which has been so badly affected, will come to fruition, if I can use that word. It is excellent that our experts will be working completely hand in hand with the Australian authorities.
What discussions have the Government had with the Australian Government about the link between the bushfires and climate change to make sure that the Australian Government get serious about tackling carbon emissions in their country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Australia is a signatory to the Paris agreement, and a number of Australian states have already committed to net zero by 2050. Ahead of COP26 we look forward to working with Australia to increase its climate ambition, in line with principles that it has already agreed to.
Last week we left the European Union to become an independent country, delivering on the promise made by politicians to the British people. Later today I will be departing for Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, to deliver on this Government’s vision of a truly global Britain.
Yesterday the World Health Organisation evacuated 30 patients from Yemen who needed urgent medical treatment, including several children, but those are very much the lucky exceptions. What is the Foreign Secretary doing, together with his international counterparts, to negotiate peace in Yemen, so that all its people can receive medical assistance when they need it?
The hon. Lady raises a conflict that I, and the whole Government, are very concerned about. We work with all our international partners, and in the past week I met the Saudi Foreign Minister to consider how we can pursue dialogue and get a peaceful resolution to that conflict, not only for the parties and the region, but also for the vulnerable people affected.
What an excellent question, particularly bearing in mind how important soft power is to our standing in the world. We are proud to host the best league in the world, showcasing the greatest talent in the world, and this year we will welcome our European friends to Glasgow and London for Euro 2020—yes, my hon. Friend can be assured about that.
My hon. Friend is right, and she will be aware of the support that we give for health and education in the occupied Palestinian territories, pending the definitive political solution that we would like to see in the not-too-distant future, which remains a huge priority. She will also be aware of concerns about things such as teaching materials in schools, and of the active role that we have taken to ensure that no inappropriate material is used. I spoke recently to the Palestinian Education Minister. I know that this issue is at the top of his agenda, and in advance of the academic year in September, changes will be made.
I think the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the UK position. There is a proposal for peace talks, which would require a two-state solution, based on both sides agreeing. We have made it clear that we would disagree with and challenge any unilateral annexation on the basis of settlements.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very interesting question. He is quite right: the BBC World Service does reach 319 million people weekly. It is incredibly important that that carries on. We have the 2020 agreement between the BBC and Her Majesty’s Government to invest huge amounts of money and we want that to continue.
The National Federation of Indian Women estimates that 13,000 teenage boys from Jammu-Kashmir have been detained following the revocation of article 370 on 5 August. Will the Secretary of State support a fact-finding delegation from the all-party group on Kashmir to the region, given that so many of the UK’s Kashmiri diaspora still have family members there?
I appreciate my hon. Friend raising this very important issue. There are huge challenges in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. We are working collaboratively with the Chinese. There is clearly a tension between the desire from our point of view to ensure that UK nationals and their dependants, whatever their nationality, can return to the UK, and the legitimate desire of the Chinese to prevent the spread of the virus. I have spoken to the Chinese Foreign Minister and received reassurances that no UK-national-related families who want to return to the UK will find themselves divided on the basis of dual or split nationality among their families.
Does the Minister agree, with regard to the Trump so-called peace deal, that since no Palestinians were involved in negotiating it, it is not a negotiation or a deal but an imposition and that therefore an imposition is no basis for a lasting peace?
The hon. Gentleman is putting the cart before the horse. He is right that both sides will need to agree a two-state solution based on coherent, credible states on both sides and with the security considerations without any lateral annexation—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is again speaking from a sedentary position. There will need to be the resolution of all the key final status issues, including Jerusalem and refugees. But we have to get out of this vacuum and the only way we will do that is if both sides come to the negotiating table.
My hon. Friend is right to tirelessly champion freedom across the world. I met interim President Guaidó. We continue to want a peaceful resolution of the situation in Venezuela and a transition to free elections which are credible for the people of Venezuela.
This morning, the now-sacked President of COP26 said that the Prime Minister has shown,
“a huge lack of leadership and engagement”
and “doesn’t really understand” climate change, which has led to the UK being “miles off” globally from where we need to be. Now rumours are flying around suggesting that the Government are planning to shift COP26 from Glasgow to an English location. What on earth are the public supposed to make of this shambles?
The hon. Lady will not need to wait long, because today, with Sir Richard Attenborough, the Prime Minister is launching and setting out the detail of our approach to COP26, where we will lead in bringing the world together to tackle one of the global challenges of our age.
The BNO passport holders have, by definition, a bespoke status. They have Chinese and British nationality, but they are not British citizens. They hold a BNO passport, which entitles them to consular support when travelling away from home. It also entitles them to six months entry clearance into the UK. That, as I think my hon. Friend will know, was agreed as part of the arrangements around the joint declaration in 1984. We support that. We want to see one country-two systems upheld, precisely because it is the best way of ensuring the freedoms and the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong.
My constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, has been incarcerated in the Republic of India for 830 days. Will the Foreign Secretary consider meeting me and Jagtar’s family to assure them that while he is pursuing a free trade British agenda, he will not sacrifice our commitment to openness, transparency and due process in any future free trade agreement?
We take allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously and we raise them with the Indian authorities. I know that the hon. Gentleman recently met Lord Ahmad on 23 October and 19 December. I am happy to arrange another meeting with Lord Ahmad or to have a meeting with him myself.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has touched on the COP26 preparations. Will he talk a bit about the strategy that the FCO will take on the Kunming biodiversity conference and the UN ocean conference in Lisbon, because clearly, climate change diplomacy will be absolutely front and centre of his agenda?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that in all those conferences, we want to lead with an ambitious approach to tackling climate change. The Prime Minister is setting out with Sir Richard Attenborough today the approach to COP26, and if my hon. Friend would like any more detail, I would be very happy to write to him.
With the rights of indigenous peoples in danger around the world—particularly from the Bolsonaro Government in Brazil—does the Minister agree that the rights of indigenous peoples should be embedded in the proposed international treaty on human rights and transnational corporations?
I think the hon. Gentleman was present at a Westminster Hall debate last year when I made clear the work that the British Government are doing to help indigenous peoples in places such as Brazil. We have to make sure that we support such people. I think the point was made by the former Member for Bishop Auckland that tariffs are a good thing. Tariffs hurt the poorest and tariffs on food hurt the very poorest. We will make sure that we support indigenous peoples wherever they are, and particularly in Brazil.
I note the Minister’s earlier remarks about the Iran nuclear deal, but does he accept that since it was signed in 2015, Iran has launched major cyber-attacks against the UK, including on this Parliament? It has used its warships to harass our fleets in the Gulf and it has supported a huge arms build-up in the middle east. Where is the evidence that Iran can be a trusted partner for peace?
My right hon. Friend is right to point out not only the systematic Iranian non-compliance on the nuclear front, but its wider destabilising activities in the region and its use of covert cyber-attacks against western interests. The reality is that we want to hold Iran to account every time it steps beyond the international pale, but we also want to leave the door ajar for it to take the confidence-building steps—when the regime in Tehran makes that decision, as only it can—to come in from the international cold.
Can the Minister outline the discussions that he has had with our Commonwealth ally, India, about its industry and climate change and how we can help it to be sustainable, environmentally friendly and reduce emissions while carrying on with its industry?
My hon. Friend is right not just to ask that specific question, but to do so in that tone. As COP26 beckons, we want to see increased ambition right across the world in terms of nationally determined contributions to get emissions down. We also want to work with big developing countries such as India and China, with the technology and the innovation that the UK is particularly adept at providing, to help them to transition to a greener economy.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have, as I mentioned, expressed our concern to Turkey about its acquisition of Russian-made weapons. That is against not just the letter, but the spirit of NATO. Equally, we value Turkey as a trusted NATO ally. It is often on the frontline of some of the greatest challenges that the alliance faces, so we are working with Turkey and all the European and North American partners to try to bring it into the fold and make sure that it is focused on NATO’s priorities.
I think the Foreign Secretary inadvertently said that the Prime Minister was launching the COP26 plans with Richard Attenborough today, but of course he is no longer with us. He might want to take the opportunity to correct the record.
Will the Foreign Secretary consider the request I made earlier through his colleague to meet my constituent, Robert Cummings, in relation to the case of Luke Symons in Yemen?
I am happy to correct the record as to which Attenborough I meant. We are lucky to have had so many fantastic Attenboroughs in this country. I also repeat that we are ambitious for COP26.
Of course, I will look carefully at the case the hon. Member raises. In all these consular cases, we want to provide the most effective representation to secure people’s release and to provide the reassurance they need and comfort to the family.
As my right hon. Friend knows, we take freedom of religion and belief extremely seriously, and the Prime Minister’s envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), is working closely with me on the plans for that conference.
Universal Credit: Delayed Roll-Out
The Secretary of State and I informed Parliament yesterday that we had revisited our forecast for universal credit and were extending its completion date to 2024. Our planning for universal credit relies on assumptions about the number of people whose circumstances will change each day, thereby naturally migrating. Our forecasts to date have relied on 50,000 households experiencing a change in circumstances each month. Based on this, we had predicted that the process of natural migration to universal credit would be completed by December 2023.
Information collected on changes to people’s circumstances suggests that natural migration is happening less frequently than we expected. This suggests broad stability in people’s lives and can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the robustness of the labour market. We now estimate that 900,000 fewer households will naturally migrate between now and December 2023 than we had forecast. Given that we expect to manage about 100,000 households to universal credit each month, it necessarily follows that if we are to protect the interests of claimants and move them to universal credit safely it will take a further nine months to complete the implementation of universal credit.
I can assure colleagues that claimants will not lose money from their universal credit award owing to this forecasting change. We will always put the best interests of our claimants first, and as we move into the managed migration phase protecting the vulnerable will be our utmost concern.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which I believe is the first to be granted to the SNP under your speakership.
The UK Government still have no respect for the House. They let the BBC announce this delay as part of a news trail for the documentary being aired tonight, without a written ministerial statement—I have not seen one, so can the Minister tell the House where it is?
I feel for the Minister, being forced to stand here today, because I know it was not his decision to withhold that information from colleagues. Where is the Secretary of State? This should have been an oral ministerial statement.
Quotes from the documentary seem to suggest that this decision was taken by a senior official, not the Secretary of State. Has she abandoned decision-making oversight? When did she sanction this decision? Perhaps there was no oral ministerial statement because she found out only last night, like the rest of us—what an absolute shambles.
Universal credit was supposed to have been fully rolled out by 2017. This further delay means that it will have been delayed by a further seven years at a potential cost of £500 million. It highlights how far universal credit is from getting it right, as does the fact that this delay is needed to avoid further hardship to those in receipt of the benefit.
Ministers say, as the Minister said again just now, that the delay is needed because people are scared to go on universal credit. They say it like they are actually surprised. The great irony is that if this Tory Government were to listen and do what expert charities and those actually in receipt of universal credit were saying, these delays would not be needed.
Will the UK Government use this delay productively by making a meaningful investment in universal credit to see it fixed, scrapping the two-child cap and rape clause, ending the debt and poverty-inducing five-week wait and making work pay by fully restoring work allowances?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that this delay means that more people will be part of the natural rather than the managed migration process, which in turn will mean that those recipients will lose out on transitional payments, thus saving the Government more money at the expense of people who actually need it?
I have not yet seen the BBC documentary, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not done so either, because it is due to be aired shortly. However, it is important to stress that officials discussed advice to be sent to Ministers late in 2019, and the final discussions were held with Ministers in 2020. Parliament was then informed. This relates to the back end of the timetable, which concerns people moving to universal credit in 2024-25, so the change was communicated in good time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to cost, and it is important to put that in context. This is additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants, some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our country. About 900,000 people could now receive transitional protection who would not have been able to receive it through natural migration.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s clarification of the need for this reforecasting. May I invite him to restate the Government’s total commitment to a universal credit arrangement that simplifies the system? It means dealing with one Department rather than three, it combines six benefits into one, it helps people to get into work more quickly, and it smooths their transition into work thereafter.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and for all the work that he did in our Department. He is absolutely right: universal credit is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit that reflects the rapidly changing world of work. Conservative Members believe that work should always pay, and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to everyone who pays for it.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the Government had decided to delay the roll-out of universal credit until September 2024, adding £500 million to its overall cost. That is hugely embarrassing for the Government: yet again, they have had to delay what is meant to be their flagship social security policy. Last week the Minister told the House that they had managed to process fewer than 80 households since July, as part of what was meant to be a pilot of up to 10,000 households in Harrogate, and that only about 13 of those households had transferred to universal credit. At that rate, it would take the Government more than 380 years to complete their managed migration pilot.
Universal credit was supposed to make work pay, but instead it has caused misery for thousands across the country. It seems from yesterday’s report that senior civil servants think people are too scared to transfer to it. Can the Minister tell us why so many people are scared? Is it because of the five-week wait that is pushing so many families into debt and rent arrears, and making them turn to food banks to survive? Is it because of the two-child limit, which the Child Poverty Action Group has described as
“a policy designed to increase child poverty”?
Is it because of the sanctions regime that has made some of the most vulnerable people in our society destitute? Or is it down to the fact that, according to the Government’s own research, nearly 50% of claimants were not able to make a claim online unassisted?
It is clear that the Government have been forced to delay universal credit yet again because people do not have confidence in the system. Can the Minister tell us what they intend to do with the extra time? Will they get rid of the five-week wait? Will they scrap the two-child limit? Will they call a halt to the sanctions regime that is pushing people into destitution? And will they now apologise to all the people whom they have pushed into hardship through universal credit, and create a social security system that protects people from poverty and treats them with respect?
The hon. Lady says that I should be embarrassed. I will never be embarrassed about putting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society first, and neither will the Government. She talked about cost. As I have said, this is up to £500 million of additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants. When she referred to the pilot, she was conflating two very separate issues. She also said that people were scared. Perhaps if members of the Labour party desisted from their scaremongering and spent more time in our jobcentres speaking to work coaches, they would have a better understanding of universal credit and how well it is working.
I am certainly no fan of the Department for Work and Pensions and its campaign to improve universal credit, but I do know that this Minister cares about making universal credit work, and this Minister has my full backing to make it work—and I have worked with many Ministers over the last 10 years. Will he tell me clearly, however, whether my constituents will be better off or worse off because of the way in which the migration works?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his kind words. The answer is a categorical yes: his constituents will be better off. Under our forecasting, around 900,000 people will now be eligible for transitional protection, and as a result they will be better off.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this urgent question. Claimants are extremely reluctant to be moved on to universal credit. It has a dreadful reputation, largely because for the first five weeks that they are on it the only help they can get is a loan. Claimants on universal credit are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank than those on the previous benefits. Will Ministers look urgently at drastically cutting that five-week delay?
First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his election as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. I take all issues around policy in my Department, in the areas in which I have control, very seriously and I am happy to work with him. Are there improvements that we can make to universal credit? Yes, of course there are, and I look forward to working with him find some of those solutions.
Is the Minister as surprised as I am that, when questions about universal credit come up, people have a clear tendency to forget that the legacy benefits system leaves a lot to be desired and traps people in jobs where they cannot work more hours? Universal credit is a massive improvement. Of course there are going to be issues, but I for one am pleased that the Minister is taking this cautiously and carefully. Universal credit helps people to get into work and makes work pay, and he should not be embarrassed about it at all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The previous system has been described as clunky and confusing, as leading to overpayments and therefore ongoing deductions, as acting as a disincentive to work through cliff edges at 16, 24 and 30 hours, and in some cases as a marginal tax rate of 90p in the pound. Labour was content to have people trapped in a life on benefits. What did that mean for the life chances of people and their children? Under universal credit, it always pays to work and increase your hours.
The final delivery of universal credit seems to be even later than a Northern train. It is a demonstration of the incompetence of this Government that they have wrecked the benefits system in this way. When universal credit was rolled out in my constituency as one of the experiments—they never do experiments in their own constituencies—it caused a tenfold increase in food bank usage and huge hardship—[Interruption.] The Minister can pretend all he likes that that did not happen, but I know from my own advice surgery that this benefit causes misery.
Let us instead look at the facts. Universal credit will give claimants an extra £2.1 billion a year, once it has been fully rolled out, compared with the system that it replaces. Around 1 million disabled house- holds will receive an average of around £100 more a month, and 700,000 families will get the extra money that they are entitled to—around £285 a month—under universal credit. Claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits—benefits that they did not receive under the legacy benefits system of the previous Labour Government.
I simply do not understand why Opposition Members are so against this system, which is helping people into work. I have visited my jobcentre in Poole, where work coaches are so positive about the universal credit system because it gives them the tools to get people into work. It is not just Conservative Members who support universal credit; it is also those who have been helped into work by our work coaches.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for visiting his jobcentre. If more Members across the House did so, they would have a better understanding of the system and of how our work coaches feel about it. They would find that, as my hon. Friend rightly says, it is a valuable tool to help people to get into work and to progress in work. We should all be proud of it.
In a written answer to me, the Secretary of State has conceded:
“As the two-child limit policy was introduced in April 2017 there is insufficient data to assess any impacts of the policy on low income.”
Almost three years on, we still do not have sufficient data to assess the impacts. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister take the opportunity provided by this period of grace that they have granted themselves to get proper statistics on the effect of the two-child rule on people of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and at local authority and parliamentary constituency level?
I am not entirely sure about the correlation between that question and this urgent question but, nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can write to me, or I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issue further. I cannot guarantee that we will agree, but I will be happy to listen to him to understand the issues he raises.
When I visited my jobcentre in Redditch, which, contrary to some suggestions from the Opposition, has had full roll-out of universal credit since October 2017, I found work coaches to be incredibly positive about the transformational help being given to their clients. Does the Minister agree that the constant scaremongering and muddling from Opposition Members is the problem? First they want to scrap universal credit, then they want to pause it—who knows what they would do? We need to be on the side of the people, and I am glad that this Government are.
My hon. Friend is quite right. At every single jobcentre that I visit—I visit one every week on average —I get that same feedback, and the one thing that staff would like to change is the reputation. It would be helpful if Opposition Members visited their jobcentres, spoke with work coaches, got that understanding, and desisted with the unhelpful scaremongering.
My constituent, a mature student with a wife and child, claimed UC and provided all the information that was required. The DWP later announced that it had made an error and asked my constituent to pay back £2,416. He has had to give up his studies, and his family is now in hardship. Does that incompetence not demonstrate why people are so scared to make a UC claim? While the Minister for deep-fried Mars bars is at the Dispatch Box, will he explain why he still has not apologised to me and my colleagues?
I hope you recall, Mr Speaker, that I did make a full, frank and unreserved apology in this Chamber. As for the case that the hon. Lady raises, if she would like to write to me with the details, I will happily look into it. There are strict Treasury rules about errors and deductions, but I will be happy to look at them.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that today’s announcement does not change the fundamental course of our policy, which is to move away from a perverse legacy system that incentivised claimants to minimise the number of hours worked to one that incentivises them to maximise their hours and gives them a chance to move away from long-term benefit dependency?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his support for universal credit and, indeed, his local jobcentre. We believe that work should always pay, and we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to the taxpayers who pay for it. It is important to stress—my hon. Friend is right about this—that it always pays to work and increase one’s hours under universal credit. That was not the case under the legacy benefit system.
Overwhelming evidence from the pilot areas such as Wigan and debt charities such as StepChange shows that the five-week wait is causing further debt problems. Will the Minister use this delay to rescind and reconsider this policy urgently?
I have huge respect for the hon. Lady, and I would be happy to visit her constituency to meet some of the organisations she references. It is important to state that nobody has to wait five weeks for an initial payment, which can be done on day one. It is repayable over 12 months but, as of next year, that will be extended to 16 months. We also have additional measures such as the two-week housing run-on and, as of July this year, a further two-week run-on of other legacy benefits. Are there further improvements that I would like to make? Yes, of course there are. They would all require Treasury approval, but I would be happy to work with hon. Lady to look at them in further detail.
I, too, have visited my jobcentre and its staff universally welcome universal credit—there is no doubt about that—but there have been one or two hiccups. When an employer tends to pay early, say at Christmas, that does tend to muck up the next month’s universal credit payment. Are we trying to resolve that issue?
My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question that was raised by six separate colleagues at oral questions only last week. I am looking closely at this area and intend to organise a roundtable with interested colleagues and officials to explore how we can tackle the issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on his urgent question. Policy in Practice analysis shows that disabled people lose an average of £3,000 a year, but they are not the only group to lose money under universal credit. In addition to considering the five-week wait, about which so many of my colleagues have raised issues, will the Minister examine increased support for disabled people? Disabled people and children are being plunged into poverty as a result of this benefit.
I think I have already answered this question. Around 1 million disabled households will receive an average of £100 more per month under universal credit. Importantly, the claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits that, for all sorts of reasons, they did not claim under the legacy benefit system.
Harrogate and Knaresborough has been a trial area for universal credit since it started, including being the location for the legacy migration. I have therefore followed universal credit for many years and I have spoken with claimants, employers and the team at Harrogate jobcentre who have done a great job. They all report positive feedback. There are obviously some problems, but there were problems with the previous system. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to make work pay. Will the Minister continue the focus on making work pay?
I thank my hon. Friend for his very helpful question and for his support of universal credit and his local jobcentre. I am full of praise for those staff working in the jobcentre at Harrogate and the work that they are doing on the pilot. That is hugely important work, because it sets the scene and gives us the all important data and learnings we need to move out universal credit at scale and pace.
In the last 18 months, a food bank in my constituency has seen an increase of two thirds in people using it. Will the Government accept that more people in the UK—including those in employment—are using food banks than ever before, as a direct result of policies such as universal credit, the five-week wait and the two-child limit?
I do not want anyone in our country to have no choice but to use or visit a food bank. I visit food banks regularly, and I want to get a clear understanding of food insecurity in our country. That is why we have commissioned questions for the Family Resources Survey, which started in April last year. I am also working with food banks and other organisations that tackle food insecurity to better understand the issue. If we better understand the issue, we will know how to tackle it.
Does my hon. Friend recognise as I do that the opening of the food banks that serve my constituency in 2009 was a response to the deep-seated problems at the height of Labour welfare spending? Does he agree that the feedback from local authority areas where universal credit has been rolled out has been that it is a much more supportive system than the legacy system?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right: it is a far better system than the previous legacy benefit system. We know it is working better at helping people to get into jobs and stay in them. Is it any surprise that under this Government the number of people in work is up more than 3.8 million since 2010, and the employment rate is 76.3%, a record high?
Given this latest delay, which follows endless repeated delays over the last few years, can the Minister assure the House that sufficient investment is being made to maintain the legacy systems, which will now have to last an additional seven and a half years longer than originally envisaged?
I can of course give that commitment, but I stress that this is a change in policy based on forecasts. Forecasts do change, and it is responsible of Ministers to look at them and change policy accordingly. If the forecast changes, I will of course look at it, as will the Secretary of State, and where necessary, act accordingly.
We hear a lot from the Opposition, and we certainly did during the election, about scrapping universal credit or sections of it, but I and many people in this Chamber would much rather have a change of forecast than a change to the entire system, and certainly the jobcentres would agree with that. Will the Minister tell us what, if anything, claimants will notice on the ground from the change in forecasts?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I welcome her to her place and indeed to her position on the Select Committee. Most claimants will not notice any difference whatever, other than that an extra 900,000 will be eligible for transitional protection. She raises an important point. The IFS slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap universal credit as uncosted and
“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”
It is important to point out that no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.
The Minister is correct that he apologised to Glasgow MPs, but he told us he would write to us that day and we are still waiting. Delays seem to be an important part of his stewardship.
On the five-week wait and given that we now know from parliamentary answers that the Department receives £50 million a month in repayments from advances, surely that now tells us to scrap the five-week wait and make sure the first payment is not a loan or an advance payment, but a first payment for universal credit.
It is a system based on arrears, not on advances, unlike the legacy benefit system. The hon. Gentleman knows that people are able to access an advance on day one repayable over 12 months. That will extend to 16 months next year and I am looking at whether we can explore options to extend that further. We have made further changes—scrapping the seven-day wait, the additional two-week run-on, the two-week run-on starting in July of legacy benefits—and, where there are further changes we can make, I am of course willing to look at them and act where appropriate.
I commend the Government for delaying the roll-out of universal credit and, indeed, for the changes that they have made to the system over the last four years or so, but may I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to getting rid of the five-week wait, notwithstanding the answer he gave to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue)? In my experience, it is causing very serious challenges for my constituents.
Can the Minister tell us whether we can now expect to see an improvement to the kind of delays that many applicants are experiencing in their applications being processed? Will the Minister commit himself to publishing some statistics so that we can see whether the impact of this delay has resulted in an improvement to those kinds of delays?
I am a little confused, because my understanding is that those performance stats are indeed available. The Department has a very good record on payments and payment timeliness. Can we improve? Of course we can, and I meet with officials on at least a weekly basis to discuss that. In many cases, it is down not just to the Department but to how the claimant provides information. We are putting in additional resource, where appropriate, to help people to help themselves to get us that important information that we need to process the claims.
Will the Minister confirm that one solution to this would be to get more uptake for the excellent help to claim service through Citizens Advice? Will he confirm that service will be extended so that it is there for the whole period through to the end of the roll-out?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his work on the Select Committee. He is right: help to claim, commissioned via the Department and run by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, is working really well. We are now in detailed discussions in relation to a second year, but I want to go further and in April we will launch a £10 million transitional fund for UC, in particular to support disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. It will also help Members, because organisations in their constituencies will be able to bid for that funding.
The Public Accounts Committee is not in the business of scaremongering, but from the very beginning we have raised concerns about the pace and the over-ambitious nature of this policy. Only today, the Minister listed so many changes that have taken place since it was rolled out that it shows there is a problem. In our last session on this issue, we heard from local authorities about the millions of pounds they are having to put aside to help people. With this extra time, will he look at what support he can give local authorities who are having to backfill mistakes by his Department?
Universal credit is an evolving system and it is a relatively new system. I meet with stakeholders and Members from both sides of the House on a regular basis, and where there are improvements that we can make quickly, I will of course look at them and make them. Where there are changes that can take a longer period of time, I can start setting those in train. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and discuss the issue she raises in further detail.
One of the very first constituency visits I made as a new MP was to Aylesbury jobcentre. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and with the work coaches and claimants I met there, that universal credit is a much better system than what went before because it positively incentivises people to find a job?
My hon. Friend is right for all the reasons that he points out, but I would go further and say that it is the personal relationship with a work coach that makes it so very different to the legacy benefits system. Work coaches will work with people to help them get work ready, to get into work and then to progress into the job that they want and that suits their family.
I do not recognise those statistics, or indeed the correlation. I do not know when the hon. Gentleman last visited his jobcentre, but I would strongly recommend he does so to discuss with work coaches the difference that universal credit is making in his constituency. If he has specific concerns, I invite him to write to me and I will look at them in detail.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if people out there are scared, the blame, at least in part, is with the Opposition parties, whose reckless, irresponsible scaremongering paints a picture wholly at odds with the picture on the ground in jobcentres across the UK?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. When I speak to and visit jobcentres and work coaches, they always tell me that the one thing they want to change is reputation. While Opposition Members continually talk down universal credit and say they would scrap it—against the advice and guidance from organisations such as the IFS and many charities—they are not helping the situation a jot.