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Commons Chamber

Volume 673: debated on Monday 9 March 2020

House of Commons

Monday 9 March 2020

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I should inform the House that, after calling Question 1, I will leave the Chamber to represent the House at the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey. The Chairman of Ways and Means will take the Chair.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Workplace Pensions

1. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of people contributing to a workplace pension. (901381)

You have impeccable timing, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Workplace pension participation rates have more than doubled since the introduction of automatic enrolment under the coalition Government in 2012, rising from 42% in 2012 to 85% in 2018. In West Worcestershire, my hon. Friend’s constituency, 9,000 eligible jobholders have been automatically enrolled, and thanks are due to the 2,600 local businesses that are supporting them.

This has truly been one of the great policy successes of the last decade, but many would argue that people are still not saving enough for a comfortable retirement. Does the Minister plan to use other nudge techniques, such as automatic uplifts whenever a person gets a pay rise, to encourage saving for old age?

We have the 2017 review, which we continue to monitor and will implement going forward. Automatic increases are not part of the Government’s present plans, but I am actively looking to learn from private sector companies that are carrying out similar initiatives. I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest and would be happy to discuss this in more detail.

Auto-enrolment, the creation of the last Labour Government, has transformed the lives of millions, with 10 million more now saving into a workplace pension, but 5 million people are still not covered because they are too young, because they earn too little or because they are self-employed.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is right that 8% cannot be the summit of our ambition to ensure security and dignity in retirement. Does the Minister agree that 8% cannot be right, and will he agree to cross-party talks on putting right that wrong?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we frankly speak far too often—virtually on a weekly basis —to ensure a cross-party approach to pensions policy. He is right that automatic enrolment was conceived under a Labour Government, implemented under the coalition and brought forward by the Conservatives. I accept that 8% is not enough going forward, but we await the 2017 review, the implementation of that review and further discussions on an ongoing basis.

This Government need to demonstrate that they stand on the side of self-employed people. Given that millions of self-employed people are not saving enough for their retirement, what update can the Minister provide the House on the incentives and encouragement we are providing for self-employed people to pay into a pension?

As a formerly very fat, self-employed jockey and a self-employed white-collar barrister, I fully appreciate the issues concerned. I agree with my right hon. Friend that these are issues we have to address. He will be aware that we are trialling self-employment matters on an ongoing basis with the National Employment Savings Trust and a variety of private sector organisations. We welcome unions and other organisations that wish to be part of that, and it is front and centre of what we are trying to do.

Too many young people do not save for their pensions, so how can the Minister ensure that young workers are better represented in workplace pension schemes?

The statistics are actually getting better by the minute. In 2012, only 35% of young people aged between 22 and 29 saved into a workplace pension. Now 85% of 22 to 29-year-olds save, but there is more we can do, including for the self-employed. The 8% that is being saved has made a transformational difference, and the opt-out rate among the young is the lowest of all the cohorts.

Universal Credit

2. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. (901382)

6. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. (901386)

18. What steps she is taking to provide support for people who require additional help transitioning to universal credit. (901398)

The Department is working with a range of organisations to support claimants who are transitioning to universal credit. Help to Claim, which is being delivered by Citizens Advice, is working effectively for claimants, and we are in the concluding stages of detailed discussions for a second year of delivery.

On a recent visit to my local jobcentre, it was clear that we have excellent staff and that they support universal credit. Will the Minister outline what plans are in place for outreach services for those who might be intimidated by a visit to the jobcentre or, indeed, who want to access support online?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for visiting his local jobcentre. All jobcentres have wi-fi and computers available for claimants to access the internet. For those who are still unable to access or use digital services, or who are not able to travel, assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the freephone UC helpline. As I mentioned, Help to Claim offers tailored practical support to help people make a UC claim.

As universal credit is rolled out, I welcome the use of new technology to help applicants, particularly in Hyndburn. What support is available to make sure applicants make the best use of the new systems?

Universal credit has been designed to be as quick and easy as possible for the user, ensuring claimants receive money at the earliest available opportunity. It is designed to be a digital-first service, ensuring we make the best use of technology to design a modern and effective working-age welfare system. It is important to note that our UC claimant survey found that 98% of claimants have internet access and have claimed online.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Is he aware that in Lincoln we are pleased that the claimant rate is as low as 4.4%, which is a vast improvement on what it was when I was first elected in 2010? Will he outline what other initiatives his Department is undertaking, as well as the local jobs fairs that Conservative MPs organise in their constituencies, to assist the 2,500 or so claimants in my constituency?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all the work he does in this area, and I welcome him back to his place. In recent years, the Government have made significant investment to improve work incentives, including the reduction in the UC taper rate from 65% to 63% and an extra £1.7 billion a year put back into UC to increase work allowances for working parents and disabled claimants by £1,000 a year from April 2019. That provides a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid and results in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 a year of what they earn.

The Prime Minister said last week that any workers who need to self-isolate because of the coronavirus and who are not eligible for statutory sick pay could claim UC. However, people have to meet a work coach at the start of a claim for UC, there is a five-week wait for the first payment and anyone asking for an advance also has to go to a jobcentre to have their identity verified. So how will people who have to self-isolate be able to claim UC?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As the Prime Minister set out last week, we will introduce, as part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s emergency Bill, provisions for statutory sick pay to be made from day one. Employers have been urged to make sure they use their discretion and respect the medical need to self-isolate in making decisions about sick pay. People not eligible to receive sick pay may be able to claim UC and/or contributory employment and support allowance, and staff at our jobcentres are ready to support people affected and can rebook any assessment or appointment that is necessary.

That just does not answer the question, does it? Will the Minister therefore outline what happens where someone on UC has to self-isolate but has to go through work searches and is unable to attend a jobcentre? Will he expect that person to be sanctioned if she cannot turn up?

The Minister said last month that he of course thought that improvements could be made to UC. I agree, so perhaps he could outline some, starting with ending the two-child cap, ending the five-week wait and fully restoring the work allowances. Have those conversations been had between his Department and the Treasury, ahead of the Budget?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are a Government who listen. Let us look at the improvements that have already been made to UC: increased advances, of up to 100% of a full monthly payment; cutting the taper rate, so people keep more of their salary; increasing the amount someone can earn before their UC is reduced; scrapping the seven-day waiting times; introducing a two-week overlap of housing benefit; and, as of July, we are introducing a two-week overlap of various legacy benefits. There are lots of improvements to be made. They do, of course, require Treasury approval, and I am looking at these in a lot of detail.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), I recently visited one of the jobcentres that serves my constituency—it was in Grimsby and, along with the ones in Immingham and Barton-upon-Humber, it serves Cleethorpes. The staff there do an excellent job and they are very positive about UC. Will he congratulate the staff and do what he can to reassure those who are having problems transitioning to UC that the Government will be working to solve any of the existing problems?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for visiting the jobcentre, and he describes the same feedback that my Front-Bench colleagues and I receive when we visit jobcentres. UC is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit, which 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. I can certainly thank the staff at that jobcentre for all the work they do.

A major cause of difficulty in transitioning to UC is the five-week delay between applying and being entitled to benefit. The Work and Pensions Committee, at its first meeting last week, chose to make this the subject of its first major inquiry, and I am grateful to the Minister for the conversation we have already had about this. Will he confirm that the Department will do all it can to assist the Select Committee in its inquiry?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his question. I start from the premise that we do not believe anybody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advance payments are available at the beginning of a UC claim and budgeting support is available for anybody who needs extra help. We have the two-week roll-on of housing benefit, and as of July this year we will also have the two-week roll-on of other legacy benefits. I will of course look carefully at the findings of the report by the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee.

Universal Credit and State Pension Payments

3. What steps she is taking to reduce the length of time between a claimant’s last universal credit payment and first state pension payment. (901383)

The Government recently announced that anyone reaching state pension age while claiming universal credit can receive a run-on until the end of the assessment period in which they reach state pension age. This removes any potential gap in provision, with such pensioners receiving, on average, an additional £350.

The announcement in the written statement on Thursday was extremely welcome and a great victory for hundreds of thousands of pensioners throughout the country. I thank all Members from all parties who signed early-day motion 129, which highlighted the issue. As it was clearly a bad policy in the first place, what redress will the Government offer to those pensioners who have already suffered loss?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all his work in this policy area. As he rightly pointed out, the change does remove any potential gap in provision, with people reaching state pension age and leaving universal credit receiving an additional £350 on average. I stress that the process is already in operation on an extra-statutory basis, ensuring that nobody loses out on reaching state pension age. Legislation will be amended accordingly later this year.

Will the Minister outline to the House what steps his Department is taking to support those citizens who have fallen into problem debt?

Certainly—the breathing space policy is a prime example. If my hon. Friend would like to meet me or, indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is the Minister for Pensions, we would be happy to do so to set out in more detail the action that the Government are taking.

People with Disabilities: Employment Support

The Government are committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work between 2017 and 2027. We support disabled people to return to work through our work coaches and disability employment advisers. This is achieved through programmes such as the Work and Health programme, Access to Work and the new intensive personalised employment support programme.

I welcome the news that 16,000 employers have signed up to participate in the Disability Confident scheme, which a fantastic initiative that helps employers to unlock the talent of workers with disabilities and is changing attitudes for the better. What plans does my hon. Friend have to expand the scheme further and encourage more businesses to sign up?

I am pleased to report that as of last month we are at 17,353. We use Disability Confident to empower employers of all sizes to share best practice. Only last week, I met all the Health and Work programme providers to look at how they can work with those businesses that have signed up for Disability Confident to offer more opportunities for disabled people.

I thank the Minister for his response. What is being done to support ex-forces personnel, who may have physical or mental disabilities, into employment, perhaps even through the auspices of bringing the armed forces covenant into statute?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is the Minister for Welfare Delivery, has been doing a huge amount of work in leading on that issue. We are making sure that we offer resettlement support; support from our armed forces champions, for which posts there is a £6 million package of support; and early access to the Work and Health programme. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is committed to putting the armed forces covenant on a statutory footing and it will have our full support.

We all want to see more disabled people supported into work, but it is also vital that they receive the support that they are entitled to through employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. It has recently been reported that vulnerable and disabled people who have appealed against decisions to deny them those benefits are being pressured to accept unrecorded telephone deals that pay thousands of pounds less than they may be legally entitled to. The Minister’s Department is accused of telling some people that the offer would be withdrawn if they did not accept it within minutes. How can that practice possibly be acceptable?

I thank the hon. Member for raising that issue, which was covered in the media. It is not something that should be happening. We have changed the mandatory reconsideration process so that we can try to support claimants who are challenging a decision to gather the additional written and oral evidence at that stage, rather than their having to wait for the lengthy independent appeal process. Stakeholders and charities are extremely supportive of that process, which is new and making a significant difference, but I am disappointed to hear that in some cases it has not been of the standard that it should be. We will review that.

The trouble with many people who have had brain injuries, particularly traumatic brain injuries, is that the nature of their condition is such that it varies considerably from day to day, week to week. They can suffer from phenomenal lassitude, making it almost impossible for them to get out of bed—not out of laziness, but because their brain and their body will not work in that way. How can we make sure that everybody who is working for the DWP, whether they are assessing a person for a benefit or trying to help them into work, fully understands brain injury?

I thank the hon. Member who has been a long-standing campaigner in this very important area. We work with claimants, charities and stakeholders in all areas to improve the training and awareness that all our health professionals and frontline staff have, and this is a very important area of work.

Child Poverty

There are 743,000 fewer children in workless households compared with 2010. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty, and a child living in a household where all adults work is about five times less likely to be in poverty than children in households where nobody works.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. The Child Poverty Action Group has published a study that detailed the lives of children who go hungry and the impact on their health, education and friendships. It showed that some were ashamed to invite friends home because they have no food to offer them. When will the Government give child poverty the priority that it needs?

I am conscious of CPAG’s report, which tends to use the relative “after housing costs” poverty measure. However, it is important to say this about the relative element; if we go back just over 10 years, we can see that just having a recession reduces relative poverty. We need to keep focused on what is really happening to families. That is why, if we use the absolute poverty measure, we will see that fewer people are in poverty than was the case 10 years ago. We will continue to work with parents to ensure that they try to earn the amount of money that they need so that they can continue support their children.

Childcare costs place a huge strain on family finances. Will my right hon. Friend outline what help is being given to families with up-front costs of childcare?

The way universal credit works is for people to have payments in arrears, but 85% of eligible childcare costs are covered, compared with 70% under the legacy system. It is also important to stress that the flexible support fund can be used to help with those sorts of costs, but we need to ensure that people are paying according to their salaries, as opposed to our simply giving grants up front.

According to the Department’s own figures, the majority of households hit by the two-child limit are in work but on low incomes. This policy pushes working families further into poverty, when our social security system should be giving people a route out. Will the Minister have a strong word with the Chancellor and end this pernicious policy in this week’s Budget, and why not support the Daily Mirror’s “Give Me Five” campaign while he is at it?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that child benefit continues to be paid for all children, as well as an additional amount for any disabled children. He is hitting the wrong note here, as is the Daily Mirror, when it comes to the “Give Me Five” campaign, as this is not a targeted policy to reduce child poverty. I simply say that, by keeping the two-child policy, providing support for a maximum of two children ensures fairness between claimants and those who support themselves and their families solely through work.

Special Rules for Terminal Illnesses: Review

7. What progress her Department has made on the review of special rules for terminal illnesses announced on 11 July 2019. (901387)

The Department is prioritising a full review in this vital area, evaluating how the benefits system supports people nearing the end of their lives and those with severe conditions. We are making significant progress on this, having engaged with claimants, clinicians and stakeholders to bring forward options.

I thank the Minister for that update and the Government for taking the initiative in reviewing these rules. My North West Norfolk constituents suffering terminal illnesses want to see the six-month rule scrapped, so will he continue to work with Motor Neurone Disease Association, Marie Curie and others to find a solution that works for all of them?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Absolutely. The reason we commissioned the review was that the status quo needs to change. We recognise that, and I wish to pay tribute to the organisations that have been supporting a thorough review, including the MND Association, Marie Curie, Hospice UK, Macmillan, the Royal College of Nursing, Sue Ryder and NHS England.

Scotland has already shown what can be done when a Government put dignity and respect at the heart of their welfare policies—for example, by removing any time qualification for people who are terminally ill. Why has the Department for Work and Pensions not yet followed Social Security Scotland’s lead and what are Ministers waiting for?

My understanding is that that has not yet been changed in Scotland. We are working with our Scottish colleagues and looking at all options. As I have said, our review will conclude shortly. Having consulted extensively with stakeholders, claimants and clinicians, and having looked at the international evidence, we will not be having the status review; we will be looking to improve the case for people towards the end of their life.

Although face-to-face reassessments are very important in the normal processing of claims, do the Government accept that people living with and suffering from terminal diseases should be exempted from the stress that such reassessments impose?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can typically turn around those applying under the special rules for terminal illness process within six days, ensuring that those who are most in need of support get it as quickly and as swiftly as possible.

Does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for terminally ill people who do not qualify for universal credit under the special rules for terminal illness to have to go to their jobcentre to discuss their career when they may not have very long left to live?

As part of this review we are looking at consistency across DWP work, as well as working with the NHS and hospices to try to have a more consistent and sympathetic approach. Where claimants do struggle to get to jobcentres, there are always opportunities for home visits.

Access to Employment for Ex-offenders

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on improving access to employment for ex-offenders. (901388)

I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor as does the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). The Under-Secretary also works with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). We have visited HMP Downview to see at first hand the excellent work of our prison work coaches, of which there are 130 based across the country. We have identified prisons that currently do not have a work coach as part of delivering on our manifesto commitment to break the cycle of crime.

I am grateful for that progress, but can the Secretary of State tell me when we will be in a position where all prisons will have this provision? Will she also tell me what progress there has been in ensuring that all prisoners are able to claim universal credit before the end of their sentence, because it is well established that access to a job or honest, legitimate benefits is one of the best means of preventing reoffending?

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, is working carefully on the pilot scheme that is currently being rolled out in certain Scottish prisons, and we are working with the Prison Service to ensure that universal credit claims are made in a safe way. This includes booking appointments at the jobcentre in advance by using a telephony-based system to avoid the risk of IT crime that could happen as a consequence.

The Secretary of State will know that many prisoners have conditions that are not seen as a disability upfront. For example, they might be on the autism spectrum or have special educational needs—indeed, they may well not be numerate or literate. As someone comes up for release from prison, could the Department work to identify the real talents that many of these people have and support them in these?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is primarily the role of the Ministry of Justice to consider these issues and help people to prepare for release. We are keen to have a work coach in every prison so that when people do leave they can get back into the world of work as quickly as possible. This issue is very much front and centre, and the Prime Minister has set up a specific taskforce, which he chairs, to ensure that we try to crack this cycle of crime, especially when people leave prison.

Support into Self-employment

9. What steps her Department is taking to support people into self-employment; and if she will make a statement. (901389)

Supporting people into self-employment and backing them to grow their businesses is a priority for me, as the employment Minister. Since 2011, the new enterprise allowance has resulted in nearly 131,000 new businesses. We expanded this provision in 2017 to include universal credit claimants with existing businesses and provide them with specialist support to boost their earnings.

That is very encouraging news indeed. As my hon. Friend will know, it was Adam Smith, not Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. That is especially so in the west midlands, in that people have small businesses that expand into large businesses. When will she meet the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to discuss how we can stimulate the economy there still further?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. In fact, later today in the Chamber the west midlands will be standing proud as we see the debate on the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill. The legacy around jobs and skills from that will be very welcome indeed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be meeting Andy Street this Thursday; I am sure that everyone will be delighted about that. I recently held a roundtable to redesign how we look at self-employment going forward, listening to people across the country talk about how they can build, create and boost their businesses.

I am very interested to hear about the Minister’s roundtable, because one of the great barriers to people in self-employment, particularly women in freelance-type occupations, is the fact that, unlike employed people, they cannot share their parental leave with their partner. Will she, as part of her roundtable discussions, and discussions with other Ministers, ensure that the Government change the system so that self-employed freelancers can share parental leave?

Women were 41% of those taking up the new enterprise allowance recently, moving from table-top to large businesses. That is brilliant news and it is very encouraging. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I was in north Wales to see about pop-up businesses, with many women involved in trying to move from ideas into successful businesses. We are redesigning this at the moment. I would be very happy to meet and hear from him.

15. Freelance IT contractors in my constituency are already losing contracts because of the complexities and legal risks around IR35. Now that they face periods of self-isolation, possibly for days or weeks on end, the Government urgently need to clarify their entitlement to support from the welfare system, and also generally to outline what the Government are going to do to get them through this difficult period. (901395)

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I know that other Members across the Chamber will have met constituents around this issue, as indeed I did on Friday. There are over 5 million people who are self-employed at the moment, with a huge amount of people coming into this area, which we are trying to boost, as I mentioned earlier. I am sure that as we go into the Budget, the new Chancellor will be listening to her very carefully.

Personal Independence Payment Assessments and Outcomes

10. What steps she is taking to reduce the time taken for claimants to receive personal independence payment assessments and the outcomes of those assessments. (901390)

Reducing end-to-end customer journey times for PIP claimants is a priority for the DWP. We continue to work closely with both assessment providers, amending and refining current processes.

Constituents in my patch of Bosworth can face up to 42 weeks for clearance of their case—that is, processing and determining the tribunal hearing either in Leicester or Coventry. The national average is 30 weeks. What steps can the DWP and the Ministry of Justice take to ensure that the process is swift and that claimants are kept up to date during this time?

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has developed a new digital system, and it is increasing the number of judges. This goes hand in hand with our changes to the mandatory reconsideration stage whereby we are proactively contacting claimants who are seeking to appeal their decision to see whether we can help to identify additional written or oral evidence to correct the decision at that stage, reducing the number of claimants who then need to enter the independent appeal process.

As the Minister will be aware, PIP assessments can be incredibly stressful and traumatic for claimants. That is why I am working with Disabled People Against Cuts to provide recording equipment for anyone living in Hull West and Hessle who is going for an assessment. But it should not be down to individual MPs to provide that. So will the Minister look at providing recording equipment for every PIP assessment that takes place right across the country to improve transparency and fairness?

The hon. Member has raised a very fair point. We have been piloting both audio and video recording of assessments. That pilot will be coming to a close soon. I certainly have a huge amount of sympathy around making sure that there is provision in place for audio recording for claimants.

State Pension Age: Life Expectancy

12. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies on the state pension age of trends in the level of life expectancy. (901392)

The Government are committed in legislation to undertake a review of state pension age every six years. The 2017 independent review was by John Cridland. The next review will be conducted by 2023 and will give consideration to the latest life expectancy projections. The latest Office for National Statistics projections of cohort life expectancy, published in January 2020, showed that it is projected to continue to increase, and the WHO Global Health Observatory data show that people in the United Kingdom have better life expectancies than European or world averages.

The new Marmot review has shown that a decade of Tory policies, from cruel benefit cuts to the unfair treatment of the WASPI women, have stalled life expectancy and increased the years spent in ill health for the poorest in our society. Which Tory policy would the Minister reverse first to begin to undo that damage?

I am afraid that the hon. and learned Lady is wrong. I will quote from the Marmot review, which says on page 13 that

“Increases in life expectancy have slowed since 2010”,

but then adds at page 15 that

“Life expectancy at birth has been increasing since the beginning of the 20th century.”

Claimants with Disabilities: Number of Assessments

13. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assessments undertaken by claimants with disabilities. (901393)

21. What steps she is taking to reduce the number of assessments undertaken by claimants with disabilities. (901402)

As our manifesto set out, we are committed to reducing the number of assessments that disabled people face. That will build on improvements already made, including reducing the frequency of assessments for those with severe or progressive conditions and removing regular reviews for PIP claimants over pension age.

I thank the Minister for his response. A number of constituents with severe conditions that are not reasonably expected to improve have contacted me with concerns about the current process. What reassurance can he give my constituents that their predicament will be given consideration as part of any future changes that the Department makes?

In the coming months, we will launch a Green Paper that will look at claimants’ experience, trust in the process and allowing claimants to lead full and independent lives. We will be doing a full review, working with stakeholders, claimants and charities to identify further areas of improvement on top of what we have already done.

I welcome the Department’s announcement last week that it will create a single, integrated service for PIP applicants and users. Can my hon. Friend confirm that that will make the application process much smoother for my constituents in Workington?

It will give us greater flexibility to try out new ideas that will be identified in the Green Paper, ensuring that we put claimants first.

Before Errol Graham was found dead after his employment and support allowance was stopped, he wrote a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, pleading with officials. He said:

“Please judge me fairly. I am… overshadowed by depression.”

That letter was revealed to the public weeks after the National Audit Office published a damning report showing that the Department has investigated 69 suicides linked to social security, which are just the tip of the iceberg. Will the Secretary of State finally make a statement on that report, and will she now commit to an independent inquiry into the deaths related to social security?

The Secretary of State is absolutely passionate about the need to make improvements in this area and is leading very important work. On the specific point of the NAO report, we are working at pace to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from any cases. We have already improved support and guidance for staff on how best to support vulnerable people. The NAO report notes action that the DWP is already taking, but we are now carefully considering the NAO’s findings and how they can help to further improve our excellence plan.

That passion certainly does not seem to be demonstrated in recent tribunal cases—the Department for Work and Pensions has lost more employment tribunals for disability discrimination than any other employer in Britain. Is the Secretary of State shocked by her Department’s own disability tribunal record, given that it should be, as the Minister said, leading by example? What will the Secretary of State do to rectify that?

Fair and respectful treatment is a right, and we do not tolerate discrimination in any form within the workplace, including within ours. We have instigated a review of our processes and actions to ensure that all employees are treated fairly and with respect. I am proud that, as a Department, since 2014, when 6.8% of our workforce were identified as having a disability, we are now at 15.3%, which is well above the civil service average of 11.7%. We are keen to be a fully inclusive and diverse workforce to benefit from their full potential.

Many of my constituents reduce the number of assessments they face by discontinuing their applications themselves, because they find it far too traumatic to have to repeat their life story over and over again to every public body they come across. When somebody dies, the Government have a “Tell me once” principle to help bereaved families cope by only notifying a public entity on a single occasion. As the Minister draws up his Green Paper, can he look at whether we can have one single source of truth for each claimant to reduce the trauma they face in going through this process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot-on. This comes up time and again, and it is driving our desire to bring forward the integrated assessment: where a claimant has already secured sufficient evidence, with the claimant’s permission, and only with the claimant’s permission, that information can be used to increase the chance of a paper-based review and reduce the need for a full face-to-face assessment for other benefits.

For a decade, disabled people and disability organisations such as the Disability Benefits Consortium have highlighted the absurdity of testing people with learning disabilities and progressive conditions every six months, as well as the stress for them and the cost to the taxpayer and the NHS. The Minister says those assessments will be reduced. When can they expect them to be reduced?

We have already made changes—for example, in the PIP process, where we no longer routinely assess those of pensioner age and those with the most severe conditions—and that work will continue to be brought forward as our knowledge of different conditions improves. As part of the ambitious and exciting Green Paper we are bringing forward in the coming months, claimants, charities and stakeholders can further identify how we can make the claimant experience much better. I know that the hon. Member has done a huge amount of work in this area, and I hope he will contribute to the Green Paper.

People with Disabilities: Financial Assistance

14. If she will hold discussions with her Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that people with disabilities receive financial assistance in addition to welfare payments for costs related to their disability. (901394)

I commend my right hon. Friend for his passion and work on this particularly important issue. The year 2020 is crucial for our work on disability with not only the Green Paper, but the cross-Government national strategy. Of course, I will continue to speak to my Cabinet colleagues about supporting people with disabilities into work, making them wealthier in their own right and helping them live fulfilling, independent lives.

What assistance are the Government giving to apprentices with disabilities to help them with their travel costs or any other costs they may incur, and what are the Government doing—specifically and currently —to get more people with disabilities to do apprenticeships?

My right hon. Friend may not be aware of this, but people with disabilities undertaking an apprenticeship can receive assistance from the Access to Work scheme to overcome workplace barriers. In addition, our flexible support fund can support eligible claimants with a variety of the costs associated with starting work, whether initial travel costs or, indeed, things like clothing.

Working-age Social Security Benefits: Four-year Freeze

16. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the four-year freeze in working-age social security benefits on levels of poverty. (901396)

The benefit freeze will end next month, and working age benefits will rise with inflation. We will spend an additional £1 billion on working age benefits in 2020-21.

A 1.7% increase in working age benefits does not make up for the damage caused by the four-year freeze: affected benefits and tax credits will be about 6% lower in 2020-21. If austerity was really over, the UK Government would be making up the shortfall. Has the Secretary of State asked the Treasury to make up that shortfall?

As I have just said, the Government have already announced that working age benefits will rise in line with inflation next month. As the hon. Lady will know, the Secretary of State has a statutory obligation each autumn to conduct a review of pension and benefit rates for the following year. This review will begin in October for implementation in the following April.

State Pension Age Equalisation: Financial Support for Women

17. What plans she has to provide financial support to women affected by the equalisation of the state pension age. (901397)

Changes to state pension age were made by successive Governments from 1995, including the Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, and addressed the long-standing inequality in pension age. This includes the Pensions Act 2007, which I believe the hon. Lady supported. Women continue to have the same eligibility for support from the welfare system as men with the same date of birth, and this country presently pays more in welfare support than ever before.

Approximately 6,100 of my constituents have been affected by the equalisation of the state pension age, and many have told me of the financial hardship that they and their families are suffering because of the change and their inability to work any longer. Last week, there was another lobby of Parliament that I, together with lots of people who will be in the House today, attended—it was packed. Another one is coming up soon. These women stressed to me last week that they are not going away and are not going to give up, so what is the Minister going to do to give some justice to those amazing women?

The hon. Lady will be aware that full restitution would cost something in the region of £215 billion and that a case was before the courts last year: on all grounds, these ladies lost their case. Clearly, that matter is subject to appeal, but the case was lost in respect of every ground, including notice.

Topical Questions

The coronavirus is currently dominating my work at the DWP. The Department is fully prepared for all eventualities and has conducted extensive planning against reasonable worst-case scenarios. I have been in discussions with the Chancellor and will continue to work across Government to prepare. If claimants cannot attend their jobcentre appointment in person because of self-isolation, work coaches can exercise discretion, so claimants should engage with them—they will not be sanctioned as long as they let us know before the appointment.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out last week, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing. That is why the Government safety net also extends to those who are self-employed or who work in the gig economy. They can apply for universal credit or new-style ESA, and advances are available for universal credit immediately. These are exceptional circumstances and we will support workers to do the right thing for the protection of their health and public health.

The local housing allowance is designed to cover the cheapest third of rents, but in Lewisham claimants face on average a shortfall of £40.22 per week between their rent and their benefits, and that is the case up and down the country. Has the Minister made any representations to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget to ensure that the local housing allowance once again reflects the true cost of renting?

LHAs will of course go up by 1%; I signed that off last year. The hon. Lady will also be aware of the discretionary housing payments that we have been making widely available to councils across the country. But let us face the reality: the Mayor should be building more homes in London.

T2. What steps is the Department taking to enhance the workplace savings programme for my constituents in Kensington? (901407)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, this was introduced in 2012 and has been a cross-party success story. It is fantastically good news for her constituents in Kensington, where 39,000 residents are signed up to an 8% automatic enrolment. Due thanks need to be given to the 5,300 local businesses who are supporting individual constituents, who are receiving 8% per annum workplace savings.

The Government tried to justify introducing the new bereavement support payment in April 2017 on the grounds that it modernises support, but couples who are not married or not in a civil partnership are not eligible. Last month, the High Court in England found that that is incompatible with human rights legislation and discriminates against children of unmarried parents. The Prime Minister has admitted that that is an injustice, so when will the Government put it right?

This is one of the issues on my agenda for us to take forward a consistent and coherent approach, recognising the issue of cohabitees and the impact this can have on children. We are working on particular solutions.

T3. May I take up the Secretary of State on her comment at the beginning on sanctions in the context of coronavirus? Currently, jobseeker’s allowance requires claimants to attend jobcentres in person every two weeks and prove that they have been looking for work—they must show evidence that they have been applying for jobs and going to interviews. Claimants can be sanctioned if they fail to attend the jobcentre, turn down a training course or fail to go to an interview. The Secretary of State said that the sanctions will not be applied if jobcentres are informed in advance, but the process of going through self-isolation may be shocking to the people involved; it may be disorganising what may already be disorganised lives. Can the Secretary of State tell the House that the Department will retain sufficient flexibility to ensure that people will not be punished for doing what the Government recommend? (901408)

I have tried to make clear to the House that people will not be penalised for doing the right thing. It is important that people have that conversation with their work coach. As I emphasised to the House, work coaches can exercise discretion but the important thing is a claimant’s ongoing conversation with their work coach.

T4. I am not sure that anyone will be desperately reassured by the idea of exercising discretion on something quite so fundamental. The Government need to be much more robust in their advice. When will that advice be published for jobseekers, advisers and those us whose job it is to scrutinise what the Government do? (901409)

We are working, right across Government, on a number of different scenarios. We are preparing guidance carefully and I assure the hon. Gentleman that rapid progress is being made. The Government will always be guided by the advice of our chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, particularly on self-isolation.

T8. From initial submission to award of benefit, how long does the average personal independence payment application take? Will the Government reduce the time period? (901413)

The average time is 14 weeks. We continue to review the process. As I set out earlier, with the forthcoming Green Paper we will be looking to identify further ways to improve the claims experience and make it easier to get supportive evidence that increases the likelihood of a paper-based review without the need for a face-to-face assessment.

T5. I have a constituent who cannot walk without aid and has severe depression currently going through the appeals process. That has already taken months, during which time no payments have been awarded to them. My constituent has had to rely on handouts from friends simply to survive. What advice can the Secretary of State give my constituent, or any other person in that situation, to help resolve the situation? (901410)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this matter. If he wishes to share the details of the case with me afterwards, I will be happy to look into it. Without the details, I can only give a broad answer. We are doing additional work on the management reconsideration stage to ensure we can help all claimants gather the additional written or oral evidence that could help to change the claim, so that they are less likely to be in the long independent appeal process.

T9. Many of my constituents are taking advantage of the online application for advance payments of universal credit. I recognise that it is a useful facility, but no bank would lend to people in this manner. Will the Minister work to ensure that claimants receive proper debt advice before requesting an advance and look to significantly extend the repayment period? (901414)

Advances are an important tool to help the most vulnerable claimants receive the money they need to live on. As part of the application process, proposed repayments and advance payment are explained. All claimants are advised to request a level of advance that is manageable when considering the repayments required.

We have announced that from October 2021 the repayment period will extend to 16 months, but I am very sympathetic to extending it further and am looking at that in detail.

T6. Evidence from Macmillan Cancer Support shows the availability of home visits for people suffering from cancer and claiming universal credit varies considerably across the country, with some waiting up to a year. Even before the advent of coronavirus, people with cancer should not really have attended a jobcentre if they were undergoing chemotherapy and were at risk of infection. What advice will the Minister give on that? Will he publish the figures on the availability of home visits for universal credit across the country? (901411)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is the Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery, and I regularly meet and work with Macmillan, which is a brilliant organisation. I am disappointed to hear that it feels it is proving too difficult for some claimants to access a home visit. We will take up that matter and look into it.

I recently met jobcentre and citizens advice bureau employees who expressed their grave concern about personal independence payment assessors. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the scheme’s assessors are of the highest calibre and able to judge each case on a proper basis?

We strive for 100% accuracy with high quality, objective, fair and accurate assessments. All our assessors are health professionals and experts in understanding the effects of a health condition on an individual’s daily life. They are occupational therapists, level one nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics or doctors with at least two years’ experience. We continue to monitor performance, share best practice, and work with claimants, stakeholders and charities to improve training and guidance.

T10. The Health Secretary has said that changes will be made to provide financial support to workers currently ineligible for statutory sick pay. Will the Minister confirm that those changes will include emergency legislation to remove the £118-a-week threshold that currently excludes 1.8 million low-paid workers from receiving sick pay—a measure supported by both the TUC and the Confederation of British Industry? (901415)

The hon. Lady will be aware that the £118 a week is an average over eight weeks, and it will swing about whether people are eligible or not. I have tried to make it clear to the House, reinforcing the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Health Secretary, that people who are working will not be penalised because they cannot work in this regard. We continue to work across Government to bring forward the necessary legislation or other changes required.

It was encouraging to hear about the work coaches programme in prison. Do Ministers agree about the importance of independent civil society organisations, as well as DWP staff, in supporting prisoners who are preparing for release? Will they work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that more prisons can give access to local community groups?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. When it comes to jobs, community progression and our jobcentres, working through outreach with civil society and local charities is absolutely vital. My hon. Friend in the other place, the good Baroness Stedman-Scott, is very keen to continue doing this, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) is very keyed up on it. We will not waste time and we will get on with it as soon as possible.

The gap between local housing allowance rates and average rents for a two-bed property in Southwark is now over £1,000 a month, and raising the local housing allowance in line with the consumer prices index will do almost nothing to close the gap. By continuing to ignore the issue, the Secretary of State is continuing to contribute to entirely unnecessary homelessness. If the Government are serious about ending homelessness, will the Secretary of State urge her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use this week’s Budget to re-link the LHA to the bottom third of rents?

As the Secretary of State said a moment ago, local housing allowance rates are not intended to meet all rents in all areas. The LHA is designed to ensure a fair balance between supporting vulnerable people to meet their housing costs and public spending. From April 2020, LHA rates will be increased by inflation, but I join the Secretary of State in urging the Mayor of London to do far more in terms of supply.

In 2015, our election manifesto rightly committed us to halving the disability employment gap. By 2019, unfortunately, we had watered that down merely to reducing it. 2015 was also the last year that we published Fulfilling Potential indicators, allowing us to monitor the gap. As the Minister pulls together his new national disability strategy, I urge him to reinvent the wheel and provide robust statistical indicators to allow us to monitor the narrowing of the gap.

In the last six years alone, there have been 1.4 million more disabled people in work; in the last two years alone, there have been 404,000 more disabled people in work, bringing the figure to 54.1%—a 9.9 percentage point increase in the last six years alone. The disability employment gap has fallen by 5.6 percentage points in the last six years. We are making progress and we continue to be ambitious about unlocking everybody’s potential.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that during the coronavirus epidemic, any social security claimant who fails to attend a work capability or work-related activity assessment will also not have their social security support stopped?

I have tried to make it clear to the House, and will again, that—as has been said quite often—people who do the right thing, whether they are required to self-isolate or are actively ill, will not be penalised for doing so.

My constituent, Jennifer Bell, was made redundant following the collapse of Thomas Cook, but secured a job with Jet2 late last year, which fell through given the DWP’s refusal to pay for a training course. She has now landed a job with Virgin Atlantic, which involves five and a half weeks’ training in Crawley. However, her application to the flexible support fund at Renfrew jobcentre for accommodation costs has been denied, despite other former colleagues having secured funding at other jobcentres. Will the Minister please look into this discrepancy for Jennifer?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which came through to us in jobcentres after the collapse of Thomas Cook. I am happy to take it away as a learning point. We are doing all we can on the Flybe issue, and I urge anybody affected to go to their local jobcentre and ask for support and benefits.

Four out of 10 older people say that the TV is their main source of company, yet as a result of Government decisions, millions of older pensioners are about to lose their free TV licences. The Budget is the last opportunity for the Chancellor to step in and overturn this unfair policy. Will the Secretary of State urge him to do so?

As the right hon. Lady knows only too well, this is a BBC decision. The Government remain very disappointed at its decision and urge it to think again.

Coronavirus

Before I call the shadow Health Secretary to ask his urgent question about the coronavirus, I draw to the House’s attention the fact that it is being streamed live with accompanying British Sign Language interpretation, which means that people will have to be very careful what they say and how they wave their hands around during this important piece of business.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will update the House on the coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus outbreak continues to advance around the world. The number of cases in China and South Korea keeps rising but at a slowing rate, but the outbreak in Iran, Italy, Switzerland and now France and Germany is growing. In Italy alone, we have seen 1,492 more cases overnight and 102 more deaths. Here in the UK, as of this morning, there were 319 confirmed cases. Very sadly, this now includes four confirmed deaths. I entirely understand why people are worried and concerned, and we send our condolences to the families.

The UK response is guided by our four-point action plan: we continue to work to contain the virus, but we are also taking action to delay its impact, to fund research and to mitigate its consequences. Throughout, our approach is guided by the science; that is the bedrock on which we base all our decisions. Our plan sets out what we are prepared to do, and we will make the right choice of which action to pursue at the right moment. The scientific advice is clear that acting too early creates its own risks, so we will do what is right to keep people safe. Guided by science, we will act at the right time, and we will be clear and open about our actions and the reasons for them. These are the principles that underpin the very best response to an epidemic such as this.

On research, I can report to the House that we have made available a further £46 million to find a vaccine and develop more rapid diagnostic tests, and we will continue to support the international effort. Here at home, the NHS is well prepared, with record numbers of staff, including nurses and doctors. I thank all those involved for their work so far. The number of calls to NHS 111 has increased—we have now added an extra 700 people to support that effort—and 111 online is now dealing with more inquiries than the voice calls.

To date, Public Health England has tested nearly 25,000 people, and the time taken to test is being reduced, as we are bringing in a new system for faster results, but of course responding to coronavirus will take a national effort; everyone must play their part. Of course, that means Government, and it also means everyone washing their hands more often and following public health advice, but there is much more we can all do, through both volunteering and supporting the most vulnerable. We will shortly introduce legislative options to help people and services to tackle the outbreak. The Bill will be temporary and proportionate, with measures that will last only as long as necessary in line with clinical advice. I can also report that over the weekend, we initiated action to help 120 passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California to return home.

We will stop at nothing to get our response right.

Our thoughts are naturally with the loved ones who have sadly died of covid-19. Let me also record, again, our thanks and gratitude to our hard-working NHS and Public Health England staff.

May I press the Secretary of State a little further? He will know that we have called repeatedly for an emergency funding package for our NHS, he will know that the NHS is short of 100,000 staff, and he will know that critical care beds were at 81% capacity during the week for which the latest figures are available. The Chancellor has said that the NHS will receive whatever it needs. Does the Secretary of State agree that in this Wednesday’s Budget we need to see significantly more resources for the NHS, not just rhetoric?

Scaling up and freeing up capacity in the NHS is now urgent. What is being done to scale up intensive care beds in the NHS, what is being done to expand access to the oxygen and ventilation machines that will be needed, and what is the current capacity of extra corporeal membrane oxygenation beds? We welcome the distribution of personal protective equipment to NHS staff, but does the Secretary of State agree that GPs and social care staff also need access to that equipment?

Those in receipt of social care are some of the most vulnerable, and could be affected extremely badly by this virus. Indeed, many who work in social care are low paid, and if they have to go on sick leave there are huge implications for the delivery of social care. What advice has been given to social care providers and, indeed, local authorities to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected, and what plans are in place to protect staff and increase the number in the social care sector?

Public health directors are expected to play a leading role in local preparations. They need to make decisions about deploying staff—Public Health England, for example, has asked for staff to be seconded—yet they still do not know their public health allocations for the next financial year, which will start in three weeks’ time. We are begging the Secretary of State: please tell local directors of public health what their Budget is for this coming April.

We are still officially in the containment stage. At some point, we presume, we will need to move into the delay stage, when we understand that social distancing measures will be necessary. Many of our constituents are now asking—and I think it would benefit the House if the Secretary of State could explain to them—why we are not yet considering more home working, whether we should be asking those over 65 to isolate themselves, whether we should be cancelling larger events, and whether those returning from northern Italy, for instance, should be quarantined. I think it would help our constituents if the Secretary of State ran through the medical advice, although I understand why he has made the decisions that he has made.

Can the Secretary of State also confirm that once we move into the phase in which measures of this magnitude are proposed, he will come to the House, explain why that has happened, and allow Members to question him? He has hinted, or suggested, that we will need emergency legislation for the mitigation stage. As a responsible Opposition, we would like to sit down with him in order to understand the content of that legislation, because we want to work on a cross-party basis; but let me leave him in no doubt that we also want statutory sick pay for all from day one. Asking people to wait five weeks for universal credit is not a serious solution.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on food supplies and the conversations that he has had with supermarkets? Can he reassure us that our constituents do not need to be panic-buying, as we saw people doing on social media in some parts of the country over the weekend? Finally, does he agree that whatever happens, we must find a way for Parliament to continue to hold Ministers to account so that we can ask questions on behalf of our constituents? However, we continue to offer to work constructively with the Government, because the public health interest and the safety of our constituents must always come first.

Let me start by concurring with what the hon. Gentleman said about the legislation. It should be taken through on a cross-party basis. I should of course be happy to talk to him about the proposals in that legislation, and also to ensure that the clinicians are able to explain why they are necessary and proportionate. I am grateful for the tone that he has taken throughout, recognising that our responses are led and guided by the science.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the NHS and its preparedness. There are record numbers of nurses and doctors, as I said. The 8,700 increase in the number of nurses over the past year is welcome in this context. We are, as he said, scaling up intensive care beds, and making sure that we have as much availability of ventilation equipment and, crucially, the skilled and trained people to use it, because ventilation equipment, without trained people, is dangerous. On that subject, we are making sure that we have the oxygen needed to go into those ventilation kits, working with oxygen suppliers to make sure that that is available.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether GPs would have access to the protective equipment that they need, and the answer is yes. We have stockpiles of protective equipment and, again, we will release it at the right time. I am working closely with NHS England to make sure that that happens.

The hon. Gentleman asked about social care. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of making sure that the staff in social care are well enough supported, including if they are sick and, critically, because many people in residential social care are some of the most vulnerable. Those living in the community in receipt of social care are likely to be vulnerable, whether because of prior health conditions or because they are elderly, or both. That is an area of significant attention, and we will update the existing guidance this week with further information for social care providers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about public health budgets which, of course, are going up. He also asked about home working and the cancellation of large events. We are not at this stage proposing the cancellation of mass events, because we are following the scientific advice that that is not what is proposed at this stage. Home working and flexible working are things that, in many cases, are advocated anyway. People will make their own decisions as to when that is appropriate. What we are saying from the Government point of view is that people should follow the public health advice so that, for instance, if they are returning from an affected area and they have symptoms they should stay at home, and that means home working. Over the weekend we added northern Italy to the list of places to which the Foreign Office does not recommend travel except in exceptional circumstances. We recommend that people returning from northern Italy self-isolate if they are symptomatic.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the food supply. We are confident that food supply will continue, even in our reasonable worst-case scenario. We have been talking to the supermarkets for some time about this scenario. I appreciate that on Friday there was discussion about whether every single supermarket executive had been involved in those talks. If any further supermarket executive wants to be involved in those conversations they should get in contact, but those conversations have been ongoing, and it is important, especially as we ask more people to self-isolate and stay at home, that we can ensure that we get supplies that are needed to the people we are asking to stay at home.

The hon. Gentleman asked about statutory sick pay, and I can confirm that we are proposing to put changes to statutory sick pay in the legislation, and I am happy to go through the details with him in the talks that I mentioned at the beginning of my response.

Finally, on Parliament, of course, this is a matter for the whole House. I know that the Commission met this morning, and I think that parliamentary scrutiny of decisions of the magnitude that we are having to take in response to coronavirus and their novel nature is incredibly important, and I will do all that I can to ensure that Parliament remains open.

I commend the Health Secretary for the way in which he is handling the crisis and ask him to reflect on what we now feel we have learned from the situation in China, given that yesterday was the first day when reported new cases in the UK exceeded reported new cases in China. The chief medical officer told the Select Committee that he hoped that a smaller proportion of the population in the UK would get the virus, given what we can learn from what happened in China, but one of the reasons for growing concern among our constituents is that the only number out there is the 80% reasonable worst-case scenario. Is it not time for the Health Secretary to share his central estimate of what proportion of the UK population he thinks will get the virus, even though we would all understand that that estimate might change over the passage of time?

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee for the way in which he has handled this—for instance, in demonstrating the need for transparency in the questioning of the chief medical officer last week. I will take away his point on the need for a central estimate. The figures out there relating to the proportion of people who will get the virus are a reasonable worst-case scenario. On the central estimate, there are still things that we do not know about the spread of the virus through China—in particular, whether the degree to which the slowing of the increase in cases in China is because the virus has reached a large proportion of the population and there is a large proportion who are not symptomatic, which would mean that the mortality rate was lower than otherwise thought; or whether the significant measures that the Chinese have taken are having a significant effect, and that therefore, as and when they are lifted, the virus will continue to spread. Either of those options is possible, and we do not know which one it is, but whichever it is, the approach that we are taking in the UK is the right response to both of those scenarios.

There seems to have been some media confusion in reports that the move from the contain phase to the delay phase will involve an instant flick-of-the-switch moment. Will the Secretary of State assist us by confirming that that is not the case and that any move will involve a phased transition? Another area of particular vulnerability is the UK prison system, which is extremely short-staffed and stretched. What measures will he be taking following reports of riots and deaths among inmates in Italy’s prisons to ensure that our prisons remain under control during what will be a period of heightened tensions and frustrations as restrictive measures are introduced? Will he also confirm that he is aware of the latest workplace advice from Health Protection Scotland, which was published today and which urges routine cleaning of phones and keypads and says that food should not be left open for people to share? Will his Department be making a similar recommendation for England?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to suggest that the transition to the delay phase is indeed that: it is a transition. We will not give up hope of containing this disease while we can still take containment actions, and many of the actions that are needed to contain it are also effective for delaying. Of course, the primary action is that everyone should wash their hands, but there is much more than that. He asked about the advice from Health Protection Scotland. We are working very closely with HPS, and Public Health England will shortly be bringing forward further updated guidance that we have been working on over the weekend, not just on social care, as I mentioned earlier, but more broadly, including for businesses, employees and others.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will know that the number of cases in Hertfordshire is now into double figures, and that it is a county with some very large businesses with an international footprint, as well as many commuters going into London. Has the time come for discussions with those large businesses on how to reduce the number of international visits that are made, perhaps through more teleconferencing, and also on how to allow more people to work from home when possible and to reduce the number of visits backwards and forwards that might be affecting the spread?

An awful lot of companies and other employers are taking these steps. Teleconferencing is usually cheaper and also better for the environment than travel, so there are good reasons to use it anyway.

The Secretary of State made it clear in his answer to the urgent question that parliamentary accountability is fundamental—that is evidenced by so many Members on both sides of the House rising to raise myriad issues —yet despite that acknowledgment we are hearing reports that after Easter the House might be suspended until September. Will he give an undertaking that that will not be the case? Will he recognise that, as a big organisation of 650 MPs and thousands of staff, we can play our part in containment without opting for the nuclear option of closing down accountability altogether? Other measures could be considered, such as using Westminster Hall on a UQ basis, so that we have continuous accountability for what the Government are doing through Parliament, albeit in a different form.

I have not seen those specific reports, but I know that the House of Commons Commission met this morning. Parliamentary accountability is incredibly important. I will be doing all that I can to ensure that Parliament stays open through this process, and that we follow the clinical advice on how that can happen so that we keep that parliamentary accountability. It is a decision for the House, but my position and that of the Government is clear.

The Government are absolutely right to be putting a lot of public money into research on a possible vaccine, but the Secretary of State will know that research is no good unless we can produce vaccine at scale, and this country is not great at doing that. What can he do to ensure that we grow indigenous capacity very quickly so that the public, and particularly key workers in our health service, do not have to wait in line when a vaccine becomes available?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We do have significant vaccine capabilities, and not only in research, where we are world-class, but in some production, for instance in Hamilton in Scotland. The broader point is that investment in the whole production chain and not just research is critical.

The Government have outlined emergency legislation that will extend new powers to the Welsh Government. Council representatives I have spoken with are concerned that there are currently legal obstacles hindering the swift deployment of emergency staff, for example in relation to vehicle insurance and limits on working hours. That applies particularly to social care staff, of whom there is a shortage in Wales and, I believe, across the UK. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government to ensure that there are clear guidelines for emergency implementation in the care sector?

We have ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government. For instance, the Welsh Government joined the Cobra meeting this morning—in fact, they have been present at all the Cobra meetings—and we have had very good engagement on the Bill. I will look into the two specific points that the right hon. Lady has raised and will talk to my Welsh colleagues about them.

May I thank the Health Secretary for the way he is managing this crisis, and for how frequently he has come to the House to answer questions? Pregnancy is a time of great joy, but in the context of coronavirus it can also be a time of great worry. Is there any specific advice from the chief medical officer for ladies who are expecting or who are considering starting a family?

I am glad to say that the evidence so far indicates that there is not a particularly raised concern. Nevertheless, I entirely understand the level of worry that getting coronavirus might cause somebody who is pregnant, so we are researching this very carefully.

A study of 52 critically ill patients at Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan has found that more than two thirds required invasive breathing support, and last Monday, as the Secretary of State will know, the World Health Organisation urged all countries to stock up on ventilators. Given that around 5% of those with coronavirus might require critical care, what is his current best estimate of the number of ventilators that would be required to meet that demand, bearing in mind his earlier point about having sufficient staff to operate the ventilators?

I am very happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman with the specific answer to his question, but the general answer is more, and, frankly, as many as possible. We are buying ventilators—we have a commercial strategy on that—and, of course, we are training people to use them.

As my right hon. Friend knows, vaccines are the long-term solution to tackling the virus. Can he give the House a bit more detail on what work is being done and on the potential timings for new vaccines and home tests? More importantly, will he keep under active review the balance between the efficacy and safety of vaccines and the public health impact they could have?

The critical point about vaccine development for coronavirus is that if we cannot be sure that a vaccine is safe, we cannot put it into large numbers of people for a disease with a mortality rate of around 1%. This is different from a disease like Ebola, where the mortality rate of around 70% is so high that it is worth taking the risk.

The broader point about the response to this virus is that it is very different from Ebola. It spreads in a different way and its mortality rate is very different, so it is very important that we fight this disease rather than fighting the last war.

The other day, the Prime Minister said on morning television,

“perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease to move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures.”

Can the Secretary of State advise the House that that is not the Government’s official position?

No, it is not the position. The Prime Minister was explaining why we have taken the decisions that we have.

This is obviously a particularly worrying time for our elderly population who are, by all accounts, more likely to suffer badly from the disease. What advice would the Secretary of State and, indeed, the chief medical officer give to the elderly, their families and their neighbours about how best to protect them? What actions should they take to ensure they are not exposed to this disease?

That is a really important point, and the advice now is, as for everybody else, that they should wash their hands, follow the public health advice and catch sneezes and coughs. We do not rule out changing that advice to advising measures that help protect either the elderly or more vulnerable people who have pre-existing health conditions, because an approach that treats them differently is appropriate given that the disease treats them differently.

Order. A lot of people are standing, and I cannot really let this business run much past quarter past 4. People are being quite brief and the Secretary of State has been brief, but I give notice that not everybody will be called.

May I press the Secretary of State on this matter? Yes, it is very important that we follow good science, but we also need good management. It is all right having a national Cobra, but what about local Cobras? Every community and every local authority has to deliver on the ground as this gets worse, and that needs partnership across health, the police and local authorities. Is he sure that is in train?

Absolutely. This is a national effort, and a national effort involves the Government, the NHS, every single individual, local authorities, local resilience fora and local police. It is a national effort.

Can we have net figures that take account of recoveries? It is very alarming simply to be given cumulative deaths and cumulative cases.

It is not just coronavirus and dealing with it that needs parliamentary scrutiny. The Government cannot continue levying income tax unless we have another Finance Act, and they will not be able to use emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 for longer than 28 days, so Parliament will have to keep on sitting, won’t it? The Secretary of State is wrong, as it is not for the House authorities to decide whether this House sits. The only person who can table a suspension of Parliament is a Government Minister, so will he just rule it out now?

As I said, we see no purpose for suspending Parliament, and parliamentary accountability is very important, as is the legislative power of Parliament.

On the day Carillion collapsed, all the UK banks, through UK Finance, agreed forbearance on the loans and overdrafts of small businesses affected. Has Cobra obtained the same assurance from the banks in respect of businesses affected by the coronavirus?

Those sorts of discussions are going on, led by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Millions of people in this country live alone, and many elderly people rely on their relatives visiting them to keep them able to live in their own homes. This activity may well be disrupted if people get ill or have to be isolated. How then will those vulnerable people, who rely on outsiders to be able to live, get their food delivered and be looked after, possibly cope?

This is an extremely important consideration, because in keeping people safe from coronavirus we also need to support people to live their normal lives. Many people rely on support from others who come to them, whether through social care in the formal system or, as in many cases, through informal care and support. We may need to see more of that, but it will have to be done properly in order also to protect the people involved from the coronavirus.

Last week, I met officials from Durham County Council, and part of our discussion turned to council preparations for coronavirus. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and with local authorities to ensure that we are fully prepared?

Yes, we are working with all the local resilience forums and the local authorities, which are crucial parts of them.

The director general of the World Health Organisation has called on all Governments to develop all-of-society and business continuity plans. What is the Minister doing in respect of two groups: the street homeless, and the staff and volunteers who work in homeless shelters; and small businesses? Specifically, in a worst-case scenario, would the Government, under contingency plans, underwrite the three biggest costs facing small businesses—staff, rent and business rates?

MHCLG is working on and leading on the first of those, which is very important, and the Treasury is leading on the second.

Does the wearing of gloves on public transport or in other public places make any difference to the dangers of acquiring or transmitting the disease?

I am tempted to give my right hon. Friend a clinical answer, but instead I will ask one of the chief medical officer’s team to write to him.

On Friday, I met the chief executive of my local council, where four cases have been identified. She told me that the council is not able to obtain information from Public Health England about where those four individuals are self-isolating, and that is a concern in managing community relations and information. Of course we appreciate the need to protect patient confidentiality, but will the Secretary of State discuss with colleagues the need for information to be shared with specific council officials, on a need-to-know basis, so that they can manage the protection of the whole public?

Yes, absolutely. There should not be data protection problems here, but sometimes there are perceived to be, so cracking through those is important as well.

May I echo the concerns about suspending Parliament? Whatever the threats and the challenges we face in this country, Parliament must continue to do its business and do its duty. The Secretary of State has a responsibility, and the Government have responsibility for the people in the UK and for those overseas. How is he working with the Ministry of Defence on the support it might provide, both domestically and internationally, in looking after our citizens abroad?

I agree with my right hon. Friend wholeheartedly on the first point. On the second, it is absolutely true that the MOD is working alongside the Department for International Development, and of course the Foreign Office, to support Brits overseas.

Returning to the issue of statutory sick pay, can the Secretary of State confirm that all the relevant Departments are in agreement that SSP should be paid to self-employed people who are told to self-isolate?

We are all in agreement that nobody, including those who are self-employed, should be penalised for doing the right thing. How we get that support to them is a different question, because SSP is paid by the employer and the self-employed do not have an employer. We will bring forward a solution to that particular policy conundrum.

The Grand Princess cruise ship will finally dock in Oakland today, allowing 140 Britons, including at least four of my constituents, to disembark. My right hon. Friend mentioned a few messages about the support that will be given. A lot of the Brits on the ship feel that the UK has not responded as strongly as the Americans. Will he use this opportunity to say a little more, or will he perhaps get the Foreign Office to contact constituents on the ship directly?

The Foreign Office will be putting out more information, because it leads in that policy area. We will be repatriating the Brits and we are working with the Americans to ensure that we can get them home safely. We have full confidence that the American public health system will be able to help those individuals off the ship and on to planes to come home.

Is the Secretary of State aware that services and advice may not be accessible to those for whom English is not their first language? Will he ensure that the Government make instructions and advice available in a range of languages, including Braille?

Members of the Procedure Committee are, like many in the House, concerned about how we make sure that we properly represent our constituents if either Members of Parliament or their staff have to self-isolate. The Committee is meeting regularly this week to discuss the changes that might be needed to our procedures in that event. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will work with us to ensure that all parliamentarians are able properly to represent their constituents?

To follow up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), there are 4.7 million self-employed people, and currently they will not be entitled to statutory sick pay or contributory jobseeker’s allowance. The company Hermes, working with the GMB, has already said that it will offer support to its workers who cannot come to work because they have to self-isolate; other companies have not. What pressure are the Government putting on businesses such as Uber, Deliveroo and DPD to ensure that the people who deliver their services will be able to self-isolate?

I urge all companies, especially the large companies that, as the hon. Lady said, use an awful lot of self-employed workers to deliver their services, to look at what Hermes has done and appreciate that their part of the national effort is to help everybody to make sure that they can go home and stay at home if they need to stay at home to keep themselves and others safe.

I have a practical question for the Secretary of State. Many of my colleagues who work in the health service are keen to come forward and do their best. Their big concern is: should schools close, who would care for their children when they run forward to help in the NHS? Are the Government considering any plans to support frontline workers?

We absolutely are, not only in terms of any measures that we take and how they might have to be amended for key workers, but also because, critically, when it comes to school closures, one reason why closing schools is not a cost-free option is that it takes away some of the very staff whom we need to be able to respond to the crisis.

I have been approached by some parents who want to know what option they may have to withdraw their children from school for a short period, perhaps prior to the Easter break, if they wish to do so, and agree with the school an arrangement for a period of home study. Is the Secretary of State working with his Department for Education counterparts on any contingency plan should home schooling become necessary?