House of Commons
Thursday 25 June 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Dairy Industry: Covid-19
The Government have had to take some unprecedented steps to control the coronavirus, and it is the case that parts of the dairy industry were affected by the closure of the hospitality sector earlier in March. We have introduced specific measures to support the industry, including a dairy response fund, which opened for applications on 18 June. Payments will begin from 6 July. We have also relaxed elements of competition law, and we are supporting an industry-led promotional campaign.
Would my right hon. Friend be able to work with the Welsh Government to secure greater milk processing capacity in order to add value back to Welsh dairy farmers, particularly in my constituency of Clwyd South, which has been hit hard by the demise of Tomlinson’s Dairies and by bovine TB, so that all farmers can get a fair price for their world-beating Welsh milk?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government do indeed work with the devolved Administrations to improve outcomes for our dairy farmers. Indeed, just yesterday, jointly with the devolved Administration, we launched a consultation seeking views from dairy farmers and processors on new regulations to secure transparency and fairness in dairy contracts. As he points out, there are also circumstances where grant funding can be made available to support investment in processing capacity, and that can help add value to the milk produced by our farmers.
Dual Tariff Proposals: British Food Standards
Like all Conservative Members, I am proud to have stood on a manifesto commitment that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. The Secretary of State for International Trade and I are working together to deliver that commitment.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but will he restate that he is still willing to stand by his party’s manifesto commitment to put that into law to prevent food from being imported into the United Kingdom that is produced in ways that would be illegal under current legislation? I am thinking particularly about chlorinated chicken.
Retained European law brings across a prohibition on treatments such as chlorine washes on chicken and, indeed, hormone treatments on beef. The Government have made it clear that those have been brought across and remain in place. We also stand by our manifesto commitment, which was to protect our food standards and animal welfare standards in trade agreements, but we did not ever say that we would legislate in the Agriculture Bill to do that.
Can the Secretary of State explain exactly how a dual tariff would prevent British consumers from having to accept imported food produced by causing animals unnecessary suffering, and how he will support British farmers striving to produce a high standard of food?
The hon. Lady makes reference to media speculation. I am sure hon. Members will understand that I cannot give a running commentary on our discussions on a future trade agreement or comment on such media speculation, but I will say that there are many ways, through a trade deal, that a country can agree with another country how to protect food standards—both food safety and animal welfare.
The public do not want our British farmers to be undercut by food produced to lower standards abroad. Research by Which? published today shows that eight out of 10 people are worried that trade deals will risk our high animal welfare standards. With the National Farmers Union petition now on 1 million names, it is clear that Ministers are on the wrong side of the argument here, so does the Environment Secretary need any more help convincing the International Trade Secretary to put the Conservative manifesto promise into law?
The International Trade Secretary and I are both absolutely committed to delivering our manifesto commitments, but we also have a manifesto commitment to expand the number of free trade agreements that we have, and it is also the case that the UK farming industry has offensive interests, particularly in dairy and in meat such as pork, lamb and beef, in other countries, particularly Asian markets. We want to expand the number of free trade agreements that we have to create opportunities for our industry but also to protect our standards, and that is exactly what we will do.
I think we all know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ministerial team are part of the eight out of 10 who are worried about animal welfare in trade agreements, but may I press the Secretary of State on a slightly different issue related to food standards—the outbreaks of covid-19 in food processing plants across the United Kingdom? This is serious. Any outbreak needs to be contained. Food standards matter, and standards for the people who work in those plants also matter. What assessment has the Environment Secretary made of whether meat processing plants and food factories are especially at risk, and what assessment has he made of the low level of statutory sick pay that forces many people to work in those plants instead of staying at home because they simply would not earn enough money to pay their bills if they did so?
I pay tribute to all those working in our food sector, including in manufacturing, who have worked very hard to keep food on our plates during these difficult times. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have heard now of three outbreaks linked to meat plants. They have been picked up through the testing and tracing approach that has been adopted and we are reviewing the guidance. We suspect that these outbreaks might have been linked either to canteens or, potentially, to car-sharing arrangements in those plants. We will be revising guidance to ensure that businesses have the approach that they need to prevent further outbreaks in future.
The EU is clear that tariffs to counteract its green box subsidies will not be acceptable. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that domestic food producers are not disadvantaged by matching those green box subsidies for farmers here?
As part of our agreement to leave the European Union, we have been working for a couple of years now jointly with the European Union on splitting the World Trade Organisation schedule, including what is called the aggregate market support boxes—the so-called green boxes and amber boxes—and the UK will have an appropriate share of that green box support in the WTO.
The Government have introduced a £14 million zoos fund for licensed zoos in England. Outdoor areas of zoos and safari parks have already been allowed to reopen, subject to appropriate social distancing measures being in place. The indoor areas of zoos and aquariums will be permitted to open from 4 July. An announcement on further support for the zoos is expected imminently.
Unfortunately, the best chances of survival for some animals is in captivity. For centuries, we have taken away the natural home of animals and we should all accept responsibility for that. Keeping zoos and wildlife parks open is something that I wholeheartedly support, and I am grateful that financial support has been made available. We owe it to these animals to ensure that they survive and continue to be a part of this planet, so can my hon. Friend please assure me that Government will do all they can to ensure that not one animal in our zoos and parks is put to sleep due to financial constraints caused by this pandemic?
We are a nation of animal lovers. I know that you, Mr Speaker, are a very big animal lover, as am I and as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). The objective of the zoo support fund, which, by the way, is open until 19 July, is to address avoidable animal suffering in zoos, including, in the worst cases, preventing unplanned euthanasia. My Department continues to engage weekly with zoos to keep on top of what is happening.
Trade Negotiations: North of England Small-scale Farming
We are clear that any future trade agreements must work for both our farmers and consumers. This week, DEFRA and the Department for International Trade have jointly announced a package of measures to help food and drink businesses grow their trade overseas. The package is aimed in particular at small businesses, which make up 97% of the food and drink industry. This will benefit businesses across the UK, including those in the north of England. We will always stand up for British farming and we will use our negotiations to make new opportunities for our businesses large and small.
As lockdown eases, many of my constituents are once again enjoying the glorious Northumbrian and County Durham landscapes. That depends on farmers small in scale but with really high production standards, whether it be for the cattle they graze on the town moor, or the sheep on the Cheviots, or the grain sold through local co-operatives such as Tynegrain. Why will the Minister not commit to writing into law that we do not import food with lower standards than those that our farmers already meet, so that they are not undercut by the American agro-industrial complex?
The Secretary of State has already answered that in some detail. As my right hon. Friend set out. a range of measures are available to protect the hon. Lady’s farmers, including existing regulations. We have great transparency in this House and with the general public in our trade negotiations. There is a great deal of scrutiny of exactly how those negotiations are taking place, and they will be put before the House again before they are signed. We also have a further range of measures—we will be consulting in detail on labelling before the end of the year—which are all designed to protect her farmers.
Animal Welfare Standards
This Government are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare. Our manifesto made it clear that we will bring in new laws on animal sentience, end excessively long journeys for farm animals and ban the keeping of primates as pets. We have introduced one of the world’s toughest ivory bans and will be supporting the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill.
Our constituents expect us to uphold animal welfare and high food standards. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that maintaining the UK’s high food standards and excellent animal welfare record is, among other things, in the Government’s interest, as that is what customers at home and abroad expect and demand from UK producers?
I absolutely agree with hon. Friend on that. The Government are proud of the high animal health and welfare, and environmental standards that underpin our high-quality produce. The UK’s growing reputation for quality food and drink, with high standards of food safety, animal welfare and sustainability, serves as a great platform from which to expand our exports.
The Minister has been hearing a strong message from the House this morning about animal cruelty, because, sadly, the lockdown has seen an increase in it, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reporting 47,000 incidents —the Daily Mail calculates that that is one case every two minutes. As we have heard, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill has been constantly delayed. The Bill has cross-party support. The Government are supposed to be supporting it and they are supposed to be running this place, so will the Minister guarantee that Finn’s law will be on the statute book by the end of the year and available to the courts?
Food insecurity is a great issue, especially with the covid virus. Evidence we are taking in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that a lot of people are in need of good food. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the system of getting food straight from the farms to those who most need it, but can he extend it even more? I ask because after the pandemic and before the economy recovers properly people are going to need more and more food.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government have made available £16 million to partners such as FareShare to ensure that we can get food to thousands of food charities across the country to support those in need. In addition, we have been looking at other ways in which we can support those who are financially vulnerable at this difficult time.
Countryside Stewardship: Water Quality
Countryside stewardship is designed to maximise environmental improvements and value for money for the taxpayers. Water quality actions are focused on areas posing the highest risk of water pollution from agriculture, for example, in catchments draining into specifically protected sites of biodiversity. We will look to review these focus areas in the transition period and, importantly, how we reward farmers for delivering public goods, such as water quality, through our new environmental land management scheme.
As we move from the single farm payment to support for farmers to protect the environment, these water quality protection areas are one of the schemes that my local farmers in the Wear valley are particularly interested in looking at. May I therefore urge the Minister to include us in any review that is taking place?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that this is an area he is particularly interested in, as he has spoken to me about it before. Management practices that farmers introduce on their land can bring multiple benefits to the environment, including to water quality. I will pass on the invite to the Secretary of State, whom I believe he has asked to visit. He may have to make do with me or indeed with the farming Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). We both have children at Durham University, so perhaps we could come together.
Waste: Reuse and Recycling
Our resources and waste strategy, published in December 2018, sets out ambitious plans for how we will minimise waste, promote resource efficiency and move towards a more circular economy where we will reduce waste, reuse and recycle much more than we do now. It combines short and long-term actions and gives a clear long-term policy direction in line with our 25-year environment plan.
As the Minister knows, the waste hierarchy calls for a reduction in the amount of waste we produce as the best way to tackle waste in this country, followed closely by reusing and recycling that waste. Can she update me on the measures that her Department is taking to reduce the amount of waste produced in this country as part of our green recovery from covid, and will she consider Carshalton and Wallington as a pilot area for any new schemes, such as a deposit return scheme?
My hon. Friend is always representing his constituency and pushing for new things, and rightly so. The combined effect of the measures set out in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will be to minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy, including disposal to landfill. We remain committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic by the end of 2042. We have already committed in our manifesto to introducing a deposit return scheme. Unfortunately, we cannot consider the pilot in his area, but I thank him for his support. We look forward to it being introduced, and the second consultation will be under way next year.
British Food Producers
We are promoting British food and drink producers at home and abroad. Just this week, we announced a package of trade and investment measures to help food and drink businesses grow their overseas trade, which includes reinforcing DEFRA’s Food is GREAT campaign and promoting 50 food and drink export champions. We are also supporting domestic campaigns such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Dairy UK’s £1 million promotional campaign for milk.
As the Secretary of State will know, Cheshire is not just renowned for its crumbly cheese. Our new potatoes are on the menu at the world’s finest restaurants, and our salt is being used by chefs all over the world to add flavour to fine food. We also have some of the finest farmers’ markets selling food prepared locally to my constituents in Warrington. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to support farmers and food producers in my constituency to navigate the challenging set of market conditions created by covid-19?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. His part of Cheshire is famous for its food, particularly its cheese, but also salt and new potatoes. Many parts of our country are renowned for their high-quality local produce, and we want to support farmers to promote that and add value.
May I push the Secretary of State on this? Does he agree that the future of British agriculture and the British food industry has to be based on quality and shorter supply chains as we come out of this pandemic? Will he join me in calling for an investigation into what is happening in our meat processing plants? Some of them look rather strange. In the four that I have looked at, many of the workers are reluctant to take a test because they would lose money and be isolated. That is a real problem. Could he look into it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this country has built a proud record based on the quality of our food and food provenance in particular, and we will maintain that. On the specific point that he raises about outbreaks of coronavirus at three meat plants, we are looking at that and have been investigating the causes of it. We suspect, as I said earlier, that it is linked either to shared transport or canteen areas, and new guidance will be issued to those meat plants.
UK Farms: Productivity
The Agriculture Bill will allow us to introduce ambitious new schemes in England based on the principle of public money for public goods, so that we can reward farmers who protect our environment, improve animal welfare and produce high-quality food in a sustainable way. The Bill will also help farmers to stay competitive.
Despite spending £3.4 billion each year under the common agricultural policy and subsidies for our farmers, the productivity growth rate has not significantly increased since the 1990s. This is in stark contrast with unsupported sectors such as egg production, where in 2019 alone productivity increased by 3.8%. Does my hon. Friend agree that the removal of the damping blanket of the CAP, as well as increased competition, will drive productivity growth throughout farming, allowing Government support for farming to focus on public money for public goods?
I absolutely agree that moving away from the CAP provides the opportunity for a more prosperous, competitive and self-reliant industry. We will support UK farms to focus on their business modelling and to improve efficiency, which may well, in turn, reduce their environmental footprint.
UK Fishing Industry: Covid-19
We understand that this is a challenging time for the fishing industry and we have taken steps to support the sector. In April, we launched a £10 million financial assistance package for England’s fishing and aquaculture businesses, which included a £1 million grant scheme to support the sale of fish locally. The sector is also able to benefit from the wider financial support measures available for businesses. In addition, the Sea For Yourself campaign has encouraged people to eat more fish.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The process of determining which businesses received funding through the domestic seafood supply scheme has been criticised as being unfair. While one project in the Lowestoft area was successful, two good applications were not. What assistance will be available to these and other businesses so as to enable the East Anglian fishing industry to meet the infrastructure and other costs in preparation for the end of the transition period?
I cannot discuss the individual cases, but I can say that applications were reviewed by a panel of experts, including several representatives from the catching and processing sectors. The judging panel awarded funding to projects that best met the criteria, especially those that could deliver benefits to a range of fishing businesses.
Plastic Waste Increase: Covid-19
DEFRA continues to monitor the impact of covid-19 on material flows. We have made no specific estimate of the impact of the outbreak on levels of plastic waste. However, we remain committed to eliminating the scourge of avoidable plastic waste by 2042, as demonstrated by our plans to ban single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, which we discussed in this very Chamber just a week ago. We continue to monitor recycling rates for plastic packaging and we have committed to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers to incentivise people to recycle more plastic.
May I suggest that the Department actually needs to get on and make some plans for this? We are talking about not avoidable but unavoidable plastic waste, because the covid-19 crisis has clearly necessitated the use and disposal of massive quantities of disposable personal protective equipment, much of it plastic, and new mitigation measures for the catering and hospitality industry will generate another wave. We all accept that this is necessary to protect health and get Britain back to work, but what is the Department going to do now to deal with this volume of waste, much of it plastic?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who raises some good points. This Government are absolutely committed to getting rid of plastic waste, as our resources and waste strategy shows, and as measures in the Environment Bill will demonstrate by bringing forward the deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility. We need to get all businesses to think about what happens to the plastic products they make at the beginning and where they end up, with a view to greatly reduced quantities going to landfill. He raises a good point about PPE. Many companies are rethinking all this, and lots are now starting to have reusable face coverings and to make their own. There is a very useful guide to that on the Government website.
Vulnerable People: Food Supplies
We have mobilised an unprecedented package of support for our most vulnerable people, including over 3 million food boxes and priority supermarket delivery slots. An additional £63 million has been confirmed by the Government to be distributed to English local authorities to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials. The Government are also providing £16 million to food support through charities, including FareShare and WRAP.
The current pressure on food banks is absolutely immense, and we know that income is at the heart of food poverty, so will the Government take the urgent social security measures needed now to get people the financial support they need, so they can get food on their plates and on their children’s plates, by ending the five-week wait for universal credit and abolishing that punitive two-child limit?
The Government have introduced a package of support of over £6.5 billion to help families on benefits to cope with the financial impact of covid.
I would like to use this opportunity, if I may, to pay tribute to the taskforce, which I have led for the last few months, on feeding the vulnerable. We have worked very closely with colleagues across Government—in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and other Departments—as well as, of course, with an excellent team from the supermarkets and volunteers. I am pleased to say that, in so far as we have been able, we have ensured that everybody who needs it has access to food.
The coronavirus has created many challenges for our country, and the response of our key workers throughout the epidemic has been quite extraordinary. As we take the next steps closer to normality, I would like to take this opportunity to record our thanks to all those working in the food supply chain for the phenomenal way they have responded. From farmers to food manufacturers, and from the delivery drivers to all those working in food retail, their response has been truly phenomenal.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The agricultural land around Peterborough is some of the best land in the country. With that in mind, could he let us know how he plans to increase UK food and drink exports to emerging markets such as the Gulf?
This week, we announced new measures on exports, with export champions to lead the way in opening new markets and to get more of our fantastic food and produce in those overseas markets. I have in recent years attended exhibitions such as Gulfood in the Gulf, where there are indeed many opportunities, particularly for our lamb sector.
Last November, after the devastating floods, the Prime Minister committed to holding a summit to improve flood defences in the north of England. Can I ask the Secretary of State why, six months on, this summit has not taken place? Can he set a date, and can he confirm that the Prime Minister will honour his commitment and be in attendance?
The reason that we have not yet had that summit is quite simple: it is that the coronavirus outbreak has taken up quite a lot of our time and obviously made it very difficult to physically travel to areas. I think it would be better to have a summit such as that physically in the location, rather than it being yet another Zoom meeting. However, I can give the hon. Lady a guarantee that that summit will indeed take place. I gave that commitment and it will happen.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Of course, people have valued all of these green spaces in this lockdown period; that has been more clear than ever. Our manifesto commitment says that, through the Environment Bill, we will set a new domestic framework for environmental governance, and this will enable us to work with developers, landowners and managers to create and restore wildlife-rich habitats, with wildlife thriving everywhere. We will have biodiversity net gain through that environment plan, and we will have local nature recovery strategies and a whole new area called nature recovery networks. All of this will help to look after our precious green space.
We are aware that animal welfare charities have suffered from a fall in donations and have had to close during the coronavirus epidemic. There was an application that was considered as part of a charities fund, but we will continue to work with those groups to identify the support that they need.
As I explained earlier, in any trade negotiation it will be for the UK to determine what goes into the so-called sanitary and phytosanitary chapter, which addresses these issues. As I also pointed out, there is currently a prohibition on the sale of any poultry treated with a chlorine wash.
Very early in this crisis, we worked with Public Health England on guidance for these plants. It included, in some cases, spacing out staff on the production line to maintain a distance of 2 metres, and, where that was not possible, ensuring that things were arranged so that staff were facing away from one another. It also involved increased hygiene, new measures on canteens and guidance on car-share arrangements. As I have said, as a result of the three outbreaks that have occurred, we are reviewing those matters.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Food labelling can improve transparency, particularly in the retail sector, but of course there are limitations in that around 50% of food goes into the food services sector. That is why we will be addressing these matters in our trade agreements.
There has been a global effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance and, in particular, to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture, especially the critically important antibiotics. The UK is a leader in that and has adopted farm husbandry that has made it possible to reduce the use of antibiotics. We have also worked with international partners, including the United States, to assist them to achieve the same.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Services: Covid-19
The last three months have been the first time in more than 800 years that England has gone without public worship and the sacraments, so there is real joy that we can meet again, socially distanced, from 4 July. I can give an assurance that the personal safety of clergy who are shielding should be prioritised and they can continue to do their duties remotely.
The self-sacrifice of so many people during the extreme lockdown period will have saved many lives, but one of the great sacrifices for many people will have been the inability to attend church physically and to have had to cancel weddings, baptisms and other deeply significant ceremonies. I understand my hon. Friend had to cancel his own daughter’s wedding last Saturday, and I wish her and her fiancé all the best. Will he now confirm that their wedding, as well as many others, can now go ahead in safety in church with 30 guests, and when does he expect the number of guests to be increased to reflect the capacity of the church being used and the new 1 metre-plus rule?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind good wishes, which are greatly appreciated. As she said, weddings can now take place from 4 July, but only with a maximum of 30 people. This is a huge relief to many couples throughout the country. For church services, there is no maximum number within a place of worship as long as the premises comply with covid-secure guidelines.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I can tell her that the Church of England pensions board already supports the social housing market through investments in social housing bonds. The commissioners also make provision for social and affordable housing on housing developments as per local planning requirements, while being required, like all charities, to obtain best value reasonably obtainable in the market when disposing of assets. But I am keen to explore whether the Church Commissioners are able to play any further role in solving the nation’s housing crisis. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission, which the Bishop of Kensington co-chairs, is looking separately at wider housing policy, and I am engaging closely with that work.
I used to enjoy a hymn sandwich before this interdict, but I have broken the habit. How is my hon. Friend going to lure us back if we are not allowed to sing? May I suggest, as a minimum, shorter services, even shorter sermons, some comfortable words from the Book of Common Prayer and an end to prating prelates?
That is a challenge indeed, Mr Speaker, but what I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I hope he has taken part in some of the uplifting online worship and services that have been available to him during the lockdown, and I would add that the warmth of the welcome, the opportunity for fellowship and the chance to grow in faith through prayer, worship and the revelation of God’s word will prove an irresistible temptation to my right hon. Friend to return.
I very much welcome that services can resume in places of worship in England and that private prayer is allowed in other nations of the United Kingdom, but what discussions have there been with Churches to ensure that people are encouraged to go back to church and are reassured that it is safe to do so?
The Church is delighted to be able to throw open its doors again, so that we can gather again for public worship and weddings in the way that we have not been able to do over the past three months. We will make sure that people are safe. I know that clergy and church wardens are taking their responsibilities very seriously to make sure that people are safe when they come, and we are really looking forward to seeing them back again in all our churches.
Thank you, Mr Speaker: from where I am sitting now Lichfield cathedral is just about 100 yards behind me.
Lichfield has a great choral tradition; we have a choral school and the services are very good. It is open for two hours a day at the moment for private prayer, but when does my hon. Friend anticipate that we will be able to go to evensong and enjoy the wonderful choir that sings there?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Cathedrals such as Lichfield are at the centre of the amazing choral tradition that we have in this country. Sadly, I have to tell him that singing and chanting are not allowed even at a distance, due to the additional risk of infection, and woodwind and brass instruments should not be used, but that still leaves many other instruments. His constituents can return for public worship from 4 July and I know that Lichfield Cathedral will be making them very welcome when they return.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
House of Commons Apprenticeship Programme
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his long-term interest in the issue of apprenticeships in the House of Commons. I reassure him we are doing absolutely everything to remain committed to providing an effective and inclusive scheme in the House. We are always looking for ways to increase and improve our scheme and we will do what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, in line with the apprenticeship guarantee, as announced by the Prime Minister. We are close to halfway through our current scheme, and in the past 12 months, seven apprentices have passed their endpoint assessment. We were set to meet our obligations of 2.3% of public sector employees for new apprenticeships, if it was not for the coronavirus pandemic. We will do everything possible to meet our obligations to young apprenticeships and we will do more than we need to do in this House.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Church Services: Live Streaming
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that more people have been taking part in church services during lockdown than ever before. The national weekly service of the Church has been viewed more than 5.2 million times, with 21.5 million related social media posts, and a third of the people watching Archbishop Justin Welby’s Easter day service were under the age of 34.
Parishes in the Winslow benefice in my constituency are seeing 400 to 500 people take part in virtual services each Sunday and about 100 each day in midday-ish prayer. Given the extraordinary number of people who have either connected with the Church for the first time or reconnected with it virtually, what plans do the Church Commissioners have to set aside funds to continue this excellent work?
I am delighted to learn about the increase in church attendance in my hon. Friend and neighbour’s constituency. It is not unusual. The Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team in 2016 and we will continue to make sure that we provide a good digital offering. The experience of my hon. Friend in Winslow has been widely shared by churches across the country. Some 1,600 people are currently attending an online alpha course at one of our churches, and 3.3 million people have now watched the UK blessing worship video on YouTube, put together by Gas Street Church in Birmingham.
Smaller and Rural Churches: Covid-19
It is obviously fantastic to see Canterbury Cathedral open for private prayer, but rural and smaller village communities often use their churches as a lifeline, particularly those who have been shielding. I want to reassure them that it is going to be safe for them to return to church soon.
I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. I know from my own village church how seriously the vicar and the church wardens are taking their responsibilities to make sure that the return will be safe, with hand sanitiser, removing the kneelers, keeping prayer books covered up and so on, as well as making sure that people sit at an appropriate distance. I am sure that the rural churches will be back in action shortly in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
Support for Family Life: Covid-19
In the diocese of Oxford, which covers Beaconsfield, churches have opened food banks and community larders and supported vulnerable people who are socially isolating as well as asylum seekers and key workers. In addition, nationally, the new marriage and pre-marriage courses have been available online throughout lockdown so that any local church can forward them to couples wanting to invest in their relationship.
What better way to celebrate couples than getting married, but, sadly, in beautiful Beaconsfield countless couples have had to cancel their church wedding. I welcome the news of 30 people being able to gather at a wedding, but what has the Church of England done to work with Government and to lobby them to increase the numbers for gatherings and weddings? Could we increase those numbers for this summer?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and she is right to say that a maximum of 30 people will be allowed at weddings from 4 July. That 30 includes the minister and the couple, and there should be social distancing of 1 metre-plus between individuals, households and support bubbles. The figure of 30 is what the Government have advised for now, and they obviously continue to listen to the science, but the couples I have spoken to are just so pleased to be able to get married. Perhaps a bigger party—perhaps a celebration of the renewal of vows—could take place next year.
Covid-19: Financial Effect on Churches
Lockdown has meant that income from hall lettings, events and parochial fees has stopped completely in many cases. Donations of gift aid have also been adversely affected, so the Church is hugely grateful to those who are able to support it through the planned giving scheme. That regular, committed giving has become more important than ever to the mission and ministry of the Church.
The Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury, which covers my constituency, has told me that income is down by a third since lockdown—a loss heading towards £700,000. In the long term, this will have an impact on building maintenance. Have the Government considered an enhanced gift aid scheme to help our faith communities to mitigate the damage?
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Restoration and Renewal: Decant of Parliament
On current plans, decant would be in the mid-2020s and the proposed approach to the works and the schedule would be put to both Houses for agreement before that. While the restoration work continues to be vital, we are currently reviewing the approach, and we of course welcome the views of the hon. Gentleman and all colleagues.
Is it not the case that these plans have now effectively been mothballed and scrapped, and that Parliament is not going to proceed with the full refurbishment as originally planned? If that is the case, what measures will be put in place to maintain this wonderful historic building and keep it safe from fire and damage?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the risks from fire, flood and falling masonry. He was of course a distinguished member of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and those works remain vital. We all have in mind the need for the uninterrupted effectiveness of Parliament in scrutinising the Government and in working on behalf of our constituents, but we also know that we must do that while providing the good value for money that is rightly demanded by our constituents, and that is what is at the heart of the current review.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Transition Pathway Initiative
The Church is proud of its role in developing the transition pathway initiative, which enables asset owners to identify which companies are implementing strategies in line with the Paris climate agreement. It is supported by investors, with over $20 trillion of assets under management, so it is now possible to distinguish between the high-carbon companies that are transitioning and those that are not.
I am very grateful for that answer, and congratulate the Church’s pension trustees on their innovation and vision. The TPI has worked with major global companies to reduce their emissions and has established a framework for pension funds to move towards net zero emissions. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether our own parliamentary pension fund is able to sign up to the initiative, and what more the Church could do to encourage other pension funds to join that $20 trillion of assets?
Each set of pension trustees has its own responsibilities, but I note that the Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has said it is important that all pension fund trustees understand the risks and opportunities posed to their investments by climate change. I am always delighted when others follow where the Church leads.
Universal Credit: Court of Appeal Judgment
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on her Department’s response to the decision of the Court of Appeal of 22 June 2020 in the case Johnson, Woods, Barrett and Stewart v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
I can today confirm my Department’s intention not to appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal of 22 June 2020 in the case of Johnson, Woods, Barrett and Stewart v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The judgment relates to an appeal made in January 2019 by the Department against the High Court decision.
As we told the court, identifying claimants is hard; it is a difficult issue. To date, we are aware of around 1,000 claimants who have disputed their earnings and fall within the relevant cohort. We are looking at how we can further identify people in this group. I stress that many people affected by two salary payments will not suffer a financial loss, as their universal credit award will increase in the following month to balance the reduction. However, we do recognise the budgeting issues that may have been caused, and we are now assessing the remedial options. That is not straightforward—it is not the simple click of a switch—particularly at a time when the Department is focused on meeting the challenges of unprecedented demand for its services.
I hope Members will appreciate that as the judgment was passed down on Monday, it would be remiss not to afford more consideration before we press on, particularly when the Court has not called for immediate action. We will now begin the process of carefully considering possible solutions, and we will keep the House updated as progress is made. There are, however, immediate actions that can be taken. We are already working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to work with employers on how to report their employees’ earnings correctly. HMRC has issued updated guidance for employers which, if followed correctly, will further reduce the small numbers affected.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
If a universal credit claimant is in work and is paid monthly, but those monthly payments do not align precisely with universal credit months—for example, if the claimant works for the NHS and gets paid on the last day of every month—that claimant will, from time to time, be paid twice in a single universal credit month. The universal credit computer system treats that claimant as if they had had a 100% pay rise; their benefit is cut, quite likely to zero; they have to reapply for the benefit; and their income is severely disrupted.
One of those involved in this case says that she was more financially stable out of work than in work. Another turned down an NHS job for which she was expertly qualified because she knew that universal credit would wreck her finances. Surely, nobody will dispute the view of the Appeal Court that the policy is “irrational”. I am grateful that the Minister has accepted the inevitable and is not going to be paying out for even more expensive lawyers to appeal the case. Surely the Department should have given up the fight last year, not waited until the Appeal Court reached this conclusion.
May I ask the Minister to tell us more about how many people are affected? I think the Court heard figures of around 80,000. It is a very significant problem for a lot of claimants. In his keeping the House updated—I am grateful to him for his assurance on that—will he tell us much more about the numbers who are affected, and will he fix the universal credit computer system as soon as possible?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and the constructive way in which he has put it. I will, of course, keep him updated as the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee as our work in this area progresses.
The case was before my time as a Minister, but several legal points were considered, and it was on only one of those points that the Department lost. We face and recognise the decision of the Court, and we recognise that some people may face budgeting difficulties. That is why we are working as quickly as we possibly can to identify the solutions and to address the matter in line with the court order.
The scope of this case is limited and we believe the cohort, as I briefly mentioned, to be in the region of 1,500, but I am looking to identify that claimant cohort very carefully. I understand that fewer than 1,000 UC claimants have notified us over the past 18 months that they may be affected by this, and it is important to keep that in the context of the 5.2 million claimants to universal credit.
I welcome the Government’s decision to deal with this issue and not pursue a further appeal, but, having been in his position as the Commons Minister responsible for universal credit in the past, I do not underestimate how complicated it is to put in place a fix. As the Minister does so, he should reflect that we should remain clear about the central purpose of universal credit, which is ensuring that everyone is better off in work, and on the fact that it has very flexibly dealt with the huge increase of claimants as a result of covid-19 and will no doubt face challenges later this year.
My specific question is this: we only have a few weeks now until the House rises for the summer, and the Minister may not be able to solve the problem before then, but will he at least update the House before we rise, to set out what further steps he is going to take?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We received the judgment only on Monday, and it is a complex issue, as he rightly recognised and as I believe was recognised by the Court. The fix will not be a simple one, and we are facing unprecedented pressures on the Department at the moment. I will of course continue to keep the House and the Chair of the Select Committee updated as that work progresses.
My right hon. Friend is right absolutely about the universal credit system; it has not been easy over the course of the past six or so weeks. I must say that our people across the DWP have worked incredibly hard, but the system has also worked exactly as it should have done, with around 90% of claimants consistently paid in full and on time—more than 3.2 million people since 16 March.
I add my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this important question.
This Government are “irrational” and they are “unlawful”. Those are not my words, but those of Lady Justice Rose, who delivered the verdict in this week’s Court of Appeal decision against the Department of Work and Pensions. Reading that decision, there is really only one question to ask: what on earth were Ministers doing fighting this case for so many years, only to be told by the Court of Appeal something that seems to most people a matter of basic common sense?
If universal credit cannot cope with the date when people are paid and the impact of bank holidays and weekends on that payment date, the solution should always have been to change how the system works, not to persist with something that leaves thousands of people with wildly fluctuating payments from month to month. I have a constituent affected, Mr Speaker, and the first time I saw the problem in my constituency surgery in Stalybridge, I could not believe that the regulations would work the way they do.
This issue goes to the heart of the problems with universal credit. Time and time again we are told by Ministers that universal credit is more flexible, that it is more agile and that it can be adapted to meet new requirements and respond to problems that are identified. Yet when it comes to making seemingly simple changes such as these, claimants are faced with a rigid, unbending, uncaring response.
The Government always seem unwilling to listen to the experiences of the people who actually use the system. I ask the Minister, first, how much public money has the Department has wasted fighting the case? Secondly, I welcome the Minister’s statement that the Government now accept this decision, so how, and how quickly, will the universal credit regulations be changed to accommodate the ruling? Thirdly, do the Government accept that four single mums should not have to go to the Court of Appeal to be listened to by their own Government? Will the Department acknowledge that there is an overwhelming need to recognise the lived experiences of people who are actually in receipt of universal credit and review a whole range of policies, including the five-week wait, the frequency of payments and how the initial assessment period works, so that we can then get a social security system that is fair and effective and works the way that it should?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Each and every judicial review has its own grounds for being brought and is looked at on a case-by-case basis, and with each JR, the Secretary of State, Ministers and officials look closely at the grounds and respond accordingly. I gently point out to him that the Court of Appeal accepted our interpretation of the UC regulations. However, the point that some people may face budgeting issues is why we are acting.
I am disappointed, if not surprised, that the hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to launch yet another attack—a baseless, unwarranted and unfounded attack—on universal credit. We all know, and he knows, the truth: the system has worked incredibly well and Labour’s broken legacy benefits system simply would not have coped with the unprecedented demand that we have seen during covid-19. Universal credit has passed that test with flying colours. There have been over 3 million claims, and I am so proud of our DWP employees and the universal credit system. It is time that Labour got behind this Government and universal credit and worked with us to make the system even better.
I echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and welcome the decision by the Government not to appeal this judgment, because this has also affected constituents in North West Durham. I also welcome the fact that the Government have invested an extra £7 billion into the welfare system to support people during the coronavirus pandemic, which has clearly strengthened the safety net for a large number of my constituents. Will the Minister confirm how many families across the country have benefited from this extra support through the universal credit system at this difficult time?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a firm champion of his constituents in this place. He is absolutely right that we have introduced a series of changes during the covid-19 pandemic, targeted at those facing the most financial disruption, that could be operationalised as quickly as possible, ensuring that people get the support that they need. He is right that that is close to £7 billion in the welfare system alone and it will benefit approximately 10 million families.
I pay tribute to the four women who brought this case and all those who supported them, including the Child Poverty Action Group, and I thank the Work and Pensions Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), for securing this question. This really is damning for the Government and successive Secretaries of State, who have belligerently fought this in the courts. Why should women and disabled people have to go to court to get basic fairness? I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here to respond.
The issue of people getting paid salaries on irregular but predictable days of the month is something that the Scottish National party has been raising as an issue with UC for years, and the Court of Appeal has ruled that it was irrational for the Work and Pensions Secretary not to act to resolve the problem. Why should claimants lose UC support simply because of the day of the month that they are paid? That question has not been answered. As part of the process of accepting this ruling, will the Minister at the very least ensure that the predicted 85,000 people thought to be directly impacted have their situations resolved? Will the Minister work with the Chancellor to finally add flexibility to the monthly assessment period to resolve this issue and the five-week wait, which is also impoverishing people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I stress that we received the judgment only on Monday and it is a hugely complex issue. That is recognised by the court—it is not a simple fix, as the hon. Gentleman points out. He knows that we are facing unprecedented demand, because he has raised this question with me before. I said that I will keep the House and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, updated as we progress.
On the hon. Gentleman’s points relating to assessment periods, there are some aspects of the universal credit system that are fundamental to its design and are deliberately designed to achieve its original objectives—to mirror the world of work. This includes the mechanism of a monthly assessment period and, of course, the initial assessment period at the beginning of a claim. It is important to stress that over 75% of people in this country are paid monthly and the majority of countries in the European Union also have systems that operate on a monthly basis.
In March alone, about 1.24 million new applicants relied on the universal credit system to be able to process their claims and pay them within days vitally important sums of money to help them live. While the case has properly highlighted about 1,500 outlier cases, does my hon. Friend agree that it was the Government’s decision to invest in an automated digital system that does not require manual intervention by DWP officers to carry out individual calculations of the amount of an award that has allowed this to happen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was this Conservative Government who introduced our modern, dynamic, agile new benefits system, tailored for the claimant’s personal circumstances. The fact it is online means we have been able to process the claims of more than 3 million people, getting them the support they desperately need as quickly as possible. Just imagine for a moment, Mr Speaker, the chaos that would have ensued had we been relying on Labour’s broken legacy benefits system alone. Thank heavens for universal credit.
I have had many similar cases over the years, so I am really pleased first to see the court decision, but secondly to see the Government and the Minister in particular responding in a very positive fashion. The judge referred to common sense; it is about not just common sense, but the practical effects on families at a time of financial stringency over Christmas and the new year. Can the Minister confirm whether he will retrospectively correct the mistake, which quite simply boggles the mind and common sense? He referred to solutions, and I can give him one very quickly. Will those who have had to take out loans to cover the month where they lost full payment receive help to pay the interest on those loans? Some took out loans with tremendously large interest rates. It is important that people have help right now.
I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those cases in more detail. As I said, I am absolutely committed to finding a fix. The court has not mandated any specific fix or action, but I am committing us to finding a solution, and I will do all I can to do so. The court dismissed the appeal on the grounds of discrimination. He mentioned families. The Department is absolutely clear in its firm support for all claimants. We continue to support families with things such as childcare costs, and I stress that childcare support under universal credit is far more generous than the old legacy benefits system, with the ability to claim back 85%, as compared with 70%. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those concerns in further detail.
Many of my constituents in Bracknell work in the creative arts sector. We heard earlier about the millions of families who benefited from universal credit during the pandemic, but will the Minister please assure me that the minimum income floor will be maintained for this important area of the economy for the foreseeable future?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he is right to raise the issue, because I know that those who work in the creative arts are particularly exercised and concerned by it. The issue is covered by the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies). The minimum income floor rules are suspended at the moment. I will put the Minister for Employment in touch with my hon. Friend and ensure that his concerns are raised, but he has rightly put them on record.
The universal credit system has come under unprecedented pressures for obvious reasons during the past few weeks. Having interrogated my office systems, I have encountered only 10 inquiries relating to universal credit, which were largely inquiries wanting more information. That is out of thousands of other cases that my office has received. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is in fact indicative of a system that is both resilient and working very well?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: universal credit is standing up to the challenge during this unprecedented time. The digital approach of universal credit, as he rightly points out, has allowed us to get support to more than 3 million people over the past three months, which simply would not have happened under Labour’s legacy benefits system.
I thank the Minister for his answers today. It is important to reflect on the fact that the computer system has been able to deal with an unprecedented crisis in terms of people claiming UC, which the legacy benefits system just would not have been able to cope with, but with automation comes inflexibility. Could he say whether this is a case of “computer says no” or “computer says not yet”?
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful question. My universal credit programme colleagues may well have their heads in their hands as we speak, depending on what I now commit them to, but I am absolutely determined to find a fix to this issue.
Yes, a number of items are in the pipeline, ready to be changed on universal credit. Despite criticism from Opposition Members, we have made significant changes to universal credit, and much more is to come, such as the roll-on of legacy benefits next month, which will benefit people to the tune of £200. Those are all in the pipeline to be done, and this will be added to that. I will try to expedite it as much as I possibly can.
Many people on low incomes have suffered real hardship as a result of the Government’s failure to address this fundamental flaw in universal credit. I pay tribute to the women who took the Government to court to seek justice on this matter, but they should not have had to do so. A number of my constituents have been affected. One is a single working mother who has fallen into arrears with her rent, has seen an increase in her anxiety and depression, and has had to turn to food banks and local welfare assistance as a result. I wrote to the Secretary of State and Ministers several times about this last year, so will the Government now look at the cases of my constituents and all those affected as a matter of urgency, and pay them the money that they should have received?
I am certainly happy to look at the cases raised by the hon. Lady. I have said clearly that I am determined to find a fix. That will involve looking at numerous solutions, identifying the cohort of people and the fix, and putting it into action. That may take a little time but, as I say, I am determined to find that solution. I am happy to meet her when we are able to do so to look at those individual cases she raises in more detail.
Three million people have claimed universal credit since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which is a huge success. I thank the Department for Work and Pensions team who enabled that. Indeed, the robustness of the computer system behind universal credit has facilitated rapid and easy access to welfare support for so many additional claimants. However, does the Minister agree that, on occasion, human intervention when the computer does indeed say no might help prevent cases like those falling through the cracks?
I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful question. The system is largely automated, and that brings huge benefits—that is why we have been able to deal with those claims—but, inevitably, that also means that issues come up that we need to address. This is one of those issues and, yes, in some cases, they require a manual intervention. My first instinct is to look at whether we can find an automated fix, but we will of course look at manual fixes, if that is necessary. I know that my hon. Friend is on the Select Committee and, if she has any particular ideas in that regard, I am happy to meet her to discuss them.
The Court of Appeal ruling rightly draws attention to one of the problems with the universal credit system, but will the Minister also address why under-25-year-old single parents receive less on universal credit than they would have done under legacy benefits? I have lobbied Ministers with the Newport GoGirls group on that—it is unfair and it needs to change.
I did not entirely catch the question, but I think the hon. Lady is referring to the disparity between universal credit and legacy benefits. I would say that this Department acted at incredible pace to operationalise and bring in measures as quickly as possible to help those who have been most financially disadvantaged as a result of covid-19. That is why we did it through the vehicle of universal credit. Legacy benefits will be reviewed and uprated ahead of April 2021 as per usual.
It is something I am exploring as I look at our different options. My hon. Friend is an experienced member of the Select Committee, and I am happy to work with him and to hear his ideas. It is important to stress that for the majority of the circa 5 million claimants, the date of their assessment period works well. Changing assessment periods to align with pay dates is problematic. Nevertheless, everything is on the table, and I am looking at all options. The court judgment was very recent—only on Monday—so I hope that the House will give me the time and space to look at this in the granularity of detail that it requires.
This is, in truth, just the latest failing in a pernicious and punitive welfare system. When Beveridge wrote his famous report in 1943, he said:
“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”
As we attempt to enter a post covid-19 world, will the UK Government give their support to the Scottish Government and ensure collaboration from HMRC and DWP as we seek to run basic income pilots in Scotland?
At the heart of this problem is an interaction between employers and HMRC. If more employers followed the very clear and beefed-up guidance from HMRC, there would be far fewer people affected. That is why we are beefing up our work with HMRC colleagues and counterparts, to ensure that the guidance is absolutely clear. If employers follow it and report the correct dates, this issue simply will not occur.
One key test of a benefits system must be the dignity that it confers on the recipient. Does the Minister agree that there is great dignity in an automated solution that is modern, simple and straightforward and that there is potentially a role for employers to align their dates with a system that is in the best interests of their employees?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right. The universal credit system and tens of thousands of dedicated DWP staff have processed an unprecedented 3 million claims since mid-March. As I have said before and will keep repeating, Labour’s legacy benefit system, based on paper forms and a lot of face-to-face interaction and meetings, simply would not have coped with the pressures of covid-19. It has not been easy, and our people have had to work incredibly hard, but the important thing is that the system has held up, and people have been able to make their claims online, in their own time and in their homes. We have not seen the queues outside jobcentres that there have been in other countries, and that is because we have universal credit, and this Government invested in it.
I would like to congratulate these four women on their victory for social justice. It is shameful that the Government have pursued this case to the Court of Appeal. These were working women who were paid a regular monthly salary. Welfare rights experts described them as perfect candidates for universal credit. Does the Minister agree that a system that does not work for people like them does not work at all?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not recognise the picture she paints. As I said earlier, judicial reviews are brought for all sorts of reason. Like her, I pay tribute to the ladies involved in bringing this case, but I point out gently to her that the Court of Appeal accepted our interpretation of the UC regulations. Nevertheless, we accept and note that some people may face budgeting difficulties. That is why I have committed to take this action.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate and thank the staff at Harlow jobcentre on all the work they have been doing on jobs and universal credit at this difficult time? I have had communication with a single parent in my constituency who says that if she puts her child into childcare, she may end up earning more, but then universal credit will cut £400, so it is better to be with her child. In essence, she is saying that she is worse off if she goes to work under universal credit. Will my hon. Friend look again at helping single parents, to ensure that it is better for them financially to work than stay at home?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is a firm champion of universal credit and the benefits of it, and I certainly join him in paying tribute to all the staff at Harlow jobcentre who have done incredible work during this most difficult and unprecedented time. He raises an important point about childcare. One of the fundamental principles of universal credit is that work should always pay. That is why, under universal credit, childcare is at a higher rate of 85% as opposed to 70%. I will look at the case that he raises in detail and meet him at our earliest possible convenience.
While I welcome the Government’s decision not to draw this matter out further, it seems that it is always someone else’s fault. This week in the Court of Appeal, the Department could not offer a single reason for its flawed and, in the words of Lady Justice Rose, “irrational” approach to universal credit’s monthly assessment period. This is not the first time that this Government have been found wanting, only to be dragged through the courts to do the right thing. If they will not tell the courts, the Minister must advise the House: what exactly was their alleged defence this time?
I gently suggest—[Interruption.]—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) says from a sedentary position, that the hon. Gentleman reads the judgment, because the Court of Appeal accepted our interpretation of the universal credit regulations. Nevertheless, we accept that there may be people who face budgeting pressures, and that is why we are committing to take this action.
Women and disabled people have had to resort to law to get the Government to listen to the unfairness and the hardship that universal credit creates. Danielle, a dinner lady, was losing about £500 a year as a result of being paid on the last day of the month. She has ended up in debt and behind with her rent, and she does not know how she will recover. If the computer system is as agile as it is meant to be, why has this, and so many other issues, occurred? Why is there a difference in the 1,000 people that the Government say have been affected, as opposed to the 85,000 people whom the court has identified?
I will certainly look at the individual case that the hon. Lady raises, but I would gently say that it is such a shame that the Labour party—and she is no exception to this—is constantly so negative about universal credit. It is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit, which reflects the rapidly changing world of work. Let us remind ourselves of Labour’s position, which is to scrap universal credit with no plan whatever with which to replace it. That seems pretty foolish to me, but do not take my word for it; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has slammed Labour’s pledge as uncosted and
“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”
I could not have put that better myself.
More than 1 million people have claimed universal credit since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and have been able to access an advance first payment, giving them access to support in just a few days. Does my hon. Friend agree that this has been vital for dealing with hardship during this difficult period in my constituency of Rother Valley and across the whole of Yorkshire?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right. We have had more than 3 million claims to universal credit since the middle of March and more than 1 million applications for advances, getting support to people who need it quickly, often within just a couple of days. That support is important, but I would stress that, for the cohort coming on to universal credit at the moment, the take-up of advances is lower, which often reflects personal circumstances. Therefore, taking an advance is not for everybody. It is interest-free and repayable over 12 months—as of next year, that goes up to 24 months. We are making the changes, but I agree with him that we are supporting people who need it the most in a timely manner.
Understandably, the Minister wants to talk a lot about the people who have had to claim universal credit in recent months. I, too, pay tribute to the staff at Hackney jobcentre, who have worked very hard to make sure that people in need get it, but there is nothing wrong with being critical of this big failure by the Department. He said that 1,000 people have complained about mistreatment, but the court identifies 85,000 people who could be affected. Can he assure us that work is going on to identify them—perhaps through an algorithm with a human element added if something unusual is thrown up—so that people are treated fairly and do not have to complain, and the Department acknowledges its mistake and seeks them out?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and join her in paying tribute to the staff at Hackney jobcentre who have done an incredible job under the most difficult of circumstances. We will, of course, be doing a deep-dive exercise into the cohort that is affected. I do not recognise the 85,000 figure. If I am honest, I think that that may be a figure that came from the Opposition, but I will look at that in detail. I gently point out to her that we now spend more than £100 billion a year on benefits for working-age people—that is more than £100,000 million pounds. We will continue to reform our welfare system to ensure that work always pays, and universal credit is at the heart of that.
If you knew the broadband experience in north London, Mr Speaker, you would know why I need to wear this headset.
One advantage of the universal credit system is that it takes input from claimants that would otherwise have to be re-input several times, resulting in the correct level of benefit, but one problem is that it does not deal with the exceptions. Could my hon. Friend consider a system whereby, when people suddenly see huge increases in their pay and therefore a reduction in benefits, an alert is triggered to allow someone to look at what is going on and correct the position?
I thank my hon. Friend. That is a helpful suggestion and certainly one that I will be exploring. He is right to extol the virtues of real-time earnings information. Among many other reasons, it is what makes universal credit much superior to the legacy benefits system, because we are able to ensure that as people’s income fluctuates their support can fluctuate too. His suggestion is a good one, and it is one that I will be looking at along with a suite of numerous other measures no doubt. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss it in further detail.
I am glad of the court’s sensible judgment and the Minister’s response, but this case highlights the flaws in UC, the need to adapt it to particular circumstances and the difficulties in doing so. With one third of Welsh households to receive UC by 2023, will he take this opportunity to respond to the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s recommendations and look to devolve aspects of social security administration to Wales?
That is probably a letter that has gone to the Secretary of State, as opposed to me, and is well above my pay grade. I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that UC is good news for the whole UK, including, of course, Wales. I remind him that, once fully rolled out, it will be £2 billion more generous a year than the legacy benefits system it replaces. About 1 million disabled households will be £100 per calendar month better off, and claimants will have access to about £2.4 billion in benefits that previously went unclaimed under the confusing and clunky Labour legacy benefits system.
The Minister is right to say that this judgment did not rely on an interpretation of regulation 54, as did the earlier one, but will his solution necessitate an interpretation based on the real income that people earn, as opposed to the false one that the Department has been assuming because of the technical judgment it has made about the assessment period and earned income?
The assessment period is fundamental to the design. [Interruption.] It is not fundamentally flawed. A small number of people do have fluctuations, which is why we are looking to take action in this area. We recognise that there is an issue, but it is important that it is kept in the context of 5.2 million UC claimants. I would hazard a guess, because this is certainly the case for my inbox, that despite there being more than 3.2 million new UC claimants, Members’ postbags are not full of complaints about UC. That is because the system is working very well.
The Department’s assessment period has resulted in one of my constituents earning £846 a month with a double calculation. As a consequence, they have now received a council bill that has increased from £36 a month to more than £200 a month. Will the Minister also have discussions with local government to ensure that claimants do not have bills that they simply cannot afford due to the Department’s errors?
Newcastle was a pathfinder for UC, but the Minister seems to have learnt nothing from the experiences of my constituents. Having dealt with their experiences over years on these issues, I know not only the financial impact, which is devastating enough, but the impact on claimants’ trust in government, in our welfare system and in technology itself. I find his lack of contrition astounding. Will he not apologise and learn the lessons of this mistake?
UC is working and it is working well. The point I make to the hon. Lady is that we constantly and consistently listen to Members from across the House, stakeholders and members of the public who raise issues associated with UC. It is a new system and we have made significant changes. We have pumped additional billions of pounds into this system to improve it. Instead of scaremongering on UC, which the Opposition continue to do and which is the biggest thing that damages public trust in our system, I suggest they work with this Government to improve a system that is already working well, in order to make it even better.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 29 June will include:
Monday 29 June—Consideration of a procedural motion followed by all stages of the Business and Planning Bill.
Tuesday 30 June—Remaining stages of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal Bill).
Wednesday 1 July—Motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the National Audit Office, followed by a motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 1).
Thursday 2 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 2).
Friday 3 July—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week.
I start by sending our condolences to the families and friends of James Furlong, David Wails and Joe Ritchie-Bennett, described as three of the loveliest people. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) has worked tirelessly to support his constituents. It is a terrible shock to the whole community.
It is unlike the Leader of the House not to answer some of my questions, but answers were wholly absent last week, so let me ask again. The Opposition names are in for the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it seems that the Government names were in and then they were out. It is quite careless to lose two experienced members of the Committee—the right hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). The delay seems to be on the Government side, so could the Leader of the House update the House? Will the Committee members all have a letter of comfort from the Prime Minister that they will not be sacked if they vote against the Government? When will the Committee be set up? The list of ministerial responsibilities that I have is dated October 2019. Could the Leader of the House ensure that there is an updated document?
The Leader of the House is usually very courteous, but there was no mention in the Houser of the merger of the Select Committee on International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Committee, other than the Prime Minister coming to the House. It was extremely chaotic, as the Chair of the International Development Committee was only told an hour before the announcement. It is not very female friendly, is it—losing a female Cabinet Minister, and then losing a female Chair of a Select Committee? And it is one of our Select Committees, too. When will the Leader of the House come here with an appropriate mechanism whereby that Committee can hold the Government to account over their work and in relation to money?
It is the Secretary of State for Education’s birthday today; we wish him a very happy birthday. The Government have allocated £1 billion for pupils to catch up, including £650 million for primary and secondary schools—but that is for the academic year 2020-21—and £350 million for primary tutors with the National Tutoring Programme. That seems incredibly bureaucratic. Why can the money not go straight to the heads, given that they know exactly what is needed for their schools? Worse still, 16 to 19-year-olds and pre-schoolers have been excluded. Will the Leader of the House ask the Education Secretary to come to the House to clarify that? I think the Prime Minister allocated £120 million following our Opposition day debate last week, but there is also £9 million that has been allocated to schools for summer food and activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) has asked whether that is still available and whether communities still have to bid for that money. We definitely need a statement clarifying that.
Will the Leader of the House find time for us to debate the report from the Childhood Trust that says that children are suffering post-traumatic stress because of the coronavirus? Why on earth, then, are the Government introducing the reception baseline assessment for four-year-olds? They have been through lockdown, some have been through bereavement and some of their parents are key workers. Will he please ask the Education Secretary to reverse that decision?
The Government response to covid has led us a merry dance—slow, slow, quick quick. The Prime Minister said on Friday that the country was moving from a “huge one-size-fits-all” to a “more localised” response, leaving public health officials baffled as to why the Government will not share the data. How can local communities and authorities respond when they do not have the information? Will the Leader of the House ensure that this information is disseminated to local authorities? And how do we get our information now that the press conferences have been cancelled? Do we table more written parliamentary questions? The scientists are saying that the crisis is not over, so could we have a weekly oral statement on what is happening with the coronavirus pandemic?
The Leader of the House will say to me that there are FCO questions next week, but may I ask for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on Nazanin, Anousheh and Kylie? They must be released soon.
Finally, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition—and probably the whole House—may I ask the Leader of the House to convey our thoughts and prayers to the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)? The whole House is thinking of him at this very difficult time.
If I may begin where the right hon. Lady left off; I thank her for those words. I will certainly convey the condolences of the whole House to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) at this saddest of all possible times. He is in all our thoughts and prayers.
I will also answer with regard to Nazanin, Kylie and Anousheh because the right hon. Lady is quite right to keep on raising this issue. Kylie is being dealt with by the Australian authorities, in agreement with them, and not by the British Government at the moment. Nazanin continues to have representations made on her behalf by the British authorities, and that will continue. As the right hon. Lady knows, she is currently out of prison on temporary release. We hope that that will lead to permanent release, and that she will be able to be fully reunited with her family. We say the same in relation to all the arbitrarily detained UK persons in Iran. The right hon. Lady’s efforts to secure their release are entirely admirable.
The right hon. Lady, as usual, asks a long list of questions, which I will come to. The ISC is going through the normal processes and we look forward to its being set up in due course. I hope that a motion will be brought before this House in due course. I had better not go into the discussions as to who is going in and out, whose lists are going where and which Members of which parties and what parties may or may not be putting their names forward, having their names taken off or putting their names back on again. I am not entirely sure that it is a one-way street in this regard, but let me leave it at that.
The right hon Lady asks about the list of ministerial responsibilities. They were last issued in October and they are updated periodically. The Cabinet Office is in charge of that and will I am sure come forward in the fullness of time with an up-to-date list to help and assist and to ensure smooth communication with Members, so they know exactly who they ought to be writing to.
On the merger of the International Development Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, discussions are going on within the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, is, I know, involved in discussions with the various interested parties. I note the point the right hon. Lady makes about its being a Labour chairmanship that has been lost, and there are standard procedures in accordance with that, of which the Government are aware. However, I would stress that it is right that Select Committees follow Departments, otherwise we would end up with Select Committees that related to Departments that might have been removed years and years ago. For the House to ensure proper scrutiny, I think that principle is an important one.
I am delighted that the right hon. Lady wants to wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education a happy birthday. Can I remind the House that, apparently, if you sing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing your hands, that helps defeat the coronavirus? I prefer to stick to the national anthem, rather than “Happy Birthday” twice, but it has the same effect. I am sure many Members of the House will be singing “Happy Birthday” many times today, and will be thinking of my right hon. Friend and the marvellous job he has done in giving £650 million to headmasters and headmistresses up and down the country to spend on getting pupils back up to speed. I think it is absolutely the right thing to do.
The right hon. Lady mentions the Childhood Trust and the post-traumatic stress of children. I would encourage Opposition Members, and particularly her dear leader, to say loudly and boldly that going back to school is safe, as he has been encouraged to do by the Prime Minister on several occasions. That will encourage people, make them feel safe and make post-traumatic stress disorder or other problems less likely, so that is to be encouraged.
On communication with councils, there are the local resilience forums, which are used very effectively to keep councils up to date, so that they know what is going on.
Finally, on the issue of updates to the House, we have many updates to the House. We have had so many statements—regular statements—and the Prime Minister made the major statement. I must confess that I think there was revelry, Mr Speaker, in your office when the Prime Minister came to the House to make the statement, something you have consistently asked for. Mr Speaker says go and we goeth, and come and we cometh, like the centurion’s servant of old, for when he asks the Government that statements are made here, that is what happens.
I have been contacted by a number of driving instructors in my constituency, such as Tom Matthews of Viking driving school in Buckingham, who has set out comprehensive measures he has taken to be covid-secure and reports a long waiting list of people wanting lessons. While it is right that the economy is reopened cautiously and following the science, can I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that statements are made to this House to give the thousands of driving instructors in this country the guidance they need, so that they know when they will be able to reopen and get fully back to work?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Driving instructors are one of the unseen engines of the country. They train future generations of drivers, and I hope they can resume their important work safely as soon as possible. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency chief executive will be writing to all approved driving instructors on 25 June, setting out plans to restart driver testing and to help them to return to a life that is as close to normal as possible, as quickly and as fairly as possible, in a way that avoids a second peak of infections. From 4 July, I am happy to say that people will be able to take driving lessons on a motorcycle, or in a car, lorry or bus, and there will be a phased approach to resuming practical testing, so learners have the opportunity to practise before taking a test. But he can raise this with the Secretary of State for Transport on 2 July.
There are now less than two weeks until Parliament’s emergency procedures are reviewed. Will the Leader of the House share his insights as to what should happen next? Will he move forward, allowing people to participate equally by switching the e-voting system back on and allowing all Members to contribute to debates; or backwards, disenfranchising those who cannot be physically present?
Last week, I informed the House of the decision of the Scottish Parliament to seek a review of the financial arrangements within which it operates, in order that it could better deal with the aftermath of covid-19. I asked when that request, backed by four out of five parties in Scotland, would be considered by this Parliament, and I did not get an answer. This week, we saw the publication of the report by the independent economic recovery group in Scotland, a mainly private sector perspective. Guess what its first recommendation was? It was also to loosen the financial straitjacket that constrains the Scottish Parliament. We do need to discuss this. The financial set-up of devolution was not designed to deal with the type of problems the Scottish Government now face, and platitudes about how wonderful the Union is will not address this serious problem.
May I ask about hospitality and entertainment, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? Many in the sector will have to stay closed beyond the lifespan of the current coronavirus support schemes. If a business is shut by public order, does the Leader of the House agree it should get public help? I know we have difficulty in getting the Chancellor to write a letter, but will the Leader of the House persuade him to come to this House and say what he intends to do beyond October?
We have six days left in which to seek an extension of the Brexit transition period. It is crystal-clear that the Government’s necessary focus on the pandemic has affected preparations. Why will the Leader of the House not allow the House time to consider extending the time available? Does he not realise that the Government’s Canute-like stance on this matter is looking increasingly foolhardy and cavalier, even to those who support leaving the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman has made the schoolboy error of not knowing what King Canute did. King Canute took his advisers down to the shore to show that he did not have the power to command the tide; he did not go there to show he had the power and was then embarrassed. The hon. Gentleman may be embarrassed that he has used the analogy incorrectly—as I said, it is a schoolboy error.
As we are on the subject of history, I thought that the hon. Gentleman might be a bit more cheerful today, because I happened to notice in The Times yesterday that it was the anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314. I thought that might have brought a smile to the hon. Gentleman’s face—but this is a very difficult task to achieve, as I see him looking sternly down upon me.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to close down Parliament when it is just opening up the rest of the country, but we are back. We led the way. Things are really working extremely well. Voting is taking place. Next week there is a full programme of legislation. It is a proper Parliament; it is back to work. I am afraid the fact that SNP do not want to come here says more about their politics than it does about the state of the coronavirus.
The hon. Gentleman went on to wanting more money for the Scottish Government. They have already had £3.7 billion from UK taxpayers, and without the strength of the UK economy I hate to think what situation Scotland would be in had it been independent. The separatists’ arguments are crumbling away day by day, and that is absolutely crucial.
As regards industries that have been closed, there has been an unrivalled package of taxpayer support, with 9 million people who are currently furloughed getting support. The Chancellor has said that everybody will be looked after, and that is what has been done.
Vida Loca tattoo studio based in Bolton North East has two months-worth of bookings waiting to resume. Can my right hon. Friend give me and the nation the following to look forward to: a fine sunbed tan, tidy cuticles and possibly even a JRM tattoo?
My immediate plans for a tattoo or for tanning are on hold, but a kind gentleman did have tattooed on him “Moggmentum” a year or so ago, though this has not taken off as a trend.
I very much understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. It is an important one, because it is difficult for businesses that are closed by compulsion, but the road map was set out on 11 May and many lockdown measures have already been released. We are at step 3 on 4 July and, following the review, we are coming down to three-and-a-quarter-feet distancing rather than six-and-a-half-feet distancing to ensure that people can get out and about more. Close contact services are the most risky, but the Government hope that tattoo and nail parlours will be able to open up as soon after 4 July as is safe and practicable.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Backbench Business Committee has made the following determinations regarding estimates day debates in early July—we believe that the time allocation will be in the week beginning 6 July. We propose that the two days are divided five ways, with three two-hour debates on the first day and two three-hour debates on the second day. In order to facilitate a full two hours for each of the three debates on the first day, will the Leader of the House agree to protect the time for the debates on that day?
The Departments that have been chosen to have their spending scrutinised are, on the first day, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and on the second day, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We also have a significant number of other Back-Bench debates on our waiting list waiting for allocated time from the Government.
Lastly, the Leader of the House mentioned local resilience forums to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). To the best of my knowledge, local resilience forums are being kept no better informed than local authorities about national testing data relating to their locality; they literally do not know.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for notifying the House broadly of the plans for the estimates days. I note his point on protected time. I will take that up in the usual way with other people who have interests in these matters and will try to bring him an answer when we announce the business that includes the estimates days, but I do note his point that the Committee has set out very clearly what it wants debated.
I am aware that Back-Bench debates have reached a point of logjam to some extent. As the hon. Gentleman will notice from today’s business statement, there is a lot of legislation to be got through—the virtual Parliament did not allow us to get through business as fast as we would have liked—but I hope to get back to a full programme of Back-Bench debates in the fullness of time.
Just outside the mother town of Burslem, in Longport, stand the grade II* listed remains of Price & Kensington teapot works. Sadly, the site is in poor condition due to a rogue owner who has allowed the site to crumble, at a big cost to Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Sections 215 and 216 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are not tough enough to deter such recklessness, so will my right hon. Friend allow parliamentary time for a debate about protecting heritage assets and the creation of tougher punishments for those who negligently let them rot?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is becoming one of the House’s most ardent and enthusiastic defenders of our country’s history and heritage, and he quite rightly stands up for his constituency. I think he may himself be listed in the not-too-distant future—I think grade I rather than grade II or II*. Local authorities do have relevant powers that they can enforce, and in the first instance I would encourage him to get the local authority do that. After that, I think an Adjournment debate would be the next way to raise this matter in the House.
Many of my constituents have expressed concern at the merger of DFID and the FCO. The 0.7% contribution is for the alleviation of suffering and the improvement of developing nations, not an arm of British foreign policy. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure that we have a debate on what should be a moral position, not an administrative decision?
I think they are two sides of the same coin. One can do good work in the world while also promoting the British national interest, and one should not be ashamed of the British national interest. It is an important consideration, and when hard-pressed British taxpayers are providing substantial sums of money, the interests of British taxpayers ought also to be taken into account. If we can use British firms and they can do things in the poorest countries in the world, paid for by the British taxpayer, that is not something to be ashamed of.
I note that the Leader of the House rarely mentions the safety of House staff. Many have highlighted how they have felt invisible as people have breached safe social distancing since Parliament was recalled. Before any further changes are made in this place, will the health and safety of House staff be put first, with full consultation and negotiation with the trade unions until agreement is reached, and will the Government look once again at extending virtual procedures to everyone so that less risk is brought on to the estate, particularly when people want to participate in debates?