House of Commons
Monday 29 June 2020
The House met at half-past Two 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
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Meeting Increased Demand for Services
I want to praise our excellent jobcentre staff and all Department for Work and Pensions staff and contractors for their tireless work through this emergency in supporting an unprecedented level of new claimants as well as existing claimants. To assist this effort, we redeployed thousands of staff and streamlined our processes where possible. Looking forward, we are now working with local managers to start fully reopening jobcentres in July to help get Britain back into work. Over 17,00 people are now working remotely, and we have already recruited new people into DWP to help with the increased demand.
Unemployment in Wolverhampton is above the country average, and covid-19 will have an impact on these figures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the local jobcentre staff, who have been working tirelessly through this pandemic, will play an integral part in making sure our great city is not left behind?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to staff at his local jobcentre. Without the success of the furlough scheme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, this could have been far worse. We are working hard across Government to help people in these challenging times to get back into work as soon as possible and to support an economic recovery that levels up all parts of the country, including Wolverhampton. I am sure he can refer people to the two new websites, job help and employer help, to signpost people to live vacancies and online support.
I would like the Secretary of State to pass on our thanks to her team for the tremendous work that her officials have been doing at this very difficult time, but does she agree that the digital nature of universal credit has enabled it to respond effectively in recent months?
My hon. Friend is spot on. The Department has acted at incredible pace to bring in measures as quickly as possible to help those most financially disadvantaged as a result of c-19. Through the digital universal credit system, we have enabled those changes while meeting that unprecedented demand. The legacy system, which was heavily paper-based, would simply have been unable to cope.
I also pay tribute to all the frontline staff at the DWP for the way they have processed so many claims for support since the beginning of the crisis. It is important to recognise, however, that the universal credit they have been processing so far in this crisis is a significantly different product from usual. In particular, all sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended. That suspension is due to end tomorrow. At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, the number of vacancies has dropped, people are shielding and schools have not yet gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they do not look for jobs is surely untenable, so will the Secretary of State announce an immediate extension?
It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment. It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now who have not had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years, and they will need careful support, tailored to make sure they can start to look for the jobs that are available and which I hope will soon become available.
Covid-19: Universal Credit Applications
Since mid-March, we have processed about 3.2 million individual universal credit claims. Despite that surge, the system is standing up to the challenge and demonstrating the resilience and scalability that is a fundamental part of its design. From the peak of claims made, less than 1% of claimants have outstanding verification preventing payment. There is no way that the legacy benefit system could have coped with such pressure.
Citizens Advice found recently that more than half of people claiming universal credit for the first time during the crisis had experienced hardship and that many did not want to take out a loan because they were afraid of taking on more debt. A system where more than half of people are experiencing hardship is surely a system that is not working, so will the Minister reconsider proposals to end the five-week wait and replace loans with a cash grant?
I do not recognise the picture the hon. Gentleman paints. Universal credit advances are available for those who need them. They are interest free for 12 months and as of next year that will increase to 24 months. We get support to people as quickly as they need it. That is why the payment advance is available, usually within a couple of days.
When the job retention scheme is wound down, we will see, I am sure, a second wave of universal credit applications, on top of the 70% increase we have already seen in Hull. With unemployment in Hull forecast to get to about 16%, is it not time now to prepare to remove the five-week wait for universal credit and to make the £20 increase a permanent feature?
The Department has processed an unprecedented number of claims during this period. We have put over £6.5 billion into our welfare system to support those who need it quickly. In terms of what the hon. Lady defines as the five-week wait, nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment. An advance is available, usually within a couple of days, for those who need it.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on manufacturing, particularly the automotive and aviation industries. In Rotherham, McLaren and Rolls-Royce face redundancies. As well as universal credit, what package of support can the Minister put in place to help these highly skilled workers if job losses do come their way?
Any job loss is regrettable, and the Department stands ready to support people who find themselves in that position. The £6.5 billion package included an increase to universal credit of over £1,000, a similar increase to the standard allowance for tax credits and an increase to the local housing allowance. That is over and above measures such as the job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the £500 million hardship fund via local councils and the £63 million local welfare assistance fund. As the Chancellor said, we will do whatever it takes to support people through covid-19.
Transition from Universal Credit to State Pension
The Government announced in March that anyone reaching state pension age while claiming universal credit will be eligible for a run-on until the end of the assessment period in which they reach state pension age. An estimated 200,000 people will benefit from this measure over the next five years, receiving on average an additional £350 each. I am pleased to confirm that regulations are being laid today to put this measure on a statutory footing.
In November 2017, my constituent Caroll Nash visited my advice surgery and told me about a shortfall of £530 as a consequence of transitioning from universal credit to the state pension. Her claim ended on 17 October in anticipation of her receipt of the state pension from 6 November. At that time, no facility for a part-payment was available, although we did manage to resolve the issue. Can the Minister confirm that, as a consequence of the test-and-learn approach that his Department has taken in respect of universal credit, that claimant’s circumstances today would result in a seamless transition?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right, and I am pleased to confirm that everyone who reaches state pension age while on universal credit will be eligible for the new run-on payment. That will mean no gap in benefit provision as people transition from universal credit to the pension-age benefit system.
Universal Credit (Reducing Poverty)
There are now over 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty compared with 2010, and universal credit is a fundamental part of this Government’s strategy to support people. As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, we have increased the UC standard allowance by around £1,000. An estimated 2.5 million households on UC will benefit from that straightaway, as well as new claimants who will become unemployed or those whose earnings or work hours decrease because of the outbreak.
I would like to begin by saying that my party’s thoughts are with the victims of the terrible knife attack in Glasgow, and we want to thank the emergency services for their incredible bravery.
According to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the DWP last published a full impact assessment of universal credit in 2012, and no formal impact assessment has ever been produced on advance payments. How can we have any idea of the effectiveness or otherwise of universal credit unless assessments are available for scrutiny?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I would like to echo his comments; we are certainly thinking of the people of Glasgow at this incredibly difficult time.
We keep all policy under review, but I think Members across the House recognise yet another attack on universal credit and the system. We know that the legacy benefit system simply would not have coped with the unprecedented demand we have seen during covid-19. Universal credit has done a superb job. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reflects on the role that universal credit has played in ensuring that over 3.2 million people have got the support they need as quickly as possible, he will take a different view about its success.
The Social Mobility Commission has highlighted that, in the last seven years, there has been “little or no action” by the UK Government on a third of its recommendations, including on ensuring that child poverty is not exacerbated by universal credit. Indeed, its damning report criticised DWP for failing to provide a detailed assessment of how benefit changes are tied to these poverty rates. On that basis, how can the Minister possibly know whether universal credit is increasing or decreasing poverty?
The statistics show that full-time work substantially reduces the chances of poverty. The absolute rate of poverty for a child where both parents work full time is 4% compared with 44% where one or more parents are in part-time work. We are supporting people into full-time work wherever possible, for example, through our childcare offer, and universal credit, where work always pays, is a fundamental part of that offer.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that, despite the DWP’s temporary increase to universal credit, out-of-work households with children are, on average, £2,900 a year worse off than they would have been without cuts since 2011. Does the Minister understand that, far from doing a superb job, as he says, universal credit is leaving some families in serious difficulty and poverty, and will he commit to looking at the IFS findings?
Our focus today is rightly on what the Government can do to support people financially through these unprecedented times. However, our broader ambition remains to build an economy that ensures that everyone, no matter their background, has opportunities to enter and progress in work where possible, while being supported by the welfare system in their time of need. I just gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, in this financial year, we have spent more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people.
I welcomed the Minister’s confirmation last week of no appeal in the universal credit court case that the Department lost, but has he yet grasped the full scale of the problem that that issue has raised? He said in the House last week that, at most, 1,500 people were affected and suggested that 85,000 was a figure that had come from the Opposition. I wonder whether he has now had the chance to see that that 85,000 figure comes from the decision of Lady Justice Rose in the Court of Appeal last week. Did he also see that Lord Justice Underhill said:
“It is not simply a matter of uneven cash-flow…affected claimants will receive substantially lower payments”.
I answered an urgent question on this matter on Thursday for some 45 minutes, as the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I confirmed that we would not be appealing the decision of the court. As I made clear to him, I am now considering options to address the issue and will keep the House updated on progress. The 85,000 figure, which he references, from the judgment, came, in my understanding, from the Opposition. It is referenced in the judgment, but it came from the Opposition and we do not recognise those figures.
My hon. Friends have highlighted the range of expert reports out over the past couple of weeks showing that the DWP has no idea how universal credit impacts child poverty. It has done precious little to address it and could have made it worse through systematic cuts, leaving families and children worse off since 2011. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children say that families need an extra £20 a week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to make that happen?
As I just said, in 2020-21, we will spend more than £120 billion on benefits for working-age people. We spend more on family benefits than any other country in the G7 at 3.5% of GDP. The measure that the hon. Gentleman raises would alone add another several billion to that bill. We will continue to reform the welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help. It is an approach that is based on the clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.
I note that the Minister did not answer my question. There is growing pressure on the UK Government to act here. The former DWP Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), has called on the Minister and his colleagues to accept the recommendations of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children and to uprate legacy benefits, too. Poverty Alliance’s report today shows that UC is pulling people into poverty rather than acting as a lifeline, so will he agree to convene a cross-party meeting, including the former Secretary of State and a Treasury Minister, to look at ways to make that recommendation happen?
For a start, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is well above my pay grade, but I gently remind him that universal credit will be over £2 billion a year more generous when fully rolled out compared with the legacy benefits system that it replaces. He also fails to recognise the £6.5 billion to £7 billion that this Government have put in place to support people through covid-19. As the Chancellor has said, we will do “whatever it takes”, and this Government are doing that: we are supporting people and this Department is getting that support to those who need it quickly.
Supporting Employment After Covid-19
I am already actively working with a number of my Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Chancellor and the Secretaries of State for Education, for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, for Transport, and for Housing, Communities and Local Government—and of course the Prime Minister. This is a joined-up Government that is working hard to help people, in these challenging times, to get back into work as soon as possible.
Many of us are concerned about jobs in the aviation sector, particularly British Airways, which is not only making up to 12,500 redundancies but firing and rehiring virtually the remainder of the workforce, despite its group putting €1 billion into a new airline and BA staff putting 66% of profits into that group. What can the Government do to ensure that our employers do the right thing by the workforce who have previously delivered those profits?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has previously said to my hon. Friend, we are concerned about the way that some companies are treating their workforce and we are actively looking into the issue. The furlough scheme has been a huge success in keeping over 9 million employees connected to their jobs, but companies should not be using it cynically to keep people on their books just to then get rid of them. The whole point of the furlough scheme is to help people to get back into their jobs and the country back on its feet.
New analysis suggests that up to 1 million people could be added to the current jobless total unless more support is provided from August, with sectors like aviation being harder hit. We have learned from covid to plan early and to work together. However, last week’s DWP Committee report said that the Secretary of State has not provided any persuasive reason for her refusal to share her economic downturn plans. Why is a plan that is the basis of how we get millions of people back into work such a secret? Will she now work with her colleagues for a back-to-work budget so that local partnerships can plan together for what is coming?
I think the hon. Lady is confusing the element in the Select Committee report with the emergency contingency plan, which is an operational document that is prepared by all Departments in the event of the sort of emergency that requires, for example, redeployment within the Department. In terms of her broader question on what I think she was really referring to, I assure her that, as I pointed out, I am actively working with Ministers across the Government to make sure that we will be there to help people get into the new jobs that we rely on the private sector to create, but will be working across the public sector too.
Covid-19: Processing Work Capability Assessments
We have temporarily suspended face-to-face work capability assessments so that we do not place people at unnecessary risk. Healthcare professionals continue to make recommendations based on paper-based evidence where possible, and we have introduced telephone assessments. We are in the early phases of delivering telephone assessments and are closely monitoring the processing times.
One of my constituents who has progressive multiple sclerosis and is partially paralysed on his left side had to undergo a work capability assessment by phone. This resulted in his personal independence payment being cancelled, and then reviewed and reinstated at a lower rate. The decision is now being appealed so that he can get the higher level of PIP that he was previously on. Does the Minister agree that stringent safeguards need to be in place when making such telephone assessments to ensure that poor decisions are avoided?
I absolutely agree. We have independent audits looking at this. We are in the early stages of using telephone assessments, and there is a mix of the benefits because the WCA is separate from PIP. PIP is a few weeks further on in terms of using telephone assessments. Stakeholders welcome the opportunity and it is something we will explore in the Green Paper. However, I am happy to look at the individual case.
Employment Support (Local Labour Market Conditions)
As the Minister responsible for this evolving labour market, I can say that the DWP is working hard to identify the most effective ways to support people back into work. We are clear that we are taking a targeted, place-based approach. I have attended regional stocktakes with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government economic recovery working group, which brings together mayors, local enterprise partnerships and other vital partners to share local knowledge.
I welcome not only the Government’s strong, effective measures on supporting employment through the job retention scheme but the extensive range of employment and support benefits. With that in mind, does the Minister agree that we need to support our next generation of agricultural workers, such as our farmers across Teesdale, whom we rely on not just to feed ourselves but for the future of our food security?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: we should recognise the areas that have a proud history of agriculture, such as Teesdale. Our farmers have done and continue to do a fantastic job feeding the nation during this challenging time. Alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the DWP has used our “job help” campaign to encourage farmers and employment agencies to use the Pick for Britain website to help them fill their vacancies.
One does not need to look much further than my own constituency of Dudley North—and those of my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and, indeed, for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes)—to see the terrible effects over a couple of decades of globalisation. Will the Minister reassure me and the House, despite the challenges posed by this pandemic, of her commitment and her Department’s commitment to the levelling-up agenda?
Our network of jobcentres is local and regional by design, and I mentioned earlier the place-based approach. We are ensuring that work coaches are ready to provide individualised support for claimants. The levelling-up agenda is a priority for this Government, and we have been building this into our discussions and plans when meeting Mayors, such as Andy Street, to get Britain back into work.
For my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, jobs are going to be at the centre of this recovery. Can I ask my hon. Friend to elaborate a bit more on the work that she has been undertaking across Government and locally with local partners, and will she agree to meet me to discuss a Black Country jobs strategy as we move out of this pandemic?
Of course, I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and continue to engage with him on developing these local, place-based recovery plans. As I have said, we have been working closely with the West Midlands Combined Authority, building, importantly, on our learning from the employment and skills framework, which underpins the current joint approach to supporting people locally back into work in the Black Country.
My constituency of North Norfolk is rural, and it faces many challenges. It is heavily reliant on the tourism sector, and without the fat of a full summer season, it could struggle to get through the winter. What steps can the Minister take to see a wider compulsory offering of apprenticeship schemes to enable younger people to stay in a good job, and to stay in the area where they grew up—a longing that all of us recognise?
Supporting our young people is a priority for me in this job. Apprenticeships are a great way for young people to start their careers, giving them that crucial opportunity to earn while they learn. Alongside the Department for Education, we at the DWP are supporting employers, especially small businesses, to take on new apprentices this year, and we will provide further detail in due course. We will also ensure that there is sufficient funding this year to support small businesses wanting to take this up.
Covid-19: Support for People Self-isolating
We have made changes so that statutory sick pay and employment and support allowance are payable to people who are self-isolating, including those who are shielding and who satisfy the conditions of entitlement. We have removed the waiting days, so these are paid from day one, and households may also be able to claim universal credit.
But the lowest-paid in this country and about 3 million self-employed and others are excluded from what is already one of the lowest rates of statutory sick pay in Europe. As test and trace is stepped up, many of those will be told to self-isolate, potentially multiple times, so how does the Minister propose that we can emerge safely from lockdown if people are not supported in these circumstances? What is he going to do about this group?
In addition to providing support through statutory sick pay, we are expecting employers to do the right thing, and we will be working with employers to make sure employees can transition back to work safely. That is underpinned by the Equality Act 2010, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Health and Safety Executive will continue to provide proactive guidance to employers.
At DWP questions on 11 May, I asked the Minister whether his Department would increase legacy benefits, such as employment and support allowance, to help shielding and disabled people cover the increasing costs of basic items such as food, toiletries and personal protective equipment for themselves and their carers. Seven weeks on, can the Minister update us on how much progress his Department has made? As we move towards planning for a potential second wave, it is vital that we get this right.
As a Department, we have rightly put an additional £6.5 billion into welfare support, on top of the £500 million hardship fund provided to local authorities. I welcome the further additional £63 million to boost council welfare support so that no one goes without food and other basic necessities in the coming months.
Covid-19: Promotion of Employment Opportunities
We have launched A Good Place to Start, a new labour market campaign that includes two key websites—Job help and Employer help—which provide additional information, tools and links to other sites, including DWP’s Find a job service, for current vacancies, and the Department for Education’s Skills Toolkit.
My constituency currently has the highest claimant count in the whole UK, as the crisis has exposed the dependence of my local economy on tourism and insecure seasonal work. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support those in communities such as Blackpool who are currently out of work to retrain and acquire the skills needed to find future employment?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I highlight the work that our staff in jobcentres are doing tirelessly to support people with their claims throughout the pandemic, and that work continues. Indeed, our work coaches have made more than a quarter of a million outbound customer-support calls each week, and they are also organising virtual job fairs. In Blackpool, they are working with the local authority on a virtual adult learning and education programme, hosted online and through Google Classroom. Upcoming from 4 July is a sector-based work academy for recruitment around the pleasure beach, and we are also training people through our mentoring circles. I encourage every Member in the House to contact their local jobcentre to find out about what we are already doing to support their local community.
As the economy reopens, it will look different. One sector that has grown fast and will continue to grow is the digital sector. The Federation of Small Businesses in North Yorkshire has told me that a key need of its members is increased digital skills—it wants to see more training. How will my hon. Friend ensure that as they work to match people with vacancies, jobcentres are handling the changing needs of employers in the digital economy?
I regularly meet Ministers from DFE and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that we are doing exactly that. Work includes figuring out how claimants can be supported to gain those key skills and to pivot into those sectors where there are vacancies as the economy recovers. Jobcentres work with their local training providers to ensure that a range of courses is available to help claimants to find that new opportunity or some better-paid work.
Support for the Terminally Ill
The evaluation remains a priority for the Department. We have made good progress and expect to be able to provide an update on the outcome of the evaluation shortly.
Motor neurone disease is an utterly wicked, terrible disease. Those who have it are locked in and see their bodies waste away, while their families watch their loved ones slowly slide away. However, only 50% of those people diagnosed with motor neurone disease can claim under the personal independence payment special rules—about which the Minister knows—because of the six-month life expectancy rule; the others have to go through the standard procedures, which can lead to delays. The Department launched a terminal illness review more than a year ago. The Minister has it in his gift to change the rules and ensure that all people with motor neurone disease are allowed to claim under the PIP special rules. On behalf of all those families who are suffering—it is only a small number—I ask him: will he make that change today?
I thank the hon. Member for setting out powerfully the torment and challenges that MND sufferers face; he has been a champion of their cause in Parliament. I am grateful for the part that the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Hospice UK, Macmillan, Marie Curie, Sue Ryder, the national nurse consultant group and others have played in the evaluation. The Secretary of State and I are passionate about making changes: it will not be the status quo. Covid-19 caused a delay to the final part of the consultation with the medical professionals, but we will bring forward a change shortly.
I know that the Minister will be aware that the benefits awarded under the special rules for terminal illness last for three years, but on behalf of my constituent Doddie Weir, the former Scotland rugby player, who has been campaigning on the issue, will my hon. Friend consider scrapping the three-year limit on awards under the special rules to avoid distressing situations for those suffering with MND and other terminal illnesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. I know that he has campaigned hard on the matter. We are reviewing all areas. The key three themes are: the six months and not having the status quo; improving consistency; and raising awareness to ensure that all those who will benefit from the special rules know what is available.
Covid-19: Food Insecurity
I regularly engage with my counterpart in DEFRA, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), on this issue and participate in the food and essential supplies to the vulnerable ministerial taskforce. In addition to welfare changes worth more than £6.5 billion, Departments have worked together throughout this period to ensure support for the most vulnerable. Funding of up to £16 million, including the £3.5 million food charities grant fund, is available so that charities can continue to provide food for those in need.
The Food Foundation has found that 5 million adults and 2 million children suffer from food insecurity, which the United Nations defines as insufficient nutritious food each day to avoid hunger. The 2019 national food strategy was shelved because of coronavirus. What plans has the Minister to introduce more money for those most in need so that we do not have growing numbers of people relying on food banks and to prevent millions more from being plunged into hunger in the event of a second wave of coronavirus and a bad or no deal Brexit?
Over and above the £6.5 billion we have pumped into our welfare system, there is the more than £16 million for food redistribution charities, the £3.5 million for the food charities fund, which offers grants of up to £100,000 to support those charities, the £63 million local welfare assistance fund through local authorities that the Prime Minister announced two weeks ago and, of course, the free school meals voucher scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We want to better understand food insecurity in this country. That is why we commissioned extra questions for the family resources survey. I look forward to looking at the results of that in great detail.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her promotion to the shadow Cabinet.
The Government say that the aim of the benefit cap is to make people work more hours or move to cheaper accommodation. Neither of those options has been possible during the covid crisis, so what possible justification have the Government got for persisting with that policy, which prevents families from receiving what the Department for Work and Pensions itself believes to be necessary?
The benefit cap does play an important part, but the hon. Gentleman may not aware of the exemptions to it. New and existing claimants can benefit from a nine-month grace period when their benefit will not be capped if they have a sustained work history. Since 2013, nearly 220,000 households which were subject to the benefit cap are now no longer capped.
Benefits for People with Severe Disabilities
As a Government, we are currently spending £55 billion supporting disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. The level of financial support will reflect the level of disability or condition of the claimant.
My hon. Friend is a very diligent representative of his constituents, as I saw with the casework he raised. Our forthcoming Green Paper is key, as is our national strategy for disabled people, where we will explore other ways to offer greater support, such as advocacy, signposting and removing barriers across Government and in wider society.
Women: State Pension Uplift
We are aware of a number of cases where individuals have been underpaid category BL basic state pension. The Department has already taken action to correct our records, and we reimbursed those affected as soon as any errors were identified.
Informed commentators say that more than 100,000 women will be impacted by this error. Many will be older women and more likely to be living in poverty. To put this right, will the Minister agree to an investigation into this issue? Will he look again at the rules on backdating to ensure that those women are treated fairly in the future?
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and we invite anyone who thinks that they have failed to claim a state pension increase that they are eligible for to contact the Department through the Pension Service helpline. Alternatively, Pension Wise can assist.[Official Report, 8 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 4MC.]
Case after case is being uncovered of retired women being underpaid on their pension. To this day, many do not know about the Department’s mistake, and some have tragically died before learning of it. This must be properly investigated. Crucially, those women deserve justice. When will the Department work out how many women have been affected, and who they are? Will it bring forward a plan to contact them so that the women who built Britain get the justice in retirement that they deserve?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, this dates from March 2008, when married women receiving a low-level state pension based on their national insurance record should have had their entitlement reviewed when their husband reached state pension age. The Department for Work and Pensions is looking into the matter, and we invite any individual who feels that they are affected to claim a state pension increase by contacting the Pension Service helpline or Pension Wise.[Official Report, 8 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 4MC.]
Extended Income Support: Seasonal Industries
I have regular conversations with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is responsible for the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which have supported 9.2 million and 2.6 million people respectively—nearly 12 million people in total. He has set out how the schemes will be phased out during the autumn. The furlough scheme continues until the end of October.
The position for people in the visitor economy in my constituency is particularly acute because of the highly seasonal nature of the trade. It has been described to me as being like three winters in a row. Does the Secretary of State accept, and will she prosecute the case within Government, that if some industries in some areas are to have a viable future, there will need to be special consideration?
I too have a coastal constituency with a significant tourism economy. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said, we are looking to get the tourist sector up and running as strong as possible, and extending it for as long as we can. That is a key part of the campaign. When it is back, we will invest heavily and ensure that we have a major campaign to encourage British people to take British staycations.
Covid-19: Support for Pensioners
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on his outstanding maiden speech last week, for which credit is due. The Government are committed to ensuring that older people are able to live with the dignity—[Inaudible.]
To echo my hon. Friend, the Government are committed to ensuring that older people are able to live with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The state pension is a foundation of state support. In April, full amounts of the basic and new state pensions increased by 3.9% to £134.25 and £175.20 per week respectively. We continue to work with the Post Office to ensure that vulnerable customers have access to cash when shielding.
People in Broxtowe affected by the closure of Equitable Life are increasingly worried as they approach retirement age. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what measures the Government will take to ensure that soon-to-be pensioners get the compensation they deserve and are supported in their old age?
My hon. Friend raises a long-standing issue. I am aware that during the 2010 Administration, extra money was put in after the original proposal in order to support those on Equitable Life, but this is a matter for my right hon Friend the Chancellor and I would encourage my hon. Friend to follow up with him directly.
As I outlined to the House earlier, I am really pleased with the massive efforts that have been undertaken by members of the Department for Work and Pensions in responding to public needs during this important emergency. We are starting to return to normal and I look forward to jobcentres fully reopening so that they can help people to get ready again for the world of work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree on the importance of jobcentres and businesses working closely together to support employment and economic recovery, and will she join me in praising Pinewood studios in my constituency, which is a shining example of such practices?
As I outlined earlier, we want to ensure that we have that ongoing local support between jobcentres and businesses. I know that in Beaconsfield the local jobcentre staff are working with the local enterprise partnership to explore how they can collaboratively support people back into work. I am sure that the company to which my hon. Friend refers will also be looking at the Employer Help website, which provides a range of guidance and advice, including on identifying transferable skills, promoting opportunities to work in different sectors of the economy, and supporting staff.
Last week, the Pensions Regulator introduced an interim regime to cover so-called superfunds, which are funds that aim to bring together several corporate pension schemes to be run collectively. This is a sensitive area, because breaking the link between an employer and their pension scheme means that the employer cannot in future be called upon to fill any deficits. Given that sensitivity, will the Secretary of State explain, first, why the Government have not legislated for this area in the current Pension Schemes Bill; secondly, why the regulatory requirements for these superfunds are so much lower than they are for a buy-out from an insurance company; and, thirdly, whether the Governor of the Bank of England is right to say that this lack of action by the Government is a potential risk to the UK’s financial stability?
The independent Pensions Regulator published guidance on an interim regime for pensions superfunds. I want to stress that this is an interim regime, and that the Government will continue to develop the permanent regime before legislating with full and proper parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way. Market participants are well aware that they should not assume that the interim regime will automatically transfer into the permanent regime.
When it is safe to do so, I would love to visit and see the work of RCS. I pay tribute to the great work it is doing in its community. We understand the role of good mental wellbeing and helping individuals into the job market, and in Wales we have provided £1.3 million to test the new individual placement and support. We also provide contracted employment support programmes specifically tailored to disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, as well as administering the Access to Work scheme and the Disability Confident campaign.
I thank everyone who works in our jobcentres. Our Secretary of State has committed to doubling the number of work coaches. We take an individual focus on our claimants, and we will take a place-based approach to helping people into work. We are actively working with our operations to ensure that this is done safely so that people can get back into work.
I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that disabled people will be at the very heart of the consultation on both the Green Paper and the national strategy for disabled people. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will begin the roadshow of consultation across the whole country, making sure that all voices are heard and shape our future priorities.
We keep all policy under review. The particular policy change the hon. Lady references would not only cost around £2 billion a year but could not be operationalised now even if we wanted to, because all the focus is rightly on the Department’s response to covid-19. I say to her gently, though, that it is a policy based on fairness; those in receipt of benefits are faced with the same choices in life as those not in receipt of benefits.
We are actively working with colleagues across Government, including the Business Secretary, with whom I have had several roundtable discussions, to get people back into work and open up as soon as possible. The Government are committed to reopening businesses in a phased approach, guided by the science, when it is safe to do so; I confess an absolute personal need for these sectors to reopen. However, where there are job losses, DWP staff are on hand to work with claimants to support them to get back into work.
That is a very important point. We are looking at additional ways we can support people, through Access to Work, to travel to and from their home to work and in terms of their ability to work from home. There are opportunities for us to make some of those changes more permanent as we start to return to normality.
We recognise that people face unprecedented financial pressure as a result of covid-19. That is exactly why the Government have invested £6.5 billion in our welfare system, increasing universal credit by £20 per week, increasing tax credits and increasing the local housing allowance.
I absolutely understand the importance of tourism to very many areas of the country; it is vital to jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency and many others. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said that we are looking to get the tourism sector up and running as strongly as we can and to extend it for as long as we can for visitors and tourists. Meanwhile, our welfare safety net, the UC standard allowance rate, has been increased by £20 a week for this year to support people.
The Government are absolutely committed to fulfilling their manifesto commitments. It is fair to say that we have some situations ahead of us, but it is something I am in discussions about. This is not about abandoning the triple lock in any way, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are some consequences—of which he may not be aware—if average earnings fall during this year. We may need to rectify things to make sure that aspects of the law that are already in place cannot be set aside.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he is absolutely right. The amount paid in UC reflects as closely as possible the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period. This allows UC awards to be adjusted on a monthly basis, ensuring that if a claimant’s income falls, they do not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC. UC pays up to 85% of childcare costs to support working parents, compared with 70% in the legacy benefits system.
The Treasury has put forward an unprecedented package to support people as widely as possible through this pandemic. The labour market sits with me, and I am working with the Department to make sure that we understand the challenges of self-employment, as we have jobcentres reopening, and that we support claimants who perhaps need to look at the next stage of their work journey, moving on from self-employment, or coming back into it.
I confess that I know my hon. Friend’s jobcentre extremely well; I thank it for its response to the pandemic and all those who have been on the frontline in this emergency. From the start of June, our work coaches have made over a quarter of a million outbound customer support calls each week. Understanding the digital needs as well, we will be using technology to host virtual job fairs—they have already started—working with employers to deliver online mentoring circles and facilitating sector-based work academies, which I am sure will come to Eastleigh.
Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on support and accommodation for asylum seekers during the covid-19 pandemic.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for those kind words; they will mean an awful lot to my constituents.
My thoughts and those of the Home Secretary and, I am sure, the entire House are with the victims of the appalling knife attack that happened in Glasgow on Friday afternoon. I would like to pay tribute to the brave first responders who, as always, ran towards danger to protect the public. They include Police Scotland hero David Whyte, who was very sadly seriously wounded. The suspect has been named as Badreddin Abadlla Adam, a 28-year-old asylum seeker originally from Sudan. The House will appreciate that I am able to provide only limited information on this case while the investigation is under way, but I can talk about the United Kingdom’s proud history of supporting asylum seekers.
Last year, the United Kingdom made 20,000 grants of protection or asylum, one of the highest numbers of any country in Europe. We welcomed more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, the highest number of any country in Europe. Indeed, it made up 20% of Europe’s UASC intake.
The UK has a statutory obligation to provide destitute asylum seekers with support while their case is being considered. While asylum cases are being considered, asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free accommodation. The utilities are paid for, council tax is paid for and free healthcare on the NHS is available. Free education is available for those with children, and there is a cash allowance to cover other essential living needs, which recently increased by 5%, considerably more than inflation. The package needs to be viewed as a whole.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we have stepped up the help available to go beyond the statutory requirements that I have just laid out. We have paused the usual practice of asking people to move on from supported accommodation when their asylum claim is decided either positively or negatively, so that they can remain in supported asylum accommodation. As a consequence of that decision, which was implemented on 27 March, around 4,000 more people are in supported accommodation than was the case at the end of March, because people are still coming into the system, but nobody is moving on. We have therefore been frantically procuring additional accommodation around the country to meet that additional need. The circumstances in Glasgow are slightly different, but I suspect we will come on to the specifics of Glasgow, so I will answer those questions in due course. That is the principal measure we have taken to ensure that people seeking asylum have been looked after and protected during the coronavirus epidemic.
Where we have procured additional hotels, we provide full-board accommodation, including laundry services, personal hygiene products and feminine hygiene products. Wrap-around services are also provided, including welfare support, healthcare and access to mental health services. Asylum seekers also have 24-hour-a-day access to assistance via Migrant Help through a freephone number.
We are working at pace to increase the available accommodation so that we can move asylum seekers from hotels into more permanent accommodation as quickly as possible, which I think we would all agree is more suitable. Efforts are currently under way to do exactly that. Over time and in due course, we will be returning to a business-as-usual approach in a phased, proportionate and careful way.
We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable asylum seekers are provided with all the support they require. As our nation has been battling coronavirus, we have continued and will continue to look after asylum seekers. We will continue to drive forward the reforms required to support those asylum seekers who are in genuine need. I commend this statement to the House.
There have been two deaths in hotel accommodation in Glasgow Central since the start of lockdown: Adnan Elbi in McLays Guest House at the start of May, and Badreddin Abadlla Adam, who was shot dead on Friday after carrying out a shocking knife attack, which left three asylum seekers, two Park Inn hotel staff and Police Constable David Whyte in hospital. My thoughts are with them and their loved ones, and my thanks go to the emergency services who so bravely and swiftly dealt with a terrifying situation.
The Minister came to the House less than two weeks ago to hear the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). Our concerns persist. At the start of lockdown, the Home Office contractor Mears moved 321 people from initial accommodation in serviced flats across Glasgow into city centre hotels. It did not consult, as it is obliged to do, with Glasgow City Council or anyone else. Contrary to the oral and written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by Mears boss John Taylor, those people included pregnant women, trafficked women, torture victims, family groups and vulnerable people, young people included, two of whom ended up in hospital on Friday. They were given little notice: according to the Scottish Refugee Council, one family with food on the hob and clothes in the washing machine were given half an hour to gather their belongings.
One of my constituents was a friend of Adnan, who died in McLay’s Guest House. He has faced extreme trauma because of that and has asked to be moved, but is still in that guest house two months later.
I have some questions for the Minister. First, which Whitehall source led the BBC to report that three people had been found dead, which was not true and caused a great deal of distress in my constituency? Mears has misled Committee members—elected Members—and has now admitted that no vulnerability assessments were carried out. When did the Minister find out that Mears had lied to everybody about this, and will he suspend its contract? Will he immediately reinstate the meagre £5.37 a day to allow asylum seekers a small but important degree of dignity? Will he halt any evictions while this outbreak is going on? Will he work with Glasgow City Council, organisations in Glasgow, the Scottish Government and asylum seekers themselves to return them to appropriate accommodation as soon as possible? Will he authorise an independent inquiry into asylum accommodation, which is very urgently needed? Lastly, will he take responsibility and apologise for a saga that has heaped trauma on to already vulnerable people in Glasgow and across the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for those questions. She started by asking about the move of 321 people in Glasgow from serviced apartments into hotel accommodation, which occurred around the end of March. That was a separate process from the one I described earlier, involving the extra 4,000 places. The contractor, Mears, moved those 321 people from the serviced apartments into hotels because it was judged that, as the coronavirus epidemic took hold, the serviced apartments were not appropriate and not safe. It was done for safety reasons, and that has been entirely borne out by the subsequent statistics. Glasgow accommodates slightly over 5,000 asylum seekers, as the hon. Lady will know—many of them are in her constituency—and during the coronavirus epidemic over the last three months or so, of those over 5,000 service users, only two have tested positive for coronavirus, and both, I am pleased to say, have fully recovered. Among those people accommodated in hotels there has not been a single confirmed case of coronavirus. So the steps being taken to safeguard the public, and to safeguard the asylum seekers in particular, have been successful.
The hon. Lady asked about the plans for the future, and I can confirm that it is our plan to move people out of those hotels into more regular mainstream accommodation as quickly as possible. That was always the intention; it was only ever a temporary measure, and that applies to hotel accommodation, of course, in the rest of the United Kingdom as well as in Scotland. But I would say that these hotels are of good quality. The one involved on Friday was a three-star Radisson hotel; it was a good hotel with substantial facilities, including en suite showers for every single room.
The hon. Lady asked about evictions and whether people are being asked to move on, as would ordinarily be the case. That is currently not happening, as she knows, following the announcement on 27 March, but in due course, as life returns a little bit more to normal and now that the ban on moving home has ended, we will be returning to normal over time, but it will be done in a very careful and phased way. Nothing will be done in a rush, and I would point out that those who have successful asylum grants will actually be better off with universal credit when they move on, so it is in their interests as well.
There are a number of questions that the hon. Lady and her colleagues from Glasgow asked me in a letter dated a week ago today, 22 June. I do now have detailed answers to all those questions. I will be sending them in writing, to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) in the first instance, in the next 24 to 48 hours, and then meeting with all Glasgow MPs who wish to meet her to go through those in detail either later this week or at the latest early next week.
May I start, Mr Speaker, by associating myself with the sympathies you offered to the people of Glasgow on this horrible attack?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that we have a proud history of helping those most in need. Does he agree that those who abuse asylum make it harder for those who are genuinely vulnerable, and so can he confirm that the Home Office is committed to reforming the system, so that it can make swifter judgments and truly work for those most in need?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right. Some asylum claims are meritorious—obviously, many are—and we should work quickly and humanely to grant those applications and offer help on integrating into UK society. But where there are meritless asylum claims, we need to make sure those are equally identified and rejected quickly, because it is unfair on the British public as a whole and on genuine asylum claimants if unmeritorious claims take up too much time in our system.
Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important urgent question and the Minister for his initial response. Once again, I wish to pay tribute to the extraordinary bravery and dedication of our emergency service workers. I know that the whole House is united in sending our gratitude to PC David Whyte and our best wishes for his recovery, just as we send our best wishes for the recovery of all those injured in this tragic attack. PC Whyte was part of a policing team who responded quickly and skilfully to keep people from danger, and he and his colleagues will have our heartfelt admiration and respect. Working alongside our magnificent NHS, they were able to save lives on Friday, but this worrying incident clearly poses a number of serious questions.
We are sympathetic to the speed with which additional accommodation has had to be sought for asylum seekers, at different stages of the asylum process, in the interests of public health going into lockdown. However, this tragic attack is an important reminder of why it is vital to deliver the correct, balanced approach to housing and related support services for asylum seekers, as well as supporting the wider community. As a result, there are a number of questions I would like to ask the Minister.
At the weekend, the Home Secretary suggested that this type of accommodation had been allocated because of the covid-19 crisis. However, we know that there is an ongoing problem, which predates the crisis, of people having been housed in what is deemed to be “initial accommodation” for prolonged periods before being moved into more appropriate dispersal accommodation. Can the Minister clarify how many asylum seekers are in initial accommodation compared with the number in dispersal accommodation across the country? Will he update the House about the duration of stays for asylum seekers at the Park Inn hotel in Glasgow? Will he share with the House what vulnerability and risk assessments the Home Office and service providers are currently conducting when placing people in asylum support accommodation, in order to ensure that people have the support they need, including access to mental health support? Finally, what work is being undertaken to identify the risk factors that could have been spotted in this attacker, and how will that change future practice?
I thank the shadow Minister for her question. I should take this opportunity to welcome her to her place, and I look forward to many exchanges across the Dispatch Box in the months and, perhaps if we are lucky, years ahead. She asked about the numbers of people being supported in asylum accommodation. We currently have 44,000 people being supported under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and some 4,000 people being supported under section 4; pre-coronavirus, we had about 48,000 people supported. The number has increased dramatically in the past four or five years—it has almost doubled in that period—so we are growing our asylum accommodation estate in order to cater for that growth. Of course, we are trying to get people into dispersed accommodation—the more stable accommodation—as much as we can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) alluded to in the previous question, the more we can make sure we can look after meritorious claims quickly but dismiss unmeritorious claims, the less pressure there will be on asylum accommodation in the first place.
Every asylum seeker is subjected to a risk assessment, on health and on other grounds, at the point of receipt into the system. I do not want to comment too much on this individual’s case, but when he first made one of his asylum claims—he made two—he flagged a health vulnerability, but it was a minor physical vulnerability, not anything that could have had anything to do with what happened on Friday. I assure the hon. Lady that those assessments do take place and there are round-the-clock facilities for asylum seekers to report any health or any issues that they may have.
I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Clearly, he is right to extol the virtues, which we in this country hold dear, of extending our hands and arms to those who are fleeing and who are extremely vulnerable. Many of them will have come from war-torn areas of the globe. Some of them will be dangerous to other asylum seekers and the British public, so what measures will he look at to assess those individuals’ risk of violence towards the British public and other asylum seekers?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes a very good point. As I said in response to the shadow Minister a moment ago, risk assessments take place at the point of arrival and on an ongoing basis. I assure him that with asylum seekers, whenever UKVI identifies risk to others, appropriate action will always be taken. Everybody’s vigilance will be elevated to even higher levels after the incident on Friday.
This was a devastating incident, and we, too, wish all six who are in hospital a full recovery. We pay tribute to Constable Whyte and his colleagues in the emergency services for their bravery. Our thoughts are also with the wider asylum community in Glasgow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is absolutely right; there must be an independent inquiry, because huge questions persist as to why there was a mass move to hotels, how it was implemented and the extent to which vulnerabilities were or were not assessed. A huge gap has grown between the system that the Minister describes and reality as it has been described to us by people working on the ground.
For now, our focus must be on supporting people, so will the Home Office contribute funding for vital counselling and other support? Will the Minister reinstate even the pitiful cash support for individuals who are still in hotels? Will he ensure that the exit strategy is shared and consulted on with Glasgow City Council and other key partners? Will he maintain the pause in evictions? Will he speak to the leader of Glasgow City Council—a vital partner—as well as the Scottish Government? Finally, will he acknowledge that people are angry about what has happened, and that there are concerns that the Home Office’s approach to the asylum system has become so hands-off that it risks becoming a Cinderella service?
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would have discussions with Glasgow City Council about the ongoing asylum accommodation estate in that fine city, and of course we will. I believe that discussions took place this afternoon—in the last two or three hours—between Home Office officials and Glasgow City Council on the very topic of moving people out of hotels and into more stable accommodation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned healthcare. Healthcare for asylum seekers, wherever they may be in the country, is taken care of by the local NHS or, in the case of Glasgow, by the Bridge Project, which is co-ordinated by Glasgow City Council. I have every confidence in the service that Glasgow City Council and the NHS in Scotland provide.
The hon. Gentleman asked about meeting Glasgow City Council, and I would be very happy to meet the leader of Glasgow City Council at any time. As I mentioned, I will be meeting Glasgow MPs, if not later this week, certainly next week. On the question of restarting move-ons, I have been very clear that as the country returns to normal, so we would expect the asylum system to return to normal. In a measured, phased and careful way, we will return to the system as it was before, which worked extremely well, but we will be extremely thoughtful in the way we do that.
What marks a society out is how we treat our most vulnerable. I believe that the UK has a strong track record and should be proud of being one of the few countries during the covid lockdown still to take in unaccompanied minors. However, I am concerned about what happens next year if we do not have replacement schemes in place. Can my hon. Friend give me assurances that those schemes will continue next year, especially for unaccompanied minors and for family reunion?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to our extremely proud record. I have already referred to the fact that we took in more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children last year than any other European country. We also took in some Dublin children during the coronavirus epidemic. About six or eight weeks ago, we took in a number of them from Greece who had been accommodated in the camps. We were pretty much the only European country allowing Dublin returns of that kind during coronavirus, which says a great deal about this country’s proud track record.
In terms of the future, clearly we are in the process of negotiation at the moment. An amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on Report tomorrow has been tabled but, as required by statute, the Government are negotiating with the European Union in good faith to secure a replacement agreement for Dublin, to allow the reciprocal reunification of unaccompanied children—in both directions. A few weeks ago, we tabled a detailed legal case to facilitate that, and more negotiations are happening this week, I believe. I am sure that all of us in this House hope that those negotiations on a reciprocal basis are successful.
We will debate those issues tomorrow. It is important that there are guarantees that young people can join family who are here and who can care for them, whatever reciprocal arrangements are in place.
May I ask the Minister specifically about support for asylum accommodation? I join with you, Mr Speaker, and Members across the House in sending our best wishes to those affected by the awful incident in Glasgow. The Home Affairs Committee has been told repeatedly of serious concerns about asylum seekers being left in hotel accommodation for long periods and about the rushed move of so many people into hotel accommodation in Glasgow during the crisis. Given that the Minister must have been asked about and consulted on those moves of people into hotel accommodation, why did he not consider providing additional financial support—otherwise it is withdrawn from people in hotel accommodation —that they could have used for things such as hand sanitation, additional food needs or basic provisions that they could not get?
The reason for the rapid move, which we discussed earlier, around about the end of March, was the unsuitable conditions in the serviced apartments. That is why those 321 people were moved. As I said, it has been successful in that not a single one of the people moved into hotels in Glasgow has tested positive for coronavirus.
The right hon. Lady asked about the financial element. When someone is in dispersed accommodation or a serviced department, they get the allowance, which is principally to cover food and some other essentials. When they move into a hotel, all those things like food, the hand sanitiser she referred to, hygiene products, laundry services and so on are provided by the hotel, removing the need for the cash grant.
I, too, associate myself with your remarks at the start of the debate, Mr Speaker, to the people of Glasgow and the victims of last week’s atrocious act. This Government have been committed to supporting asylum seekers and children. What steps will the Minister’s Department take to assure councils of future support mechanisms for children?
Looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is extremely important. As a Member of Parliament representing Croydon, which has either the highest or second highest number of UASCs, I have seen at first hand how much care and support they often need. My hon. Friend asked about support for councils doing that. He may be aware that a few weeks ago, earlier in June, we announced a substantial increase in the funding for councils looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers. Councils with the largest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will get a 25% increase in their funding this year. All councils with care leavers will get increases of between 20% and 60% in their funding, which is a powerful demonstration of this Government’s commitment to ensuring that children are properly looked after.
I, too, associate myself with your remarks earlier, Mr Speaker, about our sympathy being with the people of Glasgow and in particular our admiration for Constable Whyte. I also associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), particularly when she talked about the concerns that had already been expressed—the mental health concerns—by the Scottish Refugee Council and others about the conditions in which asylum seekers are being asked to live. Will the Minister consider a full public inquiry into what happened in Glasgow, so that, as we move away from what are, as he acknowledges, abnormal conditions at the moment—including the dreadful conditions we have seen in Glasgow —we can start to treat and look after asylum seekers in a much more acceptable manner that allows them their dignity and to be regarded as people who can contribute to society?
There is currently a police investigation under way, so the right thing is to wait for the outcome of that investigation by Police Scotland before making any further comment. On the conditions that asylum seekers live in, as I have said, this country has an extremely proud history of looking after asylum seekers. We look after them much better than many, if not most, other European countries, with free accommodation, council tax paid for, utilities paid for, NHS treatment provided free, education provided for those with children, and a cash allowance in addition. I am proud of our record and am very happy to defend it.
I also echo your comments, Mr Speaker, and my thoughts are with everyone in Glasgow impacted by the incident.
Wolverhampton City of Sanctuary have been doing great with asylum seekers throughout the covid-19 pandemic and have been brilliant at making sure everyone is connected with each other during this difficult time. At the end of the pandemic, will my hon. Friend come and meet them to see the great work they are doing in Wolverhampton?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the fine city of Wolverhampton on their work. It sounds like they are setting an example to the rest of the country in how to manage this matter with compassion and sensitivity. I would of course be delighted to learn more about the work that he and his colleagues on Wolverhampton City Council are doing.
On behalf of the DUP, I associate my hon. Friends and myself with the comments about the events in Glasgow. All of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are united in support of those who need help.
I have highlighted in the past to the Minister the discrepancy whereby those who are reliant on the welfare system have seen just a temporary rise of 26p. They do not understand, and to be truthful neither do I. I know he wants to help, which is very important, but what additional help and support is available at this time of fear, especially for those who do not understand the system, so that they can source all the financial assistance they need to survive?
I say again that the cash amount, which went up by 5%, is only one small part of the support package, which includes free accommodation, council tax paid for, utilities paid for, free healthcare and free education. One has to look at the package in the round. He asked rightly about the advice and assistance available to migrants. There are helplines available through Migrant Help and other organisations via free phones available in these hotels and other places of accommodation, so that where they need assistance and advice they can access it. Of course, asylum seekers are also eligible for the more general support available to the whole of society via local authorities, which have received £3.2 billion to assist those in need at this time of national difficulty.
Through our aid spending, the British people play a leading role in supporting millions of refugees all over the world, including through the £2.8 billion we have committed in response to the Syria crisis. Does my hon. Friend agree that aid spending in conflict zones goes an enormous way to stopping people needing to seek asylum and reducing the trade of people traffickers?
My hon. Friend is right. Every pound that we spend helping vulnerable people in a conflict zone can help far more people, and often those people are more vulnerable than those who come to the UK. Our money is most effectively spent in those conflict zones, which is why we are the only G7 economy to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid, why we are the second biggest donor in the Syria region, and why we help so many people. I think our aid budget is the biggest or the second biggest of any European country. That is a measure of this country’s passion. It is through that programme that we can help the largest number of people in need.
Yes, I can categorically confirm that. The safety of our citizens is this Government’s highest priority. Where people, including asylum seekers, commit very serious offences, we will take appropriate action through the criminal justice system. But if someone who has been granted asylum commits a very serious offence, we are able, consistent with the refugee convention, to seek to remove that person. If somebody comes here and accepts our welcome and our hospitality but then commits a very serious criminal offence, endangering the public, it is right that that person should be eligible for removal, as allowed by the law.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kind words to the people of Glasgow. It was a tragic and horrific scene, and it was a traumatic experience for those injured and those caught up in it who were living in the hotel, many of whom have had traumatic experiences in their lives, coming from war-torn countries or as trafficked women. I thank the Minister for committing to a meeting—the quicker the better, as far as I am concerned. I ask this question in general terms, not about the incident on Friday. Can he confirm what Mears confirmed in a press conference on Thursday morning: that those who were placed in hotel accommodation did not have a vulnerability risk assessment? Does he think it is right that trafficked women have been in hotels for 12 months?
The 321 people moved into hotel accommodation in Glasgow have been there for around three months. As I said, work is under way, including this afternoon, between Home Office officials and Glasgow City Council to get them moved back into more regular accommodation as soon as is logistically possible. In terms of risk assessments, I mentioned before that all asylum seekers are interviewed at great length, including about various vulnerabilities, at the point when their asylum claim is made. In terms of ongoing vulnerability assessments, perhaps when people are being moved from A to B, I will have to look into that and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
People make Glasgow, and our city remains united in wanting to give the warmest of welcomes to those who choose to make their home among us, but what asylum seekers have experienced during this pandemic is the hostile environment at its absolute worst. The Minister speaks of welcome and hospitality, but the 5% increase he talks of is 26p a day, and that has been withdrawn from the people who have been moved into hotel accommodation. Surely the way to respect their dignity and extend a welcome to asylum seekers is to extend the right to work to them, so that they can contribute to our society in the way that they want to.
I do not for one moment accept the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there has been anything hostile in the environment extended to asylum seekers. As I have said several times, but I will say it again, in case he did not hear it, those who come here are given free accommodation, with council tax paid for and utilities paid for, free healthcare, free education and a cash allowance. During the coronavirus crisis, the ordinary operation of the asylum system, where people get asked to move on when their case is decided, has been suspended for the time being. That, in my view, is a compassionate and generous response, and I do not see any reasonable basis for criticising it.
Every loss of life is a tragedy, and any crime perpetrated by people coming to these shores is a disaster, but does my hon Friend agree that we must not allow a few bad experiences to turn us into a mean-spirited country and that we should be doing more to support those who come to these shores? To echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), the work of my local Flintshire City of Sanctuary in creating a culture of welcome and inclusion is exactly the approach we should be taking. Will my hon. Friend look further at what can be done in that area?
The sound was a little intermittent, but I think I got the gist of my hon. Friend’s question. I can confirm that we will always seek to extend a welcome to those who are genuinely in need of protection. That is why last year we gave around 20,000 grants of asylum or protection, and of course we want to welcome those people and help them integrate into our society and make a meaningful contribution, as all of us want to. Where there are risks to public safety, we will naturally seek to take robust action to defend the safety of the British public.
My constituent fled Syria. He is fragile but he felt safe until the Mears Group told him that he had 30 minutes to be moved to an unknown location because of lockdown. Far from offering the health support that the Minister has described in this utopia he keeps on about, that approach took my constituent right back to the traumatic state he was in when he first fled. We in Glasgow are sick of people being treated like this. What is the Minister going to do, not say, about it, because it is happening under his watch?
The hon. Lady asked about moves at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic and, as I have explained, that was done for reasons of public health and public safety. I will not apologise for taking steps at the beginning of this very serious health epidemic to protect the health of all the public and of asylum seekers in particular. As I have said, there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases among people living in Glasgow hotels, so that approach has worked.
I am delighted to say that my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central has welcomed many asylum seekers in the past, but does the Minister recognise that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent face huge and increasingly strained demands on our local support networks and that the capacity is not unlimited?
Yes, I do accept what my hon. Friend says. I know that Stoke-on-Trent does a great deal already, for which all of us, I am sure, are very grateful. There are, of course, natural constraints to how much any given city can do, and one of the reasons that I will speed up the whole asylum process is to alleviate exactly those pressures.
Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are here because their lives are at risk elsewhere and they need a temporary safe haven. Most live here peacefully and without issue for a period of time, but can the Minister clarify how information on those asylum seekers who may pose a threat to themselves and others is shared between the Home Office, councils, and health, police and security services?
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, whenever a risk is identified, it is rapidly shared between all relevant organisations, including those that he listed. He mentioned providing sanctuary. Of course, many asylum seekers who reach here have travelled through safe countries first, particularly France, and it is appropriate for people seeking asylum to do so in the first safe country they get to.
I associate myself with your comments earlier, Mr Speaker, and pass on my best wishes to those who have been sadly affected.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this appalling attack underlines the importance of reforming our asylum policy so that we can stop it being abused with false claims and ensure that those who pose a significant threat to our way of life have their claims rejected and are swiftly deported?
My hon. Friend is right. The system is too slow. It is too slow to grant meritorious claims, but it is also, I am afraid to say, open to abuse with repeated unmeritorious appeals, which often drag the process out over many years. Reform is needed along the lines that he describes and it is something on which we are working.
Those of us who represent Glasgow are utterly horrified at the Minister’s tone deaf remarks about how lovely these hotel rooms are. I ask him whether he could stay in one hotel room for several weeks during lockdown. I am afraid to say that the Government have been posted missing on the issue of asylum accommodation in Glasgow, which many of us in the city have been jumping up and down about for several months. What is needed from the Government is an intensive engagement strategy with public bodies such as the council, the health service and the third sector. Given that no Minister has even met the leader of our city council since the Government came into office, will he implement an intensive engagement strategy now?
I am generally reassured that asylum seekers receive the necessary support, but it is clear that the process of coming illegally to the UK is fraught with danger. Are we doing enough to disincentivise migrants from making the perilous journey and to bring people traffickers to justice?
My hon. Friend is right. As I said a few moments ago, people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach, which very often is not the United Kingdom. Many of the arrivals here have travelled through Italy, Germany, France or many other manifestly safe European countries. They should claim asylum in one of those countries first. They should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. Many of the people who cross the channel on small boats, for example, are facilitated by ruthless and dangerous criminals. We are cracking down on those, prosecuting them and arresting them. We are determined to stop dangerous illegal entry to the country.
Glasgow is a city that prides itself on welcoming asylum seekers and refugees. Since the shocking events on Friday, Glaswegians have, in typical fashion, voiced their support for the vulnerable people, including families, who were dumped in hotels at the start of lockdown. The Minister has talked about the generosity of the support package, but he must acknowledge that human beings need other things: they need human interactions and the love of their community. They need to feel whole. In May, a Syrian refugee was found dead in a hotel room after reporting that he was struggling with his mental health. The Home Office must have warning systems in place. What are they, and why are they not working like they should?
The case that the hon. Lady refers to is the subject of an ongoing investigation, so we will see what the result of that investigation is in due course. I mentioned earlier that there are 24-hour mechanisms for anyone in asylum accommodation who feels like they are experiencing difficulties to report them, and there are health interventions that can then be followed up.
On the hon. Lady’s more general point about support, many people—asylum seekers and members of the general public—have experienced feelings of distress and isolation during the coronavirus lockdown. That is one of the burdens that we have had to collectively bear as a society in the past few months, but we are thankfully now moving beyond that.
To follow up the question posed by my good friend the Member for Blackpool tower and the winter gardens—my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton)—how long after someone’s application to remain has been rejected is it on average before that person leaves our shores?
That varies a great deal, depending on the circumstances of the individual and the circumstances in their home country. I think it is fair to say, however, that the majority as matters stand do not end up leaving. If somebody’s asylum claim is rejected, and once the relevant appeal processes have been exhausted, it is only fair to the British public generally, and indeed to people who claim asylum successfully, that we ultimately ensure removal; otherwise, it makes a mockery of our immigration system.
My thoughts are with those injured in the horrendous attack in Glasgow. I commend the bravery of PC Whyte and the officers who moved towards danger in order to protect the public.
Research shows that asylum seekers are five times more likely to experience mental health problems than the rest of the population. I feel that the Home Office’s use of hotels and temporary accommodation is making those problems much worse. Will the Minister commit to an urgent funding package of mental health support for asylum seekers in Glasgow and further afield to ensure that they can recover from this traumatic incident? Does he recognise that they should be treated with dignity and respect?
of course I agree that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, including asylum seekers. On the health support package, I said earlier that it is provided by the local NHS and, in this case, also by Glasgow City Council and I know that it is doing its job effectively.
I associate myself with your kind works of support for everyone affected by this incident, Mr Speaker. I want to ask specifically about the number of asylum seekers in supported accommodation who are from Sudan. Will the Minister convey to his colleagues in Government the welcome for the announced pledge to support the Government of Sudan in their transition to democracy, which came through last week?
I know that my hon. Friend has done a great deal of work in this area. The best way to make sure that people are safe and secure is to ensure that the situation in their home countries is stable and safe—that there are democratic Governments and the economies prosper. That is ultimately the way to make sure that people are safe and secure, and this Government are committed to doing that.
Hull is a city of sanctuary. For a number of years, I have convened a roundtable of voluntary and statutory agencies to look at issues around asylum and refugees in the city, including, before covid-19, the use of hotels. One of the issues raised about housing asylum seekers in hotels with no financial support is that if they need an aspirin or a plaster, they end up going to A&E at the local hospital because they do not have the money to buy these everyday essentials. Surely that cannot be right and it is not in the interests of anybody to have those asylum seekers in our A&Es. Will the Minister look into this?
Hotel accommodation is obviously not the preferred way to accommodate asylum seekers. I am speaking from memory, but I think that, prior to coronavirus, fewer than 1,000 people were accommodated in hotels, so less than 2% of the total. As I said, we are looking to unwind the hotel accommodation as quickly as logistics allow. In relation to the provision of basic things like plasters, there are typically welfare officers on hand in these hotels. I will investigate whether they have those sort of supplies available, because the hon. Lady is certainly right that those things should be available in the hotels.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister whether his Government will make a statement on the mistreatment by the Chinese Government of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
We are aware of reports issued today by the Associated Press and the Jamestown Foundation alleging that the Chinese Government are using pregnancy checks and forced intra-uterine devices, sterilisation and abortion to minimise Uyghur birth rates. These reports add to our concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and of course we will be considering the report carefully.
The broader human rights situation in Xinjiang is of ongoing and serious concern to the Government. This includes the extrajudicial detention of over a million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in political re-education camps, systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture and the practice of Islam, and extensive and invasive surveillance targeting minorities. Further reports indicating that forced labour is being used and that children are being forcibly separated from their parents add to the growing body of evidence about the disturbing situation that Uyghurs and other minorities are facing in Xinjiang.
We have expressed our serious concerns about these issues on many occasions. The Foreign Secretary raised them directly with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi in March. I also raised the situation in Xinjiang with the Chinese ambassador to London in March. Since 2018, we have played a leading role in raising these concerns at the UN. For example, at the UN Third Committee in October, the UK read out a statement on behalf of 22 other countries drawing attention to the human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang and calling on China to uphold its obligations to respect human rights. We have consistently raised the issue at the UN Human Rights Council, including at the most recent session in March, when Lord Ahmad, the Minister for human rights, raised the issue in the UK’s opening address. In addition, we advise all businesses involved in investing in Xinjiang or with parts of their supply chains in Xinjiang to consider conducting appropriate due diligence to satisfy themselves that their activities do not support, or risk being seen to support, any human rights violations or abuses. The UK will continue to exercise leadership on this important issue, raising it directly with the Chinese Government and working with partners to do so at the UN.
The Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China—IPAC—which is made up of 30 other lawmakers from 16 global legislatures, has today published research by Professor Adrian Zenz, the world’s leading expert on the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang province. The report shows that birth rates in the two mostly Uyghur regions plummeted by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018. Across the Xinjiang region, birth rates fell nearly 24% in a single year, compared with just 4.2% nationwide. Worse, it is now clear that this is a direct result of Government actions. Unearthed Government documents mandate that birth control violations that come about
“due to the influence of extreme religious thinking”
should be “dealt with severely”, and that those unable to pay fines should be
“dealt with through coercive measures”,
including internment. Mr Zenz’s paper concludes that these measures are part of a state-wide crackdown that includes the mass sterilisation of women. This report corroborates the many horrific personal testimonies that many of us have heard. The genocide convention maintains that birth prevention targeted at minority groups is indicative of genocide, and the convention binds individual states to act, not just to rely on the international judicial system. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that the Uyghur people have been, and are, the victims of mass atrocity crimes?
I ask the Foreign Secretary to go to the UN and call for an independent inquiry, but, sadly, I also recognise that the ways to deal with this through the UN will almost certainly be blocked by China. Given that likelihood, will my hon. Friend at least get the UK to make its own legal determination after weighing up this new evidence? Of course the world wants to deal with China, but we cannot continue with business as usual while this sort of blatant activity continues. Furthermore, given the Chinese Government’s appalling record on human rights, their attack on freedoms in Hong Kong, their bullying behaviour in border disputes from the South China seas to India, their blatant breaching of the rules-based order governing the free market and their delayed declaration on covid-19, will the Government now initiate an internal review of the UK’s dependence on China, with a view to significantly reducing that dependence, and call on the free world to come together to ensure that this growing threat from China is dealt with together before, as history teaches us, it is too late?
My right hon. Friend speaks with great passion and knowledge on these subjects. He refers to legal determination. As I said in my opening statement, these reports add to our concern about the situation in Xinjiang, and we will of course consider them extremely carefully. Any legal determination would be a matter for a competent court. I reiterate that we have raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly Third Committee and UN Human Rights Council, alongside our international partners. We will continue to make our concerns known directly to China and bilaterally, as well as through the relevant bodies.
On a full Government review, our approach to China remains clear-eyed and is rooted in our values and interests. It has always been the case that when we have concerns we raise them, and that where we need to intervene we will. We have consistently led international efforts to highlight concern about the worsening human rights situation in Xinjiang, and I assure my right hon. Friend that the United Kingdom will continue to do so.
The Chinese Communist party’s brutal campaign of oppression against the Uyghur people is a scar on the conscience of the world. The Labour party stands with the people of China, including the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, and we condemn any actions by the CCP that infringe their human rights. We know that 1.5 million Uyghurs are incarcerated in re-education camps and subjected to ideological indoctrination courses, where they must learn Mandarin Chinese, recite laws banning unapproved religious practices and sing songs praising the Chinese Communist party, and we know that beatings and solitary confinement are routinely used to punish those who fail to comply.
The accounts that have emerged today about the CCP’s draconian measures to suppress birth rates are utterly horrific—women subjected to forced IUD insertions, pregnancy prevention injections, sterilisation. The CCP appears to be engaged in what some experts are calling a campaign of demographic genocide. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the Government will call for an impartial international investigation into what is happening in Xinjiang? Will he confirm that the imposition of measures intended to prevent births within an ethnic or religious group is expressly forbidden under article II(d) of the UN convention on genocide? Will he confirm that any country that is a contracting party to the UN convention on genocide may call upon the UN to take appropriate action under articles IV, V and VI of the convention, and that the UK Government will therefore now make the necessary representations?
Does the Minister recognise that the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang reflect a wider pattern of behaviour of increasingly authoritarian policies at home and aggressive expansionism abroad, including in Hong Kong, Ladakh and the South China sea? Will he set out how the Government intend to defend human rights and the rule of law? Will the Government now engage proactively with the European Union, the US and Governments in the Asia-Pacific region who share our democratic values to lead the international response in building consensus against the CCP’s increasingly belligerent behaviour towards its own people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting so concisely his concern on this matter. I can tell him that we have been very active on this issue. We have played a leading role in raising these concerns bilaterally and at the United Nations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have concerns about the detention and human rights abuses, with more than a million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities detained in political re-education camps—some people may refer to them as other things—and we deplore the systematic restrictions on their culture and practice of Islam, alongside the targeted surveillance of minorities.
On 10 March, at the 43rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, we raised our concerns specifically about the violations and with regard to forced labour in Xinjiang, under our item 4 statement. On 9 March, the Foreign Secretary raised the same concerns about Xinjiang with his Chinese counterpart. As I said in my statement, I have spoken directly to the Chinese ambassador to raise our concerns about human rights in Xinjiang. On 25 February, at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Minister responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, directly raised his concerns about Xinjiang during his opening address at the conference. We call on China to allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights unfettered access to the region.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and associate myself, somewhat surprisingly, with the words of the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—that is a welcome change.
I have heard the various comments made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman, and I have heard the Minister’s answers, which I support. Will the Minister perhaps look at the companies operating here in the United Kingdom that may have benefited from some of the labour in Xinjiang that he described and explain why they are able to operate here in the UK? Why are they able to use labour from these camps for re-education, at best, and very often for worse? Why are these companies seemingly able to operate around the world as though they were ordinary companies?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is right to raise that point. He will be aware that bidders for any central Government contracts above certain thresholds are required to confirm that they are compliant with the transparency requirements in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. However, the decision on high-risk vendors did not involve the award of a contract to the telecommunications firm to which I assume the Chairmen of Select Committee may have been referring. We take this issue very seriously, and, as I said in my statement, all British companies involved in the region must consider carrying out proper due diligence to ensure that human rights violations have not been taking place in their supply chains.
I am glad to see such an element of consensus across the House today; I find it difficult to disagree with any of the previous contributions to this discussion. The challenge for us is to decide what we are actually going to do about it. Warm words and sympathy come easily to politicians, but Beijing would be entitled to feel that it is getting somewhat mixed messages. I concur that the UN mechanisms are pretty stymied. This is not a new problem—it has been going on for a number of years—and the UK is becoming increasingly involved in strategic developments with, in effect, emanations of the Chinese state. Huawei is one example, but there are others. Will the Minister undertake at least to promise to promote investigations by UN observers of the camps and, indeed, the reports of forced sterilisation, which is a degree of ethnic cleansing under the Rome statute? This is serious stuff on which we must take action. Will the Minister also come back to the House with an audit of all Government procurement contracts with Chinese companies and an assessment of these concerns?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise those issues. He will be aware that access to Xinjiang is not particularly easy to procure. We would very much welcome United Nations personnel being allowed into the region and have pressed China on that. It has not been the most easy thing to deal with—I have raised the matter personally with the Chinese ambassador. I reiterate what I said earlier: we need to ensure that British firms really do consider due diligence in their supply chains.
Forced sterilisation of women; children ripped from their families; detention centres to treat the so-called pathology of religious and cultural beliefs; forced labour; rape, and DNA databases. In our history, we have learned that we must all take a stand against systematic and industrialised efforts to eradicate religious and ethnic minorities, so will my hon. Friend commit to using Magnitsky-style sanctions to bring to justice Chinese Communist party officials who perpetrate and profit from this cultural genocide of the Uyghur people?
My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience in this area. Of course, she will be aware that the Foreign Secretary has committed to making a statement about our sanctions regime. That will be done before the summer recess. We have made clear our deep concern about this report and the human rights situation in Xinjiang. My hon. Friend will forgive me; of course, we will not speculate on who will be sanctioned under the new regime, particularly as the legislation is not yet in force, but she should not have too long to wait.