House of Commons
Monday 19 October 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—
Job Entry Targeted Support
Our new JETS scheme has started rolling out across the country and blasted off in my hon. Friend’s constituency on 5 October. The scheme has £238 million of funding that is dedicated to helping people who have been out of work for three or more months and may be at risk of long-term unemployment. JETS will see a variety of providers work at our local jobcentre networks to offer a range of bespoke services, including important advice on how people can move into new, growing sectors, as well as help with CV building and interview coaching.
I am glad that the scheme is already helping my constituents in Penistone and Stocksbridge, many of whom are now struggling to find work as a result of the pandemic. However, getting people back into work will require a national effort, so will he provide a broader update on the roll-out of the scheme?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that tackling the impacts of covid will require a national effort, and the DWP stands ready to deliver this with our network of local jobcentres, which we will be expanding. The JETS scheme started two weeks ago and is now live right across England and Wales, and we are contracting anew in Scotland. We anticipate that as JETS continues to roll out across Great Britain, it will help 280,000 of our claimants to find work and build the skills to pivot into new sectors if required.
Covid-19 Support: Worst-affected Sectors
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because he gives me the opportunity to highlight again what we are doing to help people in the sectors worst affected by the covid-19 outbreak. I have worked with my colleagues across government in forming and delivering our £30 billion plan for jobs to increase employment support, protect jobs and create new opportunities. He will be aware of the kickstart scheme, which particularly focuses on young people, but we will continue to help people of all ages to get back into work.
May I raise the specific issue of the support that is available to single parents when their child has to self-isolate? They are not able to claim statutory sick pay if their child is having to self-isolate at school age. In addition, if they were to apply for universal credit, they would have to restart the process each and every time. I have constituents who have had to self-isolate on multiple occasions because their school-age children have been told they have to stay at home and cannot stay at home on their own. Can the Secretary of State either tell me now, or come back to me on it in writing, what specific support can be directed towards constituents who need that additional support as single parents?
I will certainly ask the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to look into that detailed issue on SSP. If a person is required to self-isolate as a consequence of somebody in their household having symptoms, then, in my view, they should be eligible for SSP. But given that it is such a legal and technical issue, I will ask my hon. Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman specifically.
Ending the furlough scheme early is going to put livelihoods at risk, so will the Secretary of State provide an update on her discussions with the Treasury about extending the covid-related increase to universal credit and ensuring that it is expanded to legacy benefits? While she is in those discussions, will she raise extending the furlough scheme and ask that the covid self-isolation grants be tax-exempt, as called for by the Social Security Secretary in Scotland, Shirley-Ann Somerville?
There are multiple questions there. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already responded by introducing the new job support scheme, which he updated for particular sectors, thinking of tier 3 in England, to extend even further the furlough scheme. It is clear that this Government are doing what is needed. In terms of the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentions, he will be aware that I continue to have regular discussions with my Treasury colleagues on the best way that we can help to support people during this pandemic.
Child Poverty: Covid-19
This Government’s unprecedented support package has supported the poorest working households the most, with Her Majesty’s Treasury’s analysis showing that the poorest 10% of working households have seen no income reduction, owing to the fast action taken by this Government in responding to the pandemic, including a £9.3 billion injection into the welfare system.
The problem with the Minister’s answer is that this crisis is only revealing problems with policies that we knew were there already. Members of this House are against it; members of faith communities are against it; leading charities are against it; and now Marcus Rashford is campaigning against it. So what is the Minister going to do to end the two-child policy for universal credit once and for all?
The two-child policy in universal credit is one of fundamental fairness, and it means that those who are in receipt of benefits should be in the same position as those who are not. I am not a particular football fan, but I certainly know Marcus Rashford’s name now, and I congratulate him on his MBE. We welcome the establishment of the taskforce and will carefully consider its recommendations as we approach the spending review.
We already know that child poverty rates have been rising across north-west England, and that is before the economic impact of the restrictions consequent upon tier 3. The Chancellor talks about the way that the job support scheme and universal credit protect income, saying that it leaves households with 90% of their income, but many households will get nothing like that, and those who lose their jobs entirely sometimes go on to universal credit at 30% of income. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the restrictions on child poverty in the north-west and how that compares with a local furlough scheme that protects all jobs that are at risk?
I will look carefully at the points that the hon. Lady raises, but I stress that this Government have implemented an unprecedented support package, including the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which has helped families to cope with the financial impact of covid-19. For those most in need, we strengthened the welfare system with an additional £9 billion this year. That is in addition to the around £5 billion increase to benefit rates as part of the 2020-21 uprating, including around £400 million more on children’s benefits.
Supporting People into Work
This Government are working hard to help people into work with our £30 billion plan for jobs. Kickstart will provide a high-quality paid work placement for young people across the UK, and our new job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—will help those who have been unemployed for more than three months move into new and growing sectors. Our additional job finding support service will provide targeted support for the newly unemployed, with local provisions available now and a national contract due in place from 21 January.
In Carshalton and Wallington, we know that the self-employed are the risk takers, and the pandemic has shown that we need to be there for them. Work coaches have done a good job of knowing what is fair and reasonable and are able to apply discretion when setting work search requirements, so will my hon. Friend assure me that self-employed claimants will also benefit from this personalised, discretionary approach as the minimum income floor is reintroduced?
I can assure my hon. Friend that claimants will always be contacted before the minimum income floor is applied to them. Universal credit claimants who were subject to the minimum income floor prior to the pandemic will be given the opportunity to review their self-employment status and activity, ensuring that their current circumstances are reflected and their business continues to be viable before any reintroduction of the MIF. My hon. Friend will be aware that the regulations to relax the MIF are in place until November, and I will update the House on arrangements beyond that in due course.
I joined my caseworker on a recent covid-safe visit to Huddersfield jobcentre, which is rolling out a seven-day-a-week operation to support jobseekers. Will the Minister join me in thanking all the team at Huddersfield jobcentre and continue to give them all the support required as they recruit the extra staff they need to support my constituents into work via kickstart and other schemes?
I am more than happy to extend my great thanks to the DWP team in Huddersfield, as well as their new colleagues. They have done sterling work in setting up a new youth hub with Kirklees Council, as well as other activities involving kickstart, using sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—and mentoring circles and working with local employers to help more people in Huddersfield back into work.
Does the Minister share my concern that young people in Bolsover and elsewhere are at risk of being held back by the coronavirus pandemic? Will she commit to doing everything possible to ensure that opportunities are available to enable them to move forward in their careers and ensure that they reach their potential?
In September 2020, we started the implementation of our new DWP youth offer for all 18 to 24-year-olds making a claim for universal credit who are in the intensive work search group. We are on track in our ambitious plan for young people to open around 100 DWP-led youth hubs nationally, and many are already in place, supporting our young people to progress.
Pension Schemes Bill: Net Zero Carbon Emissions
As my hon. Friend knows, we want safer, better and greener pensions. This Government were the first in a G7 country to legislate for net zero by 2050. We lead the way on environmental regulation of pensions, and we are introducing transparency of climate-related financial disclosures in the Pension Schemes Bill that require schemes to take account of climate change goals, including net zero.
I thank the Minister for his response. Climate change is the single biggest threat not only to mankind, but to the planet. Does he agree with me that if we are to meet the climate change targets set out in the Paris agreement, more needs to be done to ensure that large financial institutions, including institutional investors such as pension funds, channel more investment into areas that do not actively harm our environment and contribute to climate change?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are setting a regulatory framework and enabling pension funds to make sustainable investments happen, whether that is through the Bill itself or through our illiquid investments proposals, which will see renewables, hydrogen and potentially new nuclear. We do not believe in divestment, but we welcome the change in investment practice that is already beginning to take place, although we want to see more.
With David Attenborough urging pension funds to move away from fossil fuels, it is hugely welcome that the Government have joined Labour to incorporate in legislation, for the first time ever, climate change commitments on pension funds. Now we must translate our ambitions into action. Previously, the Minister has received positively our proposal for a pension fund summit. Will he now agree to work with us—across party and bringing together the world of pensions to save our planet—to organise a cross-party climate change summit, because this is the biggest form of investment potentially worldwide in climate change pension funds?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already working with a large number of pension funds and also with companies. We all want to see a safer, better and greener pension system. I am happy to work with him on an ongoing basis, and I am happy to reach out on a collaborative basis on this particular issue, which matters to all of us.
Legacy Benefits and Universal Credit
My Department continually reviews its processes and the service it provides to claimants using a long-standing test and learn approach. In July, we introduced a two-week run-on of DWP income-related benefits, which is in addition to the existing two-week extension of housing benefit that is already payable to eligible claimants. Claimants who believe they may be better off on universal credit should check their eligibility before applying, as legacy benefits will end when they submit their claim and they will not be able to return to them in the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. With difficult times ahead for Stoke-on-Trent families hit by the economic downturn caused by coronavirus, does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important than ever for universal credit to offer any necessary flexibility to ensure people get the support they need to return to work, particularly those affected by local lockdown restrictions?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Universal credit is designed to support people into work. It supports those who need help and is fair to everyone who pays for it. Throughout the pandemic many, sadly, have lost their jobs or seen their incomes reduced. Thankfully, universal credit and the Government’s £9.3 billion investment in the welfare safety net have been there to help catch many of those affected, and that has been vital for the 3 million people who have made a benefit claim since March.
Our plan for jobs will help people get the skills they need at every stage of their lives and delivers on our promise to level up opportunity across the country. Work coaches will play a crucial role in delivering that agenda and helping people back into work, so will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the brilliant work coaches of Workington jobcentre, and commit to increasing the number of work coaches across the jobcentre network?
I too pay tribute to the brilliant work coaches in Workington Jobcentre Plus, who I know have done an incredible job in particular around partnership working, and I can point to the Maryport GP surgery outreach work, the youth hub, the sector-based work academy programmes and the virtual mentoring circle by Workington jobcentre. That is brilliant work and, yes, I can absolutely confirm that we are investing £895 million in doubling the number of work coaches and Jobcentre Pluses by March 2021.
The £20-a-week uplift to universal credit has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, yet this vital extra support continues to be denied to legacy benefit claimants, many of whom are disabled. I raised this with Ministers in the Chamber on 11 May, again on 29 June and yet again on 14 September, each time getting a non-answer. To date, the uplift could have given legacy benefit claimants £600 of extra support. Minister, can we please have a straight answer today: will anything be done to rectify this?
The hon. Lady is right is that she has asked this question on three occasions, and she has had three answers. The legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% in April 2020, following the Government’s announcement to end the benefit freeze. It has always been the case that claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for universal credit if they believe that they will be better off. There are special arrangements for those in receipt of the severe disability premium, who will be able to make a new claim to UC from January 2021. But it is important—I stress this—that claimants should check their eligibility before applying to universal credit as legacy benefits will end when they submit their claim and they will not be able to return to them in the future.
Benefit Sanctions and Welfare Conditionality: Covid-19
Evidence suggests that active labour market policies can be even more effective during recessions. We will continue to encourage claimants to prepare and look for work where it is safe to do so. Claimants will not be subject to conditionality until they have agreed a new or updated claimant commitment. We firmly believe the best way to support claimants is through empowered work coaches who engage proactively with claimants to help them identify the options they need to build on their skills, increase their confidence and return to employment.
Non-existent jobs. Liverpool has had the second highest unemployment increase in the country since March 2020. Our claimant rate has more than doubled from 12,000 to 32,000, and we now have the highest unemployment rate in the country. There are a further 27,000 people on furlough in our closed hospitality sector who will either be let go or have to survive on 67% of their wages come November. With benefits sanctions being reintroduced and welfare conditionality being reinstated, what evidence do the Government have that this is benefiting claimants and preventing a return to the high unemployment of the ’80s?
I stress to the hon. Lady that sanctions are only used when claimants fail to meet their conditionality requirements without good reason. As I said in my previous responses, work coaches will work to ensure that any requirements set are reasonable, taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and, crucially, the situation in the local labour market, while allowing them to adhere also to public health advice. We are absolutely determined to help people back into work, giving them the power to do that, and the way we can do that locally in Liverpool is through the flexible support fund and other measures.
In Manchester, Withington there are 3,000 more people needing to claim unemployment benefits than this time last year, and unemployment is rising and will get worse at the end of the furlough scheme, so there are not 3,000 jobs for those people to go to. Suspending sanctions and welfare conditionality was the right thing to do in the crisis, but we are still in that crisis. Does the Minister not accept that we need to be more supportive and less punitive at the moment?
I hope the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will acknowledge that, despite the reintroduction of conditionality and sanctions, we fully recognise that these are difficult times. New jobs are being created in the digital, green and logistical sectors that can be carried out safely in line with social distancing and public health rules. There is a recognition that in some sectors there will be challenges, while in others there are opportunities, but we will always make sure that jobcentres respond suitably to local alert levels and always set that conditionality in line with individuals, helping them to progress and always listening to them; if they have a good reason and cannot adhere, we will support them and take that individual approach.
In July, the Government chose to reinstate benefit sanctions and conditionality, against the advice of experts. We are now in the covid second wave, with businesses closing, unemployment rising and vacancies halved since March, but last week the Government said that the clinically extremely vulnerable and those they live with could have their benefits cut if they refuse a job that puts them at risk from the virus. Is that really the Government’s policy? Is it not time to end the threats and re-suspend benefit sanctions, or are we no longer in this together?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but if someone cannot work and must stay at home, there are ways of getting additional support, and I would urge anybody concerned to use the benefits calculator on gov.uk. I again remind the House that work coaches will always work to ensure that requirements are reasonable, always taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and the situation in the local labour market, and continuing to adhere to public health advice. Claimants who fail to meet the conditionality requirements without good reason may be sanctioned, but as I say, the rates are extraordinarily low—in fact, they have never been lower—and we are determined to help people back into work with the right individual support, based on their individual circumstances.
Universal Credit: £20 Covid-19 Payment
The 2020-21 universal credit increase was included in a package of welfare measures worth around £9.3 billion this year to help people with the financial consequences of what has happened with the covid-19 pandemic. I continue to work with the Treasury on the best ways to support those receiving benefits. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that we must act in a way that recognises social justice, and that is the motivation of those on the Government Benches.
That policy is still under review. Clearly, this is a matter of discussion, because the regulations do come to an end. It is important to recognise that we have different measures happening around different parts of the country. We do need to try to take a national approach to the overall policy, but as ever, we trust and empower our work coaches to make the best decisions for the claimants they are helping, usually to help them get back into work.
The Select Committee’s report published today calls for new starter payments to claimants of universal credit to help tide them over the very difficult five-week wait for their first regular benefit payment, and for the £20 a week increase, which the Secretary of State has referred to, to be made permanent. How can it possibly be justified for people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance to receive £20 a week less than people in identical circumstances who happen to be claiming universal credit?
On what happened with legacy benefits and universal credit, I think the rationale was set out clearly at the time; in particular, it was also about having a rate that was quite similar to statutory sick pay. We will look carefully at the report that the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee have issued to us today, but I remind him that of course people do not need to wait five weeks for a universal credit payment; they can get a payment within a matter of days, and that payment is then spread over the entire year.
Covid-19 Temporary Measures
Earlier this year, we suspended face-to-face assessments. That suspension is still in place and is kept under review in line with the latest public health guidance.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 1.3 million people across Scotland will lose out if the DWP does not make the £20 increase to universal credit permanent and extend it to legacy benefits. The Resolution Foundation also reports that one in three working-age families in the so-called red wall constituencies will be £1,000 a year worse off if the planned cuts to universal credit go ahead. How exactly is that levelling up?
More than ever, with millions facing unemployment and reduced hours or earnings, our social security system must be properly funded. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has rightly pointed out that cutting social security takes money out of the economy by reducing consumer spending. If the Minister is not yet convinced that cutting universal credit is grossly unjust, will he at least consider making this permanent to stimulate the economy?
As I have just set out, we as a Government, through our £9.3 billion-worth of temporary support, which we continue to keep under review, have shown throughout these unprecedented times that we will be flexible and provide the support, including our comprehensive £30 billion plan for jobs, to make sure that we are standing side by side with those who are navigating the challenges of covid.
Benefit Overpayments: Covid-19
There are currently no plans to extend the suspension of benefit deductions. Action to restart deductions commenced on 6 July and should be completed by mid-November. We recognise that there will be some people who may be experiencing financial difficulty, and anyone unable to afford the rate of recovery proposed is encouraged to contact the Department.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. These suspensions have provided a lifeline to many vulnerable people over the last six months. Unfortunately, there is at present no reason to believe that we will be in a better position in April 2021 than we were in April 2020, thus I urge my hon. Friend to consider extending the suspensions and working with local authorities to put in place fair local support arrangements that will operate in conjunction with the national welfare system and complement the Chancellor’s initiatives to get people back to work.
It is right that those claimants who owe the Department money are able to resume payments to reduce their debt. We continue to apply a flexible approach to recovery and endeavour to recover without causing undue financial hardship. Anyone unable to afford the rate of recovery proposed is encouraged to contact the Department so that an affordable rate of repayment can be negotiated. In May, we will be launching the breathing space scheme to help to prevent problem debt and provide support to people who fall into that problem debt.
Job Market Access
Our plan for jobs includes suitable interventions for people of all ages to support people back into work, including employment support delivered by our jobcentres, where we are doubling the number of work coaches across our national network. Last week, I held my latest meeting with our older workers champion, alongside employer organisations, focused on our fuller working lives agenda and opportunities for the over-50s.
In the current pandemic, people of all ages are suddenly being made redundant. I was recently contacted by a 57-year-old constituent in Gedling, who is now looking for work and retraining. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to help this sector of the population, and what help can I offer to my constituent to ensure that her skills are utilised?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this concern in his constituency. I assure him that the Government recently announced, in the plan for jobs, new funding to ensure that more people, including our older workers, get tailored Jobcentre Plus support to help them to find work and build the skills they need to get into new work, including the sector-based work academy programme and our new online job-finding support service. On 29 September, the Prime Minister announced a major expansion of post-18 education and training to prepare all workers for a post-covid economy, including a lifetime skills guarantee to give adults the chance to take free college courses by valued local employers.
Welfare Payments and Needs
By law, benefit levels must be reviewed annually to determine if they are at the appropriate level. The most recent review resulted in the uprating of 1.7%. On disability benefits specifically, spending this year has increased by almost 5% from £19 billion to £20 billion.
Recently, I was pleased to meet my constituent, Tony Davies, who sadly lives with motor neurone disease. On behalf of Tony and the MND Association community, will the Minister kindly announce when he is likely to publish the outcome of the review into access to benefits for the terminally ill?
We have been clear, following our comprehensive review, that there will be three themes: we will change the six-month rule, we will improve consistency and we will raise awareness of the support available. Only last week, I met the MND Association and the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care as we work at great speed to bring forward those much-needed changes.
Universal Credit: Poverty Reduction
The latest statistics from 2018-19 show that the rates and numbers of people in absolute poverty were lower than in 2010. Since those statistics were published, we have injected a further £9.3 billion into our welfare system, including an increase to universal credit of up to £1,040 for this financial year.
The reality is that that is not enough. Thanks to the efforts of the Scottish Government to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, Scotland has the lowest child poverty rates, but the impact of UK Government policies means that 4,600 children in my constituency are estimated to be living in poverty, which is absolutely shameful. Will the Minister listen to the calls of the End Child Poverty coalition and the likes of Macmillan Cancer Support and pledge to keep the £20 a week universal credit uplift to avoid putting more families and children into poverty?
One child in poverty is one child too many. We at the Department are continuing to work with Her Majesty’s Treasury and other Government Departments to monitor the evolving economic and labour market situation and identify the most effective ways to help people to stay in or close to work, both now and in future. It is important to stress that Her Majesty’s Treasury published a distributional analysis that assessed the impact of covid-19 on incomes compared with the incomes of working households in May 2020. That analysis showed that the Government’s interventions have supported the poorest households the most.
People with Disabilities: Employment
As a Government, we are proud that 1.3 million more disabled people are in work since 2013—a record high. We continue to offer support through the Work and Health, intensive personalised employment support, Disability Confident and Access to Work programmes.
The disability employment gap in my constituency is 25.4% and there are concerns that it will widen as the economy suffers from the impact of covid-19. What reassurance can the Minister give me that disabled people will get the specific help they need to find work —for example, through tailored support or the funding of reasonable adjustments on the kickstart scheme?
It is absolutely the case that Access to Work is available and works hand in hand with schemes such as kickstart so that reasonable adjustments can be made for disabled employees. I have written to Disability Confident leaders to encourage them to sign up to kickstart.
Covid-19 Support: Eligibility
During the pandemic, several economic support measures have been announced by the Chancellor, including supporting the retention of 9.6 million jobs through the furlough scheme. Additionally, 2.2 million individuals have claimed £5.6 billion under the second self-employment income support scheme grant announced by the Chancellor as part of his winter economic plan. The Department has spent £9.3 billion on additional support, including the increase of the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week. Together, those measures provide a safety net for almost everyone who needs it, but eligibility for the different support packages is set out clearly on gov.uk.
Small businesses account for about 13 million people employed, which is about 60% of the workforce, and many of them are in trouble. When I spoke this weekend to ForgottenLtd, which represents people who are not in receipt of benefit, it told me that its latest survey showed that 70% of its members receive no benefit whatsoever. Do the Government intend to do something about that? If so, will the Minister meet me to discuss the criteria for improvement?
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned hard on the subject. The question may be better directed at the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Ministers from Her Majesty’s Treasury, as I know he has also done.
Universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit. It is also available for those who are self-employed. As the Secretary of State set out in her letter to the Work and Pensions Committee last month, we plan to proceed with the reinstatement of the minimum income floor, and claimants will be contacted as it is reinstated for them. Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s point, more than £13 billion of support has already been provided for more than 2.6 million self-employed individuals through the first two stages of the self-employment income support scheme and the scheme has now been extended.
Benefit Fraud Investigations
The Department does not take benefit fraud lightly, and we are committed to using the full range of powers and penalties at our disposal. As part of our response to covid-19, we have established our integrated risk and intelligence service to prevent high-risk claims from going into payment. Our investigations have successfully led us to correct and suspend serious and organised claims fraud in large numbers, and we continue to review our processes and to anticipate new attacks, which will make it even harder for people to defraud the taxpayer in the future.
A constituent of mine, a mother of three children, recently had her universal credit and housing benefit stopped for over two months because of a fraudulent claim made in her name. She was completely innocent, but she and her young family suffered significant financial hardship. We know that benefit fraud, in universal credit in particular, is increasing, and I know of several other MPs who have had similar cases. What will the Government do to stop innocent families suffering for months just because this Government are failing to detect and investigate fraud?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to receive more details about that individual case, but first let me apologise, because that should not have happened. In effect, Ministers had to make decisions about the redeployment of staff in order to process the unprecedented number of claims, which went up from 2.2 million to 5.7 million claims. That meant deploying staff away from counter-fraud and into the processing of claims, but I am pleased to say that that has now changed and more staff are going back into fraud. We have to take fraud incredibly seriously, because it is individuals such as the hon. Lady’s constituent who are often the target of serious organised crime.
The latest official statistics show the level of employment at 32.6 million. We recognise that there are difficult times ahead, but our ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs will support people during this next phase of our recovery as we push to build back better and greener. We are working with other Government Departments, external organisations and our local partners to support people into work, to react to changes in local labour markets and to work with our local Jobcentre Plus provision to help communities to thrive.
When one of my constituents, who was working as a cleaner, was recently furloughed, she was recommended to move to universal credit and away from working tax credit. I wrote to the Department on 7 July and again on 7 August. I have just had a reply, on 12 October, telling me that because my constituent earned £666.21 in a month, she was entitled to nothing whatsoever from universal credit. Not only that, but she had to repay the advance loan that she had had at the beginning. This system is failing her, and she is in a desperate situation. When will the Government look at allowing people to return to working tax credit and move away from this unfair system of universal credit?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising what sounds like a concerning situation for that family. We recognise that we are currently in an unusual and challenging economic period, and I am sure that the Minister for welfare delivery, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will have taken note of that particular case. I am sure we will be able to look at that once again, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter.
Child Maintenance Service: Effectiveness
This Government have made clear their commitment to supporting both paying and receiving parents, especially during this difficult period. Around three quarters of paying parents are paying towards their liability. The Child Maintenance Service will continue to pursue all cases where appropriate, and I stress that anyone found to be abusing the system risks being subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers.
I am sorry to say that the Minister’s words do not sit with the experience of some of my constituents, who feel that the Child Maintenance Service has failed them in pursuing outstanding claims. I shall give the House one example. In an appeal against a CMS decision to the tribunal in February, it was discovered that a private pension had not been disclosed. The CMS should therefore have recouped the shortfall, but there was no contact until May. When the CMS was asked how much it would recoup for my constituent, she again heard nothing until she got a letter saying that the CMS was writing off historic debt and would not pursue it. That is letting that person down, not supporting them.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and I stress that those found abusing the system are subject to the full extent of our enforcement powers. The CMS will pursue these people, where appropriate. Our key partners are in communication with us to make sure that we secure the appropriate court dates for cases impacted by the covid-19 pandemic and that we are establishing our full and normal range of enforcement services. Where payments have been missed we are taking action to re-establish compliance, and I am happy to look at the issue for him.
The Government’s new job support scheme being launched next month to protect viable jobs and businesses that are facing lower demand is yet another part of how my Department and the Government are standing ready to try to help people stay in work and to prepare to get back into work. [Interruption.] We will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure we are reaching people of all ages. In particular, I want to make sure that people who may newly be looking for support from the welfare state use the Government-funded help to claim service, administered by Citizens Advice. [Interruption.]
Order—apologies, Minister. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) that there was not time to call him. There was another Member before him on the call list, so there was not a chance that I could have called him before moving on; I do apologise. If he wants to hang around, I will try to get him into topical questions if he wishes to speak.
I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend’s announcement that almost 1 million pensioners in receipt of pension credit will be receiving £140 off their energy bills through the warm home discount scheme. My constituency has a very elderly demographic, so that is a great lifeline for so many. Will she confirm that, alongside it, the Government will continue to make winter fuel payments to support our pensioners this winter?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I praise him for raising this issue on behalf of the many people he represents. This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, and will continue to deliver winter fuel payments this year. I was pleased by the work done by my Department to make sure that those on pension credit, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, received the £140 from the warm home discount scheme, without lifting a finger.
As the Government place millions of people across the country under new covid restrictions, they will be asking many people to undergo significant cuts to their income. Last week, the Prime Minister said that due to the job support scheme and universal credit
“nobody gets less than 93% of their current income.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 368.]
Unfortunately, that is just completely wrong. The reality is that a person employed by a business that the Government are ordering to close could still lose a third of their income, and for an unspecified length of time. Their rent, mortgages and food bills will not be any lower, so how does the Secretary of State expect those people to get by?
The Government have taken unprecedented action in the design of their new schemes, recognising that some businesses right around the country are still experiencing a loss in demand. As a consequence, we have developed two different schemes, one of which is “a third, a third, a third” in terms of helping people with their cost of living. Where we believe, in conjunction with local leadership, that it is the right thing for certain sectors to be closed in areas, the two-thirds support of wages is important. Of course if people do come under a certain threshold, they may well be eligible for UC, which would help top up their ongoing income during these difficult times.
Secretary of State, this is important, because it is the barrier to additional restrictions being introduced. As the Government know, people who are eligible for the job support scheme and may be losing only a third of their income are, comparatively, the lucky ones, as people in receipt of UC or jobseeker’s allowance will be left on just a fraction of their current income. With that in mind, I have a straightforward question for her: it is clear that we are not going to be out of this crisis by April next year, so will the Government do the right thing and scrap their plans to cut UC to an even lower amount next April?
What is different from the regime we had earlier in the year is that then the strong message was very much for people to stay at home and retail was closed, along with a number of different sectors. That is not the case anymore: we have now had to intervene in a much more limited number of sectors, often in conjunction with the local leadership. As a consequence, we will continue to review the best ways to support people through the welfare system, as well as through the plan for jobs and the measures that the Chancellor has introduced.
One element of the kickstart scheme, a £2 billion investment in the future of our young people, is designed to help people to get on the first rung of the ladder with a proper job. It is a way for those people who have recently left school or university and are at risk of long-term unemployment to get experience and financing, which does not just have to be through private organisations and could be through local government or charitable or other sectors. It is a specific way to ensure that those people get not only a job but the extra training and wraparound support that they need to help them further on in their lives.
For some time, the SNP has led the campaign to end the universal credit five-week wait. We think that is best done by the introduction of grants, so we welcome today’s Work and Pensions Committee report. We also agree with the idea of renaming advances as “new claim loans” to make clearer what they actually are. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on the report’s findings and accept its recommendations?
I will look carefully at the report. Select Committee members will know that I have spoken to them on previous occasions, as have other Ministers, to explain that advances are a way to spread the payment of universal credit over a year—in fact, in future it will be over two years, if that is how long people want to spread that initial support—and it is not our intention in any way to introduce a grant at the beginning. The grant is there in the benefits—that is exactly what they are there to do—so I do not see how we will be responding positively to the Committee’s report in that regard.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right—this issue is a concern for me and has been for some time. I am working closely with my counterpart at MHCLG and would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss progress.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the kickstart placements are six-month-long jobs, but the skills that people will learn and the experience they will gain will put them in good stead to secure future employment. We are investing in our young people in recognition of this difficult time, but of course if they do not secure a permanent job at the end of that time—although the placements may be a gateway to apprenticeships and similar—we will continue to support them until they find a job.
My hon. Friend is always a champion of his local organisations and constituents. Yes, absolutely; many local authorities, charities and organisations, such as North Yorkshire County Council, have agreed to act as gateways or have submitted bids for funding.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Our forthcoming Green Paper will look specifically at the importance of advocacy in the system, and at increasing it. That need should have been identified at the initial application. If he sends through the details, I will be happy to ensure that the claimant is not lost from the system.
My understanding is that the policy relates to people who have had child maintenance arrangements for a very long time. There comes a point when there is an element of understanding the different debts. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in a way, this is a very odd arrangement, with the state effectively becoming the arbiter between two parents. The only people who lose are the children. That is why I encourage everybody who has a responsibility towards their children—currently 111,000 children are owed £187 million by parents who refuse to pay up—to get on and do the right thing by them. We should not end up having to rely on the state to arbitrate between two parents.[Official Report, 16 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 2MC.]
The £500 self-isolation payment administered by local councils was devised to achieve compliance with public health guidance. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care is leading on the matter. I am conscious that there may be local arrangements that need to be addressed. Often, the best way to tackle those is through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has local funds that have been topped up by this Government to help with local welfare issues.
My hon. Friend is right to praise hard-working DWP staff at her local Jobcentre Plus and across the network. The team in Barnstaple have worked with the National Careers Service to help with interview technique and build transferable skills among people who become unemployed, and great work is already under way at the North Devon youth support hub in Bideford and Barnstaple. I look forward to visiting the south-west. As she knows, the DWP jobcentre is a covid-secure environment and I look forward to joining her there in due course.
I am very much aware of this. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, we suspended face-to-face assessments across all disability benefits following the public health guidance. We are working as quickly as we can to roll out telephone assessments for IIDB where possible, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will return to face-to-face assessments.
EU Exit: Negotiations and the Joint Committee
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Government’s negotiations with the European Union on our future trading relationship and also the work of the UK/EU Joint Committee established under the withdrawal agreement.
First, on the talks on the new trade agreement, we had hoped to conclude a Canada-style free trade agreement before the transition period ends on 31 December this year but, as things stand, that will not now happen. We remain absolutely committed to securing a Canada-style FTA, but there does need to be a fundamental change in approach from the EU if the process is to get back on track. I have come to the House at the first available opportunity to explain why and how we have reached this point.
We have been clear since the summer that we saw 15 October—last Thursday—as the target date for reaching an agreement with the EU. The Prime Minister and the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed on 3 October that our negotiating team should work intensively to bridge the remaining gaps between us, and we made clear that we were willing to talk every day. But I have to report to the House that this intensification was not forthcoming. The EU was willing to conduct negotiations only on fewer than half the days available and would not engage on all of the outstanding issues. Moreover, the EU refused to discuss legal texts in any area, as it has done since the summer. Indeed, it is almost incredible to our negotiators that we have reached this point in the negotiations without any common legal texts of any kind.
On 15 October, the EU Heads of State and Government gathered for the European Council. The conclusions of that Council reaffirmed the EU’s original negotiating mandate. They dropped a reference to intensive talks that had been in the draft and they declared that all—all—future moves in the negotiation had to be made by the UK. Although some attempts were made to soften that message by some EU leaders, the European Council reaffirmed those conclusions as authoritative on Friday. That unfortunate sequence of events has, in effect, ended the trade negotiations because it leaves no basis on which we can actually find agreement. There is no point in negotiations proceeding as long as the EU sticks with that position. Such talks would be meaningless and would take us no nearer to finding a workable solution.
That is the situation we now face, and that is why the Prime Minister had to make it clear on 16 October that the EU had refused to negotiate seriously for much of the past month or so. The EU had now, at the European Council, explicitly ruled out a free trade agreement with us, like the one that it has with Canada, and therefore this country should get ready for 1 January 2021 with arrangements that are more like Australia’s, based on simple principles of global free trade.
Now, if the EU wants to change that situation—and I devoutly hope it will—it needs to make a fundamental change in its approach and make clear it has done so. It has to be serious about talking intensively on all issues and trying to reach a conclusion, and I hope it will. But it also needs to accept that it is dealing with an independent and sovereign country now. We have tried to be clear from the start that we would not be able to reach an agreement inconsistent with that status. I do not think that we could be accused of keeping that a secret. Yet the proposals that the EU has discussed with us in recent weeks, which it presents as compromises, are simply not consistent with our new sovereign status—certainly not yet.
While I do not doubt that many on the EU side are well intentioned, we cannot accept the negotiators’ proposals that would require us to provide full, permanent access to our fishing waters, with quotas substantially unchanged to those that were imposed by EU membership. We cannot operate a state aid system which is essentially the same as the EU’s, with great discretion given to the EU to retaliate against us if it thought that we were deviating from it. More broadly, we cannot accept an arrangement that means that we stay in step with laws that have been proposed and adopted by the EU across areas of critical national importance.
In a nutshell, we have been asking for no more than what has been offered in trade agreements to other global trading countries, such as Canada—terms that, of course, the EU said last year it had no difficulty offering to us. We are not even asking for special favours reflecting our 45 years as a member state—during which we paid in every day more than we took out—quite the reverse. But even if this new arrangement is impossible for the EU, I must inform the House that we will be leaving on 31 December on Australian-style terms and trading on the basis of WTO rules.
With just 10 weeks left until the end of the transition period, I have to emphasise that that is not my preferred outcome and nor is it the Prime Minister’s. We recognise that there will be some turbulence, but we have not come so far to falter now, when we are so close to reclaiming our sovereignty. We have to be in control of our own borders and our fishing grounds. We have to set our own laws. We have to be free to thrive as an independent free trading nation, embracing the freedoms that flow as a result. So it is important that I turn to the preparations that we are now intensifying for the end of the transition period. These apply whether we have a free trade agreement or otherwise, of course.
I am not blithe or blasé about the challenges ahead, particularly given the additional problems that we have dealing with the covid-19 pandemic. However, leaving the EU on Australian terms is an outcome for which we are increasingly well prepared. Ever since the UK decided it would leave the single market and the customs union on 31 December, Government and businesses alike have been working hard to prepare for the new procedures that were the inevitable result. I congratulate businesses on the resourcefulness they have shown so far. We want to work with them so that they continue responding as energetically, flexibly and imaginatively as possible to the challenges of change. We also want to work with them to prepare for the opportunities ahead, including those stemming from our new free trade deals, such as the agreement with Japan struck by the Secretary of State for International Trade, which, of course, grants us far more favourable access to the world’s third biggest economy than we had as an EU member.
I would like to put on record my particular thanks to the road haulage industry, customs intermediaries and others for their constructive engagement with Government, including at our extensive roundtable last week.
This week, the Prime Minister and I will be speaking again to business leaders to discuss preparations for life outside the EU. We will continue to listen to their concerns, and we will redouble our efforts to help them to adjust and prosper. The XO Cabinet Committee—the EU Exit Operations Committee—meets daily and will intensify its operational focus on business readiness. We continue to work closely with our partners in the devolved Administrations because we want to ensure that every part of the UK is ready for the end of the transition period.
In these final 10 weeks, we are intensifying our public information campaign. Every firm will find the information it needs on new rules which govern trade between Britain and the EU at gov.uk/transition. Today, HMRC is writing to 200,000 traders that do business with the EU to reinforce their understanding of the new customs and tax rules. We are also putting in place IT systems to help goods flow across borders. We are giving business access to customs professionals to help with new ways of working and we have also planned how to fast-track vital goods in the first few weeks to get around EU bureaucracies. We have already published and indeed updated our border operating model. We have announced £705 million-worth of investment in jobs, infrastructure and technology at the border. We have also strengthened our maritime security to protect our fishing fleets and safeguard our seas.
In addition to the steps we are taking, we are also continuing our work with the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. I would like to update the House on its latest meeting, which took place earlier this morning. Coming only three weeks after the last meeting, I am pleased to report that in this forum the approach from the EU is very constructive. There is a clear imperative on both sides to find solutions and we remain committed to working collaboratively with the EU through the Joint Committee process.
At our last meeting in Brussels I agreed with my co-chair, Vice-President Šefčovič, that we would intensify discussions to implement the withdrawal agreement, primarily around citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland protocol. Our officials have since held numerous sessions and today in London I reiterated the UK’s commitment to upholding all our obligations under both the withdrawal agreement and the Belfast agreement. We agreed that we will publish a joint update on citizens’ rights and I am pleased to confirm that almost 4 million EU citizens in the UK have now received status under our scheme. We have also discussed our work to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. We are taking steps to implement new agrifood arrangements. We also acknowledge the EU’s concerns about appropriate monitoring of implementation. We now have a better understanding of its requests and the reasoning behind them. We have confirmed that the specialised committee will work intensively to ensure that we can make progress in this area, and with respect to Gibraltar and the sovereign base issues.
A lot remains to be resolved before the end of December, but we have made substantial progress on implementation. I look forward to further engagement with Vice-President Šefčovič in the weeks ahead. I want to put on record my personal appreciation for the constructive tone and the pragmatic spirit with which he and his team have approached our discussions.
In his statement on Friday, the Prime Minister looked ahead to 2021 as a year of recovery and renewal when this Government will be focused on tackling covid-19 and building back better. We are getting ready to do now what the British people asked of us: to forge our own path and not to acquiesce to anyone else’s agenda. On the negotiations, our door is not closed. It remains ajar, and I very much hope that the EU will fundamentally change its position, but, come what may, on 31 December, we will take back control. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement this afternoon.
At the last general election, the Prime Minister said that he had an oven-ready deal ready to go. The withdrawal agreement was the starter course, but we are still waiting for the main meal: a trade agreement with the European Union. At the weekend, the right hon. Gentleman was reminded of some of his previous remarks in 2016 when he assured the country that the one thing that will not change is our ability to trade freely with Europe. Even at this late stage, Labour expects the Government to reach an agreement with the European Union that honours that commitment. It is a question of competence and it is a question of trust; it is what this Government promised the British people.
Of course we were supposed to have a deal by now. This is the third deadline that the Prime Minister has set himself, and it is the third deadline that the Prime Minister has missed. Initially, he said that a deal with the EU would be sorted by July. Then he said by September, and then he said by last week. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Government find it so hard to meet their own deadlines and so hard to achieve their own promises?
Yesterday, when the Minister toured the television studios, he was asked what the chances were now of securing a deal, and he said it was less than two thirds. Can he tell businesses and this House the current probability, given that he has just said that events have, in effect, ended the trade negotiations? Over the past three days, we have heard more posturing than solutions, more excuses and explanations. It is time for the Government to take responsibility.
Of course everyone needs to prepare as best they can, but it is a bit rich for the Government to lecture businesses on getting ready when the Government cannot even tell them what they are getting ready for. Let us be clear: if the talks have run out of road, many industries will face prohibitive tariffs—from 10% for exporting cars to at least 40% for exporting lamb—to Britain’s biggest market in just 10 weeks’ time. I ask again: is that what the Government want businesses to get ready for, and is it even possible for those businesses to do business on those terms?
The Minister will recall that I raised the concerns of the car manufacturing industry on 1 October at Cabinet Office questions and the possibility of tariffs, and also on rules of origin. He agreed to meet the automotive industry and trade unions. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and Unite followed up with a joint letter on the same day—1 October. However, I am now informed that, 18 days later, that letter has not been replied to and that meeting has not happened. At what point did the British Government give up on British industry, and when will the Minister be meeting those businesses? It is all well and good to say prepare, but he cannot even be bothered to get round a table with them. I ask again: what are they supposed to be preparing for and what support are the Government giving them?
In his statement today, the Minister thanked the road haulage industry for its efforts, but you will also remember, Mr Speaker, that, at Cabinet Office questions, he said that the road haulage industry had been far from constructive, so I welcome the thanks that he gave them today. Earlier this month, I was with a haulage firm in Hull with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). It was a fantastic business, established more than 100 years ago, yet it does not know how many of its fleet of lorries will be able to operate in the EU come 1 January. How are they supposed to prepare for that?
Ministers have blithely referred to leaving with no trade deal as trading on “Australian terms”. This morning, the Business Secretary was pressed on the difference between an Australian deal and leaving with no deal, and he admitted that it was “semantics”—semantics! They can call it no deal. They can call it an Australia-style deal. They can call it a Narnia deal, as far as I am concerned, but let us be honest about what that means and how damaging it is for this country. [Interruption.] Someone says from a sedentary position that it is not damaging—10% tariffs on British cars being exported to the European Union is damage; 40% tariffs on lamb being exported to the European Union is damage. If any Member wants to stand up and tell their constituents, British industry and British farming that that is not damaging, they can be my guest, but it is not the truth.
The Prime Minister promised that the UK would “prosper mightily” without a trade deal with the EU. Given that confidence, will the Government publish their full economic impact assessment of the implications if no trade deal is achieved, broken down by industry and by the regions and nations of our United Kingdom? That may at least help us to understand what we are supposed to be planning for.
While the Government lecture businesses about being match-fit, their own preparations are badly off pace. In late July, the Government announced £50 million of funding for customs intermediaries. Could the Minister update the House on how much of that fund businesses have drawn down and give us the latest figures for the number of customs agents trained up to be ready for 1 January? The Government have given authorisation for a number of lorry parks, so how many of these “inland border facilities”, as the Minister likes to call them, have had work started on them, and how many are now completed? Can he list how many of the IT systems needed are on track and whether the crucial goods vehicle movement system has been tested with all haulage businesses? He mentioned business preparedness. What is happening in terms of security and data sharing?
This Government must deliver a deal that provides guarantees and safeguards on workers’ rights, environmental standards and animal welfare, protects jobs and does nothing to jeopardise the Good Friday agreement. That was all promised last year. Time is short, so my message to the Government is blunt: stop posturing, start negotiating and deliver the deal that you promised to the British people.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. With respect to an oven-ready deal, the withdrawal agreement was concluded happily and voted on by the House of Commons, so we had a deal—a deal which many on the Labour Benches opposed, but a deal which means that our destiny is certain and that we are fulfilling the wishes of the British people. In the same way as 52% of the population of the United Kingdom and 53% of the population of Leeds West—her constituency—voted to leave, we will leave. We are honouring our commitment to the British people.
The hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to some of the past statements I have made that were quoted on the television briefly at the weekend. I have to say—and this is no reflection on her—that if she is going to talk about past statements, she had better clear that with the Leader of the Opposition, who in the past has favoured EU membership, then said he would accept the referendum result, then said that we needed a second referendum in order to satisfy the first, then said that we should have an extension of our membership of the European Union and the transition period, and is now silent on all those questions.
I was merely pointing out, Mr Speaker, that we had an oven-ready deal, and from Labour we had an indigestible dog’s breakfast and a Leader of the Opposition who will not eat his words.
The hon. Lady asked about the various deadlines. Those are deadlines that the UK Government have set but that the EU has not met. In any negotiation, both sides have to honour their commitments. As I pointed out in my statement—and she did not, of course, acknowledge this—we were available to talk every day in the weeks preceding the European Council, and the European Union was not. But our firmness on this proposition is now bearing fruit. As we were exchanging thoughts across the Dispatch Box earlier, my colleague David Frost was in conversation with Michel Barnier. I now believe it is the case that Michel Barnier has agreed both to the intensification of talks and to working on legal texts—a reflection of the strength and resolution that our Prime Minister showed, in stark contrast with the approach that the Opposition have often enjoined us to take, of simply accepting what the EU wants at every stage.
The hon. Lady asked about preparation. It is absolutely right to say that we should talk to the automotive sector. That is why, as I pointed out in my statement, the Prime Minister has a business roundtable tomorrow with business representative organisations. She also asked about inland sites. I can confirm that we will have two inland sites at Ashford—Sevington and Waterbook—and one at Ebbsfleet, one at Thames Gateway, one at North Weald, one at Birmingham, one at Warrington, one at Holyhead, one in south Wales and another at White Cliffs in Dover. All those sites will bring extra jobs and investment to the UK as we forge a confident path ahead.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The Government appear resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area in which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is security. I note that my right hon. Friend made no mention of security in his statement this afternoon, and the Prime Minister made no reference to security in his letter to parliamentarians on 16 October. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if the UK walks away with no deal, then our police and other law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases such as PNR—passenger name records—to be able to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about security. I would say three things. The first thing to say is that significant progress has been made in respect of security co-operation, but it is the case that the EU is insisting that, before we have access to systems such as the Schengen information system II, that we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. We cannot accept that.
The second thing I would say is that there are many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside. Through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services, we can intensify the security that we give to the British people. The third thing I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I agree with her. When it comes to everything—security and other matters—no deal is better than a bad deal.
So here we go. The coveted no deal is now within touching distance. The dance of the no-deal seven veils is now down to its Brexit underwear. The easiest deal in history will now mean the UK leaving on Mongolian terms. The absolute rubbish we had to listen to about oven-ready deals and holding all the cards is now just the stuff of grotesque bad jokes. And whose fault is it? Well, not the Minister’s or that of this cabal of Tory anti-EU obsessives. It is all the fault of these Europeans. How dare they ask the Tories to stand by what they agreed, and how dare they ask for a level playing field and to retain the integrity of the single market! The EU must have the patience of saints to try to negotiate with these clown shoe-wearing goalpost shifters. As we have just heard, the EU has once again offered to have intensive talks, so it is back in your court, Minister.
The Minister somehow expects Scotland to go along with this disaster. Well there is a saying that he will know as a proud Scot, which will be Scotland’s response to this: he can go awa’ an’ bile his heid. Independence is now the settled will of the Scottish people, with 58% of Scots now in favour, so here is a proposition for the Minister: why does he not just go off and get his no-deal Brexit if that is what England indeed wants, and in Scotland we can now secure our independence—what our people want—which will allow us to design our own future European relationship? Surely there is nothing wrong with that. He gets what he wants and we get what we want. Will he agree to that at last, and say goodbye to his rotten Union and his rotten no-deal Brexit?
As ever, I am in awe of the hon. Member’s ability, in a very short period, to bring so many metaphors together in what one can only describe as a car crash of similes. The Government, according to him, is wearing seven veils and clown shoes while also shifting goalposts. I have to say that I would love to see that circus performance, but I suspect that I will have to wait, because the SNP conference has I think been cancelled this year.
The second thing I would like to say in response to the hon. Member is that he refers disparagingly to this deal as a “Mongolian deal”. I do not know what Mongolia has ever done to offend the people of Scotland, but we in the UK value our friendship with the people of Ulaanbaatar and others. Certainly, we do not believe that this looking down on other peoples in other nations is appropriate. It may be appropriate for the atavistic nationalism which some SNP supporters avail themselves of, but those of us who believe in the Union, believe in friendship among all nations.
On the hon. Member’s final point about working together, I absolutely agree. The devolved Administrations must work with us and we must work with them to make sure that, as we leave the European Union, the communities of all parts of the United Kingdom prosper. One of the things I do regret is that, even though I value my close working with his colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, unfortunately, Scottish Government policy would mean that we would be back in the common fisheries policy. That would mean the people of Scotland’s coastal communities would lose out. I am sure he would not want that, and that is why I hope we can continue to work together to reap the benefits of the sea of opportunity that Brexit will bring.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I think he is right, because it was clear in the whole agreement that both sides needed to negotiate in good faith with a view to reaching an agreement. Yet it has been quite clear throughout that, for example, the refusal of those on the EU side to engage on financial services, which are 80% of our economy, but their determination to get a deal on the majority of theirs, which is trade in agri-products, is not good faith. How exactly does he intend to go forward with regard to the problems in the withdrawal agreement that will now be outstanding even if we make no trade deal?
My right hon. Friend makes two very important points, the first of which relates to the approach that the European Union has taken. As I mentioned, even while I have been at the Dispatch Box it has been reported that there has been a constructive move on the part of the European Union, and I welcome that. Obviously we need to make sure that we work on the basis of the proposed intensification that it proposes. I prefer to look forward in optimism rather than necessarily to look back in anger. However, as he says, the difficult period that we have had over the past two weeks has been the result of some on the EU side not being as energetic as we have been in trying to reach agreement. He also makes an important point about making sure that we iron out all the difficulties in the withdrawal agreement. That is part of my role in the Joint Committee. I am grateful to him and to others for the advice they have offered as to how we should approach these difficult issues.
Despite what the Minister said in his opening remarks, it is quite clear that negotiations are continuing, and the war of words now needs to stop. Both sides need to get together and agree a deal, recognising that both will have to compromise. On preparations for 1 January, given that businesses do not know exactly how trade between GB and Northern Ireland is going to work—the pharmaceuticals industry does not have a clue—and given that the goods movement IT system is not yet in operation because it is not ready, while nowhere near enough customs agents have yet been recruited, why is it the Government’s approach to say to firms that they have their head in the sand and are not ready, when the Government cannot tell them exactly what they are meant to be getting ready for?
I actually think that is a fair question that contains at least two very important pieces of wisdom. On the first, the EU took a position last week and in the weeks beforehand that was, as was widely acknowledged, not constructive, not designed to achieve progress, and not engaging with the detail. If, as a result of our clear view that we could not proceed on that basis, there has been movement, as it seems as though there has been today, then no one will welcome it more than me. But we cannot have from the EU the illusion of engagement without the reality of compromise: I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that.
On the second point, yes, both with regard to trade in Northern Ireland and more broadly, there are aspects that need to be worked out. That is why we want to intensify these negotiations. If occasionally, in the crossfire between different parts of business, Government and others, different people express their frustration, that is fine. The most important thing is that we make sure that we work together in order to deliver.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. If the EU does not want to complete negotiations by this time, then we have to ensure that the whole country is ready for the consequences, so nothing is more important than keeping our ports working efficiently and effectively. Will he join me in commending the work of the local resilience forum in Hampshire on plans to ensure that Portsmouth, which has particular local transport challenges, can continue to support EU-bound freight? Will he update the House on funding available to help make sure that resources for these very important plans are in place?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Both the local resilience forum in Hampshire and the authorities in the port of Portsmouth have been working incredibly hard to make sure that they are ready for every eventuality. New facilities are being built at the port of Portsmouth. The port of Portsmouth is putting in an application to the port infrastructure fund for them. I had the opportunity to meet the leader of Portsmouth council and the chief executive of the port alongside my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General last Thursday. It is the case that some additional resource will be required to make sure that we can avoid any potential traffic congestion near Portsmouth, and we are working with the local authority to achieve just that.
The Government are planning to break the withdrawal agreement they signed only last year, thereby breaking international law and sending us into economic self-isolation. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows that a Canada deal is possible if he agrees the protections that are required for workers’ rights and our environment. Will he go back and agree those protections and, with them, a tariff-free trade agreement so that we can avoid the self-infliction of a no-deal Brexit alongside a raging pandemic, which would be a complete disaster for everyone in the UK?
I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but he gets three things wrong. He says that we are planning to resile from the withdrawal agreement, he says that we will go into economic self-isolation, and he suggests that we should accept EU rules in all the areas that he mentions. My reply is: no, no, no.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned in his statement, Warrington is set to be the location of a new inland border facility on a former coach interchange in my constituency. Will he tell us a little more about what that will mean for jobs in my local area? What assurances can he give to local residents who are concerned about lorries clogging up village roads?
My colleague Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office Minister, has been in touch with my hon. Friend and with the local authority to stress that there will be additional investment, which will mean more jobs in Warrington. We expect that there will be an additional 375 jobs created in Warrington, split between new jobs for colleagues in the Border Force, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Mitie and the haulage firm Wincanton. The current expectation is that that number will rise to around 460 jobs by December next year. We are also working to make sure that there is appropriate additional funding to ensure that there is no additional traffic problem for him, his constituents or those in neighbouring villages.
I have known the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster all his political career. May I urge him not to keep the door ajar but to open the door to continuing negotiations? Not to have a deal would be a historic, shameful failure. It would hurt my constituents and his, with broken businesses and unemployment, and blight the future of a new generation and generations to come. Please, I beg him to try again for all of us.
Oh, a curious absence, then, in Yorkshire. Whatever our disagreements, the hon. Gentleman and I agree that we should work together in the best interests of all the citizens of the United Kingdom. I am always grateful for his wisdom. Ever since I first arrived in the House, he has been a good friend and a wise head, and whenever I have gone wrong it is because I have not paid too much attention—sorry, it is because I have not paid enough attention to his words.
The UK will prosper mightily as an independent free trading nation with control over our money, laws and borders. What support has my right hon. Friend put in place to help business leaders in West Bromwich East prepare for the changes and opportunities that that will bring when we leave the transition period at the end of this year?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Fundamentally, whatever turbulence may occur, whatever bumps in the road there might be in the months ahead, the strengths and resilience of our economy mean that we will prosper mightily. The manufacturing leaders in her constituency in West Bromwich and more widely across the Black Country and the west midlands are benefiting directly from the investment that we are making in customs intermediaries, in new IT processes and systems, and in our Prime Minister’s broader commitment to levelling up. We must make opportunity more equal across the United Kingdom, and my hon. Friend’s championing of business in West Bromwich is a critical part of that.
Protecting the Good Friday agreement means protecting Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom, for that is the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland exercised through the principle of consent. Will the Secretary of State give us an update on discussions in the Joint Committee on the issue of export declarations and the fact that they are not required for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain? Will he also give us an update on the issue of goods at risk and the EU attitude on this, to ensure that goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are not passing on to the Republic of Ireland are not subject to unnecessary and costly disruption?
My right hon. Friend makes three very important points. On the first, about exit declarations, he is absolutely right: the protocol is there both to help us safeguard the EU’s single market, but also to affirm Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom and within its customs territory, and there is no need for customs declarations for goods coming from Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain. As for his point about goods at risk, he is absolutely right about that as well: bread that is baked in Huddersfield and goes into a supermarket in Ballymena should not be subject to tariffs, because it is trade within the United Kingdom. And his final point is right as well: the Belfast agreement was a balanced agreement, and sometimes some of the rhetoric we hear about the Belfast agreement seems to me to be inadequate in its understanding of the vital importance of the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland have voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. Their rights, their views, their loyalty needs to be respected.
The toughest negotiators in this country are the farmers in my constituency, and my farmers recognise at this moment that my right hon. Friend and Lord Frost are excellent negotiators. That is borne out by the news that the talks are intensifying, including on legal texts. May I ask my right hon. Friend to meet me to talk about business engagement, especially in the agricultural sector in the devolved Administrations environment, since the devolved Administrations seem hostile to us getting any kind of successful deal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I have met farmers in his constituency, and a tougher bunch of negotiators we would be hard-pressed to find. But he is absolutely right also that their interests need to be protected, and not just by the UK Government but by the devolved Administration—by the Government in Wales. We need to work together to ensure that we are supporting them. In the event of an Australian-style exit, one of the sectors that we will need most energetically to support is the sheepmeat sector, and we will—and to be fair to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), she made that point.
The UK imports 37 million packets of medicines from the EU every single month. The pharmaceutical industry has highlighted the difficulty in rebuilding full stockpiles for the end of transition due to the impact of covid, so, with just 74 days to go, how will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there are no drug shortages, particularly of insulin, which the UK does not produce, and radioisotopes, which cannot be stockpiled?
The hon. Lady brings formidable expertise to this area, and she is absolutely right to highlight the fact that we need rapid access to both insulin and radioisotopes. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Transport have put in place contingency arrangements should there be any risk of disruption, but we are also confident that the steps we have taken more broadly will ensure that we have freight flowing freely between the UK and the EU, including in this critical area.
First, I should pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), for her exemplary communications with my constituents who live near the Sevington lorry park; I am very grateful.
I still hope and expect that we will get a deal, but either way, may I ask my right hon. Friend how confident he is that the smart freight system will be fully operational by 1 January, and if it is not, what does he think will happen?
I join my right hon. Friend in praising the efforts of the Transport Minister, who has been incredibly energetic and determined to make sure that colleagues in Kent from all parties are kept informed on the progress of our preparations. The smart freight portal is being shared with hauliers and others as we speak. It is currently in its beta phase and we want to ensure that it is further refined, but the straightforward approach that it should provide should enable us to minimise any disruption that my right hon. Friend or his constituents face. I am absolutely confident it will be in place; if it were not, other measures would need to be taken, but they would not be as helpful as the smart freight system.
We have heard it all now: it is just, according to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, “an unfortunate sequence of events”, otherwise known as the Lemony Snicket defence—all the fault of evil uncle Olaf and his foreign friends. But on the serious point about this, consider how it will affect, for example, our musicians who go on tour. They are usually not part of large operations. They might take their instrument, fly on a budget flight, try to sell some of their merchandise, cross a few borders in the European Union—that is how they scrape a living. They are making no money now. Will he please consider the consequences of no deal, admit that this is not a frivolous issue but a matter of people’s livelihoods, and seriously engage with it rather than take this frivolous and superficial approach?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I certainly would not take a frivolous approach towards the livelihoods of anyone, whether they are freelance musicians or anyone else who contributes to the health, prosperity and economy of this country. That is one of the reasons why we are so anxious to secure an agreement with the European Union and why we have been working so hard and in such a dedicated fashion in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. I mentioned earlier that as a result of the progress that we have made with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, the rights of 4 million EU citizens in the UK are now guaranteed, as are the rights of over 1 million citizens of the UK in the EU. More needs to be done to ensure that we can have a free trade agreement, but I absolutely take seriously the rights of citizens—whether they are, as I say, freelancers or others—to continue to be able to work and live freely.
Has my right hon. Friend seen how much popular and excellent quality fresh food there is in our supermarkets with the Union flag on the packaging? Will he confirm that if the EU insists on high tariffs on food trade, where it sells us massively more than we sell it, that would be a huge opportunity for our farmers to grow and rear more for the domestic market and get back the huge amounts of market share stolen from them under the common agricultural policy?
My right hon. Friend makes three very important points. The first thing is that UK producers are doing a fantastic job in increasing production in a sustainable way. Championing the quality of UK produce is something that we should all do and recognise, whether it is Orkney cheddar or Welsh lamb, that the UK flag is a symbol that connects quality not just to our consumers but worldwide. The second point that he makes, which is absolutely right, is that the common agricultural policy has been harmful, and our escape from it will ensure both that our farmers can prosper and that our environment can improve. His third point is that we should be confident not just that we can sell more excellent produce here in the UK but that, as we emerge into the world as a global free-trading nation, new opportunities to sell our excellent produce are available to our farmers, and he is absolutely right to be optimistic.
The Minister has acknowledged the issue of the free flow of medicines into this country. Will he respond to the urgent appeal today from the pharmaceuticals industry to find a deal, and will he accept the approaches from the European Union and do everything in his power to ensure that my constituents, like those across the country who need medicines such as insulin, will have the deal that ensures that they can rely upon it?
My right hon. Friend knows from our time in Cabinet together that I have nothing but the greatest possible respect and admiration for his negotiating skills and abilities. Given that we are advised that fish and state aids are the main stumbling blocks to a deal, will he draw to the attention of Monsieur Macron, the President of France, the fact that if there is no deal on fishing, there will not be any French boats fishing in British waters, and that the size of the British fishing industry is approximately 1.7% of the size of the British car and automotive industry? Finally, will my right hon. Friend remember that one of the reasons that Mrs Thatcher imposed a three-line Whip in support of the European single market Act was to stop false competition as a result of the unfair use of state aids?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the three important points he makes. First, I am sure that the French President and others are increasingly aware of the point he makes about the consequence of no deal. Secondly, the automotive sector is vital not just to the economy of the west midlands but to the whole UK, and we need to make sure that we invest in it for the future. And his third point is right: we need to have our own state aid regime, not the European one, but we also need to make sure that it is consistent with our market principles.
The Road Haulage Association is afraid that trade will grind to a halt if there are insufficient customs agents to help goods to cross the border in January. Some 50,000 customs agents are needed. On paper, the Government have allocated £84 million to the task of training the necessary people. I know the Minister has good attention to detail, so will he tell me how many customs agents have been trained from the allocated money?
What preparations are being made by the Royal Navy to provide requisite support in a potential no-deal situation to our fishery protection vessels to prevent what would then be the illegal plunder of our seas by an armada of French and Spanish trawlers?
We have a series of assets to make sure that we can safeguard our waters, such as the offshore patrol vessels—the River class fishery protection vessels that are at the disposal of the Royal Navy—and other assets, including aircraft and drones. Of course, the joint maritime security centre in Portsmouth provides us with maritime domain awareness so that we can safeguard our waters.
We have 73 days to go here and businesses, deep in the middle of a pandemic, are trying their best to prepare, but there are many unanswered questions that add up to costs that Northern Ireland cannot afford. Firms and families here desperately want a deal, but we are hearing only about a blame game, brinkmanship, deflection and jingoism. People in Northern Ireland are more anxious than they have been in decades, with absolutely no sense that the Government understand that, given the misrepresentation of the agreement even in the last hour. I ask the Minister whether there is any upper limit to the damage that he thinks Northern Ireland should have to sustain for a Brexit that it has rejected at every possible opportunity.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her points. In my statement, I made the point—I hope that she will forgive me for making it again—that we made significant progress today in the Joint Committee, thanks to the constructive approach taken by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We are lucky that he and his team are so committed to making sure that the protocol works. I remind her that the protocol is there to give effect to the Belfast agreement, which is about agreement across communities, rather than a culture of grievance.
My right hon. Friend may not have known it before December 2019, but Carshalton and Wallington residents voted to leave the European Union and are keen to see us get on and return to being an independent, free-trading global nation. Although we hope that the EU will return constructively to the table, will he confirm that, irrespective of whether a deal is struck, we will continue to go out into the world to seek free trade agreements, such as the one we recently secured with Japan?
The Government say that they just want the terms that Canada enjoys with the European Union. Last year, exports to the European Union accounted for more than 60% of Welsh trade; Holyhead alone accounts for more than 400,000 freight movements each year across the Irish sea. Wales’s relationship with the European Union is nothing like that of Canada. Do those facts not demonstrate that, for Wales, the Minister’s preferred Canada-style agreement is just not good enough?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that Government and Opposition Front Benchers recognise that a Canada-style agreement is entirely consistent with how people voted in the referendum, including the people of Wales, who did vote to leave. It provides us with an opportunity to trade freely with the European Union but to chart our own destiny.
I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment in the EU’s continued intransigence. It is right that we do everything we can to prepare for all outcomes on 31 December, but it remains the case that it is in the best interests of both the UK and the EU to reach a long-term trade deal. Can he confirm that if the EU does shift its position and return to the negotiating table, the Government stand ready to talk and that we are prepared to consider individual deals or agreements on specific areas such as haulage and security?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was not party to the telephone call that took place earlier between Michel Barnier and Lord Frost, but if it does presage a change of approach on the part of the EU and a proper intensification, no one would welcome that more than I do. It would mean that we could make progress, but obviously the proof of the pudding remains. On my hon. Friend’s second point, if we leave on Australian-style terms, we will be negotiating and discussing with our friends and neighbours to ensure that we have effective interim arrangements, particularly in areas such as freight transport.
I am pleased that, at least on the face of it, the Government appear to be standing up to the bullying tactics by Brussels and have indicated that we will not leave on the basis of an agreement that compromises our sovereignty or our independence. On the Joint Committee, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned two things. First, he said that the Government had outlined what steps they had taken to deal with the new agrifood arrangements. Secondly, he said that the Government now understood the EU’s position on monitoring those arrangements. Will he tell us whether the EU has agreed that the goods at risk will not include those goods that stay in Northern Ireland and that those goods will therefore not be taxed or subject to controls? Secondly, has the EU demanded that the implementation of that monitoring will require EU officials to be present in Northern Ireland?
On the first point, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but I think that the EU has a very good understanding of exactly the points we make. On the second point, we want to have a pragmatic approach whereby the UK is responsible for the administration of these controls, but we want to provide the EU with reassurance wherever possible.
I voted to leave in the referendum, and I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend that we have to have the right deal, but does he agree, given the economic challenges and the common security threats that we are facing from Russia, China and the middle east, that a deal is still the best outcome for both the UK and EU?
Absolutely. The broader point that my hon. Friend makes about the need for solidarity among democracies at a time of increasing insecurity across the globe is an important one. We cannot agree to a deal at any price—we have been very clear about that—but the broader context that he provides is very helpful.
My very first question in this place was to ask the then Prime Minister whether she would consider separately negotiating access to Erasmus and Horizon, which did not need to be part of the wider agreement, because of the risk of a deal falling down. Now that the deal has fallen down and all predictions about this incompetent Government have come true, will the Government consider a separate track to negotiate Erasmus and Horizon entry—which they can do and which the European Union was willing to do—so that our students and universities can have security on this issue?
Can my right hon. Friend elaborate a bit more on his point about state aid? Is there state aid that we wish to give to UK companies that we were not able to do under the EU regime, or is the dispute more about the retaliation mechanism, as he put it in his statement?
The Prime Minister promised the nation an “oven-ready” deal, and it was avowedly going to be
“one of the easiest in human history”
to negotiate. Instead, this Conservative Government have shown that they are happy to rip up an agreement only months after signing it, thereby breaking international law, and they are now hurtling us towards a disastrous no-deal Brexit. So, on behalf of the Prime Minister, would the right hon. Gentleman like to apologise to the British people for having made false promises? Will he tell us what changes he will be making to his approach to prove that the UK can be taken seriously and act in good faith, despite the best efforts of this incompetent Government?
First, as the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, since last Friday, since the Prime Minister’s statement and since the preparation of my statement earlier, we have seen a welcome indication of movement on the part of the EU. I think that those who were prepared to criticise the Prime Minister on Friday and over the weekend should perhaps, in fairness and with appropriate humility, recognise that he has been standing up for Britain, and therefore no apology is required.
As the clock ticks down, the pressure will undoubtedly mount on the British Government and on the EU government. It would be reassuring to hear from my right hon. Friend some assurance that he will not go wobbly and reach for any deal on offer at that time just because it is on offer, and that as the likelihood of not securing a free trade agreement with the EU rises, he and his Department are working on a plan of retaliatory fiscal, tax and government state aid actions that could then be put in place.
First, may I say that I wish I had my hon. Friend’s lean physique, because I am afraid that bits of me are wobbly? That is not the case with him. On the substance, he is right: we both need to be firm in these negotiations, as the Prime Minister has been, and ready for any eventuality. That means that if we do go to Australian terms, we need to use the freedoms that that affords.
In 2019, £300 billion of UK exports went to the EU, which was 43% of our entire total, and not even 2% went to Australia. This is the Minister who told us that these would be the easiest negotiations ever, but businesses in Southwark tell me that they have lost patience with the Government, that uncertainty is costing them and that their employees face losing their jobs as a result of his failure to secure a deal. The simple question is: why do my constituents face losing their jobs as a result of his inability to do his?
I think that is what we call a leading question, but the hon. Gentleman misattributes the earlier quotation—I think someone else, rather than me, made that point. More broadly, however, prosperity for his constituents and mine depends on making sure that we embrace the free trading, outward-looking approach that the Prime Minister has outlined. That is the best way of making sure that can export not just to Europe and Australia, but across the world.
At the Munich security conference last year, the term “westlessness” was first coined, meaning an absence of what the west now stands for, what we believe in and what we are willing to defend. I hope my right hon. Friend agrees that European defence and security must sit above the politics of Europe, because the threats are increasing, no longer recognising state borders or indeed membership of international institutions, but the Galileo project illustrates how EU politics is weakening collective European resolve. I hope he will reconfirm our commitment to joint European security, not least through NATO.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point; NATO is the keystone of our defence architecture. More broadly, I hope that whatever occurs in the next couple of months as we resolve our economic relationship with the EU, the strong bilateral and multilateral ties we have with European allies, from Estonia to France, remain and are strengthened in order to make sure that the west is strong and democracy is reinforced.
More than 40% of UK external trade is with the EU27, whereas about 10% of the EU27’s trade is with the UK, so clearly the UK badly needs a deal. If we end up with a World Trade Organisation rules outcome, there still needs to be agreement in the Joint Committee about goods at risk, so will the right hon. Gentleman give businesses and households in Northern Ireland a firm guarantee that in no circumstances will any tariffs be levied down the Irish sea interface?