House of Commons
Wednesday 15 September 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Universal Credit Uplift
The House will be aware that today is the 10th anniversary of the mining disaster in Gleision, in which Charles Breslin, David Powell, Philip Hill and Garry Jenkins lost their lives. I know that colleagues across the Chamber will join me in paying appropriate respect at this time, and of course in sending condolences to their families.
We have always been clear that the universal credit uplift was temporary to help people through the economic shock of the pandemic. We are committed to supporting families most in need and planning a long-term route out of poverty by helping people find work.
I echo the words of condolence from the Secretary of State.
More than a third of all those who receive universal credit are in work and will now have to pay an extra £100 a year in national insurance contributions while also suffering a cut of £1,040 per year, and UK inflation has risen to 3.2%—its highest increase since 1997. Will the Secretary of State use his influence to push for the publication of any impact assessment or analysis of the consequence of this cruel cut to universal credit, which research suggests will mean that one in eight people will struggle to afford food?
I know that colleagues across the House have received representations from constituents, charities and other bodies on this subject, so it is one we take extremely seriously, and rightly so. Of course, one of the things the Government are absolutely committed to is to rebalance the economy, both local and national. We have, of course, the plan for jobs, the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and the community renewal fund. There is a number of ways in which we are attempting to do that, which will of course help those who are not in work, but also those people on in-work benefits. We are very conscious of the hon. Lady’s observations and, as I say, absolutely committed to making sure that every family, not just those out of work, are helped as best we possibly can.
A quarter of a million Welsh families now face the grim prospect of losing over £1,000 a year because of this Government’s shameful decision to slash universal credit. We know that the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Work and Pensions Secretary, seems to think that people just need to work harder, but I would remind him that nearly 40% of Welsh people who receive this payment are in fact in work, many of them key workers. What does the Secretary of State have to say to those families and their children who are struggling to make ends meet now and will be so much worse off as a result of this cut?
I touched on this obviously in the answer to the initial question, especially the temporary nature of the increase and of course the many plans and projects we have that are going to enhance and improve the economy in Wales, which will have a positive effect on the very families the hon. Lady talks about. I think it is just worth pointing out as well that it is this Government who increased the personal threshold on NICs—that was of considerable value to families across the land—and there have been other improvements, such as the increase in the national living wage. I think those things need to be taken into account as well, and I am sure the hon. Lady will do that.
I am not sure that is going to be much comfort to those families who are going to be losing £80 a month. This is not just a blow to Welsh families, but a real hit to Welsh shops and businesses, because we all know that families on low income have to spend their money locally on the very basics of life. This will suck £286 million per year out of the Welsh economy. The Conservative party constantly talks up the sums paid to get this country out of the pandemic, but is not the reality that the Tories are taking money away from Welsh businesses just at the time that so many of them need it most?
I do fundamentally reject that accusation. Having visited numerous companies, large and small, across Wales throughout the pandemic, the message I have had back is one of relief that the UK Government Treasury has been able to step in and offer the levels of help that it has. Particularly in relation to the hon. Lady’s comment about universal credit, what she is suggesting is that none of the remedial measures we have introduced will work. That is clearly not the case, so the families that she and other colleagues quite rightly raise as being concerned about what the future holds should, I hope, be reassured by the fact that the Government continue to be committed not only to companies, but to individual families themselves.
The north Welsh coast, when one goes from Wylfa to Trawsfynydd to Capenhurst, is intimately connected with the north-west of England through Capenhurst, Warrington and all the way up to Sellafield and Moorside. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that those economies work well together to solve problems in the nuclear industry, and that the North West Nuclear Arc is something we should be very proud of?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, particularly because I have been on the receiving end of such compelling arguments from organisations, such as the Mersey Dee Alliance, that recognise the economic region and the economic drivers and recognise that administrative boundaries can sometimes be an impediment to investment. I absolutely share her enthusiasm and her confidence about what may be available in the future.
The Government’s attack on struggling families this autumn will make more than four in 10 families with children over £1,000 worse off. It is no surprise that the Secretary of State is content with plunging thousands of people into poverty, but these families spend their money in high street shops and local businesses. Government policy will be directly responsible for taking £286 million out of the Welsh economy. This is not levelling up; it is hammering down. What assessment has he made of the effect of the £20 cut in universal credit on the Welsh economy?
The right hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my answers to the first and second questions on this very subject, and her statement—rather than question—was predicated on the basis that absolutely none of the Government’s other economic interventions, such as the plan for jobs, the levelling-up fund and the other encouraging initiatives we have been talking about, will have any positive effect at all. That is clearly incorrect and is clearly not supported by businesses across Wales, which leads me to the conclusion that she is determined to talk down the economic prospects of the country she wants to represent.
It is clear that the Government are content that Wales loses almost £300 million. The pattern is clear from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, trade agreements, the control of state aid and now plans to cut the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32: the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are taking from Wales and giving to Westminster. Anyone can see that levelling up will only happen when we have a strong Parliament in Wales empowered to do the job and directly answerable to the people of Wales. We all know there is a reshuffle going on; is now the time to reshuffle the Wales Office out of existence?
The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I am not going to rise to the last of the baits she dangles in front of me, but she needs to make her mind up about whether she wants Westminster representation or not: she complains on the one hand that the numbers might be reduced, whereas in fact they are being equalised to be fairer, and on the other that we should not be here at all.
The Government have and are funding a number of rail improvements in Wales, including upgrading Cardiff Central station and the Cambrian line and upgrades that are in the pipeline to key lines in north, south-east and south-west Wales. I also recently had the opportunity to visit Pencoed to hear the case for an upgrade to the Pencoed level crossing.
Wales accounts for 11% of the rail network but receives only 2% of rail enhancement funding from this Government. Will the UK Government commit to addressing this underinvestment, and make a start in Newport East by finally allowing the Welsh Government to run more cross-border services under the Wales and Borders franchise and by supporting the new stations fund bid for a walkway station for Magor?
This oft-cited figure comes from a Wales Government report which looks purely at renewals between 2011 and 2015. The very same report on page 20 draws attention to the figure that would apply if one looked at maintenance operations and restoration as well, in which case the correct figure would be 4.37%, not 1%.
I was glad to hear the Minister mention, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), Pencoed in my Ogmore constituency. He will know that the debate about closing the level crossing has been going on since the early ’90s, and I know he is personally supportive and has been to Pencoed to look at the site. However, Bridgend County Borough Council has now put forward cabinet reports to say that the scheme will cost almost £20 million. Department for Transport Ministers cannot keep announcing additional services on the mainline without tackling the safety issues around the Pencoed level crossing. So may I press the Minister to ensure that DfT Ministers back up their announcements with much-needed funding to deal with the problems in my constituency?
I would certainly encourage all partners and stakeholders in this, including DfT Ministers—and also those in the Welsh Government, who are responsible for the highways of course—to engage with the rail network enhancement pipeline in the usual way or consider future rounds of the levelling-up fund. I say, too, that the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for that level crossing and the wider strategic benefits that will flow if this problem is sorted out.
I know the Minister shares my disappointment and that of my constituents in Gower at the lack of electrification to Swansea, but is he aware that we have great issues with the Hitachi carriages and fleet? They are costing a lot of money and cracks have been caused because of their becoming hybrid. Can he confirm that he is aware of this problem, and can he say what conversations he is having with his colleagues in the Department for Transport and what it is costing?
I believe that that problem was quite well publicised, so I think we are all aware of it. The rolling stock is being examined. There is no issue around safety. I do not know what the costs are. I understand the hon. Lady’s disappointment about electrification, but she will know, through her sterling work on the Welsh Affairs Committee, that there would have been enormous costs to electrification between Cardiff and Swansea and no benefits for any passengers in terms of decreased time. This Government want to spend that money where it will have the most impact and benefit for rail passengers.
The community in St Athan in my constituency was naturally disappointed, and even angry, that the Welsh Government did not include a new station for St Athan in their application to the Department for Transport’s new stations fund. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that he will listen to the views of Members of Parliament as well as the Welsh Government when considering applications for new stations?
I can absolutely reassure my right hon. Friend on that point. I commend him for the work that he has done in improving rail infrastructure in his constituency. I enjoyed visiting Barry station with him to see the disability access improvements that had taken place sometime last year.
When the Minister listed all the projects that the Government are undertaking, he did not mention the marvellous work being done by Network Rail on the only wooden bridge in the country being used for rail services, between Morfa Mawddach and Barmouth. Will he make a point, together with the Secretary of State, of visiting the bridge and walking across it when it is finally completed and all the wooden piles have been installed? Of course, it is a walkway as well as a railway.
I would be delighted to take my hon. Friend up on what I think is an invitation to visit. I believe that he may even be able to supply a cup of tea somewhere in the vicinity. He is right that I did not mention that particular project. There are so many projects I could mention that Network Rail is responsible for in Wales as a result of UK Government funding. I did not mention, either, the south Wales relief line, the north Wales coast line, the improvements that will hopefully come about to the Wrexham to Bidston line, or a whole host of other projects that are being funded by this UK Government.
Of course, many companies in Wales will be tendering for work on the HS2 project, so there will be huge benefits to Wales, huge benefits for the railway industry, and of course huge benefits for the whole United Kingdom. HS2 is also about getting people off the roads and on to the railways, which is something that anyone who supports getting Britain to net zero by 2050 should be in support of.
I assure the hon. Lady that the UK Government are completely committed to manufacturing in Wales, which is why we have put £3.4 billion into manufacturing and enabled companies to take advantage of the many schemes that were brought forward during the covid crisis.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he join me in welcoming the Welsh Labour Government’s £20 million commitment to the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Broughton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), which will attract business and boost skills across the north Wales region?
That, I believe, would be a promising scheme that could perhaps be looked at in conjunction with the growth deals. As the hon. Lady will be aware, £790 million has been put forward for growth deals across Wales, and that is exactly the sort of scheme that is being considered as part of that. May I say how strongly I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the aviation sector, which I hope will be shared by all her colleagues?
Net Zero Emissions Target
Wales’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by close to 31% since 1990. To bring them down to zero, we will be scaling up low-carbon power generation, kickstarting the hydrogen economy and transitioning to zero emission vehicles.
I am grateful for that response. Many parts of Wales are rural like my own constituency in the Scottish borders. These rural areas need a plentiful supply of electric car charging points to encourage people to make the switch to electric cars. How are the UK Government supporting the switch across the four nations of the United Kingdom?
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, because it illustrates a situation very similar to his in Wales. I hope he is as pleased as we are with the £275 million commitment to the electric vehicle homecharge scheme, the workplace charging scheme, the on-street residential chargepoint scheme and a number of other measures, all of which, of course, are UK-wide initiatives.
The drive to net zero presents huge challenges to industry all across south Wales, especially for us in Pembrokeshire where the oil and gas plants support thousands of high quality jobs. What further steps can the UK Government take to help the energy sector to adapt, taking advantage of new opportunities in hydrogen but also plans for floating offshore wind? The truth is that we are going to need significant extra help in Pembrokeshire if we are going to make that transition.
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. I hope he has taken note of the £20 million commitment to the south Wales industrial cluster. That is driving carbon capture initiatives and similar initiatives. He and I frequently speak to big employers in our area, such as Valero on the Milford Haven Waterway, which are an absolutely critical part of our net zero ambitions in Wales. Of course, the floating offshore wind opportunities in the Celtic sea are well known to both of us and I hope that developers will be able to bid for contracts for difference later this year.
When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the Welsh Labour Government have led the way: banning fracking, legislating for net zero, establishing a new ministry for climate change, and generating more than 50% of the energy we use from renewable sources, a figure higher than the UK average. Does the Secretary of State also agree that those efforts are undermined somewhat by his own Government’s decision to drop binding commitments on climate change from the free trade deal with Australia? What message does that send to the world ahead of this country hosting the COP26 summit later this year?
I do not acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s challenge in quite the way he would expect me to. I think it has been made perfectly clear that our net zero ambitions are not going to be solved by one country or one Government; it will be resolved by a very serious and joined-up approach to net zero across the UK and beyond. I am very happy, as he knows I am, to work with the Welsh Government to achieve those aims. If we relegate this issue to some kind of political spat, it will make the challenges harder, so I hope he will join me and Welsh Government colleagues in trying to make sure we achieve the mutual aims we claim to share.
Will the Secretary of State look at the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee that Wales should get its fair share of HS2 funding, the same as Scotland, so we can invest in a modern infrastructure and meet net zero, in particular with the Swansea Bay metro, more quickly?
The hon. Gentleman and I share many common ambitions for the rail network in Wales. He knows my views on that. He also knows the Union connectivity review will be published shortly. I do not want to second-guess what is in that, but I suspect that he and I need a conversation shortly after that has been published.
It is fair to say that they are in their early stages. I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency last week, where these points were raised. He is right to point out that we can come up with all the initiatives in the world, but unless there is a supportive grid to cope with that, our progress will be slower than we would like. Those conversations are in play and I look forward to sharing them with him at the earliest opportunity.
Hijacking pots of money for Wales in the UK Government Departments that have not operated in Wales for 20 years undermines the devolution settlement and, by extension, the Union, but just as damaging is the bureaucratic delay caused by the uselessness of UK Ministers. Why have Welsh councils still not had a response on community fund renewal projects that are supposed to be completed by March 2022? If the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues cannot do the business, they should get off the pot.
In the last 18 months or more, I have spoken to numerous individuals, charities, churches, universities, the private and public sectors, businesses, investors—you name them, we have spoken to them. Not a single one has raised the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises this morning. They are committed to the economic recovery plans that we are talking about, and, as I said in answer to a previous question, if all these question sessions do is relegate these exchanges to some kind of cheap political point scoring, we will not make the progress that he seeks.
The landslips in the Rhondda last year sent a shiver down the spine of the valleys communities, and many of my constituents in Cynon Valley live in fear of future coal tip disasters. Three hundred of the 2,000 coal tips in Wales have been classed at high risk of endangering life or property. We need to know that they are safe and the UK Government have a clear duty to make them safe. [Interruption.] What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer ahead of the forthcoming spending review to ensure that sustainable funding is provided to deal with the legacy of the coal tips? [Interruption.]
I think I caught most of that question, but the hon. Lady will no doubt recall that the UK Government put over £30 million into coal tip renewal and coal tip safety issues. It was the UK Government who joined forces with the Welsh Government to make sure that that approach was collegiate and addressed all the concerns that were raised, including those that fall into the devolved space just as much as the reserved space. If she wants an example of the UK Government and the Welsh Government working together and the Treasury picking up the tab, that issue is a perfect example.
Respecting devolution cuts both ways. Recently, the Welsh Government published a written statement on the evolution of the national grid. It was very welcome—we need to work together—but clearly, the 132 kV lines are a UK competence. Will the Secretary of State pull Ofgem and the operators together to build and evolve the national grid, with consensus from the people of mid-Wales?
I can go a little further than that, having spoken to the Busines Secretary on this topic only yesterday evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) raises a very important point, especially around where the devolution settlement and reserved responsibilities sit. It is absolutely right to raise that but it is also fair to say that an issue of that significance will require a UK-wide approach and, of course, the views and responsibilities of the Welsh Government will be taken very seriously in those discussions.
If the devolution settlement is to work, the UK Government have to match their rhetoric on the respect agenda. Given that all devolved Governments in the UK have asked the UK Government to cancel the cut to universal credit, can the Secretary of State say that he made that representation to his Cabinet colleagues, or is the post of Secretary of State entirely redundant? [Interruption.]
I barely caught a single word of that, but on the basis that I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s views on this subject before, I will simply repeat my views and observations. Over the past 18 months during the covid pandemic, there has been a very analytical look at what works and what does not work in the devolution settlement by businesses, employers, wealth creators, investors, universities, churches and members of the public. I have to say that this fixation with the niceties of the devolution settlement is not reflected by businesses in Wales at the moment. [Interruption.] If by any chance I have missed the hon. Gentleman’s question, which, by the shake of his head, I suspect I have, we can have a conversation in the Tea Room later.
Apprentices: Wales Office
We fully support the Government’s apprenticeship scheme. We have employed apprentices in the Wales Office, and our most recent apprentice has just been promoted.
Will my hon. Friend set out what he is doing to encourage apprenticeships across Wales? Will he ensure that all new jobs offered in the Wales Office are offered as apprenticeships, not just graduate schemes? Will he ensure that the Wales Office meets the public sector target on apprenticeships?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating Emma Raducanu, Joe Salisbury, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid on their victories in the US Open. They have made the whole nation proud.
On Battle of Britain Day, we honour the legacy of those brave aircrews who defended our nation.
I am sure that hon. Members will also want to join me in wishing you well, Mr Speaker, for the G7 Speakers and Presiding Officers conference in Chorley later this week.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I would like to pass on my condolences to the Prime Minister on the sad loss of his mother.
Raising children is very expensive—more so when they are disabled. The children impacted by sodium valproate have suffered physically, mentally and indeed financially. When the Cumberlege report was published, there was real hope that they would get support. However, on the last day before the summer recess, a written ministerial statement indicated that recommendation 4 of that report would not be actioned. May I please ask my right hon. Friend to urge the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to look again at that and give the parents of those children the financial redress that they so desperately need?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind words. On her substantive point, she is entirely right to raise the issues investigated by Baroness Cumberlege. We have given the report full consideration, accept its overarching conclusions and are committed to making rapid progress in addressing all the areas that it mentions, including the one that my right hon. Friend covered today.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Emma Raducanu—a tremendous success in the US Open—the Battle of Britain and the G7 Speakers conference. May I also offer my condolences to the Prime Minister on the loss of his mother? As I know at first hand, losing a parent is never easy.
How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full-time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week that the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his universal credit cuts?
First of all, I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind words. On his substantive point about universal credit, it is absurd, because the Labour party—[Interruption.] I will give you a statistic, Mr Speaker: every single recipient of universal credit would lose their benefits under Labour, because it wants to abolish universal credit. I think that this House and this Government should be very proud of what we are doing and continue to do to support the low-paid. It was another Conservative institution, the living wage, that increased the incomes of families on it by £4,000 a head. What the Labour party wants to do is keep this country in lockdown and keep this country in furlough without moving forward at all.
What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that under this Government, for the first time in decades, wages are rising. Wages across the board are rising, and they are 4.1% up on where they were before the pandemic. In fact, I am very pleased to say—[Interruption.] Of course, what the Opposition want to do is continue to take money in taxation and put it into benefits. We do not think that that is the right way. We want to encourage high wages and high skills. That is the difference between this Government and the Labour party. I think it is a good thing, for instance, that Costa Coffee is now paying 5% more than it was before the pandemic—and never forget, Mr Speaker, that if we had listened to Captain Hindsight, Costa Coffee would still be closed.
It wasn’t a difficult question, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] It is silly, they say. “How many hours would someone working full time on the minimum wage have to work to make up for the cut?” is apparently a silly question. I will give the Prime Minister the answer to the question. The number is much, much higher. A single parent—who could be a constituent—working on the minimum wage and already working full time would need to work more than nine hours a week on top of that full-time job just to get back the money that the Prime Minister has taken away from them. They are already working full time. They have kids. How on earth does the Prime Minister think they are going to find the time to work an extra nine hours—in truth, an extra day every week?
I will tell you what we are doing, Mr Speaker, to support people on low incomes. We are supporting them not only with the living wage, but with 30 hours of free childcare, and by freezing petrol duty and extending the heating allowance to 780,000 people across the country—but, even more important than that, for the low-paid we are encouraging measures to see their wages rise. We are investing in their skills. We are investing in work coaches.
There is now a dividing line between this Government and the Opposition. We want a high-wage, high-skills economy with controlled immigration; what they want is low wages, low skills, and uncontrolled immigration. That is what they stand for.
Let us test that right now. We have had three questions and the Prime Minister has not answered one of them, and it is obvious why.
The truth is that these low-paid workers cannot work longer hours to get back the money that the Prime Minister is cutting from them. He knows it; they know it. Millions of working families will be hit hard—very hard—by the Prime Minister’s universal credit cut, and the reason, I tell the Prime Minister, is this. Why would those people have to work an extra nine hours—a full day every week—to get that £20 back? It is because of his broken tax system. He has just said how good it is, so let us test it. After his national insurance rise, for every extra pound that those workers earn, his Government will take more than 75p from them. That is why they have to work for those nine hours—one whole extra day.
The Prime Minister has just said that he is going to raise wages, and what else he is going to do, but that is the situation. Why is the Prime Minister making a bad situation worse for working people by hammering them with a cut in universal credit and a tax rise?
Actually, what we have done with our local housing allowance is increase by £600 the amount of money available to exactly the type of person the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned. He has attacked the plan that we announced last week to fix the backlogs in the NHS. I have to say that I thought it utterly incredible that the party of Nye Bevan should have come to the House last Wednesday and voted against measures that would fix the NHS. It is quite clear that ours is now the party of the NHS, and that the Opposition simply do not have a plan. They do not have a plan for universal credit—they want to abolish it—and they do not have a plan to fix the NHS or social care.
An unfair tax rise which will not fix social care and will not clear the NHS backlog is not a plan. The Prime Minister pretends that there is no alternative but to hammer working people with tax rises and universal credit cuts, but that is not true. His approach means that a working single parent who is a qualified nurse would lose £1,143. A supermarket worker could lose £1,093. A teaching assistant could lose £1,081. At the same time, the Prime Minister has wasted billions on crony contracts, cut taxes for people buying second homes and handed out super tax deductions for the biggest companies. That is not taking difficult decisions; that is making political choices. So why is the Prime Minister choosing to take a tax system that is already loaded against working people and making it even more unfair?
It is absolutely ridiculous that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should attack the Government over salaries for nurses when we have put them up by 3% on top of the 12.8% rise that we introduced, when we are hiring 50,000 more nurses and when we are putting another £36 billion into the NHS and social care on top of the £33 billion that this Government invested when we came into office. One in 10 of the people in this country are now on an NHS waiting list. Labour Members know that the NHS backlog needs to be fixed, they know that this Government have a plan and they know that Labour has absolutely nothing to say.
I just wonder what the millions of people on low wages who are facing a £1,000 cut will think of that. This country’s success is built by working people, but the tax system is loaded against them. The Prime Minister may not understand the pressures facing families across the country, but we do. The reality is this. Taxes on working people: up. National insurance—[Hon. Members: “”Up!”] Council tax—[Hon. Members: “Up!”] Energy bills, food prices, burdens on families: up, up, up. The Prime Minister needs to get real and understand the terrible impact of his decisions on working people across this country. This afternoon, he has the chance to change course, to vote with Labour to cancel the cut to universal credit and then to stop clobbering working people with unfair tax rises. Will he do so?
Let me ask you, Mr Speaker, since you are a man of great restraint and taste and judgment: which country has the fastest growth in the G7? Where is employment up? Where are job vacancies at the highest level? And as for wages, they are up. They are higher than they were before the pandemic. I have listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman carefully over the last fortnight, and I am told that he has a 14,000-word essay in gestation. I do not know why he cannot produce it right away. Why does the world have to wait for the thoughts of Chairman Keir? Having listened to what he has had to say—his non-existent plan for universal credit, his non-existent plan for health and social care—I could compress those 14,000 words into four: vote Labour, wait longer. That is what he stands for. Our plan for jobs is working and our plan for covid is working.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the problem of lorry driver shortages, which is affecting the whole world, from Europe to North America. What we are doing immediately is working to get out more licences. We are taking advantage of our post-Brexit freedom so that all the young thrusters on the Conservative Benches with a post-1997 driver’s licence can now drive a vehicle with a trailer as well—everybody can drive a vehicle with a trailer as well. But after a long period of stagnation in wages for those in the road haulage industry, we are also seeing a long-overdue increase in wages. That is part of the same phenomenon that this Government are introducing and the Labour party is opposing.
I pass on my condolences to the Prime Minister and his family on the sad loss of his mother the other day. And I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in congratulating Emma Raducanu on her fantastic success in New York last Saturday.
Of course, we mourn the anniversary last Saturday of 20 years since the horrors of 9/11. We remember all those who paid the sacrifice in that outrage.
This morning we learned that the rate of inflation has reached its highest level in a decade. For ordinary workers and families, prices are going up at the very moment when they can least afford it. Workers and families need more than just a winter plan for covid; they need a winter action plan to fight a Tory poverty pandemic that is only going to get worse.
Does the Prime Minister know, and can he tell us, how much Tory Government cuts to social welfare will cost the average nurse?
We are protecting people on low incomes up and down the country—[Interruption.] Indeed we are. And we are freezing fuel duty and supporting childcare. We have brought in a huge package of measures, not least the living wage, which has already seen an increase of £4,000 for every family on the living wage.
More importantly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about the income of nurses. We are investing massively in health and social care up and down the country. That will help to fund, apart from anything else, the increase in nurses’ pay that they so thoroughly deserve. I hope he will support that package.
My goodness, my goodness, an increase in nurses’ pay. Either the Prime Minister does not know or he simply does not care. When we take the cuts to universal credit and the increase in national insurance, the figure he was looking for is that the average nurse will lose £1,736. Once again, this Government are cutting the pay of key workers, the very people we are relying on to see us through another difficult winter. The cost of living is spiralling and people are left with a Prime Minister who does not know how much his cuts are hitting key workers and a Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who does not know how universal credit works.
If any Scottish Tories are in possession of a backbone, now would be a good time to find it. Does the Prime Minister expect any MPs from his Scottish branch office to stand against the callous cuts to universal credit, or has he already bought them off with promises of jobs in his reshuffle?
What is actually happening is that we are funding the NHS across the whole of the UK, including in Scotland I am proud to say, with record sums. We have ensured that nurses have access to a training bursary worth £5,000 and a further bursary of £3,000 for childcare costs, and that is before we put up their pay by 3%. That is only possible because of the investment we are making, the measures I outlined last week and the package we are putting forward for health and social care. If the right hon. Gentleman is really saying that the Scottish nationalist party is opposed to that investment, if he is really saying that he would send it back, he would be better off banging on, as he normally does, about a referendum. He is better on that.
I, too, offer my condolences to the Prime Minister on the loss of his mother.
Health waiting lists are through the roof in Northern Ireland and hard-pressed families are being hit by decisions from this Government, but the Democratic Unionist party has been hit by a bad opinion poll so it is threatening to bring down the very institutions of the Good Friday agreement. Will this Prime Minister commit today to fast-tracking the legislation going through this House, agreed at New Decade, New Approach, to stop the institutions coming down if one political party has a petulant strop?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him that it is very important that the institutions of Northern Ireland should be robust and should continue, but I also think that a responsible Government have to address the issues of the protocol, the lopsidedness and the way in which the European Union has chosen to interpret those issues, which I do not believe satisfies the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is what we are going to do.
I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for millions and millions of people up and down this country who abhor the fur trade and do not want to wear fur. Obviously, we have banned fur farming in this country for a long time, and we are going to look at what we can do, working with the fur sector, to prevent fur from being imported into Britain.
First, I want to say how sad I am to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent Lynda. I think her experiences have been shared by literally millions of people in this country during the pandemic, because they have not been willing or able to get the oncology treatment that they need because of the pressure of covid on the system. The system is now coming back, trying to help everybody as fast as possible to fix the backlogs. So yes, it is necessary to hire more nurses and doctors, and there about 10,000 more nurses now and about 6,000 more doctors—
The hon. Gentleman is totally right in what he says about radiologists and pathologists, but may I respectfully say to him that that must be done by means of the big powerful package that we put forward last week to raise the funding necessary? I believe his party should have supported that and it is incredible that it did not.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter; I know he has campaigned on that issue. The review is going ahead and we will look at what to do once it has been completed, but in the meantime Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust is going to be supported through the national maternity safety support programme.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. When the Government came into office, a key part of the extra £14 billion that we put into education was for investment in special educational needs, to allow local areas to build more SEND schools where they were necessary. We are putting another £780 million into extra SEND education for our kids. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise a particular shortfall in a particular school or area, will she please write to me about it?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says about the importance of buying British and eating British. Our food is the best in the world. He is also right to address the problems that we are currently seeing in the supply chain, but we are taking steps. Of course, it has been a problem for a long time, but we will use the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to ensure that British farms get the labour that they need.
Yes. My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for the people of Penrith and The Border, and I can tell him that in addition to our support for 500 school-rebuilding projects in the next decade—we are doing 100 immediately—Cumbria County Council has been allocated £5.3 million for the financial year 2021-22 to improve buildings, including Ullswater Community College.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the impending cuts to universal credit will not just have a devastating financial impact on people, but lead to stress and anxiety and undoubtedly have a hugely detrimental effect on their mental health, which, on top of the pressures of the pandemic, could prove devastating for some?
Yes, I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why we are investing in the NHS, and we want the NHS to be a better place for the dental profession. Would it not be a fine thing if this House of Commons voted overwhelmingly—with all Members voting—for our package of measures to support the NHS?
September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Every day across the UK, 12 children and young people will be diagnosed with cancer, and, of those, two will not survive. My constituent Nadia Majid and her family are campaigning to improve research and funding in this field. Nadia’s son, Rayhan, was only four years old when he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour. Rayhan tragically passed away only four months after his diagnosis. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking all the doctors, nurses and support staff who work tirelessly to fight against childhood cancer and meet with me to discuss how the four nations can work together to improve research and funding into childhood cancers and to support families like Nadia’s?
I know that the hon. Lady echoes the thoughts of millions of people. There is not a family in this country that has not been touched by cancer. Childhood cancer is particularly tragic, which is why the Government are investing huge sums in research and also in supporting some of the fantastic charities that she mentions, particularly those investigating brain cancers.
I have great respect for Dr Kingdon as I have for my right hon. Friend. It is one of a number of views in the scientific community, but we continue to think that testing is a very important route for keeping schools open, which is the best possible thing for the physical and mental health of our kids.
My condolences to the Prime Minister on the sad loss of his mother.
I was privileged to be able to take the time off work that I needed to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, but that should be a right for everyone, not a privilege. Far too many people cannot take the time off that they need because, by the former Health Secretary’s own admission, statutory sick pay at £95 a week is not enough to live on. This is a simple question—yes or no? Will the Prime Minister today commit to full sick pay at a real living wage, not the Government’s current age-restricted minimum wage?
As the whole House will know, what we have done is make sure that everybody who gets covid-related statutory sick pay gets it on day one. We have also ensured that most people in this country, when they fall sick or when they need to recover as the hon. Lady has, receive considerably more than statutory sick pay.
Yes; I had no idea that the Scout Association was doing that, but I think it is fantastic. Uniformed youth services make a huge difference to outcomes for young people, and it is fantastic that the Squirrels are now starting them off at the age of four.
For more than half a century, the GKN factory in Erdington has produced high-quality parts for the automotive industry. Now, following the hostile takeover by Melrose, the company has announced its intention to close the factory, sack 519 workers, and export jobs and production to continental Europe. There has been some welcome engagement with Ministers on this issue, but does the Prime Minister agree that, in one of the poorest parts of Britain, if the levelling-up agenda and support for British manufacturing mean anything, this factory cannot close? Does he therefore also agree that it would be a betrayal of the British national interest were this great, historic factory to become history?
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is working with GKN to do whatever we can, but I believe that the future of the UK automotive sector is incredibly bright. That is because—to go back to the question of the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse)—we are the Government who took the historic step, ahead of every other European country, to move towards electric vehicles by 2030. We want this country to be in the lead. We are making sure that we get the investment in the UK that will drive new technology, drive growth, and drive high-wage and high-skilled jobs in this country.
I am sorry that we have not yet found time to discuss this matter properly, person to person. The Government are very much interested in what my hon. Friend says about geothermal projects, so I will ensure that a meeting is arranged as soon as possible.
I am sure that the Prime Minister will be as pleased as I am that the Scottish Land Court has this week given the final green light to establishing a space launch facility in Sutherland. This is great for the UK, and it is time to bury party political differences. On behalf of the delighted crofters of the community of Melness, I extend a warm invitation to the Prime Minister to come to the first launch, where he will be given a delicious highland tea, including some home-made scones.
I thank my hon. Friend. We are already working with Rolls-Royce. We gave £20 million seed money to the Rolls-Royce-led consortium when this Government first came in to help them to develop their small modular reactor design. As I said to him the other day, we want to see that company coming forward with a fully worked out plan—a fully worked out business case—that we can all get behind.
The Prime Minister has set out today that he wants a high-skill, high-wage economy. He has also been on the record as saying that the tactic of fire and rehire is “unacceptable”. Surely the best way of ensuring that we have a high-wage economy is to work with the proposals in my private Member’s Bill so that we end that tactic of fire and rehire.
The most vivid example of fire and rehire is that conducted by the Labour party. If I recall, the leader of the Labour party himself fired his deputy leader and then rehired her as shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow Secretary of State for the future of work. The future of work under Labour is low wages and low skills driven by uncontrolled immigration. The people of this country have had enough of that; what they want to see is high wages, high skills and controlled immigration, and that is what this Government are committed to deliver.
Will my right hon. Friend come to No. 1 George Street and celebrate great British farming today, can we have public procurement that uses British food, and can we have food envoys all across the world promoting our great British food and farming?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is the living embodiment of the robustness of British agriculture, and indeed of the benefits of English food—of British food, particularly the beef of Devon, or Somerset. He is right in what he says about food envoys. We have taken that up. Every single embassy across the world has a food envoy.
My constituents in Bridge House, Croydon live in flats covered in dangerous cladding that will cost millions to remove. They are not eligible for the Government’s building safety fund because it is the wrong type of cladding. Can the Prime Minister confirm: do my constituents have to pay the £23,000 each that they are being charged to remove this cladding, or does he have a better plan?
If the hon. Lady’s constituents are being told that they do not have to remove that cladding, then the answer is no. It is very, very important that this House should recognise that too many buildings have been unnecessarily—unfairly, I believe—categorised as dangerous and unsafe. Of course we must remove dangerous cladding, and we are doing that, but I want householders and leaseholders—people living in flats across this country—to have the confidence that they can do so in safety, and that is what this Government are doing.
Abuse of Public-facing Workers (Offences)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for and in connection with offences relating to verbal and physical abuse of public-facing workers in the course of their employment.
“Abuse is a regular occurrence unfortunately. I’ve been sworn at, spat at, pushed, had trollies rammed into me, had grown men tell me they will rape and kill me. I have plenty of colleagues that have been assaulted, one had a man wait in the car park for him and smashed a glass bottle over his head.”
That is one constituent’s account of the abuse they face at work, but there is more:
“I’ve had threats to ‘smash my face in’ and threats such as stabbing, threats to my family, punching threats, needles, threats to follow me home, waiting around until I’ve finished work, arson and generally abusive shouting, swearing, and spitting”.
These stories are a part of a wider pattern that goes beyond only one section of the economy or one type of workplace.
Many people will have looked in horror at the footage from Asda in Clapham, which showed a man brutally attacking workers and customers at that store. My union, the GMB, is campaigning for stronger legal protections for workers because of such assaults. I have also heard from cabin crew workers, who have suffered rising levels of abuse as they try to enforce social distancing protocols on planes; journalists facing increasing harassment, abuse and even assault by far-right groups; NHS workers being accosted by anti-vaxxers and covid deniers while going about treating the sick; librarians facing rising levels of abusive behaviour; workers in bars and restaurants facing violence and intimidation from customers; and transport workers, often working alone, who have been spat at, threatened and physically assaulted. Everywhere, we have rising levels of abuse directed at people who work with the public.
Last June, a survey conducted by the Institute of Customer Service found that more than half of customer-facing employees have experienced increased hostility from customers during the coronavirus crisis. More than half of the participants in a survey from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers reported being threatened with physical violence. Some 88% had been verbally abused, 13% reported being racially harassed and 16% had been spat at or targeted with other bodily fluids. In a 2010 survey, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers reported very similar.
Covid has made this growing problem even worse, but it would be a mistake to think it was the cause. Before the outbreak, the 2020 crime report found that 83% of people in the convenience store sector had been subject to verbal abuse. It is estimated that there have been more than 50,000 incidents of violence. Some of the responsibility lies with individuals. We need to see a change in behaviour and in the culture of how we treat front-facing workers. That change will not happen on its own. Part of our discussion should include what employers can do to protect workers. We need better reporting, better support and a more robust pursuit of prosecutions, but we also need to see the Government take action.
Today, with this Bill, I am here to propose that the verbal or physical abuse of public-facing workers carrying out their duties has to be made its own specific offence. Some say we already have enough on the statute book on this and that there are already laws that, taken together, cover the offence of abusing frontline staff, but our laws reflect and shape our society. If the existing legislation reflects a situation in which we have seen spiralling levels of abuse, it is time that changed, because the status quo simply is not working.
The British Retail Consortium reports that only 6% of incidents of violence and abuse ended in prosecution, and in only 3% of cases was the victim performing a public service an aggravating factor. The lack of action has consequences. In a survey conducted by the RMT, 43% of respondents said they had not reported the incidents to their managers. When asked why, the most common reason was that they did not feel it would be taken seriously or that it was just part of their job. A quarter said that they had reported incidents and no action had been taken. USDAW found similar, with a survey saying that a quarter of its members had never reported the abuse they have suffered and that it was a regular occurrence.
The most recent polling from the Institute of Customer Service reports that nearly half of the workers who participated in the survey do not report incidents of abuse. Over half of those who had been abused did not think it would make a difference, and why would they when the rate of prosecution is so low? No wonder the system is not working. The sentencing for common assault is complicated. There are three categories of harm and culpability, 19 aggravating factors and 11 mitigating factors. A new law would make the process far simpler. We have already seen how it could look in practice. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018—the “protect the protectors” Act—provides a good template.
The 2018 Act was a welcome step forward, but the law has been applied inconsistently. For example, the Prison Officers Association told me that it has been unevenly applied to its work context, with different rulings classifying prison officers as emergency workers or not. Similarly, social workers, who are often required to engage in emergency work, are not included in the Act, but they are protected while enforcing child protection orders or carrying out mental health assessments in Scotland under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. Those inconsistencies would disappear if the law encompassed all public-facing workers.
A new offence would simplify the legal process, iron out inconsistencies and encourage law enforcement to proactively investigate and support complainants against perpetrators. It would also empower frontline workers to speak up and report incidents of abuse, knowing that there is a greater chance that they will be listened to and investigated.
It should be an inalienable right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace, but many people feel that they are ignored by a system that does not care about them or take them seriously. Today we have an opportunity to demonstrate that we do care. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Olivia Blake, Andrew Gwynne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Rachel Hopkins, Kim Johnson, Navendu Mishra and Kate Osborne present the Bill.
Olivia Blake accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 January, and to be printed (Bill 157).
5th Allotted Day
Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to cancel its planned cut to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit which from the end of September 2021 will reduce support for many hard-working families by £1,040 a year.
I reiterate what I said when we had this debate in January: while, understandably, strength of feeling is high when talking about something that affects so many families and households across the country, this should not be a debate with personal abuse or accusations of bad motive. I ask everyone following the debate at home to consider that, too. If we instead took a moment to assess the matter properly and considered not just the impact on the 6 million affected families but what is in the best interests of our economy as we recover from the pandemic and, crucially, what we need as a country to be able to face the inevitable shocks and economic problems that will come our way in the future, we would decide that it would be unconscionable to take this money away.
In my constituency, £10.5 million will disappear from the spending capacity in our local economy when more than 10,000 people and working families lose access to this benefit. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will have a tremendously bad effect on local spending power?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The reduction of £20 a week for 6 million low-income families will be the single biggest overnight cut in the history of the welfare state—bigger even than the cut to unemployment benefit in 1931 that caused the Government of the day to collapse. The scope of the cut, affecting one in 14 British workers, is also unprecedented. For those reasons alone, it is right that we are having this debate and that our constituents know where we stand.
Will the hon. Member tell me how many households in his constituency are in receipt of universal credit? I am giving him a chance to put on the record how many of his constituents are affected. There is a whole section of my speech in which I will tell him how the Government can afford to pay for this.
I did not know that the hon. Member did not know the figure for his constituency—I promise that I was not trying to catch him out. I was simply trying to make the point that the recovery of his local economy would be adversely affected by taking that spending power away, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) made clear for her constituency.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for introducing this important debate. Northern Ireland has the highest levels of child poverty in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My mailbag, like everyone’s, is full of real-life stories of people worried sick about how they will be affected. Does he agree that the removal of the £20 universal credit payment will plunge even more people into food poverty and have a detrimental effect not just on their pockets financially but on their health? It is a double whammy, and they just cannot take it.
I agree with the hon. Member. Opposition to the cut is truly universal, for those reasons. It includes MPs, charities, unions and six former Conservative Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions. If we are being honest, I think several serving Conservative Ministers also share that view. In this debate, I want to knock down the fiction that there is somehow a choice to be made between cancelling the cut and getting people back into work. I want to talk about what the cut will mean for the families affected and the impact that it will have on all our local economies and the national resilience necessary to meet future challenges. I also want to talk about how the Government could easily fund universal credit at its current rate without making this counterproductive and harsh cut.
In the right hon. Member’s constituency, 4,000 households are in receipt of universal credit. I want to ensure that, at the beginning of the debate, we knock down the argument, which we have also heard from the Prime Minister, that a focus on jobs will somehow mean that we do not need to keep universal credit at its current level. Of course we should get people back into jobs, but it is simply false to say that the choice is between keeping the uplift and doing that.
Let me remind the House again that universal credit is an in-work benefit. Almost half of the incomes that Government Members wish to cut are of people in work. Either the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and several Conservative MPs do not know how universal credit works or they are being wilfully misleading. I do not know which is worse. Let us have a real debate rather than this ignorant rhetoric about work or welfare, because—this is the crucial point—if as a country we could get the people affected into better-paying jobs, the cost of keeping universal credit at its current level would go down automatically. That is exactly how the system is designed to work. Anyone saying that the cut needs to happen to get people back into work, or to get them working more hours, does not know what they are talking about.
The hon. Member is kind. I hope he will answer my intervention rather than re-intervene on me; I found that very odd earlier. Is it better in principle that people receive £20 through the benefits system or through going into longer hours, with more progress in work and building up a career where there is no limit on what they achieve?
Of course it is better that people are in work, but the whole point of reform in this area over the last decade and a half has been to try to create a system that integrates with the world of work. I cannot see how the hon. Member does not understand that. I cannot see the logic in his argument that a cliff edge is necessary for the outcome that he wishes to see.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling argument about universal credit being an in-work benefit for many people. I have been inundated with calls from constituents who are supermarket workers, teaching assistants and carers. They are already working long hours and they have gone above and beyond during the pandemic. Does he agree that this is not the way to thank those hard-working key workers for everything that they have done for this country?
I agree absolutely; that is the point. We saw in the exchanges between the Secretary of State and me on Monday, as well as in Prime Minister’s questions, that the Government’s proposition is that somehow people working full time will be able to work 50 or 55 hours a week, on top of what they are already doing. The Opposition are more than happy to have a discussion about raising pay—we have plenty of ideas. Let us discuss raising the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour now or reducing the universal credit taper rate so that people keep more of what they earn. To dress up this devastating cut as a choice between supporting jobs and supporting families is an insult to the millions of working people who will see their incomes drop. Hon. Members who support the cut should at least have the decency to stand up and say so rather than hide behind straw men.
I will give my hon. Friend some statistics from my constituency, where 37% of all children—that is 6,802—are living in poverty, a figure that has increased considerably under the Tories. Thousands of them and their families rely on universal credit to put food on their tables. With the latest figures showing inflation rocketing, and that is very much on food, does my hon. Friend agree that adults and children will go hungry if the Government do not do the right thing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, it is also important to say that there are 1.7 million people this will affect who cannot work, owing to disability, illness or caring responsibilities. I have not heard a single mention of them from the Government, or the offer of any help coming their way to mitigate this cut.
The Government said at the time they increased the universal credit payment that it was to pay for essentials during the pandemic. I take that to be food and fuel. Does the shadow Secretary of State believe that food and fuel prices have fallen since the pandemic, and if not, does that not just do away with the Government’s argument altogether?
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who makes two points: first, if the Government believed this level of need was evident during the pandemic, the crisis that people face—whether that is illness or redundancy—does not change whether or not there is a global pandemic; and crucially, yes, he is right that fuel costs are going up. We had the announcement this morning that inflation is over 3%. Anyone who has been to a British supermarket in the last few months knows how much food is going up, so the need is absolutely there. Frankly, the Government’s case that somehow this support was needed in the pandemic and can be taken away has absolutely nothing to it.
That brings me to one more point I want to raise before I talk about the impact on people. I want to highlight again the situation for people on legacy benefits, such as employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance, who never had this uplift to begin with. I believe, and I have said so many times, that these people are the victims of discrimination. Universal credit is the clear successor benefit to these benefits, and the decision to not uprate them was initially presented to this House as a technical problem, rather than a policy choice. The situation they have been put in is grossly unfair, and we will continue to keep raising this. The only reason I did not include those benefits in the wording of this motion today is that I did not want any Conservative MP to be able to cite that as a reason to refuse to back this motion.
It is the impact on people that should be paramount in our minds. I am sure all hon. Members, whichever side they are on, have been inundated with people getting in touch to tell them exactly how much this money means to them. The leaked internal analysis from the Government that appeared in the Financial Times last week described the cut, in the Government’s own term, as “catastrophic”. The human cost of taking this money away cannot be overstated: £20 may not seem like much to some people, but it is makes the difference of having food in the fridge and still being able to put the heating on, or being able to get the kids new school shoes without worrying how to pay for them.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. In Oldham, there are over 11,000 people in work reliant on universal credit with 22,000 children. Is he as concerned as I am that the long-lasting impacts of driving these children into further poverty—as we saw, for example, in the Nuffield Foundation report yesterday—are going to be detrimental not just for those families, but for society as a whole?
My hon. Friend is my constituency neighbour, and she knows that her constituency is very much like mine. We have seen the impact of the austerity years and what that has meant, not just in terms of the impact on people, but with how much need that has pushed on to other services—the NHS, the police force—and, frankly, with how so many of the preventive services that were once there have had to go from local authorities. The position people are in, as things stand today, is not one in which anyone could reasonably say that there is capacity to further reduce support and take so much money out of local economies.
According to the Resolution Foundation, over 40% of people on universal credit were food-insecure before the Government introduced the £20 uplift, so does my hon. Friend agree that by cancelling the uplift and cutting universal credit by £20 a week, the Government are taking the money from people that they need to put food on their tables and to support their families?
Again, no one could dispute that case. Last week I went on a visit to Peterborough, which is the Conservative constituency most affected by this cut, and I went to volunteer in a local food bank. Anyone volunteering in that situation and simply observing the level of need coming through the front door could not in any good conscience say that the people going there could sustain themselves if this cut were to take place. Some of the volunteers there are people who work for the NHS, who in their spare time are volunteering on the vaccine programme and, in their spare time from that, are volunteering at the local food bank. That is what the people of this country are doing, and if only they had a Government who were willing to give the same level of commitment, how much better things would be.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech. We have been through a period when communities have come together, and he has just talked about volunteering and the way that communities have come together to deal with food poverty in particular. Children have been involved in that, and this is the Government who failed to feed our children during holiday time, so it is no surprise that they are bringing in this cut. Even in a constituency such as mine in London, over 5,000 children live in households that receive universal credit and are going to face a cut on top of what we have all been through over the last 18 months. It really is time that this Government started to think about the consequences of what they do to the poorest people in our communities.
Again, I think the case my hon. Friend has made is self-evident. I would also say that if we look at the moments of national crisis in British history and at how the country has responded to those, we see that we have always sought to learn from those crises and to take the best bits of our response to them. This announcement from the Government—the debate today—is their saying, “There’s nothing to take from this; there is nothing to keep that sense of solidarity or that action to try to improve things for people, and we are walking away from it.” I think that that, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes so many people frustrated with the tin ear the Government are showing.
Erdington may be rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. Some 63% of working age families with children in my constituency face a £1,040 cut in the biggest overnight cut to social security in the history of the welfare state. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Government seem to be oblivious to the despair of mums and dads who are wondering how they are going to be able to feed their kids as a consequence of soaring bills—electricity, gas—and prices in supermarkets, and that at a time like this this cut is truly the cruellest cut of all?
Again, I am pleased my hon. Friend has been able to place this on the record for his constituency, because that is how everybody sees it.
Last week I met some of the families who gave evidence at the Work and Pensions Committee—great people, real people—and they told it exactly how it is. On Monday, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), tried to say this actually is not a cut because the Treasury never budgeted to keep the uplift in place. Let me tell him that it is a cut to those families who came here to give evidence in the session last Wednesday, and it is a cut, as hon. Members have said, at a time when other things—the cost of heating, the cost of food, the rate of inflation—are already going up in real terms. Let us in this debate deal with the reality of people’s lives, not with Treasury fictions.
I took a moment to look back at some of the calls the hon. Gentleman has made over the last couple of weeks to increase benefits. When I added them all up, I found that there is not just the £6 billion for this benefit, but a total of about £15 billion that the Labour Front Bench has called for. Can he tell us how we are going to pay for that, because it is real people who will be paying for those benefits?
I will tell the hon. Member about the real people. There are 7,700 families in his constituency whom this cut will affect, and the decisions the Government will make—[Interruption.] I am not going along with Conservative Back Benchers trying to tot things up and coming out with them in the middle of a debate. No, let us talk about the real impact on the 7,700 families in his constituency. The message he should be considering is: what will happen to his local economy and what will happen to national finances by taking that money away from them? This is a very important point.
Some 7,850 of my constituents will in three weeks’ time also lose £20 a week. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real cost will be the impact on people’s lives—the lost opportunities for those children’s futures and the hopes we all carry? Is it not right that we invest in people, not see this as a cut in itself?
Absolutely. That investment in people is essential, and this uplift that we are talking about today cannot be considered without remembering the benefits freeze that lasted for four years prior to 2020. As the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), has said, the uplift only really restored what the value of UC would and should have been.
The pandemic exposed what many of us already knew: that social security in this country had become so threadbare it simply would not have got us through the pandemic. Since 2010 there has been unprecedented growth in in-work poverty in the UK, and food banks have become the norm in every town and city. No constituency has been exempt from that, and, most of all, one in eight working people in the UK is currently living in poverty. So the Government should not be seeking to congratulate themselves on making this uplift during the pandemic; they should ask themselves why they let things get so bad to begin with.
There was another laughable moment in Question Time on Monday when the Secretary of State compared the Government’s response to that of the Labour Government after the global financial crisis. Back in 2008 there was a functioning and supportive welfare state: tax credits acted as a superb automatic stabiliser; Jobcentre Plus had already been created, bringing together the old social security offices with the jobcentres, which all Governments since have recognised as a huge strength; unemployment did not hit 3 million, as initially predicted; and initiatives such as the future jobs fund played their role. So that Government had already done the hard work back then, and that is the lesson this Government need to learn.
As many Members have said, great as the impact on families is, we also have a responsibility to consider the impact of this on the country as a whole. The money we are talking about is spent in local shops and on local services, the very businesses that have had such a tough time because of the necessary public health restrictions most of us here backed for good reasons.
The recovery is promising, but it is not a done deal and there is a lot of ground to make up. This is the wrong decision for the economy and it also fails to learn the lessons from the pandemic and build the resilience we need as a country to face future challenges.
I absolutely support everything my hon. Friend is saying in his speech, and the Government should listen hard, because we have all lived through a very difficult 18 months and there are increasingly difficult times ahead as well. We have learned many lessons during this period, such as that we should invest more in the things we value most. This money is targeted at families; 40% of families with children in my constituency will lose out as a result of this decision, and that will have an impact on those children. We have one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world and we know that working families are struggling. The Government can do something simple to support those families by changing their direction on this cut today.
My hon. Friend is right. The lever the Government have to alleviate this basket of problems—childcare costs, fuel costs, food costs—is to not go ahead with this decision.
My hon. Friend’s intervention brings me to my next point. If it really is the Government’s ambition to level up the UK, it is hard to see how that can mean anything when this cut disproportionately affects the places the Government say they want to boost. Despite all the rhetoric, this cut will take £2.5 billon out of local economies in the north and the midlands, including Stoke-on-Trent which would lose over £32 million and Blackpool which would see £23 million cut.
We all know this money is not being invested or hidden away; it is being spent. It is being spent in shops and restaurants in local high streets that desperately need a boost after last year. After the last week, it seems that the Government are keener on taxes up than levelling up.
On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the last Labour Government and the 2008 financial crisis, what support did that last Labour Government give to those families?
Actually, that is a really important point because the hon. Gentleman was guilty in his comments on the previous welfare system of looking at it through rose-tinted lenses. There were huge problems with the previous welfare system. It caught hundreds of thousands of families in poverty traps, and at every opportunity since 2010 the Labour party resisted our efforts to reform welfare, to make work pay and to provide better financial support for families in Britain.
I have a lot of time for the right hon. Gentleman, as he knows, and he has been vocal in opposing the Government and we all have respect for that, but I must put a few things on the record in response to his intervention. The reductions in poverty under the last Labour Government were tremendous, and we did not even know how good they were until we got the evaluation, sadly a few years later when already so much of that had been taken apart. Of course there were problems with the previous system, but no one should try to claim that the last Labour Government were not a reforming Labour Government. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, after that Labour Government came to power a single parent did not have to go out and look for work until their eldest child was 16—there was no regime in the world like that—and Jobcentre Plus did not exist. So there was a lot of reform and the system was improved, but crucially—this is the big difference from the reforms of this Government—our reforms brought poverty down, brought more people into the workplace, and made this country stronger, more resilient and a better place for everyone. That is why, sadly, our record is overwhelmingly better than this Government’s.
I have dealt with this intervention before—being involved in so many Finance Bills does give that experience—and that is false; a quick Google search will put the record straight for the hon. Gentleman.
The great Labour Government after the second world war who created the welfare state, built 1 million council houses and created the national parks while having to deal with demobilisation after the war are not hugely relevant to people who want to cut £20 a week from 6 million families today. But I will always defend the post-war Labour Government, the greatest Government in the history of this country.
No, we have had enough history and the hon. Gentleman has intervened twice; we can look forward to his speech.
In relation to the tax rises announced last week, the combination of this cut and the rise in national insurance is absolutely outrageous. As many as 2.5 million families will lose £1,300 a year. This Government are already a high tax Government, and due to that and the decision to freeze personal allowances and hike council tax combined with the much lower than expected Government borrowing costs, projections are already coming in for the October spending review suggesting that there is far more room for manoeuvre than anyone previously thought.
The Resolution Foundation, the most respected analyst of the labour market and welfare state in the country, said last week that the Chancellor
“will be significantly boosted by the good news the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will deliver within its updated forecasts on 27 October. Borrowing this year is likely to come in several tens of billions lower than expected, having already borrowed £26 billion less than previously forecast in the first four months of 2021-22. More importantly, if the OBR moves its forecast for the long-term scarring effect of the pandemic on the British economy (currently 3 per cent of GDP) into line with the more optimistic consensus (the Bank of England now expects scarring of just 1 per cent) he will have a windfall that lasts, possibly to the tune of around £25 billion a year.”
I believe the final forecast might be slightly less generous than that, but the point remains that a decision to keep UC and working tax credit at the current levels could be made within the fiscal headroom the Chancellor already has when the spending review takes place.
As the Resolution Foundation made clear,
“To govern is to choose”,
and the question for hon. Members today is do they really believe that those on the lowest incomes, in some of the hardest jobs in the country, who got us through the pandemic, should take a disproportionate share of the burden going forward? Is that fair, is that a recipe for national success and is that ensuring our country is as resilient as it needs to be to meet future challenges? No, no, and no again.
Looking to the future, I want to replace UC with a better system because I recognise that the argument we are having today over the core amount is not the only problem: the five-week wait is a huge issue for people; the level the taper rate is set at is wholly wrong; and people should be able to keep more of the money they earn. Fundamentally, the Treasury caused a huge problem by causing UC to be associated for many of our constituents with austerity, cuts and sanctions, but that is an argument for another day. The choice we have to make right now is whether to proceed with this cut and, whichever way we look at it, we should not. I hear there are rumours that a reshuffle is under way. As Members will know, if a Cabinet Minister were to lose their job today and return to the Back Benches, they would receive a pay-off of £15,000. Will anyone in this debate say that that is unaffordable? It always seems to be a different rule for the people we are talking about than for everyone else in the country.
I implore Members to think about the wide-ranging effects of their decision in this place today. Charities say that the cut will cut a lifeline to millions. Economists say it will suck spending from our local high streets. Even the Government’s own internal analysis makes it clear that it will be catastrophic. No one in this House can say they did not know. No one will be able to say they were not warned. The effects of this cut are clear as day. It is wrong for our constituents, wrong for the British economy; quite simply, it is wrong for Britain. Conservative Members have a choice to make. I, and the millions this cut will hit, implore them to see sense, back the families who sent them here, and cancel the cut.
Just this week, the official jobs statistics showed that more people are getting back into work and there is a record number of vacancies. That is a tribute to the British people and businesses. It shows that our plan for jobs is working. It shows that our comprehensive and unprecedented support for citizens and corporations as well as the NHS, in trying to protect lives and livelihoods, has worked. After the terrible personal and economic impact of covid, boosted by the successful vaccination roll-out, Britain is now rebounding.
It was right that we took prompt and decisive action to support our nation during this challenging time. We had the job retention scheme, the self-employment grants, the VAT changes, the business rates relief, the suspension of evictions for people and businesses who were renting—I could go on. We could only do that, though, because we went into the global pandemic with strong economic foundations built as a result of 10 years of Conservative measures to restore the nation’s finances after the financial crisis on Labour’s watch, when, memorably, there was no money left. Those measures included a sustained focus on supporting people to move into and progress in work through universal credit, with the highest level of employment ever seen in this country just before covid hit.
If this cut goes ahead, with £20 a week taken off universal credit, it will reduce the support for an unemployed family to the lowest level as a proportion of average earnings at any time since the welfare state was established after the second world war. How can that possibly be justified?
As I will probably say a bit later as well, this was indeed a temporary uplift, recognising the financial impact on people newly unemployed and that the uplift would be somewhat of a cushion for their financial circumstances. However, do bear in mind all the other support that we have given to help families get back on their feet, all the other elements that we have used to help people manage the cost of living, as well as the extra welfare grants that we targeted specifically through local councils. They have all been actions to help people, and we are helping people back into work, and better-paid work.
I am going to make a little more progress and then I will come to the hon. Gentleman.
Those foundations meant that we had the fiscal firepower and responsive welfare system to take decisive and unprecedented action in the face of the covid emergency. We delivered a package of over £400 billion to support the British people and businesses through the economic shock and injected over £7 billion extra into the welfare system, increasing local housing allowance rental support by nearly £1 billion, as well as over £400 million of targeted grants for local government to directly help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families in local communities.
If a constituent comes to my surgery saying that they cannot afford to eat and have to go to a food bank because of the removal of the uplift, does the Secretary of State think they will feel any better when I say, “It’s not a cut; it’s just the removal of a temporary uplift”? What does she say to constituents who are on universal credit for the first time? They will have no idea that this cut is coming.
We have communicated once already with recipients of the universal credit temporary uplift. That has already gone through. The second message is under way, and the third message will be done. I think that we have taken responsible action to make sure that people realise that this change is coming, but of course the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will still be engaging with their work coach about how we can perhaps help them into better-paid work than they had before.
The Secretary of State started by listing the support that this Government have given to businesses, and specifically small businesses, which are very important in my constituency. How can she justify taking £5 million out of the local economy in Arfon?
I have already given way a bit, so I will make some more progress.
Let us recognise that not everyone was fortunate enough to be furloughed; sadly, many people were made redundant. Fortunately, we had the universal credit system, and with the mass efforts of the great civil servants in my Department, we responded instantly to support the millions of people who turned to us for help. I will never tire of praising my Department for how we helped those at their lowest ebb. I know that that would simply not have been possible with the old benefits system. People would have been queuing round the block trying to get into jobcentres, especially in the middle of a lockdown. It may be an inconvenient truth for Opposition parties, which have constantly tried to demonise universal credit, but universal credit proved itself even more during the pandemic, showing that it worked both by design and in delivery.
I, too, pay tribute to the civil servants and the work coaches in the Secretary of State’s Department. That is the point that I want to explore with her. We all understand that unemployment is yet to spike. We expect that there will be problems as a result of the furlough scheme ending. I think that is widely anticipated; indeed, the Government have gone around opening temporary jobcentres and appointing more work coaches until March next year. If the Government understand that unemployment is about to spike, why are they removing this uplift to universal credit right now?
Of course, we now have a record number of vacancies, but we are also about being ready and anticipating. The OBR forecast that there would be a significantly higher unemployment effect as a result of what happened, and it mattered that we had jobcentres and work coaches ready to help people with that. I hope that we can now make sure that our army of work coaches can continue to help just under 2 million people still looking for work to get into those 1 million vacancies, as well as their efforts to help people progress in work.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and neighbour, who is making an excellent speech. She is right to highlight the resilience of the universal credit system, but on the point that is made about taking money out of local economies, is that not an insult to John Maynard Keynes? Is it not a fact that if individuals get more hours and better-paid work, there will be more money going into their economies, and on a more sustainable basis?
I would not normally rely on John Maynard Keynes to help the cause, but undoubtedly, there is an element of investment; we are seeing plenty of investment by the Government in our economies and in businesses in support of that, not least the £650 billion programme announced by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor earlier this week, which we estimate will generate an extra 425,000 jobs just in the next few years. We want people to have more take-home pay. That is why we have pursued increases to the national living wage, which is now at 60% of median earnings. The intention is that it will reach 66% of median earnings before the end of this Parliament—and that is just the minimum. We want people to have high-skilled, high-paid jobs, and that is why our plan for jobs is all about helping people take advantage of the support that is there.
Spending £6 billion handing an uplift to all recipients of universal credit, irrespective of their circumstances, was never a targeted way of affecting those people who are most in need. That is why it was temporary. When the Secretary of State comes to the longer term, will she consider the taper and the way that childcare costs are met?
My right hon. Friend is right that it was quite a blunt way of quickly delivering instant support, particularly for those most financially impacted by covid, many of whom were made redundant for the first time in their lives. I am conscious that we have still more to do to try to make sure that people can keep more of what they earn. I also have strong views that we need to continue to try to make best use of the funding that goes into childcare. As my right hon. Friend will know, under universal credit 85% of childcare costs, worth up to £13,000 per family, can be reclaimed. That is higher than that possible under tax credits.
Coming back to universal credit, the point has been made by hon. Members across the House that it is a dynamic benefit. It supports people in work and out of work, which is exactly what it was designed to do. People are better off working than not working, unless they cannot work. That is why, automatically and instantaneously, when people started to see a change in their working patterns due to the covid pandemic, it responded to the needs of people already in the system. Those affected saw their universal credit payments rise straight away when they lost working hours or found themselves out of work completely. That is a key part of why the UC system is absolutely vital. I am pleased that the Opposition seem at least to have decided to drop their opposition to that, even if it is just to rebrand. Nevertheless, we decided to somewhat cushion the fall of people made redundant.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it would be quite nice if the Opposition actually came here and apologised for year after year, in Opposition day debate after Opposition day debate, spreading scare stories and terrifying the poorest and the most vulnerable in the country by telling them that universal credit would not work? When we were under the biggest strain this country has ever faced, universal credit worked. That is a testament to my right hon. Friend, her great Ministers and the thousands of DWP staff up and down the length and breadth of this country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are still 3 million people on legacy benefits. We estimate that about half of those people would be better off on universal credit and that a significant number of people would see no change, yet the scare stories and the fear that the Opposition generated are why people are still not transitioning across the system. They will do just that now, because this Parliament voted to end legacy benefits; it voted to have universal credit, so we are still, through our action programme, going to move people across to universal credit. I am with my hon. Friend that many people would actually and substantially be almost certainly better off if they moved. For those people, we have to have a managed migration. We have, of course, already put in place a transitional payment.
The Secretary of State said a moment ago that we are spreading scare stories. Can I say to her—she may wish to comment on this—that talking about the very real impact of losing £20 per week for people who are already struggling is not a scare story, but reality?
I recognise what the hon. Lady says. I am talking about the fact that universal credit has been demonised ever since it was introduced, yet people on legacy benefits—about half of them, we believe—would be financially better off if they moved over to universal credit, regardless of the £20. A significant proportion more would see no change to their financial income. People are scared to move over and that is why there is a missed opportunity for them to access some of the support we have today.
I am going to make some more progress and then I will come back to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb).
Returning to the crux of the debate, the temporary £20 uplift was an important intervention to help people facing the greatest financial disruption to get the support they needed. It brought the universal credit standard allowance close to the level of statutory sick pay, the minimum amount required to be paid by employers for people who could not work.
In the Budget earlier this year, recognising that the country was still under restrictions, the Chancellor set out that we would continue covid financial support until autumn, several months after the country came out of lockdown. That helped many people stay on furlough and be connected to their employers as businesses gradually opened, and meant keeping that extra financial support for people on universal credit and tax credits for an extra six months. As our economy continues to recover, it is right that we are investing in jobs and skills to boost pay, prospects and prosperity for people right across the UK as part of our plan to level up and build back better.
On universal credit, I have spoken to dozens and dozens of work coaches all over the country. Every single one of them has told me, without a shadow of a doubt, that universal credit is a better benefit than what was before. It is down to the enthusiasm and the skills of work coaches, to a large extent, that universal credit has been such a success during this very difficult period.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We already had about 640 jobcentres. We are opening a further 200 by the end of the year, recognising that we need to support more people. Of course, work coaches do not just deal with helping people—people with disabilities and a limited capability to work—to get back into work. Work coaches do a wide variety of work to support some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Again, I thank him for paying tribute to our work coaches. They will play a key role in the time ahead. Perhaps the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth would like to intervene now?
I would be delighted to, although it is not specifically on work coaches. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that there are winners and losers with universal credit. Last week, the Select Committee heard from four single parents about how they are the losers. I would add that disabled people are also losers. What is the cumulative impact of the cuts to universal credit, the introduction of the new national insurance contributions payment, the rise in food prices and energy bills, and the childcare costs which we have already heard about? What would the impact be on a single parent with two children living on the minimum wage with support from universal credit?
The hon. Lady will know that every individual or household on universal credit has very distinct relationships, which is why we can find households earning up to nearly £40,000 still being recipients of universal credit. It depends on the circumstances. As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) said the other day, trying to do some kind of analysis by trying to make individual assessments is just not viable. However, we know, and she knows—
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will give way to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions shortly. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth must agree with me that the best way to get more pounds into people’s pockets is through work. We have universal credit work allowances for people with children—this may have covered some of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee—who have a limited capability to work, so they can keep all the extra money they earn until the allowance is used up and the taper rate kicks in. That is why we have given extra support for people who may not currently be working full time. That is an extra way for them to get all the money they earn for more hours.