House of Commons
Monday 8 November 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Household Support Fund
We have made £500 million available across the UK to support vulnerable households this winter. It really is for local authorities, which are closer to their communities, to use the funding to support those with needs for food, utilities and wider essentials. They are best placed to design schemes that support those most in need locally.
The £500 million household support fund is extremely welcome and my local council is busy ensuring that support reaches those who need it through their excellent Helping Hand scheme. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Buckinghamshire Council on ensuring that a comprehensive package is available for those who are sadly unable to put food on the table or heat their homes, and will she set out what more can be done to ensure that those in such distressing circumstances know that local authorities have the resources and should be the first port of call?
My hon. Friend is right to praise Buckinghamshire Council, which was allocated £2.4 million from the fund. It is fair to say that local authorities delivering the household support fund have access to elements relating to health visitors, social workers and housing departments, and access to the benefits system through the Searchlight portal, to identify people who may need help at this time and are most in need. Of course, people should turn to their councils for that support, and they should be warmly welcomed.
According to the Resolution Foundation, the combined effect of the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift and the Budget measures means that 3.6 million households on universal credit—three quarters of the total—will still be worse off this winter. These measures take £3 billion out of support for the poorest, so how far does the Secretary of State estimate that the £500 million household support fund, which is equivalent to just one sixth of the amount that has been removed, will reduce the level of hardship for people this winter?
The hon. Lady will recognise that some of the announcements made in the Budget recently will, I expect, provide some direct support for people working or, indeed, encourage people into work. However, the £500 million, being a targeted fund, will be a great support, with people identified by local councils that know who to target in this regard. It is also fair to say, as has been said many times, that the uplift was temporary, recognising the situation that we are in, and candidly, it was far more generous than ever happened—or rather, never happened—when we had the 2009-10 financial crisis.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I pay tribute to Buckinghamshire Council for all that it has done with the Helping Hand scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that in a place such as High Wycombe, where riches and poverty are often found so close together, it is imperative that we equip councils to provide local people with the local help that they need?
State Pension: Payment Delays
I am advised that all delayed claims have been processed, except for those that require further customer information. Some 70% to 80% of claims are now made digitally by Get your State Pension, with over 50% being cleared the same day. We are, however, introducing a new tele-claims service that will supplement the paper applications, which we accept have been lengthy and have incurred delays.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Two of my constituents should have started receiving their state pensions at the start of August and were on the verge of destitution when I was contacted in October by the welfare rights officer at Glasgow West housing association. Following the intervention from my office, both have now received what they were due from the Department for Work and Pensions, but they are by no means the only people to be hit by this latest DWP shambles. I am really concerned for people who do not have anybody like a housing association or an MP to advocate for them, so will the Minister tell me how many people he estimates have been affected by this altogether? What more can he do to put it right and make sure that those who do not have somebody advocating for them do not get left behind?
We accept that there have been delays, and we have taken significant action in the form of the redeployment of 700 staff to address those. I am pleased that the cases of the two constituents that the hon. Member outlined have now been addressed. The particular problem has been in respect of the receipt of further information from particular applicants, and those matters are being addressed on an ongoing basis.
People work hard all their lives and pay in to save for their retirement; they deserve to be paid their state pension on time. Colleagues across the House, as we have heard, are reporting more and more cases of delays in payment, some of which are as long as three months. This is a basic service provided by the Government, which we all rely on. How on earth did these delays come about? When will the Government take this seriously, and when will pensions finally be paid on time?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my earlier answer. This matter was addressed by the end of October. The reality of the situation is that the pandemic has caused delays to state pensions, with issues relating to illness, self-isolation, caring, training, location, staffing, equipment, recruiting. I could go on, but these matters are being addressed.
There are not just delays to the state pension, but underpayments. The British Government are also set to hammer pensioners’ incomes, with a cut of £2,600 on average over the next five years as a result of their plan to break the pensions triple lock, which the House of Lords rejected last week with a majority of 102—led, indeed, by a Conservative. Will the Minister do the right thing and U-turn on his plans to scrap the triple lock on pensions? If not, is it not the case that the British Government just cannot be trusted with pensions, and that the only way to ensure dignity and fairness in retirement for Scots is with independence?
I have heard it all. How on earth the Scottish Government, were they in any event to get independence, would be able to pay ongoing state pensions is a mystery that no Scottish politician has ever been able to answer. The factual reality is that the state pension, by reason of the triple lock, is up £2,000 per person, something that would never happen under an independent Scotland—that is for sure.
Universal Credit Standard Allowance: End of Uplift
The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure. Universal credit recipients in work will soon benefit from the reduction in the taper rate from 63% to 55%, with work allowances increasing by £500 a year, meaning that nearly 2 million working households will keep about an extra £1,000 a year on average.
My constituent Simon Holroyd lost his mother to covid and is a single father to 10-year-old twins. He worked in the hospitality industry all his life to a senior level, but since the pandemic he has struggled to find work and is reliant on universal credit. His life before the uplift was removed was, in his words,
“a revolving mess of balancing debts”.
Now his situation is desperate. The Minister and the Secretary of State have both referred to the uplift as temporary, but for claimants such as my constituent who were not claiming universal credit before the uplift, the removal of the £20 is experienced only as a loss. Will the Minister commit to reintroducing the uplift?
With 1 million vacancies and above in the UK and with a comprehensive plan for jobs, our focus absolutely has to be on helping people into work, particularly in the hospitality sector, where there are vacancies. I hope that there might be a vacancy for the hon. Member’s constituent.
May I thank the Minister and especially the Secretary of State for really pushing for the cut to the universal credit taper rate that we saw in the Budget? It will make a real difference to families on low incomes. There are more than 1 million job vacancies right now, plus the Budget measures to strengthen work incentives—cutting the withdrawal rate, boosting the work allowance and increasing the national minimum wage. Does that not all add up to the best opportunity in more than a generation to bear down on long-term unemployment in this country?
Absolutely. I credit my right hon. Friend: I know that he has been a champion of improving the taper rate over many years, and it was a pleasure to work with him as a Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Now is the time for us to take forward opportunities for people, given the Budget measures that have been put in place, and help long-term unemployed people into work through the sector-based work academy programme and the restart programme, which the employment Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies)—is taking forward with her characteristic verve and enthusiasm.
Unemployment support is now at the lowest level in real terms for more than 30 years, even though the economy has grown by more than 50% in real terms over that period. As a proportion of average earnings, it is the lowest ever—lower than when Lloyd George introduced unemployment benefit 110 years ago. Why has unemployment support been set at this historically extremely low level?
It is always important to have a safety net, but it is also very important to make sure that we get people into the world of work, and that is what our focus is, as I have said repeatedly in my answers today. With 1.1 million vacancies and with a plan for jobs, that has to be our focus.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must look at both money in and money out, and that the cost of living is causing pressures for worse-off families? Will he update the House on the work that the Department is doing in looking at the cost of living, particularly childcare and housing costs?
We have already provided a range of measures. Eighty-five per cent. of childcare costs are covered by universal credit, and extra support has been provided through the increase in the local housing allowance. So steps are being taken, but I understand my hon. Friend’s point about childcare. Clearly, we need to focus on it further, and we will.
Universal Credit Claimants: Support
Our plan for jobs provides tailored support for people of all ages, helping them to prepare for, get into and progress in work. The additional 13,500 work coaches whom we have recruited are ensuring that people receive the personalised advice that they need, and have access to the employment programmes or training that are right for them.
Research conducted by the End Child Poverty coalition shows that, in my constituency, 25% of children were living in poverty in 2019-20: that is 4,815 children. Since 2015, poverty has increased by 2.2%: that is 482 more children. I want to see the numbers going down, not up. Does the Minister agree that the best way to make that happen would be to reinstate the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit?
I think we have heard across the Chamber that the way out of poverty and the way to make progress is through a pay packet, which gives people so much more than just pay: it gives them the confidence that enables them to make progress and move forward. The hon. Lady will be interested in the report from the in-work commission, to which we will respond shortly. In Scotland, our new programme, job entry: targeted support—JETS—has moved more than 1,500 people into employment since January this year. I think that she has visited her jobcentre, so she should feel confident that there is help out there to ensure that no one is left behind.
I recently received a letter from a local bakery which is desperate for 30 people to come and work there. In fact we have hundreds of jobs, in hospitality, agriculture, social care and food processing. While it is disappointing that the Scottish Administration are not creating jobs for people in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, does the Minister agree that those people should come to places in North Yorkshire, such as Scarborough, where they will receive not only a warm welcome, but a great job and a great future?
Long-term unemployment is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government to attend to, but I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised this important matter. We at the DWP are organising Hospitality Rocks events to bring people into the industry. It is possible to earn significant sums in a couple of years with the necessary training and support, and people should definitely be taking those jobs in Scarborough and beyond.
The fact that universal credit is an in-work benefit is commonly overlooked. There will be a great many more claimants in west London, where Ocado Zoom is treating its workforce appallingly. It has not taken them in-house as it promised, and they now have much worse terms and conditions. I know that the Government are ruling out fire and rehire legislation generally, but will the Minister—I know she is a reasonable person, and everyone loved her the other day when she met our all-party parliamentary group on single parent families—look into this case, which the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain has been actively pursuing? The chief executive of Ocado Zoom will not even talk to me.
The hon. Lady should raise the issue with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because employee rights are a matter for that Department. However, she has made an important point. We have an employees’ market, with more than 1 million job vacancies, many of them in London. I hope that her constituents will say to that employer, “We are off somewhere else”. Whether that is in hospitality or elsewhere, they will receive a warm welcome, and so they should. They should be well rewarded for the work that they do, which is why the increase in the national living wage is so important.
Universal Credit System Resilience: Covid-19
The universal credit system stood up to the challenge of the pandemic, which meant that people received vital financial support at their time of need. On one day alone we received just over 100,000 new claims, 10 times the average. The old system would not have coped with the unprecedented pressure that we have seen over the past 18 months, and that is yet another reason why universal credit is working.
During the pandemic, the universal credit system proved not only its resilience but its agility in providing people with the emergency support that they needed. Now that the Government are rightly focusing on getting people back into work, could my right hon. Friend set out the timetable for the very welcome changes that she has made to the universal credit taper rate and to work allowances?
I was not the only person to cheer loudly when the Chancellor announced to the House that we were increasing work allowances and reducing the taper rate to 55% no later than 1 December. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that the latest information I have is that we intend to try to bring that in from 24 November, which means that an extra 500,000 claimants will benefit, even more than might have been predicted just a couple of weeks ago.
The Department for Work and Pensions makes substantial efforts to assure itself that people who are on universal credit and not in work are entitled to that payment, either because of the disabilities that they have or because they have made every possible effort to find work. On that basis, why would the Government reassure themselves that it is okay to plunge those people into poverty, when they have done everything that the Government have asked them to do in terms of trying to find work? Why not just reintroduce that £20 payment?
The £20 uplift was a temporary measure reflecting the nature of what happened in the pandemic, and the greatest financial impact was on those who had gone from having earnings to having no earnings at all. We have doubled the number of work coaches and we are striving to help people to get into work, because we know that that is the best way to get on in life. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the change that happened in the Budget, which shows, perhaps even quicker than initially predicted, that work genuinely pays.
My right hon. Friend is aware that Harrogate has been the location for the pilot work on the managed migration from legacy benefits. Is she able to update the House on how that is going? Before the pandemic, it was going very well indeed. Is she now in a position to recommence the pilot, or to move on to the next stage of the migration?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that we undertook some pilot work in Harrogate on the managed migration element of moving everybody to universal credit. I am pleased to say that there was a considerable amount of learnings from that time in Harrogate, and we have also learned a lot during the pandemic. As such, I am not envisaging a need for the pilot to be resumed in Harrogate, but it has informed our plan, which is still in preparation, on resuming the managed move to universal credit.
Disabled People: Support in Work
The Department delivers national programmes as well as initiatives in partnership with the health system to support disabled people to start, stay and succeed in employment. These include Access to Work and intensive personalised employment support, which continues to provide that support after work has begun.
It is essential to ensure, particularly as we approach the winter, that all workers have access to a liveable sick pay and do not put themselves and others at risk. However, the current earnings threshold disproportionately affects disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. What concrete actions will the UK Government take to finally fix the wholly inadequate sick pay system?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those points, and it is a pleasure to work with her once again; I have done on various topics. The Government previously consulted on reform to statutory sick pay, as she will know, but we did not think that the pandemic was the right time to introduce changes to it, as that would have placed an immediate and direct cost on employers at a very difficult time. Instead, we prioritised changes to the wider welfare system. However, I can assure her that our work on this is ongoing and I look forward to talking to her and others further about this.
I would like to welcome the Minister to her new role. She will be aware that the disability pay and employment gap remains far too large. The figures might appear to show a narrowing in recent years, but academics believe that this has been offset by an increase in the number of people identifying as disabled. Today, on the 26th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is clear that urgent action is required. The Government’s strategy for disabled people offers only a consultation on mandatory reporting. Will she be bolder than her predecessor and bring in mandatory reporting now?
I look forward to working with the hon. Lady on these vital issues. She is right that our national disability strategy demonstrates our intention to consult on workforce reporting. She asked an additional question about pay gap reporting, but those are two slightly different things. Pay gaps are, of course, caused by a range of factors, and to address them we must ensure that everybody has equal access to opportunities. That will be my passion in this role. I hope she welcomed the disability employment statistics out only last week; they show that some progress is being made, but there is a heck of a lot more to do, and I will be there doing it.
I gave the Minister a straightforward policy ask with no additional financial commitment, so it is regrettable that she cannot do it straight away. However, clearly money is required to deliver a fully inclusive society. Can she confirm that the spending review contained no extra funding linked to the strategy, other than for education and employment? Does she have plans to speak to the Chancellor about further funding, and will she now push for a full debate to show disabled people that her Government are giving the strategy the attention it rightly deserves?
That strategy and its implementation will be one of my utmost priorities; I look forward to discussing it in a constructive manner with the hon. Lady and everybody else here today, but I think she may have misread the £1.1 billion in targeted support for those with disabilities that was in the Budget and the spending review last week, which covers access to work, more work coaches and the Work and Health programme.
I have seen at first hand how assistive technology can change the lives of young people with disabilities at Treloar School and College in Alton in Hampshire. Can my hon. Friend update the House with any further details on the national centre for assistive and accessible technology, which could do so much to support adults with a learning disability and other disabilities to get into employment?
I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has raised that point, and I agree on the centrality of assistive and accessible technology. That is why our national disability strategy contained a commitment to invest up to £1 million in 2021-22 to develop a new centre for assistive and accessible tech, reporting on progress by next year. I look forward to working with her to do that.
The Minister will know that many disabled people work and receive their personal independence payments, but when someone is given a telephone appointment, they are told that they can only arrange the appointment once. That is hardly fair; if it is scheduled when they are working and the assessments can take up to an hour, that is not possible. What are the Government doing to make it easier for people to be in work and have that access?
The hon. Lady raises a good point, which I will be happy to take away and look into. In general terms, I can say that we made commitments in our Green Paper published in July to improve the assessment process overall, across both the work capability assessment and the PIP assessment. She will also know that we have been using telephone methods through the pandemic and are looking to see what will continue to be the best methods. I look forward to discussing that further with her, and I will take away the point she raises and look into it further.
We can be rightly proud of delivering record disability employment, but to meet our commitment of 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, we must expand opportunities through disability apprenticeships, a key commitment within the national disability strategy. Will the Minister confirm that she will continue to press our Department for Education colleagues to ensure we deliver that vital commitment?
I certainly will. It will be my passion to deliver all the commitments in the national disability strategy, to support more disabled people to be in work, stay in work and thrive in work. I also thank my hon. Friend for the foundational work he did on this, which I look forward to continuing.
It is good to hear some of the commitments the Government are making, but unfortunately we have heard them before. Many disabled people, particularly those who are trying to get employment and support allowance or PIP, will struggle through their assessment because their disabilities are hidden. What work is the Minister doing on that, including with providers of those assessments, to ensure that those with hidden disabilities are given a fair chance?
Again, the hon. Lady raises a common-sense point, on something that I will want to make sure is working well in our system. As I said in response to a previous point, we have indicated that we are keen to look at how the assessments in general can be improved. We have that commitment to this House in our Green Paper, published in July, which I will be looking forward to developing further. I can let the House know that we have received more than 4,500 consultation responses to that Green Paper, which gives us a very sound basis for hearing the voices of disabled people and acting on what is needed.
A year since the first placements began, almost 100,000 young people have started a kickstart role. I am delighted that kickstart will now continue through to March next year, offering exciting opportunities and crucial experience to even more young people through this extension. We are also extending our enhanced Department for Work and Pensions youth offer, expanding eligibility to 16 and 17-year-olds, so that all under-25s claiming universal credit or searching for work can benefit from more targeted support, through our youth hubs, mentoring circles and tailored support from youth employability work coaches.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will know, however, that we have a persistent problem with youth unemployment in Clacton, because I have raised this issue frequently. As we level up and build back better, can she assure me that we will not overlook areas of deprivation in the coastal regions of the south, so that we level up not only up and down, but sideways?
We are absolutely determined that no region is left behind, and we have invested in and strengthened our support offer, as I have outlined. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that on 18 November we are hosting a kickstart employer day at Clacton Jobcentre Plus, matching employers directly with those young people in need to find them suitable roles.
I thank my hon. Friend for coming along to the DWP centre in Worthing and meeting a kickstarter working for the youth hub there, and for joining me in doing a shift working tables at the Fat Greek Taverna afterwards, as a result of which we were both offered jobs—the way things are going, that might come in quite handy. What more can we do to have outreach services, to make sure that young people get into those youth hubs in the first place, where they are given all the support they need on interviews and writing CVs, and that they turn up at interviews when they are given a job prospect?
I like to think it was tenacious Tim and me together working on the hospitality shift. I know my hon. Friend is passionate about youth employment, and we did enjoy that visit. He saw that youth hub just last week, which shows that vital new link in the community, bringing together local partners. That wraparound support is key for the under-25s, particularly those who are not engaged with the Government at any other level; that is where our youth employment coaches come into their own. We have to remove those barriers to work for all.
I am delighted to see a new DWP youth hub open in Eastleigh today. It will make a huge difference to my constituents. Will the Minister set out how youth hubs will help our young people boost their skills and find new opportunities as we recover from the pandemic?
My hon. Friend is right on this. We have one youth hub opening today in Eastleigh and another in nearby Romsey; crucially, they are working in partnership with councils. Along with training, skills and employment opportunities—the DWP train and progress scheme, the sector-based work academy programme and the kickstart scheme—this means that everyone in this Chamber should know that the answer and the way to progress is through work.
My daughter started her first job today, on £9.50 an hour. She is delighted and she is doing that alongside her studies. I understand the challenge on different wage rates, but the national minimum wage rise really helps people, alongside the taper rate and the skills and opportunities provided through youth hubs and more widely. So I do not think that young people should feel anything other than that there are great opportunities out there, with more than 1 million vacancies and seasonal work, which can be the first step on to the employment ladder and the next stage in their career.
I recently visited Selly Oak jobcentre and have to say that I was quite impressed by what I saw and what I heard about the kickstart scheme, but one thing that surprised me was the number of students who are taking places on the scheme. Does the Minister share my concern that there might be a slight displacement effect, with the students understandably seeking work experience but thereby taking places on a programme that was conceived for young people with fewer qualifications and less access to the job market? If that is the case, what might she do about it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for visiting that fantastic jobcentre. We have jobcentres doing that work up and down the country, and it is crucial that 100,000 young people are getting that first step on the employment ladder. He is right to point out that there should be no cherry-picking of the easiest people to move into employment. Kickstart is about getting young people on to the first rung on the employment ladder, which is why we have kickstart quick start and direct meetings with employers, so that nobody is left behind. The flexible support fund will address any barriers and we will make sure that everybody is job ready and nobody is left behind.
In May this year, the then Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), told the Work and Pensions Committee that the Department did not routinely collect information on disabilities from young people who enter the kickstart scheme and that it had no immediate plans to do so. That means it is impossible to monitor how accessible or inaccessible the kickstart scheme is for young people who have disabilities. Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the case? If it is, when is she going to sort it?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that will be picked up in the evaluation. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned the fact that we should not be cherry-picking; the kickstart scheme is about people with the biggest barriers and the highest likelihood of long-term unemployment, and nearly 100,000 young people have got on to the employment ladder because of it. We will look at the issue the hon. Gentleman raised, but the reality is that with the Access to Work programme and all the other interventions that come alongside a kickstart role, if someone has disabilities, that should not prevent them from being on the programme.
End of Universal Credit Uplift: Household Budgets
The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. Now that the economy has reopened, the Government are giving nearly 2 million working households an increase, on average, of £1,000 per year, thanks to the reduction in the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and a £500 increase in the work allowance.
More than 9,000 Sheffield households, including 4,500 children, have together lost around £10 million as a result of the Government’s decision, and the taper adjustment compensates for just a third of that lost income. There are also deep problems caused by a backlog of work capability assessments. For some claimants, the new-style employment and support allowance is expiring as it has taken more than a year to secure an assessment. Others on universal credit face long delays in getting their correct entitlement. What is being done to clear the backlog and ensure that people with disabilities get the benefits they deserve?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working flat out to ensure that people get their entitlement as speedily as possible, which is certainly the case for the vast majority of people. We saw during the pandemic that universal credit was particularly agile in responding to a huge number of people—hundreds of thousands—who needed support.
More than hundreds—millions of people are going to benefit, because not only will they see the financial benefit but, as they start to get involved with their work coaches and understand what is available to them through the plan for jobs and in-work progression, they will see massive improvements in their financial situation and gain confidence in the workplace.
End of Universal Credit Uplift: Risk of Poverty
The Government have always been clear that the £20 uplift was a temporary measure to support households affected by the economic shock of covid-19. We believe that work is the best route out of poverty, which is why our comprehensive plan for jobs is supporting people to prepare for, get into and progress in work.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that the Government’s universal credit cut will affect 21% of working-age families in my constituency and nearly half of those with children. To make matters worse, the Bank of England says that, after tax, which the Tories continue to raise, and inflation, salaries are now forecast to fall by 1.25% this year. What plans does the Minister have to support my constituents immediately, as they will be feeling that the pound in their pocket is worth less this winter?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituents will have the opportunity to fill the vacancies that are no doubt in his patch as well as across the country. I can also assure him that we do understand that there will be vulnerable families who need extra support this winter, which is why £1.8 million has been allocated to families in Portsmouth through the local authorities there.
State Pension and Pension Credit: Kettering
The most recent statistics show that 17,942 people receive the state pension and 1,888 receive pension credit in the Kettering constituency.
Pension credit is a tax-free, means-tested benefit aimed at retired people on low incomes. It can be worth up to £3,000 a year and trigger extra help with heating bills, council tax, free dental care and free TV licences for the over-75s, yet, at a time when many pensioners are struggling with household bills, up to 1 million pensioners are not claiming £1.8 billion in pension credit. What can the Minister do to encourage take-up in Kettering and across the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We continue to make the case with the BBC, which I have met on two occasions, with the pension credit taskforce, which we specifically set up to address this matter, and with the Local Government Association and energy companies. We have put great efforts into increasing the stats. The stats on valuation and take-up are going up, but clearly more needs to be done, and I welcome his efforts in Kettering and beyond.
Universal Credit: Predecessor Schemes
Universal credit is a modern, tailored, resilient benefit responding effectively to economic conditions. It replaces six outdated and complex benefits with one, helping to simplify the benefits system and providing a safety net in times of need and, of course, making work pay.
When the Centre for Social Justice originally designed the universal credit system, it was with a 55p taper, so this reform is long overdue and very welcome. The fact remains, though, that there are still record numbers of people on universal credit, 60% of whom are not working at all, yet we have record job vacancies and a labour shortage. Will the Minister tell me what more can we do? How can we get more people back into work?
The thing that has impressed me the most since taking on this ministerial responsibility is the sheer enthusiasm of our work coaches. I definitely recommend that my right hon. Friend’s constituents speak to the work coaches to find out what opportunities are available to them, particularly through skills and through restart, to get involved in new sectors through the sector-based work academy programme. Huge opportunities are available for people, and they need to be explored.
Pensioners: Poverty Levels
Since 2010, the full yearly amount of the basic state pension has risen by more than £2,050. Latest figures show that 200,000 fewer pensioners are in absolute poverty after housing costs compared with 2009-10.
With women born in the 1950s having their pension age increased with little or no notice, with state pension payments delayed, causing real financial distress, with more than 2 million older people living in poverty, and with the triple lock abandoned with many pensioners set to be £520 worse off next year, to what extent is the Minister proud of this Government’s record of standing up for pensioners?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the triple lock has raised the state pension and that this year’s decision is a temporary one, for one year only. In respect of her campaign for 1950s-born women, that matter was decided in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. If Scotland wishes to take action on this, there are various sections of the Scotland 2016 that she could address herself to.
Figures show that one in five pensioners in the UK are living in poverty; 1.3 million retirees are under-nourished; and 25,000 die each year due to the cold weather. With bills rising and in the teeth of a pandemic, the Government want to break a manifesto promise and scrap the triple lock on what is already one of the least supportive state pensions by international comparison. What impact assessment has the Department for Work and Pensions made of scrapping the triple lock, and how many more pensioners in Liverpool, West Derby will be living in poverty and unable to afford food as a result?
As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the reality of the situation is that we have taken the state pension—which was languishing under the previous Labour Government and had not been increased in any real way whatever—and massively increased it to £105 billion, with £24 billion on top of that. It has never been higher—never, ever. There has been a £2,000 increase compared with 2010 thanks to the triple lock and the actions of this Conservative Government.
Benefit Claimants: Cost of Living Increases
From next April, the national living wage will rise by 6.6% to £9.50 an hour. This real-terms pay increase will leave more money in the pockets of hard-working people. The Government are taking action to make work pay for low-income households on universal credit by reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance.
On Friday, I visited the Fallowfield and Withington food bank. It is as busy as ever and expecting a surge in demand as a result of the recent changes to benefits. If Government support for people on benefits is adequate, why does the Minister think that so many of my constituents are having to rely on food banks?
We recognise that there are people who will require support over the winter period, which is why we have introduced the £421 million household support fund in England. I am sure that the hon. Member will welcome the £6.4 million that has been allocated to Manchester.
Since the last Work and Pensions oral questions, I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) to join our ministerial team. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on moving to his new role, looking after childcare. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for the great work that he did during his time in the Department; he should be proud of his achievements, including the changes to accessibility of benefits for those with terminal illness, and the national disability strategy.
Last week I was in Glasgow for COP26. I know you were also there at the weekend, Mr Speaker, to have discussions at that important climate conference. I was meeting my international counterparts and leading industry figures to discuss how to unlock the global superpower of pension funds to help us to achieve net zero. The UK is already leading the way. We need to mobilise climate finance, but together—with the resolve and readiness of countries and companies to act—the commitment that we secured in Glasgow will deliver prosperity and protection for people and the planet.
My constituent contacted the Department for Work and Pensions several times after her universal credit stopped at the end of July because she had reached state pension age, but she received no response. Three months later, I wrote to the DWP on the matter and received a letter on the same day, admitting the error, immediately depositing the outstanding amount and beginning the pension payments that my constituent was due. I listened to the excuses of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), on this earlier, but I still cannot understand how it could have happened. Will the Secretary of State apologise to my constituent for the very great anxiety that she has suffered because of the DWP’s blunders?
The hon. Member just shows her effectiveness as a Member of Parliament in responding to her constituent and taking the issue up with us. If there are specific details that she would like to go into, I think the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), will be more than happy to respond. It is right to say that universal credit is not paid to people who are of pension age, but I flag to her some of the issues addressed by my hon. Friend earlier when considering the backlog in paying out pensions.
May I add my welcome to the new Ministers on the Front Bench today?
In the year before the pandemic, 380,000 sanctions were handed out by the DWP to the British people. Of course, there must be rules in any system, but since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, there has been a heavy focus on punitive sanctions, often for minor infractions, yet when the Home Secretary breaks the ministerial code by bullying, she gets off scot-free; when the Electoral Commission tries to investigate the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment, it gets its wings clipped; and last week, when Mr Owen Paterson broke the rules on paid advocacy, this Government tried to do away with the rules all together. These are not one-offs. This is a pattern of behaviour. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that many people are comparing how the DWP operates with how the Conservative party behaves, and are asking, “Why is there one rule for the Government and another for everybody else?”?
Well, what can I say? The interests of the British public are best served when the Conservative party is in power and in government. We are seeing a rise in employment. We are seeing a universal credit benefit system that is more generous than the legacy system that was there. We are finally removing a lot of the thresholds that actually prevented people from working more than 16 hours per week. I am proud of not only our policies but our civil servants in delivering an excellent record in trying to make sure that money gets to the people who deserve it the most.
People simply want to know that everyone in this country is playing by the same rules, and I think that is reasonable.
Let me turn to another crisis of the Government’s own making—the problems in the labour market we have seen over the past few months that left the pumps dry and the shelves sparse. As we left the single market it was obvious which sectors would be most disrupted: transport, logistics, and social care and the NHS. Regardless of how people voted, we have to make this work, which it clearly does not at the moment because of Government incompetence. This Government often claim they have a plan for jobs, but surely any credible plan would have tackled these shortages head on and got unemployed people the skills the economy needs to keep Britain moving. So, very simply, why was there no plan in place to prevent these problems?
Very evidently, the plan for jobs is working. We are seeing more people on the payrolls than was happening pre-pandemic. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about some of the skills that may be required. I am conscious that many people who campaigned vigorously to stay in the European Union are still trying to use the excuse of leaving the European Union for why certain sectors are still under-supplied. The reality is that nearly 6 million people registered for the EU settlement scheme and they have an entitlement to live in this country if they so wish. I think there are some aspects of covid that are perhaps hindering people in coming back into the UK who are considering a return to their native countries. Let me say very clearly that we are working on this right across Government. We have the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. We are encouraging people to consider swapping sectors, as is happening with aspects such as SWAPs—sector-based work academy programmes—for people who are unemployed. There are also the bootcamps for skills and the incentives to take on apprentices that have given been to employers right across the country. I can honestly assure the hon. Gentleman that the plan for jobs is certainly working.
Jobcentres work directly with local employers using programmes such as SWAPs to fill those vacancies and gaps. We are providing training and work experience, and a guaranteed interview. The Chancellor has announced £1.3 million investment in new technology to better match claimants and vacancies with a new job-matching tool. I can confirm that that is out to tender and we will update the House shortly.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me I will try to get a more detailed answer, but the bottom line is this: he will be aware that there is a regular review of all contracts put out by the DWP, and in respect of Serco the latest data was published on 24 September 2021 and is available on the gov.uk website.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Government will publish the response to that report by the end of the year. It will help his constituents and all those facing barriers to progressing in work. Almost £100 million was announced by the Chancellor to support a new in-work progression programme.
The British Government’s statutory minimum wage is not a real living wage; in fact, it is a sham. It does not meet the minimum income needed for an acceptable living standard, and the differing rates for young people, including in the Secretary of State’s constituency, are wholly unjust and discriminatory. What action will she take to ensure that all workers, regardless of age, get a real living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation in April, that actually reflects the rising cost of living, and not the sham supported by this British Government that Scotland did not vote for?
We have a separate body that already makes recommendations. It is called the Low Pay Commission, and the differential in wages is out there. The hon. Member can cite whatever campaigning body he likes; we have seen a huge increase in the national living wage, and that is to be welcomed right across the country as we head towards the national living wage being 66% of median earnings.
The hon. Member will be aware that the pension has gone up by more than £2,000 in cash terms since 2010. There will be a double lock this coming year, subject to the will of Parliament, and there is also the enhanced take-up of pension credit, which I urge her to ensure her constituents apply for.
The DWP helps fill vacancies directly with work coach support through our plan for jobs programmes, including via the sector-based work academy programmes, and kickstart. We have doubled the number of our work coaches, particularly to support sectors with shortages, and we have a virtual job help platform with job search advice, a showcase of sectors and signposts directly to those vacancies, including in HGVs and logistics.
We are committed to making sure that the best advice is available to people. We have clearly moved on from the depth of the pandemic, and we are looking at how best we respond. I will come back to the hon. Lady with more detail on how we propose to move things forward.
We have been working consistently to try to ensure that for people who receive benefits, for which immigration status is required, we exhaust all avenues to encourage them to apply to the EU settlement scheme to maintain that benefit entitlement. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of people have done so, and we will keep working to try to ensure that, whether people have received letters, UC journal messages, invitations to come to face-to-face appointments, or supportive officers have been sent round to help them with the process, we are taking every action possible to try to ensure they do so. I encourage hon. Members to ensure that people know they must apply for EUSS status so that they continue to be eligible for the benefits.
Like other Members, I welcome the modest reduction in the universal credit taper rate, but it does not come close to compensating for the effect of the £20 a week cut to universal credit, to say nothing of the national insurance hike, rising inflation and soaring energy prices. In a written answer to me in September, the Minister for welfare delivery, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) confirmed that prior to cutting universal credit, the Department had not assessed the effect of the cut or the increase in energy costs on child poverty. Will the Secretary of State act now to correct that omission and conduct and publish an up-to-date assessment of how the cut to universal credit and the rising cost of living will impact on child poverty?
The cut to the taper rate from 63% to 55% was clearly a vital measure to support people on low incomes. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to lowering the taper rate further so that we can ensure that people who go to work continue to work and benefit as a result?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing the announcement of the reduction of the taper rate from 63% to 55%. He may be aware that that was the original design of the universal credit system. The Chancellor agreed with me and the Prime Minister that, in trying to ensure that work pays, it was the right moment to do it. It recognises the labour market opportunities and makes sure that people are better off working. With my right hon. Friend the Chancellor having already provided for costs of about £2.5 billion annually, I am not convinced that we will seek to change the taper rate further; instead, we will be seeking to ensure that all the current job vacancies are taken up so that work really does pay.
In answering an earlier question about 1950s women, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), referred to the High Court but not the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report. Given that the report explicitly urged the Government not to drag their feet and to proactively co-operate with the next stages of the investigation, will he assure me that he will break the habit of a lifetime and do just that?
Motor neurone disease is a cruel and relentless condition. Too many people with MND and other terminal illnesses are struggling to access the benefits that they need. The Northern Ireland Executive have committed to introducing legislation this month to reform the unfair six-month rule. Will the Government follow their lead?
I share my hon. Friend’s desire to see those changes made as quickly as possible, which is why we are taking a two-stage approach. That will allow us to introduce changes to universal credit and employment and support allowance via secondary legislation in April. Parliament will need to pass primary legislation to amend the special rules in other benefits, which we will introduce as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.
David Fuller Case
Before we come to the statement, I remind the House that as sentencing has not yet occurred, the case to which the statement relates remains sub judice under the terms of the House resolution. Brief reference to the fact that a guilty plea has been given may be made, but Members should not go into details of the case or speculate about sentencing options. I hope the statement will instead focus on the wider issues.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the appalling crimes committed by David Fuller and the Government’s next steps. In recent days, the courts have heard about a series of David Fuller’s shocking and depraved offences. The legal process is ongoing, as you have just said, Mr Speaker. David Fuller is yet to be sentenced, so there are some things it would be inappropriate for me to talk about at this time. I am sure the House will understand why the majority of my statement will focus on the steps that we are taking in response to those crimes and not the crimes themselves.
Before I do, I will briefly update the House on this shocking case. In December, David Fuller was charged with the murder of two young women, Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, in the Tunbridge Wells area of Kent in 1987. Last week, he pleaded guilty to their murders. My thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with Wendy and Caroline’s family and friends.
As well as that, the Kent and Essex serious crime directorate has been carrying out an investigation into his offences in hospital settings between 2008 and 2020. As a result, Fuller was charged with a series of shocking offences involving sexual offences committed in a hospital mortuary. He has also pleaded guilty to these offences. As sentencing has yet to take place, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the case, but I will say that, in the light of what has happened, the Justice Secretary will be looking at whether the penalties that are currently available for such appalling sexual offences are appropriate.
It has taken months of painstaking work to uncover the extent of this man’s offending. The fact that these offences took place in a hospital—a place where all of us should feel safe and free from harm—makes this all the more harrowing. This has been an immensely distressing investigation, and I would like to thank the police for the diligent and sensitive way that they have approached it. They have shown the utmost professionalism in the most upsetting of circumstances, and I would like to thank them for their ongoing work. I would also like to thank the local NHS trust—Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust—for co-operating so closely with the police.
Officers have, tragically, found evidence of 100 victims. Of these victims, 81 have been formally identified, and specially trained family liaison officers have been supporting their families. Every family of a known victim has been contacted. We have been working closely with the police, the police and crime commissioner and the NHS trust to make sure that those families who have been directly affected receive the 24/7 support that they need, including access to dedicated caseworkers, and mental health support and counselling.
If anyone else is concerned that they or their loved ones may be a victim, or if they have any further information, they should search online for the major incident police portal, and select “Kent Police” and “Operation Sandpiper”. I know how distressing the details of these offences will be for many people. The local NHS trust has put arrangements in place to support staff who have been affected, and regardless of whether or not someone has been directly impacted by these offences, they can access the resources that are available on the My Support Space website.
This is a profoundly upsetting case that has involved distressing offences within the health service. The victims are not just those family members and friends who have been abused in this most horrific of ways; they are also those who are left behind—people who have already experienced loss, and now experience unimaginable pain and anger. They are victims, too.
Even as we look into exactly what happened, I, as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, want to apologise to the friends and families of all the victims for the crimes that were perpetrated in the care of the NHS, and for the hurt and suffering they are feeling. I know that no apology can undo the pain and suffering caused by these offences, but with such serious issues of dignity and security, we have a duty to look at what happened in detail, and make sure it never happens again, so I would like to update the House on the steps we are taking.
First, NHS England has written to all NHS trusts asking for mortuary access and post-mortem activities to be reviewed against the current guidance from the Human Tissue Authority. Trusts have also been asked to review their ways of working and to take a number of extra steps, including making sure that they have effective CCTV coverage in place, that entry and access points are controlled with swipe access, and that appropriate Disclosure and Barring Service checks and risk assessments are being carried out. NHS England will report directly to me with assurances that these measures have been taken, so that we can be confident that the highest standards are being followed and that we are maintaining security and upholding the dignity of the deceased. Next, the local trust has been putting its own steps in place. It has already conducted a peer review of mortuary practice, and it initiated an independent investigation into those specific offences.
I thank the trust and its leadership for its quick initial work to set up that investigation, but given the scale and nature of these sexual offences, I believe we must go further. Today I can announce that I am replacing the trust investigation with an independent inquiry that will look into the circumstances surrounding the offences committed at the hospital, and their national implications. It will help us to understand how those offences took place without detection in the trust, identify any areas where early action by the trust was necessary, and consider wider national issues, including for the NHS. I have appointed Sir Jonathan Michael to chair this inquiry. Sir Jonathan is an experienced NHS chief executive, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and a former chief executive of three NHS hospital trusts. He had been leading the trust investigation, and will be able to build on some of the work he has already done. The inquiry will be independent, and it will report to me as Secretary of State.
I have asked Sir Jonathan to split his inquiry into two parts: the first, an interim report, which I have asked for early in the new year; the second, a final report looking at the broader national picture and the wider lessons for the NHS and other settings. We will publish the terms of reference in due course, and I have also asked Sir Jonathan to discuss with families and others to input into this process. Sir Jonathan’s findings will be public and they will be published. We have a responsibility to everyone affected by these shocking crimes to do right by those we have lost, and by those still left behind in their shock and their grief. Nothing that we can say in this place will undo the damage that has been done, but we must act to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for its content, and I welcome what he has announced today.
This is an unspeakably vile and horrific crime, and across the House our thoughts and hearts go out to the families of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, and to the families of those with deceased loved ones. Those 100 victims—we are talking about the corpses of 100 women —were, as has been reported in the press, violated in the most monstrous, vile and sickening way. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all the families impacted will have immediate access to the psychological counselling and support that they need? Will NHS staff at the hospital, many of whom will themselves be devastated, also have access to appropriate counselling and support?
I welcome the announcement of an inquiry, and I pay tribute to local Members of Parliament across Kent and Sussex who have spoken up on behalf of their communities in recent days. In particular, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said over the weekend that authorities and politicians must
“ask serious questions as to how this could have happened and…establish that it can never happen again.”
I agree, and that is why an inquiry is so important.
Will the Secretary of State offer some precision as to when the terms of reference will be published? Fuller was caught because of a murder investigation, which in itself prompts a number of questions about the regulation of mortuaries. The Human Tissue Authority, which regulates hospital mortuaries, reviewed one of the mortuaries in question as part of its regulatory procedures. It raised no security concerns, but found a lack of full audits, examples of lone working, and issues with CCTV coverage in another hospital in the trust. Will the inquiry consider—or perhaps this is the remit of the Secretary of State—the Human Tissue Authority’s standards, the way it reviews hospital mortuaries, and how those standards are enforced? Will the inquiry recommend new processes that the Secretary of State will put in place if it is found that a mortuary fails to meet the high standards for lone workers, for security and for care?
The NHS has asked trusts to review their procedures; I welcome that. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all mortuaries document and record the access of all staff entering a mortuary, and will he ensure that standards for CCTV are enforced and that CCTV is in place comprehensively across all mortuaries? There are, of course, other premises where dead bodies are stored, such as funeral directors, that do not fall under the regulatory remit of the Human Tissue Authority, so will its remit be expanded, or will the inquiry look at regulation for other premises where bodies are stored?
When our loved ones are admitted into the hands of medical care, that is done on the basis of a bond of trust—that our loved ones will be cared for when sick and accorded dignity in death. That bond of trust was callously ripped apart here. I offer to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that something so sickening never happens again.
I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s words and his offer to work together on this. I most certainly would like to take him up on that. I think the whole House would want to see us all working together on this.
I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is comprehensive support rightly available to all families and friends that have been affected. As I said a moment ago, every family of the known victims has been contacted directly by family liaison officers. They are in touch, and that support will continue for as long as necessary, including dedicated caseworker support, a 24/7 telephone support line and whatever counselling and support of that nature is needed. That includes support for staff in the NHS and elsewhere, where staff will also be affected.
On the terms of reference, that is something that I and my Department will work on with Sir Jonathan. I have already started discussions with him on that, and I am sure that he will want to have discussions with others, including families, their representatives and the Members of Parliament who represent those families.
The work that Sir Jonathan will do will be broad in its nature. I think it has to be, because, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to, it has to go beyond just hospitals. There are a number of settings that rightly need to be looked at, including, for example, local authority mortuaries, private mortuaries and other settings, such as undertakers. I think the inquiry should be open to all of that, and I think we would want to see that reflected in the terms of reference.
Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to recommendations around access, documentation and CCTV. He is right to raise all those issues. I want to be careful not to pre-empt the final outcome of what is an independent inquiry, but I am sure all those issues will rightly be looked at.
I join the Secretary of State in giving thanks to Kent Police for its sensitivity, but also its tenacity in bringing Fuller to justice after all these years. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to the inquiry that my colleagues in the area have called for.
It is important that the House understands the need for the inquiry. As well as brutally murdering two young women, Fuller raped the dead bodies of over 100 girls and women. Their identities are known, and that means that their families have been informed. The shock and desolation that those families are going through is beyond imagination. That is why the inquiry is so important—because this can never be allowed to happen again. It does go beyond the local. In the last four years, there have been over 30 incidents of unauthorised people entering mortuaries in NHS hospitals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry will do three things? First, will it allow victims’ families to give evidence on the impact the crimes have had on them? Secondly, will he make public recommendations for the whole of the NHS, as well as the local NHS trust? Thirdly, will he publish the assessment of the risks for other sectors in which people have access to human dead bodies? We can never take away the horror and the grief that is being suffered by the families, but we can do one thing, which is to protect other families from having to go through this nightmare.
I very much agree with all the words of my right hon. Friend, especially when he talks about the shock, hurt and pain of all the families, many of them his constituents. He asks specific questions on three points: whether the victims will be allowed to give evidence to the inquiry; whether the recommendations will be for the whole of the NHS and be public; and whether the inquiry will publish its findings on other sectors beyond the NHS. Absolutely, the inquiry will do all three things. I can give him that assurance.
This is truly one of the most horrific things any of us will have heard of or encountered. Our thoughts are with the families and those conducting the investigations. Following on from the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) who highlighted that access has happened elsewhere in the country, the Secretary of State said in his statement that he has written to NHS England to ask all NHS trusts to report directly to him on what they find in terms of compliance. Will he outline how he will share the information from NHS England with local communities who are now very concerned about that and with us as their representatives?
Yes, I am very happy to expand on that. The NHS has, first, written directly to all trusts and asked them to look into the issues of mortuary access and other post-mortem activities, and to judge them against current guidance to ensure that it is all being applied. In the first instance, that information will go back to NHS England. It will then be shared with me and I will certainly want to find the best way of sharing it with both the House and everyone who is interested.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the extremely sensitive tone with which he is approaching this incredibly difficult issue. He is absolutely right to put the concerns of families and staff first. He is also right to say that this issue will not be resolved by one evil man facing justice. The big question everyone is concerned about is this: could this happen elsewhere and why did this horrendous series of crimes happen over such a long period of time without being detected? I welcome the call for an independent inquiry and the Secretary of State’s decision to do that. May I ask him to praise the work of the vast majority of morticians throughout the country who do an incredibly difficult job extremely well? I met some of them after the Manchester Arena bombing and I know that he would not want this terrible, terrible series of acts to cast a cloud over their fantastic work.
I agree very much with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right to raise those points. As he said, these appalling crimes have taken place over a number of years. I am certain that the independent inquiry will get to the bottom of that and that we can learn not just about mortuaries in hospital settings, but much more broadly. He is also right to draw attention to the vast majority of people who work in mortuaries, the morticians and those who support them, for the very difficult and important work they do.
This is a truly harrowing case and I think many people will be shocked not just by the horrific nature of the crimes, but by the fact that many of the extra steps announced today were not already in place. Will the Secretary of State give an indication of how quickly he expects hospitals to adopt the extra steps of CCTV coverage, swipe access and DBS checks in every single hospital and mortuary?
I would expect that many of those steps may well be in place in many NHS trusts. The purpose of the NHS writing to all trusts is to ensure that the kinds of steps that I set out earlier, and others, are in place, so they are following the current rules and guidance that are set out by the Human Tissue Authority. What we also need to do is determine whether the current rules and guidance are right in the light of these appalling crimes and whether we need to go much further than that. That is also the purpose of having an independent inquiry.
Fuller’s vile and depraved acts are hard to comprehend, especially taking into account the number of victims and the fact that the crimes took place over such a long period of time. My thoughts are with the families of Fuller’s victims as they come to terms with the news that they have been told. I am grateful for the inquiry; we need to understand how access was made available to Mr Fuller. May I push the Secretary of State a bit further, especially on family liaison officers? Will he provide assurances that all the victims’ families have that access for as long as they need it and can access mental health services for as long as they need to? Will he provide some assurances that, as far as he is aware, all the families of the victims have been contacted to date? And perhaps he can offer some assistance to the staff of MPs who are dealing with constituents going through this, so that we can make sure that we are offering the most sensitive advice and support possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make those points, and I can give those assurances. The police have informed my Department that all the families of all the victims have been contacted. They all have family liaison officers. That support and other support, such as counselling and mental health support, if required, and the 24/7 telephone line that I referred to, will remain in place for as long as is necessary. Indeed, if she and other Members of Parliament who have constituents who are affected think that there are other ways to provide support, of course we would be willing to do that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words and his action; it is much appreciated, as is the solidarity shown by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) for leading the local MPs on this difficult matter.
The nation has been absolutely appalled and horrified by the actions that we have heard about, and none more so than the people in Heathfield, where Mr Fuller was arrested at his family home. They are good people who have been shocked by what they have found out. My constituents use the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. It is an excellent hospital, run by some brilliant management and fantastic staff. Will the Secretary of State make sure that those staff and management have all the support that is needed to ensure that patients receive their ongoing care?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. His local hospital does some excellent work in supporting local people in all their health needs and has done so for a long time. I have no doubt that this news will be incredibly distressing to all the people who work in the hospital, and they will get the support that they need. The other support that is necessary for the hospital to continue with its good work and care will remain, and will remain very important.
Nothing can undo the horror that the families of victims are going through, but I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said. Could he provide some further and better details on the timescale for the final report that will come out of the inquiry? He mentioned an interim report early next year, but what about the final report? When does he anticipate that the recommendations that might be made in that report will be implemented?
Yes, I am happy to provide more information on that issue. I have asked Sir Jonathan to provide the interim report from his inquiry early next year. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will understand, it will take some time to get the terms of reference in place and make sure that the review is done properly, but it is important to learn some early lessons, especially around the local hospital trust. I anticipate that the interim report might take about three months, but I will wait to see Sir Jonathan’s final analysis. I hope that the final report will come some time next year; I do not want to set a timetable now without knowing the full terms of reference.
I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the work that I have asked for from the Human Tissue Authority as well as the independent inquiry. I have asked it to do an independent review of its own advice to me on the current regulations.
This horrific crime has shocked many in Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling who use the hospital. I associate myself entirely with the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark).
I thank the Secretary of State for announcing the inquiry that many of us have been seeking. May I ask him to provide some resources locally for the trust to reassure patients and staff of the actions that it is taking and make sure that they are communicated to all the towns and villages that rely on and place so much importance on the hospital? We need to ensure that trust is returned to the establishment if we are to have the care needed for all our communities.
I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing to the inquiry. For my constituents who have been affected, nothing will ever take away the pain and the trauma, but I hope that it will at least provide them with some comfort and assurance that this will never happen again.
When David Fuller was first employed, DBS checks did not exist. Subsequent checks failed to pick up his previous convictions. Can the Secretary of State assure us that that issue will be looked at as part of the inquiry? Will he look at the wider NHS and ensure that people with convictions do not have access to sensitive areas of NHS trusts?
Yes, I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As other colleagues have done, she raises a very important point: it is clear from this case that the issue of employment checks, especially DBS checks—not just in hospital settings, but in mortuary and undertaker settings—needs to be looked at afresh. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the independent inquiry, but I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the issue will absolutely be looked at.
From time to time, we talk about the House being at its best. I regret to say that I do not think that the House has been at its best in the way in which it has handled standards issues over the past week. I would like to make a few points about where we are now and where we might get to if we can approach the issue in a genuinely constructive and non-partisan spirit.
In my role as Speaker, I am required to maintain strict impartiality. That includes, for example, responsibility for giving the House the opportunity to consider orderly amendments that attract considerable support, whatever my own view of them may be. But I also feel a weighty responsibility to ensure that the House deals with these issues effectively and fairly, and that its reputation reflects that.
One issue is clear. Owen Paterson has resigned as an MP, so it no longer falls to the House to decide whether he should be suspended, although I note that the House has not reached a decision on the report of the Select Committee on Standards. I understand that the Committee is nearing the end of its review of the code of conduct. After that report has been published, there may be some way of working with the Committee to build on its work.
On Thursday, the Leader of the House indicated that he believed that there was cross-party support for reform of the standards process, and particularly for looking at a mechanism for appeals. He also said that
“a Committee cannot work effectively without Opposition Members on it”.—[Official Report, 4 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 1056.]
I agree. If the House wishes to review the system, it must do so on a cross-party basis. Opposition parties have made it clear that they will not participate in the Committee established on Thursday. We therefore need to find a different way forward. I would also expect the Chair of the Committee on Standards to be invited to have a role in any process, given the extensive work that his Committee has already undertaken.
In finding that way forward, I want to remind the House of two things. First, I repeat what I have said before about the importance of not criticising officials in this House who are not able to respond. Of course it is possible to make proposals to improve processes and practices, but please do not criticise the Commissioner for Standards, who is doing a job that we have appointed her to do. Secondly, I know that there have been concerns about what recent events mean for the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. Let me be clear: the decision taken last Wednesday did not in any way affect the operation of the ICGS or that of the Independent Expert Panel. Let me say to those people who feel that they are not going to come forward because the ICGS will not be there that it is there: do not think that there is a barrier to people coming forward.
Finally, and again in a spirit of finding the best way forward, I say to the House that I will do everything I can to help to ensure that all Members feel confident that we have an effective and fair system, and that those who follow our proceedings feel the same.
I granted the debate today because I thought it was essential to sort out the mess that we are in. We can start to do that today, but it requires two things: for us all to tone down the party political sniping and focus calmly on making sure the system is as effective as it can be, and for everyone to recognise that, if we are going to achieve progress, we will only do so on a cross-party basis. I also want to remind the House that it is not in order to make allegations of impropriety against other named Members, unless the House is considering a substantive motion dealing with the issue directly. There are other routes for raising such claims. So please, use the routes that are available.
I sincerely hope that all Members will take the approach I have recommended, and that by the end of this debate we will have a clearer sense of how we can move forward together on this important subject. Please, let us see the House at its best, as we have certainly seen it at its worst.
Committee on Standards: Decision of the House
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the consequences of the decision of the House on 3 November relating to Standards.
First, I want to place on the record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating this debate. I also want to record my thanks for the work done by all members of staff in this place.
I must agree with you, Mr Speaker: I was horrified to learn that the Commissioner for Standards had received death threats. That is appalling. No one should receive death threats for doing their job.
The role of Commissioner for Standards provided one of the key ways in which we moved beyond previous scandals which had rocked the House. The role is not political The Commissioner was appointed by the House to do a job, and that is what she has done and continues to do.
The actions of the Government last week have tarnished this House’s reputation. Last week was UK Parliament Week, a time focused on engaging citizens in the work that we do here. Well, Mr Speaker, if I had been tuning into Parliament last week for the first time, I would probably have turned the television right off again.
I have been a Member of this place for less than two years, and most of the time I am proud to have been chosen to represent North East Fife to be able to act for my constituents and to fight their corner. I was proud to do the right thing last week by opposing the Government and voting to uphold the standards procedure. It is hard to be proud to be a Member of Parliament when, as a body, we are all tarnished with the Government’s brush and when in the eyes of the public we are tainted by allegations of sleaze.
The Government’s actions last Wednesday have rightly been condemned across the board. Sir John Major said that
“the way the government handled that was shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government.”
Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that the proposed reforms to the Standards Committee were
“deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.”
My inbox and, I am sure, those of others are full. One example of the many questions I have been asked is:
“What gives the Government the right to have a vote to change the process just because it has adversely affected one of their own? This is an appalling message to the wider public.”
My constituent was right: what gives this Government the right to think that they can change the rules when a decision does not suit them, that they can ignore judgments that are not in their favour and that they can whip their own MPs to achieve the outcome they wanted, in violation of the conventions of this House?
Does my hon. Friend agree that this has been a distraction from one of the most important sets of debates going on at the moment, at COP26? When our constituents were tuning in to this place, that is where the focus of Parliament should have been. Instead, the focus was on the shenanigans of this Government, and that is the real tragedy here.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for securing today’s debate on standards. When I was first elected to this House, the mother of all Parliaments, I was incredibly proud because I thought that Members conducted themselves with honour and integrity, and that we were not ruled by a Prime Minister who was a tinpot dictator and who is himself now mired in sleaze—
Order. We have just said that we want to show the House at its best. I do not think that the term “tinpot dictator” aimed at an individual is going to bring unity. I want to see us at our best, to show that we take this seriously. We want to show the House in the best way possible, so please, let us moderate our language and moderate our thoughts. Let us do this right.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I think there is a point here: this is the kind of behaviour we would expect to see in the Duma in Moscow or the National People’s Congress in Beijing, not in the House of Commons. Previous Prime Ministers and previous Governments have all had their failings, but it is a long time since we have seen issues such as these and an absolute lack of resolve to do anything about them. They say that a fish rots from the head down, and I am disappointed to see that the Prime Minister has chosen not to turn up today to answer our questions, given that the Leader of the Opposition is in his place. I cannot help but feel that he thinks the rules do not apply to him.
The Government have recently failed to properly investigate allegations, failed to declare relevant meetings and, arguably, attempted to rig the system to cover their own back. This is the Prime Minister who flew to Afghanistan to escape a vote on Heathrow when he was Foreign Secretary, and he has driven to the north-east to escape questions today.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. As one of those who defied the three-line Whip of their Government last week on this issue, I think she will agree that it was patently wrong to try to reform the system at this point. We have had years to reform it, but does she agree that we need cross-party support for this, and that, given that the Committee on Standards is already looking at the issue, we should wait for its findings before making any further decisions?
I am sure that the hon. Member was present at the debate last week, and he will know that that is exactly what those of us on this side of the House were calling for. We were calling for consensus and for the goalposts not to be moved. We were also proposing that we look at our processes and procedures on an ongoing basis, as we should be doing, and hold ourselves to account as our voters would expect us to do. I have had correspondence from lifelong Conservative voters who have been appalled, not just by last week’s actions but, sadly, by this Government’s actions over the past two years and the alarming frequency with which scandals befall them.
I will go on to detail some of the things the hon. Lady is referring to. Back in May 2020, it was Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, in flagrant breach of covid regulations; then it was the Home Secretary, found to have breached the ministerial code, but let off; and then it was the then Health Secretary breaching covid guidance he had been instructing others to follow. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
As the longest-serving Member on the Opposition Benches, may I say to the House that I was appalled at what happened last week? However, as a long-serving Member, I must also say that that behaviour is not typical. I have worked with people in this House of all parties for a very long time, and most of their behaviour is good. It is excellent—it is cross-party. This case has done something to damage our reputation, but please let none of us undermine the fact that normally, most hon. Members on all sides act honourably and work together, and I am proud to be a Member working with them.
As an MP elected in 2019, one of the great losses as a result of covid has been the lack of opportunity to meet people in real life and engage across the House and across parties. As we move through covid, I hope there will be more opportunity to do that, so that we can see the good behaviour on all sides.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She is absolutely right. In recent weeks, we have mourned the loss of two great men, who served their communities well in this House and were decent people. We have talked about how important it is that we conduct ourselves with grace and forgiveness on all sides and that our tone is different from that which the public expect. Does she agree, though, that being gracious does not mean ignoring the reality when one side behaves especially badly? We do not need to be soppily neutral. The reality is that the Government made a decision last week to do something that undermined trust in democracy at every level, locally and here in Westminster. That is why her debate is so important.
We on these Benches are the Opposition. It is our job to oppose the Government unless they can behave otherwise. I will try to make some progress.
Over the past 20 months, my constituents have had to follow more rules than they have ever had to deal with before, while sadly we are governed by Ministers who seem to care far less about the rules than any predecessors in living memory. That is why we are here today. It has been reported over the weekend that Ministers are focused on pleasing their boss, not on doing what is right for this country. We have seen story after story break, including cash for honours and undeclared interests.
On that point about cash for honours, does my hon. Friend agree that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be put on a statutory footing, to ensure that any recommendations made to the Prime Minister cannot be ignored in the same way that the Prime Minister ignored advice given to him by the previous independent adviser on ministerial interests, recommending that the Home Secretary be sacked for bullying?
These are all things that need to be looked at on an ongoing basis, and there are potentially areas where the different processes are in conflict. However, I will now make some progress.
Who is influencing our politics? How is taxpayers’ money being spent, and what is being done to hold those in power to account? Those questions are why we argue that we need a public inquiry, with the powers and resources to get to the depths of the situation we are in. People around the country who play by the rules deserve answers, but instead they are being let down by this Government and by a Prime Minister who will not take even the most basic of steps to turn up to this debate.
It is a great shame that the Prime Minister has not graced us with his presence this afternoon, because there is still a huge amount that we do not know about the events of last week. There are many questions that demand answers, many of them involving the Prime Minister’s personal role in this affair. This is a Prime Minister, after all, who has been under investigation more times than any other Member in recent years. The question is: who stands to benefit from getting the current standards processes out of the way? Members of the public will have to draw their own conclusions on that, with the Prime Minister not being here today.
However, the questions do not stop at the Prime Minister; they extend to all those involved in the whipping operation last week. First, why was there a whipping operation in the first place? This was House business and it should not have been whipped. The Government tried to change our procedures without our consent; and then they U-turned and tried to walk it back. But they cannot walk back the events of last week—that is why we are here, looking forward.
We have heard serious, concerning allegations today that Members breaking the whip were threatened with a removal of funding for projects in their constituencies. I ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to address that point and whether it is this true, as the matter deserves further investigation. The idea that communities should suffer because their representative did the right thing is, frankly, abhorrent. Despite all those alleged threats, the whipping operation was only a partial success. I thank those Members on the Conservative Benches who stood up for what was right and those Members, including the Father of the House, who last week supported my application for this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for providing us with that clarity—it is unfortunate that the Prime Minister is not here to do that.
The final set of questions is for us, in this place, to answer; they are not for Ministers and the Government, but for Members of this House. How do we go about rebuilding trust and confidence in what we do here?
I will not give way, as I am going to make progress. I hope that we will be able to discuss that issue further today.
No system is perfect. There is always room for improvement. Whatever I previously thought of our process for investigating complaints against Members, what I saw last week made it abundantly clear that changes need to be made. I find it hard to believe that Owen Paterson was able to vote on his own suspension last week, while the votes of Members currently under investigation were critical in the passage of the amendment that saved him. That looks like the equivalent of the defendants in a court case also taking part in the jury. It is wrong, and if we are to make changes, that must be top of the list of reforms.
There has been much discussion of a right to appeal—this is something we have heard a lot from the Government as they try to justify their actions. I would point out that, through the Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through Parliament, the Government are attempting to take the rights of appeal away from asylum seekers. No matter what changes are proposed, one thing is clear: those with a vested interest in tearing up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules should not be given the power to do so, and any amendment to these rules must be done fairly and with the proper amount of time taken and consideration given by this House. It is this House that invests the authority in the Committee on Standards to act on its behalf in considering the Commissioner’s reports, and considering whether or not to uphold those reports and the sanctions attached to them. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is Chair of the Committee, will use time today to speak about the steps that the Committee is taking, to which you referred earlier, Mr Speaker.
As a new MP elected in 2019, I did not vote on the current rules, but I accept them, because they are the rules in place. I am a member of a smaller party. We do not have representation on the Standards Committee, but those are the rules and we accept them. If the processes are to be changed, that needs to be done properly and with consensus across the House. That is what the Leader of the House should have been looking to do last Wednesday: to act on behalf of the House, instead of his own party. That is what he should be doing today: listening to Members’ contributions and responding to them—I understand that he is not doing so. Instead, we have the Minister for the Cabinet Office responding to us. Can he let us know what exact involvement the Cabinet Office has in this House’s standards procedures? Certainly, wherever we go from here, without a cross-party consensus, reforms will simply have no legitimacy.
Like you, Mr Speaker, I hope for positive and constructive contributions from those in all parts of the House this afternoon, as we work out how to move forward from this scandal. I hope that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister will engage with this process. One of my constituents wrote to me saying:
“Mr Paterson’s resignation is not the end. It must be the beginning of an uncompromising campaign to end the corruption of our politics.”
I hope that we can begin that campaign, in this place, today.
Where is the Prime Minister?
Order. To those who are shouting, “Where is the Prime Minister?” I say that the Prime Minister phoned me this morning, as did the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and they told me that neither of them could be with us. They have given their reasons and whether they are right, wrong or indifferent, I do not make judgments. I can only say on the behalf of the two people concerned—both leaders—that one is at COP26 and the other is visiting hospitals in the north-east. That is where the Prime Minister is, so I do not need to hear “Where is he?” all the way through the debate. I have explained it and Members can make their own decisions.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing and opening this debate. The Government have been listening carefully to the legitimate concerns raised by right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House, both during and since last Wednesday’s debate. These matters are vitally important to you, Mr Speaker, and to the whole House.
Before I set out the Government’s position, I would like, first, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week. We recognise that there are concerns throughout the House about the standards system and the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.
I will in a moment.
Although sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week’s debate conflated them with the response to an individual case. This House shares a collective interest in ensuring that the code of conduct reflects and fosters the highest standards of public life. The Government fully recognise that the Standards Committee is critical to that, including in respect of the important role performed by its Chairman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The Minister has already offered one apology; will he give another to residents who live in constituencies with MPs whom his Front-Bench team and Whips threatened with the withdrawal of spending in their communities to punish them for thinking about not voting for the amendment last week? Will he apologise to those residents, who are innocent bystanders? It is not their fault that money can be taken out of their communities simply because of something their MP does on a matter of conscience.
I think the hon. Gentleman prepared that intervention before he heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), who said that, despite his voting against the Government, that was a misrepresentation of the conversations he had.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he is speaking in this debate rather than the Leader of the House, whose job it is to deal with the standards decision? Is this not adding insult to injury and showing that the Government really do not understand the issue?
With due respect, first, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is in the Chamber with me and, secondly, the right hon. and learned Lady well knows, not least as the Mother of the House, that the Cabinet Office overseas the Government response across Departments, including on a number of the issues covered by this issue.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s apology on the behalf of the Government and am sure that other Members will, too, but will he commit to the House that future disciplinary matters are matters for the House, not for the Government?
As has been set out by the Prime Minister and other colleagues in the Government, we are committed to working on a cross-party basis, including with the Chair of the Standards Committee, which is why I recognise the important role he performs and had just picked that out in my remarks. We thank him and, indeed, the Committee’s lay members for their service, as we do the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I reiterate that the Government have previously taken and will continue to take a cross-party approach to issues around standards in this House.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), I received no pressure whatsoever in terms of the way I voted last week.
My right hon. Friend has set out a gracious apology for what happened last week, but will he concede that one thing that was not right with the amendment the Government supported was that the members of the proposed Committee were hand-picked? If the standards of this House are to be reformed, would it not be better for such a Committee to be chaired by somebody who is elected by this whole House and for the Committee members also to be elected in the normal way for Select Committee members?
As I just set out, we are committed to working on a cross-party basis and we regret that many hon. Members did not feel that they had been sufficiently consulted on the proposals last week. I simply refer to the article in The Times by the Chair of the Standards Committee, who said:
“I’m sure we need to review both the code of conduct and the way it operates.”
He went on to say that
“there are good arguments in favour of a more formal additional process, whereby a member could appeal against the sanction either to an outside body or to a sub-committee of the standards committee”.
It was to that that the debate turned last week.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Last week was UK Parliament Week, but it was not our finest hour. Does he agree that, at the very least, a message from this debate must be that we work in our constituents’ interests and in the public interest, and that the use of this House to work in the private interest to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds will not be tolerated?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and acknowledge the apology that he has given on behalf of the Government. None the less, the whole of Parliament is still in a bit of a hole. We still have a motion that was carried last week, which leaves the question of Mr Paterson’s conduct hanging in the air. Earlier today, I gave a draft of a motion that, were the Government to table it tonight, could be considered by the House tomorrow. I think that it would have the support of the whole House in clearing up the fact that, as you referred to, Mr Speaker, we have not actually decided whether Mr Paterson’s behaviour was inappropriate. I think the whole House now accepts that it was. Secondly, we have created a Committee which, I think, even the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is meant to be chairing it, does not want to be on any more.
I have been very clear that we will listen to the House and listen to the debate. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) just let me address the point made by the Chair of the Committee on Standards? Mr Paterson has now resigned, so it would not be possible for the House to endorse a sanction of suspension. I simply remind the House that he has suffered a serious personal tragedy. He has now resigned. In his statement, he said that he wants to continue his politics outside public life, and we should respect that. I hope, through your office, Mr Speaker, that there will be a way for us to engage on a cross-party basis, and that is what the Government will now redouble their efforts to engage on in the days ahead.