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Commons Chamber

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

House of Commons

Monday 13 December 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—

Child Poverty

As the economy recovers, and with record job vacancies, our focus is on supporting parents to secure a role and to progress in work. This is based on clear evidence around the importance of parental employment, particularly where it is full time, in substantially reducing the risk of child poverty. Our multi-million pound plan for jobs, which has been expanded by £500 million, will help people to boost their wages and their prospects.

Every time I walk down the high street in Stockton, I see the signs of poverty, with 51% of working-age families with children receiving universal credit, the majority of whom are in work. They are heading towards Christmas wondering how to put food on the table, never mind buy presents for their children. Will the Government accept responsibility for child poverty, recognise that the £20 uplift to universal credit could have made all the difference this Christmas, and tell me what parents should say to their children on Christmas morning, when there will be very little to celebrate?

The hon. Member talks about in-work poverty. Important steps were put forward in the Budget to improve the taper rate and the work allowance, which will really help many of his constituents—in fact, the vast majority of them, about 3,966.

I very much welcome the change to the taper rate for universal credit. This will be of enormous help in reducing child poverty for parents who are in work. As we run into the new year, could my hon. Friend now persuade the Chancellor to look carefully at further helping out by putting more money into the work allowances for many of those who are trapped and unable to get into work?

Having served as my right hon. Friend’s Parliamentary Private Secretary in the past, I know his passion for these issues. In the Budget, we set out that the work allowances were going to increase by £500, and that has made a big contribution. For those who are vulnerable, we have provided an extra £500 million of support, which will be a real help over the winter.

Despite the recommendations made by the Work and Pensions Committee, the British Government have no intention of developing a strategy to reduce child poverty. This stands in stark contrast to the SNP Scottish Government, who have declared tackling child poverty a national mission and are doubling their game-changing Scottish child payment to £20 a week, in contrast to this Government’s decision to cut universal credit by £20 a week. Why are the UK Government refusing to introduce proper proposals to tackle child poverty as we have done in Scotland?

We do have proper plans in place, and we are working hard to help parents to get into work. As the hon. Gentleman will know, 580,000 fewer children are in workless households than in 2010, so we are taking the action that is required. I know, having recently come to this post, how hard the Secretary of State is working across Government to tackle this vital issue.

The best route out of poverty is work, so does the Minister agree that it is important to get more people into work through our ambitious plan for jobs and through investment in Teesside such as our freeport programme, which will produce 18,000 jobs over the next five years?

Absolutely. It is pivotal that we get the plan for jobs working, along with local councils, local enterprise partnerships, hard-working Mayors and businesses. That is what we are seeing in Teesside, which is setting a great example for the rest of the country.

End of Universal Credit Uplift

2. Whether she has made an assessment of the effect of ending the £20 universal credit uplift on trends in the level of homelessness. (904700)

8. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904707)

14. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904713)

21. What assessment she has made of the impact of removing the £20 uplift to the standard allowance of universal credit on household budgets. (904720)

Charities warned that the cut to universal credit would risk 100,000 people falling into homelessness, yet the Government ploughed on with it. Added to that is the freeze to housing benefits, with the result that more families cannot afford their rent and risk losing the roof over their head, and the fact that the Government have yet to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, meaning that the very same people who are being made homeless could then become criminalised. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many people she expects to fall into homelessness, and what the Government are going to do about it?

We have provided £140 million of discretionary housing payments to councils, specifically to target that element. We boosted the local housing allowance in the covid Budget of 2020, and we have kept it at that rate. As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), has just said, there has been a significant investment of about £2.5 billion in both increasing the work allowance and reducing the taper rate. My work coaches across the country are helping people to get into work day in, day out.

Many of my constituents have caring responsibilities and can only work part time, often at low wages. Does the Secretary of State recognise that families in this situation will generally lose more from the £20 a week cut to the standard allowance than they could ever hope to gain from the reduced taper? What does she have to say to those families?

I respect that people undertake care, and I am conscious that they often choose to do it in partnership with their local authority. We want to make sure that people take advantage of the increase in the national minimum wage, which will be coming in from April 2022, and of the changes that make it worthwhile for people to work extra hours and progress in work, which will be a big focus of what we do in 2022 and beyond.

Although the recent changes to the taper rate and the work allowance are welcome, they simply do not go far enough. The Resolution Foundation’s analysis found that huge increases in the cost of living will wipe out any gains. Even with these changes, three quarters of families on UC will still be worse off than if they had kept the £20 uplift to the standard allowance. Does the Secretary of State now see that the countless organisations, and even former Tory Work and Pensions Ministers, who argued for the uplift to be made permanent were actually right?

I am conscious of what the hon. Lady says, and I am sure she welcomes the £25 million of the £0.5 billion spent on the household support fund over this winter. I am also conscious that we want to make sure people will be better off working than not—that was the big change and the big announcement in the Budget. I am conscious that, right now, right across the country there are more people seeking work than ever before. More people are on payrolls than ever before and companies across the country are looking for workers, so we will be doing our best to help people who have not been working to get into work. We will also be responding to in-work progression early in the new year.

A survey by Christians Against Poverty found that 67% of its service users will struggle to pay for essentials in the coming months, with 35% already falling behind with bills and 27% now further into debt. What message does the Secretary of State have for these hard-pressed people in the season of good will?

I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the £1.6 million that has been given to her local council specifically for targeted support through the household support fund. I am sure she will be as keen as I am to ensure that people seeking work in her constituency get the benefit of the extra work coach support. We have invested in that right across the country and we will continue to do so.

Help for Jobseekers: Local Employers and Skills Providers

3. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904701)

5. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904703)

15. What plans she has to work with employers and skills providers at a local level to help more jobseekers into work. (904714)

Through our place-based approach, the DWP is working closely with employers, skills providers and other Departments to support people into work. Our jobcentres connect directly with local employers to discuss their recruitment needs and to offer tailored advice and support to help fill vacancies. This includes offering work experience opportunities and increasing the number of sector-based work academy programme places available.

I am delighted that more than 100 young people in the Scottish Borders have already started work through the kickstart scheme. What can the Government do to encourage employers to keep people on after the scheme ends?

I am delighted, too. I am pleased to announce that more than 112,000 kickstart jobs have been started by young people across the UK. Many young people have found permanent jobs through kickstart, and we continue to work closely with employers to help young people find those long-term employment opportunities. We have helped employers to move kickstart participants into apprenticeships more easily by working with colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure employers receive the incentive payments for doing so.

How has the Department worked with DFE to ensure that people on universal credit who are accessing new training and qualifications through the various Government schemes do not lose their universal credit entitlement as a result?

I assure my hon. Friend that we work closely with the Department for Education. With the existing flexibilities in the benefits system for people taking up that training, DWP Train and Progress allows universal credit claimants to participate in full-time work-related training for up to 12 weeks and to attend DFE skills boot camps for up to 16 weeks, including the recently announced HGV boot camps, which have more than 10,000 places available.

In North West Leicestershire, we are fortunate enough to have 1.1 jobs for every individual. However, a large amount of our unemployment is down to gaps in skills and training, so what will the Department do to solve that problem?

Through my hon. Friend’s Jobcentre Plus support and the flexibilities I described in DWP TAP, his constituents can now access level 3 courses for free, skills boot camps and other training opportunities that my Department has ensured all UC claimants can access by extending the length of time they can participate in full-time work-related training. In addition, we are investing £10 million annually over the next three years in the sector-based work academy programmes, delivering those life-changing opportunities in those key sectors.

The Minister talks the talk, but does she walk the walk? In places such as Huddersfield, we are creating a new syllabus for people who are 16, 18 and 21 to get into green jobs and green enterprise, but there is a lack of leadership from the Government and things are fragmented at the local level. Get your act together and do it properly. There is a whole green economy here, where we can save this fragile planet, but we need action now.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking me about walking the walk. I assure him that through our national employer and partnership team, NEPT, and the work we do across government and through the green jobs taskforce, we are absolutely tackling that. We have a direct strand of work, which I was engaged with just at the end of last week, that is making sure that those skills, abilities and opportunities in his constituency, and everyone else’s, are there for those who want to go into that bit of the economy.

The first Ways to Work centre opened in St Helens in June, with one to follow in Earlestown in the new year. It is locally designed and has been recently supported by Labour-led St Helens Council and the Liverpool city region respectively. It brings education, employment and training for local people together under one roof. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the project on making 1,300 unique interventions in just six months? Does she agree that this type of local model works? If so, will she help me to ensure it gets the funding it needs to be sustainable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for everything he has mentioned, because we are doing that across the UK in 150 brand-new youth hubs. If he will listen to my answer, I hope he will understand that we are linked locally to the economy; we are keen for those job outcomes to come to his constituents and more widely, and this is being done through local interventions and local engagement.

The Tory trope is that UC helps people into work, but it has been a few years since the National Audit Office said that there is no way of measuring the outcomes and success of UC. So will the Minister tell me what measures are now in place to measure the outcomes of UC in getting people into work, particularly at the local level?

We absolutely measure the outcomes of all our programmes, particularly the sector-based work academy programmes. Of course, skills are devolved in Scotland. In my recent engagement with the Welsh Government and at the Welsh Affairs Committee, I pointed out that outcomes are not measured in Wales. I think this is a thing we should be doing in all devolved areas.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. People across the country who have had a really hard time at work in the past year need DWP Ministers focused on their jobs. It will not have escaped your notice that it was reported over the weekend that the DWP has joined the last Christmas naughty list of Whitehall lock-ins during lockdown, but it is not me the Secretary of State should be apologising to—it is the more than 100,000 young people who will not be helped by the time the underperforming kickstart scheme comes to a close before Christmas. So may I ask the Minister: when kickstart comes to a halt and thousands of young people still need help, what then?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to her post. I know that she has a strong interest in young people in every constituency doing as well as they can. Kickstart has not underperformed. Let us be honest: more than 112,000 young people have joined the programme. Of course, when we created the programme, we expected an unemployment level of perhaps 12%; it is just over 4%. Let us focus on the outcomes for those young people, which we are tracking carefully. We are linking up with the Department for Education to ensure that the traineeships and apprenticeships are there.

I know that visiting her jobcentre is on the hon. Lady’s to-do list. When she does so, I am sure she will hear amazing stories about what is happening to young people locally.

The Minister mentioned young people. The new inland border facility in Holyhead means that more than 200 jobs are coming to the island of Anglesey. How will the Minister ensure that those new jobs go to local young people?

My hon. Friend is such an assiduous Member of Parliament in standing up for Ynys Môn—I salute her for that. We have been working through the local jobcentre. In fact, she helped reopen the jobcentre and make sure it was safe, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). Working with local employers and the jobcentre, she has made sure that there are buses and that people can access the jobs that are there. We will continue to work with her and the jobcentre on that.

Increased Living Costs: Benefit Claimants

4. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904702)

6. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904705)

7. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904706)

23. What steps her Department is taking to support benefit claimants in meeting increased living costs. (904722)

The Government are taking action to make work pay for low-income households. As was announced at the Budget, we are reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance so that working people can keep more of their earnings. We have introduced a £500-million household support fund so that local authorities can help those on the lowest incomes with their food and utility costs.

About 12,000 households in Luton South are claiming universal credit, and one in 10 people say that they could not afford a £5 per month increase in their cost of living. Does the Minister accept that his Government’s failure to tackle increasing rents and energy costs will impact the poorest in society more and push more of my constituents into poverty?

I think the hon. Member will welcome the fact that the vast majority of the nearly 6,000 claimants in work will gain from the reduction in the taper rate and the increase in work allowances in the Budget, which is terrific. For those who are vulnerable, £1.8 million has been made available to local authorities to help them through the household support fund.

A single father who is unable to work on health grounds told the Select Committee in September that removing the £20 a week uplift would force him to skip meals so that his children did not have to. Christians Against Poverty, which supports him, says that he now cannot afford the absolute basics: food, heating and bus fares to take his children to school. He certainly cannot afford to buy his children Christmas presents. With prices rising so fast, is not the social security safety net just too low?

As I just set out to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), we have introduced the household support fund. In Newham, £3.3 million is available to help people exactly like the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent with the challenges they are facing this winter.

In effect, the new household support scheme, about which we have heard quite a bit today, replaces the £20 universal credit uplift with £1.60. Can the Minister tell me how that will help families through this harsh winter, especially as increasing numbers of people will have to self-isolate? It certainly will not do much for the more than 16% of families in Blackburn who live in fuel poverty—households that are now faced with even higher fuel prices in the winter cost crunch. Will he reconsider the rate of the universal credit standard allowance and ensure that it rises in line with the cost of living?

I can reassure the hon. Member that steps are in place to help people through various stages of the employment journey. For those who are in work, there is the universal credit taper and work allowance. For those who are out of work, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has said, there is the plan for jobs, which is making a big difference in people’s lives. For those who are vulnerable and need extra help, there is the household support fund, and in Blackburn and Darwen that comes to £1.6 million over this winter.

Everyone in the food sector knows that costs are rising dramatically and that margins are being eroded. We are already seeing price rises in the shops. The Food and Drink Federation thinks that it is £3 a week for households. Out of the £5 that has already been mentioned, does the Minister understand just what pressure that puts on vulnerable households? What will the Government do to protect them when those price rises bite?

It is really important that we get more people into work, and there are 1.3 million vacancies. We need to help those who are unemployed into work, which will be the biggest, most sustainable way that we can get them on to their own two feet. As I have said, we have the household support fund, and in Cambridgeshire that comes to £3.6 million, which will help the people whom the hon. Member is talking about.

With housing costs a major driver of poverty, the Government have decided yet again to freeze the local housing allowance, hitting millions of renters. As the Minister well knows, neither discretionary payments nor the winter hardship fund will do anything like meet the shortfall in that gap. Meanwhile, rents are anything but frozen and more than half of all renters have a shortfall between their rents and the help available. Will the Minister tell us when the Government decided not to link the support for housing costs to actual real world rents, and what assessment have they made of the impact of that on household incomes?

As the hon. Member will remember, we increased the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local rents in April 2020. That is a boost of £1 billion in support and an average gain of £600 for each person in private rented accommodation who needed housing support. We have also maintained that at cash levels, which will be a real help, and there are also discretionary housing payments for those who need them as well.

To help pensioners with rising household bills, will the Government do more to promote pension credit? In the Kettering constituency, almost 18,000 retired people claim the state pension, but fewer than 2,000 claim pension credit, yet this can help with council tax bills, heating costs and so on. Across the country, 1 million pensioners are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled, so can the Government do more to increase the uptake of that benefit?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on these matters, but we also have a doughty Pensions Minister who is working incredibly hard to increase the take-up. I also highlight to him that, as I am sure he knows, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments are also available to help pensioners on low incomes over the winter period.

Pensioner Poverty: State Pension

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the state pension in tackling pensioner poverty; and if she will make a statement. (904709)

13. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the state pension in tackling pensioner poverty; and if she will make a statement. (904712)

Let me take this opportunity to welcome the newcomers to the Opposition Front Bench.

The state pension is the foundation of support for older people and, under this Government, the full yearly amount of the basic state pension will be more than £2,300 higher in April than in 2010. The latest figures show that 200,000 fewer pensioners are in absolute poverty compared with 2009-10.

Fred from east Hull was left without any income whatsoever for several months earlier this year because the Department for Work and Pensions failed to pay him his state pension, to which he was rightfully entitled. When my office intervened, he eventually got paid, but it took us several weeks to sort it out. When people such as Fred in areas like mine are already facing a cost of living crisis, fuel poverty and the effects of the pandemic, does the Minister feel that he should apologise to Fred and many others?

I cannot comment on the individual case, but I can say that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a backlog over the summer period by reason of covid and many other factors, which we took great steps to address. A dedicated team of several hundred individuals ensured that we caught up with the backlog, and we are now operating business as usual.

With winter biting and energy companies going to the wall, approximately 13.2% of households in Ealing Central and Acton are in fuel poverty—that is 6,864 pensioners struggling to heat their homes. Will the Minister agree with Labour and cut VAT on household heating bills during these winter months? The Conservatives have pilfered enough of our manifesto before; they could do this and make a real difference to pensioners.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we spend £2 billion on the winter fuel payments. There is also the cold weather payments fund, the household support fund, and the pension credit energy rebate. There are a whole host of ways in which support can be found for her constituents.

I know my right hon. and hon. Friends in the ministerial team are doing their best, but is there any encouragement they can give, perhaps in conjunction with the Treasury, to the women of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign who lost out on the state pension start age?

With respect to my right hon. Friend, that matter has been decided in the courts on two occasions—in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal—and it is not proposed to change the policy.

The Government have consistently failed to stand up for the interests of pensioners on modest incomes. Food prices are up, gas prices are up and electricity prices are up. The cost of living is going up. Yet despite this, the Government are refusing to cut VAT on fuel, even though they have had higher than expected VAT receipts from across the economy, which would allow them to do exactly that and offer much-needed help to pensioners. To make matters worse, the Government are also failing to increase the take-up of pension credit. When will they finally start offering real help to our pensioners?

That is a bit rich. When the last Labour Government were in power, the state pension was under £100; it is now going up to £185 going forward. It is almost double what it was before thanks to the triple lock introduced by this Government and the coalition Government. It is also very much the case that pension credit take-up is actually going up, not down. Over the two years of the pandemic, both the basic and new state pension will have increased by more than prices thanks to the cumulative effects of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2020 and the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2021.

National Disability Strategy

11. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure cross-Government delivery of the national disability strategy. (904710)

The entire Government are committed to transforming the everyday lives of disabled people through the national disability strategy because we want to build back better and fairer. A number of commitments have already been delivered. I chair quarterly meetings with the ministerial disability champions to drive progress.

Increasing employment opportunities is key to supporting independent living for disabled people and people with health conditions. Will the Minister reaffirm our commitment to supporting 1 million disabled people into work by 2027?

I certainly will. The Government remain absolutely committed to that. There is more to do but progress has been made since 2017. The number of disabled people in employment has increased by 850,000, and the disability employment gap has closed by about five percentage points since 2013.

I suppose, looking at it favourably, at least the long-promised strategy is now published, but the failure to co-produce the strategy with disabled people or disabled people’s organisations is unfortunate. What does the Minister say to people with disabilities and their organisations who have been left disappointed at what they call a “tokenistic” strategy?

The exercise leading up to the publication of that strategy was one of the biggest listening exercises ever undertaken with disabled people by Government. I am proud of it and proud of the result that has been published. It is my personal priority to implement it and to continue listening to disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. Indeed, there is a commitment, and several others through the strategy, to do more of precisely that.

I commend the Minister for driving forward the national disability strategy with a real zest. My inspirational constituent Becky Maddern of the Benjamin’s Smile charity champions accessible play parks for families up and down the country, which became a key commitment in the national disability strategy. Will the Minister reconfirm that this will remain a key priority for her in her cross-Government work?

I certainly will. I pay tribute to Becky Maddern, who I too find inspirational. Indeed, I was thinking about her only at the weekend as I visited a playground with my own children and looked at the range of swings and equipment that was available. This is incredibly important because disabled children deserve to play as much as their brothers, sisters and friends. That underlines why our strategy is a very wide-ranging one that goes across the full range of public services and into culture, leisure and play as well, because it all matters greatly.

One hidden disability often is an acquired brain injury, and 10 days ago, the Government committed to creating a national strategy for acquired brain injury. Will this Department ensure that it fully co-operates with the programme board, which will be set up in the new year, so that we can radically transform the opportunities and chances in life for those who have had an acquired brain injury?

I am very grateful for that question, and I pay tribute to the history that the hon. Member has and the work that he is doing in this area. Two Ministers in this Department have some personal direct experience of these issues, so yes, the Department for Work and Pensions will be keen to make good progress with that work.

Progression out of Low-paid Jobs

As announced in the spending review, the DWP will enhance its support for universal credit claimants who are in work. From April next year, they will have access to a dedicated work coach to help individuals remove barriers, enabling them to progress in work. We will be introducing new Jobcentre Plus specialists, known as district progression leads, who will work with local employers and partners to identify progression opportunities, with support from work coaches.

Does my hon. Friend agree that with the introduction of various skills initiatives by this Government and a booming job market, people across the UK, and in particular in Don Valley, will be finding it easier than ever to get on the job ladder and progress in their chosen career?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The extensive support that the Government have offered through our plan for jobs has protected, supported and created jobs in Don Valley and beyond. In his constituency, for example, we have continued funding our successful sector-based work academy programme in new opportunities such as rail, warehousing, care, security and hospitality, where someone gets a guaranteed interview as part of the programme, which is offered to all his constituents.

The Government’s increase in the living wage does not make it the real living wage. It does not reflect the increased cost of living and it does not adequately support young people under the age of 23. Why are the UK Government refusing to increase the national living wage to the real living wage?

I understand that it is around 60% of the median wage. The reality is that through kickstart, there will be young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency who will have got on the jobs ladder sooner and earlier than ever before in sectors that one could not have believed, from viticulture to digital marketing to working in architecture—all different areas. That is because of the Government intervening in jobs and opportunities that can lead to apprenticeships, traineeships and progressing in work.

Universal Credit Taper Rate Reduction: Household Budgets

16. What assessment she has made of the impact of the universal credit taper rate reduction on household budgets. (904715)

The reduction in the taper rate and increase in the work allowances mean that 1.9 million households will keep on average an extra £1,000 a year, representing an effective tax cut for low-income working households in receipt of universal credit that will be worth £2.2 billion a year in 2022-23. We are allowing working households to keep more of what they earn and strengthening incentives to move and progress in work.

Unlike the legacy system, which has in-built cliff edges, universal credit ensures that it always pays to take on more hours. Will my hon. Friend commit to working with employers, especially those in my constituency of Lincoln, in low-pay sectors to ensure that they can help their employees understand that?

Throughout our job network, our employer partnership teams and employment advisers are working closely with local employers to ensure that they help claimants understand how best to benefit from the recent positive changes to universal credit taper rates and work allowances. I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his fantastic shirt, will assist with his characteristic energy with this important task.

Young Jobseekers

We are investing in tailored work coach support for young people claiming universal credit and searching for work through our enhanced DWP youth offer. As of 5 December, as announced, 112,000 young people have started a kickstart job. Until March next year, young people can start that key six-month placement, which will support even more young people at risk of long-term unemployment.

Whether through the apprenticeship programme run by fantastic businesses such as Byworth Boilers in Keighley or training programmes run by Keighley College, my constituency has no shortage of people who are passionate about getting young people into the workplace. What further work is my hon. Friend’s Department doing to ensure that businesses, colleges and others can work together to create the best opportunities for our young people to get into work?

The opportunity to speak about youth hubs is too tempting. We have 150 new youth hubs across the DWP, crucially bringing together local partners from employment, training and skills to support young people. The Keighley youth hub, based in Keighley College, is a prime example, working in close collaboration with SkillsHouse, One Workforce and the community-led local development programmes. I hope that sells the youth hubs to you, Mr Speaker.

Legacy Benefits: People with Severe Disabilities

18. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of legacy benefits for people with severe disabilities. (904717)

People on legacy benefits with severe disabilities are most likely to get employment and support allowance. Income-related ESA claimants may be entitled to the enhanced disability premium or the severe disability premium. Claimants may also be eligible for personal independence payments to help with the extra costs of living faced by disabled people.

I am sure the whole House agrees that a good society is one that helps those in great need. I have a constituent in great need. She was in receipt of income support and the severe disability premium, but her child is now aged five so she has been told to claim universal credit, which will cause her severe disability payment to end. What assurances can the Minister give my constituent that we are still in a good society and that, by being forced into this change in her benefits, she will be no worse off?

It would be difficult for me to comment on the hon. Member’s constituent’s precise circumstances, although I am happy to look at the case if she wants to write to me with details. As a general point, to support claimants previously entitled to the severe disability premium who moved to universal credit after a change of circumstances, there are transitional payments protections in place.

The DWP commissioned NatCen to undertake research on the uses of health and disability benefits. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) eloquently outlined, that research, which assesses the adequacy of benefits for disabled people, is vital. Several requests have been made for the report to be made public, including by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, but they have all been refused. Will the Minister release the report? If not, can she explain what the Government are hiding?

The short answer is no. The longer answer was given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Work and Pensions Committee only last week.

Universal Credit Transition: Severe Disability Premium

19. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that new universal credit recipients, who were previously entitled to severe disability premium, do not experience a reduction in benefit payments when they transition to universal credit. (904718)

There is a little repetition with the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). To support claimants previously entitled to the severe disability premium who moved to universal credit following a change of circumstances, we have introduced severe disability premium-related transitional payments. Those eligible, depending on their specific circumstances, will receive a transitional element of up to £405 a month.

I thank the Minister for that answer. One of my constituents was previously in receipt of employment support allowance and housing benefit with a severe disability premium. Earlier this year, she relocated to my constituency to be closer to her daughter for support. That triggered a transition to universal credit and, even with transitional protection payments, she is more than £70 a month worse off, which, in the face of the current cost of living squeeze, is having a significant impact. Will the Minister meet me about this case? What additional steps will the Government take to support people such as my constituent who are being unfairly financially penalised by the move to universal credit?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, who, as a relatively new member of the House, I can see is getting stuck into casework. I welcome her hard work in doing so. The design of universal credit has concentrated support on the most severely disabled. That can be taken in alignment with other points that I have made, including on the support available through the national disability strategy and the ideas put forward in our health and disability Green Paper, as well as the many other things that the Department is doing. I hope that they may be of some support and help to her constituent.

Labour Market Shortages: Employment Schemes

20. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of her Department’s employment schemes on labour market shortages. (904719)

Our plan for jobs is working. Since April 2020, over 1.9 million people have moved into work from the universal credit intensive work search group. We have done that by supporting thousands of people through programmes such as kickstart, restart and sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—to get back into work, with over 110,000 young people being supported through kickstart alone. There are over 200,000 kickstart jobs still waiting to be filled in the final months of the programme.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), referred to the shortage of HGV drivers, and retailers report fivefold delays in the delivery of products, including wine and spirits, so I am wondering whether the Secretary of State’s scheme is helping to address the shortage of drivers in the run-up to Christmas. How many lorry drivers have started work as a result of her Department’s employment schemes?

I think it is worth explaining to the hon. Gentleman that a couple of different schemes are ongoing. Our principal role is to help people who are not working to get into jobs. We partner with people such as the Mayor of West Midlands, but also with specific programmes in the east midlands. More significant work is being done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, where we have bootcamps working and people are actually getting into jobs. A really important part of what we can do through SWAPs is getting people into new careers that they had never thought about.

Topical Questions

Thanks to our taper rate cut and the increased work allowances announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, almost 2 million households will now benefit from a cash boost worth £1,000 a year on average. Thanks to diligent work by my officials, we have brought this change in a week earlier than planned, so that up to 500,000 more working people can get that extra boost before Christmas. We are also delivering today a less welcome early Christmas present to criminals who target our benefits system and steal from taxpayers, with a £500 million cash injection to root out fraudulent benefit claims and stop scammers. Finally and importantly, very much at the top of my mind today is the booster programme and the acceleration scheme. I am very pleased that our jobs army is going to become part of the jabs army, as DWP civil servants right across the country join the Government’s effort to get as many people boosted as possible.

My right hon. Friend has already touched on the impact that the recent changes in the taper rate and work allowances will have on claimants’ net income, but will she expand on this? Also, will she consider a major advertising campaign to highlight that now is an excellent time to be in work?

My hon. Friend, who is of course on the Select Committee, is very wise in her suggestions. That is exactly the sort of communications that we will be doing in the coming months. This is particularly of interest for people on working tax credits, where we know that the cliff edges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) mentioned, can be a real barrier to people working extra hours. Those sorts of communications programmes will be released as we continue to try to help more people into work and to progress in work as well.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Secretary of State about Christmas? My question is not what her latest recommendation is should I find myself under the mistletoe, or indeed whether she hosted karaoke Christmas parties in lockdown in her office, but a very simple one: how many children will go hungry this Christmas?

I want to put on the record that no karaoke parties were hosted by me during lockdown; the last time I did karaoke with the right hon. Gentleman was a couple of years ago. I am conscious that he has raised a very serious point about children this Christmas, and that is why we have been working relentlessly on making sure that people can get into work and progress in work, but have also set aside half a billion pounds for the household support fund, half of which is entirely ringfenced for families with children.

I fear the Secretary of State’s answer betrays poverty of ambition. The last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty, and we did not need footballers to run campaigns on child hunger. With universal credit still being cut for many families, prices going up in the shops, heating bills going up and taxes going up because this lot voted for them, can she guarantee that in 2022 child poverty and the shame of destitution will not also be going up?

I forgot to welcome the former shadow Secretary of State for Health to his new position. The right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that his party opposed extra funding for the NHS through the health and social care levy, which we voted for. The different elements of trying to get people into work are key to lifting many more children out of child poverty. We should also flag up the £1 billion of child maintenance we have collected in the last year; we will keep doubling down on that to ensure deadbeat dads pay for their kids and help to lift their children out of poverty.

T2. I was surprised to learn that child benefit ceases at the age of 16 for somebody starting an apprenticeship. That is clearly a disincentive for some parents to recommend that their children follow that route. Will my right hon. Friend look at this policy and consider making changes? (904725)

I believe it may be more appropriate for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Education to respond to this question, but I will happily flag up to the DfE anything that deters young people from entering apprenticeships and the labour market, and being able to move into long-term work.

We do not talk often enough in society about old-age poverty. Besides the inadequate state pension and the latest triple-lock betrayal, another factor is the low uptake of pension credit: about 1 million pensioners in the UK miss out on £1,600 a year on average, with single women being most affected. We have heard the Pensions Minister say countless times that the Government want to increase the take-up of pension credit, so why is the Department refusing to introduce a proper take-up strategy for pension credits and other benefits, as we have done in Scotland?

We are doing a huge amount to increase the take-up of pension credit. I have met repeatedly with the BBC, and we have set up a pension credit taskforce which involves energy companies, the Local Government Association, various banks, BT and others. The reality is that pension credit take-up is increasing. It is also the case that we have never spent as much money on pensioners as we do now—up to £129 billion, of which the state pension is £105 billion—and pension credit is the highest it has ever been.

T3. With the omicron variant spreading rapidly it is more important than ever that we do whatever it takes to minimise transmission but, at £96 a week, our statutory sick pay is among the lowest in Europe and the TUC found last week that 647,000 workers in hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment do not even qualify. The result is either destitution or desperate workers taking risks. Will the Secretary of State commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers and increasing it to the real living wage? (904726)

Statutory sick pay is just one part of our welfare safety net and the wider Government support offered to people in times of need. We have been able to look closely at statutory sick pay during the pandemic, but more consideration is needed and it certainly should not be looked at in isolation.

T5. I have a constituent on the legacy benefit system for whom it might be beneficial to move to universal credit. What help and advice is there in making that switch, and what further considerations should he take into account going forward? (904728)

My hon. Friend is right to point out the opportunities for people on legacy benefits. They may be better off on UC, but if not, they should wait for the managed migration programme, where they will have transitional protection. It is also important to note that benefits calculators are readily available online, and the Department funds Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland for the help to claim programme. I am sure such organisations can give individual support. We will be resuming our plan to move to UC in 2022.

T7. I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friends that the most vulnerable in our society are being forced to make unthinkable choices. Dozens of my constituents have written to me recently, concerned about the impact this winter will have on elderly residents who face not only loneliness and isolation, but a heartbreaking choice between heating and eating, while disabled people struggle with cuts to their support and those on low incomes face a £20 per week cut to their universal credit. Is it not true that under this Government the most vulnerable in our society are being left without the dignity they deserve and the basic means to get by? (904730)

Far from it. I recognise the hon. Lady is trying to stand up for her constituents, but she should also recognise the significant increases in benefits that have been provided, whether that is for people of pensionable age—about £129 billion—or the increase in financial support to people with disabilities. She should recognise that we will continue to strive at local level through our jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus, and through our automation of things such as the warm home discount, so that people do not even have to go looking for that sort of energy support, and the household support fund, from which many of her constituents will benefit.

T6. I welcome the efforts being made by the ministerial team to get people into work, but will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advise me of the steps she is taking to ensure that jobseekers can take advantage of the many opportunities in sectors with growing demand for workers? (904729)

The DWP and the Department for Education are working with other Government Departments on priority sector action plans in construction, digital, manufacturing, care and logistics. One example is the DWP national employer and partnership team, NEPT, which also has a dedicated green team rightly focusing on filling vacancies in green jobs here and now.

T8. May I take the Minister of State back to the answer she gave my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on statutory sick pay? People in Hull North face a very tough winter. Even with the new circumstances that have been announced for work, many of them will have to go to work because they work in factories or in manufacturing. Is it not now time that the Government take some action on statutory sick pay and reversing the £20 cut to universal credit? (904731)

The right hon. Lady is right to consider the vulnerable people in her constituency. We looked at some of the policy choices we were making, published in our response to “Health is Everyone’s Business”, in which aspects of sick pay were considered, but there was a change in ministerial appointments near that time. We continue our discussions, and I am confident that we will continue to try to make progress on this element, but it is important to say that those who are required by law to stay at home are still eligible for a Test and Trace payment, administered through the Department of Health and Social Care.

The announcement made last week by my right hon. Friend regarding historical institutional abuse will have been greeted very warmly by those people who were abused in Northern Ireland but now live in Great Britain. On behalf of the Select Committee, which did a lot of work in this area, may I thank her for listening to our representations, making this important policy change and ensuring that there is equity and fairness in this important area of financial support and redress?

I thank my hon. Friend. He will be aware that in the original primary legislation, which allowed for disregard, only Northern Ireland specifically was considered, so I am very pleased to have brought that disregard forward. At the same time, we wanted to take a consistent approach, so I am pleased that we will be applying the same disregards to the forthcoming payments being made by the Scottish Government and through, I think, Islington and Lambeth Councils. I commend him and his Committee Members for their pursuit of the matter.

A free university-level education is a monumental benefit of living in Scotland. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her colleagues in the Department for Education about the benefits of making higher levels of education accessible and the impact that would have on the employability of young people?

I am conscious that the hon. Lady thinks that just because there is a free course, those people who are most disadvantaged in her country will take advantage of it. In fact, that has not been the case; we see far more people in England from less privileged backgrounds getting into university and benefiting from that. It is important that we have a balanced approach, recognising the importance of level 3, 4 and 5 apprenticeships in particular and the fact that, once they have graduated, those people will be better off financially, except compared with those in Russell Group universities, within 10 years.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 2MC.]

This time last year, the Canadian Government asked the UK Government to enter into talks to bring about pension parity for pensioners like Royal Navy veteran Alan Wren, who was forced to work until he was 78 years of age because his pension had been frozen in Canada. The Government refused to enter into those discussions. What does the Secretary of State say to veterans such as Alan and the 492,000 other pensioners who are trapped on meagre state pensions, all because they live in the wrong country? In Alan’s case, the country is a commonwealth and NATO partner and ally.

As the hon. Gentleman and I have met and spoken about this matter in the past, he will be aware that the UK state pension is payable worldwide and that all veterans are treated the same as non-veterans when it comes to the payment of the UK state pension overseas.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State mentioned that she has not sung karaoke for a number of years, but I seem to recall she was singing, “I’m having the time of my life” just a few months ago, the night before the universal credit uplift was removed. On that point, I recently visited a Trussell Trust foodbank in my constituency, where staff and volunteers raised serious concerns that the reduction in universal credit will push more and more families into poverty. Will the Department concede that the cut to the uplift will mean that more households will become reliant on foodbanks?

The hon. Lady should be aware that there was a temporary uplift, reflecting what was happening with the covid pandemic, which was extended. I am sure she will appreciate the change in the taper rate and the work allowance. Jobcentres will be helping her constituents to get into work. If I may, I will just put on record my thanks to people involved in a variety of ways, whether in foodbanks, food recycling or similar, because it is important that we all continue to work in our local communities to support our constituents.

Mr Speaker, is it in order for me to mention the B word in this Chamber? If it is okay, I want to say Blair—Tony Blair. Has the Secretary of State seen his remark that if we want to give real skills to people, it is FE colleges that are the key to skills? Tony Blair’s idea is that we upgrade the profile of all FE colleges to polytechnics and that we put the resources in to accompany that? What does she think of Blair’s ideas?

What I noticed was that when the hon. Gentleman referred to Tony Blair there was silence on the Labour Benches. What I will say is that we are absolutely committed to the lifetime skills guarantee. We are levelling up across the country and making sure that relevant courses get people into work. I am really pleased that we are united in recognising that that is the most important thing our Department can achieve.

Metropolitan Police: Stephen Port Murders Inquest

(Urgent Question:) To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if she will make a statement on the Metropolitan Police and the inquest into the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor.

I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with the families and friends of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor. The stories we have all read, of their lives and terrible deaths, have moved and horrified the country.

The Government and the people we serve expect the highest standards from the police as they carry out their vital work protecting the public and investigating serious crimes. The conclusions of the inquest have shown that those standards were not met, and that investigative failures probably contributed to the deaths of three of the young men. The Metropolitan police has accepted as much. There are now serious questions for it to answer. It is profoundly important that the force takes responsibility for past failings and makes sure they are not repeated.

The primarily accountability body for the Met is the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, but the Metropolitan Police Service has assured us it is putting in place significant improvements, including: more and better trained investigators; new structures so that intelligence teams, specialists and officers on the ground can work more closely to identify and link crimes much earlier; and work to develop a greater understanding of the drug GHB and its use as a weapon in sexual assaults. It is also essential that the police build trust with all London’s communities and that includes LGBT+ community. I know that the Commissioner and her team are committed to doing so, at a time when the trust the public have in them has been seriously shaken by recent events.

It is, of course, right that the police handling of cases such as these is subject to independent scrutiny. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has been asked by the deputy Mayor of London and the commissioner to conduct an inspection into the standard of the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigations, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now assessing whether to reopen, either in full or in part, the investigation into the way that the Metropolitan Police Service handled the inquiries into the deaths of these young men.

The police perform an enormously important function in our society. It is a job that, on the whole, they do with skill, courage and professionalism. Only last Thursday, I attended the police bravery awards and heard stories of selfless heroism, but when things go wrong, it is profoundly important that lessons are learned and applied. We will continue to hold the Metropolitan police service and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to account in making sure that the failures highlighted by these truly awful cases are addressed.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I have to say to the Minister that this happened in London, but it might and could have happened anywhere in the country, and therefore, it is a matter for him. The premature deaths of four young, gay men, who were robbed of their lives, is an unspeakable tragedy, especially because six years after it happened, it has now finally been publicly conceded that the deaths of three of them—Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor —could have been avoided if the police had properly investigated the killing of the first victim, Anthony Walgate.

The litany of police errors is simply horrific, including the refusal to check the murderer’s laptop because it was too expensive; the failure to engage appropriately with the partners and families; the failure to check the authenticity of a fake suicide note; the failure to check CCTV; and the incomprehensible failure to link the deaths when three of the bodies were found in or close to St Margaret’s churchyard in my constituency.

Does the Minister agree with the friends, partners and families that the Metropolitan police service is prejudiced and institutionally homophobic? Does he at the very least agree that, given the facts of the cases, homophobia must have been a factor that influenced the actions and inactions of the police? In these circumstances, will he please order a full public inquiry to examine whether there is institutional homophobia in the police service? Does he agree that such an inquiry is vital if the police are to gain the trust of the LGBTQ+ community? Does he further agree that the inquiry is also vital to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again?

Seventeen police officers were investigated by the IOPC in 2015. None was sacked and five have since been promoted. Is the Independent Office for Police Conduct fit for purpose? What action has the Minister taken to ensure that all police officers treat gay partners in the same way as they would any other partner, with appropriate respect and a proper duty of care? Action by the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and the Mayor is essential if the homophobia in our police service is to be properly and thoroughly investigated and addressed.

I agree with the right hon. Lady that this was an unspeakable tragedy, which has moved all of us in its dreadfulness. I cannot imagine what those families have gone through, not least in living through the deaths of their loved ones, but also with the investigation and this dreadful but necessary process of an inquest and investigation thereafter.

Although there have obviously been shortcomings in this investigation, which the Met has admitted and on which it has expressed a profound desire to improve, it is not my experience that the Metropolitan police is institutionally homophobic. Obviously, however, the commissioner and the Mayor have commissioned Baroness Casey to look at the culture of the Metropolitan police in all its aspects following the awful killing of Sarah Everard. I understand that her work will include examining whether prejudice such as the right hon. Lady outlined exists in the force. It is definitely the case, as I think is recognised by City Hall and Metropolitan police leadership, that there is a job of work to be done to rebuild trust between that organisation and the people it serves in all their great tapestry in the capital that I had the honour to serve for eight years.

On the Independent Office for Police Conduct, as I said, it is considering whether to reopen, in full or in part, the investigations that it undertook in the light of any new evidence that may be presented as part of the inquest. As the right hon. Lady will know, there were recently reforms to the IOPC when it replaced the Independent Police Complaints Commission and there was a change in regulations last year to try to improve its performance. I have confidence in it as an organisation to try to get to the bottom of these often difficult and complicated issues. As I say, however, until we see whether it is going to reopen the investigations, I cannot comment on that further.

My reading of the apologies from senior Met officers is that they are very heartfelt—from Helen Ball, whom I know well and who is an officer of great commitment, and from Stuart Cundy, who leads on homicide for the National Police Chiefs’ Council across the country—and they recognise that there were serious failures in this case. I know that they are all committed to facing those failures and improving in future.

All right-thinking Members of the House support our police and understand that they do a tremendous job, often in difficult circumstances, but cases such as this leave us in an awful position because as the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) outlined, there are some incredibly difficult questions to be answered. Does the Minister agree that police up and down the country need to be held to the highest standards, whether on homophobia or any other issue? We need to tackle and root out any prejudice and ensure that this sort of case can never be allowed to happen again.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Although it is possible for us to hold inquiries, make structural changes and urge the organisations to examine their internal cultures, in the end, it is a matter of leadership and the signal that is sent by senior police officers about how junior officers should comport themselves and the confidence that officers should have internally to call out bad behaviour, whether that is homophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny or whatever it might be.

The inquiries that are under way, the work that the National Police Chiefs’ Council is doing, and the inquiries within the Metropolitan police, will put us in a better place to face those unpleasant phenomena within the organisations. My hon. Friend is right to point out that every day, up and down the land, thousands of police officers do remarkable things and we should never forget that.

It is good to be back, if sadly on such a difficult issue. All our hearts will be with the family and friends of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor, because these were vile murders by a man who targeted young gay men. They were all found close to each other and close to his house. It is incomprehensible that the dots were not joined.

The jurors’ verdict that fundamental failings in the police investigation probably contributed to three deaths is extremely serious. Three young men might otherwise have been alive today. The jurors heard damning evidence about lack of basic checks, lack of professional curiosity, serious workforce pressures, long delays on digital forensics and serious failures in leadership. Crucially, the victims’ families have raised serious concerns about homophobia blighting the investigation and the way that they as partners and relatives were treated, though the jurors were directed not to consider that.

Rightly, the Met has recognised failings and is making changes. We await the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report. Given the seriousness of the issue, however, does the Minister not agree that a further independent inquiry will be required to get to the truth of how and why it was possible for things to go so badly wrong? Does he accept that the families need answers, which they do not have right now, on how far homophobia, prejudice or unconscious bias affected the investigation?

The Home Office response is too weak, given the seriousness of the case. The Minister and the Home Secretary have a responsibility to be relentless in pursuit of the truth to ensure that the families get the answers that they need and deserve. The IOPC will look at individuals, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services at homicide procedures and Louise Casey at the Met culture, but none of them is addressing the full scale of what went wrong in this case—whether homophobia was involved, and what changes are needed not just in the Met but in police forces across the country to make sure that this can never happen again. May I please urge the Minister to take another look at this case?

Obviously I recognise the deep concern about these investigations, not least in regard to—the right hon. Lady, whom I welcome to her new position, drew attention to this—the seemingly incomprehensible nature of the dots not being drawn together. I have to say that that has often been a problem not just for the Metropolitan police but for other police forces, when seemingly obvious patterns of behaviour have failed to be linked together in other types of crime. We saw it previously in the Met in the case of John Worboys, a serial rapist whose pattern of offending was never pieced together. However, I am reassured that they have made significant changes structurally, aligning their homicide teams with their basic borough command units so that there can be better co-ordination, and making sure that there is better analysis of patterns of offending to establish at an early stage whether there are a linked series of crimes.

As for the right hon. Lady’s primary question about the independent inquiry, as I have said, the Deputy Mayor has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate to look at the investigative practices, while the Met have themselves commissioned Dame Louise Casey to look at their culture internally and the IOPC is considering whether to reopen any investigations. In the light of those three steps, we will obviously have to keep the situation under review, but for the moment we want to see how they conclude.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Everyone is rightly horrified at the deaths of these young men. Reports of alleged institutional homophobia in the Metropolitan police must be taken seriously, so can my right hon. Friend reassure the gay community of London that he will support every effort to root it out?

I certainly can give that reassurance, and we will stand four-square with the commissioner herself as she seeks to do exactly that. The Met have not stood still in seeking to address this issue. I understand that they have a new LGBTQ organisational improvement group, and that there is a network of 125 volunteer advisers across the whole of the Met. Officers who are posted to particular boroughs or areas are now being trained and briefed much more coherently about the nature of the community with whom they are dealing, including LGBTQ members of that community. They are making big strides. Nevertheless, there will be lessons to be learned, particularly from Louise Casey’s review, and we look forward to seeing its conclusions.

My constituent Sarah Sak, Anthony’s mother, was on holiday in Turkey when the Metropolitan police contacted her to say that her son had been found dead. From that very second, when speaking to me, Sarah has accused the Met of prejudice and throughout all these proceedings she has constantly made the point that there was discrimination. Sadly, the coroner chose not to look at that. I make no criticism of the coroner, but when I spoke to Sarah last night, she asked me, “What can the Home Secretary do to persuade me that this can never, ever happen again?”

Of course I offer my profound condolences to Sarah. As a father myself, I cannot imagine ever having to go through that kind of experience: it must have been terrible. I am aware, in particular, that there were failings in the posture of the family liaison officers who dealt with some of the bereaved, and that is also being addressed by the Metropolitan police.

Those who know Baroness Casey will know that she will be unrelenting and forensic in her examination of the culture of the Metropolitan police. I have confidence in her to do a good job in examining the overall culture in the Met, and an examination of this issue will be part of that. Once she has concluded her examination, we shall be able to draw some lessons about the future.

There is always a danger that an entire institution will be damaged by the failures of a few. However, what action will be taken against officers who are found guilty of such an abysmal failure of investigation and drive? If action is not taken, does that not create a narrative that there is something wrong with the institution as a whole?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that people need to have confidence not just in the force as a whole but in individual officers. He may know that 17 officers were originally investigated by the IOPC. That investigation concluded some time ago, but I understand the IOPC is considering whether to reopen it, in full or in part, in the light of the evidence from the inquest.

My Vauxhall constituency is home to one of the largest LGBT communities in the country, and I share my constituents’ feelings about the Met’s response to these horrific murders. How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when they failed to link the three deaths that were so close together? How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when they refused to rule out some of the horrific homophobic presumptions about these young gay men? How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when, 12 months after the first murders, they ignored the pleas from family members, friends and partners?

The Minister says he is reassured by the Met but, respectfully, I do not think my constituents are reassured this afternoon. As with some of my black and minority ethnic constituents and some of my female constituents, my constituents and communities seem to have experienced a catalogue of failures from the Met police. Will he please show the leadership that he says is needed and call for a full public investigation to get to the bottom of this?

I understand the hon. Lady’s anger and frustration, which many of us feel. However, as I said, I am reassured that the Met are taking the three steps required to learn the lessons of this issue. First, they acknowledge that something went wrong and have apologised. Secondly, they are being transparent about that and about what needs to change. And thirdly, they are seeking independent advice on their internal processes and internal culture to make sure change happens and sticks. Although I can understand the doubts that many in the LGBTQ+ community may have about the Metropolitan police today, I hope this means that, over the months and years to come, the Met can rebuild the trust that is needed.

The long-term partner of one of the murder victims was not allowed by the police to read the forged suicide note, which was of course written by the murderer, because he was not considered to be next of kin. We left that most appalling attitude behind in the 1980s. Given this is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) says, the latest in a catalogue of abysmal failures by the Metropolitan police that indicates a rotten culture at the Met’s heart, why did the Home Secretary recently extend the commissioner’s tenure by two years?

Obviously the Home Secretary, along with the Mayor of London, felt the current commissioner is the right person to do the job for the next two years. Of course these awful events happened when she was not in the employ of the Metropolitan police. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the culture of the Metropolitan police, and importantly that is something the leadership has acknowledged, hence the appointment of Dame Louise Casey.

An Ipsos MORI poll suggests that trust in the police has fallen from 76% to 63%, especially among marginalised groups and the LGBTQ+ community. Will the Minister agree to the Liberal Democrat call for mandatory, UK-wide awareness training for the police on prejudice and unconscious bias?

The police have extensive training on many of these issues. Although I acknowledge that trust and confidence in the police have taken a battering over the past few months, it is worth remembering that the people who are most profoundly upset by this are the thousands of police officers, of all types, across the country who want their profession and vocation to be held in high esteem by the people they serve, not least because that was the primary motivation for their joining.

The police service in this country is changing very significantly, not least because, as the hon. Lady will know, we are recruiting a new generation of police officers who will massively expand capacity and bring a new mindset into the organisation. This presents an enormous opportunity to diversify the police and to see the kind of cultural shift that, to be fair, has been ongoing for the past 20 years.

Something as appalling as this deserves more than to be tacked on to an existing inquiry. It surely requires a public inquiry, as other colleagues have called for, to look at the totality and horror of this event.

The Minister mentioned the idea of specialist officers within the force. I understand the need for them and can see some value in the idea, but is there not a greater problem in the general attitudes throughout the force? The danger of having specialist officers is that things get shoved on to them and ignored by everybody else. What we need is a change of culture as a whole right across the Metropolitan police force.

Obviously there is a strong role for specialist officers in particular aspects of investigation or in investigations that have particular characteristics. The key thing is that those officers work hand in glove with other officers, particularly those based in a borough, who very often are able to piece together the investigation in a way that a specialist officer is not. One of the improvements the Metropolitan police are putting in place is better training for frontline response officers to make sure that they are able to follow an investigation from start to finish, basically, much more and that only the most serious of crimes are handed off to the specialists, in a way that is co-ordinated. Therefore, the chain in intelligence and the appreciation of the full picture, if you like, of what has happened in a related set of offences will not be lost to the organisation.

It has been a terribly sad few days. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, we did not expect in this day and age for a partner of a gay man to be treated in this way. Although progress has been made, it can still be extremely difficult for members of the LGBT+ community to speak confidently about partners or relationships. What protocols has the Minister put in place since these tragic events, not just in the Met but across all police forces, to ensure that friends, partners and families of those in the LGBT community are treated effectively and sensitively in any form of investigation? What will he do to ensure that those protocols are implemented effectively, and are not just a piece of paper?

As I hope the hon. Lady knows, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently in the other place and is due to return to us in the new year, will place in law the provision of a police covenant, one of the key themes of which is family support and welfare. As part of our engagement to build that picture, I was very pleased to participate with a number of groups on different aspects of policing. As I say, there is a great tapestry these days; there is not just a monoculture in British policing. I spoke to those who are in an LGBT+ relationship, a key group, to understand the particular relationship they have with policing and the particular support they may need for the future. I hope that, as the covenant lands, we will be able to flesh out more widely what that support looks like, and that she will be able to support us in doing so.

The response from the Government smacks of the same old, same old response of shutting down shop when the police are criticised in this way. The IOPC investigated 17 officers involved in the investigation and only two were disciplined, despite the scale of the failures in the investigation. Now we hear that the IOPC has been invited back to have another go. That really is not good enough. What is needed is a fully independent inquiry. It is time the Government recognised that that is the only response that is acceptable.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but I am sure he will understand that it is extremely important that the IOPC relies on the “I” and that it is the Independent Office for Police Conduct. It therefore cannot be ordered by Ministers or anyone else to investigate or not investigate. I am given to understand that in this case, in the light of the evidence that has come through, it is considering whether to reopen the investigation. It would not be proper for me to influence its decision either way, in the same way that it is not for me to order the police to investigate any individual or otherwise. We should wait and see what the IOPC has to say and wait for the other inquiries commissioned by City Hall and by the Met, and see what the picture looks like after that.

Just to finish, Mr Speaker, the Government take this incident extremely seriously and we want to do everything we can to make sure that it does not happen again.

That seems to have been aimed at me, but I just say that I granted an urgent question because there was no statement.

And well done you, Mr Speaker.

The Minister has said repeatedly that he has reassured himself, but he has not reassured me—if anything, quite the opposite. He keeps referring to this as a “tragedy”, but it is not a tragedy; it is a double-layered gay hate crime. I wish he would actually use those words. It has been a double-layered gay hate crime. First there were the original murders, and then there was the refusal to investigate them, which in itself is a gay hate crime. It is about time we took this seriously, not least because homophobic hate crimes in the past three years have risen to 1,833 a month. That is why a lot of gay men in this country are beginning to feel frightened. The Government have got to do something. Get on with it!

First of all, my apologies, Mr Speaker. I was not aiming any particular comment at you. It is just that the microphone went off as I was finishing.

I acknowledge the terrible nature of this crime, and I acknowledge the prejudiced, homophobic nature of it—[Interruption.] Yes, I do; of course I do. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are doing enormous amounts of work on violence and murder in all their forms across the whole country. We have set murder specifically—irrespective of the nature of the murder—as one of our national priorities to push it down. Obviously this murder is particularly heinous and unpleasant, not least because of the botched investigation that took place around it. What I am saying to Opposition Members is that we are determined to help the police to learn the lessons from this. We will do what we can to help them to do so, and we will push them to do so. At the moment, we do not believe that a full public inquiry is the way to do that, not least because of the time required, but there are some extremely useful and assertive investigations ongoing, independently, around this case that give us cause to believe that there will be change in the future. If there is not, we can come back to it, but I honestly hope that nobody is implying that either I or the Government do not take these kinds of crimes extremely seriously. We absolutely do. Every single murder that happens in this country, no matter the complexion or the demographic of the victim, is of extreme importance to us and to me personally.

Homophobia is a lived reality for thousands of gay people up and down the country every single day. These avoidable murders of gay young men will be broadcast around the country, and LGBT people will be looking at the Minister’s response and saying, “They do not value my life because I am gay.” A full public independent inquiry will give LGBT people the reassurance that something will be done to stop this ever happening again. Will the Minister reconsider his refusal to have that independent inquiry?

I have to confess that I object to this characterisation that I do not care or that we do not care about these individuals. It is completely unfair and completely untrue, not least to those members of the Government who happen to be of that description themselves—[Interruption.] No, many of us have worked on these issues addressing all sorts of communities, whether it is domestic murders or murders in minority communities. The murders of all sorts of people are profoundly important to us. That is why we have set murder as a national priority. If it is of interest to the House, last week I got the police chiefs of the seven biggest contributors to the murder total in this country around a table to talk about how we can further drive murders of all types down. This is a particularly unpleasant murder—[Interruption.] I understand the alarm and distress it will have caused across the country. We need to learn the lessons from it and we are determined to do so.

The Minister’s response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), which should have been a statement from the Home Secretary, is extremely disappointing. I have dealt with the Met for more than 30 years, as a lawyer and as a politician, and I can remember few cases as serious as this, both because of the callous incompetence of the investigation and because of the consequences in the loss of lives of those young men.

All I have heard from the Minister today, and from the senior members of the Met—London MPs are just about to go to talk to them—are platitudes. I have heard platitudes specifically because they will not address the homophobic nature of these murders. That is not being addressed because it will not be included in the inquiry, and the Minister will not establish a full inquiry. He needs to order that now. A BBC series on this issue is starting on 3 January; it is not going to go away. He is entitled to his view that the Met is not institutionally homophobic—I would take a different view—but he is not entitled not to investigate that and to sweep this issue under the carpet.

First, it is not the case that this matter is not being investigated further. As I have outlined several times, a number of lines of inquiry are being pursued, both about the Met’s investigation generally and its culture more specifically, and the IOPC may or may not reopen the investigation into the officers. So it is not the case that this has reached some kind of dead end, as some Opposition Members seem to be implying. It is simply not true to say that we are not bending every sinew to try to identify those who are likely to murder, in all different circumstances, whether domestic or through drugs—whatever the circumstances are. As I say, just last week I sat the seven biggest forces down and we had a three-hour session to look at what more work we could do to identify those who are likely to go on to commit such crimes: what their precursor behaviour is; what indications there are in their background; what data pools we could put together, whether that is their background offending or intelligence about them, that would give us clues towards what they were likely to do and allow us to intervene before. That enormous project of work has been under way for two years, and I hope and believe it will drive down murder numbers in the next few years to come. It is very unfair to accuse us of not taking these murders extremely seriously—that is exactly what we are doing and we are determined to make sure that they do not happen again.

We have seen the Daniel Morgan, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman cases, the Sarah Everard case and then the resulting vigil, the fiasco at Wembley and now this shocking set of gay murders—the Minister has not said that word.

I do not think the Minister has said it. In any case, the list of bunglings under this Metropolitan Police Commissioner this year alone seems endless, and they date back to 2005, with the shoot-to-kill Jean Charles de Menezes operation. May I ask that as well as the inspection that the Minister mentions, he undertakes a full statutory inquiry, with teeth, into the entire Met police and, although it may sound unsisterly to say so, its leadership? That should be a priority for whoever steps into the shoes of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) as Chair of the Committee on Wednesday.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that these were very obviously horrific gay murders, targeted against men because they were gay and driven by who knows what—homophobia or some kind of depraved sexual practice; I do not know. Some monster perpetrated these awful acts against these poor gay men. I am happy to say, without reservation, that obviously they need to be investigated and we need to get to the bottom of this. As I have explained, there are inquiries ongoing into the culture of the Metropolitan police, and I would like to see how they land before we seek to duplicate them by some other means.

We should not, ever, underestimate the very real concerns of the LGBTQ+ communities across this country about these dreadful failings by the Met police. Is the Minister satisfied that police forces across the country, not just the Met, have sufficient time, resources and leadership to ensure that the complete breakdown of oversight described by the jury in this hearing cannot ever happen again?

As I said, much of my work over the past two years has been devoted to bringing the focus of the whole of UK policing and, in particular, its leadership on to murder as a specific issue. That means improving processes, improving forensics, improving their investigation techniques and improving their prior identification. Crucially, it means improving the leadership, and that is what I was doing last Thursday with the police chiefs from across the country.

I thank the Minister for his response to the questions. Having read some of the details of this case in the news recently, I was, like others in this Chamber, very shocked. I am anxious to understand why normal procedures do not seem to have been followed. Can the Minister affirm that, in every case, regardless of the crime and the motivation, the inquiry and the evidence procedure is the same, and that there are no levels of importance in the allocation of cases in any of our police forces in the United Kingdom?

That is definitely the consistency that we seek, but there is a category of deaths that have thus far needed some focus, which is unexplained deaths. For example, the circumstances of this case are that these deaths were originally classified as unexplained or non-suspicious. Since then, I understand that the Metropolitan police have put in a step-by-step guide for officers to make sure that, in contemplating these deaths, no stone goes unturned in trying to connect them, and that they are forensic and curious about whether they could be linked. In the very obvious way that many of us have read about in the papers, these murders were in fact linked, whether by geography or by causation. I hope that that will improve the investigation of the cases and that we will see that consistency that the hon. Gentleman seeks across the whole country.

Covid-19 Update

Before I call the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I want to put on record my disappointment that the Prime Minister is not here to make this statement. Last night, in fairness to the Secretary of State, he phoned me to say that the Prime Minister felt the need to make the announcement to the country yesterday. I am surprised, though, that he did not therefore think it appropriate to come to this House to answer questions on the important announcement today. I have respect for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but I am really, really disappointed that, once again, this House has come second to TV news. It is not acceptable. If this is the game that we are going to play, we are going to have to play hardball.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on covid-19.

Since the UK became the first country to approve a vaccine against covid-19, almost exactly a year ago, we have been locked in a race between the virus and the vaccine. The success of our national vaccination programme has moved us ahead in that race, but now, with the new omicron variant, we have to work even harder to stay ahead.

Since last week, we have learned two things about this variant. The first is that no variant of covid-19 has spread this fast. There are now 4,713 confirmed cases of omicron in the UK. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that the current number of daily infections are around 200,000. While omicron represents more than 20% of cases in England, we have already seen it rise to over 44% in London, and we expect it to become the dominant covid-19 variant in the capital in the next 48 hours.

There are currently 10 confirmed people in England who have been hospitalised with omicron. It is vital that we remember that hospitalisations and deaths lag infections by around two weeks, so we can expect those numbers to increase dramatically in the days and weeks ahead. In preparation, the UK’s four chief medical officers raised the covid alert level to 4—its second highest level—over the weekend. NHS England has just announced that it will return to its highest level of emergency preparedness—level 4 national incident. This means that the NHS response to omicron will be co-ordinated as a national effort rather than led by individual trusts.

The second thing we have learned in the past week is that two jabs are not enough to prevent symptomatic infection from omicron, but a third dose—a booster dose—provides strong protection, with analysis by the UK Health Security Agency showing a third dose is 70% effective at preventing symptomatic infection. We expect the booster to take effect more quickly than the second dose. We are already running the most successful booster campaign in Europe. More than four in 10 UK adults have now received a third dose or booster and Saturday was a record, with more than half a million boosters given across the UK.

However, with the race between the virus and the vaccine so close, we must move faster. Two weeks ago, we announced that we would offer every eligible adult a booster by the end of January. In response to the omicron emergency—and as the Prime Minister announced yesterday evening—we are bringing that target forward by a month and launching the omicron emergency boost. We have opened the booster programme to every adult who has had a second dose of the vaccine at least three months ago to offer them the chance of getting their booster before the new year. From this morning, anyone over 18 can walk into a vaccination centre and, from Wednesday, they can book online via the NHS website. The UK Government will also provide whatever support is needed to accelerate vaccinations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have the jabs. The challenge now is to get them into arms.

To meet our ambitious target, the NHS will need to deliver a record number of jabs. Until now, the highest number of jabs we have delivered in a single day in the UK was more than 840,000. We will not only need to match that, but beat it every day. We can, and we have a plan to try and do it. We are opening more vaccination sites—including pop-up and mobile sites—and they will be working seven days a week. We are training thousands more volunteer vaccinators. We are asking GPs and pharmacies to do more, and we are drafting in 42 military planning teams across every region of our country.

This collective national mission will only succeed if we all play our part. Those who have not had their booster should find their local walk-in vaccination centre or book an appointment on the NHS website from Wednesday. Those who have had their booster jab should encourage their friends and family to do the same. Those who have or have recently had covid should wait 28 days from their positive result to get their booster.

To those who have not yet had their vaccine at all, I would like to say this: whatever has held you back in the past, please think again, and book your jab as quickly as possible. By acting together to get boosted now we can protect ourselves against omicron this winter.

I acknowledge that our national mission comes with some difficult trade-offs. We are redeploying NHS staff away from non-urgent services. That means that, for the next two weeks, all primary care services will focus on urgent clinical need and vaccines, and some non-urgent appointments and elective surgeries may be postponed until the new year while we prioritise getting people the booster. These are steps that no Health Secretary would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary, but I am convinced that if we do not prioritise the booster now, the health consequences will be far more grave in the months that lie ahead.

Our omicron emergency boost is a major step, but I am not going to pretend that this alone will be enough to see us through the difficult weeks ahead. Because of the threat of omicron, we are moving to plan B in England, subject to the will of this House. That means that: we must use face coverings in indoor public places; people should work from home if they can; and, from Wednesday—again subject to this House’s approval—people will need to show a negative lateral flow test to get into nightclubs and large events, with an exemption for the double-vaccinated. Once all adults have had a reasonable chance to get their booster jab, we intend to change that exemption to require a booster dose.

Even with plan B, we still have far fewer restrictions in place than Europe. I can also confirm that from tomorrow, fully vaccinated contacts of a covid-19 case will now be able to take daily lateral flow tests instead of self-isolating. This is a vital way to minimise the disruption to people’s daily lives and to avoid a so-called pingdemic. I can assure this House that the UK has sufficient lateral flow tests to see us through the coming weeks. If anyone finds that they are unable to get a kit online, they should check the website the following day or they can pop down to their local pharmacy and pick up a kit. From today, I can confirm that the NHS covid pass is being rolled out to 12 to 15-year-olds for international travel, allowing even more people to be able to prove their vaccine status for travel where it is needed. [Hon. Members: “When?”] From today. Taken together, these are proportionate and balanced steps keeping the country moving while slowing the spread of omicron and buying us more time to get more boosters into arms.

We are also taking steps to keep people safe in adult social care. We know that, sadly, people in care homes and those who receive domiciliary care are more likely to suffer serious health consequences if they get covid-19, so we are expanding our specialist vaccination teams to get more boosters to the vulnerable and those providing care. But even as we do so, we must go further to protect colleagues and residents from omicron. So we are increasing the frequency of staff testing and, with a heavy heart, we must restrict every resident to just three nominated visitors, not including their essential care giver. This is a difficult step, and I understand that it comes with an impact on physical and mental wellbeing, but we know from previous waves that it is one of the most effective things that we can do to protect vulnerable residents. We are also increasing our workforce recruitment and retention fund with £300 million of new money. This is in addition to the £162.5 million we announced in October. The funds will help to pay bonuses, bring forward pay rises for care staff, fund overtime, and increase workforce numbers over the winter.

I know that hon. Members had hoped that the days of this kind of covid-19 update were behind us. After our successful reopening in the summer, it is not an update that I wanted to deliver. But the renewed threat of omicron means that we have more work to do to stay ahead of this virus. We can, if we all play our part, and boosters are the key. We have achieved so many phenomenal things over the last two years. I know we are weary, but it is on all of us to pick up, to step up and do some phenomenal work once again to play our part and to get boosted now. I commend this statement to the House.

Can I suggest to the Secretary of State that we could be a pop-up site for all the staff that work here to get them boosted?

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

Today we learned of the first death in the UK as a result of the omicron virus, so on behalf of the whole House I send our condolences to the friends and family of that person who has lost their life. Their death puts this statement and the task at hand in context. It is a stark reminder that the pandemic is not over, that the new variant is a clear and serious risk to our public health, and of the urgency of getting Britain boosted and protecting us against this threat.

The Labour party will always act in the best interests of our NHS, our public health, and our nation. Having repeatedly called for the booster programme to be ramped up, we will give our full support to this effort. Labour Members will make every effort to get the message out that vaccines are the best tool we have at our disposal to protect ourselves, those closest to us, and our NHS. The target of getting 1 million people a day their booster vaccine is unprecedented and may even prove impossible, but we applaud the ambition. If anyone can do it, the NHS can, and the whole country will be willing them on and will not knock them for trying.

What people will not accept is the Government moving the goalposts. The Prime Minister is now famous for over-promising and under-delivering. In his televised address last night, he said that people

“will have the chance to get their booster before the new year.”

But, as we heard from the Secretary of State, the aim is instead to “offer” the booster to every adult by the end of the month, meaning that the delivery will wait until January or even February. Are the Government rowing back on the target set yesterday? If so, why has it changed overnight? What hope do we have of achieving the necessary level of booster jabs if the public and those delivering the vaccines are told one thing one day and another the next day? The Prime Minister has got to learn to be straight with people, because he is undermining public trust and confidence in the Government and in public health measures at a critical time. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local authorities, GPs, pharmacies and other delivery partners who will be crucial to that effort?

Then there is the shambles of testing. I thought the Secretary of State might be living on a different planet when he described the availability of testing, because the Government’s website states today that home testing kits are unavailable, pharmacies across the country are out of stock and, even here in Parliament, no home testing kits are available from Portcullis House. No doubt, that is due to a surge in demand ahead of the new testing requirements this week, but surely that should have been foreseen. This is a serious problem. Those coming into contact with positive omicron cases will not be able to follow the rules and get themselves tested daily, those who require tests to undertake home visits risk being left short, and many others need them for work. How does the Secretary of State plan to ensure that enough tests are in stock and available for everyone who needs them, when they need them? When will the problem be resolved? It does not appear that he was even aware of it.

Absent from the Prime Minister’s address last night was any plan to speed up the vaccine roll-out for 12 to 15-year-olds. On current trends, some teenagers will not receive their vaccine until February, five months after the Government’s initial target of October half-term. Children have already faced significant disruption to their education, so will the Secretary of State update the House on the vaccine roll-out for 12 to 15-year-olds? Will they receive their vaccines by the end of the Christmas holidays, as Labour has called for?

Of course, patients will be concerned by the news that appointments will be delayed to accommodate the booster roll-out. There is no doubt that the booster programme is the right priority. If we do not get ahead of omicron, the pressure on the NHS will be unbearable and the disruption to people’s appointments in the new year will be severe. But, let us be honest: the challenge is made so much greater as a direct result of the Government’s mismanagement of the NHS for 11 years. We went into the pandemic with record waiting lists and with six-figure staff shortages in the health service and the care sector. Where is the NHS workforce plan? Where is the plan for the recovery of elective care? Why can the Government not understand that their continued failure to fix social care is piling even more pressure on the NHS at the worst possible time? On social care visits, I ask the Secretary of State to think again about limits on care home visits. That feels like the wrong decision at the wrong time.

Mr Speaker, I will conclude, if I may, with some words directed to the public. We on the Labour Benches realise that the Prime Minister has tested patience by asking people to follow the rules when No. 10 did not. The Prime Minister’s actions in recent weeks have under-mined trust at a critical moment. I say to people feeling let down or lied to that I trust the chief medical officer, I trust the chief scientific adviser and I trust the NHS. The Prime Minister might not lead by example, but the rest of us can, and we—the Labour party—trust you, the British people, to do the right thing to protect yourselves, to protect the ones you love and to protect the NHS.

First, may I say that I heard your request, Mr Speaker? I am happy to take that up with you directly, if that is okay. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support of the need to accelerate the booster programme. I join him, as I am sure the whole House does, in expressing condolences for the individual who was the first in this country to die with the new variant.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, he asked about testing capacity. I would like to share more information with the House. There is no shortage of tests held by UKHSA—tens of millions of tests are in stock and millions are arriving each week. The limiting factor, because of the hugely increased demand—I am sure hon. Members understand why demand has suddenly surged—is the ability to deliver tests. The current arrangements with Royal Mail alone are not enough, but new arrangements have been reached with Amazon and other delivery methods. There will still be many hundreds of thousands—record numbers—delivered each day, but also the number of access points is being increased, including many more through pharmacies, and we are rapidly looking at other access points. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this, but I hope he and others understand that there has been a huge surge and increase, and this is not just about the number of tests available but getting them through and delivered; both are equally important.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the booster programme timing. He is right that just a couple of weeks ago the plan was to give everyone a booster before the end of January. That was after the change in advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the dosing gap should be reduced to three months and that it should now include everyone over 18. For the reasons I have explained and that the Prime Minister shared in his national broadcast yesterday, we want to bring that forward. That involves working hard with the NHS, which has done phenomenal work already to reach four in 10 adults with boosters and in the vaccination programme in general.

This is asking a huge amount of our colleagues in the NHS, and it is our joint view that we can try to offer adults a chance to get boosted by the end of this month. That does not mean every single person can necessarily get that booster; it requires them to come forward and take up the offer as well as everything going right in this huge expansion plan. But again, I hope the hon. Gentleman can respect that the NHS is doing everything it can, with the full support of every Department of Government, and is throwing everything at this to offer as many opportunities as it can and the maximum possible capacity for delivering on that commitment.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the challenges facing the NHS. I remind him and the House that this year the Government have put an extra £34 billion into the NHS and social care, £5.4 billion of that in the second half of this year, and over the next three years there is a commitment to at least £8 billion extra going into the largest catch-up fund the NHS has ever seen. In the last year almost 10,000 nurses and almost 3,000 doctors have joined the NHS; the NHS is increasing workforce and capacity, is looking at new ways to do electives, and is putting a huge amount of effort into its electives programme and its non-covid work as well.

Finally, I do understand what the hon. Gentleman said on adult social care and the limit on visitors, and it is important to get the balance right. We all know the problems and the sad deaths not long ago in care homes with this pandemic, and it is right to take balanced measures to protect people in care homes. We are working with, and listening to, those who run care homes and trying to take a balanced approach that allows visits to take place but also protects vulnerable people.

One year and five days ago the UK administered the first properly approved covid vaccine in the world, and the Government are absolutely right to focus on immunisation, but Israel approved booster jabs for all adults in September, France approved jabs for teenagers in June, both long before us, and the United States has already approved jabs for five-year-olds, again long before us. Is the Secretary of State worried that our regulators, having been the nimblest in the world, are now taking too long? They are brilliant scientists and they are rightly totally independent, but what can he do to speed up this crucial decision making in a pandemic?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, from experience. We can be proud of so much of what our regulators have achieved and done. As he said, we were the first in the world to approve a covid-19 vaccine, but he is right to challenge on this and ask what more can be done, especially in light of the circumstances we face. The JCVI is not a regulator but it is an important part of the approvals process, and I hope he will also commend its swift response since the emergence of omicron in changing the rules around boosters.

It is worth putting on record that Scotland is the most vaccinated nation in the UK, and I certainly encourage everybody to continue to take up the booster. Does the Secretary of State share my outrage that last week his Back Benchers were literally cheering the proposition that he needs to wait until more people are hospitalised before they will countenance the wearing of masks in public places? That is absolutely reckless, and it sends the wrong message to the public when we are trying to tell them to take the risk of omicron seriously.

Tragically, we know that people are now being hospitalised and, sadly, we have already recorded one death from omicron. Based on evidence elsewhere, what kind of upward trajectory does the Secretary of State think there will be in hospitalisations? Why in the plan B measures being brought forward—all already in place in Scotland—is there a pub exemption? That makes no sense.

Given that LFTs are only 50% accurate, what risk implications has the Secretary of State assessed in using the LFTs to keep people from self-isolating? Surely he needs to consider the minimum being a PCR test, following the more cautious approach adopted by the Scottish Government. Why, with LFTs as their key guidance, have the Government put themselves in this ridiculous position of the website saying it has run out of LFT kits?

If we are talking about supporting people to self-isolate, we need to revisit and extend the levels of statutory sick pay. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that? Critically, does he support calls from the devolved nations that they need Treasury support to put in place what restrictions they believe are required to control the spread and impact of omicron and support livelihoods at the same time?

The Scottish Government have already put in place more generous rates relief for hospitality venues than the UK Government did but, with trade dropping, suppliers and the trade itself need further support, especially if further restrictions are required. Will the Secretary of State take that up with the Chancellor? Is the Cabinet considering support for the travel industry? Does he agree that targeted sector restrictions, with full financial support, is a better long-term strategy than the “all or nothing” approach we seem to be taking, and praying that the booster programme alone will be sufficient? It will need a lot more work than just that alone.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the lag between the point of infection and hospitalisation. That emphasises the need to act early and strongly. That is why the booster programme and that response is so important in Scotland, in England and throughout the UK, and it is good that all four nations are working closely together on it.

On lateral flow tests as an alternative to self-isolation, I think they are the right approach. They can be taken daily, so the individual is tested each day for seven days, whereas a PCR would be a single test at a single moment. This is much more flexible and it is based on advice Ministers have received. On the hon. Gentleman’s questions on economic support, that is something we keep under review.

I congratulate the Government on the roll-out of the vaccination programme—it is impressive—but what does my right hon. Friend say to my constituent who says she is now less afraid of covid than she is of intrusive and incoherent Government regulations?

I would say to my right hon. Friend that I hope her constituent would appreciate that the Government have to act on the information they see before them on the rate of spread of this new variant and what we now know about its degree of vaccine escape—not just to protect my right hon. Friend’s constituent, but to protect that constituent’s loved ones and her community.

May I say to the Secretary of State that I was deeply shocked, when he was in this House recently and I said that all sensible Members of Parliament will be supporting any measure to save lives, to hear boos and catcalls from the Government Benches? I will repeat my view: does he realise what great potential we have as Members of Parliament in our communities, working for this, rolling our sleeves up, working cross-party with local councillors and volunteers? This House of Commons is a real resource. Please, please will he use us effectively?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his call for all hon. Members to do their bit to help the nation in this time of crisis. It is not just about what we can all do in this House; I am sure he agrees that it is about what we can do in our local communities.

My right hon. Friend rightly talked about protecting the NHS. Can I ask him to ensure that we protect our children as well and that the Government set out a plan to keep schools open in January? Given that The Sunday Times suggested that primary school children will be vaccinated, will he or the Secretary of State for Education make a statement about the vaccination programme for younger children and ensure that there is 100% parental consent?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on the importance of protecting our children. We in this House all know how children have suffered throughout the pandemic and the impact on their education, mental health and socialisation with other children. He is right to talk about that importance. One reason to take the measures that we have set out, especially around expanding the booster programme, is the ensure that we prioritise children. On the issue of vaccinations for younger children aged five to 11, the JCVI is considering that. When the Government hear back from the JCVI on that, we will bring it to the House.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Having listened to it and having studied the matter in some detail over the weekend, I will be supporting the Government and the measures that they are introducing tomorrow night. What would he say to those in the community who are saying, “If the rule makers can’t be trusted to obey their own rules, why should we?”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. It is important to emphasise that the rules that we are discussing—all rules of any type, really, but he is talking about those around the pandemic—are there for all of us and apply equally to all of us.

GPs, particularly in rural areas, are finding it difficult and challenging to deliver the booster programme, but will have to deliver the booster in great numbers. Can the Secretary of State look at measures that will speed up the flow for those GP surgeries? Will he send a message to all patients that they will need to be understanding in the next couple of weeks to ensure that the morale of our GPs, who work so hard, is not undermined?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about how hard GPs have worked throughout the pandemic, and about the need to provide greater support. We expect and need them to help with this big new vaccination effort. There are already signs of many people showing that they understand the need for GPs to reprioritise over the next couple of weeks, which is important too.