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Commons Chamber

Volume 715: debated on Monday 6 June 2022

House of Commons

Monday 6 June 2022

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Auto-enrolment

1. How many people have been auto-enrolled in workplace pensions in Wantage constituency since 2012. (900273)

14. How many people have been auto-enrolled in workplace pensions in Kensington constituency since 2012. (900286)

Since 2012, in the Wantage constituency, 14,000 local men and women have been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. We thank the 2,410 local employers who are helping these employees to save from 8% of their earnings.

Auto-enrolment has been one of the most successful Government policies for the workplace in decades, but my hon. Friend will know that contributions are often not yet at the levels needed for people to have a secure retirement. What steps is he taking to encourage an increase in contribution levels?

We keep all policies under review, and auto-enrolment got to 8% only in 2019. We will proceed with the 2017 auto-enrolment review by lowering the eligibility age and making it from the first £1 earned in due course. We will also look at all matters in terms of contribution rates on a longer-term basis as time moves on.

I understand that 36,000 people in Kensington have been signed up through auto-enrolment, which is great news. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that even more people in Kensington are signed up?

Where Kensington leads, the rest of the country follows. There is no doubt that 36,000 is a phenomenal number of employees who are saving the 8% through auto-enrolment. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in her community and in this country, less than 40% of women were saving in a workplace pension prior to 2012, and it is now 86%. Less than 24% of young people were saving in a workplace pension, and it is now 84%. This is a game-changing policy developed under successive Governments but pioneered by this Conservative Government.

Pensioners: Cost of Living

The Government have provided a generous package for those most in need with a one-off cost of living payment of £650, including to those in receipt of pension credit. In addition, all pensioner households will receive an extra £300 to help cover the rising cost of energy this winter.

I welcome the measures the Government have taken to support pensioners with the rising cost of living. Many pensioners in Carshalton and Wallington who are eligible for pension credit still do not know that they are entitled to it, so they are not claiming. Will my hon. Friend set out what steps the Government are taking to increase the uptake of pension credit? Will he join me at an older persons fair in my constituency later in the year to promote it?

I will be delighted to join my hon. Friend at his older persons fair, which is one example of how we want to promote the take-up of pension credit. I was pleased today to meet a group of stakeholders, ranging from Citizens Advice to Independent Age, the BBC, ITV, local authorities and utility companies, all of which are trying to work collectively to promote pension credit take-up. As we know, pension credit is a £3,000-plus benefit to the most venerable in our society, and it is particularly important that they claim it this winter.

I call Sir Stephen Timms, Chairman of the Select Committee, whom I congratulate on his knighthood.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I welcome the efforts on pension credit take-up. The Chancellor’s additional payments are very welcome, but the need for them highlights the failings of the current pensions and benefits uprating system. The Select Committee will be looking at this, but does the Minister agree that now is the time to review how we uprate pensions and benefits each year and the level at which they are set?

You got there first, Mr Speaker, but I also congratulate the former Pensions Minister, the Chair of the Select Committee, on his knighthood, which is genuinely deserved. The whole House wishes him well when he goes to meet the Queen for his investiture.

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Pensions Minister and will recall that the present uprating policy started in April 1987 and has continued under successive Governments, including the 13 years of Labour Government. I will, of course, come to the Select Committee to listen to its suggestions, but the same process has been in place for the best part of 35 years. The level is set between September and November, and the uprating takes place thereafter.

Pension credit is important, and I have been pushing take-up in my North West Durham constituency. The Minister will understand that ensuring better pension savings is the most important thing in the long term. I backed the 2019 manifesto, and I back the Prime Minister who delivered it. Will my hon. Friend the Minister implement the auto-enrolment review, and will he back my private Member’s Bill to deliver it as soon as possible?

Answer that one! The truth is that, in respect of the 2017 auto-enrolment review and the changes that my hon. Friend sought in his outstanding ten-minute rule Bill and the private Member’s Bill we did not get to debate before the close of the last parliamentary Session, he knows he has my full support. The matter will be brought before the House as soon as possible.

The cost of living crisis is leaving families and pensioners wondering how on earth they will make ends meet. Inflation is running at 11% for everyday goods, and petrol is now nearly £2 a litre, yet the Government’s response has favoured the wealthier while failing those in greatest need. Will the Minister explain why second home owners were offered extra help while at the very same time the Government have yet to drive up the take-up of pension credit? Will he also now publish the advice he received from his own civil servants that warned of the effect of this deeply unfair policy?

I do not believe that £37 billion of support should be sneered at. The Chancellor set out £22 billion of support in the spring and a further £15 billion of support last month; that includes £650 on top of the pension credit from July, and the winter fuel payment of £300 going to 8.2 million households. I strongly believe that shows that the Government are taking serious action to support the most vulnerable.

The removal of the triple lock is costing pensioners £500 this year alone, and come October energy bills will have risen by £1,700 compared with April 2021. The £300 winter fuel payment does not come close to plugging that gap, let alone addressing the other inflationary pressures that pensioners are dealing with. Then we have the WASPI women, who have been struggling for years. Following the findings of the parliamentary and health service ombudsman, surely now—this time of crisis—is the time for the Government to agree fair and fast compensation for the WASPI women.

There was a lot in that question. In respect of the full package of support, most pensioner households will receive £850 via the additional winter fuel payment, the council tax rebate and the energy bills support scheme. Pensioners who receive means-tested benefits and are most in need of support will receive £1,500, including payments in July and September.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the matter of the WASPI women is a subject of and decision for the Court of Appeal, where the matter was decided in favour of successive Governments—this and the previous Labour Government—and that the ombudsman process is an ongoing one, on which we do not comment.

Benefits Recipients: Effect of Inflation

3. What assessment she has made of the effect of inflation on households in receipt of social security benefits. (900275)

20. What assessment she has made of the effect of inflation on households in receipt of social security benefits. (900293)

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) will be aware that, in recognition of the cost of living challenge, we have announced a new £15 billion support package that is targeted at those who are most in need, bringing the total cost of living support to £37 billion. The extra support should cover every household, but is particularly targeted at helping more than 8 million households in receipt of means-tested benefits. The household support fund, which is delivered through councils, is another way that constituents can access help.

I must say to the Secretary of State that the £20 cut to universal credit seems even meaner now. Even the package of measures that she mentioned is not stopping what the Trussell Trust has announced: an increasing number of people turning up to get food parcels. In my own constituency, Unity in Community and St John’s church, Bransholme, are seeing soaring demand for food packages while their stocks are diminishing. I know that Ministers are occupied with party games today, but when will the Secretary of State get a grip of these benefits and set them at a level that means that people can pay for their everyday essentials?

The Government have always been clear that getting into work and getting on in work is an important way to lift people’s prosperity. That is why we lifted the national living wage from April; why last December we quickly put in place a change in the taper rate so that people keep more of what they earn, while still getting support and benefits; and why we have stepped in with a substantial package of support to help people with this particular challenge of global inflation—caused not only by supply chain challenges after covid, but by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has done a lot to damage to energy costs.

As well as being impacted by the soaring cost of living, two thirds of the near 50,000 children in the Tees valley and families on universal credit are affected by the punitive impact of deductions. That is because most of them are paying back the Department for Work and Pensions advance that is needed to survive the five-week wait for their first universal credit payment. Will the Secretary of State accept that every pound clawed back is a pound not available for families to spend on food and other essential costs? Will she change this cruel policy now, and make a real difference to children and families already living in poverty?

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the advance is there to spread the payment that people are entitled to over a year into 13 payments. We have also enabled people in effect to have that payment spread over two years, with 25 payments. It is about a phasing of how we put into families’ pockets the benefits to which they are entitled, and nothing else.

Among those worst impacted by the cost of living rising is the army of unpaid carers who do so much not only to support their friends and loved ones but to ease the pressure on the NHS. I know that my right hon. Friend understands and appreciates that. This is Carers Week; what thought has she given to increasing unpaid carers allowance to support them and reflect their hard work, sacrifice and need?

The whole House would unite with my hon. Friend in thanking carers, and I am sure we all have lived experiences as well. I think it is fair to say that carers allowance is not intended to be a replacement salary or anything like that; it is a contribution, and a modest contribution, I accept. As with all benefits, we consider the uplift annually, and I will continue to do so.

Low-income Households: Cost of Living

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the delivery of support to low-income households with the cost of living. (900277)

6. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of benefits rates in the context of the rise in the level of inflation. (900278)

9. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of universal credit payment levels in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900281)

We have announced £15 billion in further cost of living support, bringing our total package to £37 billion this year. Through the Government’s recent interventions, we are targeting those most in need. Our package equates to at least £1,200 for almost 8 million of the most vulnerable households, at a challenging time for many people.

Earlier today, Carers Trust Tyne and Wear, which is based in my Blaydon constituency, launched its report on the experiences of unpaid carers during the pandemic and made the point that they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. As we have heard, carers allowance is the lowest benefit of its kind, yet those who receive it will get no cost of living support. Does the Minister really believe that carers allowance is adequate in the face of the current cost of living crisis?

I echo what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said. I also highlight the fact that households that pay energy bills will receive the £400 cash grant to support them, and that if somebody with a disability lives in a household, there will be further funding with the £150 disability cost of living payment.

My constituent, who is severely sight impaired and has learning difficulties, lives with his mother, who is basically supplementing his day-to-day living from her own pensioner poverty pot, because of the relentless increase of inflation. What action will the Minister take urgently to address this terrible injustice, with one person who is already in poverty having to try to help her severely disabled son? Will he step in to assist in this terrible cost of living crisis?

I do not know the exact details of that case, but there may be opportunities in that household to explore pension credits. Of course, the Chancellor, with support from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, recently announced that the household support fund has also been increased by a further £500 million, until April next year.

The Scottish Government have doubled their game-changing Scottish child payment to £20 per child per week and will increase that to £25 by the end of the year, thereby supporting more than 100,000 children. Why will the UK Government not commit to increasing universal credit by an equivalent amount over the same timescale, and match that for and extend it to those on legacy benefits as well?

As we have highlighted, we have just set out a really significant increase in benefits payments as part of the package that is now worth £37 billion. As a result of the work we are doing not just to provide support but to enable people to get into work, there are now 200,000 fewer children in the UK who are in absolute poverty before housing costs.

The Government have been scrabbling to catch up with the escalating cost of living crisis. Any and all help for lower-income families is very welcome, but the fact is that the protection of those on universal credit and other benefits from the worst impacts of inflation depends on their having adequate and predictable levels of income. How is it acceptable, then, that 42% of universal credit claimants face deductions of, on average, £61 a month? What is the Minister going to do about that?

We have already set out our cost of living payments, which will benefit 8 million households in the UK. They are significant and much needed as we face these current cost of living challenges. It is also important to highlight that, over the past couple of years, we have seen the maximum amount that can be taken in deductions from benefits fall from 40% to 30% and now down to 25%.

Unemployment: Rother Valley

Is that me? I am sorry, Mr Speaker, it has been a long weekend. [Interruption.] The jubilee, Mr Speaker, that is exactly why.

The Government want everyone—whoever they are and wherever they live—to be able to find a job, progress in work and thrive in the labour market. Through Restart and the Way to Work scheme, we are working closely with employers to help claimants into jobs. I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend recently worked in partnership with our Jobcentre Plus and local employers to bring two job fairs to his constituents of the Rother Valley.

I congratulate the Minister and the whole Government on the success of the Way to Work campaign, which is getting people into jobs up and down our country. The surest way out of this cost of living crisis is getting people into jobs. As my hon. Friend mentioned, I have held several job fairs in my constituency to help people get back into work. As the Way to Work campaign enters its final weeks, will she say what is available for those people who are not yet in work in Rother Valley?

Through the Way to Work campaign, we will continue to bring employers and claimants together in our jobcentres, and we know that that is what changes lives and fills vacancies faster. In the local jobcentre in Rother Valley, we are offering sector-based work academy programme swaps in those priority vacancy sectors, such as health and social care, warehousing, construction and security to support people to get quickly into the labour market.

Kickstart Scheme Closure

8. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900280)

19. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900292)

21. What steps she plans to take to support young people into work following the closure of the Kickstart scheme. (900294)

Following the success of Kickstart, which has seen over 162,600 young people start their new roles, the DWP youth offer will continue to support our young people. I have observed at first hand how our new youth hubs and our extended Jobcentre Plus network have helped to move young people into those local opportunities more quickly. That includes recent visits to Eastbourne’s Hospitality Rocks and the Wolverhampton College’s electric vehicle and green technologies centre.

In Sevenoaks and Swanley, the Kickstart scheme was welcomed with open arms. It is used by many brilliant local employees, including Go-Coach and the Mount Vineyard in Shoreham. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Way to Work scheme focuses particularly on helping younger people in this way, and on helping specific sectors that are struggling to recruit, such as social care?

My hon. Friend is right. The scheme has transformed how we recruit everybody, including our young people. Our DWP employment advisers are working closely with employers to meet that local demand, including for HGV drivers and care workers. Way to Work has offered a unique opportunity to ramp up that activity, expand the approach, and maximise quicker employment into new sectors, with Kickstart leading the way.

Last month, I had the great pleasure of hosting an apprenticeship showcase on behalf of the aerospace and defence industry in Parliament. I met a constituent, Tianna, who is currently an apprentice at Collins Aerospace in my constituency. Tianna got the opportunity to showcase her enthusiasm and her skills to Collins through the Kickstart scheme. Can the Minister reassure me that other young people in Wolverhampton will have equal opportunity to showcase their own talents and ambitions in the future?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. In Wolverhampton, our jobcentres host an employers’ zone, which allows local businesses with vacancies and key training providers to meet claimants and enable those swaps and job-matching sessions. In the new Wolverhampton youth hub located in The Way, the youth zone directly supports young people furthest away from the labour market to find training and employment and, currently, exciting opportunities in the summer’s Commonwealth games, too.

I thank my hon. Friend for her visit to Eastbourne and the great energy and commitment she has shown to raising local aspiration. The kickstart scheme has been a huge success locally. Now hundreds of young people are in employment and building their careers—notably in Sussex NHS, where there are hundreds of new entrants. We are still working hard in hospitality and care, other sectors where there are opportunities as yet unfilled. What work is there coming down the line to connect young people with some of those opportunities, including in the digital and creative sector, where it is also important for us to build?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the success of the kickstart scheme. I know she has had personal involvement in supporting young people in her constituency. Building on that success is an important question. The Way to Work initiative is building on those key links with local employers, such as the Sussex NHS, that offer good-quality opportunities for young people. Meanwhile, our work coaches continue to support jobseekers of all ages in accessing those vacancies and opportunities that she mentions in all those in-demand sectors.

The kickstart scheme was supposed to generate 600,000 placements. In reality, it generated around 235,000, and of those 80,000 were unfilled at the time that it closed. Does the Minister really think we should describe that as a success? Would not most people be asking what went wrong?

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the correct numbers on this. Some 162,600 lives have been transformed at the most challenging time, with well over 200,000 vacancies created by employers who would never have looked at this way of recruiting and bringing young people into the labour market before. It is clear that many employers thought they were doing a favour by getting a young person in for six months. The scheme has transformed recruitment, young lives and opportunities, and employers have found that they are the ones who have had that favour done for them.

Benefits Rates: People with Disabilities

We will spend more than £64 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. Claimants will also get one-off support worth up to £1,200 this year, including the new £650 cost of living payment for people on means-tested benefits and £150 for people on disability benefits, to help with additional costs.

The cost of living crisis is disproportionately affecting disabled people. More than half of those living in poverty in this country are either disabled themselves, or in a household where there is a disabled person. My constituents in that situation regularly come to me and say that the help they are receiving from the Government is not enough, even with that welcome increase. Will the Government consider specifically targeted further help to help alleviate the pressures they face?

I share the hon. Lady’s passion for this issue and her concern on behalf of her constituents. That is exactly why the Government have already acted: we have provided generous support in seeking to level up opportunity and improve the everyday experience for people with disabilities. What we have just been discussing comes on top of the package already announced, worth more than £22 billion, from the spring statement. We are clear that delivering this important additional support is an absolute priority; the DWP disability cost of living payments will accordingly be made by September, and other payments sooner than that, because we recognise the need here. However, I would take a step back and look at the overall approach, noting for example the agreement from the Resolution Foundation that this approach is the right one.

Thousands of disabled people are due to lose £150 because the Government are removing their eligibility for the warm home discount. The Chancellor has announced that they will receive an additional £150 in his cost of living emergency package, but robbing Peter to pay Paul merely puts disabled people back where they started. How does the Minister think this does anything to address their cost of living crisis?

The shadow Minister needs to look at this in the round, because we have a set of cost of living payments designed to support the households with the lowest incomes. That is the right approach, as I have cited from the Resolution Foundation, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also says that this is a very welcome way of doing it because it targets support to where it is most needed. In addition, we are recognising how disabled people do have further costs, and that is why we are also putting in place the £150 that is targeted on those with the means-tested lowest incomes.

I am really not sure that the Minister heard my question; maybe she has been rather distracted. Some disabled people will not be better off. The Government’s disability strategy was declared unlawful by the High Court, and NatCen Social Research’s report on health and disability benefits clearly showed the poverty that many disabled people are living in. Does the Minister not think it is time to finally start listening to disabled people and addressing their cost of living crisis?

We are. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady cannot engage with the wider point that I am making around the nature of means-tested benefits—for example, the many on unemployment and support allowance or universal credit who are also disabled and who will benefit from the approach we are taking.

In-work Poverty: Cost of Living

12. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900284)

15. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to tackle in-work poverty in the context of the rise in the cost of living. (900287)

This Government have taken decisive action to make work pay, giving 1.7 million families an extra £1,000 per year, on average, through changes to the universal credit taper, work allowances, and increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour. Some extra support is coming in through the packages we have already mentioned today. It is also important to make the House aware that we extend help to people already on universal credit who are working to see what we can do to help them to progress in work and to take up other opportunities, such as making sure that they know about things like childcare support.

So grants rather than loans are the solution after all. Evidence from Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland shows, for example, that people who work in a supermarket cannot afford to shop there, with fridges being switched off and lightbulbs being removed at home, and more pawning, borrowing and reliance on credit. Now that the principle is that grants are preferable to loans, will the Secretary of State apply the same principle to universal credit advance payments, as argued for by the Work and Pensions Committee?

This is the second time I have discussed this particular topic today. People can choose to get an extra payment of universal credit earlier, and then we spread that over the entire year, so, in effect, they get 13 payments instead of 12. That is what the advance is about. A number of people who move across from legacy benefits get some run-ons of different benefits to try to help with the cash transition when they are used to getting cash on that more regular basis. We will continue to make sure, though, that our top priority is to help people to get into work and to progress in work.

Having a child is one of the tipping points that can plunge families into poverty. Each year, thousands of claimants are excluded from statutory maternity pay by arbitrary rules that disadvantage people in low-paid and insecure employment. These claimants are forced to rely on maternity allowance, which is offset against any universal credit they receive, leaving them thousands of pounds worse off than those on statutory maternity pay. When will the UK Government tackle this manifest injustice rooted in their policies?

The two benefits are completely different, recognising the situations that people find themselves in, so they will be treated differently. The hon. Lady should of course be aware that this was challenged in court and the court did not go with the person who challenged it, recognising that they are completely different benefits.

Disabled People in Work

13. What progress the Government have made on increasing the number of disabled people in work by 1 million between 2017 and 2027. (900285)

The latest figures released on 17 May show that between the first quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of this year, the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that that goal—that manifesto commitment from the Conservative party—has been exceeded after five years.

The Government can be rightly proud of unlocking the potential of 1.3 million more disabled people, but the majority of people with disabilities or long-term health conditions will develop those while of working age. What more can the Government do to support employers with their changing workforce?

My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience and wisdom here, and he is absolutely right. It is why we are committed to supporting disabled people to remain in work through, in particular, our Access to Work and Disability Confident schemes. Access to Work in particular is a really important grant that supports the recruitment and retention of disabled people by contributing to the extra costs they can face in the workplace. I would also like the message to go out loud and clear from here that Disability Confident is critical and can help employers and employees and have disabled people’s talents included in economic growth.

Closure of Seaham DWP Office

17. If she will publish the individual site assessment on the closure of her Department's office in Seaham. (900290)

An overarching equality assessment has been completed, which considers the impact on all DWP colleagues. This has been made available for the House in the Library, and I am also arranging for the site-specific equality assessment for Seaham to be shared with the hon. Member.

I thank the Minister for that response, but previously when I have raised the issue of the Seaham site, I have been assured or reassured that DWP employees at that office would be relocated to other offices within the region. Is she aware that the private bus operator Go North East is proposing cuts and changes to 80 regional bus services, many affecting my area? Does that not show that the DWP planning assumptions are rather precarious? Many of the DWP closures, including the one in Seaham, are in areas of economic deprivation that can ill afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs.

This network design change is to reshape how the Department works, resulting in a smaller, greener and better-quality estate for our colleagues. Many of these buildings across the land offer back-of-house functions, and they are just not good-quality buildings for our colleagues. I absolutely understand the point. Where colleagues are being offered new opportunities to go to the Wear View House site in Sunderland, which is approximately 7.5 miles away, there will be individual one-to-one conversations with them about what is right for them and how they can stay with DWP and continue in a role that works for them.

Child Poverty: Future Trends

The latest official statistics show that 200,000 fewer children were on absolute low income before housing costs in 2020-21, compared with 2019-20. This Government take the cost of living very seriously, and that is why we have announced a new £15 billion support package targeted at those most in need, bringing the total cost of living support to £37 billion this year.

The Department’s own data makes it clear that rates of absolute child poverty after housing costs in families with three or more children rose by 300,000 between 2016-17 and 2019-20. With the situation for children in these families having worsened significantly, and with inflation biting, will the Government now finally reconsider their pernicious two-child policy?

The two-child policy plays an important role in balancing fairness between those receiving benefits and those who are not. However, as we have already said through much of the questioning today, we have put a huge package on the table, which will benefit families of all sizes. With a vibrant employment market, there are big opportunities for people not just to get into work, but to progress in work as well.

Household Support Fund Allocation

22. What recent progress her Department has made on allocating the household support fund to local authorities. (900295)

Local authorities in England have already received their allocations for the household support fund for April to September, and those have been published online. The Government recently announced a further £421 million increase for the household support fund, extending it from October to March 2023. Devolved Administrations will also receive a further £79 million to help households with the cost of essentials, bringing the total funding for this support to £1.5 billion across the United Kingdom.

Devon has been allocated a further £5 million to help households in the county with the cost of living crisis. What has the Secretary of State done to ensure that that money is directed at the right places in Devon to make sure that the support really helps?

Local authorities, with their local ties and knowledge, are best placed to identify those most in need. To assist local authorities with identifying those who may be in need of additional discretionary support, the DWP has introduced data shares with local authorities, which enables them to proactively identify individuals in need, as well as the supporting guidance for the scheme.

The Government were able to switch on, and then switch off, the £20 universal credit uplift quite easily and efficiently. What conversations did the Minister have with Treasury colleagues about doing the same again for those on universal credit in the latest package of measures, rather than imposing another bureaucratic headache on already overstretched councils?

We have important guidance in place to support local authorities, but they are best placed to provide support for people in their individual localities. That is why the household support fund has been designed with that in mind.

State Pension: Deferring Entitlement

24. What (a) information and (b) financial advice her Department provides to people approaching state pension age on deferring their entitlement to the state pension. (900297)

Information regarding deferral is published on gov.uk and provided in the state pension claim invitation letter and through the “Check your State Pension” forecast service, or someone can speak to the Pension Service direct. Deferring a state pension is a personal choice, and whether deferring a claim to the new state pension is the right decision will depend on a range of factors that are relevant to the personal circumstances of the individual, but no specific financial advice is given.

The DWP wrote to my constituent encouraging him to defer his pension. Unfortunately, he passed away last year, but the DWP told his wife Caroline that she was entitled to a £30,000 lump sum and £100 a week. After weeks of being passed from pillar to post, the DWP is now saying that Caroline is entitled to nothing, but it will give her £50 for the emotional distress and incorrect information. All the correspondence that she has from the DWP contains conflicting information and no warning of the risks of deferring a pension. Will the Minister meet me to rectify the situation and ensure that it does not happen to anyone else?

If the hon. Lady sends me the correspondence, I will make sure that it is looked into within a matter of days.

Topical Questions

What a marvellous weekend the country enjoyed. I am grateful to everybody who was doing that, including my civil servants who were working over the jubilee weekend, as we are working hard to make sure that we can deliver the cost of living payments to people next month. I continue to congratulate not only them but work coaches up and down the land who are helping people to get into work. I am pleased to say that we had a record number of claimants getting into work in March, and we had more than 100,000 in April as well, so we are well on our way to achieving our ambition of half a million extra people. I referred to the cost of living payments that we intend to deploy, and in the next couple of weeks, on 15 June, we will have our pension credit day of action. I encourage all Members of Parliament to make their constituents aware of that opportunity to claim benefits.

Everyone Deserves a Christmas is a Swansea project that supports struggling families to enjoy a few treats at Christmas. It starts taking referrals in November, but this year, worried families are already requesting hampers, because they are struggling to pay their bills and feed their kids now. What hope can the Government give to struggling yet working families that they will be able to provide for their children’s needs as the cost of living crisis deepens?

The poverty statistics—admittedly, they are statistics rather than individual experiences; I accept that—show that, where both parents are working full time, fewer than 3% of people are effectively in poverty. I want to extend the help that we can give through our local jobcentres to help that particular family to perhaps extend their work or get on in work. It will be those measures, as well as the extra cost of living payments that we are making, that will help people with the challenges they face now.

T2. Parents across Sevenoaks and Swanley are facing rising childcare costs. I know that there is a huge amount of support available, so can the Secretary of State update the House on what she is doing to simplify the system so that it is clearer to people what they are entitled to and easier for people to claim? (900299)

The Department is promoting the generous universal credit childcare costs offer as part of a wider national advertising campaign, and it is also working across Government to promote the full range of childcare support through the “Childcare Choices” website and by putting new guidance in place for our work coaches.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating all those who worked over the weekend, and in saying that it was a fabulous platinum jubilee weekend. May I congratulate her on her sung prayer that she shared on Twitter yesterday, which shows that it is not just at karaoke where her singing excels?

Work should be the best defence from the rising cost of living, yet millions in work are in poverty. The numbers in overall employment are down by 500,000 since before the pandemic, and there are 3 million people on out-of-work benefits not looking for work. Sheffield Hallam University estimates that about 800,000 of those people on out-of-work benefits, often in places such as Wakefield, could be helped back into work with the right support and a plan. The Secretary of State promised to help the economically inactive find work. Why is she failing?

Well, I do not have the voice of an angel, and nor do I claim to have the pathway to heaven in this regard, but I am very conscious of the people of Wakefield, as I am of those right across the country. On people who are economically inactive, I have been consistent in saying that my priority is those who are currently on benefits and receiving financial support. They will always be my top priority, but I am working across Government to see what we can do, particularly working with employers, to ensure that the economically inactive come back into the workplace.

The number on out-of-work benefits has increased by 1 million since the pandemic. We have the highest level of worklessness due to ill health for 20 years. Increasing numbers of over-50s are leaving the labour market who might stay in it if there was flexible work. More parents are leaving the labour market because they cannot afford childcare. And this is at a time of 1.3 million vacancies. We need to increase the supply of workers to get inflation down, so why does the Secretary of State not have a plan to deliver that?

There clearly is a plan. That is why there are actually more people on payroll than prior to the pandemic. I am very conscious of the challenges for the self-employed, and also that some people have currently chosen to leave the labour market. That is what we are working on across Government, as well as with the activity on childcare. We will continue to make sure that it is in everybody’s interests to work, because they will be better off in work than not working, unless they cannot work.

T3. I congratulate the Minister on his campaign to increase the uptake of pension credit, which is a vital way of ensuring that our most vulnerable pensioner households get everything they are entitled to. Although more than 2,000 people in my constituency are already claiming pension credit, following recent announcements on cost of living support, where does my hon. Friend suggest that people look to check whether they are getting everything they are entitled to? (900300)

Obviously, there is the Government site—gov.uk—and the phone number 0800 99 1234. More particularly, I today met Citizens Advice, Age UK and various other pensioner charities that would be very keen to assist on an ongoing basis. I must very strongly recommend my hon. Friend to get behind the pension credit awareness day, which takes place on Wednesday 15 June. Obviously his local authority, Essex County Council, has a role to play, as do all local authorities, because it has the data that can identify specific individuals who could apply for but do not have pension credit.

People across the UK are dying younger as a result of UK Government austerity. A new Glasgow University and Glasgow Centre for Population Health report has found:

“Austerity is highly likely to be the most substantial causal contributor to the stalled mortality trends seen in Scotland and across the UK”.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the tragic human cost of the cruel Westminster austerity agenda and urge the UK Government to change course?

I am afraid I just do not recognise the situation that the hon. Member mentions, and I do not know the basis of the academic report. What I do know is that we are getting more people into work. I do not know the status of health in Glasgow specifically, but I do know that it is part of the levelling-up mission of this Government to ensure that we reduce health inequality. In particular, I encourage her to continue to work with her public health authority to ensure that people are well prepared to go into work, but can also stay in work through occupational health services.

T4. Many of my poorest households in East Surrey will be anxious about their energy bills and about what our cost of living package will mean for them. Now that we have had the Ofgem forecast, will the Minister confirm that the expected average increase in energy bills this year will be about £1,200 and that our package of support for anyone on means-tested benefits will mean that they receive £1,200? (900302)

It was vital that the Chancellor, the Cabinet and the Government looked at all the cost pressures arising in the economy. Once we knew what was happening with the energy price cap, it was possible for the Chancellor to start looking at what the options might be. We also needed to look at what payment mechanisms could be used to get the funding out to people. It is therefore entirely right that this package was put together and that it should have the impact that my hon. Friend has so clearly set out.

T5.   My constituent is a paramedic and was on the frontline throughout the pandemic. He told me how much he was struggling with the cost of living crisis and how he feels cheated out of the household dream that if people worked hard, they could enjoy a good quality of life. He speaks for millions of NHS staff and many others. Does the Minister still think it was a good idea to raise taxes for working people this year? (900303)

As the hon. Lady knows, the levy that was introduced is there to support the NHS, particularly in tackling backlogs, but also to support adult social care, and I am sure her constituent could benefit from the outcomes of both. The hon. Lady should also be aware that next month the threshold for national insurance will rise, which will mean that 70% of working households will see a cut in the amount they pay in tax and national insurance.

T8. This year Government receipts are at a record high, and billions of pounds have rightly been announced in cost of living support. However, for those most in need—people on means-tested benefits—the support is somewhere between £1,000 and £1,200, which is roughly what they lost when the £20 universal credit uplift was withdrawn. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that withdrawing the uplift would put half a million people into poverty. Citizens Advice has estimated that it has caused 2.3 million people to fall into debt. Times were tough during the covid crisis, but they are going to get tougher this year, so will the Minister look at the £20 that has been taken from universal credit, with a view to returning it by the time of the financial statement in the autumn? (900306)

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, but it is important to highlight that the £20 uplift to universal credit was only ever a temporary measure to deal with the immediate impact of coronavirus. Since then we have been monitoring the situation and providing the support that is required at particular times, and that has led to the latest package, which totals £37 billion. As I said in other responses, it is vital to highlight that, at a time of record vacancies, there is a responsibility and requirement to help people to tackle poverty by being able to get into the workplace and to progress in employment as well.

T6. Almost a fifth of pensioners are living in poverty under this Government. With the abandonment of the triple lock, a real-terms cut to their state pension—already one of the lowest in Europe, at around £500—bills rising by £1,000 and food costs spiralling, will the Minister acknowledge that the measures announced by the Chancellor will not stop many pensioners in West Derby being plunged into poverty over the coming months? (900304)

The reality is that the Chancellor has announced two packages, worth £37 billion. Those will see a £650 uplift in pension credit from July this year, as well as a £300 increase in the winter fuel payment, which goes to 8.2 million households. There are also the council tax rebate, the energy bill support scheme and the disability cost of living payment, on top of other matters that have been set out.

T9. As colleagues on both sides of the House will know from personal experience or from their constituents, it is often smaller things, rather than big Government schemes, that help those with a disability to get by. I will soon be presenting my disability charter to Harlow Council to ensure that Harlow is a disabled-friendly town. That includes measures such as enforcing parking restrictions for disabled bays, using CCTV cameras to prevent people from taking up disabled parking spaces, and making sure that clean and accessible toilets are available. What is the Minister doing to ensure that appropriate fines or penalty measures are actioned when people who do not have a disability are found to be breaking the rules and parking in disabled spaces in public or private areas? (900307)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaigning zeal and vigour on this issue, which is well placed. I look forward to seeing his charter just as much as I hope that Harlow Council will. He will know that local councils have the enforcement responsibility so it is for them to best address his question, but I confirm that parking in a disabled space without a valid disabled person’s badge is defined as a higher-level parking contravention in the relevant regulations. I hope that helps him and me to work together to get the best for disabled people in Harlow in the future.

T7. I welcome the DWP’s campaign to encourage the take-up of pension credit with its awareness day on 15 June, but given that more than three quarters of a million pensioner households—including the most vulnerable in Bedford and Kempston—are missing out on that crucial help, what plans does the Minister have to improve benefit take-up in the longer term? (900305)

We met a whole host of organisations, from Citizens Advice to Age UK, BBC and ITV as well as utilities, banks and local authorities, all of whom will try to assist with the process over and above what the Government are already doing. But, much as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), there is a role for Bedfordshire county council to play, which I believe is the hon. Member’s local authority—[Interruption.]. Well, his local authority can play a role in identifying and supporting people from the local area and getting them to claim.

Fruit is going unpicked, there are long delays at airports because there are not enough baggage-handlers, flights are being cancelled because there are not enough people to work in the airline industry and lots of bars and restaurants cannot open at all because they simply have not got enough staff. Where will we find the additional workers to ensure that the economy grows?

We are working with a number of employers in a number of ways to try to help them fill their vacancies. We learnt a lot from the kickstart scheme, such as bringing employers into jobcentres to undertake interviews. We are also working with employers on the descriptions they put into job requirements and what is really needed to fill a job. I am conscious that there are lots of vacancies—it is a fortunate position in which the UK finds itself—and we are working hard to ensure that people get and stay in those jobs.

In Scotland, in the last year alone some 15,000 people were sanctioned by the Secretary of State. Given that she is such a stickler for rules, surely she will show the same resolve this evening and place a sanction on her party leader.

Mr Speaker, I was going to say that when we share taxpayers’ money with people looking for work, it is important that they honour their side of the bargain. When they do not, there often have to be consequences. That is not something that we seek to do—we try to work with people—but it is really important that people do their bit of the bargain when they look for work.

I am troubled by the number of constituents who have recently come to me because either they have been overpaid in error by the DWP or they are struggling to receive their first payment because of administrative difficulties, when they are already really struggling. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that errors and disputes can be resolved satisfactorily and in a timely way so that those repayments will not push them over the edge and into poverty?

If the hon. Lady writes to the Department, whether to me or to the Secretary of State direct, we will look into those specific examples, ensure that they are addressed and get a decent answer to her on the specific problems. However, I cannot give a generic answer today.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, each month some 4,300 households in my constituency are receiving an average of £57 less than they are entitled to because of automatic deductions from their universal credit, and that affects about 3,700 children. What action is the Department taking to reform the deduction system so that innocent children are not disadvantaged?

As I said earlier, we put forward policies that have reduced deductions from 40% to 30% and now to 25%. Those policies and the support available for families are designed to help tackle child poverty, along with enabling people to get into work and to progress in employment.

The household support fund now accounts for billions in public spending. What information is the Department collecting about how that fund is being used, who is benefiting from it, what their circumstances are and how much support they receive? What plans does the Department have to publish that information?

We issue funding based on grant conditions. We undertake a very light-touch approach with councils to make sure that they satisfy those conditions. We do not collect extensive information, but it is important that we allow councils to get on. They are close to the community, so they are well placed to make sure that that discretionary funding can go to the right people.

North Sea Oil and Gas Producers: Investment Allowances

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on North sea oil and gas producers’ use of investment allowances to minimise their liability under the energy profits levy.

Less than a fortnight ago, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out a series of measures to help British people at what we know is a difficult time. The oil and gas sector is making extraordinary profits, not as a result of recent changes to risk taking, innovation or efficiency, but as the result of surging global commodity prices, driven in part by Russia’s war. The Chancellor reassured the House that the Government

“will make sure that the most vulnerable and the least well off get the support they need, and we will also turn this moment of difficulty into a springboard for economic renewal and growth.”

He also made the point that it

“is possible to both tax extraordinary profits fairly and incentivise investment.”.—[Official Report, 26 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 449-450.]

That is why we have introduced the energy profits levy—a new 25% surcharge on the extraordinary profits that the oil and gas sector is making. At the same time, the new 80% investment allowance will mean that businesses will get a 91p tax saving for every pound that they invest, providing them with an additional, immediate incentive to invest. That nearly doubles the tax relief available, and means that the more investment a firm makes, the less tax it will pay.

The levy took effect from 26 May this year, and will be legislated for via a Bill to be introduced shortly. It will be phased out when oil and gas prices return to historically more normal levels, with a sunset clause written into the legislation. The levy will raise about £5 billion in revenue over the next year, so that we can help families with the cost of living in the shape of significant, targeted support to millions of the most vulnerable.

I am here to talk about the cost of living crisis, but where are Tory MPs today? On 26 May, the Chancellor announced a welcome U-turn on his party’s opposition to a windfall tax—a policy for which we had been calling since January. At the same time as that handbrake turn, however, he created a tax giveaway for oil and gas producers that undermined that tax. Only this morning, in a statement to shareholders, the head of Serica Energy said that these measures would offset a “large element” of the energy profits levy.

All in all, we calculate that a third or more of any revenue from the new levy might be handed straight back in tax breaks. This cashback policy is typical of the sleight of hand that we have come to expect from this Conservative Government, so can I ask the Minister how much these tax breaks will cost? When will the Government have the courtesy of sharing that analysis with the House? How can the Minister be sure how much this new levy will raise when the Chancellor has added this gigantic get-out clause? Why are the Government incentivising investment in fossil fuels over investment in home-grown renewables, which do not benefit from the tax breaks in this announcement? Have the Government even bothered to check what this means for our country’s net zero target and climate commitments?

It is not just the cashback to oil and gas producers. Can the Minister confirm that someone who owns three homes will receive £1,200 of support for their energy bills —more than a low-income family will get? This incoherent policy package was born from Conservative chaos and also from the Chancellor’s embarrassment and stubbornness. Rather than simply admitting that a windfall tax was the right idea all along, he has introduced one with a great big, costly, gaping hole in the middle of it.

The hon. Lady mentions that Labour has been calling for this levy since January. She will know that January was not the right time to introduce it because we did not know then what the price cap would be. Ofgem estimated that in the week when this announcement was made. She will also know that in January, inflation was not at 9%. The Chancellor has taken this decision carefully, considering the circumstances and not just making policy on the basis of ideology.

I am sure the hon. Lady will know that Labour has made £100 billion of spending commitments, with less than £10 billion fully funded. That would almost double our current borrowing. We Conservative Members are aiming to ensure that we are fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money.

Let me respond to two other points that the hon. Lady made. First, she will remember that when the policy was announced, we said we had estimated that it would raise £5 billion for the package of measures that we had put forward to support people with the cost of living—as she said, that is what we are talking about today. Secondly, she mentioned the importance of reaching our net zero targets. She will know that the UK, under this Government, has already decarbonised faster than any G7 economy, and that there are many other tax levers for green energy, including the super deduction and research and development tax reliefs. She will know that we are consulting on broadening the emissions trading scheme and that we have committed £1 billion to a carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund, as well as £140 million to the industrial decarbonisation and hydrogen revenue support fund. We are ensuring that we tax extraordinary profits at the same time as protecting those who are struggling with the cost of living.

Two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a package of support that is far more generous than what the Labour party ever proposed. It is focused on the immediate pressures that families are facing up and down the country. It is also funded by the energy profits levy, which focuses on and offers support and relief for future investment. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need not to only provide support in the immediate term, as the Chancellor demonstrated, but to look to the future energy security needs of the United Kingdom?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is one reason why we set out the Prime Minister’s energy security strategy recently. My right hon. Friend also makes the important point that our package is more generous to those who are vulnerable. Under our package, the lowest-income households will receive double what Labour was proposing—£1,200, compared with £600. Hard-working families will receive £550 under our proposal compared with the £200 that they would have received under Labour’s proposal.

I welcome the acknowledgement from the Government yet again of the vast wealth that currently lies under the waters of Scotland. Oddly enough, in 2014, it had run out, but there still seems to be an awful lot of wealth to be got from the North sea just now.

Will the Minister explain why the windfall tax was only ever applied to the energy producers? Why was it not applied to other companies that, just through good luck, became mega-rich almost overnight? I am talking about the big multinational tech firms, online retailers and the importers of shoddy, useless personal protective equipment that cost the public billions of pounds. Why are they not facing a windfall tax, at the very least?

If an investment allowance is appropriate, why is it not being restricted to investments in technologies that will reduce the carbon footprint of the North sea? Why is it not being restricted to helping to transform Scotland’s and the UK’s oil production away from carbon-based fuels to other methods? Why is it being used effectively to give an incentive to continue the exploitation of our carbon resources?

The Minister said that the Government expect to get £5 billion from the windfall tax. What would the amount have been if they had not applied the investment allowance? How much are the oil companies saving as a result? The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have expressed concerns about the lack of reliable detail to show that tax reliefs have had the result intended. How will the Government know that they have? What steps will they take to prevent fraudulent claims?

The hon. Gentleman makes a large number of points. The reason we are taxing this sector is that these are extraordinary profits that have been made not as a result of anything that the companies have done, but because of the price of gas. The Chancellor also said that he would look at electricity generation, because that is riding on the back of gas prices.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about decarbonisation and the oil and gas sector, I point out that capital allowances will be available for capital expenditure from the oil and gas sector that makes the production of oil and gas less carbon-intensive, which could include electrification.

Ongoing investment in the North sea is vital to the transition to a low-carbon economy and to the creation of long-term jobs in emerging industries such as offshore wind, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, which are very important in coastal communities such as the one that I represent. Can my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that the levy will not imperil that ongoing investment?

The points that my hon. Friend makes are set out in the energy security strategy, because we recognise that the North sea will still be a foundation of our energy security. It is right that we continue to encourage investment in oil and gas as we transition to renewables. My hon. Friend is right that the sector, along with many others, provides important jobs for people in the areas where generation is taking place.

The additional tax breaks given to oil and gas firms mean that the Government are handing billions over to the very companies that are driving up people’s bills and fuelling climate change. That is money that could have been used to insulate 2 million homes, saving each household £340 every year. Are these tax breaks for more fossil fuel producers not the very opposite of what is needed to protect the planet, end our reliance on expensive gas and, crucially, invest in insulation that could get bills down?

With the greatest respect, I think that the hon. Member misunderstands the policy. What we are introducing is a significant tax on the oil and gas sector that will fund the most vulnerable, so it is the firms handing money over, as he puts it, to us. We have said that we recognise that companies should invest, because it is good for jobs, good for investment, good for our competitive industries and good for our energy security for the future. We have recognised that we will give tax reliefs if that investment is made.

Just six short months ago, the UK hosted COP26, and it remains its president—not that we would know that from this appalling policy from this Government. The Glasgow climate pact, which the UK signed, commits to the

“phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”,

so can the Financial Secretary explain on what grounds handing an 80% tax break to the dirty, dangerous and outdated energy of the past could possibly be considered efficient, especially when new fossil fuel production will do nothing to help with energy security or affordability? It will simply be sold at global prices on international markets. How is that climate leadership?

The hon. Lady will know that we need to ensure energy security. At the moment, oil and gas account for 50% of our domestic energy. It is important that we transition, but that we transition safely, as well as securing domestic energy security.

The hon. Lady makes a very important point about our leadership at COP. We led the world. We were the first country to introduce net zero targets; many others followed. The Chancellor set out packages to ensure private sector investment and Government support for transitioning, and that is what this Government are doing.

I welcome the fact that the Government have adopted Labour’s policy and introduced a windfall tax on these profits. They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming—[Interruption.] I am sorry; should I give way to the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change?

Hang on a minute. I think I will decide. Carry on, Clive. Come on! You look like a person who never heckles himself.

I am the soul of discretion, Mr Speaker. I feel wounded—deeply wounded!

As I was saying, the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept a policy that they previously described as unnecessary and undeliverable. However, I fail to see how it is an efficient use of taxpayers’ money, given that it will incentivise the companies to offset the tax. Would it not have been better to invest the money in insulating homes and ensuring that people’s bills were brought down on a more permanent basis? Would that not have been a much more effective policy?

The hon. Member will know, because I have said it this afternoon, that according to our estimate we will be receiving £5 billion from the oil and gas sector. Given that he mentioned insulation, he may be interested to learn that the Government have committed £3 billion over this Parliament to installing energy-efficiency measures in up to 500,000 homes, saving low-income households hundreds of pounds a year on their bills.

Clearly any additional tax cuts for the oil and gas sector should have been targeted at renewable energy generation rather than further drilling for fossil fuels. The Minister will know that the Government intend to introduce a climate compatibility checkpoint to ensure that all future decisions are in line with our climate change commitments. Can she confirm that if there is an overlap with the ongoing tax break for investment in fossil fuel drilling, it will be checked against the compatibility checkpoint?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a consultation is ongoing, and the Government will be responding to it in due course. I am sure that he will read the report of our response with some interest.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies—which, I am sure, understands the policy—has been critical of it, saying that the windfall tax is too generous and that

“It is hard to see why the government should provide such huge tax subsidies and thereby incentivise even economically unviable projects.”

Why are the Government providing incentives for projects of that sort rather than raising the money that would help out desperate families, and help them to feed their children?

What we have proposed is a windfall tax that will recover more than what Labour proposes would recover. That money—£5 billion—will support those who are the most vulnerable, which is why we have introduced the measure.

This policy confirms that we are seeing more take, take, take from Scotland’s North sea oil and gas. The Government are taking resources and taking money. Norway has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world, but Westminster squandered all the income from oil and gas from the North sea. At the very least, will the Government reverse their decision and support the Scottish carbon capture and storage cluster and make it a track 1 cluster, and will they consider matching the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition fund?

I think the hon. Member is aware that the Scottish CCS is a reserve. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for confirming that he is aware of that.

It has been reported that this concession will deliver an additional subsidy of £200 million to Shell for its development of the Jackdaw field, which was going to go ahead anyway. How can that be justified?

The investment relief should not be available for investments that are deadweight. It should be for new investments. However, I am happy to look into the point that the right hon. Member has made.

Jeremy Cresswell, the emeritus editor of Energy Voice in the north-east of Scotland, highlighted his concerns that the investment allowances put in place by the UK Government as part of the windfall tax are directly for big oil, as opposed to for big renewables too. Can the Minister clarify an earlier point made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant)? She said that electrification could be part of the programme: surely it must be part of it.

Yes, it could be, and I am sure that HMRC will consider those reliefs when they are made. I hope that it is a should, but the position is that it could. The tax will be paid by the largest companies, to reiterate a point I made previously.

Champions League Final: Paris

To ask the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the significant problems arising at the champions league final on 28 May in Paris.

On 28 May, Liverpool football club played Real Madrid in the final of the champions league. The fixture was held at the Stade de France in Paris, and on this occasion Real Madrid won the match 1-0. It is not the result that makes the fixture worthy of debate, but the spectator experience.

The start of the fixture was delayed due to a number of crowd safety issues outside the ground. Those issues prevented safe and timely access to the stadium for many thousands of Liverpool fans. Members across the House will, like me, have been appalled to hear of the terrifying and potentially dangerous conditions experienced by many Liverpool fans. In fact, we all saw the visuals on social media. What should have been a celebration of the pinnacle of European club football will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. I am shocked and concerned by what has come to light.

I welcome the fact that, as the Secretary of State and I—and many hon. Members—requested, UEFA has commissioned an independent investigation, and issued an apology to fans who attended the final. The French Sports Minister has also commissioned a review of the delivery of the event, and I will be discussing that with her later this week. The French Government will also be supporting the UEFA investigation. They have called for sanctions against any police officers who misused tear gas and confirmed that they will pursue compensation for fans who had a valid ticket but were unable to enter the stadium.

UEFA has confirmed that it will launch a new complaints procedure for fans to present evidence, and Liverpool FC is collating fan experiences, via its website, to contribute to the UEFA investigation. I urge fans to send accounts of their experiences to the club. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities and Liverpool FC.

The footage and accounts from Liverpool fans and the media on their entry to the Stade de France on 28 May have been deeply upsetting. Thousands of Liverpool fans travelled to Paris in good time to support their team in one of the biggest matches of the season, and we are hugely disappointed by how they were treated. Fans deserve to know what happened, and it is absolutely right that the relevant authorities are now fully investigating the events. The investigations must establish the facts so that the authorities can learn lessons from the event and ensure that we do not see scenes like that ever again.

I was there last Saturday in Paris. I was also there at Hillsborough in 1989. I can say, without any shadow of doubt, that if it was not for the magnificent efforts of the Liverpool supporters last Saturday, we could have had a disaster worse than Hillsborough. Last Saturday in Paris, I witnessed first hand shambolic stadium management and the most hostile policing environment at a sporting event I have ever seen. I watched children getting pepper-sprayed, pensioners getting tear-gassed, and turnstiles and exits shut while thousands queued for hours waiting to attend the blue riband football occasion of the season. We were treated like animals for wanting to watch a game of football. Then, shamefully, the smears and lies, straight from the Hillsborough playbook, were used by the authorities to avoid accountability for the horrific events. Never, ever again should this be tolerated, in this country or around the globe. Enough is enough.

Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will make representations to UEFA, following the calls of Liverpool football club, Real Madrid football club and the Liverpool supporters trust, for a full and truly independent inquiry into the events at the Stade de France, which could easily have cost the lives of UK citizens? Will he also call on the French Government and UEFA to retract the attempts to smear Liverpool football club supporters without any verifiable evidence to substantiate the claims, and will he engage with his French counterpart to ensure that UK citizens, including many children, are never, ever treated with such brutality and force by French police for simply attending a football match?

I thank the hon. Member for raising all those points. I appreciate his dedication to all things football and his expertise in the area; I understand he was one of the founders of Spirit of Shankly and he speaks wisely on these issues—always in support of fans. I think the whole House will be making that point clear today.

We have regular dialogue with UEFA, including discussing the plans for the women’s Euros this year; we also have a bid in for future events. Both I and officials will raise the issues outlined by the hon. Gentleman, including when I speak to the French Sports Minister this week. The immediate response from certain people was unfortunate. There seemed to be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction that was not necessarily based on the facts. Of course, what we have all seen is what appears to be considerably disproportionate behaviour on behalf of some people and entities of which we would expect more.

I am confident that there will be a thorough review, which must be transparent. I do not want to pre-empt its conclusions, but I hope that all the information will be gathered. I repeat: if any fans have evidence—experience, footage and so on—they should please send it to Liverpool FC. I look forward to seeing the results of the investigation. We will be keeping a close eye on developments, as, I am sure, will the whole House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this urgent question and for his powerful testimony of his experience.

The champions league final last Saturday was chaotic, scary and atrociously managed. Before the match, huge queues formed, as most turnstiles were closed. Police tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed fans who were waiting patiently. Fans were targeted by local criminal gangs as police stood by. Many never even got in, or left for fear of their children’s safety. To add insult to injury, the authorities immediately blamed English fans; they said that Liverpool supporters turned up late with fake tickets. The crushing outside the ground and the response—blaming fans—brought back the trauma of Hillsborough. British supporters have been mistreated and wronged. It is up to the Government to establish the facts and ensure that lessons are learned.

This is now the third major UEFA event in less than two years to come close to an even more serious incident. Has the Minister established why UEFA got things so wrong and why it took until Friday to apologise? Questions also remain over UEFA’s independent review, as the chair is a close friend of the president of UEFA. Will the Minister ensure that it gets to the truth and holds those responsible to account?

UEFA has now at least apologised, but the French authorities remain entrenched. What will the Minister do to get his counterpart to apologise and understand that they were in the wrong? France is due to host the rugby World cup and the Olympic games. Does the Minister agree that the French authorities’ handling of the final puts in doubt their ability to host such events in the future?

Finally, what happened in Paris reminds us once again that justice and lessons learned from Hillsborough still have not happened. When will the Government enact the Hillsborough law and respond to Bishop James’s report?

The hon. Lady is right that we all welcome the apology we have received from UEFA. I will be speaking to the French Sports Minister and will relay the messages from this House to her when I do, hopefully as early as tomorrow.

The hon. Lady is right: while there may have been, as is unfortunately often the case with football, some small incidents of bad behaviour by a really small number of fans, the reality that we have seen and all the evidence we have heard so far would suggest that the vast majority of the fans behaved impeccably and waited patiently outside the stadium to get in, and that many then did not even make it in.

There were clearly some logistical challenges that require explanation, but we have not seen any clear justification from UEFA or the French authorities for the scenes on the ground or the limited access to the stadium for Liverpool fans. In particular, we have seen the impact on the young and the elderly of being inexplicably attacked with tear gas and unable to get to watch the games. I am also particularly concerned about reports that some of the media were asked to delete footage of incidents they observed. That also requires explanation.

The hon. Lady raises many important questions; we do not have all the answers yet, but I am confident that the investigation will be thorough and transparent, and we will be keeping a very close eye on developments.

It is only because of the calmness and forbearance of Liverpool fans at the Stade de France that nobody was killed. Let us be clear about that. Does the Minister understand that the immediate resorting by UEFA and French authorities to old, baseless Hillsborough slurs—“Liverpool fans were late! They were ticketless!”—in conjunction with the disgustingly hostile policing has exacerbated trauma and brought back terrible memories for many of my constituents who have been in touch with me: both those who were caught in the crush, and those watching at home who have a connection to the Hillsborough disaster, as thousands of people in Liverpool do?

Does the Minister agree that official recognition by UEFA and the French Government of the truth of what happened, at the earliest possible moment, is essential to prevent that trauma from getting worse? Will he therefore use his good offices to insist that Liverpool fans’ representatives have a role in the official inquiries that take place, to establish the truth and to stop cover-ups?

The hon. Lady speaks eloquently and passionately about the human impact that incidents such as this have. This brings back some terrible memories for many people. I think UEFA does understand that. She is also right to ensure that Liverpool fans have their say here. I encourage Liverpool fans to submit information to Liverpool FC, and I thank Liverpool FC for facilitating that information-gathering, which I understand will be passed on to the UEFA investigation.

Simultaneously, the French authorities are conducting an investigation. I repeat that the inappropriate behaviour of a few fans is as nothing compared with the huge impact on thousands of people who were behaving perfectly at the event and were treated abominably.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this urgent question and on the way he has represented the fans over the last week.

We need an apology from UEFA and French authorities for the chillingly familiar, knee-jerk lies blaming Liverpool fans, and we need the investigations, but I want to share with the House a few emails and comments I have had from constituents. Anthony said:

“We were very close to a disaster on Saturday night...we were being crushed, pushed, intimidated and assaulted.

It felt like an act of intimidation to get a reaction from fans.”

Suzanne said:

“I was crying and scared. My legs were like jelly. I was just in shock. For the first time in my life I felt old and vulnerable.”

Jon said that the police were behaving like

“thugs looking for a fight”.

Contrary to the narrative put out by French authorities, he believes that it was only

“the calm behaviour of the fans”

in not retaliating that

“saved events from turning fatal”.

What can the Minister do to ensure that the promised investigations get to the truth?

I thank the hon. Member for his input and for sharing the harrowing experiences of some fans. Although I was not able to attend the event, I was, sadly, receiving live feeds of information from people texting me to tell me of really quite alarming experiences.

As I said, it is really important that we get to the truth and get to the bottom of what happened, and the French authorities and UEFA are committed to doing that. I join the hon. Member in thanking the fans who helped each other out. In particular, I understand that there was a lot of activity to protect children, the elderly and the disabled; that speaks volumes about the friendship and camaraderie of Liverpool fans when at home or abroad. I agree with the hon. Member and will make it very clear that we expect to get the full and complete story of what happened so that it does not happen again.

For too long, those at the head of football, whether it is FIFA, UEFA or the FA, have treated football fans as if they are the enemy—as if they are something that has to be tolerated but not to be worked with. If fans were involved in the organisation of the control of crowds around such matches and there was early intervention, with discussions about the issues among police from this country and fans’ groups from this country, we might be able to create an environment that was much more safe and where the police did not react in such a violent way. There is no doubt that the way the police reacted to the crowd added to the problem, if it did not cause it in the first place.

I largely agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman, although it is slightly unfair to characterise it as if everybody in football treats fans as the enemy. Many entities and organisations try to bring fans on board to the greatest extent—of course, the fan-led review of football is trying to embed that to an even greater degree—and some clubs engage very carefully and closely with fans.

When any such investigation happens, it is important that we all learn lessons. We saw incidents at Wembley last year, and the Casey review highlighted some areas for improvement. Last week, particularly acute circumstances impacted fans in a really quite dramatic and drastic way, and the French authorities and UEFA have a responsibility to take the lead on that. We then all need to learn lessons, and that goes for individuals, clubs, Governments, the police and so on, internationally. As I said, I cannot pre-empt the conclusions of the review but we will keep a very close eye on it.

I, too, commend my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for securing this urgent question and for the work he has done, and I commend the impeccable behaviour of the Liverpool fans.

I want to talk about my constituent Liam Griffiths. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), I have been contacted by many constituents who were in Paris. Liam and his son were there for the champions league final. Liam was struck by a brick thrown by a mob of local Parisian youths as the police lost all control of the situation and started indiscriminately to tear-gas peaceful fans. He recalls a mess of a situation from start to finish as the French police woefully failed to manage the event hours before kick-off and in the immediate aftermath.

As a club and a city, we have been here before, so collectively—I include the UK Government in this—we have a duty to nip smears and lies in the bud before they permeate. Liam and I want to know whether the British Government have already asked for clarity and evidence from our French counterparts on the claims of ticketless fans and ticket fraud. I have seen no evidence to date. Will the UK Government be demanding an apology from the French Government, who have doubled down on their own warped reality? Our fans must not be used as a political scapegoat for failed politicians who seek to save their own skin before French parliamentary elections in just a week’s time.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and am sorry that her constituents had such a harrowing experience. Again, I encourage everybody who had such experiences to please feed that information into Liverpool FC so that it will be fed through to the investigation. I shall make the points raised here in the Chamber, and others, to the French Minister when I speak to her. Conversations are ongoing, both through officials and at ministerial level across multiple Departments.

The hon. Lady is right about how disappointing and frustrating this situation is, because sport should be something that brings us together. It should be a joy and something around which we can all unite. It is so disappointing and disheartening that fans have had to experience something so harrowing.

I also extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this important urgent question. I want to put on the record my disgust and anger at how the fans were treated and at the responses from those in charge who pointed the finger of blame at Liverpool fans, which was far too reminiscent of Hillsborough. Like other hon. Members, I have received personal testimonies from my constituents, including from Olivia, who went to the match with her dad, a survivor of Hillsborough, who still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said:

“Blaming fans for late arrival and causing crushes by the opening and closing of gates is a terrifying parallel to the Hillsborough disaster.”

Will the Minister agree to recall the French ambassador and demand an independent inquiry and a full apology—not just for the violent and brutal policing, but for the lies told by Ministers when they blamed Liverpool fans for what happened?

As the hon. Lady has articulated, and as we are hearing again and again from colleagues in the Chamber today, the specific evidence just does not tally with some of the comments that we heard immediately following or during the match. The overwhelming evidence is of fans behaving incredibly well and in a civilised way. They are therefore blameless, but were treated then with a disproportionately aggressive response. I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the investigation, but what I have seen so far raises many questions, and we will be keeping an incredibly close eye on this, as I have said. I appreciate her comments.

Let us be clear: the events in Paris were utterly appalling, but they are all too emblematic of the complete and utter disdain with which football fans are treated, both at home and, indeed, abroad. Hopefully, this will be a simple question for the Minister. In the discussions that he has had with UEFA since, has it shown any remorse? Does it even care?

UEFA has apologised and, per the calls of many in this House—myself, the Secretary of State and many others—it has now launched an investigation, and we welcome that investigation. The hon. Gentleman is raising an important point about the central role of fans. As I have said repeatedly, fans should be at the centre—at the heart—of football and treated with respect. If it were not for the fans, football would not exist. Many people make a lot of money out of football, and they should never forget that they are only there because of the fans.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this urgent question. The treatment of Liverpool fans in Paris was nothing short of shocking and an utter disgrace. It was going back to the dark days when football fans were treated as criminals.

Many constituents have got in touch with me about their awful experiences. It is not the first time that we have seen barbaric police treatment abroad. In future, will the Government make sure that they have spoken to their counterparts abroad, ahead of any upcoming football games—whether it be the champions league or the World cup—to make sure that British football fans are better protected and respected?

The hon. Lady makes some important points. The misbehaviour of a few fans should not taint the whole of football; she is absolutely right. We do co-ordinate regularly with UEFA, football authorities and other policing authorities. As I think I said in answer to an earlier question, we all need to make sure that we learn from any findings that come from the experience in Paris, in the same way, hopefully, as everybody will learn from what happened, unfortunately, in Wembley last year. It is important that we all share learnings from events such as this.

I declare an interest as a member of Spirit of Shankly supporters club. May I express my concern that we are talking about an investigation rather than a full, independent inquiry? Following on from what others have said, the most important voices to be heard in any investigation are those of the fans. Will the Government consider what support they can give to those fans’ groups to make sure that they are properly represented at this inquiry? As with all inquiries now, they may well need legal representation and they will need resourcing for that.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about making sure that the voice of the fans is clearly heard. However, I am confident about that it will be because I understand that a fair volume of information, data and video footage has already been sent to Liverpool FC, which will then be sent on to UEFA. As I have said, we will keep a close eye on that. If we have concerns that information or data are being missed, we will raise it with the appropriate authorities, because it is vital that this investigation is thorough and is seen to be thorough.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this urgent question, and for speaking with such powerful insights. Many fans from my constituency—mums, dads, nans and grandads—went along with their children, as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and never got into the game, as the Minister said. Then they were criminalised and blamed, as we have seen throughout recent history—not long-term history but recent history—for the bad organisation and the appalling police behaviour. What assurances can the Minister give on ensuring that the investigation—as my hon. Friend said, it is not an independent inquiry—is robust and independent? And yes, as the shadow Secretary of State said, we do need a Hillsborough law.

UEFA announced over the weekend the terms of reference of the review, which looks pretty comprehensive, but we will be keeping a close eye on it. I will share the points raised in the Chamber today with the French authorities when I speak to them. We will make sure that we keep a close eye on this so that it is thorough. It is really important that fans feel that their voice is heard. As I have said repeatedly: please, fans, do share information with the appropriate authorities. I echo the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about children, in particular, being impacted by this at an early stage of their life when we want them to become football fans. These kinds of experiences can put them off, and we really do not want that.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this important urgent question, and for his tireless representation of fans against these baseless smears. I too had the privilege of being in Paris with my dad on the night of the final, not at the stadium itself but at a nearby fan zone. Even there, fans were tear-gassed, while outside the stadium families were pepper-sprayed, with children brought to tears, and fans crammed together like cattle. I truly believe that, as other Members have said, were it not for the calmness of Liverpool fans, that night could have ended in real tragedy. That is what makes it so grotesque to see French politicians, UEFA and parts of the media lie and blame Liverpool fans for what happened, evoking traumatic memories of Hillsborough for so many. I saw absolutely no evidence of bad behaviour from Liverpool fans or fans in general. Will the Minister join me in calling for all these smears to be retracted and for a full apology from the French Government, and will he push for a full and genuinely independent inquiry into the night’s events?

I share the hon. Lady’s applauding of the behaviour of fans. She raises an important point as one of the people who arrived in Paris without a ticket, who are usually welcomed. That is usually a good thing where people can absorb the atmosphere. We welcome people coming to the UK for football events even if they have not got tickets, if they behave well and then spend money in pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels, which is good for the economy. These sporting events are really important. People do not always need an actual ticket to the event in order to experience it in the area, but that should happen well and smoothly, and it needs to be well organised. On all these things, as I said, we need some real, important lessons to be learned.

My constituent Tom, who is a Liverpool-supporting journalist, was at the match working and was pepper-sprayed while he was undertaking an interview. My constituents Linda and Josh were part of a crowd that was tear-gassed after the game when they were moving away from the stadium. Part of Linda’s group—her sister and husband—were robbed in their car. Locals smashed their windows and took her bag containing passports. Linda herself had her purse stolen from her bag. Harriet and Craig, also my constituents, turned up. Craig got his ticket grabbed off him by a local French thug and they had to wrestle it back. Liverpool fans were getting threats of assault from the thugs for protecting their own tickets. We have heard that the French Interior Minister has suggested that 40,000 Liverpool fans turned up without tickets, but there has been no evidence to back up that claim. Does the Minister agree that the French Interior Minister would do a lot better dealing with the real issues of crime and violence in his own backyard rather than trying to blame innocent football supporters?

Again, I thank the hon. Member for those comments. We are hearing harrowing evidence from several Members in the Chamber, which I hope will be fed into the investigations. It is important that that happens. What is also concerning about the evidence he has given is that it is about what happened not only around the stadium, but further afield, elsewhere in Paris. It is important that that is taken into account in the investigation. I can commit to making sure that I communicate all these messages to my opposite numbers in France.

Chaotic organisation, overzealous policing and the fans getting the blame: that is happening far too often and we are all absolutely sick of it. We do not want it to be repeated. I know that the Minister has expressed confidence in the UEFA investigation; I have to say that I am not as confident as he is that it will be impartial, but it certainly needs to be thorough, it needs to have the fan’s voice throughout and it needs to get to the truth, because if history tells us anything, it is that Liverpool fans will not give up until the truth is told. He must send that message to UEFA.

The hon. Gentleman has sent a clear message to me and I will pass it on. I am confident because, for the good of football, we all need to take these incidents incredibly seriously. We have had an apology from UEFA. I am hearing the points from colleagues today about their disappointment, which I share, in the tone that we initially got from some of the French authorities. I think we would like to see more. I hope that we will get to the bottom of the truth. As I say, I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the investigation, but the anecdotal evidence that we have heard today paints a pretty dark picture.

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for asking this UQ. My Liverpool-supporting constituent Amy Shimmin travelled to what was her third European football final and her 10th game abroad, and said that she has never been so scared for her safety and that of her fellow fans as she was last week. She particularly feared for fans with disabilities, who struggled to get into the stadium. Can the Minister tell me what specific conversations he has had with UEFA and his French counterparts regarding fan safety, particularly the use of pepper spray and tear gas in crowded areas, which was wholly inappropriate in the circumstances?

Again, I thank the hon. Lady, who has showcased the fact that Liverpool fans exist way beyond Liverpool—indeed, across the country and the world. We are having multiple conversations at official and ministerial level. The Home Office is having conversations with its counterparts and I will be having conversations with the Sports Minister of France and with UEFA. The day after the incident, I had conversations with the FA and the Premier League, which are also having conversations—there are lots of conversations going on. I think the whole House agrees that conversations are one thing, but we need to get to the bottom of the truth, we want to hear a bit more of an apology, and we want to learn lessons from this terrible incident.

I say to everyone that I thought it was important to grant the UQ today; I think everybody’s constituency has a Liverpool fan in it. I say to the Minister—I know he was pleased to answer the UQ—that hopefully, when he gets some answers, he will come forward with a statement. Let us move on the next UQ; I will let people leave the Chamber.

Violence against Religious Groups: Nigeria

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the killing of church worshippers in Ondo state, Nigeria yesterday, and on wider issues of violence against religious groups in Nigeria.

I am horrified by the attack that took place against a church in Ondo state, south-west Nigeria yesterday. I publicly express the UK Government’s condemnation of this heinous act and stress the importance of those responsible being brought to justice in accordance with the law. The high commission in Nigeria has also expressed our condolences to the governor of Ondo state and offered our support. I know that the House will join me in sending our condolences to the families and communities of those killed.

Rising conflict and insecurity across Nigeria are having a devastating impact on affected communities. I have raised this issue with the Nigerian authorities on several occasions, including in conversations with Nigeria’s vice-president and Foreign Minister during my visit in February. During that visit, I also met regional governors, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations to discuss intercommunal violence and freedom of religion or belief.

It is clear that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence in Nigeria and that Christian communities have been victims, but the root causes are often complex and frequently also relate to competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality, so the UK Government are committed to working with Nigeria to respond to insecurity. At our security and defence dialogue with Nigeria in February, we committed to work together to respond to the conflict. We are supporting local and national peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria, including through the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and National Peace Committee. We provide mentoring and capacity building to support Nigerian police force units, to improve their anti-kidnap capacity, and we support efforts to address the drivers and enablers of serious and organised crime in Nigeria. At our security and defence dialogue, we reiterated our shared understanding and commitment to protecting human rights for all.

We are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. I discussed FoRB with the Nigerian Foreign Minister only last month, and we look forward to hosting an international conference on FoRB in July. We will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to take urgent action to implement long-term solutions that address the root causes of such violence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, following the tragic news of the latest killings in Nigeria—a targeted attack, not on warring militias as part of armed conflict, nor even on farmers or villagers over land; no, this was a brutal attack on a place of worship, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, and on worshippers gathering on Pentecost Sunday. A time of celebration turned into a time of carnage. Why? That is the really urgent question.

The governor of Ondo state, Governor Akeredolu, condemned the attack as “vile and satanic”. Reverend Augustine Ikwu, Secretary of the Catholic Church in Ondo, said:

“We turn to God to console the families of those whose lives were lost”.

The whole House will join in those words of condemnation and of consolation for the victims and their families, and I thank the Minister for her words in that connection. However, as the urgent question implies, this latest atrocity is a far from isolated incident: religious minorities, particularly Christians, are targeted. Bandits, predominantly militant Fulani herdsmen, have killed 3,000 people in 2022 alone. Most of those horrendous attacks in recent times have been in the middle belt region, and have affected adversely the practice of Christianity in the region. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) led an all-party parliamentary group delegation to Nigeria last week, alongside my deputy special envoy, David Burrowes. They heard evidence from Benue, Enugu, Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Adamawa and Taraba states. All those people said that the attackers of their communities were militant Fulani herdsmen whose targets—whose victims—were profiled based on their religious identity.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. While the causes of violence and conflict in Nigeria are complex, does she agree, following this latest attack, not in the middle belt or the north, but in the relatively safe south-west, that this is a FoRB issue, as the attacks are mainly on largely Christian communities? Will she agree to meet the APPG delegation and me to hear how local faith actors and non-governmental organisations need more support to bring faith communities together? What can the Government do to support the Nigerian constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and of freedom from discrimination? How does the Government’s partnership with Nigerian security forces and legal services support the apprehension of perpetrators and prevent increasing acts of impunity across Nigeria? Finally, will the Government support NGO calls for the establishment of special courts for the speedy prosecution of perpetrators of violence in affected states to discourage impunity, and will they support NGOs in providing better research and monitoring of such grievous religious and human rights violations?

Can I gently say that this is a very important issue, which is why I granted the urgent question, but we cannot double the amount of time available? We have to stick to the rules—they are not my rules, but MPs’ rules.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this urgent question, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I thank my hon. Friend for all she does to speak for freedom of religion or belief across the world. This was, as I have said, a heinous act. We have condemned it. It has been widely condemned by Christian leaders and Muslim leaders, and leaders of different faiths in Nigeria have been vocal, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs under the leadership of the President-General and Sultan of Sokoto. I mention that because it is important to note that religious leaders from all sides are coming together to condemn this attack.

As I said in my opening statement, it is clear that religious identity can be a factor in some of these violent issues. The sad fact is that Nigeria is a country that is becoming increasingly violent. It is violent, and there is rising conflict and insecurity. That includes terrorism in the north-east, and separately inter-communal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, and violence in the south-east and south-west. Ondo state, as my hon. Friend says, was an area that had not experienced tragedies such as this.

Our high commissioner has spoken to the parish priest of the church that was attacked to express our support and solidarity. We are encouraging religious leaders to speak out against this attack and others who continue to target religious institutions. We are working closely with religious leaders, but also liaising with the authorities in Ondo state to encourage a thorough investigation. My hon. Friend gave her thoughts about investigation, and we are talking directly to the state about how best to help it and to support those coming together. We are working with local faith actors and have done so since Sunday’s attack.

One thing I would point out is the really sad fact that we are seeing targeted actions against Muslim communities, as well as against Christian communities. For example, in April, gunmen attacked a mosque in Taraba state. It is important to work with all sides when we are tackling these issues. That is why the UK will continue to work with the Government of Nigeria on medium-term and long-term programmes to help address the causes of the instability, as well as working with the police, for example, on improving the work that they do.

I begin by thanking Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) would have been speaking for the Opposition in this urgent question, but she is unable to be with us today because she has covid. We wish her a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The massacre in Owo yesterday was utterly horrific. To target a church where so many were gathered to peacefully pray and celebrate Pentecost is truly appalling. Reports suggest that at least 50 people have been killed, including children. The shock and sorrow, and the anger and despair felt by the families and communities broken by this atrocity will be shared on both sides of the House. Our solidarity extends further to the many across Nigeria in shared mourning for the lives lost and to the millions of Catholics around the world and so many in British Nigerian communities who feel this is a personal blow.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Religious and ethnic bloodshed, kidnappings, banditry, vigilantism and revenge attacks are all on the increase in Nigeria, and each attack deepens the conditions for further violence. Insecurity has been increasing rapidly across much of west Africa, and we have not seen an equally urgent response from the Government.

As the desert expands with climate heating, traditional livelihoods are destroyed, Governments are weakened and distrust grows along economic, ethnic and religious lines, and criminals and terrorists fill the void. Surely we must recognise that insecurity poses a threat even to the stability of Nigeria as a democracy, and supporting such an important regional and global partner must be a top priority. How will the Government adapt and build on the UK-Nigeria security and defence partnership to focus on the drivers of insecurity on the ground across Nigeria? What will the Government do to stop Nigeria and the wider region from sliding further into instability with all the further atrocities that will result?

I thank the hon. Member, and I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who I hope feels better soon.

The hon. Member asks a really important question about what we are doing to address the drivers of conflict, and there are different drivers in different parts of the country. I have had the huge privilege of being able to visit the country, talk to a lot of different groups and meet my counterparts a number of times. For example, in some parts of the country there are conflicts between herders and ranchers, so we have provided technical support to the Office of the Vice-President to develop Nigeria’s national livestock transformation plan, which sets out a long-term approach towards more sedentary forms of cattle rearing. That is explicitly to address some of the drivers of intercommunal violence, and the plan is now being implemented in eight different states in the middle belt region. That very specific, targeted work is now being implemented.

We also support efforts to respond to the conflict. For example, there is the work we do on regional stabilisation efforts and the regionally-led fight against armed groups, including demobilising, deradicalisation and integration of former group members. We provide humanitarian aid to the crisis in north-east Nigeria, where 8 million people need life-saving assistance. One of the issues we have helped with is improving respect for humanitarian law within the defence services, so part of our defence training offer is improving understanding of international humanitarian law. During my visit to Nigeria, I was really pleased to hear that, in the north-east region, the relationship between security actors and local community members seems to be improving. This was told to me by a local community leader, who directly related such improving of relationships to the work we have been doing to help improve understanding of humanitarian rights by the security services. So we are taking many different actions in a very complex situation.

Incidentally, I will have the huge honour of meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury tomorrow, and I will certainly be discussing this with him.