House of Commons
Monday 6 March 2023
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My Department has carried out a comprehensive campaign of communication since April 2022 to promote pension credit. I am pleased to inform the House that the average number of pension credit applications is up 73% compared with this time last year.
I strongly backed my right hon. Friend’s campaign in December last year, particularly in my Clwyd South constituency. Will he give us a further assessment of how effective that campaign has been in Wales and across the rest of the UK?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has been doing in his constituency on this matter. I can inform him that for the week commencing 12 December, for example, there were 7,200 claims, which is a 177% increase compared with this time last year.
This is not party political; we all want to make sure that pensioners in need get the help and support that they can get. The Secretary of State will understand, though, that in communities such as mine there are still too many pensioners eligible for pension credit who are not yet accessing it. Given the success of his campaign so far, what further will he do to ensure that the really hard-to-reach pensioners get the support that they deserve and need?
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question and the non-partisan way in which he presented it. He is absolutely right; there must be no let-up in this matter. Two thirds of those we believe are eligible for pension credit receive it, but that means that one third do not. We cannot identify them precisely in advance, which is why communication is so important. We will write to 11,000 pensioners soon to tell them about the uprating and to stress the point about pension credit. From today, we are launching television advertisements to further that message.
The Government seem to be trying to pat themselves on the back after years of failure on pension credit. As we just heard, hundreds of thousands of pensioners are still missing out on a vital top-up benefit that is needed to get them through the cost of living crisis. Why has the Government’s response been so ineffective, and what on earth will the Government do about their dismal failure to help pensioners during their hour of need?
I am very surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman pose that question, first, because of his party’s record on this matter when they were in government; and secondly, because of the clear progress that I have outlined to the House today and on previous occasions about the increase in take-up that the Government are securing.
Pensioner Poverty: State Pension Age
My review of the state pension age is under way. The review will consider a wide range of evidence, including two independent reports, to assess whether the rules on pensionable age remain appropriate.
I hope that the evidence that the Secretary of State examines includes analysis by Age UK that 1.5 million pre-state pension age households have no savings at all. Age UK warns that accelerating the rise of the state pension age
“will condemn millions to a miserable and impoverished run up to retirement”.
Instead of risking that increase in pensioner poverty, should he not establish an independent pensions and savings commission to ensure that pension policies are fit for purpose and reflect the demographic needs of different parts of the United Kingdom?
The two reports to which I have just referred are independent—from the Government Actuary’s Department, on matters such as life expectancy; and from Baroness Neville-Rolfe, on the metrics that should be taken into account in determining when the next increase in the state pension age should occur. We certainly take into account issues such as pensioner poverty, on which we have an excellent record. In fact, relative pensioner poverty before housing has halved since 1999, and there are 400,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty—that is before or after housing—compared with 2009-10.
Is it realistic to continue to expect people to spend a third of their lives on a pension?
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, but I am afraid that although he tempts me to answer that question, I cannot prejudge the decisions that I will take in the review.
Economic Inactivity: Working-age People
The Prime Minister has asked me to review the matter of economic inactivity, and the results of that review will be shared with the House shortly.
One of the keys to getting working-age people to return to work is obviously providing the right incentives, such as the training programmes and advice provided by my right hon. Friend’s Department—the likes of Jobcentre Plus—but it is also important to remove disincentives. What discussions is he having with Treasury colleagues about ensuring that tax policy, especially on pensions, does not stand in the way of people who have skills and experience staying in, or returning to, the workplace?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, which of course is well known to the Chancellor and Treasury colleagues. We have a variety of discussions with the Treasury on those kinds of matters and others. Of course, tax policy is a matter for the Treasury.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the work that the Department is doing to try to reduce economic inactivity. He will know that many of the over-50s moving out of employment and into economic inactivity are concentrated in the self-employed and part-time workforces. Can he confirm that his review will look at measures to bring those people back into the workforce?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are most certainly looking carefully at that particular cohort of people who have prematurely retired—if I may use that term—and are over the age of 50. It is one of the biggest cohorts that we are trying to encourage back into the workforce, and I will have more to say on that matter in due course.
The pandemic made a revolutionary change to the way we work. I know the Secretary of State has heard me mention Work Hull: Work Happy before, but research published today by the Phoenix Group on economic inactivity in the over-50s states that
“flexible work…support with new technologies…and the opportunity to work from home”
are favoured support strands for people returning to work. Will the Secretary of State therefore back Labour’s plan to make flexible working a force for good for all workers?
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s question—I certainly enjoyed my time working with her on the Treasury Committee, where she raised these matters with great passion. She is absolutely right that flexible working is the way forward, and not just for the over-50s but often for those who have disabilities. This is a big opportunity that we need to seize.
I understand that the latest figures reveal that there are 788,000 young people not in employment, education or training. Does the Secretary of State regard that as an acceptable figure, and if not, how and when is he going to tackle it?
Even one person in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman refers to is one too many. We are going to come forward very shortly with further measures on how we address those particular people, and at the time of the Budget on 15 March—which is very close now—the hon. Gentleman will probably learn more.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
I understand that Ministers are struggling to convince the Office for Budget Responsibility that their inactivity plan will get half a million people back to work. One way in which the Secretary of State could hit his target is by encouraging more parents to move into work. Of course, many women, in particular, are blocked from returning to work because of childcare costs. Given that we should be doing more to help parents move into work, why has he now frozen the childcare cost cap in universal credit for the seventh year in a row?
As to whether the OBR is or is not scoring the various measures that are being presented to it by the Treasury, I am intrigued as to how the right hon. Gentleman seems to know that it is having problems. The OBR operates under conditions of utter confidentiality in these matters, and I would not doubt that that is the way it has proceeded this time around. As for childcare, he is absolutely right. He will have to be a little patient—I know that he sometimes struggles to be patient—and we will then come forward with measures, and no doubt we will have something to say about the matter he has raised.
I know that because the Secretary of State’s Government sources briefed The Sunday Times yesterday on that particular point, but I will wait and see. I will wait for the OBR report next week, and we will see what target for inactivity the Government publish and what the OBR endorses. He will know that many working parents would return to work if they could afford childcare, but many are expected to find hundreds of pounds—sometimes £1,000—to pay for childcare up front. Who has £1,000 down the back of a sofa? Will he make universal credit work by introducing more flexibility in how it operates, or is he prepared to punish hard-working parents by pushing them into more debt?
I am afraid that I am just going to have to repeat what I have said, which is that the right hon. Gentleman will have to be patient. I am confident that we will have some things to say about the matters he has raised, but he will just have to wait another couple of weeks before he learns what we are doing.
Post pandemic, and under this uncaring Conservative Government, we have seen sanctions skyrocket, pushing many people into destitution. Can the Secretary of State come to the Dispatch Box and outline how plunging people into poverty helps deal with economic inactivity? Is it not the case that the only activity it stimulates is at local food banks?
I am surprised, in a way, that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of poverty, because what we have seen, certainly since 2010 and under this Government, has been absolute levels of poverty declining and fewer children growing up in workless homes, for example, in distinct contrast to Governments prior to my party coming into office.
Economic Inactivity: Towns and Cities
The Office for National Statistics regularly publishes statistics relating to estimates of local inactivity. I have been leading work across Government with a further piece on participation, and the Chancellor and I will shortly be setting out more details of our plans.
Some 2.5 million people are economically inactive as a result of long-term illness, and half a million have left the labour market due to ill health since 2019. Does the Secretary of State accept that tackling health inequalities and improving health outcomes in deprived communities such as Birkenhead is essential to achieving equitable economic growth? Can he inform the House what conversations he has had with colleagues across the Cabinet about the need for a holistic economic strategy that recognises that health and wealth are inextricably linked?
It is important that we take into account the issues of poverty and regional variations to which the hon. Gentleman refers. They lie right at the heart of all the decisions we have taken. We have come forward in recent times with significant cost of living support measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) will be taking through the remaining stages of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill this very afternoon to address the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw my article in The Times a few weeks ago, but it discussed opportunities for towns, such as Mansfield, that have specific local requirements when it comes to tackling economic inactivity, the opportunities of building bespoke local schemes with local employers and training providers, and the opportunities from those relationships on a local level as part of a wider strategy within the region. What is his stance on devolving decision-making powers in this space down to local areas?
My hon. Friend raises a significant and important point. There are areas, particularly around the Work and Health programme, where we have done exactly that. We are engaged in discussions, contingent upon or subsequent to the White Paper that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published on levelling up, and in particular with areas such as the west midlands and Greater Manchester, to make sure that we leverage the knowledge, know-how, expertise and all the resources they have at the local level to continue to bring people back into work.
It is always a joy at Question Time to hear Labour MPs supporting Labour policy, but even more so to hear Conservative MPs supporting Labour’s policy of localising our efforts to get people back to work. On that, may I ask the Secretary of State something? I have been listening to what he has said, and I know that he will not pre-empt the details of the inactivity review, but can he just confirm that one of its objectives will be to rebalance our economy, particularly in this connection between health and labour supply?
That is at the heart of our manifesto, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker! Where did I get that from? It is a sign of the times. Right at the heart of our manifesto, and of the Government’s raison d’être, is the need to make sure that we level up communities across the United Kingdom. Of course, our action will take many forms, but one of them is most certainly the support that we will provide to make sure that, up and down the country, there is equality among those seeking work, and those who are economically inactive, and that they have the same opportunities.
Support into Employment: Over-50s
The Government are already providing £20 million for an enhanced offer to help older workers remain in, or return to, work. That includes provision for 37 full-time 50-plus champions, who deliver the midlife MOT, and for older workers jobs fairs. That includes the three 50-plus fairs held in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) in the last few months.
The over-50s are a massive resource for our workforce, so could the Minister please outline how we might incentivise back into work those who retired during the pandemic, and those aged over 50 who have left the uniformed services and are seeking a second career?
My hon. and gallant Friend served with dedication in the armed forces before becoming Bracknell’s champion. He will be aware that our armed forces champions go to great lengths to assist ex-servicemen and women in finding second careers after their service keeping us safe. He will also be aware that the Chancellor may have more to say on the issue next week, on the 15th.
The Minister speaks about the ambitions for encouraging the over-50s to remain in the workforce. Will the Minister tear up his prepared answer, and tell the employees at the Department for Work and Pensions Clydebank office—mostly working-class women over the age of 50—how he squares that with his Government’s rank hypocrisy, which has left them struggling for work during a cost of living crisis?
There are now 10.7 million 50-plus workers—a figure that has gone up by 2 million in the last 10 years. Local DWP jobcentres are constantly engaging with employers to showcase the benefits of hiring older workers. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go to Halfords in St James retail park in Dumbarton in his constituency, because Halfords is one of the employers employing over 100 new over-50s apprentices on an ongoing basis. The hon. Gentleman should visit and learn something.
As you know, Mr Speaker, because of my youth, I do not have to declare an interest. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, on the whole, older people tend to be more punctual, dedicated and reliable, and able to spell? What is he doing to tell employers that those factors are the reason why they need to employ older people?
Of course my hon. Friend, who I am sure is under the age of 50, does not need to declare an interest in the Government’s desire to ensure that we have more over-50s in employment. He will be aware, however, that in the past few months there have been four jobs fairs across Staffordshire and Derbyshire open to those from Lichfield who are 50-plus, and planning is under way for another event that will take place shortly.
May I add my voice to the calls for us to use the talents of people who are over 50? I am approaching that stage myself. Some of the best years of my life were after 50, in terms of the number of jobs that I was able to do, and the new schemes and social enterprises that I was involved with. I know many people who are waiting for that second chance to contribute to our economy, and to social enterprises, if the Minister will give them the right incentive.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I agree with him; there is life in the old dog yet, as they say. It is important that we continue to make the case that employment for the over-50s should be supported by all employers.
Single-parent employment levels
We are committed to helping parents to increase their income through work. We have cut the earnings taper on universal credit and increased work allowances, meaning that families are, on average, better off by £1,000 a year. Additionally, eligible parents can claim up to 85% of their childcare costs through UC, and further assistance is available through the flexible support fund, Jobcentre Plus and work coaches.
On Friday, I visited my local citizens advice bureau at its new offices on George Street in Lancaster, where I heard at first hand of the challenges that single parents are having with the amount of the childcare element of universal credit being capped at the level set in 2005 and with its being paid in arrears. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that benefits go up in line with the cost of childcare and to look at paying this element up front?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The UC childcare element can be used to top up a claimant’s eligible free childcare hours if more hours are worked and more childcare is required. We also use the flexible support fund to support those up-front costs, as we heard earlier. However, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about employers; this is not solely about what the Government can do on our own to help lone parents. Job design, the opportunity to progress and flexible work are really important too, as is the opportunity to return and progress. We cannot do this on our own.
It is alarming that last year the employment rate for single parents had the biggest annual fall on record, and it is all the more worrying because the single parent employment rate has been on an upward long-term trend since the mid-1990s. Surely the Minister would agree that the eligible cost limit on childcare in universal credit needs to be uprated to reflect the ground reality of today’s soaring childcare costs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Under this Government since 2010, we have seen a significant increase in lone parents in work, with the rate going up from 56.1% in 2010 to 65.5% in 2022. However, the reality—and I think he describes it—is that there are too many challenges for lone parents, and it is absolutely right that we look at this. As we have heard from the Secretary of State, we are hoping to hear more: the Chancellor is ever present in our minds. As a lone parent, I again make the plea to employers to help people come back to work, because we know it is more than just a pay packet; it is really important to see the whole of society represented in the labour market.
Figures published today by the Centre for Progressive Policy show that the lack of affordable childcare prevented a quarter of parents of children under 10 from working more hours, with all the implications that has for family finances, but also for economic productivity. In fact, parental underemployment is estimated to cost this country over £20 billion. With expectations having been raised again this afternoon that next week’s Budget will do something about the cost of childcare, can the Minister tell us how long it will be before she expects the level of lone parent employment to rise again to where it was three years ago?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think we have some amazing childcare out there and some brilliant opportunities for lone parents, as I have described. It is important to let people know that, on universal credit, they can claim back 85%. It is better than legacy benefits, and they should please look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk and use the flexible support fund. We should also recognise that it is not right for everybody to go straight back to work—this needs to be individualised—and that we should support the lone parent and make sure they can get the skills and the opportunity to always be better off in work.
Cost of Living: Pensioner Support
The Government are committed to helping pensioners with the increased costs of living. From April, pensioners will receive the largest ever cash increase in the state pension, and pension credit will also be uprated by 10.1%.
I strongly welcome the additional support His Majesty’s Government are providing to all households across the country, especially pensioners, with the costs of living. In contrast, many pensioners in Bexley are facing additional concerns because of Labour’s outrageous ultra low emission zone tax raid on drivers in Greater London. Will my hon. Friend outline what further support is available to pensioners through the likes of pension credit and join me in Bexley to promote it so that more people sign up for this support?
The ULEZ is an outrageous attack on pensioners who can least afford it, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the amazing work he is doing to fight it and to help all pensioners in his constituency. I would be delighted to visit him and see that work for myself.
I thank the Minister for her answer. With 26,500 pensioners in the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, the 10.1% increase in the state pension and pension credit will be very welcome, but what other schemes are the Government putting in place to help people with the cost of living at this time?
Pensioners will receive a further £300 cost of living payment this winter and all on pension credit will receive a further £900.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee.
The pensions dashboard will provide important support. It was due to be rolled out from August, but last week the Minister, very disappointingly, announced a delay and we do not now know when it will be implemented. Is it a delay of weeks or months, or even longer? Will the Minister give us a full, urgent update before the Easter recess?
Work is ongoing and I will come back to the House at the earliest available opportunity.
Since 2015, more than 219,000 1950s-born WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—have passed away. What more are Ministers doing to ensure that WASPI women get the pensions they deserve?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the new state pension is very beneficial for women. We know that under automatic enrolment, more women than ever have got a private pension. On the specific matter he asked about, he will know that there is ongoing work by the ombudsman, and I cannot comment until that is completed.
We take all fraud very seriously and have a range of measures in place, supported by two tranches of additional investment totalling around £900 million, which will prevent a further £2.4 billion of loss by 2024-25. In May last year, we published “Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System”, which details our proposals for reducing fraud and error, including legislative change and closer working across Government.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I have had numerous reports from constituents of alleged incidents of benefit fraud and what they perceive as a lack of action when they report them to the Department, so will the Minister inform the House by how many his Department plans to increase staff in the counter-fraud teams?
I am very appreciative of my hon. Friend raising this point. It is fair to say that we are coming after those who commit benefit fraud: it is unfair on the taxpayer, it is wrong, and that message must go out in the strongest terms. That is being backed up by action, as we set out in the plan. For example, over the next five years, we will see 2,000 specialists dedicated to getting across 2 million universal credit cases. That is an important contribution to make sure that we bring this money back into the Department where it rightly belongs.
Is Alyn Smith standing up?
No, but you did stand at the beginning. In that case, I call somebody who is always going to stand: Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very important that all benefit fraud is taken on board, but many times in my constituency over the past few years, people have inadvertently filled in forms incorrectly and have found themselves having to pay money back. May I ask that compassion be shown to those who have inadvertently done wrong but realised they have to pay back, to ensure that they can pay back at a level they can afford?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this point, and it is important to note that we work on a case-by-case basis. Of course, where there are instances of error of that kind, we work on an individual basis to work out a repayment plan that is appropriate for those individuals, taking into account any financial vulnerabilities or challenges they might face.
Cost of Living: Support for Vulnerable Households
The Government recognise the pressures people are facing and have acted, providing cost of living support worth over £37 billion in 2022-23. In April, we are going further by uprating benefits, state pensions and the benefit cap by 10.1%. We are also providing £1 billion for the extension of the household support fund in England, with Barnett consequentials for the devolved Administrations. That includes £12.4 million for Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council residents from October 2021 to March next year.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that her Department has changed the way it makes cost of living payments, so that those in the most need continue to benefit, while ensuring that we do not overburden the hard-working majority of my constituents in Rother Valley with ever higher taxes?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We are legislating this afternoon for the three further cost of living payments for the next financial year, ensuring that more people are eligible for support and that we are reaching the most vulnerable. The payments will be worth up to £900, with a further £300 for pensioners and £150 for those with a disability. In Rother Valley, we estimate that 10,600 households will be eligible for means-tested cost of living payments, and that 11,800 households will be eligible for disability cost of living support.
It has been nearly 12 months since the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a section 23 notice against the Department for Work and Pensions, following concerns about the deaths of and discrimination against disabled claimants. Has an agreement yet been reached, and, if not, when will it be?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point. I am assured by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work that constructive conversations are ongoing and that this matter is being taken seriously. I am sure that he will have the hon. Lady’s question.
Cost of Living: Support for Disabled People
Six million people receiving an eligible disability benefit received a £150 disability cost of living payment last year, and they will receive a further £150 payment this year. Those on a qualifying means-tested benefit will also receive up to £900 in cost of living payments.
People in Bosworth will be grateful for the disability support they have, but a key challenge that I saw as a GP was getting people who are disabled back into work. We know that work is good for their welfare and their wallet, so what more can we do to create a conducive environment, from diagnosis all the way through, for those suffering from a disability to get back into the workplace?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We are committed to supporting people into work and, importantly, to retain roles once they have them. We recognise, working across Government, that for many disabled people work is a determinant of better health outcomes. No doubt we will continue to take on board feedback about what more we might do in that space, and I would be delighted to have a conversation with my hon. Friend, based on his experiences, about the support we already provide and where we might go from here.
On benefits, I am delighted to hear that some things are being done, but, from a Scottish perspective, I really do not think that it is enough. 38 Degrees has done polling across all our constituencies, and 70% of respondents in Stirling agreed that this UK Government
“do not understand the impact the cost of living crisis is having on people”.
Do Ministers accept that vote of no confidence?
Certainly not, and I am delighted that I actually have a far more constructive working relationship with the Scottish Minister responsible for these issues than the question from the hon. Member suggests.
Many families with disabled children are struggling with energy costs right now. The £150 for those receiving personal independence payment is clearly welcome, but if someone is dependent on a machine, such as a powered wheelchair, a ventilator, an oxygen concentrator or a ceiling hoist, the cost is more like £150 a month, not £150 a year. What more can the Department, and the Government more widely, do to ensure that those families do not turn their machines off and put their children’s health at risk?
It is fair to say that none of us would want to see people putting their health, or their relatives’ health, at risk. We of course have a comprehensive package of support in place, as my hon. Friend is aware. There is also discretionary support provided through the household support fund and administered by local authorities, as well as the energy support that Ministers elsewhere in Government are leading on. However, I am very mindful of the need to future-proof people against those costs, and that is work that I am currently looking at.
This might help the Minister, who is very aware that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people and are particularly vulnerable to the cost of living, as has been demonstrated by colleagues. Legacy benefit claimants, many of whom are long-term sick or disabled, have been unjustly denied the additional uplift that universal credit claimants got during the pandemic. Will the Minister commit to remedying that injustice by reintroducing the universal uplift, increasing it to £25 a week and giving it to all legacy benefit claimants?
I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion of new policy. As a Government Minister, I am not in a position to create new policy on the hoof. What I would say, however, is that there are significant cost of living support measures in place, and individuals will be able to access the support that is appropriate for them.
We now come to the shadow Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and I have asked numerous written questions about the shocking 461% increase in the number of personal independence payment claims disallowed for the non-return of the AR1 review form between 2017 and 2021. The Minister, sadly, has no idea why the increase has happened, or by extension whether vulnerable people are being left struggling to manage, as the Department does not collect information on the reasons for the non-return of the AR1 form. So I ask the Minister again today: when will he take action to investigate this issue?
There may be many and varied reasons why individuals choose not to return the forms. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me to answer the question, that would really benefit the House. The bottom line here is that there may be many and varied reasons why people do not return the forms, including their circumstances changing materially, but I am very happy to take the point away and look at it further.
Pensioner Cost of Living Payment
In 2021-22, almost 18,000 pensioners in Kettering, over 60,000 pensioners in north Northamptonshire and more than 9 million pensioners in England received a winter fuel payment. We estimate that similar numbers will have received the £300 pensioner cost of living payment in 2022-23.
Will those 18,000 pensioners in receipt of the pensioner cost of living payment also receive additional support, such as the £400 energy bill discount, the £150 council tax rebate, the £150 disability cost of living payment and the £150 warm home discount? Will they also benefit from the energy price guarantee, saving a typical household £900 a year?
My hon. Friend is right in this, as in so many things.
Unemployment Levels: Towns and Cities
The January Office for National Statistics labour market statistics publication shows that payroll employment reached a new record high of 30 million in January 2023. That is, of course, higher than at any stage under the last, or any, Labour Government.
We hear of a record number of vacancies, yet so many who are looking to get into work are out of work. In Blackburn, the claimant count among 18 to 24-year-olds is at 7.9%, against a national rate of 4.6%. What is the Minister doing to bring down barriers to work such as unaffordable childcare, transport, a failed apprenticeship scheme and a levelling-up agenda that is just not meeting the skills agenda?
The hon. Lady should be aware that last Tuesday there was a jobs fair in her constituency. There were 59 exhibitors, and 900 customers attended the event. They provided fantastic feedback on the support and interventions given. If she did not attend that particular jobs fair, she might want to go to “March into manufacturing” on 21 March, an upcoming jobs fair in her patch.
We started the sitting with a non-party political point, so may I continue in that mode? I absolutely agree that those on the Opposition Benches want to reduce the level of unemployment. Unfortunately, their policies do not follow. Does the Minister agree that every single Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they came to office?
Industrial Relations: Department for Work and Pensions
Constructive discussions take place with the Public and Commercial Services Union, FDA and Prospect unions on a range of topics, as is set out in our employee relations handbook. The PCS and Prospect unions are in dispute with the Department for Work and Pensions, along with a number of other Departments, about various issues. As ever, we will remain positively engaged.
Is the Secretary of State aware that more than a quarter of DWP staff are paid so little that the national living wage floor increase this April will lift their salaries? Is he aware that thousands of civil servants forced to take strike action are going without food and having to use foodbanks? Will he commit to constructive talks with the PCS union to resolve the dispute, to put a real pay rise on the table and to make ending the scourge of low pay in his Department a priority?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We will continue to have constructive and positive discussions with the PCS and other unions. She raised the national living wage; she will know that it is to rise by 9.7% this April, to its highest level on record.
The Department’s major focus is looking after the vulnerable and those most in need. I am therefore delighted that next month, the basic state pension will increase by 10.1%, as will most benefits. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), will be taking legislation through the House this afternoon to ensure that we continue substantial cost of living payments for the year ahead.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements. The extra £842 million for the household support fund, of which Harrow will receive £3 million, is extremely welcome. Could he update the House on what monitoring is taking place so that best practice is followed across the country and that the money that the Government are allocating reaches the most vulnerable?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He is right that almost £3 million from the household support fund will go to his constituency, on top of the £7.4 million that his local authority will receive in total. We monitor very closely how the money is administered to ensure that it has the maximum effect, by liaising closely with the local authorities concerned.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
Does the Secretary of State understand and agree that expediting the rise in the state pension age is less about life expectancy, which, according to the Office for National Statistics is very much arrested, and more about a cost-cutting measure for the Treasury? Can he tell the House what representations he has made to the Chancellor about that in advance of next week’s Budget? Or is it just the UK Government’s policy that people should work until they drop?
The hon. Gentleman is prejudging an awful lot of potential outcomes. He should wait until the Chancellor and I have taken those particular decisions. I am focused on a variety of metrics. Life expectancy is one of them, as is regional impact. The fiscal impact certainly cannot be ignored, and I would be surprised if he suggested otherwise. Fairness between generations and the period of life in which one is expected to be healthy in later years are also important considerations.
I am delighted that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) passed Second Reading on Friday, and I look forward to its Committee next week. This excellent piece of legislation will bring 18 to 22-year-olds into automatic enrolment in full for the first time, and will ensure that people are saving from the first pound earned—two vital steps to ensure that people get the retirement that they want.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue in such constructive terms. I expect teams to be responsive to needs for reasonable adjustments. Perhaps she could share the details of the specific experience so that I can look into it. It is fair to say that staff go through ongoing learning, and we refresh the guidance at regular intervals.
Regardless of the form that PIP assessments take, the structure is the same. Evidence suggests that both forms are equally effective, but I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that if individuals want to have a face-to-face assessment, they absolutely can.
The Government are projected to spend £30 billion—about 1.3% of GDP—on support for renters. Approximately £100 million has been allocated for the discretionary housing payment in 2023-24 to help local authorities, if necessary, which can top up from their own funding to help the hon. Lady’s constituents.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend and send my best wishes to his constituent for their surgery. The Department offers support through disability employment advisers who work alongside all work coaches, specialising in finding the right support to help customers who have a disability or health condition into work. I know that the dedicated team in Nottinghamshire would certainly be delighted to engage with my hon. Friend or his constituent and try to help with this issue.
I would argue that the Public Accounts Committee report does not reflect the steps that we took and that we set out in the plan that was published last May. As I set out to the House earlier, we are taking a tough approach to the issue, and rightly so—this is taxpayers’ money. For example, the work of the 2,000 extra officials on targeted case reviews, 2 million of which are in universal credit, is a really important part of getting that money back.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the 50-plus champions, the midlife MOT, the sector-based work academies and the skills bootcamps specifically for over-50s. The mighty Port Vale football club held a fantastic recent jobs fair attended by 1,400 customers, including many over-50s; 600 job offers resulted and there were 100 employers present. That is the sort of thing that the Department is doing.
As the recent Britishvolt investment shows, the north-east has real strengths in growing sectors such as battery technology, green energy and life sciences. Does the Minister agree that it is not possible for nationally controlled training programmes to really support people into employment in these emerging sectors? Will he therefore devolve responsibility to those in local areas who know local skills and local opportunities?
Local DWP jobcentres work hand in glove with local employers. It is very different in Banff and in Brixton—it is very different up and down the country. That is what we do with sector-based work academies, skills bootcamps and innovation pilots on a local basis in each individual jobcentre.
We are focused, across Government, on helping young people to become involved in science, technology, engineering and maths projects and careers. A new science and technology framework was announced today, and will be vital for long-term economic success. DWP Train and Progress helps claimants take advantage of the bootcamps run by the Department for Education, and our partnership with Google is helping to boost digital skills. These activities are flexible in that people of any age and at any stage in their careers can engage in them.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have a constituent who is facing the consequences of an overpayment in employment and support allowance. She has been able to show that she gave the Department the correct information time and again, but according to the Department, that is not relevant to whether she should pay the full sum. If the Department is not subject to any comeback after making mistakes, how will it ever improve?
It is important to note that official error loss fell from 1.3% in 2019-20 to 0.9% in 2020-21 and to 0.7% in 2021-22. It is of course right for us to work constructively with individuals to identify appropriate repayment plans, ensuring that we live up to our legal obligations to get the money back into the Department, but I expect officials to work constructively with people, taking account of their specific financial circumstances. I should be delighted if the hon. Gentleman shared the details of this case with me so that I can look into it.
I know that my hon. Friend takes great interest in supporting women in work, and working with employers is crucial to ensuring that they can both retain and recruit women and that there is no stigma in the workplace for those experiencing the impact of the menopause. I am delighted to announce the appointment of Helen Tomlinson as the DWP menopause employment champion. She will have a key role in driving awareness and promoting the benefits of a fully inclusive workplace to both business and the economy, and I will be sharing further details of her appointment later today.
Research conducted by the Bevan Foundation has established that local housing allowance is not a solution to the cost of living and housing crises for families on low incomes and for the most vulnerable because it is too low, and has been frozen since 2020 while private rental costs have soared. Will the UK Government help those in need and uprate the allowance?
We recognise that rents are increasing, and that a challenging fiscal environment means we need to support people effectively. We have therefore announced a support package for the most vulnerable households, which includes help through the household support fund. Those who are entitled to housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit and who have a shortfall can reach out for discretionary housing payments from local authorities.
There are some notable and fantastic businesses in my constituency, including Argus Fire and Pegasus, which do a brilliant job in recruiting young adults and providing career opportunities. What more can the Department do to bridge the gap between employers and young adults and create that one-stop opportunity for 16-year-olds to find employment?
As you know, Mr Speaker, I am very supportive of getting young people into work. The Dudley youth hub is a classic example of the Department’s working in partnership locally, providing a single location for employers to engage with the under-25s from Stourbridge and the wider area. Claimants can attend recruitment events and take advantage of a range of on-site services, and I know that they greatly welcome the opportunity to work with Argus Fire and Pegasus.
Public and Commercial Services Union members in Scotland get a raw deal from this Government on pay, with many civil servants themselves using food banks. When will the Government give them a proper pay rise?
As the hon. Lady will know and as I explained earlier, we are engaged in positive discussions with the PCS. It has been pointed out that many people working in the DWP are on the national living wage, and that will increase by 9.7% in April.
Working with Disability Action Yorkshire in my constituency, I have observed the important and growing role in the jobs market played by people with disabilities. I have spoken before about the Access to Work programme. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to promote that excellent scheme among employers?
My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Harrogate generally, but on this issue he is a passionate advocate for Access to Work and Disability Confident. We work to promote those schemes through our social media, through working with stakeholders, through working with local employer partnership teams and employer associations and through the Disability Confident scheme generally. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to look at ways in which we can spread the word further, including on a localised basis. I am about to do that as a constituency MP in Corby, and perhaps my hon. Friend could do the same in Harrogate.
On Friday night I was given the terrible news that a popular business in my constituency, Mortons Rolls, had ceased trading, putting at risk 250 jobs. Will the Secretary of State take the time to meet me to discuss what can be done to support that business and the 250 staff who are now threatened with redundancy?
The hon. Lady raises an important matter, and she is right to raise it on the Floor of the House. We have a number of measures that we would typically stand up in the circumstances that she describes, including a surge of local support to get jobs going and vacancies matched up with those who are sadly going to lose their jobs. I will certainly ask the Employment Minister to meet her to discuss this as a matter of urgency.
I echo the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) about Access to Work. Can I ask what progress is being made on the disability action plan and how the Minister will ensure effective work across Government?
The disability action plan is a really valuable opportunity to drive forward meaningful progress in a number of areas to help to improve the lives of disabled people. We are in the process of assembling the ministerial disability champions, and I want to see ideas from across Government brought together. We will then hear from disabled people, get out there and consult on the plan, then make sure that we deliver it over the next 18 months to two years. This is about quick wins and getting those off the stocks and delivering for disabled people.
I want to place on record my thanks to the Pensions Minister for her incredible hard work on automatic pension enrolment to get the age and the earnings lowered. Does she agree that it is a major concern for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that 25% of people leave work without a workplace pension in place? That is why the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Bill is so important and I am grateful to have had support for it from colleagues across the House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on his brilliant Bill, which will help women, the lowest paid and part-time workers in Stoke-on- Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and beyond.
Before proceedings on the urgent question begin, I want to make it clear that the question is about the proposed appointment of the second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition. It is not about the Committee of Privileges inquiry; let me stress that now. The House has charged the Committee with undertaking that inquiry and it must be allowed to complete it without interference. The Committee has been clear that the report issued on Friday does not contain its final conclusions, and that its work continues. It is for the Committee to decide how to weigh up the evidence before it, and any attempt to use this urgent question to prejudice proceedings will be out of order and will not be tolerated. Can I also say that although I was not surprised by the number of requests for this urgent question, I was surprised that they nearly all had the same wording and length of sentences? Whichever side of the House it comes from, I will not be moved by mass lobbying. I was more impressed by the individual ones that took the time to express why this was important than by those that were just a one-line sentence and signed by numerous Members of the House, so please do not try mass lobbying again.
Civil Service Impartiality
(Urgent Question): To ask the Paymaster General if he will make a statement on the impartiality of the civil service in the light of the proposed appointment of the second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition.
I can confirm that, following a media report the previous day, Sue Gray, formerly second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and to the Cabinet Office, resigned from the civil service on Thursday 2 March. This resignation was accepted with immediate effect. On Friday 3 March, a statement from the Opposition announced that the Labour party had offered Sue Gray the role of chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition.
The House will recognise that this is an exceptional situation. It is unprecedented for a serving permanent secretary to resign to seek to take up a senior position working for the Leader of the Opposition. As hon. Members will expect, the Cabinet Office is looking into the circumstances leading up to Sue Gray’s resignation in order to update the relevant civil service leadership and Ministers of the facts. Subsequent to that, I will update the House appropriately.
By way of background, to inform hon. Members, there are four pertinent sets of rules and guidance for civil servants relating to this issue. First, under the civil service code, every civil servant is expected to uphold the civil service’s core values, which include impartiality. The code states that civil servants must
“act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers”.
Secondly, rules apply when very senior civil servants wish to leave the service. Permanent secretaries are subject to the business appointments process that, for most senior leavers, is administered by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. ACOBA provides advice to the Prime Minister, who is the ultimate decision maker in cases involving the most senior civil servants. Once the Prime Minister agrees the conditions and the appointment is taken up, ACOBA publishes its letter to the applicant on its website.
The business appointment rules form part of a civil servant’s contract of employment. The rules state that approval must be obtained prior to a job offer being announced. The Cabinet Office has not, as yet, been informed that the relevant notification to ACOBA has been made.
Thirdly, civil servants must follow guidance on the declaration and management of outside interests. They are required, on an ongoing basis, to declare and manage any outside interests that may give rise to an actual or perceived conflict of interest. Finally, the directory of civil service guidance states:
“Contacts between senior civil servants and leading members of the Opposition parties…should…be cleared with…Ministers.”
Having set out the relevant rules, I finish by saying that, regardless of the details of this specific situation, I understand why Members of this House and eminent outside commentators have raised concerns. The impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service is constitutionally vital to the conduct of government. I am certain that all senior civil servants are acutely aware of the importance of maintaining impartiality. Ministers must be able to speak to their officials from a position of absolute trust, so it is the responsibility of everyone in this House to preserve and support the impartiality of the civil service.
To echo my right hon. Friend’s comments, many of us are surprised and, frankly, deeply disappointed about the particular circumstances that have emerged. This is not about the character or quality of Sue Gray. Having had the pleasure of working with her over a number of years, I can testify, along with many others, to those qualities.
This is, as my right hon. Friend said, about the fundamental trust that has to exist between impartial civil servants up to the highest level—and here we are dealing with a permanent secretary—and the Ministers they serve. That has been the position since at least the Northcote-Trevelyan report of the mid-19th century, and it must be the position in future, particularly if the Labour party is serious about wishing to achieve power. This Government are prepared to defend that impartiality, but the activities of the Leader of the Opposition might suggest that he is not prepared to defend that impartiality.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying the position on the application to ACOBA. Will he confirm that this appointment, if it is to be taken up, cannot be taken up before it is formally approved, following advice from that committee? Secondly, is it correct that the prevailing ACOBA advice for civil servants has a potential waiting period of between three months and two years? Thirdly, will a lobbying prohibition be imposed in this case? Finally, will a restriction on the passage of official information to the Labour party be imposed in this instance?
I say again that trust and impartiality are vital if this system of government is to work. I would hope that in this case those issues will be defended.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that. I share his disappointment; whatever the merits of the individual, I stress that it is critical that we all, on both sides of the House, do all we can to support the impartiality of the civil service. He asks about three points in particular. He asks whether there is a three-month to two-year period, and he is right. ACOBA also has the ability to recommend that no such appointment would be appropriate—it can go further—but there is a standard three-month waiting period in the contracts of employment for permanent secretaries. ACOBA generally goes up to two years but it can go further.
There is a lifetime requirement on all civil servants, which I know they take hugely seriously, to respect the confidentiality of the work they do. It is right that that is in place. Lastly, ACOBA is in an advisory position. I have not been impressed by the Labour party over this saga. I trust that the Labour party would indeed follow recommendations from ACOBA—unless Labour is going to cast even more doubt on its credibility.
I call the deputy leader of the Labour party.
I would like to thank Conservative Members for asking why a senior civil servant famed for their integrity and dedication to public service decided to join the party with a real plan for Britain rather than a tired-out, washed-up, sleaze-addicted Tory Government. This is the exceptional circumstance that the Minister spoke about. We are talking about a party so self-obsessed that it is using parliamentary time to indulge in the conspiracy theories of the former Prime Minister and his gang. What will Conservative Members ask for next? Will it be a Westminster Hall debate on the moon landings, a Bill on dredging Loch Ness or a public inquiry into whether the Earth is flat?
The biggest threat to the impartiality of the civil service is the Conservative party and its decade of debasing and demeaning standards in public life. Conservative Members talk about trust. This debate says more about the delusions of the modern Conservative party than it does about anything else. After this question, I will go back to my office to help people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis, getting an NHS dentist or—[Interruption.]
Order. I do not think it was a wise idea to carry on while I am standing up.
Thank you. May I just say that I expect everybody to be heard quietly, because I want to hear what is being said? This is too important for me not to be able to hear. When Members keep chuntering on, I cannot hear. I want the same respect to be shown to everybody who wishes to speak.
Thank you. Mr Speaker. As I was saying, after this question I will go back to my office to help people who are struggling with the cost of living, with getting an NHS dentist and with paying their energy bills. All of those things are the result of 13 years of this failed Conservative Administration. While they play games, we are getting on with tackling the real issues facing the country. When will they do the same?
Having heard from the right hon. Lady, I see that she has clearly been advised that attack is the best form of defence. I quite understand why the Opposition feel in need of some more advisers and some new advisers, given her tone today.
I understand the dilemma faced by the Leader of the Opposition. Having looked inside his tent, I understand why he is reaching so far outside of it. After so many rebrands, I appreciate why the right hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition require someone who can do joined up. However, the Labour party talks about rules, transparency and standards in public life, and given all that constant talk it is time that it walked the walk. I ask the right hon. Lady to go away and think: why are the Opposition refusing to publish when they met with Sue Gray; why are they being evasive; and why can they not tell us what they discussed, where they met, and how often they met? Their refusal to do so prompts the question: exactly what is Labour trying to hide?
Many across the House have noticed that the Leader of the Opposition has a tendency to claim a self-righteous monopoly on morals, but there are now serious questions as to whether Labour, by acting fast and loose, undermined the rules and the impartiality of the civil service. Labour Members must ask themselves why the Leader of the Opposition covertly met a senior civil servant and why those meetings were not declared. They believe that ACOBA rules should be tightened, but why were the current ones not followed? It is incumbent on everyone across the House to uphold and preserve the integrity and the perceived impartiality of the civil service.
This is about trust, Mr Speaker, and it is the Labour party that risks damaging that trust with an offer of appointment. However, the Opposition can help restore that trust. They can do the right thing: they can publish the list of meetings between themselves and Sue Gray; they can publish who attended those meetings; and they can publish when they started speaking to Sue Gray. There is nothing in the ACOBA rules that stops them doing so today.
I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
May I say how heartened I am to see the Chamber so well-attended for a Cabinet Office urgent question on matters of constitutional propriety? It has not always been like that in here.
On a personal note, may I say that I consider this appointment to be somewhat ill-judged? I think that those who are of reasonable mind on all sides of this argument would accept that. Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence in our noble Friend Lord Pickles and his Committee, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, to discharge their functions correctly? I wonder also whether he has any more thoughts about making ACOBA rulings underpinned in statute. Finally, given the individual at the heart of this, it is important to ask whether he shares my concern that it is wrong to impugn an entire civil service for political bias, and that it is important that he asserts that from the Dispatch Box?
On my hon. Friend’s most important point, I absolutely back him up on the standards of the civil service. We are lucky and fortunate to have good people working throughout the civil service. I know that a large number of them will be very concerned by these events, because they know the critical importance of the bond of trust between a Minister and their most senior advisors. I totally respect the work of ACOBA and all members of the committee. I know that they will consider their processes, that they will go through this thoroughly, and that, in due course, the Prime Minister will receive their advice.
On my hon. Friend’s wider point, clearly, the Government have received recommendations from his own Committee, PACAC, from Sir Nigel Boardman, and from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The process of coming up with a Government response is well advanced, and I expect to share that with the House in due course.
I am glad to hear the Minister talking about the hard work that the civil service does and being clear, in agreeing with his colleague the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), that Ministers and Secretaries of State would be nowhere were it not for the constant hard work of impartial civil servants. It is very important that the Minister talks to his Back-Bench colleagues and ensures that, in making statements about individuals, they are not tarring the entire civil service with some of the allegations that they are bringing forward.
I have asked repeatedly about anti-corruption champions, and while we are standing here talking about issues relating to breaches or potential breaches of the ministerial code, it is important that the Government get their house in order and ensure that we have an anti-corruption champion in place. Will the Minister therefore both talk to his Back-Bench colleagues to ensure that their language is moderated when talking about civil servants, and ensure that the ministerial code is adhered to so that we can be viewed in a better light internationally?
The anti-corruption strategy is run by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security; I know he works actively on that, and an anti-corruption champion will be appointed in due course. With deference to the hon. Lady’s position, I think that is a very different scenario from what we are talking about today. For a start, we are talking about the civil service code, not the ministerial code. However, I agree that we always need to support and not undermine the impartiality and the perceived impartiality of the civil service. That applies to all of us, including the Leader of the Opposition.
Is my right hon. Friend aware whether a contract, written or unwritten, has been entered into between the parties concerned? This important question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) raises questions not only of constitutional propriety and impartiality, but of confidentiality between the persons concerned. Furthermore, I would like to know whether there is any question of any involvement of taxpayers’ money in these arrangements, as part of the Short money that will be involved in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am in no position to know whether there is a contract, either oral or written, between Sue Gray and the Labour party. Nor am I in any position to judge how her putative post, if it were to go through, would be funded. Those are both questions that can only be answered by those on the Opposition side of the House, and it would be in the interest of transparency and clarity if they were to be cleared up, along with a timeline of events on when the meetings started, who took part and where they took place.
On the question of impartiality, Sue Gray has resigned, and I can assure the Minister that she was just as resolute in seeking to protect standards in public life and the ministerial code when I was a Minister as she has tried to be under this Conservative Government. Are not her professionalism and integrity just what Britain needs after the debasement of our standards in public life over the past 13 years?
I am deliberately not getting drawn into matters related to individuals, nor should I. I am happy to be drawn on whether there is a right way of making this kind of appointment. This is a totally unprecedented offer of appointment; at a permanent secretary level this has not, as far as I am aware, ever been undertaken before. It is important in those circumstances that the rules are followed appropriately. We are checking to make certain what exactly was the run-up to her resignation.
Many people may say that Ms Gray is a splendid woman —I understand she even fed the cats in the Cabinet Office—but does it not smash to pieces the idea of an independent civil service when we know that one of the most senior civil servants in the country was conniving in secret meetings with the party of Opposition? Does that not devalue years of advice and reports that she has given, her views on devolution, which were known constantly to be soft, and her report into my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), which we now know was done by a friend of the socialists? Does this not undermine all her previous work and the idea of an independent civil service?
Order. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said, I do not want anybody creeping into the report—[Interruption.] I know you were careful, but this is just a marker. I do not want this to be a creeping feast.
I have two points to make to my right hon. Friend. First, we need to make certain that this does not damage the impartiality—or the perception of impartiality—of the civil service as a whole. I am sure he would agree that that is incredibly important, and we need to ensure that it is retained. I am deeply worried that the approach made by the Labour party may serve to threaten that and put it at risk. We must not tarnish the whole civil service due to one appointment, but the Opposition are playing fast and loose with a set of rules designed to protect the impartiality of the civil service, which we all know is so constitutionally important for our country.
Here today we have Conservatives demanding that Labour observes the recommendations of ACOBA, when previous Conservative Chancellors and Foreign Secretaries bypassed the process before taking up appointments, and we have Labour stretching the process to breaking point by operating in the shadows. Is it time that we gave ACOBA some teeth?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is considering proposals made by PACAC, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Sir Nigel Boardman about how we could improve the business appointments process. There is a lot of sympathy with the idea that we should look at those rules, and we will report to the House about how they could be amended or improved. It is an irony, though, that the Opposition have consistently called for those rules to be tightened when they do not seem to be quite aware—or may not be fully aware—of what the rules are today.
The civil service’s response to this issue amplifies and underscores, to the comfort of all of us, the importance that it attaches to its impartiality in serving Ministers of the Crown, irrespective of the colour under which they stand for election.
I will echo the growing theme, led ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg). For ACOBA to put the recommendation to the Prime Minister always puts the Prime Minister in an invidious position, but particularly in this case. If he says no, he looks churlish. If he says yes, he makes the civil service, which is already anxious about the attack on its impartiality, still more anxious. I urge the Minister to speed up the process of response to the suggestions that have been made about formalising the committee’s recommendations.
I have said what I said about the Government considering how the procedures for business appointments could be improved. I have a lot of faith in the ACOBA process, and in Lord Pickles and his committee. We look forward to him looking through this process. Sue Gray will put through her application—if that is a confidential process, I presume that it is happening—and the committee will need to take a decision on that basis and then provide advice.
The faux outrage and wild conspiracies from the Conservative party are kidding nobody. I remind the Minister of the words of a predecessor of his as Cabinet Office Minister, the noble Lord Maude, who said that he had worked with Sue Gray for five years and never had the
“slightest reason to question either her integrity or her political impartiality”.
He added that the Leader of the Opposition is
“fortunate to have secured her services”.
He is right, isn’t he?
The hon. Gentleman obviously knows faux outrage when he sees it; he has a long experience of seeing it, in the mirror. I am grateful to him for reminding me of the words of my predecessor as Minister for the Cabinet Office and, indeed, as the Member of Parliament for Horsham. I, too, have worked with Sue Gray. I have admired her advice and have had no reason to question her integrity. That does not mean, however, that this is the way we should conduct things in these circumstances. I am very disappointed in the actions of the Labour party. I am very disappointed in how this has come through, and there are real concerns about the impact that it may have on the perception of impartiality more broadly.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that on my appointment as a Minister, I, like many Members, was advised by Sue Gray on the steps that I needed to take in order to avoid any perception of a potential conflict of interest? Does he therefore understand why her appointment has caused such anger right across the civil service, as it undermines that very principle of the perception of conflict?
I do. My right hon. Friend is right to draw on the fact that many senior civil servants are troubled by this. They know the vital importance of the bond of trust between Ministers and civil servants, and anything that might serve to undermine that is not healthy and is not good for the way we do business.
Mr Speaker, we are experienced Members of this House, and I understand that very early on in your remarks, you rumbled what was going on in terms of the number of requests for this to be debated this afternoon. Is it not a fact that this is a shabby little manoeuvre from the shabbiest Government that I have seen in 40 years—[Interruption.] Rather than this being spontaneous, let me just say that I was walking over here with a respected Back Bencher from the Government side who said, “I’m not going over. They’ve been trying to get everyone here this morning. The Whips have set a five-line Whip.” [Interruption.] They don’t like it, Mr Speaker. The suggestion that the civil service is up in arms is nonsense. This comes from the Prime Minister and this shabby Government—[Interruption.]
Order. I am not sure there was a question, in which case we will move on.
The whole situation surrounding this appointment is quite extraordinary, and many will say that it is outrageous. Does my right hon. Friend agree that appointing such a senior and high-profile civil servant to this post under such circumstances is questionable, and does he agree that what is of deep concern is the timing of this appointment and when she was approached? Where meetings were held, the details must be published.
I believe that transparency would help. It is important that processes are followed, because this is an unprecedented appointment, and in those circumstances, it is not too much to ask for the details of the meetings to be published: who met whom, when, where, and what was discussed. To return to the points that have been raised, it is absolutely right that this is gone through, and that the Labour party publishes exactly what took place.
The impartiality of senior civil servants was called into question a long time ago during the Brexit debate and the events subsequent to that, but these negotiations obviously did not take place the morning after Sue Gray resigned—they have been going on for some time. I suppose the question for the House is this: what sensitive political issues was she involved in during those negotiations, and does the Minister agree that no amount of bluster from Opposition Front Benchers will ever hide the double standard of lecturing about accountability and transparency, while at the same time not being prepared to answer a straightforward question as to when they started talking to Sue Gray?
The right hon. Gentleman puts it rather well. It would be very simple to help put minds at rest by publishing the data, setting out when the meetings took place—who met whom, when and where. That will help reassure the House; it will not reassure the House completely, but at least there will be proper transparency and some more clarity.
This is about impartiality and trust, and it saddens me to see the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is in such a senior position, defending this in the way that she did. If the rules have not been followed and a lengthy period of time—that is, two years—has not elapsed, Sue Gray has had access to highly confidential and very personal information that she is in a very powerful position to use, not just with anyone but with the Opposition party, and with a general election looming.
My hon. Friend is correct. Clearly, Sue Gray has access to a lot of information, but that does not mean she would put that information to ill use. The ACOBA guidelines talk about sensitive information and how someone can avoid the perception that they have been put into a difficult position in those circumstances. ACOBA obviously has a job to do.
Which bond of trust or aspect of impartiality was broken when Sue Gray was a senior civil servant—the same Sue Gray who was praised by the Government as being almost the best thing since sliced bread? What is the problem or issue now?
We are conducting analysis to find out the facts that led up to the resignation of Sue Gray and to ensure they can be set out. It would help dispel concerns, worries and problems if the Labour party could simply set out the facts itself. There is no reason why it could not do that today.
The permanent secretary at the Department for Education recently highlighted the detail of the civil service code to all her staff. She said that
“if anybody receives contact from the Leader of the Opposition or a member of the Shadow Cabinet you should tell your Permanent Secretary right away”.
Is the Minister aware of when Sue Gray informed her permanent secretary of the initial discussion she held with the Labour party before announcing her resignation?
As I have said, there is work in progress to ensure that all the facts are identified, but I am not aware that there were any such discussions prior to Thursday last week.
Not that long ago, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments found that the former Member of Parliament for Aberconwy, a former Defence Minister, committed a clear breach of the ministerial code by not asking for ACOBA advice when taking up a position. Can the Minister remind us what actions were taken against the former Member for a breach that was described at the time as totally unacceptable? What was done?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a former Member of this House, a former Minister and a former member of the Conservative party—I think he had had the Whip withdrawn at that stage. I do not know what actions ACOBA took and I am not sure what actions it has available, because it is an advisory body. However, I think it behoves all of us who wish to respect the values of impartiality within the civil service and to respect the rules, to ensure that we follow them to the letter.
I think this is an important urgent question. Something about this desired appointment does not feel right to me. To echo the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who is no longer in his place, I do not think it passes the reasonable test, but we are where we are for now, although I expect there is a lot more to come on this. The Minister confirmed that the Cabinet Office is looking at the circumstances of the job offer. Can my hon. Friend say when we might expect that to be complete? Will he be asking Sue Gray herself, who has every interest in transparency, the “Who met whom, when and where” question?
We will be trying to wrap this up as soon as we can. I do not know how long it will take—hopefully it will be done shortly. It would ease that process if the Labour party would just come clean as to exactly what meetings took place. There is no reason why that should not be made public and why we should be not fully transparent—at least, no reason of which I am aware.
I do not know Sue Gray; I know her only by virtue of her reputation. I do weigh on the words of Lord Maude, which we heard just a moment ago, that she is a person of the utmost decency. I am aware of various civil servants who have joined this place as Members of Parliament on all sides. Therefore I am surprised really at the concern from Government Members, because this is a person of the utmost integrity. Given the high esteem in which she is held, why does the Minister think that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) never considered appointing her?
As I said earlier, I am not trying to engage in a discussion about a particular individual. I have noted what my predecessor Lord Maude said. As I say, I have personal, direct experience of working with Sue Gray, and have no reason to question her integrity in any way, but this urgent question is about the process; we need to understand it. This is an unprecedented appointment of a permanent secretary to this position. When very senior civil servants choose to leave the service, it is incredibly important that everything is done appropriately. Analysis of that is being undertaken. We need to establish the facts, and it would help if the Labour party assisted us with that.
Does the Minister agree that if the shoe was on the other foot, the Labour party would be asking exactly the same questions? All that we have seen today from those on the Opposition Benches is rank hypocrisy. Does he also agree that the line put out by the Labour party that somehow the Leader of the Opposition’s most senior adviser and chief of staff would not have a role in a general election campaign is utterly ridiculous?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have attended a number of urgent questions in this House, and I have rarely seen the Opposition Benches as empty as they are today.
Why are this Government happy to attack civil servants through this urgent question, yet unwilling to pay them properly?
To be clear, we on the Government Benches have no desire or intention whatsoever to attack civil servants. We want to protect the impartiality of the civil service, and protect it from any shift in perception of its impartiality; and we want to hold the Opposition to account, and ask them to be a bit more transparent about their dealings.