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Commons Chamber

Volume 747: debated on Monday 18 March 2024

House of Commons

Monday 18 March 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Spoliation Advisory Panel


That an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty, That he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report from the Right Honourable Sir Alan Moses, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 18 March 2024, in respect of three oil sketches by Sir Peter Paul Rubens now in the possession of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.—(Aaron Bell.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Serious Medical Conditions: Financial Support

1. What steps his Department is taking to support financially people unable to work due to serious medical conditions. (902018)

My Department does a great deal to support the long-term sick and disabled, including through universal credit and its health element, and through the personal independence payment, which is a contribution to the additional costs of sickness and disability.

My constituent Jenifer Picton is currently undergoing extensive treatment for cancer and is consequently unable to work. I wish Ms Picton all the very best with her treatment. She has come to my office, which has helped with universal credit, PIP and the new-style employment and support allowance. She has now managed to get PIP, but given that she is seriously ill, why should she have to come to my office for help? Why do we make it so arduous and difficult for people who need treatment to get help?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the typical assiduity with which he takes up his constituency case. May I send my best wishes, and I am sure those of the whole House, to Ms Picton? I am happy to meet him to discuss in more detail the circumstances that he has described.

Data in responses to my written questions on PIP appeals shows that more than 50,000 ill or disabled people had their appeals upheld at tribunal without the need for new evidence. Given that the UK Government will be examined today by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities following its 2016 special inquiry that found that the threshold had been met for grave and systematic violations, is it not time to replace the flawed and outdated PIP system with a framework that is fit for purpose?

Of course, we always keep all benefits under review at the Department, including PIP and the assessment processes. As the hon. Lady points out, there is rightly an appeals process for those who are not happy with the conclusions of those assessments. We keep those under review, and I can reassure her that they represent a relatively small proportion of the total number of applications.

Regional Variations: Unemployment and Inactivity

2. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of regional variations in levels of employment and inactivity. (902019)

The regional employment gap is significantly lower than in 2010. Jobcentres take a place-based approach to deliver targeted support that reflects local need and the local economy.

Health Equity North research shows high levels of economic inactivity in the north-east due to disability or ill health—40% above the national average. I visited the jobcentre in Newcastle and was very impressed by the dedication and hard work of the staff, but I know from the Public and Commercial Services union that one in four universal credit managers took time off in 2023 for mental illness, which is three times the figure before 2019. We are the only country in the G7 not to have the same level of employment as before the pandemic. Are those high rates not because of record NHS waiting lists, low staff morale and general Government incompetence?

As the hon. Lady found, within our jobcentres we have highly skilled people helping people to find work. We have a higher number of people with disabilities in work than in 2010—more than 2 million—and we intend to ensure that work coaches can work carefully and sensitively and attend to people’s needs.

In recent months, the Welsh Affairs Committee has heard from young adults about their experiences with the benefits system. We have been struck by how this group of young people want to work and feel that they can work, but they have been written off as long-term sick and passed to the long-term sickness benefit roll by jobcentres. They feel incredibly let down. Does the Minister agree that we cannot afford to be signing off so many of our young people on long-term sickness?

That is why we have WorkWell, the back to work plan, and the occupational health group, led by Dame Carol Black, looking into fit note reform. It is also why we have youth employment coaches and the youth hubs. We are working to ensure that there is the right attenuated support, including kickstart, the sector-based work academy programme and boot camps. Only last week, I met Steph, who is 27, 10 years out of work and grateful for the help that she has had.

Helping People into Work

Jobcentre Plus provides a variety of different support to encourage and support people into work, including training and one-to-one, face-to-face counselling by work coaches.

In February, there were 615 claimants aged 18 to 24 out of work in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that schools and businesses work together to ensure that young people have the qualifications and skills they need to progress into work once they finish full-time education?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is exactly why we have youth hubs providing advice and support on not just getting into work but other important matters to young people, such as housing, their health and debt management.

I was talking to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which represents the blind and partially sighted. It told me of an employee who said,

“I am newly employed and I am unable to fulfil my role. It has been extremely stressful and frustrating”,

and this is because of Access to Work. Does the Minister agree that without having Access to Work in place within the first four weeks of someone entering work, it is incredibly difficult for them to maintain that position?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady raises Access to Work, because it is extremely effective. The grant can be there year in, year out and be up to a maximum of £66,000. Along with other approaches, it has very much led to our meeting our employment goal for disabled people in half the time that we set in 2017—over a million more disabled people were in work by 2022.

What are the Government doing to use apprenticeships to help young people engage with the labour market, to tackle levels of economic inactivity and to give them the opportunities they need to get the careers that they want?

My right hon. Friend raises economic inactivity, which is lower in our country than in the United States, France and Italy. It is below the average of the OECD, the G7 and the European Union. Apprenticeships play a very important part in producing those good figures, though there is of course always more to be done, not least through our approach of engaging extremely closely with employers, both at the national level and through our jobcentres.

As somebody who has fought really hard over the last four years to overcome the difficulties presented by long covid, I am sure that the Secretary of State will appreciate that a significant number of the people not in work because of health conditions will have some form of post-viral fatigue linked to long covid. What assessment has he made of the effect of long covid on the workforce, and what is he doing to help people who have it get back to work?

The hon. Gentleman specifically raises long covid, which is one of many health pressures in our society and post covid in many other countries that were also affected by the virus. We have a number of approaches, including universal support, which places people in employment and gives them critical support for up to 12 months. We also have WorkWell, and we are looking at occupational health and what tax incentives we might put in place to encourage employers to do more on that front. We are doing a great deal.

Arguably, the biggest barrier to growth in the UK and to turning around the Prime Minister’s recession is the supply of labour. Following the Chancellor’s “Back to work Budget” in the autumn and all the measures unveiled since then, some of which the Secretary of State has just reeled off, did the Office for Budget Responsibility upgrade or downgrade its forecast on employment growth in the Budget 12 days ago?

One of the most important figures in the spring Budget economic and fiscal outlook was a recognition by the OBR that there will be a net 200,000 more people in employment as a consequence of that fiscal event and the one that preceded it in the autumn. What the hon. Lady cannot get away from is that economic inactivity in our country is at a lower level than in every year under the last Labour Government.

What the Secretary of State cannot get away from is the fact that, as has already been said, our employment rate has not returned to the post-pandemic level. He cannot answer the question because the truth is that the OBR downgraded its forecast: the unemployment forecast is worse. The reason for that is a truth that the British people have known for a long time now: these Ministers sitting on the Treasury Bench have no idea, no plan for jobs, no plan for growth. They are done; it is time for a general election.

I have already referred to the 200,000 additional jobs that the OBR suggests in its forecast, but the hon. Lady cannot get away from the fact that we have record levels of payroll employment in our country, and near record low unemployment. Let us contrast that with Labour’s record: it always leaves unemployment higher than when it comes into office. Economic inactivity was higher than it is now in each year of the previous Labour Government, and we had more people in absolute poverty after housing costs under Labour as a direct consequence.

Welfare Reforms

We are bringing forward a number of important reforms to our welfare system at pace. Phase 1 of our universal support has already been activated, and phase 2 will be later this year. Next month we will announce 15 WorkWell areas—about a third of England—that have been successfully selected, and will be rolled out live this autumn.

I thank the Secretary of State for listing all those reforms. The data is clear that after 13 weeks out of work, the chances of someone finding work starts to fall off rapidly. Therefore, there is a need for more intensive and tailored support. Could he update the House on the additional jobcentre support roll-out, and when my constituents might get access to those benefits?

We are keen to do that. AJS, to which my hon. Friend refers, has been rolled out in parts of the country at six weeks, but shortly will be extended and strengthened for two weeks at the 13-week stage of the unemployment journey. That is part of the more intensive conditions that we apply to ensure that we help—and in many circumstances, require—people to go back into work.

Some of the poorest people I know in my constituency work for themselves. Hill farmers have seen a 41% drop in their income over the last four years. The welfare system does not work for them, because they are paid less than the minimum wage. Access to universal credit is less for them, because of the minimum income floor. Will the Secretary of State urgently look at that, so that small business owners—especially hill farmers in my constituency —are not made even poorer because of the Government’s rules?

The hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as universal credit for the self-employed has to recognise the fact that sometimes there are inconsistent levels of income month to month. That is why we have a minimum income floor and the arrangements around that. I know he has a rural, agricultural constituency; I recognise some of those issues, and I am looking closely at them.

Social Security Benefits: Vulnerable People

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's support for vulnerable people who claim social security benefits. (902022)

[In British Sign Language: Happy Sign Language Week everybody.] It is a key priority for the Department for Work and Pensions to provide effective support for our vulnerable customers. We provide training on how to support customers’ mental health, and we have a six-point plan for supporting claimants who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm. The DWP regularly reviews processes to make improvements through colleague and customer feedback, and through the work of the serious case panel.

The Government estimated that 3% of households on legacy benefits would fail to move to universal credit under managed migration. However, by last December, 21% had not managed to do so and, as a result, had their benefits stopped. This is a matter of real concern. The DWP will now ask more vulnerable people who are wholly reliant on benefits to transfer. What will the Government do to ensure that those vulnerable people do not fall out of the social security system?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point about vulnerable customers who have come into our curtilage and purview. The Minister for Employment has reminded me that we will take this very slowly, and will engage with and support customers. Customers can speak to help to claim advisers at Citizens Advice, and we will ensure that we listen to them.

In addition to the financial support provided to personal independence payment claimants, what progress is being made to refer claimants proactively to the widest support available in their community?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this point. There is the household support fund, help to claim, and opportunities to pop into the local library to get additional support, for example. There is also an extra £500 million out there on top of the £1 billion through to the end of this month. I would say to anybody: “The benefits calculator is out there, and do talk to the CAB and your local council”—perhaps in Swindon.

Today the Government are in Geneva defending their policies to the UN committee that is investigating the UK for breaches of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, including article 28 on the right of disabled people to social protection. Given that drastically cutting disabled people’s social security support between 2012 and 2019 and austerity were found to be responsible for 148,000 avoidable deaths, how will the new wave of austerity announced in the Budget affect the health and wellbeing of disabled people?

I am pleased to have this opportunity to make it clear to the House that the Government are committed to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and we look forward to outlining the UK’s progress on advancing the rights of disabled people across this country. Our national disability strategy and the disability action plan are delivering tangible progress. This includes ensuring that disabled customers can use the services they are entitled to, as we have spelled out today. Disabled people’s needs are better reflected in planning for emergencies as well. We are making sure that this country is the most accessible and, importantly, equal place to live in the world.

I truly welcome and am personally grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for my campaign for parity between mental and physical health in the workplace, and for the recent publication of the national suicide prevention strategy, which referenced two of the points I have been campaigning on. I understand acutely that the Health and Safety Executive has worked hard on updating first aid guidance, and I would be grateful if the Minister could please update the House on this.

The DWP is also proudly committed to becoming a more trauma-informed organisation, and we will be world-leading on that. I was pleased to see that in Hastings. The HSE continues to work with us, as does the Department of Health and Social Care, to support the suicide prevention strategy for England. I can confirm that the first phase of mental health guidance on the HSE website has been revised to include text that emphasises the importance of, and the need to consider, parity of risks to either mental or physical health.

Job Vacancies: Banff and Buchan

The jobcentre team are providing a broad range of support, including partnering with Morrisons and the Co-op to fill local vacancies in my hon. Friend’s constituency and delivering targeted outreach at Banff library with local providers.

My hon. Friend is aware of the very low unemployment in Banff and Buchan and the difficulty in filling vacancies with local people, particularly in the food and drink sector. The seafood sector in particular is still in a transition away from dependency on overseas workers, which could take some years. What data can the DWP provide on the measures that local businesses have taken to maximise the employment of local people, and what other support can the Department offer to attract workers to areas of low unemployment such as Banff and Buchan?

There are the wages paid through the rise in the national living wage, my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre and the range of access to support. I am sure we will be discussing all these issues tomorrow at the roundtable with seafood processors that I will be attending along with the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove).

A large number of people in Banff and Buchan are economically inactive. They are not claiming benefits so they are not eligible for employment support from jobcentres, but the Select Committee recommended last summer that such people should be eligible. Would that not be in their interests and in the interests of employers struggling to fill vacant posts at the moment, and therefore supportive of much-needed economic growth?

Cost of Living: Food Bank Use

7. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of changes in the cost of living on levels of food bank use. (902024)

14. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of changes in the cost of living on levels of food bank use. (902031)

Food banks are independent organisations, with DWP having no direct role in their operation. We do, however, monitor the use of food banks through the family resources survey, and the next instalment of that will be later this month.

Nearly 50,000 people needed help from Ealing Foodbank last year. Some 38% of them were children under 16. It is amazing that the food bank and its volunteers are there to help, but it is a national shame that it is needed. What are the Government’s plans to reduce dependence on food banks?

This is the Government who have overseen a 400,000 reduction in the number of children in absolute poverty since 2010. Despite the chuntering from the Opposition Front Bench, unfortunately the figures were far worse under the last Labour Government than they may be at the moment. The hon. Gentleman asks directly what we are doing. We are again putting up the national living wage by substantially more than inflation this April. The Chancellor has already brought in national insurance cuts that will be worth £900 to the average earner. Benefits themselves are going up by 6.7% next month. We have also changed the arrangements for local housing allowance, which means that 1.6 million people, many of whom are on very low incomes, will be better off by an average of £800 a year.

While on the campaign trail, I met the Daylight Centre and SERVE Rushden. Both have seen their service users increase in number, even with the extension of the household support fund, which they both welcome. What can the Secretary of State do to expand the eligibility of the fund, improve uptake and increase the value of the healthy start payment?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to her place? In answer to her question, I will simply point out that there was much speculation before the spring Budget about whether the housing support fund was going to be extended. In my opinion, the Chancellor took exactly the right approach, and the fund has now been extended for a further six months.

Research from the Trussell Trust reveals the devastating truth: more than half of people receiving universal credit ran out of food in January and could not afford more, and 2.4 million universal credit claimants have fallen into debt because they could not keep up with essential bills. Will the Secretary of State back the Trussell Trust’s joint campaign with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and commit to legislate for an essentials guarantee in universal credit to reduce food bank use and ensure that everyone has a protected minimum amount of support in order to afford life’s essentials—yes or no?

The most important thing is that this Government recognise that the best way out of poverty, and the best way to address the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes, is through work. That is why the Chancellor reduced taxation, making work pay ever more, and why the national living wage is to be increased by close to 10% this April, following a similar increase around this time last year. Benefits are going up by 6.7% and increased by 10.1% this time last year. I have already mentioned local housing allowance, and of course we have now had eight consecutive months of real wage growth as inflation has fallen.

Jobcentres: Darlington

8. What steps his Department is taking to increase the support offered by Jobcentres in Darlington. (902025)

The team are working tirelessly with Darlington Borough Council, Tees Valley Combined Authority and other partners to deliver through job fairs, SWAPs and skills bootcamps.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, and may I be the first in the Chamber to wish her a very happy birthday? In addition to the issues that she has highlighted, may I highlight the wonderful work that Darlington jobcentre has done in setting up its Facebook page? Does she agree that it is a template for others to follow, and will she come to Darlington and meet my fantastic work coaches?

I thank my hon. Friend—it is seemingly quite a large number on my birthday cards today.

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of his local jobcentre, and has campaigned vigorously to ensure that Darlington is at the forefront of innovation. I will be meeting his team in April. I have been to seven jobcentres since the last DWP questions, and I will make sure that his work coaches are at the top of my list.

The Minister, in her response to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), has emphasised what she will do for his local jobcentre. Whatever she will do for Darlington, she will also do for the rest of the United Kingdom, including my constituency of Strangford. Across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, how can we work better with further education colleges to get our young people ready for the jobs that become available?

I talk regularly to colleagues in the Department for Education, ensuring that those skilled boot camp SWAPs make people job-ready, because they have not only the experience but a guaranteed interview. That is the way we are driving those numbers up.

Support for Pensioners

In 2023-24 we will spend over £152 billion on benefits for pensioners in Great Britain—5.9% of GDP—including a forecast £125.4 billion on the state pension.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. South Derbyshire pensioners have been in touch with me following the Budget, emailing to say that it seemed to offer them nothing. Would he be kind enough to set out today the help that the Government have given and are giving to pensioners, to help them realise that “nothing” is far from the reality of what a Conservative Government are giving them?

I am grateful for that question. The answer could not be further from nothing. This is a Government with a proven track record of supporting pensioners, including our commitment to the triple lock. In April we will see the state pension raised by 8.5% this year, after an increase of 10.1% last year, meaning that it will be a full £3,200 higher in cash terms than it was in 2010.

I very much welcome the record on supporting pensioners that my hon. Friend has just outlined. A number of pensioners in my constituency have contacted me about the effects of fiscal drag—they may have a very modest private pension that is now being dragged into tax when they never expected it to be. What steps is my hon. Friend taking in conjunction with the Treasury to ensure that we can get pensioners on modest private pensions out of tax?

This is the Government who have nearly doubled the personal allowance since 2010, ensuring that most of the lowest earners do not pay income tax. Indeed, thanks to the personal allowance, around 30% of individuals do not pay tax, and of course any pensioner solely reliant on the state pension does not pay income tax.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that while the Conservatives proudly continue to support pensioners in their hard-earned retirement with the triple lock and other cost of living support measures, it is disgraceful that the Labour Mayor of London has hammered pensioners and working people in Bexley by increasing council tax by approximately £200 per year, and ultra low emission zone charges to £12.50 per day?

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees with me that the Mayor of London seems to spend more time paying extremely expensive salaries to some of his key employees around Greater London. Of course ULEZ has an effect on pensioners: whether they are going to the shops, visiting their family or attending hospital appointments, they will be the ones to pay the price for the Mayor’s overweening ambition.

In early December, my constituent was informed by the DWP that they must renew their personal independence payment entitlement. They were told that if the necessary forms were not returned by 13 January, their PIP could be stopped. On Christmas day, the DWP informed my constituent that, as the forms had not been returned, their PIP entitlement had been stopped and they owed some money. My constituent returned the forms in early January, long before the deadline, but they have had no response since then, and nor have they received their benefits. Could I implore the Minister to intervene in this astounding case and work out exactly how this error could have occurred?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she writes to me with further details, I will ensure that the relevant Minister is able to look into the case.

With more than 9 million pensioners now paying income tax —many, as we have just heard, as a result of frozen allowances—and almost 1 million not receiving pension credit to which they are rightly entitled, does the Minister think it might be time to improve the uptake of pension credit?

I am pleased to be able to say that applications to receive pension credit are currently increasing, quarter on quarter.

If the hon. Gentleman will wait and listen to the answer, I will explain what we are doing to increase uptake of pension credit. Not only do we have major nationwide campaigns, our latest one featuring Harry Redknapp; we are also carrying out experimental campaigns, such as writing to all those pensioners who are in receipt of housing benefit, to make sure that those most likely to be eligible for pension credit are being targeted to take it up.

It is all very well people applying for pension credit, but The Well advice centre in my constituency has identified massive delays in people getting the pension credit for which they are eligible. One constituent got in touch with me in February, having applied for pension credit in August 2023, and they were still waiting for the application to be resolved, resulting in a backdating of more than £8,000. Would that money not have been much better in the pocket of a pensioner who needed it right then, rather than waiting indefinitely for the DWP to get back to them?

I am obviously disappointed to hear of that constituent’s experience, but it is not something I hear very often about pension credit. We have an excellent delivery record and an extremely low level of complaints.

Southend’s indomitable pensioners and WASPI women Frances Neil and Deborah Dalton came to see me on Friday on behalf of the 10,000 WASPI women across Southend. With the ombudsman’s final report due within weeks, will the Secretary of State please commit to coming to the House to make a statement so that these issues can be fully aired?

As I am sure my hon. Friend is all too aware, I am not able to comment until the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report is published.

When will this miserable Government wake up to the fact that there is a shortage of skilled labour in this country, and at the same time that we have an army of pensioners who could be retained in the workforce if they were given the right incentives to carry on working? There is a good relationship between work and staying healthy, so will the Minister act?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is volunteering himself for a post-Commons career, but there are many job opportunities for pensioners across the country. Indeed, many people working on attendance allowance in my part of Blackpool are in their 70s and 80s, and they are doing a fantastic job. We put an awful lot of effort, not just through the mid-life MOT but through the older worker support in our jobcentres, to make sure that we match jobseekers to the right job for them.

Time and again, pensioners have been let down by this Government. They suspended the triple lock, breaking a key manifesto promise; their disastrous mini-Budget knocked hundreds of billions of pounds from pension pots; and their failure to get a grip on the cost of living means that pensioners are mainly living in cold homes over the winter and have a choice between heating or eating. Against this backdrop, is the Minister at all surprised that almost one in five pensioners are now living in poverty?

It is as if the shadow Minister has not noticed the almost £900 of cost of living payments made to pension credit recipients across the country over the last year. I know the Opposition have relied on last week’s Resolution Foundation report to criticise what we are doing, but this is what the report actually says:

“‘Pensioners used to be by far the most likely to be in poverty…now they are the least likely.’ This change in the relationship between old age and low income is one of the most profound social and economic changes this country has seen”.

We achieved that under this Government, not under our failed Labour predecessors.

Rural Poverty: Benefits System

We are bearing down on poverty, not least by incentivising work within the benefit system. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have reduced the universal credit taper, for example, which has led to a record level of payroll employment and near record low unemployment.

I commissioned a poverty report for the Arfon constituency from the highly respected Bevan Foundation—copies are available online in Welsh and English. One finding is that, of the people receiving both universal credit and housing benefit in Arfon, 35% are paying the bedroom tax, compared with 21% across Wales. This is cushioned to some extent by the Gwynedd local authority’s discretionary help, but will the Minister review the differential negative effects of the bedroom tax between communities, particularly those with a diminished housing stock because of, for example, high levels of holiday homes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to that report, which I will look at with interest. Of course, there is no such thing as a bedroom tax, as it is not a tax at all; it is a spare room subsidy. It is there for very good reason: to free up additional space for those who need it. On the housing front, as I said earlier, local housing allowance has been improved such that 1.6 million people on low incomes in the private rented sector will be, on average, £800 a year better off come April.

One of the best ways to tackle poverty in rural areas such as Ynys Môn is through jobs fairs. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Alwen Gardiner and my brilliant Ynys Môn DWP team for organising an excellent tourism and hospitality jobs fair, which was attended by over 150 jobseekers in Llangefni and companies such as Tredici Butchers & Deli in Beaumaris, and the Breeze Hill in Benllech? Diolch yn fawr.

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to her jobs fair. She is a local dynamo in standing up for her constituents. When I arrived there recently thinking I was very special to support yet another jobs fair—a disability jobs fair—I was quickly reminded of the fact that I was the 32nd Minister to have been to her constituency in, I think, the past 12 months.

Housing Benefit: Landlords

12. What steps he is taking to tackle non-payment of housing benefit to district councils when the beneficiary is not a registered social landlord. (902029)

The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Act 2023 brings reforms to the supported housing sector to improve quality and value for money. Any changes to funding models would need to be considered in the context of those broader reforms, but we keep the subsidy policy under review.

Charnwood Borough Council currently contributes £1.5 million a year to subsidise the supported housing benefit payment to local charities, which are unable to become registered social landlords. The charities provide excellent support and accommodation to those suffering from addiction, or ex-offenders undergoing rehabilitation. However, the cost to the council is unsustainable. Please will my hon. Friend look at funding those services, as the Department for Work and Pensions currently does for similar organisations that are registered social landlords?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The challenging fiscal environment means that we need to prioritise resources and ensure that support is targeted effectively to maximise impact for citizens. I chair a cross-Government group with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on quality issues and other matters, such as subsidy loss, which she raises. We will continue to review and monitor the concerns that she and other local authorities have raised. However, I point to the local housing allowance uplift, which is a central focus for me.

Personal Independence Payment Claims

13. What recent estimate he has made of the average time it takes for claimants to complete medical assessments for personal independence payment claims. (902030)

We treat all claimants individually, recognising the differing needs of health conditions and disabilities, and the impact on claimants’ daily lives. The length of time for an assessment is not included in the contract between the DWP and providers, but I can confirm that the average time for 2023 was 63 minutes.

I was heartbroken to hear the experience of a constituent who had to go through an enhanced medical assessment for PIP. A bowel cancer survivor with severe arthritis, she was made to stay on a phone call for over three hours to be assessed. That meant that, due to her needs, she had to suffer the indignity of soiling herself just to complete the assessment. How on earth can that be okay? I would like to understand what steps are being taken to reduce the times of these assessments and to hear what can be done to ensure they are finally undertaken with basic human compassion.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising a distressing case. The DWP is committed to assessing people as quickly as possible. I am happy to look into that particular situation to see why, in this case, the support the claimant was entitled to did not come promptly. Prioritising the reduction of processing times to maximise the number of assessments completed without affecting quality is key, but I am very happy to take that case away.

The Department for Work and Pensions has a staggering 288,000 outstanding PIP claims. The average clearance time is currently 15 weeks. People are waiting almost four months for a decision, which can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. What is the Minister doing to improve clearance times, so that people are not left in limbo, worrying about whether they can afford the extra costs associated with their disability or long-term health condition? The Government urgently need to get a grip.

Claimants’ satisfaction has remained above the service level of 90% or higher as of the three-month average that began in September 2016. The end- to-end clearance time from registration to a decision being made is currently 15 weeks, which has been reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asked very gently what we are doing. We have multi-channel assessments and I am engaging regularly with my officials twice a month to ensure that we are assessing the queues and the delays and, as I said at the start of this question, that we are treating everybody individually and in a tailored and suitable way.

Child Poverty

We are reducing child poverty through the use of a large number of measures, not least ensuring that work pays, hence our increase in the national living wage in April and the reduction in the national insurance tax that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced recently.

A total of 100,000 children will be kept clear of poverty this year thanks to the Scottish Government’s policies—primarily the Scottish child payment. Surely the Secretary of State must now look to rolling out some of our policies in other parts of the UK and, at the very least, ditch the two-child limit, which deliberately forces children into poverty.

The limit to which the hon. Gentleman refers is there for a very good reason, which is that people in those circumstances should face the same basic decisions as those not on benefits. That is an important matter of fairness across those who receive benefits as well as the many who are paying tax. As for the number of children in poverty, that has fallen by 400,000 since 2010.

Many of those people are in work, Secretary of State. Some £14 million has been paid to more than 10,000 children’s families in Renfrewshire thanks to the widely praised Scottish child payment. Praise has come from the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland, which says that the Scottish Government are making employment for parents central to their child poverty strategy, but it says that devolved employment support programmes are

“held back by responsibility being split across governments and a reserved Jobcentre system which is more often focused on compliance than helping people reach their full potential.”

It recommends the full devolution of employment support to tackle child poverty. Will the Secretary of State listen to the experts?

I am always very interested in listening to the hon. Gentleman and any ideas that he has about how we should improve our welfare system, but I point to the fact that this country has seen a considerable drop in absolute child poverty, after housing costs, of 400,000 since 2010.

What correlation does the Secretary of State see between children in poverty and workless families? Given that there is no age restriction on most apprenticeships, and today’s announcement that there will be 20,000 more apprenticeships and that the apprenticeship levy can be spent on greater numbers of contractors and sub-contractors, what opportunities does he see for his Department to highlight those opportunities for people who are of working age and who may have children in poverty?

My hon. Friend refers to workless households. He is absolutely right about the correlation: a child is five time more likely to be in poverty if they are growing up in a workless household. He was right to draw attention to the announcement that has been made today about even greater investment in apprenticeships, and also the change in the way that the apprenticeship levy works so that supply chains can benefit to a greater degree.

Topical Questions

May I join the House in saying happy birthday to the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)? It should be a national holiday as far as I am concerned—perhaps that is an idea for a private Member’s Bill, or something similar.

I am pleased that, since the last questions, we have published our review into autism employment, and I place on record my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) who did such excellent work in bringing that useful report forward.

Looking forward from April, we will see benefits generally rising by 6.7%, the state pension by 8.5%, the national living wage by around 10%, and the next tranche of the household support fund being brought forward. As I have already set out, our plan is working. It means more employment, historically low unemployment and an economic inactivity rate below countries such as the United States, France and Italy.

The economic inactivity rate is now very high, with 2.8 million people citing long-term sickness as a reason. Some 17 million days of work are lost, at a cost of £13 billion to the economy. Has the Secretary of State seen the Policy Exchange report published today, with policy proposals backed by two of his predecessors, David Blunkett and my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)? What steps are the Government taking to improve the provision of workplace health services through occupational health pathways and vocational rehabilitation, and will he consider the 15 proposals in the Policy Exchange report?

I will of course look closely at the report that my right hon. Friend refers to; indeed, I reached out to him recently to invite him to the Department to discuss that and other matters. With regard to long-term sickness and disability, we are working on an array of interventions, including occupational health support within businesses; WorkWell, bringing together medical interventions with work coaches; universal support to help people into work, and to stay in work with that support; and fundamental reform of the work capability assessment, such that the OBR says that 371,000 fewer people will go on to those benefits going forward.

In the Budget, the Chancellor said that he wants to end national insurance contributions because the

“double taxation of work is unfair.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2024; Vol. 746, c. 851.]

People’s NICs records help to determine their entitlement to the state pension, so if national insurance is scrapped how will they know what pension they will get?

I am not surprised that the hon. Lady brings that up, because I am well aware of the position that her party has taken on the announcements that we have made. She will be clear in her own mind that the Chancellor has not guaranteed that we will reduce at one stroke national insurance contributions; it is an aspiration that has been spoken about as occurring over a number of years, if not Parliaments, so the problems that she is conjuring up to frighten pensioners are nothing short of political scaremongering.

The Secretary of State can bluster and deny all he likes, but the Prime Minister told The Sunday Times:

“We want to end this double taxation on work”.

It is there in black and white, so let me try again. How will people’s pension entitlement be determined if NICs are scrapped, and if the Government are going to merge NICs with income tax what will that mean for pensioners’ tax bills? Is the truth not that their unfunded £46 billion plan to scrap NICs is yet more chaos from the Conservatives, and Britain’s pensioners deserve so much better?

The hon. Lady quoted from The Sunday Times, and I scribbled it down:

“We want to end this double taxation”.

Of course we do, but that is not the same as a near-term pledge; it is a longer-term aspiration—[Interruption.] We have been quite upfront, quite unlike—[Interruption.] If she would care to hear me out, it is quite unlike the £28 billion firm commitment that her party made, and subsequently U-turned on, which was nothing short of fiscally reckless, and would have led to increases in interest rates, inflation, unemployment, and so on.

T2. I extend my gratitude to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work for recently holding a menopause roundtable that was particularly focused on employment in tourism and hospitality, and to Gatwick airport for hosting it. What steps will the menopause employment champion take next? (902044)

I am delighted about the regional roundtables, including in the leisure and hospitality sector, oil and gas, and education, among others. They are informing the sector work of the menopause employment champion, and her one-year report is now available, showcasing a variety of stakeholders’ perspectives, and outcomes for women who need support.

The Resolution Foundation highlights that scrapping the two-child limit would be one of the most efficient ways to drive down child poverty rates, and would lift 490,000 children out of poverty overnight. Surely one child growing up in poverty is one child too many. The Secretary of State should reverse course on this, and the Labour party should also commit to scrapping the two-child limit. Does the Secretary of State agree that no child should grow up in poverty, and will he take action to ensure that that stops now?

The hon. Lady raises the same point as her colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), about the two-child limit. I will not detain the House by repeating exactly the same answer, other than to agree passionately with her that one child in poverty is one too many, and to say that, although we have further to go, it is important to recognise that we have reduced the number of children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, by 400,000 since 2010.

T3. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I thank the Minister for recognising Sign Language Week in the Chamber. It is so important for disability inclusion in the workplace. Will she recommend that hon. Members from across the House meet representatives of the British Deaf Association, who are now welcoming people in Dining Room A at an event I am co-sponsoring? (902045)

I am delighted to welcome Sign Language Week, which is marking its 21st anniversary of recognising British Sign Language as a language in its own right. I encourage Members to join the British Deaf Association reception after these questions have ended.

T8. The Government will move thousands of my constituents across to universal credit over the next year. They will be forced to wait five weeks for their first payment or up to nine weeks if they receive child or working tax credits. According to DWP data, 60% of the people across Merseyside who are in that situation will take out an advance loan. Does the Minister think it right that my constituents, who are among the most deprived in the country, should be pushed into debt or face weeks without the bare minimum that they need to afford the essentials? (902051)

The plan is to roll out those migration notices by 31 March. We intend to publish data for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We are committed to ensuring that the transition works as smoothly as possible for everyone.

T4. Has the Minister made any recent assessment of what trades or occupations are short of workers at the moment, and what steps are being taken to persuade people—perhaps more experienced people—back into the workforce to fill those vacancies? (902046)

We are working with other Departments, employers and stakeholders to isolate where those vacancies are, and on sector-based work academy programmes. We have put over 266,000 people through construction, care, tourism, hospitality—all those gaps that we need to fill.

Of people currently claiming tax credits, 20% are not moving over to universal credit in the migration. The Department tells us that those who are not claiming would have got a median amount of £3,200 a year. Will the Minister assure me and the House that she is doing everything she can to ensure that people are getting the money that they are owed?

I assure the hon. Lady that we are keeping a close eye on the issue, but ultimately it is the customer’s responsibility to claim. I gently point out that we have been rolling out the migration in her constituency since May ’23, with not one complaint. There is plenty of help available to those people as they transition.

T5. As my right hon. Friend will know, fast diagnosis and treatment are key to getting people back into work. What representations has he made to his departmental and Cabinet colleagues to ensure that that is the case? (902048)

I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour for her question—I know that she cares deeply about the issue that she has raised. We work closely with other Departments. For example, we work with the Department of Health and Social Care on NHS talking therapies, of which we have announced 400,000 more over the next five years, as well as on WorkWell, which I have mentioned, and on fit note reform. With the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we are working closely on housing—I have spoken about the local housing allowance changes coming through—and with the Department for Education we are working on SWAPs, and on training and apprenticeships.

Schools, general practitioners, social services, charities and housing associations can all refer their clients to a food bank in an emergency, yet this Government, who are responsible for benefit sanctions, have ordered DWP staff to stop referring claimants to food banks. How can Ministers justify this decision to the families of the 4,027 children living in poverty in my east Durham constituency?

May I make it clear that that was just scaremongering? The DWP has not changed its policy. There are merely improvements being made to the signposting slip, so that we comply with our obligations under the GDPR. We continue to provide guidance to customers, signposting them to emergency support, as is right.

T6. A couple in my constituency recently received an apologetic letter from the Department for Work and Pensions that set out a catalogue of mistakes that it had made. Those mistakes almost led to their losing their home, which caused them enormous stress. My constituents are now waiting for a decision on the compensation that they may receive. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case, and ensure that a decision is taken as quickly as possible, to save my constituents any further stress? (902049)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I obviously cannot comment on an individual case. However, I am very happy to look closely into the matter he has raised, and either I or a relevant Minister will be happy to meet him.

The number of the long-term sick has risen from 2.1 million pre-pandemic to 2.8 million today. This huge increase started in spring 2021, at the same time as the roll-out of the experimental, emergency-use vaccines—or does the Secretary of State have an alternative explanation for the unprecedented rise in long-term sickness in the UK since spring 2021?

Among the major drivers of the increase to which the hon. Gentleman refers are mental health issues and musculoskeletal issues. I am not entirely sure that he is accurate when he says that the upward trajectory in the number occurred just as vaccination occurred—I think it predated that moment—and I certainly do not subscribe to the view that vaccination is in any way unsafe.

T7. For many years, the Department published statistics giving a breakdown of welfare claims by nationality. Although the Department still has the data, it no longer publishes the statistics. Will the Minister look again at that, and start publishing those important statistics once again? (902050)

I thank my hon. Friend, but I would like to inform him that at the moment there are no plans to recommence the publication of those statistics.

The last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty. After 14 years of Tory Government, we have 1 million children in destitution. What has gone wrong?

I have to take issue with the hon. Gentleman. He needs to look more closely at his party’s record in government. Fact No. 1 is that the Labour party always leaves office with higher unemployment. Fact No. 2 is that economic inactivity in our country is lower than in any year in his party’s time in office. Fact No. 3 is that absolute poverty has declined in our country since his party was in office. Fact No. 4 is that there were more children in workless households on his watch than there are on ours. Perhaps most tellingly of all, during his party’s time in office, over 1 million people languished on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That is a disgraceful record.

T9. One of the most challenging groups of people to get back into the workforce is those in their 50s and 60s whose jobs disappeared during covid. They have possibly fallen back on their personal pensions, although with inflation, that money is being eaten away. What actions is my hon. Friend taking to get those people back into work, and to encourage them into jobs that are valuable and improve our productivity? (902052)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I would ask people to go to their jobcentre, which can help them build their CV and their confidence. We have 50PLUS champions across all districts, and midlife MOTs. I for one think that working in my 50s—and now my 60s—is a very good idea indeed.

The two wellbeing hubs in my constituency, in Brora and Dunbeath, are crucial to the wellbeing of pensioners. They signpost the best mix of benefits and are a last safety net, but their future is uncertain because of the vagaries of NHS Scotland finance. Will a Minister meet me to discuss how we can safeguard the future of these two centres?

I am always happy to have a debate with the hon. Gentleman. We sit next to each other almost every morning in Portcullis House, and I am sure that we can have a conversation.

Aylesbury is a wonderful place to live, work, visit and invest in, but sadly we have some areas of economic deprivation. Opportunity Bucks, run by Buckinghamshire Council, has identified Aylesbury north and Aylesbury north-west as areas for extra attention, where we could improve education, training and skills. How can my hon. Friend’s Department assist such initiatives in getting more Aylesbury residents into work?

We are working with employers and jobcentres on the sector-based work academies programme and boot camps, but I am more than happy to visit my hon. Friend in Aylesbury, and to talk to his jobcentres and employers, to see how we can provide more encouragement.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Over the weekend, I saw on social media that a number of Labour Members had the good judgment to visit the beautiful Bishop Auckland constituency, and while I am grateful to the one Member who gave me notice of their visit, that was in stark contrast to the four Members—the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), and the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Blaydon (Liz Twist), and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell)—who did not have the good judgment to follow your advice, Mr Speaker, and notify me as the sitting MP. I have let them know of my intention to raise this issue in the Chamber today. Could you advise the House once again on how we can ensure that Members give notice of a visit to another Member’s constituency?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of this point of order and informing the Members concerned. The courtesies apply to any visits made in an official capacity. I know that election fever has taken over, but I remind the House once again that, as I said on 29 November and 22 January, when a Member intends to visit another constituency other than in a private capacity, they should make every reasonable effort to inform the Member representing that constituency. Boundary changes do not take effect until the next election, and in the meanwhile we must observe the convention of not involving ourselves with other Members’ constituencies. I have had complaints from Members on both sides of the House. Please do the right thing and stick to the conventions that we expect each other to follow.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday 14 March, during business questions, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) about council spending, the Leader of the House said that Labour had a “legacy” of “vote-rigging” in Tower Hamlets. That is a false claim. I wonder if the right hon. Lady got her parties confused, as there was a widely reported case in 2015 in which the Election Commission and Richard Mawrey voided the mayoral election of 2014 under the Representation of the People Act 1983 on the grounds of corrupt and illegal practices, but that related to the activities of a party named Tower Hamlets First, and had nothing to do with Tower Hamlets Labour party or the national Labour party. Can you offer advice, Mr Speaker, on whether and when the Leader of the House can come to the House to set the record straight?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I take such matters extremely seriously, and in the past when I have misspoken or got a fact wrong, I have corrected the record. However, if I am guilty of anything in our exchange last Thursday, it is of underplaying the situation. The incident that the hon. Lady refers to did indeed involve an independent politician, although backed by Ken Livingstone. However, in the year 2018 alone, there were 40 new cases of corruption under the then Labour Mayor John Biggs, and the incident I referred to was Labour’s legacy because just a few weeks ago, Government inspectors were called in again to investigate Tower Hamlets. I fully understand it if the hon. Lady does not want to take my word for it, so I direct her to a letter written to her party’s national executive committee in 2016 about a local selection. It was written on behalf of members of the local Labour party. It said:

“on behalf of a number of distressed members the Tower Hamlets Labour Party who have been victims of intimidation, bullying, harassment and blackmailing by members of John Biggs’ campaign team; some of whom are senior and leading figures of the local Labour Party”.

If she looks up the letter and sees who is signatory to it, she may be more persuaded.

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 12 December 2023 (Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill: Programme):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 8.00pm at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(3) Proceedings on the first of any further Messages from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement.

(4) Proceedings on any subsequent Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Aaron Bell.)

Question agreed to.

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

I can confirm that none of the Lords amendments engage Commons financial privilege.

Clause 1


With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 2 to 10, and Government motions to disagree.

This Bill is an essential element of our wider strategy to protect our borders, and to stop the boats to prevent the tragic loss of life at sea caused by dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings of the channel. There are 10 Lords amendments. First, I turn to amendment 1. It implies that the legislation is not compliant with the rule of law, but I can confirm that it is. I do not accept that the Bill undermines the rule of law, and the Government take our responsibilities and international obligations incredibly seriously. There is nothing in the Bill that requires any act or omission that conflicts with our international obligations.

The Minister will understand that many of us are deeply concerned that the Bill undermines the Good Friday agreement. He has told us previously that it does not, but he will also know that the Irish Parliament has been considering this matter. Indeed, on 20 February, the Irish Prime Minister admitted that the Irish Government were concerned and were following this debate closely. For the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister tell us when the UK Government consulted the Irish Government about this legislation, and about our obligations under the Good Friday agreement? What was the outcome of that consultation?

I am concerned with this Government and this Parliament. As for our obligations, nothing in the Bill requires any act or omission that conflicts with our international obligations. In fact, this Bill is based on compliance by both Rwanda and the United Kingdom with international law in the form of a treaty that recognises and reflects the international legal obligations of both the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

At least the Minister responds to our questions and tries to address the issues. The last time I asked a question on this matter, he tried to answer it, but the fact is that because of Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, it has special circumstances. We were reassured then about Northern Ireland’s circumstances; the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) referred to the Good Friday agreement, which is one example, but there is also the matter before us. Can the Minister confirm that the concerns that the Democratic Unionist party put forward in our last debate on this issue have been taken on board? We do not see that from the legislation before us tonight, and if we do not see that, it will be hard for us to support the Government.

I do recall our earlier exchange across the Chamber, and the hon. Gentleman may know of my exchange with his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and the subsequent correspondence. The Government continue to believe that there is no incompatibility between the Bill and article 2 of the Windsor framework. I know the hon. Gentleman has been concerned about that, but I hope he was reassured by some of the details set out in the letter.

I must say I am surprised that the Government are not concerned about the clash between the Bill and article 2 of the Windsor framework and the Northern Ireland protocol, given that the High Court in Belfast has ruled that legislation of this nature cannot apply in Northern Ireland because it is incompatible with the obligation in article 2 to accord with European law.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I repeat that there is no incompatibility between article 2 and the Bill. He is right to cite the judgment, but there is to be an appeal, so it would not be right to debate it further at this stage. The Government’s position on this point is very clear, as set out in previous exchanges and also in the letter that is now in the House of Commons Library.

Rwanda cannot be deemed a safe country for refugees simply as a result of a unilateral declaration by the Government in the face of the courts and other independent organisations that have proved the contrary to be the case. But let me get this straight: it will cost nearly £600 million for just 300 refugees to be sent on a plane to Rwanda, which amounts to an eye-watering £2 million cost per person to the public purse. Does the Minister agree that that is precisely why this political gimmick of a Rwanda Bill is extortionate, unethical, unworkable and unlawful?

I disagree entirely with all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made; I know that he is patient, and he will hear me respond to each and every one.

Like me, the Minister has always believed that immigration should be dealt with on a UK rather than a Great Britain basis, for obvious reasons. Given the comments that we have just heard, does he agree that there is plenty of precedent within our own law for deeming certain claims for certain citizens inadmissible? That has applied to the EU, and surely it is not a problem to extend it further, because we already have the principle that we can say a claim is inherently unfounded when a country is clearly safe.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who speaks with great experience and authority. He will be aware of other instances in which we have legislated and continue to legislate, and have deemed countries to be safe.

My right hon. and learned Friend is making a good case for the importance of the Bill and the irrelevance of the amendments offered by the other place to what we are trying to achieve. Does he agree that when people criticise the Bill on the ground of the cost of sending people to Rwanda, they entirely miss the point that this will act as a huge disincentive to people in families and communities, predominantly in the middle east, who fundraise vast sums of money in order for their children to arrive here in the UK and not end up in east Africa? Does he also agree that the accusations based on cost hugely underestimate the actual cost of housing current illegal immigrants in hotels across the country?

My hon. Friend is entirely right on both counts. I will develop the point about the deterrent effect in a few moments, because it is a point that is missed repeatedly by the Labour Members. He is also right about the cost, and the cost of not acting—not least the human cost of not acting.

I am going to make some progress now.

The Bill is based on the compliance of both Rwanda and the United Kingdom with international law in the form of the treaty, which itself reflects the international legal obligations of both the UK and Rwanda. Along with other countries with similar constitutional arrangements to ours, we have a dualist approach; international law is treated as separate to domestic law, and international law is incorporated into our law by Parliament, through legislation. This Bill reflects the fact that Parliament is sovereign and can change domestic law as it sees fit, including, if it is Parliament’s judgment, by requiring a state of affairs or facts to be recognised. That is the central feature of the Bill, and many other provisions are designed to ensure that Parliament’s conclusion on the safety of Rwanda is accepted by the domestic courts.

The treaty sets out the international legal commitments that the UK and Rwandan Governments have made, consistent with their shared standards associated with asylum and refugee protection. We have made it abundantly clear that we assess Rwanda to be a safe country, and that we are confident in the Government of Rwanda’s commitment to the partnership in order successfully to offer safety and protection to those relocated under the treaty.

I am unable to accept Lords amendment 2 as is it simply not necessary. Rwanda has a long and proud history of supporting and integrating asylum seekers and refugees into the region. The Government of Rwanda, the African Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees signed an agreement to continue the operations of the emergency transit mechanism centre in Rwanda, which temporarily accommodates some of the most vulnerable refugee populations, who have faced trauma, detentions and violence. Rwanda has showcased its willingness and ability to work collaboratively to provide solutions to refugee situations and to crises.

It is worth reflecting on the policy statement and some of the evidence that has been put forward in relation to this debate and previous debates, because there it is clear that the EU has announced a €22 million support package to the emergency transit mechanism. The ambassador has said that it

“is a crucial life-saving initiative to evacuate people…to safety in Rwanda. It is a significant example of African solidarity and of partnership with the European Union.”

The point the Minister has not mentioned is that the European scheme is voluntary. Are the Government intending the same sort of parameters within this scheme?

On the safety of Rwanda, the ambassador was very clear about his assessment; I am going to continue reading the quote, but there are others. There are more than 135,000 refugees safely in Rwanda and being looked after. The ambassador went on to say:

“We are grateful to the Government of Rwanda for hosting these men, women and children until such time, durable solutions can be found.”

There is evidence of the safety of Rwanda.

The Minister says that he is accepting the word of the Rwandan Foreign Minister that the country is safe, yet our judges in the highest court of our country have decided that Rwanda is not safe—so is our Minister saying that the highest judges in our land are wrong?

No. Respectfully, I encourage the hon. Lady to listen to the debate, because I read out the words of the EU’s ambassador, not of any representative from Rwanda. That is a powerful independent voice, which is why I cite it here in this Chamber.

The implementation of all measures within the treaty will be expedited. Indeed, since our previous debate on this matter, the legislation required for Rwanda to ratify the treaty has passed through both Houses of the Rwandan Parliament. Once ratified, the treaty will become law in Rwanda. The implementation of these provisions in practice will be kept under review by the independent monitoring committee, whose role was enhanced by the treaty and which will ensure compliance with the obligations as agreed.

Does the Minister recall that the Supreme Court judgment hinged on the issue of refoulement and not on whether or not refugees were safe in Rwanda? It might benefit some to have listened to its judgment.

I am grateful indeed to my hon. Friend; I will turn to refoulement and non-refoulement, and that important issue, which is exactly the basis of the Supreme Court judgment, and how we have met it through evidence from subsequent to the time when the Supreme Court was looking at the facts on the ground.

The implementation of these provisions in practice will be kept under review by the independent monitoring committee. As is stated clearly in clause 9 of the Bill, the provisions will come into force when the treaty enters into force, and the treaty enters into force once the parties have completed their internal procedures.

The Bill’s purpose is to make it clear that Rwanda is safe generally and that decision makers, as well as courts and tribunals, must conclusively treat it as such. The amendment as drafted would open the door to lengthy legal challenges, which will delay removal. It therefore follows that I cannot support the amendment. We are confident in the Government of Rwanda’s commitment, and I am clear that Rwanda is a safe country.

I turn to Lords amendment 3, which is also unnecessary. The Government will ratify the treaty only once we agree with Rwanda that all necessary implementation is in place for both countries to comply with the obligations under the treaty. As I said, the legislation for Rwanda to ratify the treaty has now passed through both Chambers of the Rwandan Parliament. Once ratified, the treaty will become law in Rwanda. It therefore follows that the Government of Rwanda would be required to give effect to the terms of the treaty in accordance with their domestic law as well as in international law.

In relation to the monitoring committee, it was always intended that the committee be independent to ensure a layer of impartial oversight over the operation of the partnership. Maintaining that committee’s independence is an integral aspect of the policy’s design. The treaty enhances the role of the previously established independent monitoring committee and will ensure that obligations to the treaty are adhered to in practice. The details of the monitoring committee are set out in article 15 of the treaty, and it, in turn, will report to a joint committee made up of both United Kingdom and Rwandan officials.

There will be daily monitoring of the partnership for at least the first three months—the enhanced period of time—to ensure rapid identification and response to any shortcomings. The enhanced phase will ensure that there is comprehensive monitoring and reporting and that that takes place in real time. The amendment risks disturbing the independence and impartiality of the monitoring committee and therefore should be resisted.

I turn to Lords amendments 4 and 5, and the issue of Rwanda’s safety. We have already touched on this, but it is clear that the Bill’s purpose is to respond to the Supreme Court’s concern and enable Parliament to confirm the status of Rwanda as a safe third country to enable removal of those who arrive in the United Kingdom illegally. To the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), it is the treaty, the Bill and the published evidence pack that together demonstrate that Rwanda is safe for relocated individuals and that the Government’s approach is tough but fair and lawful. The Government are clear that we assessed Rwanda to be safe, and we have published evidence to substantiate that point.

With reference to the point made by the hon. Member for Torbay about the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision, I am sure that, like me, the Minister will have read the decision carefully. Does he agree that paragraphs 75 to 105 make it clear that there were three reasons for the Supreme Court’s decision? It was based on evidence: first, about the general human rights situation in Rwanda; secondly, about the adequacy of Rwanda’s current asylum system; and thirdly, about Rwanda’s failure to meet its obligations in a similar agreement regarding asylum seekers with Israel in 2013. Will he tell me what has happened since the Supreme Court’s decision to improve the general human rights situation in Rwanda? He will be aware that the Home Office published a 137-page document dated January this year detailing concerns about human rights in Rwanda.

In fact, that document supports the Government’s position, because the evidence put forward is balanced. The accusations from Opposition parties that somehow partisan evidence has been put before the Chamber are completely wrong and are refuted by the hon. and learned Lady’s own point. She, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has just been to Rwanda to see for herself—we had an exchange on that last week—and I look forward to her Committee’s report. The answer is the treaty, the Bill and the published evidence pack. In the Bill is the conclusive presumption that Rwanda is generally a safe country.

My question was this: in January this year, the British Government, through the Home Office, published a 137-page document about the human rights situation in Rwanda, detailing serious concerns from such august bodies as the US State Department about the protection of human rights on the ground in Rwanda, so what has changed since the Home Office published that note in January? The Minister has not answered that question. If he cannot answer it, then this House cannot say that Rwanda is a safe country.

The answer is that the hon. and learned Lady must not cherry-pick her evidence. The evidence must be looked at in the round. As I say, it is the treaty, the Bill and the published evidence together. The hon. and learned Lady may not have confidence in our international partners to abide by their treaties, but this Government do. The Government of Rwanda will abide by their treaty.

I will not give way. There is a conclusive presumption in the Bill that Rwanda is generally a safe country. There is a series of facts reinforced by statute. The courts have not concluded that there is a general risk to the safety of relocated individuals in Rwanda. Rather, as we have repeatedly set out, the treaty responds to the Supreme Court’s findings. The assurances we have had, since negotiated in our legally binding treaty with Rwanda, directly address the findings. They make detailed provision for the treatment of relocated individuals in Rwanda, ensuring that they will be offered safety and protection with no risk of refoulement. Respectfully, that responds directly to the points that were raised.

Is the Minister aware of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ comments? It says:

“UNHCR will build on the favourable protection environment through continued advocacy and technical support to”

the Government of Rwanda. It goes on to say that it is moving from a humanitarian approach to a developmental approach, so that people will be able to have the chance of a livelihood and a safe environment to build their life for the future. Is this not exactly what Rwanda want to put across to people who find themselves there?

My hon. Friend proves the point I just made, that it is the evidence in the round that must be considered. I am grateful to him for drawing that to Parliament’s attention.

I have given way twice to the hon. and learned Lady, so I will make progress. We have been clear that the purpose of this legislation is to stop the boats, and to do that we must create a deterrent. That goes to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so I will make progress.

That shows that if you enter the United Kingdom illegally, you will not be able to stay. We cannot allow systematic legal challenges to continue to frustrate and delay removals. Those Opposition Members who support this amendment do not mind if there are continuing legal challenges that frustrate and delay removals, but we on this side are not supporting the amendments. It is right that the scope for individualised claims remains limited.

No, I am going to move on to amendment 6.

Amendment 6 seeks to enable United Kingdom courts and tribunals to grant interim remedies. As I have previously stated, one of the core principles of the Bill is to limit the challenges that can be brought against the general safety of Rwanda. This amendment completely undermines the purpose of the Bill and is not necessary.

I thank the Minister for giving way. The Rwanda plan will not work as the deterrent that Ministers claim it will, not least because it will only account for less than 1% of all those seeking to cross the channel irregularly. Where is the plan for the other 99%? Will the Minister concede that instead of fixing their broken asylum system, the Conservatives have spent an eye-watering £5.4 billion on this, including over £4 billion on asylum hotels and accommodation? That is what is at the crux of the matter, and that is what they need to resolve.

On deterrence, which I think was the thrust of the question, the Albania scheme brought into effect by the Prime Minister back in December 2022 proves the deterrent effect. Crossings on small boats by those from Albania were down 90% as a result of that agreement. That shows the deterrent effect.

Lords amendment 6 completely undermines the purpose of the Bill. It is unnecessary because the Bill already contains appropriate safeguards to allow decision makers and the courts to consider claims of an individual person in particular circumstances, if there is compelling evidence.

The House will know that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The people who go through the system and go to Rwanda need to have their religious beliefs protected, whether they be Christians, or belong to other religions or no religion. My concern is that when they get to Rwanda, that protection may not be as strong as that which they have here. Can the Minister give some assurance that people’s religious beliefs will have the same protections?

I know how seriously the hon. Gentleman takes this important issue. There is a policy of non-discrimination in the Rwandan constitution, which will provide some reassurance. The monitoring committee is also there on a daily basis. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We have made it clear that we cannot continue to allow relocations to Rwanda to be frustrated and delayed as a result of systemic challenges on general safety.

On amendment 7, we need a strong deterrent to stop people putting their lives at risk by crossing the channel. While creating that deterrent, it is important that the Government take decisive action also to deter adults from claiming to be children.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right that it is essential that protections are in place to ensure that adults do not masquerade as children, to safeguard all those concerned. However, he will be aware, as was raised in the Lords, that the age assessment criteria were to be introduced in 2022—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) agree. The criteria still have not come into effect at the border in Dover and Manston. Will the Minister assist the House by explaining how there can be confidence about age assessment and how it can be gamed if the amendment is agreed?

I noted some vigorous nodding from my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). My hon. Friend is right that we need to introduce scientific age assessments. Our European and international friends and allies do so, and we must get that scheme up and running. There is nothing in amendment 7 that directly affects that or the 2022 policy, so I encourage her to be reassured on that point. I will take away her encouragement to expedite that and I am grateful for her intervention, because she is right.

My hon. Friend anticipated my point that assessing age is inherently difficult and there are obvious safeguarding risks if adults purporting to be children are placed in the care system. It is important that we take clear steps to deter adults from claiming to be children and to avoid lengthy legal challenges to age-assessment decisions to prevent the removal of those who have been assessed to be adults. However, the amendment would result in treating differently those who are to be removed to Rwanda from those removed to another country. We consider the provisions in place entirely necessary to safeguard genuine children and to guard against adults who seek to game the system by purporting to be children.

On Lords amendment 8, the House will be aware that the Home Office regularly publishes statistics on migration levels in the United Kingdom. It is not necessary to report the number of removals to Parliament in the manner proposed. We do not consider an obligation to report to Parliament on operational matters to be appropriate.

Reverting to the previous amendment on the facts that Parliament should be given, can the Minister confirm the reports in the paper that the Home Office is now seeking to pay people to go to Rwanda in order to fill the flights? Can he also confirm that if people take up that Home Office proposal, they will be subject to exactly the same very substantial payments to the Rwandan Government? Will they also be covered by the capacity questions in the treaty?

Respectfully, that is not directly relevant to amendment 8. The answer to the question on voluntary removals is yes, this will happen in exactly the same way. There have been voluntary removals—including 19,000 last year—all the way back to the dawn of time or possibly before. There is nothing new. The novel part is that there will be voluntary removals to Rwanda; that is absolutely right. Specifically in relation to amendment 8, it is not necessary to report the number of removals to Parliament and we do not consider obligations to report to Parliament to be appropriate.

I am going to continue.

Amendment 9 would act to impede provisions already recently passed in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The amendment is unnecessary. It is important to be clear that the Government of Rwanda have systems in place to safeguard relocated individuals with a range of vulnerabilities, including those concerning mental health and gender-based violence. Furthermore, under article 13 of the treaty, Rwanda must have regard to information provided about relocated individuals relating to any specific needs that might arise as a result of their being a victim of modern slavery or human trafficking, and must take all necessary steps to ensure that those needs are accommodated.

In relation to amendment 10, the Government greatly value the contribution of those who have supported us and our armed forces overseas. That is why there are legal routes for them to come to the United Kingdom. It remains the Government’s priority to deter people from making dangerous and unnecessary journeys to the United Kingdom. Anyone who arrives here illegally should not be able to make the United Kingdom their home and eventually settle here. A person who chooses to come here illegally, particularly if they have a safe and legal route available to them, should be liable for removal to a safe country.

The Minister seemed to try to brush over some of the costs involved. Is he aware that Virgin Galactic can send six people into space for less than this Government want to spend sending one person to Rwanda? Is it not time to rethink this absurd policy and its extortionate costs?

We had a debate on Thursday on the costs of the scheme and not a single Labour Back Bencher was there. There was only the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who proposed the debate, and the shadow Minister. Of course, I do not treat the right hon. Lady as an ordinary Back Bencher, because she is the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It was her debate, and not a single other Labour Back Bencher was there. That shows the lack of priority that Labour Members give to this matter.

In relation to amendment 10, section 4 of the Illegal Migration Act, passed last year, enables the Secretary of State, by regulations, to specify categories of persons to whom the duty to remove is not to apply, whether temporarily or permanently. For those who are not in scope of the IMA, the Home Secretary has discretion to consider cases on a case-by-case basis where circumstances demand it. I want to reassure Parliament that once the UK special forces and Afghan relocations and assistance policy review has concluded, the Government will consider and revisit how the IMA and removal under existing immigration legislation will apply to those who are determined to be eligible as a result of the review, ensuring that those people receive the attention that they deserve. The Government recognise the commitment and the responsibility that come with combat veterans, whether our own or those who showed courage by serving alongside us, and we will not let them down.

The Bill and the legally binding treaty will make it clear that Rwanda is a safe country to which we can swiftly remove those who enter the United Kingdom illegally. It addresses the factual concerns identified by the Supreme Court. It provides for clear, detailed and binding obligations in international law on both parties. It will prevent systematic legal challenges about the safety of Rwanda from frustrating and delaying removals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) set out, it provides a strong deterrent and a clear message to illegal migrants and criminal gangs that if people come to this country by unlawful means, they will not be able to stay.

I rise to speak in favour of all 10 of the Lords amendments that are before us today. They each serve to make this shambolic mess of a Bill marginally less absurd and, as I will come to in a second, they would serve only to put in statute what Ministers have promised from the Dispatch Box. Not one of the amendments is designed to prevent the departure of flights to Rwanda, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly and wrongly implied.

We all want to end the Tory small boats chaos, and I am proud that the Labour party has consistently put forward a smart, pragmatic and sensible plan to do so, starting by going after the criminal smuggler gangs at source through a new cross-border police unit and a new security partnership with Europol. However, this Bill and the treaty that accompanies it will not contribute in any way to achieving that aim.

Since 2020, we have seen 82 gangs disrupted and more than 400 people arrested because of the actions of this Government. I am keen to understand Labour’s idea about smashing the gangs. How much more would that cost, and what would it look like as a total percentage of numbers?