House of Commons
Wednesday 14 September 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Violence against Women and Girls
It is an honour to stand here today as the International Development Secretary. I believe passionately in my Department’s mission to end extreme poverty. Violence against women and girls is a global scandal that the Department for International Development is working to end. We invest in hundreds of organisations to improve the lives of millions of women and girls globally. I pay tribute to the leadership of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on the issue. I am determined to continue our work on this agenda.
I pay tribute to those involved in championing that campaign. There are more than 40 existing mechanisms through which funding is channelled to women’s rights organisations. I believe—rightly so—that we channel our funding in the right way to support the right objectives and outcomes for women and girls around the world.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. Women refugees often suffer violence on their journeys to safety, and the practice of registering only the head of the family in asylum processes often leaves their needs neglected. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that at the UN summit on refugees next week the voice of women refugees will get a proper hearing?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her very important and significant question. She is right to point out that there is a conference at the UN General Assembly next week specifically on refugees, on which our Prime Minister and President Obama will be leading. Those are the very issues and challenges that will be reflected in the summit, and Britain will lead the way in standing up for the rights of women refugees and doing the responsible thing for them.
During the summer holidays many girls are taken from the UK to developing countries, where they are subjected to the brutality of female genital mutilation. What is the Secretary of State doing to prevent those girls from being taken out of the country in that way?
The hon. Lady rightly highlights the abhorrent practice of FGM and that vulnerable girls are abused in that way. I am working with colleagues across Government on a strategy to ensure not just that we do more but that we end that practice and, importantly, bring the perpetrators of that abhorrent crime to justice.
As I said in my opening remarks, I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, who has led the way on women’s rights and rights for girls. The hon. Lady is right to point to the SDGs. DFID is doing a great deal. We recognise the critical role of women’s rights and the organisations that we partner and work with. We will continue to do exactly that.
The hon. Lady raises the abuse and the abhorrent crimes that take place against women and girls in conflict and conflict zones. We work with a whole range of organisations, and civil society also plays a part in achieving the right outcomes. We work with Governments around the world and through our multilateral relationships through the United Nations not only to work with countries and organisations to try to stop that practice but to deal with the perpetrators of those appalling crimes.
My Department has funded the United Nations and non-governmental organisations to provide food, water, healthcare and nutritional supplies to Aleppo. We have allocated £561 million to support vulnerable people inside Syria, including in Aleppo and other besieged areas, where access is possible.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response but, despite the ceasefire this week, we are hearing from the UN special envoys that the Syrian regime is continuing to restrict aid to eastern Aleppo. We have also heard reports that two barrels of chlorine gas were dropped by helicopter on civilian neighbourhoods, injuring many people including children. What will the Secretary of State do to facilitate access for humanitarian aid?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Syria crisis is appalling in every single aspect we see and experience. The point about aid is significant because we have had significant access problems. The ceasefire has just come into being and, obviously, we are working with the UN and our partners to look at getting much needed aid and supplies into the besieged areas, which have not seen aid for a considerable time. All colleagues in the House recognise this, but it is worth pointing out again that this is an appalling crisis and conflict. On the perpetrator—Assad—we are working on the wider conflict resolution, but our priority is to ensure that we can get humanitarian supplies in.
The UK led the way with the Syria conference. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region. We have the UN General Assembly next week, where we will again make the case for the donors to do more to raise more money, and for greater partnership working, to alleviate many of the hardships that we see in the crisis in Syria.
All hon. Members hope that the ceasefire will mean safer passage for the convoys to reach the besieged cities. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence on potential airdrops, if deemed necessary, to ensure that support gets to those who need it so desperately?
The hon. Lady recognises and reflects upon the severity of the situation. I am working with colleagues in both Departments she mentioned. Obviously, the ceasefire has only just come into being. We are looking at all avenues to get humanitarian and support in, and at how we can help the affected populations. Delivering aid by road by our trusted partners ensures that it gets to the most vulnerable. Airdrops come with a greater risk but, as I have said, with the ceasefire coming into fruition at the beginning of the week, we are looking at all avenues for aid delivery.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am speaking to all our partners—global donors, global partners and other Governments—importantly recognising that humanitarian aid is essential, as is protecting and safeguarding vulnerable people. That is part of our ongoing work with multilateral organisations, and an ongoing area of our work in the Government.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. To be clear, about 300,000 people are believed to be in east Aleppo; civilians are trapped inside the city’s eastern neighbourhoods and are experiencing bombing; and children have been left crippled and dead. This is a humanitarian crisis and we need to work together to ensure there is help where help is needed. Many questions have been asked today. I thank the House, because we are standing together, but will the Secretary of State elaborate on what mechanisms are in place at this point in time and what mechanisms she will explore?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome and look forward to working with her on many such global challenges and crises. She is right to highlight the extent of humanitarian suffering in Aleppo we are comprehending. I was in Brussels on Monday meeting my development counterparts, and I speak on a near-daily basis to my opposite numbers around the world. The focus for us is the humanitarian crisis, and on getting aid into the besieged areas, and to the people who desperately need aid but who have not been receiving it. I will continue the work we are undertaking and continue to update the House.
Nepal Earthquake: Aid
On behalf of the Department, I express our great condolences on the impact of the earthquake. Some 700,000 people lost their homes and 9,000 people were killed. Specifically in relation to Dolakha, we have provided a great deal of support, including housing grants for 40,000 houses, and cooking equipment, blankets and tarpaulins for 7,000 people.
I warmly welcome the Minister to his place. A Must for Dolakha is a charity based in Farnworth in my constituency. Mr Heslop, who represents the charity, visited the region recently and found that a number of people did not have any food or shelter. There was a feeling that aid had not reached a number of people in need. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the charity to discuss how we can best help the people affected in those areas?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and to her constituent for the work he does. We need to understand the scale of this catastrophe. DFID is spending £100 million this year. Even so, with 700,000 people having lost their homes, the situation is extremely challenging. The response in Dolakha is led by USAID and the World Bank. I am very happy to sit down with the hon. Lady and her constituent to discuss our forthcoming work on roads, police stations and health clinics in Dolakha itself.
DFID is engaged in tackling some of the great global challenges of our time. The Department has in place rigorous systems and processes to ensure that the money we spend gets to those for whom it is intended.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. He may have seen the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the Daily Mail only today setting out her vision for the future direction of the Department’s spending. We need rigorous accountability. We need proper business cases. We need a clear sense of what we want to achieve. That is exactly what this ministerial team will bring and what this Government will deliver.
The UK has been a key contributor to the global health fund, which has made a real difference. I met only yesterday the chairs of the all-party groups on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to discuss the contribution the UK intends to make. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making an announcement in Montreal in the coming days to set out just what the UK will be doing.
As always, my hon. Friend has an eye for value for money in the interests of the British taxpayer. We are, of course, looking at what DFID does. DFID delivers a huge amount of difference: it changes lives and helps people across the globe. We want to ensure that every penny we spend is spent wisely. The comments he makes are very important, as part of that debate and discussion.
There are grave concerns about the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay reward payments to convicted terrorists and the possible misappropriation of international aid from the UK to the Palestinian Authority. Will the Minister look carefully at that once again in the light of the grave concerns that are being expressed?
It is vital that the money that UK taxpayers spend on aid is spent on the right things and the right priorities. Where concerns are raised, they will of course be looked into in detail. If there are issues found to be arising, they will be addressed and tackled. The UK also believes in its commitment to helping the poorest in the world. Every penny spent on the purposes for which it is intended is a penny well spent. Any penny that goes missing is a life that may go unsaved.
Aid Budget: Value for Money
My predecessors in Government have made huge progress in improving British aid by creating an independent aid watchdog, introducing much tougher value-for-money controls and making DFID’s spending even more transparent.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that in seeking value for money she will also ensure that British companies and organisations are able to tender competitively for all DFID contracts at home and abroad, and are not in any way disadvantaged when bidding against overseas companies?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know of, and be familiar with, the regulations on procurement, but I want to assure him and the House that British firms and British small and medium-sized enterprises win a significant proportion of our work. In the last financial year, 74% of our supplier spend was with UK firms.
The Secretary of State has clearly been very busy briefing The Mail on Sunday, along with her anti-aid special adviser. She mentioned transparency, so can she explain why funding for South Sudan, an area of great interest not only to our security forces but to our development needs, is to receive a cut in its budget next year from her Department? Will she continue to fund crucial humanitarian causes such as that one?
I hope, Mr Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman heard my words earlier about the tremendous work of our Department when it comes to humanitarian aid, support and saving lives. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we will continue to champion those individuals whose lives need saving where support is required in many countries around the world. That includes a lot of the institutional reform and the support that we bring.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and assure her that I, too, enjoyed reading the Daily Mail this morning. As part of getting proper value, would it not make sense to reward those organisations that are working for peace within the middle east rather than to have money going to those who seek to encourage terrorism?
My right hon. Friend raises important points. As I have said a number of times today, DFID is focused on value for money, but, as he has rightly pointed out, we will work with organisations in the right way to make sure that we are delivering the right outcomes that meet our Government priorities—both peace and stability, as well as humanitarian causes.
I, too, would like to welcome the Secretary of State and her Ministers to their places, but in doing I wish to remind her of her predecessor’s commitment to transparency and scrutiny of the development budget to ensure value for money. Why, then, with the replenishment of the global health fund, which should be one of the biggest multilateral commitments, just days away, have we not seen the publication of the multilateral and bilateral reviews?
If I may repeat again, we are very focused, and my predecessors quite rightly worked hard and assiduously on value for money and greater transparency. I want to go even further by making the entire global aid system more transparent, more focused on results and more accountable to those we are trying to help. The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the global fund replenishment. A conference is taking place this weekend, and I will be making an announcement over the course of it. I shall also be making sure with that replenishment that we push the agenda of greater transparency and value for money.
Aid Budget: Government Departments
We will honour our commitment to the 0.7%. Based on the spending review settlement of 2015, other Government Departments will spend 14% of UK official development assistance in this financial year, including 4% spent through cross-government departmental funds such as the Conflict Stability and Security Fund and the prosperity fund.
We have a cross-government strategy on how to spend ODA money on Government priorities. We want to address the challenges across the world—there are obviously many global threats—which is why the MOD and other Government Departments have oversight and spend in this area. I am leading, but I work with my colleagues across Government to ensure that the money is spent in the right way on those strategic priorities.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and her Ministers to their new roles. As a member of the International Development Committee, I look forward to seeing them in that Committee. Can she reassure me that the non-DFID ODA will continue to see the same amount of scrutiny as the DFID ODA?
I thank my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. We have the watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. As the lead Government Department, leading on overspend, we ensure that the money going across Government Departments through this cross-government strategy is spent on the right priorities. It will be spent in the right way.
I welcome both the Government and the Opposition spokespersons to their posts. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, contrary to what the Defence Secretary told the “Today” programme, it does matter what budget conflict and security spending comes from? Will she guarantee that the Ministry of Defence will not raid the DFID budget, which should be spent on helping the poorest people around the world?
As the world is changing, so must our approach to aid. That is why we have a cross-Government strategy to ensure that official development assistance meets Government priorities while also recognising and tackling the global challenges that we face. DFID will continue to be a leader when it comes to accountability and transparency, and that will, of course, apply to my colleagues throughout the Government as well.
Order. These are extremely important matters affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the face of the planet. They really do deserve—[Interruption.] Order. They really do deserve a more attentive audience. It would show some respect to very vulnerable people if we listened to the questions and to Ministers’ answers.
It was reported in The Guardian today that the Secretary of State has plans for a drastic overhaul in the direction of foreign aid, which will be based on “core Tory values”. Can she explain to us what the overhaul will look like, and how it will affect the most vulnerable?
As I have already said today, my Department will be a champion of British taxpayers when it comes to the rightful spending of UK aid. My predecessors worked assiduously to ensure that aid was spent in the right way, and I will continue to build on that.
As for Conservative values, I am speaking very clearly about economic development, prosperity, jobs and empowerment in many of the poorest parts of the world. That is what my Department and I will focus on as we work on the transparency agenda, while also ensuring that those in the poorest countries can look to the future more positively and with more prosperity.
Since my appointment I have visited India, where I called for the delivery of an ambitious UK-India partnership. I have also visited Lebanon and Jordan, where I saw at first hand how UK-funded programmes are delivering education and humanitarian support to the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp. I look forward to working with all our partners throughout the world where British leadership and experience are valued.
Given that a 20% increase in funding for the global fund from Britain is perfectly affordable in the context of Britain’s rising aid budget, and given that such an increase would trigger further sizeable increases in contributions from the United States and from Gates, why can the Secretary of State not tell the House now whether she will meet that 20% request?
I have already said that I will be doing that, along with my colleagues. I spoke to my Canadian counterpart yesterday about our replenishment of the global fund, and other support. The global fund does amazing work in meeting global objectives. I shall make an announcement about our replenishment this weekend, at the Replenishment conference.
I only just heard my hon. Friend’s question, but I picked up his reference to global goals, which represent a comprehensive plan when it comes to fighting poverty and meeting our strategic objectives. I assure him that my Department is focusing on delivering on those goals, and on meeting our manifesto pledges on aid.
Of course, international assessments of Venezuela note that it is suffering a deep economic crisis and not just with inflation, but also because there is a health emergency there—a shortage of medicines and a humanitarian crisis. Strangely enough, Venezuela’s economic and political policy models have of course been championed by the Labour party, and we can now see what those policies have led to, with the economic catastrophe in Venezuela.
I look forward to publishing both of the reviews, and since they were draft reviews when I came into the Department, I am looking at them to make sure they meet not just the Government’s priorities, but also DFID’s new priorities. I look forward to publishing them later this year.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The UK is the largest donor to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, which protects children from rubella through measles and rubella vaccinations, and of course GAVI has been set up very much to do exactly what my hon. Friend says. We have the UK aid match scheme, and Sense International has received over £200,000 for this very purpose in Uganda and Kenya in particular. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend about his findings from his visit.
Yesterday, the all-party group on Syria met so that we could, with our friends from Syria, remember our colleague Jo Cox. May I ask the Secretary of State, further to answers she gave a moment ago with regard to besieged areas, what discussions she has had with colleagues in the region about making sure that sufficient resources are stockpiled in nearby areas so that as soon as that humanitarian window opens we can make sure those areas get the help they need?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right once again to highlight the appalling crisis and the conflict we see in Syria right now. Further to the points I made earlier, with the new cessation of hostilities coming into force we are of course focused on all avenues of access to get humanitarian aid and support into many parts of Syria that have not seen aid or any humanitarian support for a considerable time. With regard to the discussions I have been having, I have been speaking to colleagues in the region and colleagues across government, and I have also been speaking to our international partners about how we can get that aid through to these critical locations.
Let me start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the former Member of Parliament for Witney, David Cameron. He has been a tremendous public servant both for his Witney constituency and the country as a whole, and under his leadership we saw the economy being stabilised, more people in work than ever before, and people on low incomes being taken out of paying tax altogether, and this Government will build on that legacy by extending opportunity to all parts of the country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Last week, the Prime Minister could not tell us whether she was in favour of staying in the single market. As an Edinburgh MP, may I tell her how important the financial sector is to Scotland’s economy? Will she tell us whether she agrees with her Foreign Secretary that passporting for financial services is guaranteed to continue after the UK leaves the European Union?
I am not going to give the hon. Lady a different answer from the one I gave the House on many occasions last week, which is that this Government will be working to ensure the right deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services. That includes listening to the concerns that the Scottish Government and the Governments in Northern Ireland and Wales might wish to raise with us. We will be fully engaged with the devolved Administrations. As I said last week, the best thing for the financial sector in Edinburgh and for the economy of Scotland is to be part of the United Kingdom.
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the very good employment figures that we have seen today. As he has said, unemployment in his constituency has halved since 2010. That is because we have had an economic plan and built a strong economy. He is absolutely right to say that as we look to provide opportunities for young people, we must ensure that we consider those for whom technical skills and a vocational education are the right route, because what we want is an education that is right for every child so that they can get as far as their talents will take them.
I am sure that the whole House will join me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside, in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed several times yesterday in the line of duty while trying to arrest a rape suspect in Huyton. We all wish him well and a speedy recovery. I also wish the former Prime Minister well on his departure from this House and in his future life. I hope that the by-election in Witney will concentrate on the issues of education and on his views on selection in education.
I want to congratulate the Prime Minister. She has brought about unity between Ofsted and the teaching unions. She has united former Education Secretaries on both sides of the House. She has truly brought about a new era of unity in education thinking. I wonder if it is possible for her this morning, within the quiet confines of this House, to name any education experts who back her proposals on new grammar schools and more selection.
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed in Knowsley? One of the events that I used to look forward to going to every year as Home Secretary was the Police Bravery Awards, because at that event we saw police officers who never knew, when they started their shift, what was going to happen to them. They run towards danger when other people would run away from it, and we owe them a great tribute and our gratitude.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of education, because it enables me to point out that over the past six years we have seen 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools. That is because of the changes that this Government introduced: free schools and academies, head teachers being put in charge of schools, and more choice for parents. I note that the right hon. Gentleman has opposed all those changes. What I want to see is more good school places and a diversity of provision of education in this country so that we really see opportunity for all and young people going as far as their talents will take them.
I asked the Prime Minister whether she could name any experts who could help her with this policy. Sadly, she was not able to, so may I quote one expert at her? His name is John and he is a teacher. He wrote to me:
“The education system and teachers have made great strides forward to improve the quality and delivery of the curriculum. Why not fund all schools properly and let us do our job.”
The evidence of the effects of selection is this: in Kent, which has a grammar school system, 27% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 45% in London. We are all for spreading good practice, but why does the Prime Minister want to expand a system that can only let children down?
The right hon. Gentleman needs to stop casting his mind back to the 1950s. We will ensure that we are able to provide good school places for the 1.25 million children in schools that are failing or inadequate or that need improvement. Those children and their parents know that they are not getting the education that is right for them and the opportunities that they need.
Let us consider the impact of grammar schools. If we look at the attainment of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children, we see that the attainment gap in grammar schools is virtually zero, which it is not in other schools. It is an opportunity for young people to go where their talents will take them. The right hon. Gentleman believes in equality of outcome; I believe in equality of opportunity. He believes in levelling down; we believe in levelling up.
Equality of opportunity is not segregating children at the age of 11. Let me quote the Institute for Fiscal Studies:
“those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensive system.”
The Secretary of State for Education suggested on Monday that new grammar schools may be required to set up feeder primary schools in poorer areas. Will the children in those feeder primaries get automatic places at grammar school or will they be subject to selection?
We are setting up a more diverse education system that provides more opportunities. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be defending the situation we have at the moment, where there is selection in our school system, but it is selection by house price. We want to ensure that children have the ability to go where their talents take them. I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman that he went to a grammar school and I went to a grammar school, and it is what got us to where we are today—but my side might be rather happier about that than his.
The two things that the Prime Minister and I have in common are that we can both remember the 1950s and can both remember going to a grammar school. My point is this: every child should have the best possible education. We do not need to and never should divide children at the age of 11—a life-changing division where the majority end up losing out.
I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer my question about feeder primary schools. The Secretary of State for Education said on Monday that the Government
“have not engaged much in the reform of grammars”—[Official Report, 12 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 614.]
but that they would now start the process. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether existing grammars, such as those in Kent and Buckinghamshire, will now be instructed to widen their admissions policies?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that what we are looking at and consulting on is a diversity of provision in education. We want to make sure that all grammar schools actually do the job that we believe is important—providing opportunities for a wide range of pupils—and there are many examples across the country of different ways in which that is done through selective education. He talks about a good education for every child, and that is exactly what our policy is about. There are 1.25 million children today who are in schools that are not good or outstanding. There are parents today who fear that their children are not getting the good education that enables them to get on in life. I believe in the education that is right for every child. It is the Labour party that has stifled opportunity and stifled ambition in this country. Members of the Labour party will take the advantages of a good education for themselves and pull up the ladder behind them for other people.
I am sorry that the Prime Minister was unable to help anyone in Kent or Buckinghamshire in the answer to my question—presumably, she will have to return to it. This is not about pulling up ladders; it is about providing a ladder for every child. Let me quote to her what a critic of grammar schools said:
“There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to ‘bring back’ grammars, an assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few.”
He goes on to say:
“I want the Conservative Party to rise above that attitude”.
Those are not my words, but those of the former right hon. Member for Witney. Is he not correct that what we need is investment in all of our schools and a good school for every child, not this selection at the age of 11?
What we need is a good school for every child, and that is precisely what we will be delivering with the policy that we have announced. With that policy, we will see: universities expanding their support for schools; more faith schools being set up; and independent schools increasing their support for schools in the state sector. A diversity of provision of education is what we need to ensure good school places for every child. That good school place is important so that young people can take opportunities and get into the workplace.
I notice that this is the right hon. Gentleman’s fifth question and he has not yet welcomed the employment figures today, which show more people in work than ever before; and wages rising above inflation. That is more people with a pay packet and more money in those pay packets. What would Labour offer? It would offer more taxation and misery for working families. It is only the Conservative party that knows you can build an economy that works for everyone only when everyone has an opportunity for work.
Of course I welcome anyone who has managed to get a job; I welcome those people who have managed to get jobs, and keep themselves and their families together. The problem is that there are now almost a million of them on zero-hours contracts who do not know what they are going to be paid from one week to the other.
In order to help the Prime Minister with the expertise on the reform of secondary schools, may I quote to her what Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has said? He said quite simply this:
“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense”.
Is not all this proof that the Conservative party’s Green Paper addresses none of the actual crises facing our schools system: a real-terms cut in the schools budget; half a million pupils in supersize schools; a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention; a rising number of unqualified teachers in classrooms; and vital teaching assistants losing their jobs? Is this not a Government heading backwards, to a failed segregation for the few and second-class schooling for the many? Can we not do better than this?
The right hon. Gentleman has got some of his facts wrong—plain and simple. We have more teachers in our schools today than in 2010. We have more teachers joining the profession than leaving it. We have fewer pupils in supersize classes than there have been previously. I simply say this to him: he has opposed every measure that we have introduced to improve the quality of education in this country. He has opposed measures that increase parental choice, measures that increase the freedom of head teachers to run their schools, and the opportunity for people to set up free schools. Those are all changes that are leading to improvements in our education system, and we will build on them with our new policies.
I recognise that this may very well be the last time that the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to face me across the Dispatch Box—certainly if his MPs have anything to do with it. I accept that he and I do not agree on everything—well, we probably do not agree on anything—but I must say that he has made his mark. Let us think of some of the things he has introduced. He wants coal mines without mining them, submarines without sailing them, and he wants to be Labour leader without leading them. One thing we know is that whoever is Labour leader after the leadership election, it will be the country that loses.
Order. May I just point out to the House that progress today at this Question Time session has been absurdly slow? I ask the House on behalf of our constituents to show some respect for those colleagues who want to question the Prime Minister, and I am determined to get down the list. I call Craig Williams.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we never forget the horrors of the holocaust and the lessons that must be learned from that. It is right that we have agreed to this national memorial next to Parliament on Victoria Gardens, which is an important place for it to be. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will today launch an international competition for the design of that memorial. The design may include a learning centre, which will ensure that there will be opportunities for young people and others truly to learn the lessons from the holocaust and to learn about the appalling atrocities that took place.
Last week, the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to give any assurances about remaining in the single European market. Today, she has been unwilling or unable to give any assurances to the financial sector about protecting the passporting of financial services. Meanwhile, millions of people from across the United Kingdom depend on freedom of movement across the EU for business and for pleasure. They face the prospect of having to apply and possibly pay for visas. Is the Prime Minister in favour of protecting visa-free travel—yes, or no?
There was a very clear message from the British people at the time of the referendum vote on 23 June that they wanted to see an end to free movement as it operated and control of the movement of people from the European Union into the UK, and that is what we will deliver.
The Prime Minister and the UK Government are totally unwilling to tell us the true cost of Brexit and what their negotiating position will be. In contrast, there is a different tune from the European Union. The new EU negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, has said:
“It’s wrong that Scotland might be taken out of the EU when it voted to stay.”
Does she agree with Mr Verhofstadt and the Scottish Government who want to protect Scotland’s place in Europe?
It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to ask that question, but only two years ago he did not want to protect Scotland’s place in the European Union, because he wanted Scotland to leave the UK. On all of those questions, whether it is on the referendum for leaving the European Union, the referendum on independence in Scotland, or those in this House, he seems to think that if he asks the question all the time, he will get a different answer. Well, it will not work for me and it will not work for the Scottish people.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We want our universities not just to be places of learning, but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged and people can get involved in that. I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary. We want to see that innovation of thought taking place in our universities; that is how we develop as a country, as a society and as an economy, and I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Obviously, I am not as aware of the details of the individual case as the hon. Gentleman is. The Home Secretary has heard him, and if he would like to write to her with the details, I am sure this case will be looked at. Of course, there are rules that do enable family reunion to take place, and we as a country have committed to take a number of children who are particularly vulnerable—potentially vulnerable—to sexual violence from the region around Syria to ensure that we can resettle them in the UK and take them out of that fear that they are experiencing. But my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will look at the case if he cares to write to her.
As I mentioned earlier in response to a question, one aspect of the vote on 23 June was that people want us to control movement from the European Union into the UK, and, of course, we are already able to control movement from outside the European Union into the United Kingdom. The details of the system we will introduce for EU citizens are currently being worked on, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will have the ability to control movement from the EU and movement from outside the EU, and therefore bring that greater degree of fairness that I think people were looking for.
Of course, the House of Commons voted for that reduction in the number of Members of Parliament—I think people wanted to see that. I would gently remind him that, when he refers to the House of Lords and changes in the House of Lords, it is actually this Government who have introduced the retirement procedures for the House of Lords that have seen a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Lords.
My hon. Friend is right: the five-year plan does include that proposal for more local input in care at a local level. It is absolutely right that in looking at, for example, the future of minor injuries units, local people are considered and local concerns taken into account. I understand that there is due to be a meeting in Ely later this month to consider this. I hope that she and her constituents will be able to make their views known at that meeting.
I am of course happy to commend the company that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. Of course, the west midlands is an important driver in terms of engineering skills in this country. But I simply do not recognise the situation that he has set out in relation to apprenticeships. We have seen 2 million apprenticeships created over the last six years, and we are committed as a Government to seeing more apprenticeships being created. That is giving young people, like the young people I met when I went to Jaguar Land Rover, opportunities to learn a skill to get into a job, to get into the workplace, and to get on where their talents will take them.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in the all-party parliamentary group. The stable family background that young people are brought up in is obviously important, and she has been a champion for families and for family life. I have set up a policy group led by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). I will ask him to look very carefully at the report that has come out of the all-party parliamentary group to see what we can take from it.
The issues of climate change, reducing emissions, and our energy policy are very important to this Government. We have a fine record in this area, and we will be continuing with that. The issue of carbon capture and storage has been looked at carefully in the past. One of the key issues is the cost. We will continue to invest in the development of CCS. We are investing over £130 million to develop the technology, through innovation support, with the aim of reducing its costs, and so we will continue to look at the role that it can play.
I commend my hon. Friend and others in this House who play a role as school governors—a very important role. She is right that schools need to think carefully about how they are using their resources. The approach taken by water companies does vary. However, we are looking at the guidance to water companies in relation to how they can deal with schools and whether they could be looking at using more concessionary rates for schools.
On the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, I will come back to him on the details. As he knows, the National Crime Agency operates in Northern Ireland on a slightly different basis from that on which it operates elsewhere across the United Kingdom. Where issues are being looked into, it will be necessary to ensure that the appropriate skills and capabilities are brought to bear. If I may, I will write to him with a detailed answer to his question.
Will the Prime Minister give her full and enthusiastic support to President Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci as they reach a crucial stage of their negotiations, which we hope will deliver a negotiated settlement for a free and united Cyprus?
On the process point, it is not for the Prime Minister to insist who attends before a Committee of this House. I understand that Dame Lowell Goddard has been invited to attend the Committee. I think that the hon. Lady and I share, as do many hon. Members across this House, a desire to see the issues of these appalling crimes of child abuse being properly looked into. That is important. Dame Lowell Goddard has set up the inquiry and the truth project. Many aspects of it are already in place and operating, and I am very pleased that Alexis Jay has taken on the role of chairman of the inquiry. She chaired the Rotherham work, and I think that she will do this work extremely well and we will have answers to questions that so many have been asking for so long.
Child sexual exploitation is an issue that affects many communities. Does the Prime Minister agree that shining a light on the events of the past is the best way to learn lessons for the future, and will she agree to an independent review of child sexual exploitation in Telford?
My hon. Friend has just shown the cross-party concern that there is on the issue of child abuse and child sexual exploitation. It is absolutely right, as she says, that we are able to look into the abuses and crimes of the past. We will need to learn important lessons from that as to why institutions that were supposed to protect children failed to do so. It is for the authorities in Telford to look specifically at how they wish to address those issues in Telford, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has heard my hon. Friend’s comments and that she will want to take that up with her.
The hon. Lady obviously raises a very important point in relation to contaminated blood. I will take it away and consider it. Obviously, she will know the reasons and background that led to the Hillsborough independent panel, but I recognise people’s concerns about contaminated blood and will consider the point that she has made.
The Prime Minister will be aware of coverage regarding a report to be published by Dame Louise Casey, the Government’s integration tsar. The report will speak of British laws, culture, values and traditions, such as Christmas, being threatened by political correctness from council officials. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to send a loud and clear message that the best way to secure a harmonious society is not only for mainstream Britain to respect minority traditions, such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, but for council officials to appreciate that minority communities should respect the views and traditions of mainstream Britain, which means that Christmas is not “Winterval” and that Christmas trees are not “festive” trees?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will not comment on or pre-empt the findings of Louise Casey’s review, which is an important piece of work. I will simply join my hon. Friend by saying that what we want to see in our society is tolerance and understanding. We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.
Will the Prime Minister look carefully at the calls from the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland for new questions to be added to the next census so that we can better meet the needs of our serving personnel in the armed forces, our veterans and their families? In relation to Northern Ireland, where such a massive contribution is made to the armed forces through recruitment and service, will she look carefully at the distribution of funding under the armed forces covenant so that there is equitable funding across all regions and countries of the United Kingdom?
Of course, I am pleased that it was this Government who introduced the military covenant, and who have recognised the importance of that bond and that link with those who are serving in our armed forces and with veterans of our armed forces. I have not seen the specific request from the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland, but that will certainly be looked at by the Cabinet Office when considering the next census.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the co-operation between Russia and the United States in respect of Aleppo sets a very important precedent, and that it is in the British national interest to redevelop our links with Russia? We may then be able to solve many more problems in that region.
My hon. Friend is right that the agreement that has been reached between Russia and the United States about Syria is an important agreement, and I think everybody in this House will want to see that being put into practice and working on the ground. There have been a number of occasions when we have seen what appear to be steps forward, and sadly it has not been possible to implement them, but I hope that it will be different this time. It would mark an important step. We should have no doubt about the relationship that we should have with Russia. It is not a business as usual relationship. I made that very clear when I was responding to the report on the murder of Litvinenko, and we should continue with that position.
May I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner on Merseyside, in commending the tremendous bravery of the police officers involved in the stabbing incident in my constituency yesterday, who nevertheless apprehended the suspect? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, often in very dangerous circumstances, the police are being asked to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in recognising once again the work of the individual police constable—[Interruption.] I apologise—the three police constables who apprehended the suspect while being under attack. As I said earlier, our police officers bravely go where others would not go in order to protect the public. They do so much in the line of duty and, for some, when they are off duty as well. They are prepared to go and face danger in order to protect us.
On the issue of resources, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we have protected police budgets over the period of the comprehensive spending review settlement, in the face of a proposal from his Front Benchers that we should cut them by 5% to 10%.
Order. I had hoped to be able to announce today the timetable for the elections to vacant Chairs of Select Committees. It is my understanding—I may, of course, be wrong—that discussions on these matters in the usual channels have concluded, but the Government have still to table the various motions required. I very much hope that they will be tabled very soon. It may be helpful to Members to know that if the House agrees to those motions, it is my fervent hope and expectation that the elections for Chairs may take place on Wednesday 19 October.
Not now. I will come to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] It may be on that matter, but there is something else that I want to say first. It is always good to keep the hon. Gentleman in reserve; it builds up a sense of eager anticipation in the House.
Michael Carpenter, Speaker’s counsel, retires from the House service at the end of September. Michael was seconded to the House of Commons from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department in October 2000 as counsel for European legislation, and he subsequently became an employee of the House. Michael became Speaker’s counsel in October 2008. He has served this House and, if I may say so, colleagues, he has served me, magnificently. I shall always be grateful to him, and the House should be thankful for his sense of duty, for his immense ability and for his stoicism and fortitude under pressure. I am sure that the House would wish to send its best wishes to Michael and to his family following his retirement. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I am pleased to announce that, following fair and open competition, Saira Salimi will take on the role of Speaker’s counsel in October. Saira is currently the deputy official solicitor to the Church Commissioners, a role that she has held for the last five years. Before that, Saira was a member of the office of the parliamentary counsel for eight years, and she comes to us with a detailed knowledge of the legislative process. I am sure that the House will want to wish Saira well in her new and important role. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing a point of order at this stage. On the issue that you raised—I thank you for bringing it to the attention of the House—obviously the two Whips Offices will be working very hard to ensure that this House has the opportunity to set up Select Committees to scrutinise the Government. But as they are having some sort of trouble, is there any possibility that we can do something in this House to ensure that it happens before we go into recess? It would be really useful if we could have the election on the day that you specified, because that is my birthday.
It seemed to me, I must say to the House, that there was very good reason to make expeditious progress on this matter in any case. I am sure that there was absolutely no hint of underlying sarcasm in the hon. Gentleman’s observation when he expressed the confident expectation that the Whips on both sides would want to make progress in the establishment of the new Committee and in the election of the vacant Chairs of all the Committees, because of course they will want the Government to be subject to proper and thorough scrutiny. There is very good reason to proceed expeditiously anyway, but the fact that 19 October is also the hon. Gentleman’s birthday provides an added incentive.
The hon. Gentleman asks what can be done. The short answer, as I think he knows, is that I am doing what I can, not very subtly, to indicate that the usual channels really ought to progress this matter sooner rather than later. So far as I am concerned, that means by tomorrow. I hope we are clear.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for allowing me to raise this point at this stage. I add my best wishes to Michael, and to Saira as she takes up her new role.
With the changes to the Select Committees, the old Business, Innovation and Skills Committee will probably change to a new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the BIS Committee is one of the constituent Committees of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Is it your view that the new Committee will take over the role of the old BIS Committee as one of the constituent Committees, and that it would not be correct, as has been suggested in some quarters, for a new International Trade Committee to take over sole responsibility for scrutinising our arms exports controls?
It has to be said that the hon. Gentleman is an ingenious fellow, and he has regularly demonstrated his ingenuity since his election to the House. I do not blame him for seeking to shoehorn in his current preoccupation when we are discussing the timetable for elections to the vacant Chairs of Committees. However, the proper answer for me to give him is that it is not a matter for the Chair. It will be a matter for the Committee concerned to decide. If the hon. Gentleman were afflicted with a sudden bout of self-doubt or reticence, causing him to be reluctant or unable to express his view on this matter, I would be concerned, but he will not be, and therefore I am not.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I notice that the Leader of the House is in his place. Would it be in order, for the benefit of the House, for him to rise at the Dispatch Box and put the House out of its misery on the Government’s plan for the dates of the election of Select Committee Chairs?
The Leader of the House is not under any such obligation. It has to be said that normally—I speak with some authority on this matter, as I have known him for 30 years, and we have been next-door constituency neighbours for the best part of 20 years—he is the most accommodating of colleagues.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If it will help the House, let me say that, as you rightly said, agreement was reached through the usual channels earlier this week about the reconstitution of Select Committees following the changes to Departments. It was clearly right for us to seek full cross-party endorsement for the changes, and that has now been obtained. I have therefore given instructions for the necessary resolutions and changes to Standing Orders to be drafted immediately, and we shall certainly table them as rapidly as we can get them to the House authorities.
I think that is very encouraging. I do not want to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman, but may I just say that he is in some danger, if he is not careful, of being held aloft by Members from all parts of the House? We will leave the matter there for now. I thank the Leader of the House for what he has said, which is encouraging.
Tax Credits: Concentrix
I want to be very clear: the Government recognise the importance of tax credits to individuals and families. We all recognise that it is important for this support to reach the people who really need it. That is why HMRC works hard to check that it is making the correct payments, and to tackle any fraudulent claims. We must acknowledge that error and fraud exist in the system, and should be addressed to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent correctly. As part of this work, HMRC engaged Synnex-Concentrix Ltd in 2014 to help check people’s eligibility. As a result, almost £300 million of incorrect payments have been avoided.
I want to reassure the House on two key points. First, Concentrix has been paid only for making the right decisions; it has not received payment for taking someone’s money away wrongly. Secondly, Concentrix has not been allowed to engage in fishing expeditions or to pick on vulnerable claimants at random. Where there has been evidence to suggest a claim might not be correct, Concentrix has written to claimants to seek further information and confirm their eligibility. I realise—I know this as a constituency Member myself—that it can be stressful for someone to receive such a letter, but it is right that we investigate the full picture, with contributions from claimants themselves, to ensure we make the right payments. That is why both Concentrix and HMRC, where it does the same work, always send a letter and give claimants 30 days to provide information before taking any further action. It is important that people do indeed respond, and that they get in touch if they are struggling to respond to any of the questions.
Despite the best efforts of the staff manning the phones, Concentrix, with the high volume of calls in recent weeks, has not been providing the high levels of customer service that the public expect and which are required in its contract. HMRC has therefore given notice that this contract will not be renewed beyond its end date in May 2017. HMRC is also no longer passing new cases to Concentrix, but is instead working with it as a matter of urgency to improve the service it provides to claimants and to resolve outstanding cases. I can confirm to the House that 150 HMRC staff have been redeployed with immediate effect to help it to resolve any issues people are having with their claims as quickly as possible.
I realise that colleagues on both sides of the House are concerned to get difficult cases resolved and to assist vulnerable constituents appropriately. In addition to the extra resources I have mentioned, I have arranged a drop-in for Members in Room B, 1 Parliament Street between 9.30 and 11 am tomorrow, at which HMRC officials will be available to offer guidance to colleagues, should that be helpful.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been contacted, as she has been, by distressed and anxious constituents—often hard-working individuals who have had their tax credits cut unfairly, in many cases pushing them into extreme hardship. Although Labour Members certainly welcome the fact that HMRC has finally taken action by announcing that the Concentrix contract will not be renewed, it is most regrettable that the Government undertook such action only when events were dramatically exposed by the media and, indeed, by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field).
It remains the case that Synnex-Concentrix will be carrying out these services for another eight months. There is therefore a risk that, without radical amendments to the contract itself, service failures will continue. Of most concern is the fact that the payment model arguably creates a conflict of interest, as has been noted by the Social Security Advisory Committee. Will the Minister therefore confirm what arrangements she will make urgently to revise the contract to preserve justice for the claimants?
As the Minister stated, I understand that HMRC will redeploy 150 staff so that claimants can get through to advisers and resolve their claims. Will she confirm how the Government will monitor that? Will the Government now commit to an official investigation into Concentrix’s conduct since it was awarded the contract in 2014, so that we can determine how this situation was allowed to arise? Finally, has she given any consideration to the real prospect of bringing this service back in-house?
I will try to answer those questions, but it is worth commenting that this Government, and indeed their predecessors, inherited a very complicated system. In the long term, the right answer is to replace tax credits, as is our intention, because we were bequeathed an unnecessarily complex system. However, we must make the system work while it is in operation, and that is now the focus of our activities.
On HMRC’s decision about the contract, I want to reassure the House that monitoring has taken place regularly throughout the contract. Indeed, HMRC has worked closely with Concentrix. It is the case that, as has been documented, performance has not been good in recent weeks. That has clearly been noted, and we are now taking action on it.
On the contract going forward, as I mentioned in my response to the urgent question, Concentrix will focus on resolving outstanding claims, not opening new ones. In other words, it will deal with those already open in an orderly and appropriate manner. HMRC is putting in additional resource. In particular, I have asked it to focus on the difficult cases—there have been some high-profile examples in recent days—to ensure that we resolve them as quickly as possible so that all our vulnerable constituents are helped and supported.
That is the key focus as we go forward. There is no need to go into inquiries and so on. We have a contract that is monitored on a regular basis. It will not be renewed when it comes to an end in May next year. The focus for all of us in the coming days and weeks—and for me and for HMRC in particular—is on making sure that the outstanding cases are resolved, especially those of the most vulnerable, and that people have the money to which they are correctly entitled.
I have cases of women who have had their tax credits stopped because, they have been told, they are living with a man of whom they have never heard or, indeed, with the tenant of the property prior to them occupying it. Their benefits have been withdrawn. I am not sure that I need advice tomorrow morning in 1 Parliament Street—when, incidentally, the House is sitting. We need to know how quickly those cases can be reviewed.
I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s point. The drop-in is there as a facility should Members wish to use it, but it is not an alternative to the HMRC lines already in place. We encourage anyone affected to call the HMRC number on the letters they have received. We are putting significant additional resources into those helplines, with immediate effect, to make sure we can resolve the situation. I am reassured—although obviously I will be talking to HMRC consistently about this—that as soon as the facts of a case are resolved we can get money into people’s accounts in a short number of days.
I am delighted that the Concentrix contract is not to be renewed. It will come as some comfort, at least, to those who have been affected by its activity. That contract was designed to save £1 billion in fraud and overpayment. The Minister tells us some £300 million has been saved. How much of those so-called savings was as a result of false accusations by Concentrix against tax credit recipients? If somewhere between 120 and perhaps many thousands of people were affected, why was the contract not cancelled sooner? The cost of the contract was reputed to be some £75 million. How much do the Government intend to claw back to directly compensate those affected? The Minister tells us, and I am pleased to hear, that HMRC civil servants have been drafted in to clean up the mess, but how much will that cost the taxpayer in additional pay, and will the Government be seeking payment from Concentrix to fund that remedial action?
I am not able to respond immediately from the Dispatch Box to one or two of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. My clear priority and that of HMRC at the moment is to make sure that we resolve the outstanding cases, and in particular the difficult cases for vulnerable constituents. We will then turn our mind to some of the other points that he made. We are not renewing the contract, but we intend to continue to bear down on error and fraud. That is important, as there is a lot in the system, but we have had a great deal of success in recent years in reducing it—the amount of fraud in the system has halved from £800 million to £400 million. We need to continue to bear down on that, because money that is fraudulently obtained is money that is not available to taxpayers. It remains vital that we address that matter. But for the moment, my primary consideration is resolving the difficult cases to make sure that we look after our most vulnerable citizens.
I am a big fan of supporting those people who are trying very hard to get on in life and who depend on tax credits. One of my concerns is that over the next eight months those people will still be dealt with by Concentrix and will still have that fear of being falsely accused and prosecuted, almost, as they go forward. What reassurance can the Minister give that those people will be looked after, and will HMRC carry on with the contract in the future or will it issue it for new tender?
I have laid out the arrangements we are putting in place. The contract ends next spring. In the meantime, HMRC will support Concentrix on the outstanding cases—in particular, looking at more complex cases and supporting back-office functions while Concentrix staff focus on resolving already open cases. It is important to have a bit of perspective. Concentrix has assisted the Government and, indeed, the taxpayer in correctly identifying a lot of claims as either erroneous or fraudulent. It is important to keep the matter in perspective, but HMRC has made clear its operational intention not to continue the contract beyond the spring.
I thank the Minister and HMRC for reacting so quickly to issues and concerns raised in the House, but several questions remain. What estimate has been made of the current backlog needing to be dealt with by Concentrix and HMRC? How should those people currently being dealt with contact Concentrix—through the current helpline or by contacting HMRC directly? Why were these appalling failures not acted on before they were revealed in parliamentary questions, if HMRC was monitoring the contract so closely? Will HMRC bring the contract back in-house in May next year? Will the Minister today commit to a review of all payment-by-results contracts, which are completely inappropriate in our welfare system?
I am aware that the hon. Lady has been very active on this—she has asked a number of parliamentary questions and has shown considerable interest in the issue. It is important to note, and the performance figures support this, that it is only really in recent weeks that performance has not been acceptable. It is not that this has been an acute problem for a considerable length of time. However, performance has not been acceptable in recent weeks.
People should contact the number on the letters they have received. I am aware that there have been problems getting through on the phone in recent weeks, and have tested it out for myself. We are putting in additional resources to allow Concentrix to focus on answering the phones and dealing with outstanding cases while additional HMRC staff resolve some of the back-office issues and some of the complexities, so that people can focus on the immediate issue.
Some more mandatory considerations are coming in, but we think there are around 2,500 cases in the system still to be dealt with at the moment. We expect more to come in because it is that time of year, after people who have not supplied additional information as they were requested to have seen their tax credits stopped. We feel that, with that additional resource, we can resolve that quickly, and that is my focus.
Now that the position is that Concentrix is not going to deal with any new claims or cases, will my hon. Friend clarify for the House who, from HMRC or wherever, will deal with claims of errors, fraud and other problems, so that we send a strong signal to people that that will not be acceptable and that we want to see genuine claimants compensated for losing money that they need?
I reassure my hon. Friend that it has always been the case that both Concentrix and HMRC were pursuing matters of error and fraud; it was not the case that only Concentrix was doing so. HMRC will continue to pursue error and fraud cases. In recent years the Government have put additional resource into supporting HMRC’s work on general tax avoidance and evasion, and compliance.
I thank the Minister for her statement and draw the House’s attention to how different that response was from those of the previous Government; I do not believe that we would have had today’s statement had there not been a leadership change, so I thank her for that. Will she pass on my thanks to her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), for the immediate action she took on the report I submitted on Hermes, whose unlawful use of self-employment HMRC has been asked to investigate?
I have two questions. The worry about this contractor is that to some people it appears to be cutting benefits first and asking questions afterwards, and there is no mechanism for a hotline for MPs to try to sort such issues out. Although I very much welcome her bringing the contract back in-house, it is the only contract that has ever been put in place that has allowed a private company to make decisions about people’s benefit levels, so might she review that?
It is quite cheeky of the right hon. Gentleman to ask two questions and to declare so openly his intention to do so, although it is perhaps not quite as cheeky as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who asked five questions without making any such explicit declaration at all.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments on the priority given to resolving problems of this nature. It is worth reiterating that, through the contract, we have secured more than £280 million of identified savings in terms of error and fraud. There continues to be considerable fraud, particularly with regard to whether people live singularly in a household. It is important to recognise that the contract has brought important benefits to the taxpayer.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s challenge on the nature of the contract. Such contracts have their place, but they must work appropriately. The contract must work to do the thing it set out to do, but it must at all times work for taxpayers and, above all, for the vulnerable. I will reflect on his wider point if I may, but I give him reassurance on that general point.
All hon. Members will have received a deluge recently of harrowing cases of people who have had calls from and interaction with Concentrix. They were unsure at first whether the company existed and whether they had received a scam letter, which we see far too often. There has been a poor delay in opening post, and getting through on the telephone has been next to impossible. That service level is unacceptable in the public sector. Will the Minister confirm that her very strong announcement today, which is welcome, shows that the Government are committed to helping the vulnerable immediately and accurately?
I hope we have shown that. We have important contracts across the Government with people to provide services, but clearly they need to be provided to an acceptable standard. The decision is not to renew the contract. In taking that decision, HMRC has clearly taken into account operational performance. The focus for all of us—Ministers, HMRC and individual Members acting in their constituency capacities—is to ensure that our most vulnerable constituents are supported as soon as possible to ensure that the money to which they are correctly entitled hits their bank accounts and they do not have the stress of wondering where the money will come from.
All of us as constituency Members of Parliament can relay stories of how the service contract has worked and been deplorable, but on the jobs that will be lost—some of them are in Belfast—will the Minister tell us what contact she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive, or what contact HMRC has had with the relevant devolved Administrations or regions, about the effect on jobs? What will be done to give support to those who will lose their jobs?
It is important to note that the decision has been taken by HMRC not to renew the contract. To that extent, the decision for a private company such as Concentrix on what it does beyond that point is clearly a matter for the company. If the right hon. Gentleman has concerns of that nature, colleagues in the territorial office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be happy to talk to him in the normal way. It is important to stress that this is not a decision to end a contract here and now, but a decision not to renew it in the spring.
I welcome the steps the Government have taken to protect the vulnerable in this situation. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the lessons learned in this case will apply not only to the contract when it is retendered in May, but across Government contracts more widely?
I hope I can give that reassurance for the future. To date, it has always been the case that, when the Government contract a supplier to provide a service, it should be provided to the right standard, and that contracts are monitored and we ensure that service levels are acceptable to Members and their constituents.
Despite what the Minister has said, I have constituents who have had their tax credits cut off with no prior notification, and who have spent up to 70 minutes on the phone trying to get through, which is a huge drain on their resources. Will she tell us whether the contract included penalties for Concentrix if it did not provide an acceptable service level or answer calls within a set time? If not, who will take the responsibility for negotiating such a flawed contract?
Waiting 70 minutes to have a call answered is clearly not acceptable. I can imagine the distress that would cause somebody trying to get through. If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, and if the hon. Lady will let me, I will write to her about the points she made about the contract—I do not have that detail to hand, and I need to assess what we can say given commercial confidentiality. If I can give her the answers she seeks, I will do so, but I will write to her if that is acceptable.
The National Audit Office found that the Concentrix contract delivered savings of £500,000 in 2014-15 compared with the original estimate of £285 million. It was expected to deliver at best half the original savings planned in the contract. As we have heard, and as we have learned from our constituency postbags, there were a large number of errors in the process. What more can the Government do to improve the tendering process in future, particularly at HMRC, and to improve the managerial capability at HMRC, so that we do not have such mistakes in future?
This is a payment-by-results contract. As I said in my response to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) at the outset, Concentrix will not be paid when it has not acted appropriately and when it has not got a result. It is important that we get these things right and I take my hon. Friend’s point. I reassure him that HMRC, and indeed Ministers, will always seek to get the right contracts. Clearly, when there are lessons to be learned, we must reflect on them and ensure that they are reflected in future arrangements.
Last week in evidence to the Institute for Government, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), admitted that outsourcing to the private sector was not a panacea. Surely after the Concentrix contract fiasco it is time for full review of outsourcing to private companies in the welfare system. Is it not time to look at whether outsourcing is appropriate at all or, if it is to continue, at what better civil service oversight provision is needed to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again?
I again urge hon. Members to keep a degree of perspective. Many contracts deliver what we want. It is worth noting that the Concentrix contract delivered more than £280 million in savings to the taxpayer, which represents a sensible return on that investment. I have said what I have said about service levels—they must be acceptable and to the standard we have contracted for—and there are circumstances in which the use of private companies offers a cost-effective way to get something that the Government might not otherwise have, which could mean flexible capacity or the capacity to do something for an uncertain period. Sometimes, the flexibility that such contracts offer makes it easier than doing something in-house. I take the hon. Gentleman’s points and will reflect on them but I do not draw the same general conclusion as he does.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and concur with the excellent point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). The Minister will know that genuine errors are made by constituents and HMRC. Going by one’s casework and constituency surgeries, it seems that sometimes full compassion is not shown by HMRC when looking at the circumstances when a genuine error is made. Can we ensure that that is done in those difficult circumstances for those who are most vulnerable and in need?
I have had the same experience as my hon. Friend. Only last week in a constituency surgery, I sat with a constituent who had a complex case and who was in a very difficult situation. Obviously, we can take up cases on behalf of constituents, but when constituents ring HMRC, it is important that they explain their circumstances. HMRC will make every effort to resolve the situation quickly. It is very aware of the need to get people sorted out and get money into their bank account, as appropriate, quickly, but I will re-emphasise that—as the House can imagine, I have discussed the issue in recent days. The interest in this urgent question and the points being made on both sides of the House will be seen and heard where they need to be.
A significant number of my constituents have been left financially disadvantaged as a result of the antics and processes at Concentrix. Can the Minister assure the House that, while the priority is to resolve those cases urgently, she will look seriously into fining the company and using those resources to compensate my constituents for the financial distress they have suffered?
As a constituency MP who has dealt with a number of cases, I am pleased to note the action the Government have taken. That said, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee I have also sat through numerous reports on the quality of service HMRC provides, which is at times hardly of gold standard. What reassurance does the Minister have that, with HMRC picking up some of this work, we will not see a drop-off in the standard of services elsewhere and in future arrangements?
I do not believe that that will be the case. HMRC has been dealing with cases at the same time as Concentrix throughout the period of the contract. I have been assured that the 150 additional staff deployed with immediate effect will be focused on this. I have no reason to believe that any other services will suffer. My hon. Friend’s point is well made and will be re-emphasised to HMRC.
I am glad to hear that the Concentrix contract is ending but, as the Minister said, it will still be dealing with ongoing casework. Will she personally intervene to help a constituent of mine who was plunged into £1,300 of debt through the incompetence of Concentrix? It failed to process the annual review and refused to acknowledge any of my correspondence. Will she take up this case?
Of course. If any Member wishes to write to me, I will ask HMRC to look at it as a matter of priority. The hon. Lady may not be around tomorrow morning, but there is an opportunity, if she or any other Member wants to bring a complex case, to go to the drop-in where HMRC officials will be available. If she would like to write to me, I will of course look at the case.
I first raised this issue last January. It has taken about eight months to get to this situation. The issue, which had been going on for weeks, related to a family who did not have any income over the Christmas period. Why does it take a BBC programme to bring Ministers to the Dispatch Box? On Monday, a member of my staff was given the run-around by HMRC and Concentrix because nobody would take responsibility. My constituents have spent hours on this. To involve the private sector in such a sensitive and humane issue does not work.
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman had that difficult experience. I cannot agree with his general point about there being no role for the private sector in this regard. I refer again to the amount of money that has been saved for the taxpayer. There is a lot of error and fraud in the system, and it is important that we bear down on that. We do not want money to go to people for whom it is not appropriate, in particular in relation to the nature of people’s households. Much of the fraud does rest in that area. As he highlights, this is a particularly difficult and sensitive area to investigate, but we need to continue to investigate it because the amount of fraud in the area of tax credits is considerable.
We can all share the stories of our constituents’ anguish and the frustration for our offices in dealing with this debacle, but we should remember that HMRC is itself not an innocent agent. It designed the contract. It put customer hostility and suspicion into the contract, and into the standards of performance and practice. It was, of course, HMRC that provided the names targeted by Concentrix. This has happened against a backdrop of the Government persistently running down the capacity and character of HMRC. Will some of those bigger policy misguidances also be looked at, as well as the enjoyment we are all having today in scapegoating Concentrix itself?
I return to the answer I gave a moment ago. We need to continue to bear down on fraud in the system. There is a considerable amount of error and fraud. I am afraid it would be naive to think that all of this is error. There is fraud in the system and there is a lot of error, which the original design of tax credits makes easier. We need to continue to bear down on fraud, but clearly we need to do that in a way that does not make it difficult to assist the most vulnerable.
The Minister has mentioned fraud a number of times. There is obviously fraud in the system, but I really do not see that as an excuse for errors and failures that affect our constituents. My constituent Sarah Hodgson has three young children and is struggling to put food on the table. There is no excuse for incompetent contractors. I am glad the Minister talks about the redeployment of HMRC staff to support people. The HMRC office in my constituency, which employs over 200 people, is due for closure. Our nearest regional office is more than two hours’ drive away and the phone system is clearly not working: it is not helping people with their inquiries. Will she please review the closure of our local offices, so that people can keep the support and the face-to-face contact they need in these situations?
I am sorry to hear about the case the hon. Lady mentions on behalf of her constituent. She raises a wider issue about the modernisation project that HMRC is going through. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if she wrote to me. Although the process of modernisation means that some regional offices are closing, it is important because it is fundamentally about delivering a better and more modernised service in the future for all our constituents.
I trust there will be some compensation paid by the company for the ineptness in the way the contract has been handled and the extra costs that have been incurred. A lot of people today have talked about how wonderful it is that this is being brought in-house, but it was not so long ago that this House condemned HMRC for not answering more than half of the telephone calls made by constituents about tax matters. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that, now that new cases will be brought in-house, there will not be the same problems with HMRC as there were with Concentrix?
It is documented that at times in the past HMRC has had problems with answering its phones, but I think that of late some of the information in the public domain is rather out of date. Indeed, performance in answering phones is considerably better and has reached a very good standard in recent weeks. It is important to retain some balance. It is worth noting that Concentrix has amended about 103,000 claims following the checks it has made. I reiterate that this has been an important exercise, but clearly it needs to be done in the right way.
I welcome the news from the Minister that Concentrix will not have its contract renewed, but in the meantime I have ongoing concerns on behalf of my constituents. There has been a lot of talk about what is unacceptable, with a focus on fraud. What we are talking about here today are errors that have been made and have caused tremendous suffering. We are not talking about occasional exceptional errors; we are talking about a widespread number of errors that are causing exceptional misery for some families. Let me just share with the House the story of one of my constituents, a single mother of four, whose tax credits were stopped in error. As a result, her claim has been closed down, her children can no longer access free school dinners, she cannot get free milk tokens for her baby, and, more importantly, she has been told that her claim cannot be reopened for 44 days. Will the Minister assure me that she will intervene, as a matter of urgency, to make sure that this mother can continue to feed her children?
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady’s constituent has had such a difficult time. Obviously, without knowing the details of the case it is very difficult to comment across the Dispatch Box. I urge her to use the resource I have referred to throughout this urgent question to take up the case. I hope it can be resolved in that way as soon as possible. I have emphasised—HMRC is very aware of this—that speed is of the essence where people have had their tax credits erroneously stopped. She is right that there is error in the system. I reiterate the point that this is a too-complex system, which is exactly why the Government are looking to make major long-term reforms. Even the honest taxpayer can easily fall into error with a system that was so complex in its design from the start.
As we sit here, families up and down the country have been required to rely on charity and food banks. To make ends meet, as a result of what can be described only as frankly ridiculous decisions made by Concentrix, our constituents find themselves in a position not of their own making. To this end and given that so many are living a day-to-day existence, will the Minister confirm just how quickly people can expect to be paid the sums to which they are rightfully entitled?
It is really important that we get the facts of the case correct and quickly. At the point that that is done—it might be during the course of just one phone call—I am assured that money should be placed into people’s accounts in a matter of no more than four working days. That is what I expect to see. It is a matter of days and it certainly should not be weeks. We need to establish the facts in each instance. It is worth saying again—for the sake of the House having some sense of perspective on this issue—that last year only 1.6% of customers asked for a review of the decision, following a check. Given that a large number of people are being checked, that is quite a large number, but it would be wrong to think that this was a huge proportion of the cases in question. It is important to get things right and, as I say, we look to pay people within days—as soon as the facts of the case have been established.
It has always been the case, as we would expect, that managers within HMRC have worked with Concentrix throughout. I do not anticipate that enormous additional costs will be involved. There has always been a relationship between the two because there is some overlap in the work being done. I would expect that to continue as we work towards the end of the contract.
The Minister is currently engaged in crisis management, but unless she sees the bigger picture, crisis management itself is not going to be good enough. In her opening statement, she said that Concentrix was not allowed to phish, but it clearly has been phishing. One of my constituents got a phishing letter not only saying that they were going to stop the tax credits, but demanding £10,000 in back payments. It is quite clear that investigation is needed—and soon. Any such investigation needs to look not only at the contract terms, the audit process and Concentrix’s behaviour, but at what is the true resource requirement for dealing with the tax credits issues. Unless the Minister can confirm such an investigation and review, we will be back here in a couple of years’ time.
HMRC has data analytics and operational experience to deliver the kind of savings we are looking for in reducing error and fraud. Practical measures such as simplifying the tax credit system, better monitoring of changes of income through real-time information and improved detection of fraud will obviously go forward. They are all important parts of making sure that we improve performance. It is worth noting again that hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer have been saved by reducing error and fraud. We want to make it harder for people to make errors in the future.
As long as I have represented them, people in the Wirral have been treated with disrespect and indignity by HMRC. This is only the worst of a long series of cases. Let me ask the Minister one simple question: when did she first meet Concentrix to raise our concerns with them?