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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
05 February 2018
Volume 635

House of Commons

Monday 5 February 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Carillion: Pension Protection

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1. What steps she is taking to ensure support for former Carillion employees whose pensions will not be covered by the Pension Protection Fund. [903731]

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Where all sponsoring employers of a defined-benefit pension scheme have declared insolvency, they will enter a Pension Protection Fund assessment period. The Pension Protection Fund will actively work with the scheme administrator to assess whether it is able to buy out the pensions at a higher level than the PPF benefits. Where a scheme cannot do this, PPF will provide compensation. Defined-contribution schemes do not need PPF help, because they do not promise a level of pension—the member keeps the pot they have built up.

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The Government have presided over a regulatory scheme where a deficit of about £1 billion has been allowed to build up in the pension fund at the same time as shareholders were receiving dividends. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all former Carillion employees will receive in full their due pension?

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What the Government did successfully back in 2004 was set up the Pension Protection Fund, which is there to compensate people should their businesses become insolvent. This is what the fund will be doing: affording protection at 100% for those who have a pension. Those not yet on a pension will be getting 90%. The Government are ensuring that businesses are responsible to their employees and their pensions. We will be bringing in stronger corporate governance rules to make sure that boards, trustees, shareholders and stakeholders hold company executives to account.

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Financial directors must not cause detriment to any private sector pension scheme. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the rules and regulations regarding the investigation of this sort of practice are toughened up, because we cannot allow this to happen in future?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are seeking to ensure that the regulator will—our new Bill will come out later in the year—have more rights to fine, follow criminal procedures and look into mandatory clearance. Those of us who have studied corporate governance realise that the rules changed in 1991—the Cadbury report and the OECD corporate governance rules—and were strengthened in 2002. I believe that now, under this Conservative Government, we will be strengthening the corporate governance rules again.[Official Report, 8 February 2018, Vol. 635, c. 8MC.]

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My constituents who have paid into pension funds deserve to have those moneys protected. Will the Secretary of State be a bit more specific? What specific changes to corporate governance does she want to see to ensure that high risk behaviour towards pension funds does not happen again?

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We are getting feedback from various businesses on how they think we can best enable and support them. Any knee-jerk reaction might result in unintended consequences. Shining a spotlight on one area could close down loopholes, only for others to open up. This has to be looked at in the round, but, as I said, stakeholders, shareholders and the executive team should be held to account. We will make sure that that happens.

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Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the UK’s pension protection system has responded effectively to the Carillion situation?

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I can indeed reassure my hon. Friend that what it is doing, and the avenues it is pursuing, are correct and thorough. I met the regulator last week. It is making sure that it investigates these key matters and provides the necessary pension support. Where we need to strengthen in future, we will do so. Equally, I would like to make Members aware of what the pension regulator has done in the past. With regards to the British Home Stores fiasco, which is totally different from this situation, it employed an anti-avoidance measure and got Philip Green to pay his pensioners £363 million. Further prosecutions are coming forward for Chappell, who bought that company for a pound. That is the kind of good work the pension regulator is doing.

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As the Government have responsibility for the pensions regulatory framework, how would the Secretary of State describe a regulatory framework that allows the administrator of a pensions scheme to help to bring about the downfall of the company and the employees it represents, and to profit from that downfall?

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When I hear some of the hon. Lady’s comments, particularly those that are out of context, I think about the letter that she has received in the past two days from the UK Statistics Authority, which states that many things she has said are not accurate. The letter said that her remarks—whether about children waking up in poverty at Christmas or linking universal credit with poverty—were not supported, that they were not true statistics and that the sources could not be relied upon. If you will allow me to ask this, Mr Speaker, will the hon. Lady make a statement straightaway about the letter from the UK Statistics Authority?

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I understand the rhetorical significance of the Secretary of State’s point, but I must exhort the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) to stick to her last. That is to say, this is not the occasion upon which she is invited to expatiate on the matter. She may find other opportunities if she is so inclined, but she should stick to the line of questioning that is relevant to the questioning of a Government Minister.

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I will indeed do just that, Mr Speaker, especially as there was absolutely no answer to my original question. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people including my constituent, Philip Wild, have lost half their retirement income because of the Government’s failure to tackle pensions governance—from Carillion to Capita, and BHS to the British Steel Pension Scheme. How many more pensions scandals does the Secretary of State need to see before she introduces the robust regulatory oversight needed to protect people’s pensions for the future?

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Obviously, in the light of the letter from the chair of the UK Statistics Authority to the hon. Lady, it needs to be put on the record that the vast majority of defined-benefit pension schemes are working very well indeed. When we do see instances of abuse or illegal goings-on, they are investigated and the people responsible are brought to account. We have a strong Pension Protection Fund, supported by other businesses that are looking after pensioners across the country.

Consumer Advice and Assistance

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2. What steps the Government are taking to promote the delivery of effective consumer financial advice and assistance. [903732]

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We are committed to ensuring that consumers across the United Kingdom have access to high quality, impartial and free pensions and money guidance services. That is why we are setting up the new single financial guidance body, which is presently in Bill Committee in this House. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Conservative Government’s commitment is to a debt respite scheme and a breathing space specifically to address debt.

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In a recent poll conducted by Populus and The Guardian, 32% of British workers were found to have less than £500 in savings. What are the Government doing to promote long-term savings and to support employers such as the 1,340 in Chichester that have auto-enrolled their employees, currently benefiting 13,000 people?

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When the debt respite scheme and the breathing space are put into law, the provisions will make a manifest difference to how people are dealt with in respect of debt, as will the single financial guidance body. I would be failing in my duty not to pay tribute to the 1,340 employers in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Chichester that are doing a brilliant job in ensuring that there are more people in auto-enrolment, adding to the 9.1 million people across the country who are now auto-enrolled in a private pension—something that we should be very proud of.

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Some 11 million people a year use price comparison sites to gain information on insurers and other products. The Financial Conduct Authority found in 2014 that such sites were not delivering fair and consistent practices. The Competition and Markets Authority has now said the sites should be using the CARE model; that is, they should be clear, accurate, responsible and easy to use. What can the Government do to ensure that these sites are straightforward and easy to use?

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The simple answer is that I will take that matter up with my colleagues at the Treasury who are handling that point, particularly in relation to the FCA. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am in a Bill Committee with the exact same Minister and will probably have an opportunity tomorrow—with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey)—to have a discussion about this point.

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Very reassuring.

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A Port Talbot shift supervisor was badly advised by a pensions predator preying on him who made him take the wrong choice. “I will never forgive myself”, he said, “because all 20 on my shift followed my lead.” In an otherwise welcome Bill, in the words of Baroness Altmann,

“the Government seems to have bowed to industry pressure and proposes to weaken consumer protection for pension customers. By removing a clause introduced in the House of Lords…more people are at risk of losing their hard-earned savings in scams, frauds and unwise pension withdrawals.”

She is absolutely right. Will the Government think again?

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I am grateful to have the opportunity to replay the same debate that we had in the Bill Committee last Thursday. I will give the same answer, which is that, with no disrespect to Baroness Altmann, she is incorrect on this point. The Government are addressing pensions guidance. We have introduced very stringent new laws. We have improved on the point raised by the Work and Pensions Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who sits on that Committee, agreed in the Bill Committee last Thursday.

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I thank the Minister for his replay.

Mortgage Interest: Effects on Claimants

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3. What assessment she has made of the effect on employment and support allowance claimants’ income of changes to support for mortgage interest. [903733]

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All claimants will be offered a support for mortgage interest loan paid at the same rate that is currently available as part of their benefit entitlement. There will therefore be no impact on their income. Claimants will pay back the loan only on the sale or transfer of the property, when the loan will be recovered from any available equity.

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My constituent, who is registered blind yet has paid into the system all his working life, asks how it can be fair that tenants continue, quite rightly, to get support now, but 100,000 or more people like himself are losing that interest support with their mortgages. It is not good enough to say that they will get it back at the end. This is affecting people now. People are worried about their futures and worried about their incomes now. It is not good enough.

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Mortgage support is being offered at exactly the same rate as currently. The only difference is that it is now being deferred as a loan recoverable against any equity available in the house should it be sold in the future. Current participants in the scheme should see absolutely no difference unless and until they sell or transfer the house, at which point the taxpayer will recover the support offered.

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21. This change to support for mortgage interest will hit very hard thousands of low-income households, half of whom are pensioners. Does the Minister acknowledge that this change has not been well publicised and that, at the very least, the Government should pause and communicate what it will actually mean for people financially? [903754]

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We have to recognise that we are dealing with support for people who are accumulating what is often a very significant capital asset, and it seems only right that when equity becomes available the taxpayer is able to recover some or all of the support. There has been significant communication on the scheme with the people who are participating in it, and that is continuing. There will be between four and six written communications, and people will be invited to call a telephone number where they can obtain information from a third-party adviser before we get to April, when the scheme comes into play. I am confident that the people who are participating in the scheme at the moment will have enough information. Certainly, large numbers are making a decision either way at the moment.

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I have been contacted by a number of constituents about this issue, including a Mr Milne, a veteran who is surviving just now on a meagre state pension. He fears that this change will force him to sell his house or to have it repossessed. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of this change, particularly on pensioners?

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There is absolutely no reason for anybody to fear forced sale or repossession of a house, not least because the scheme is specifically designed to avoid exactly that. If Members have specific cases where constituents have concerns about the operation of the scheme, I will be more than happy to take them up. If the hon. Lady writes to me about that case, I will provide a response.

Supported Housing

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4. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the continuation of funding for supported housing. [903734]

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We have recently completed consultations on the funding models for short-term supported housing and sheltered housing, and will provide a response in due course. We will come forward with our proposals for long-term supported housing by 2020.

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My hon. Friend is making some useful and valued changes. Will he assure the House that accommodation costs for short-term supported housing such as women’s refuges will continue to be funded at existing levels, with the new grant to local authorities being ring-fenced?

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It is typical of my hon. Friend that she has the welfare of her most vulnerable constituents at the forefront of her mind. I can confirm that the current proposal on which we have just consulted is that the section 31 grant paid to local authorities for provision of refuges and other short-term supported housing will be ring-fenced.

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The Government’s proposals are an improvement on their initial proposals, but one element has brought criticism from virtually all providers, and that is with regard to short-term supported housing. My Select Committee has recommended that for emergency very short-term accommodation of around 12 weeks, there should be a ring-fenced grant to local authorities. The Government have changed the definition of short term from 12 weeks to two years, which all providers have condemned. Will the Government think again and bring accommodation lasting two years into the welfare system?

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We are in receipt of a significant number of responses to the consultation, which only closed a couple of weeks ago, and we will consider those over the months to come. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those concerns with his constituents if they wish to do so.

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The Government have promised that all short-term provision currently funded by the welfare system will continue to be funded at the same level by local authorities until 2020, but will the Minister confirm that there will be no cut in funding after that?

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Given that I am not a Treasury Minister, I am not in a position to confirm that, but it would certainly be our aspiration to provide the current level of support, or indeed enhanced and better performing support, which is the purpose of the changes, in the future.

Universal Credit

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6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of universal credit in helping people into work. [903736]

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Universal credit has had a positive impact since its start, as shown through published research and analysis. Independent research shows us that people are spending more time looking for work, applying for more jobs and even doing jobs they would not have considered doing before.

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Constituents in Gordon will face longer waiting times for payments due to the Scottish Government’s policy of fortnightly payment. What support can my right hon. Friend offer the devolved Administration in Edinburgh to help reduce those times?

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The advice would be to take the approach of England and Wales. As my hon. Friend says, the Scottish approach delays payment at the end of the assessment period, with 75% rather than 100% of money on time, due to the fortnightly payment.

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The introduction of universal credit is not helping to keep 250 highly skilled HMRC staff working on tax credits in Dudley in work. They were told they would be transferring to the Secretary of State’s Department to work on universal credit. Last week, they were told that her Department has cancelled that, their office will close and they will be made redundant. Will she ensure that the transfer goes ahead as originally planned, so that my constituents can keep their jobs, and will she meet me to discuss it?

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I will indeed meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that. Back in 2016, HMRC announced that move and transfer of jobs. It now seems that as many jobs were not needed for UC. I know that it wants to retain the staff and their skills and knowledge, but I will meet him to discuss the best way forward.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that universal credit is helping all those people who are stuck in a situation where they are only paid to work 16 hours a week and that it is fairer to those employees, the other employees in those businesses and taxpayers, who end up supporting the bill?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reason we are making this significant change from the legacy system is to ensure that every hour of work counts. We will not have a situation where people are stuck not working or paying punitive rates of income tax of 90% and above if they take work after 16 hours. This is cutting-edge technology. The UK is leading the way on flexible benefits that accompany flexible working, which nowhere else has.

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May I welcome the Secretary of State to her position? Perhaps she might think to show a little more humility when answering some of these difficult questions on universal credit. Has she considered some of the other benefits that are not included in universal credit, such as free school meals, free uniforms, free bus passes and so on? Many low-paid working families will lose out on those benefits under universal credit, which will make them worse off in work than if they were still on benefits.

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These are precisely the things that have been considered in bringing forward universal credit. What support are we giving? The extra childcare support. What is the extra support? Tailor-made career advice and support. We all need humility, but, equally, we all need to hand out and deliver the correct facts to people, not embellish them, resort to sound and fury or drama, or provide obviously incorrect information, as the UK Statistics Authority has levelled against the Labour party.

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Last month, I visited Grimsby jobcentre, which serves my constituency, and it is very clear that the staff are handling the changeover to universal credit very efficiently. Will the Secretary of State join me in complimenting the staff, including the work they do in motivating claimants and improving their self-confidence so that they can seek employment?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I have actually met the tremendous work coaches in his constituency. I go out to speak to work coaches all the time, and they are saying to me that the change we are delivering through universal credit is the best thing they have ever delivered. The support they can give—[Interruption.] Rather than Opposition Members laughing, they would be well advised to come and join me or others in meeting work coaches. I will tell them how we know this is working: if it were not working, we would not have an extra 3.1 million people in work.

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Contrary to the “SNP bad” broken record from the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s recently introduced flexibilities for universal credit payments, and will she consider implementing Scotland’s model down here, especially as her colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Adam Tomkins, has said he is “very much in favour” of them?

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The underlying principle of how we get people into work is working right the way across the United Kingdom. It is working in Scotland, and that is correct. Equally, we agree with giving extra powers to devolved Governments, and Scotland has the right to do things in its own way. As we pointed out earlier, however, some of the changes taken on board in Scotland have actually resulted in slower payment to people who need their benefits.

Unemployment Rates: Europe

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7. What recent comparative assessment she has made of rates of unemployment in the UK and other European countries. [903737]

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The UK has the joint fifth lowest unemployment rate in the EU—better than France, the Netherlands and Denmark. The UK’s unemployment rate, at 4.3%, is the lowest in 42 years. It is less than half that of the euro area, which is 8.7%, and 3 percentage points below the EU28 average of 7.3%.

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Unemployment in my constituency of Chelmsford is now less than 1.5%, and those who are able to work are finding jobs, but will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents who need our financial support that they will continue to be supported when universal credit is rolled out later this year?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she is doing as a new MP, and her constituents on the work they are doing to find employment, getting on in their careers and moving forward. As I have said, this Government believe in hand-up support and opportunity. The support of universal credit—a benefit that supports people in and out of work—will continue not only for her constituents, but for people right across the country.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that of those who have gone into work as a result of this Government’s policies—and that is a good thing—many are living in poverty because of low pay and the inadequacy of our benefits system?

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It is interesting how differently people measure getting into work, poverty and life chances. Children born into workless households are actually five times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. Under this Government, we have seen 3.1 million more people in work, and the number of workless households has gone down by over 600,000. We are helping people out of poverty: we are helping them get a job.

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Earlier the Secretary of State mentioned dodgy statistics from the Opposition. I have heard people say that lots of the new jobs created are on zero-hours contracts and for part-time work. Can she say what the actual figures are for the number of jobs created that are full-time, permanent jobs?

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It was not me talking about dodgy statistics, it was the chair of the UK stats authority who said that, but I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. The overwhelming majority of jobs are full-time and permanent jobs, and the vast majority of those in part-time jobs have chosen to be in part-time jobs.

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On job searching, has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to review the very helpful and generous offer made by Liverpool City Council to her predecessor to provide office space for closure-threatened jobcentres? There are two jobcentres in my constituency—not one, but two—that her Government wish to close, leaving my constituency with zero jobcentres. They are due to close in just a few weeks’ time. Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to review that offer, to ensure that my constituents continue to receive employment support?

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It is really important that everybody gets the support they need, and a lot of the support going forward will be outreach work, so that people do not need to go to Jobcentre Plus, thanks to further support in the community. Obviously I am pleased that in the Liverpool city area—and in the north-west area—which is my hometown, employment is now far higher than it was in 2010. The unemployment rate under the Labour party was 2.8 million in 2008, even before the banking crisis, but now it is 1.4 million, so we are supporting people and we will continue to support people, because that is what this Conservative Government do.

Universal Credit: Disabled People

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8. What assessment she has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on the number of disabled people living in poverty. [903738]

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I do not want to see anyone living in poverty, and no Conservative Member of Parliament wants people living in poverty. Disabled people are some of the biggest beneficiaries of universal credit, with around 1 million disabled households having on average around £110 a month more on universal credit than they would have had on the legacy benefits.

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As disability charity Leonard Cheshire has pointed out, many disabled people do not have internet access, assistive technology or the necessary support to fill in the online form to apply for universal credit. Does the Minister agree that the application process needs to be more accessible, so that disabled people can easily apply for these benefits?

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The hon. Lady raises a very important point about accessibility of the benefits system for everyone, which is something we all take very seriously. I am grateful for the support that the Leonard Cheshire foundation and a whole range of stakeholders give us in designing the process, to make sure that it is as accessible as possible.

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Does the Minister agree that it is important that we are absolutely scrupulous in our presentation of the facts about universal credit? As the Secretary of State referred to earlier, I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to query the shadow Secretary of State’s claim that

“40,000 children will wake up in poverty on Christmas Day because the Tories refuse to pause”

the roll-out of universal credit. On Friday, Sir David Norgrove told me:

“It is clearly important that statements by a political party should be fully supported by the statistics and sources on which they rely. We do not believe”—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He has got the thrust of his question across, and the House doubtless will be grateful to him, but this is not a debate; it is Question Time about the policies—

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rose—

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No, no, the hon. Gentleman has finished for today on this. This is about the policies of the Government. The Secretary of State has made the point about the Statistics Authority, which I allowed her to make, perfectly properly, but it is not now the occasion for dilation on the attitude of the Opposition. This is questions to Ministers about the policies of the Government. That is the situation. Minister, very briefly—please, do not dilate on that matter, because it is out of order.

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It is very important that anybody who stands up in this Parliament takes their responsibilities towards the truth extremely seriously.

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Some specialist employment services for people with disabilities such as drug, alcohol or mental health problems—for example, Agoriad in my constituency—are subcontracted to these small local agencies, but minus a management fee and with unsatisfactory remote control. Would not direct contact with these small local agencies provide more resources where they are needed, as well as better value for money and more people in work?

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The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of specialist providers of employment. This is a very important sector, which the Government have a proud tradition of supporting. I meet stakeholders regularly, and we are always looking to see what more we can do to help them sustainably provide the invaluable employment opportunities that they do.

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Despite the Government’s claim that no severely disabled person moved on to universal credit would be worse off, we now know that that is not the case: scrapping the disability premiums will have just that effect. Transitional protection for existing claimants can easily be lost where there is a change in circumstance, such as if someone moves into work and if that job does not last. What assessment has the Minister carried out of the impact of abolishing these disability premiums on disabled people, and does she agree that transitional protection should be retained, so that it is not lost where there is a change in circumstance?

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Unlike the previous system, universal credit is more targeted, and support is focused on those who need it most. Transitional protection is available for people who move into universal credit from other benefits, provided their circumstances stay the same. When giving evidence to the Select Committee last week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment said that he was aware of the situation, and he is thinking carefully about this issue.

Universal Credit: Household Debt

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9. What recent assessment her Department has made of trends in the average level of household debt for people on universal credit. [903739]

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The Government have taken a number of steps to reduce the risk of problem debt, including capping payday lending costs and promoting savings.

Within universal credit, we also have interest-free advances and a system of priority deductions to help claimants who have got into arrears.

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The Government’s own data shows that rising numbers on universal credit are falling into rent arrears, and many claimants in my constituency are going to food banks or approaching payday lenders. Although an advance is available, this is a loan, which is to be repaid at 40% of the standard allowance. Another 40% can be deducted to repay creditors—for example, utilities. That is a total of 80%. Can the Minister reassure me that 80% of the individual allowance cannot be deducted, and that affordability checks, like those that all payday lenders have to do, are carried out before any deductions are actioned?

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Of course the hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that we want to make sure we help those who are in arrears. She will know that research done by the National Federation of ALMOs—arm’s length management organisations—has reported that three quarters of tenants were in rent arrears already before they moved into universal credit. She talks about deductions; the percentage is 40%. However, I am happy to meet her to discuss this matter further.

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It is a genuine pleasure to welcome the Minister to his place and, through him, to thank his Parliamentary Private Secretary for arranging a visit for me to see universal credit working in his constituency this Friday. Further to the question, will my hon. Friend outline the steps being taken to ensure that organisations on the ground help vulnerable people access 100% of universal credit advances rather than get into debt?

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Yes, I can confirm that work coaches and those who perform the interviews at jobcentres make people aware that they can access 100% advances, which are of course interest free, as I said. The other aspect that is available is personal budgeting support, which individuals who need it can also receive.

Older Workers

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10. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the level of employment of older workers. [903740]

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Since 2010, 1,272 new jobs have been created in South Basildon and East Thurrock—an increase due in no small part to my hon. Friend’s efforts. He will be aware that older worker employment levels are at a record high. In his region, 850,000 50 to 64-year-olds are in employment—an increase of over 120,000 people since 2010—and 120,000 people aged 65 and over are in employment. Again, that is another increase of 45,000 since 2010.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that encouraging businesses to be flexible in how they employ older workers is one way to bridge the skills gap and keep older workers in the employment market for longer, sharing their experience and knowledge?

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My hon. Friend is correct. The fuller working lives strategy, launched by the Department last year, is there specifically to support over-50s into employment and provide them with the skills and retraining that they need, and which businesses specifically value. There are a number of exemplar businesses. He will also be aware that individual people have created over 26,000 new businesses since 2011—that is for the over-50s.

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Many older workers are not necessarily there by choice. I think in particular of the WASPI women, who are having to work because of the inadequacies of their pension provision. What are the Government going to do about this?

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The Government have no intention of revising the Pension Acts of 1995, 2007 or 2011 introduced by previous Governments and by the coalition, but I make the point very strongly that average employment among the over-50s and the over-64s has increased dramatically since 2010.

Universal Credit

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11. What recent progress her Department has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [903741]

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12. What recent progress her Department has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [903742]

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Universal credit transforms the welfare state and the rollout is proceeding to plan, with universal credit now available in one third of all jobcentres in Great Britain.

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Easterhouse Housing and Regeneration Alliance is a coalition of eight independent housing associations that has been based in my constituency and operating for pretty much my entire lifetime. It has profound concerns about the rollout of universal credit in Glasgow. Given that the Government have given a lot of commitment to go and meet various people on their Benches today, will the Minister come to my constituency to meet it and listen to its concerns?

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When we have rolled out universal credit, we have done it in a manner that makes sense and works. Right now, 9% of those who will eventually end up on universal credit are on universal credit, and it will reach 11% by June this year. I am, of course, undertaking a whole range of visits to jobcentres across the country. I will make sure that I make a visit to Scotland, and we can have a discussion about whether there is an opportunity to visit the hon. Gentleman as well.

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A terminally ill man has won the right to raise a landmark challenge to the Government after the introduction of universal credit left him significantly worse off. Having already acted unlawfully to 1.6 million PIP claimants at a cost to taxpayers of £3.7 billion, does the Minister guarantee that his Government will not be found guilty of unfairly treating the terminally ill?

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I want to be absolutely clear: the changes that we are making in universal credit and in the benefit system are there to focus on protecting the most vulnerable. That is the underlying policy of universal credit and we will continue to do that.

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Has the Minister had any discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education about their proposals for the eligibility of universal credit claimants to free school meals? If the current proposal were to go ahead, it would introduce a huge new benefit trap into the system, far worse than anything in the old system. Universal credit was supposed to remove such traps, not create new ones.

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Currently, 1.1 million young people—students—receive free school meals. If the policy that has been put forward as part of the consultation goes ahead—where there is an earnings threshold of £7,400—an additional 50,000 young people will benefit from free school meals.

Universal Credit: Child Poverty

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13. If she will make an estimate of the number of children who will no longer be living in poverty as a result of the roll-out of universal credit. [903744]

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15. If she will make an estimate of the number of children who will no longer be living in poverty as a result of the roll-out of universal credit. [903747]

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Both hon. Ladies are right to recognise the role that welfare reform is playing in alleviating child poverty. Work is the best route out of poverty, and universal credit strengthens the incentives for parents to move into and progress in work. However, it cannot be considered in isolation: it is a key component of a broader strategy to move Britain to a higher wage, lower welfare and lower tax society.

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Owing to policies pursued since 2010, we now have 20,700 children in poverty across Hull, and food poverty and holiday hunger are growing, including, despite what the Secretary of State says, in working families. Will restricting free school meals in universal credit create a cliff edge and make the situation even more dire in the most disadvantaged communities?

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Undoubtedly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, children are five times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. The Government’s entire thrust is to get as many people into work as possible, and we would never contemplate anything that would get in the way of those kinds of incentives. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment said, nobody will lose out under the current proposals on free school meals; in fact, there might well be more recipients in the future.

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Figures published last month show that 27% of children in my constituency live in low-income households—and these are families who rely on universal credit. Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable that families living in poverty in Lincoln have to rely on food banks, particularly when due to problems with the roll-out of universal credit?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, welcomes the 43% fall in the claimant count in her constituency over the past few years—[Hon. Members: “That wasn’t the question.”] On her question, as she and many Members will know, the causes and drivers of people going to food banks are complex. [Interruption.] In my constituency, for example, the food bank was established in 2006—at the height of Labour’s conduct of the economy and welfare system—but the Department needs to think carefully about some of these issues, and we will be doing so in the future.

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I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his place. Does he agree that, on the important subject of children living in poverty and universal credit, it is important to have a sensible, grown-up discussion and debate, rather than bandying around unqualified figures?

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My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and he is absolutely right. National statistics, on a number of measures, have shown child poverty falling. In particular, we have seen 200,000 children over the past few years move out of absolute poverty.

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For too long, parents have been able to hide their earnings from their child maintenance payment calculations, creating and adding to child poverty. What action are the Government taking to stop this?

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As my hon. Friend knows, the child maintenance system was put in place to enable greater co-operation between parents, on the basis that that often results in a much better outcome for children, but there are parents who fail to do that, and for those circumstances, we have invested significantly in the financial investigations unit of the Child Maintenance Service. We will be consulting further on what more we can do to strengthen our enforcement powers.

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I welcome the Minister to his place. When the benefit freeze was introduced in April 2016, inflation stood at 0.3%; it is now over 3%, and food prices in December were over 4% higher than a year earlier. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households are struggling with problem debt, and new figures from the End Child Poverty coalition show that in some parts of Britain, such as Bethnal Green and Bow in London and Ladywood in Birmingham, over half of children are living in poverty. Their families are no longer just about managing. Will the Government end the social security freeze that is pushing families into poverty?

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I would advise the hon. Lady to be slightly careful about the statistics she is using. As we heard earlier, there are some particular problems, but in that report in particular there were enormous caveats saying that the measures were not accurate and the numbers not necessarily reliable, particularly on a constituency basis. The Government are committed to a strategy to tackle poverty that involves work, and since 2010 we have 954,000 fewer households in unemployment and moved into work. That is the best thing we can do for their futures.

Disability Confident Scheme

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14. What progress her Department has made on the implementation of the disability confident scheme. [903745]

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20. What progress her Department has made on the implementation of the disability confident scheme. [903753]

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There are 5,550 employers currently signed up to the disability confident scheme. The disability confident business leaders group, comprising prominent national businesses, is promoting the scheme to other employers, and all main Departments have now achieved disability confident leader status. I encourage all hon. Members to come along to a drop-in centre I have organised on Wednesday 21 February, 3 pm to 5 pm, in Portcullis House, Room Q, so that they too can become disability confident employers.

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It is always useful to have a little bit of additional information, and we are deeply obliged to the Minister.

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Last year, I attended a disability confident workshop in my constituency, where unemployment now stands at an all-time low of 1%. Also present were representatives of the DWP and the local council, as well as local employers, many of whom signed up to the scheme immediately. Will my hon. Friend give further feedback on the national roll-out of a programme that encourages employers to take advantage of keen, loyal staff who are disabled?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his local support for the disability confident scheme. I urge all Members to become involved in these wonderful events, where we see hundreds of people signing up to the scheme. It is important for us to continue to build on the constructive and positive feedback that we receive from employers by giving them practical support, so that they can employ more disabled people.

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Finally—and, I am sure, with admirable succinctness—Mr Marcus Jones.

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I recently visited the excellent Oak Wood School in my constituency, whose leaders are working hard to get talented young people with special needs into work and work placements when they finish school. Will my hon. Friend, like me, encourage employers in my area to join the disability confident scheme, so that we can give opportunities to those young people, and not just give them hope for the future, but provide the labour market with a number of people who will be able to bring a vast amount of experience and difference to our workplaces?

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I was very pleased to hear about the important work being done by Oak Wood School. Last year, more than 500 young people took part in supported internships, and this year the Department for Education has made available just under £10 million of additional funding, which will provide more work placements, particularly for young people with special educational needs. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital for us to ensure that more of those young people are given the opportunity to work.

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I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure that Members will have an opportunity to pore over her comprehensive reply by moving speedily to the Library, where copies will, I am sure, be located within minutes.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [903721]

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We had a record-breaking 2017 for employment, and I am delighted to see the trend continue as we enter the new year. The proportion of people in work is at an all-time high at 75.3%—so 32.2 million people are now in work, 415,000 more than were working last year. Figures also show that there are a record 810,000 vacancies in the economy at any one time, which proves that the Government are delivering on our promise to build a strong economy.

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No child in modern Britain should grow up in poverty, but figures from both the End Child Poverty coalition and the Secretary of State’s own Department reveal that we face a growing crisis. Does she seriously believe that ploughing ahead with universal credit will do anything to help the millions of children who are trapped in avoidable poverty in our country or will bring that number down?

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One thing on which both of us will agree—on which, indeed, Members in all parts of the House will agree—is that no child should be growing up in poverty. If we take action to ensure that families are working, those children will not be in poverty. We know for certain that if a child’s family are working, that child is much less likely to be in poverty when it grows up and is more likely to attain higher school qualifications. That is the action that this Conservative Government are taking.

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T3. Ryedale citizen’s advice bureau has seen a significant drop in the number of universal credit problem cases as a result of the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend and her predecessor, but we are seeing instances of advance payments being used to clear debts. What help and advice is being given to claimants in respect of budgeting and support, so that they can clear problem debts sensibly and sustainably? [903723]

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Through universal credit, we are providing personal budgeting support, which is available through conversations with work coaches. That is making a great difference to those who need such help.

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Front Benchers will have to be very brief, because we are running short of time on account of the length of questions and answers. A pithy sentence, or whatever, will suffice.

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What is the Secretary of State’s response to the report from the European Committee of Social Rights that said statutory sick pay and support for those seeking work or the self-employed is “manifestly inadequate” and therefore in breach of the legally binding European social charter?

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I am happy to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman on this point. All the policies we have put forward are based on being as fair as we can be to all recipients.

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T7. We have heard a lot today about universal credit, and making it work properly will depend to a great extent on DWP staff. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff in Sittingbourne and Sheerness jobcentres, who are showing immense dedication and enthusiasm to ensure that benefit claimants in my constituency are not adversely affected by the roll-out of UC? [903728]

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Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the staff at Sittingbourne and Sheerness jobcentres. When I have spoken to work coaches in the visits I have made, they are incredibly enthused: they tell me this is the first time they are able to do what they want to do, which is help people into work.

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The behaviour of Philip Green on BHS pensions was outrageous; likewise, Carillion paying dividends and big bonuses, while running up a £900 million pensions deficit. We expect better from our universities; does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be right that they are proposing to cut the pension benefits of staff just when one vice-chancellor alone at Edinburgh university has accepted a 33% salary hike as part of a package worth £410,000?

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With respect, this is not a matter for Government to respond on. The joint negotiating committee, which is made up of trustees, employers and unions, is responsible for approving an appropriate recovery plan to ensure the scheme is adequately funded. The universities are subject to regular assessment of their overall financial sustainability management and governance, and I am sure the Pensions Regulator will therefore be watching this situation.

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Developing a theme from this side of the House, I had the pleasure of visiting my local jobcentre on Friday. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the hard-working staff who are delivering record levels of employment in my constituency?

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Absolutely: I congratulate the staff in my hon. Friend’s jobcentre, and by the end of the process of rolling out UC, we will have 5,000 extra work coaches across the country.

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T2. About 20,000 people in Liverpool have had their personal independence payments cut due to the blatantly discriminatory regulations that the Secretary of State has now accepted were unlawful. When will my constituents get their money back and their entitlement returned? [903722]

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The first decision I made was to make sure we did not appeal that question about PIP and what we on this side of the House were going to do to live up to the expectations of PIP, and I think it is a very true, honourable and correct thing that we have done. However, to make sure we deliver it correctly and give the correct amount of money to the people who need it, it will take time for us to thoroughly research what needs to be done.

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The attractiveness to many of the two-weekly payments of UC are obvious, but does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that the Scottish Government’s decision to offer this to my constituents and other people across Scotland will leave those who choose it to be worse off than claimants in the rest of the UK?

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It is absolutely the case that under the Scottish system individuals will be at a cash-flow disadvantage after a number of weeks. I would point out that, of course, alternative payments are available in England, too.

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T4. Following last December’s High Court ruling, can the Secretary of State tell me by what date all 1.6 million PIP claims will have been reviewed: will it take weeks, months or even years? [903724]

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This reviewing will be an administrative process, so we will not need to see the people, but what is most important is that the right people get the right amount of money, and that will take the time it needs.

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We had a very interesting session on assistive technology in the Select Committee on Work and Pensions recently. Will the Government commit to looking at how assistive technology can be used to help more disabled people into work?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I really welcome the work that the Select Committee is doing. I believe that the fourth industrial revolution has the most enormous potential to transform the lives of disabled people, and of course I will read that report thoroughly.

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T5. My constituent Mrs Allinson suffers from multiple sclerosis. She has been receiving the personal independence payment for 24 months, but was recently reassessed and denied it on the ground that she can work, although only part time. Given that she is no longer getting that money, she is working full time and damaging her health. Do the Government recognise that disabled people need support to stay in work for as long as possible? Will the Minister meet me and ensure that Mrs Allinson’s case is reviewed? [903725]

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Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the case of her constituent. Let us be clear that we want to achieve the maximum amount of support for people who want to and can get into work as well as ensuring that the right support is available for those who cannot do so.

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The Child Support Agency was set up to pursue absent fathers who were not paying anything at all towards their children’s upkeep. Too often, the Child Maintenance Service seems to file those people under “too difficult” and just pursue people who are already paying. Can the Minister guarantee that the Child Maintenance Service will continue to go after people who are not paying anything at all towards the upkeep of their children, rather than just pursuing those who are already making a contribution?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that that will indeed be the case, and we will shortly be consulting on what more we can do to enforce against those who are unwilling to support their children.

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T6. One of the challenges in the design of universal credit is that it does not take into account the fluctuating incomes of people who are freelance. They can earn a low amount one month and a high amount the next, but universal credit does not manage that properly. A self-employed person who has earned £15,000 in a year will get less under universal credit than an employed person who has earned the same amount. Will the Government commit to fixing that anomaly? [903726]

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, universal credit works on a monthly basis. When someone earns a large amount in a month, we apportion that over the following months. It is worth pointing out that it is entirely possible for people with those kinds of earnings to budget over the year, just as many businesses do.

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The GKN takeover proposal announced last Thursday seeks to pay a £1.4 billion sweetener to shareholders, despite a £2 billion pension deficit. Does the Minister agree that the Government should act to protect the interests of GKN pension fund members?

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Of course the Government agree that we have to look after the concerns of the GKN workers. Here we have actually seen the trustees of the pension fund coming out, being bold and wanting reassurance from the other company that it can indeed pay for the pension scheme. We can look at the argument from two sides. GKN has to be strong and robust, but also Melrose should voluntarily ask the regulator to look into the implied costs in that benefit scheme to make sure that it can afford to take over the other company.

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T8. On 14 December last year, I asked the Minister not to ignore the voices of the 7,000 women in my constituency who are affected by state pension inequality, because we are not going away. Is the Department now any closer to paying us what we are due? [903729]

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The position has not changed. The Government do not intend to change the Pensions Act 1995, or the 2007 and 2011 Pensions Acts. I would point out that a £1.1 billion transitional arrangement was put forward in the 2011 statute.

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Some 70% of the rise in UK employment involves higher-skilled jobs. This is true in Wiltshire, which expects more than 2,500 jobs from Dyson alone. What work is the Minister doing with other Departments to tackle the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills gap in the UK, so that Wiltshire can benefit from those jobs?

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I have started to have conversations with ministerial colleagues, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to work as one Government to ensure that high-skilled jobs are created across our country.

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Given the significant rise in household debt and the fear that payday lenders will seek to take advantage of that situation, is not this the right time to seek a significant expansion of credit unions across the UK? What might the Minister do to facilitate such an expansion?

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The hon. Gentleman and I have a meeting in our diaries for, I believe, a week Monday, when I hope to expand on that specific point. He will know that credit union membership has doubled in the past 10 years, and I can assure him that we are discussing these matters with the Treasury, which has ultimate control over credit unions.

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I am a mathematician and a mother, so I am concerned that the head of the UK Statistics Authority had to write to a shadow Minister to point out that statements that they made were not based on real sources or real statistics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Minister should apologise?

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My hon. Friend puts it so eloquently. It is about time that Opposition Members apologise for their scaremongering.

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Even mothers and mathematicians have to respect the method, and the method in the House is that Members question Ministers about the Government’s policies. I do not blame the Secretary of State for taking the opportunity to ram home her point with force and alacrity, but Members must understand that this is not Question Time about the policies, tactics or preferences of the Opposition; this is Question Time about the policies of the Government. Even if there is some Whip handout saying, “Ask the Minister about the behaviour of the Labour party,” that does not make it in order. It is not in order—end of subject.

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T9. Thousands of women born in the 1950s are being left in serious hardship as a result of accelerated changes to the state pension age, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) said, they are crying out for justice. In the week when we celebrate the centenary of the first women gaining the right to vote, how dare this Government ignore their voices? [903730]

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The hon. Lady will know that the policy continued for 13 years under the Labour Government, and her Government could have done something about it between 1997 and 2010, but she maintained that it was the right policy. This Government continues to maintain that it was the right policy, and if individuals require assistance, the Government give over £50 billion to the disabled on an ongoing basis.

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rose—

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I am going back and forth, so the hon. Gentleman can have another go. In fairness to colleagues who have not asked questions, a short sentence—one, that is—will suffice.

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What benefit has auto-enrolment provided for my constituents?

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Seven thousand employees are now signed up, and 900 employers are doing the right thing and are providing auto-enrolment to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman and the Minister.

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Later, we will debate benefit uprating, which will maintain a freeze on many key working-age benefits even while the consumer price index sits at 3%. We all know that the freeze is pushing people into crisis, so will the Minister take this opportunity to lift the freeze to ease claimants’ suffering—yes or no?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the freeze was enacted in primary legislation, and we would need a vote of the whole House to change it. I am afraid that it forms part of a general suite of welfare reforms that have driven an enormous number of people into work and out of poverty.

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rose—

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A short sentence from the voice of Delyn.

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Will a Minister look at how universal credit is paid into credit unions? My local credit union is raising real concerns about the DWP’s efficiency and organisation in doing so.

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I am happy to take representations from the right hon. Gentleman, and I will look at that point with my colleagues who handle universal credit.

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Bearing in mind the Secretary of State’s call for clear statistics, will she welcome today’s Library paper, which clarifies that 113,000 children will cease to receive free school meals under the proposed changes to universal credit, withdraw the claim that 50,000 more children will benefit at one point in time and bring that to the attention of the House?

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A consultation is taking place, and the Department for Education will respond to it. Everyone who is currently on universal credit will have that benefit protected as long as the children remain in that education setting.

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Order. I am advised that we have had 23 topical questions, and we must now move on. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues who have waited. I try to extend the envelope a bit, but the time comes when we must move on.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I hope it is a genuine point of order, as opposed to a point of irascibility.

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Further to the comments made by the Secretary of State during oral questions, Mr Speaker, I seek your guidance on how I can place my response on the record. I agree it is important for everyone to use data responsibly and to provide the sources and contexts of those data, but I will take no lessons from this Secretary of State or her cohort, who accuse us of scaremongering as a way to distract from the reality of their Government’s cuts. We know what happened last time they accused Opposition Members of scare- mongering about the impact of cuts and universal credit: the Government introduced £1.5 billion of measures. Our concerns were accurate and well founded, and the Child Poverty Action Group found that cuts to universal credit will force 1 million more children into poverty.

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The shadow Secretary of State has found her own salvation. She asks me, I think rhetorically, how she can put her thoughts on the record, and she knows perfectly well that she has just done so through the device of a purported—I use the term advisedly—point of order. One day somebody will do an academic analysis. I have not done so myself, but, in my experience in the House, at least 90% of points of order are bogus. The hon. Lady has made her point.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify whether or not that was an apology from the shadow Secretary of State? It was not entirely clear.

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I think not. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is gesticulating at me in a mildly appealing fashion, but she has made her points with considerable force and requires no further opportunity now.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I will lay the letter from the UK Statistics Authority in the Library, so that other people can read it.

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That is a perfectly reasonable course of action for the Secretary of State to take, but it is not a point of order. It might be called a point of information that some colleagues will find helpful.

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rose—

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Is the right hon. Gentleman seeking to raise a point of order, or is he stretching his legs? [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) says he is keeping himself awake.

Immigration White Paper

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is going on with the immigration White Paper.

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Order. That is very cheeky of the right hon. Lady, who is a very senior denizen of the House. I must ask her to read out the urgent question that was granted. I did not grant an urgent question on what is going on with the immigration White Paper; I believe I am right in saying that her urgent question is, “To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the publication of the proposed immigration White Paper.”

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That is indeed what I asked. Would you like me to repeat those words?

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Blurt it out.

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I would like to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is happening with the immigration White Paper.

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Well, all right. If the right hon. Lady were sitting a written exam today, she would probably have to do a little more revision. I think she has not quite remembered the precise wording. Nevertheless, as Jack Straw would have said, I think we have got the gravamen of the matter.

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I will endeavour to answer the question that was set.

It is of course a great pleasure to come to the House today to answer the question from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I commend her for her brevity. In doing so, I point out that Ministers have made great efforts to keep the House informed of the state of play on the UK’s exit from the European Union, bearing in mind that we are in an ongoing negotiation and cannot give a running commentary.

Since June 2016, there have been numerous ministerial statements. This question, however, relates specifically to immigration, so I remind the House of where we have got to. Our first priority in the negotiation is to reach a deal on citizens’ rights, on the position of the 3 million EU citizens currently in the UK and, just as importantly, on the position of the 1 million UK citizens who reside in other EU member states. An agreement was successfully concluded on that last December, meaning that all those people were guaranteed continuing rights to live and work as they do now. Of course, we updated Parliament fully at the time. Our next priority is to agree the arrangements during the implementation period—the period immediately following the UK’s exit next March. Negotiations are shortly to begin with the EU. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the UK’s broad objectives in the speech she gave in Florence last year. We will publish a White Paper in the coming months, when the time is right, and of course we will consider how we can update the House as negotiations progress.

As to the longer term, as the House will know, the Government have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the economic aspects of the UK’s exit. The MAC has been asked to report by September 2018, although it has been invited to consider whether it could also produce interim reports. Let me be clear: given that we expect to have an implementation period of about two years after we leave, there will be plenty of time to take account of the MAC’s recommendations in designing the longer-term immigration system for the UK.

We are clear that the Government will make a success of Brexit. We will end free movement and build an immigration system that works in the national interest. We will, as we have done thus far, ensure that Parliament is kept informed and up to date.

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I welcome the Immigration Minister to her new post, but she did not give us any information about immigration or the immigration White Paper. The Home Secretary told the House and the Select Committee in October that there would be an immigration White Paper by the end of last year and a Bill early this year. The then Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), told the Committee in November that the White Paper would be produced “soon”, but now we have this. What on earth is going on? I have to say to the new Minister that this is a shambles. I understand that the MAC is not reporting until the autumn and that it will want to take advice on the labour market, but Ministers knew that timetable before Christmas, when they answered those questions. They knew that timetable because they set it when they asked for advice from the MAC. I also understand that negotiations are continuing, but, again, Ministers knew that before Christmas. In addition, this does not get around the obligation on the Home Office to tell the House, the public, EU citizens and employers what its negotiating objectives actually are.

These practical questions need answering very soon, not “in good time” or “when the time is right”. For example, what will the legal status be of the EU nationals who have not registered by the end of the grace period? The Home Secretary told the Committee that that would be in the White Paper. What will the arrangements be for European economic area citizens from Norway or Switzerland? If EU citizens arriving after March next year do not register, will they be able to work? Will employers have to check their registration documents? Will landlords have to make checks before they rent these people a property? What is the position for EU students coming this autumn? What will the arrangements for them be?

We know that the Prime Minister wants people arriving after March 2019 to be treated differently, but we have no idea how. It is just not good enough keeping Parliament in the dark in this way. The Government have said they do not want to be in the single market, but they have not told us what they want instead. They have said that they do not want to be in the customs union, but they have not told us what they want instead. Now they have said that they do not want to have free movement, but, again, they have not told us what they want instead or even what their negotiation objectives are. At best, Ministers are cutting Parliament and the public out of the crucial debate about the future of our country. At worst, they seem to be stuck in negotiations without having agreed, even among themselves, what they want to achieve out of them. May I suggest to the Immigration Minister that she asks the Home Secretary to come to this House to make a full statement, at least on the transition arrangements? The clock is ticking and when you are running out of time, you cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

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First, I reassure the right hon. Lady that we are not kicking the can down the road. We are making sure we get a system that is right for people. That is why I make no apology for making our priority the 3 million EU citizens living here and the 1 million UK citizens living in EU states. We want to have a system in place for them during the implementation period so that we can register those 3 million people as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. It is imperative that, when we come to the House with a White Paper and an immigration Bill, they are the right pieces of legislation.

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When are we likely to get immigration down to the tens of thousands?

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My right hon. Friend will know as well as I do that in successive Conservative party manifestos we have made a commitment to making sure that we bring immigration down to sustainable levels.

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The immigration White Paper was originally scheduled to be published last summer. Then, Ministers told the Home Affairs Committee that it would be published before Christmas. Does not this constant postponement speak to the chaos and confusion on immigration in the Department as a whole? Does the Minister accept that, as the director general of the Confederation of British Industry said, business will be “hugely frustrated” by yet another postponement? Does she appreciate that firms need time to plan for change?

Does the Minister accept that this uncertainty is particularly upsetting for the 3 million EU citizens who live here? These people are contributing to the health service, social care, universities, financial services and the hospitality industry, among many other sectors. They are many of our constituents, neighbours and work colleagues. It is wrong that they should be treated like this. Furthermore, the longer the uncertainty goes on, the less willing EU citizens will be to come here to take up employment. Does the Minister accept that the consequences for recruitment in the health service in particular are potentially very serious? Does she also accept that European students who come to study in Britain after March 2019 will want reassurance that, if they are doing a three or four-year course, they will be able to stay for more than two years without having to apply again for a residence permit?

It is all very well for the Minister to say that the White Paper will be published when the time is right. The Opposition argue that the time has been right for some time and that the Government’s postponement and delay are inexcusable.

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What is crucial is that, as my predecessor as Immigration Minister did, I continue to consult businesses and universities to make sure that their views are fed into the process. Likewise, the Migration Advisory Committee is consulting businesses because it is so important that their views are fed into the process and that the Government can use the response of economic experts to enable us to determine the best policy going forward.

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I commend the Home Office for the careful and considered way it is dealing with this important Bill. It is listening to business and the experts and waiting for some further negotiation, before introducing a Bill that will be fit for purpose for this country for the next 10 or 20 years.

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Of course, what we are seeking to do is to have evidence-led policy making.

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This unnecessary and unwelcome delay in the publication of a White Paper that was originally promised last summer should perhaps not surprise us, given the Government’s chaotic and aimless approach to Brexit. Even the transition arrangements are in chaos, with the Prime Minister saying that she will push back on residency rights for EU nationals during the transition, thereby making it harder to attract key EU nationals. All that while we are already rejecting doctors and crucial staff from outside the EU because the ridiculous tier 2 cap has been breached for two months in a row.

Scottish Government economic modelling shows that, on average, every EU citizen working in Scotland contributes £34,000 in GDP. The leak of the Whitehall EU exit analysis means we now know that the UK Government are sitting on analysis that comes to precisely the same conclusions as the Scottish Government’s. That highlights yet again the positive contribution that EU citizens make to Scotland’s economy and communities. Free movement has been vital to support healthy population growth in Scotland. I urge the Minister to continue dialogue with the Scottish Government to ensure that immigration rules after exit do not undo that welcome progress.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is of course right to point out that EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK have made a huge contribution to our country. That is precisely why we want to see their rights preserved and, indeed, why the Government are legislating that they should be through the withdrawal agreement. I absolutely take on board his comment about the Scottish Government. I reassure him that we will of course continue to work with our colleagues in the Scottish Government to make sure that we get the best results for the whole United Kingdom.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to leaving the single market and that that will allow the United Kingdom to have more control over EU immigration in future?

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My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that, when people voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, part of that decision for some people was based on immigration. That is why we are taking back control of our borders and will do so through the immigration Bill when it is introduced.

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The Minister seemed to suggest that there is no need to deal with this matter before the transition period because we will have the whole transition period—some two years—in which to sort out new arrangements. Does that mean that we will be retaining freedom of movement during the transition period, in which case why do we not stay in the single market?

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We have been very clear that, after our exit, we want a deep and special relationship with our neighbours going forward, but we also want a smooth transition. It is really important that we have an implementation period that enables us to make sure that the 3 million EU citizens who are here are allowed to register smoothly and seamlessly. The hon. Gentleman will be as aware as I am that the Prime Minister has been very clear that we are leaving the single market and we are leaving the customs union.

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Does the Minister agree that the referendum sent out a clear message that people want to take back more control over EU immigration, and that it is therefore crucial that we get this right and publish the report when it is fully ready?

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My hon. Friend is, of course, right that, back in 2016, people sent us a very clear message. It is absolutely imperative that we have a smooth transition and that we publish the White Paper and the immigration Bill when the time is right, not before we are ready to do so.

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With the Government’s position on this topic totally unclear even to Parliament, how on earth can Ministers expect to be taken seriously in the ongoing negotiations with our EU counterparts?

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I am not quite sure how I can be clearer: we are leaving the single market, we are leaving the customs union, and we are seeking to implement a process that will last throughout the implementation period that allows those 3 million EU individuals living here, whose contribution we value, to register for their settled status as smoothly and as seamlessly as possible.

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My right hon. Friend says that she will continue the dialogue about immigration with the Scottish Government. When she is doing that, will she remember that a recent opinion poll said that almost 70% of Scots rejected the Scottish National party’s plans to devolve immigration powers from this place to Holyrood?

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I thank my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to point that out. Of course I will listen to voices from across Scotland.

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With this chaos and delay, is not one thing increasingly clear: the Government’s promise to give EU citizens, and their families and employers, the legal certainty that they deserve is now totally broken? When will 3 million EU citizens get more than warm words and unfinished negotiations from this Brexit Conservative Government?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. However, I can only repeat this: we will bring forward the settled status scheme, which will be a digital scheme, that will enable our EU citizens living here, whom we value and whom we want to stay, to have a smooth and seamless transition as soon as we possibly can. We have allowed a two-year implementation period, because I am very conscious that 3 million people cannot register instantly. If they do so on a smooth basis, that will still represent 5,000 people a day. That will be a challenge, but it is one that we are determined to get right.

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What my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire want is an immigration system that provides control, but one that is also fair and that treats people equally, regardless of where they come from in the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that those two principles will underpin the White Paper in due course?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his comment; I am always pleased to hear views from Corby and east Northamptonshire. What matters is that we have an immigration system that is fair, and that we work to ensure that any proposals that come forward during the implementation period are the ones that will give the best deal for the UK and ensure that our immigration system is sustainable.

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This is a two-year Session of Parliament. Does the right hon. Lady expect the immigration Bill to complete its passage through the Houses of Parliament in that two-year period?

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Of course.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new position as Immigration Minister and on her response to the urgent question. Will she confirm that it was the previous Labour Government who let immigration spiral out of control from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands a year, that immigration levels are still far too high, and that once we leave the European Union those numbers will start to fall?

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With respect, I point out to my hon. Friend that the numbers are already beginning to fall. It is important that we note that the direction of travel is the right one. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have been very clear that we want a sustainable immigration system that sees those numbers coming down, and it is important that we deliver on that.

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Post March 2019, from a practical point of view, the one in five of my constituents who are EU nationals could: have permanent residency or settled status; be eligible for settled status; have future eligibility for settled status; or not be eligible at all. When they are talking to landlords, employers and the health service, how are they going differentiate which category they fall into?

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It is important to note that we will want to register those who are eligible for settled status as soon as possible so that their status can be confirmed. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be a period during which it will be difficult to differentiate, which is why we are going to use the two-year period to make sure we can do that as seamlessly as we possibly can.

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Just in case anyone—either inside the Chamber or beyond—has inexplicably missed what my right hon. Friend has said, will she reaffirm the Government’s commitment to leaving the single market and leaving the customs union, and that this will ensure that we have control over EU immigration in the future?

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My hon. Friend is, of course, right. We intend to leave the single market and the customs union, and to retain the control over our immigration system that our citizens told us that they wanted back in 2016.

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The Minister will be aware that roughly half the immigrants who come to this country are from outside the EU and the European economic area. She talks about control, so will she tell me how many non-EEA citizens there are in the UK who have had an immigration application refused, but have not had removal or deportation proceedings initiated against them?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that we work very hard to make sure that people who are in this country without permission find it a very difficult environment in which to live. The previous and current Home Secretary’s compliant environment policies have made sure that it is harder to have a bank account, harder to have a driving licence and harder to rent property. The important thing is we know that people come into this country without permission, and we should therefore be seeking to remove them.

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A White Paper is a consultation document, but it seems to me that the Government are delaying consulting on what should go into a consultation document. Are we not in this situation because the extreme right wing of the Tory party, who are extreme Brexiters, have formed a tail that is wagging the Tory dog?

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I am not quite sure how I should respond to being called a dog. However, it is really important to note that we are working incredibly hard to make sure we have an immigration system after Brexit that works in the interests of UK citizens. There is no extreme right-wing cabal controlling the Tory party. This is actually about making sure we deliver on what the British people voted for in 2016.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm two things? First, is it not really important, when we discuss immigration, to recognise that the overwhelming majority of people who come to our country do so to work? We are grateful for the work they do and we should always welcome the contribution they make to our country. Will she also confirm that the customs union has got diddly squat to do with immigration?

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My right hon. Friend is right to point out that people who come to this country to work—whether they are from the EU or outside the EU—make a valuable contribution. That is part of the reason why, through the settled status scheme, we seek to recognise that and to make sure that these 3.5 million people can register as seamlessly as possible.

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The Minister said that the issues around EU nationals in this country have been resolved. Is it not a fact that the European Commission made it clear that the circumstances of EU nationals married to British citizens who have chosen to come into this country using treaty rights under article 21 of the treaty of the European Union and the Surinder Singh judgment have not been resolved? Is there not a large group of people in this country married to people from other EU countries who have a level of uncertainty about their future?

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The agreement that the Prime Minister came to with other EU leaders on 8 December was really important, because we are seeking to make the rights of EU citizens and their dependants as clear as possible, and to make it as easy as possible for them to register so that they can have the certainty to which they are entitled.

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The Minister keeps talking about achieving sustainable levels of immigration, which suggests that current levels are unsustainable. The reality is that another Scottish farmer reported at the weekend that food was left to rot in his fields because he did not have enough workers. The fish processing industry is struggling, the medical profession is struggling to attract EU immigrants and academics are worried about their future, so the current level of immigration is currently unsustainable for exactly the opposite reasons that the Conservative Government think it is unsustainable. Is this another part of the no-deal preparations that the Government seem to be embarking on? What will happen to immigration policy if there is no deal and no transition period?

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Whether deal or no deal—we are confident that there will be a deal—we will need a new immigration system that takes account of the fact that we will have left the European Union. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about different sectors of the economy. That is one of the many reasons why we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consider what our policy should be, and that will give businesses a chance to feed in their views.

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The Recruitment & Employment Confederation reports that in many sectors there are already insufficient UK applicants to fill the vacancies that exist today. Business cannot carry on with this uncertainty for much longer, so may I urge the Minister to bring forward the White Paper and the immigration Bill at the very earliest opportunity for the sake of our businesses?

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I reassure the hon. Lady that we continue to consult businesses and the universities sector, and that is part of the reason why we have asked the MAC to bring forward a report for us by the autumn. It is really important to us that we get our immigration policy right, which is why we have not yet brought forward the White Paper and the Bill, but we intend to.

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Last week, two consultants in intensive care at Addenbrooke’s Hospital wrote to me. They had been trying to recruit urgently needed staff. They found three people, but those people were turned down by the Home Office because the tier 2 visa cap had been reached for that month. How can that possibly be helpful to our country? Does the Minister agree that the system is basically broken?

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Of course we need to ensure that we have a sustainable system, which is why it is important that the Bill and the White Paper take account of all views expressed to us by all sectors. That is what we are determined to do to get this right.

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Even if the Minister cannot confirm any other great details, will she re-emphasise the point that there will be no change to the historical rights of citizens of the Irish Republic to travel to and work in Britain?

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I think that we have been quite clear that those from the common travel area will be able to continue to travel, as indeed they could from 1920 onwards—long before we became members of the European Union.

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In Yarl’s Wood and other such institutions, vulnerable people have been held, effectively indefinitely, when most of them have not actually committed any crime. Does the Minister agree that the Bill, when it finally comes, will provide an opportunity to review this obvious injustice?

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Detention will continue to form part of our immigration policy, but I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning the case of Yarl’s Wood. I am going there to visit the immigration removal centre this week, and I have already been to two other removal centres. As the new Immigration Minister, it is imperative that I go and see how our policies are operating, and to seek reassurances where they are required.

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Every Friday at my surgeries, I have a queue of constituents who have issues with the Home Office—everything from entrepreneur visas that have been delayed and refused, to people who cannot get their granny over for a visit. Is it not the case that the Home Office is a Department in so much chaos that there is no way whatever that it will be able to cope with an additional 3 million EU nationals?

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I absolutely refute the suggestion that we are a Department in chaos. I reassure the hon. Lady that we are determined to ensure that the registration of EU nationals is as simple and straightforward as possible.

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Has the Minister had a chance to read the Health Committee’s report on nursing shortages? It clearly sets out how much the NHS relies on nurses from overseas, and how many EU nurses are really worried about their future. Will she tell us how this delay will help the overstretched NHS to plan for the future and ensure that this country has the nurses it needs?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that nurses remain on the shortage occupation list. Nurses from the EU who are currently living and working here will of course have the same right to settled status as those in other employments.

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In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), the Minister said that the immigration Bill would be passed in this two-year Parliament. If the consultation on the White Paper is coming in October, that will give her about four months to pass the Bill through both Houses. Will she confirm when the Bill is coming and whether she will get it through in the two-year Parliament? This is not something from “Yes, Minister”; it is about people’s lives. We need firm views from the Government on what is happening on immigration.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for comparing this to a “Yes, Minister” episode; I remember that there was a definite paucity of women in that programme. I assure him that we are absolutely clear that we will introduce the immigration Bill and the White Paper when the time is right. We appreciate that we have to get our immigration system sustainable and appropriate for a post-Brexit era, and it is really important to me that we do so.

NHS Winter Crisis

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the resolution of the House of 10 January on the NHS winter crisis.

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Winter is challenging for health services worldwide. With a high number of flu cases this year, we have seen an increase of about 35% in accident and emergency attendances for flu—triple what it was last year—with about 3,000 hospital beds occupied as a result of flu and a further 700 because of norovirus. The NHS saw 1,200 more patients at A&E compared with this time last year. The guidance issued by the national emergency pressures panel sought to free up capacity for emergencies given the high number of flu cases, including from two dominant strains of flu co-circulating this year.

It is important to remind the House that the deferment of operations referred to in that guidance applies to about 13% of hospital beds dealing with elective patients, of which about half were protected within the guidance in respect of cancer and other urgent elective treatments. The guidance was updated on 26 January to confirm that further deferment of hospital operations is no longer needed. In terms of the impact that the guidance has had on operations, we will not know that until mid-March, when that data will be published and placed in the Library for the benefit of those on both sides of the House.

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I welcome the new Minister to his place. However, the Secretary of State should have been here giving an oral statement, because those were the terms of the motion endorsed by the whole House.

The reason that motion was endorsed is that this winter, in recent weeks, over 95% of hospital beds have been full, we have seen the highest-ever number of A&E diverts, 50,000 elective operations have been cancelled, and urgent operations have been cancelled too. The crisis that our NHS is now in is so deep, and the underfunding so severe, that on Friday NHS England was forced to announce that the target of seeing 95% of A&E patients within four hours is now effectively abandoned until March 2019. If the Secretary of State had come to the House last Thursday, he could have been questioned on the NHS guidance.

Last year, more than 2.5 million patients waited longer than they should have done in A&E. Does the Minister expect that number to rise or fall this year? The 18-week target has already been abandoned. Is it not unprecedented that patients will have to accept, even before the financial year starts, that the NHS will not deliver on key constitutional standards of care? The waiting time standards are legal duties contained in the NHS constitution. What legal advice have Ministers received, or will they be seeking to amend the NHS constitution?

On Saturday, thousands of us took to the streets to demand a fully-funded, universal public national health service—and by the way, we will take no lessons from Donald Trump, who wants to deny healthcare to millions with a system that checks your purse before it checks your pulse. The NHS model is not broke but it does need funding. If this Government will not give it the funding it needs, then the next Labour Government will.

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A party preparing for a run on the pound will be in no place to give funding to the NHS. It is the agreed convention of the House that responses to Opposition day debates are provided by the Department within 12 weeks. The Secretary of State will of course do that within that period, and there is a good reason for that. As I set out in my opening remarks, the data will not be available until mid-March, so the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) is premature in asking this urgent question.

The facts are that the NHS was better prepared for winter this year. The number of 111 calls dealt with by a clinician has doubled compared with last year. Over 1 million more people have been vaccinated for the flu virus, 99% of A&Es have GP streaming and over 3,000 more beds have been made available since November, reflecting the extent of the plan.

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So everything in our NHS is fine, is it?

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If the hon. Gentleman would like to compare with the performance of the NHS in Wales, we will undertake a comparison. The reality is that this year, we have had pressure on the NHS as a result of flu. The difference is that in 2009, the Conservative party did not play politics with the flu pressures. This year, the hon. Member for Leicester South has done so. He should compare it with the pressure in Wales and see the excellent performance we have had in comparison.

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The Minister will know that pressures in the NHS cannot be viewed in isolation from pressures in the community. It is great to see that he is now part of a Department of Health and Social Care. Will he say what is being done about making beds available in the community, to free up pressures in the NHS?

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My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Health Select Committee, makes a valid point about the need for much more integration in our approach to the NHS. That is reflected in the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) as the Minister for Care, to look at that exact point.

Part of it is also looking at how we address other areas to deliver better outcomes. For example, 43% of bed occupancy at present is from just 5% of patients—those staying over 21 days. One key issue is how we bring down the current average stay from 40 days to, say, 35 days. That alone would unlock around 5,000 beds. We are looking at a more integrated model to address the pathways that I know my hon. Friend has highlighted in the Health Committee as a key priority.

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Scottish National party Members want, first and foremost, to put on record our thanks to NHS staff. A number of members of my family work for the NHS. I spent time with them at the weekend, and we got that time because they were working over the Christmas period. We know that Christmas and the winter period has been profoundly challenging due to flu, but it is important that resources follow that. That is why we have record funding support for the NHS in Scotland and NHS Scotland A&E departments are the best performing in the UK.

Last week, the Scottish Parliament voted to abolish the public sector pay cap and to look at bringing in a 3% pay increase for our public sector workers. That is action, rather than warm words. Far too often we hear warm words from this Government, but in the national health service we need to see action, particularly on the public sector pay cap. What steps is the Minister taking to tackle wage stagnation within the national health service?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his more mature approach, in recognising the huge amount of work performed by NHS staff. Indeed, as I pointed out, 1,200 more people a day are being treated in A&E, which reflects how much more is being done in our NHS with more resource, more money, more doctors, more nurses and more paramedics.

In terms of the specifics on money, the Government have given £1.6 billion to support performance improvements, which will be used to treat a quarter of a million more patients in 2018-19. The NHS planning guidance also shows that it expects performance to improve in the face of growing demand. That shows how more is being done, and more needs to be done.

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All over the world, every winter sees a spike in illness and pressures on healthcare. Does the Minister agree that this Government have been proactive? In fact, for the first time ever, care home staff can receive vaccinations for free.

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of vaccinations. This year we have seen 1 million more vaccinations than last year, which is part of addressing the demand on A&E. The number of 111 calls dealt with by clinicians has more than doubled, which has mitigated much of the demand from the flu virus.

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In the light of the funding problems exposed by the winter crisis, what is the Government’s response to the recommendation of the last chief executive of the NHS, the heads of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners and the retiring head of the Treasury that there has to be a form of earmarked taxation to provide stable, sustainable funding?

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Addressing the challenge of funding was reflected in the Budget, with the additional money set aside by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. On the comments of Simon Stevens, it is important to note what he said about the connection between a strong economy and delivering the finance that the NHS needs. Simon Stevens said:

“It has been true for the 68 years of the NHS’s history that when the British economy sneezes the NHS catches a cold.”

The reality is that if we are to fund the NHS as all of us want it to be funded, we need to ensure that there is a strong economy and only one party will ensure that that happens.

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If we restore the beds to Milford-on-Sea lost under Labour, it will reduce the pressure on Southampton General, will it not?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The other issue that puts pressure on beds and hospital finances is many of the legacy private finance initiative deals. We also inherited those deals from the Opposition, which they very rarely seem to want to talk about.

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Will the Minister tell the House why, on Friday, NHS England suspended the requirement for A&E patients to be seen within four hours until 2019, contrary to the NHS constitution, and will he amend the NHS constitution to reflect this advice?

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I thought the hon. Lady was going to stand up to reflect on the fact that her trust got £2.9 million of additional funding from what the Chancellor set about doing. The reality is that this Government are putting more money into the NHS and addressing the demands on the system.

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May I ask my hon. Friend what scope there is as we go forward for conversations between his Department, NHS England and NHS trusts about maximising staff numbers in acute settings in our hospitals during the winter months?

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We are in discussion with Health Education England on workforce planning and ensuring that we address concerns about retention and training, part of which is the fact that the Chancellor has lifted the 1% cap as it applies within the health service, and we are of course in active discussions with the trade unions on that point.

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It has been reported to me that out of the 17 cubicles at Lewisham A&E one morning last November, five people were awaiting section with severe mental health problems. One person was there for over 72 hours, another for over 26 hours and another for over 21 hours, and all were there for over four hours. When will the Minister acknowledge that the reason why A&Es cannot cope is that the entire system—from social care and GPs through to mental health—is buckling under the enormous pressure of increasing demand, and when is the NHS going to get the funding it needs?

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I have already said that I recognise there is increasing demand, and set out many of the measures we are taking through the 111 service and other areas. The hon. Lady’s own trust has received an additional £3.2 million to address many of those pressures, and the key question is how that will be deployed by the trust to address many of the blockages in the pathways at the moment.

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Despite the challenges this winter, does my hon. Friend not agree that we can be extremely proud in this country that we have an NHS free at the point of delivery to all of our citizens? Will he confirm that that will continue to be the policy of this Government, and does he agree with me that we should not listen to the voices from across the Atlantic saying we should adopt a different system?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the NHS will remain free at the point of delivery. The reality is that for the majority of the NHS’s existence, it has been run by the Conservative party. We know the value of retaining healthcare free at the point of delivery, and the Secretary of State has repeatedly reaffirmed his absolute commitment to that.

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In my constituency surgery, two sisters came to speak to me about their father, who went to hospital last month. Because the staff were so overstretched, he was placed in the wrong ward, so he did not get seen by a doctor for four days. Will the Minister reassure the sisters, and will he will pause the downgrade of Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and rethink this so that the winter crisis does not become a daily crisis in the NHS?

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As the hon. Lady knows, local commissioning decisions are for the clinical commissioning group and local commissioners, but again, not one Opposition Member has recognised the additional funding that has gone in. Her own trust received an additional £3.4 million—[Interruption.] Well, it never is enough for the hon. Lady. The question is, how, with the economic mismanagement under their party, Labour Members are ever going to deliver what they want? Her trust received an additional £3.4 million to address the pressures.

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Not only are this Government increasing the funding available to the NHS; crucially, they are also training more doctors, with 1,500 more medical school places. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not only a crucial factor that will address areas such as Lincolnshire, which are under-doctored, but another reason to put a medical school in Lincolnshire?

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I very much note my hon. Friend’s bid for further training places, and he is absolutely right: there has been a 25% increase in the number of places. That is part of ensuring that we have more doctors, nurses and paramedics, which this Government have put in, to address the increasing demand that the NHS faces.

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Given that, according to Age UK, one in three older people admitted to hospital is suffering from malnutrition, will the Minister now accept that cuts to adult social care are putting an avoidable and increasing strain on the NHS?

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What the hon. Lady’s question points to is how we better integrate care as between hospitals and the care sector. That is exactly the issue that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who has responsibility for care, is looking at in the Department, to ensure better outcomes from the money being put into the system.

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Will the Minister join me in praising the foresight, dedication and hard work of the staff and management of Luton and Dunstable, which was the first hospital to bring in A&E streaming and now regularly and comfortably achieves the 95% target? Does he agree that we need to be better at moving best practice in the NHS around the whole system more quickly?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What he points to is the variance in performance between some of the best trusts, such as Luton and Dunstable, and other trusts. One of the key challenges is how we ensure that that best practice is better socialised across the NHS, because unlike Labour we recognise that it is not just about how much money we put into the NHS; it is what we get out for that money. Luton and Dunstable illustrates that point, and more trusts need to follow suit.

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North Tees Hospital staff are doing a great job of dealing with the winter crisis, but even they have been struggling this year. The trust says it is going to record its first ever deficit, because it cannot make the £18 million cuts demanded by the Government. Is the answer really to deprive it of more money or to have it set up a wholly owned subsidiary company to cut the terms and conditions of future staff?

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The hon. Gentleman’s trust has received an additional £1.6 million, so it is simply factually incorrect to say that its budget has been cut.

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May I thank my hon. Friend the hospitals Minister for the extra £2.6 million given to Kettering General Hospital to help it to cope with winter pressures this year; and, through him, my I congratulate the NHS on this year undertaking the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in Europe and the largest in this country’s history?

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My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner for his constituency, and he is absolutely right to highlight both the progress made and the importance of the prevention offered through the increased number of vaccinations. I hope many more people next year will continue to take up the vaccination, including Members of this House.

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Does the Minister not realise that 14,000 beds have been taken out of the national health service on this Government’s watch? People are now being treated in ambulances, which is a disgrace. Is he not taking us back to the Major Government of the 1990s, when people were sleeping on trolleys?

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Again, the hon. Gentleman is ignoring the increase in the number of doctors. There are now 14,900 more doctors and 14,200 more nurses in the system. As I alluded to earlier, it is not just the number of beds; it is also how we manage those beds. It is how we manage the fact that 5% of the patient population is occupying 43% of beds that will best address bed occupancy rates.

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I strongly welcome the extra investment in Essex and Harlow in terms of the winter crisis in the national health service, and I very much hope we get a 10-year plan, as suggested by the Secretary of State. Is my hon. Friend aware of the difficulties that Harlow Hospital faces, in that we have among the highest A&E figures per head in England and a hospital that is literally falling down and not fit for purpose, as recognised by the Department? Will he visit the hospital to see what can be done to help us in our campaign for a brand-new hospital for Harlow?

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As my right hon. Friend knows, the challenge at Harlow is recognised by the Department. That is why, from memory, its outline business case has been approved and it is now going through the next phase in terms of getting the final business case approved. I am very happy, as always, to discuss the progress of Harlow with my right hon. Friend.

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Before the Minister seeks to deflect my question by telling me how much extra my trust has got—his Parliamentary Private Secretary is diligently looking that up at this moment—let me tell him that I am aware of how much we received: £1.1 million. However, I can also tell him that winter cost us £11 million, so there is still a £10 million cost to our trust budget.

However, there is a double hit, because my hospital will be hit by fines as a result of missing A&E targets and handling targets for ambulances, with £120 per missed four-hour target, £1,000 per missed 12-hour target and £200 for each ambulance affected. Will the Minister make sure that those fines are not levied by clinical commissioning groups, and that that money stays where it is needed, which is in frontline care?

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Again, the hon. Gentleman is ignoring the huge number of measures that have been put in place. As Sir Bruce Keogh himself recognised, there was much more planning this year at a much earlier stage. We have had better integration between NHS England and NHS Improvement. We have had a much more comprehensive planning cycle. We have had better access to primary care, reducing pressure on the front door. We have had stronger action on delayed discharges, addressing issues at the back door. We have had changes to the way ambulance services respond to calls, so there is better prioritisation. We have also had financial incentives focused on A&E performance, so there is a huge range of measures, in addition, as I said earlier, to 1 million more people being vaccinated against flu. Those are all part of the actions taken by this Government to prepare and plan for the pressure of the flu issue we have had to manage.

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While my constituents will welcome the £1.1 million of extra winter funding, they do not want to believe that this issue is decided purely by knockabout in the House of Commons, which is what some others wish to focus on. Will the Minister reassure me that he will look for independent clinical advice on how to deal with pressures in the NHS and then base his response on that advice?

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My hon. Friend is right. There is a desire among Labour Members to avoid the reality of what is happening in Wales, where clinicians said that their best performance is often akin to the worst performance in England. However, we recognise that there needs to be much more integration in the system. That is why the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, is looking at how we have better integration in the NHS and the community in terms of domiciliary care, and at how we address some of the issues in the pipeline—the pathways—in hospitals to get a better flow, so that the discharging of patients is not delayed. Much progress has been made, but we recognise that more needs to be done.

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We all knew this was going to be a difficult winter for the NHS, but I just wondered whether the Minister felt that his Department had helped the situation by delaying the announcement of additional funds until the November Budget, with most trusts not receiving that money until December. That meant that my trust, for example, had to make plans without knowing whether it would get additional funding and that it was taking a risk.

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The Labour party seems to have moved from complaining about the amount of money to complaining that it was not delivered early enough. The hon. Lady’s trust received £3.4 million of additional money, but, as Sir Bruce Keogh has made clear, the point is that preparation for winter this year began much earlier than normal and was far better advanced than has been the case before. That is what the medical director of the NHS has said about how we prepared for winter this year.

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Could I reflect on the rather rosy picture that my colleague from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), painted of the NHS in Scotland? We have poor waiting times at A&Es, we are closing a paediatric ward in Paisley, and the chemotherapy unit at Station 15 in Ayr is under threat. Does the Minister think that having the highest tax base in the United Kingdom is a threat to recruitment in NHS Scotland, and that higher taxes in Scotland might play to the advantage of NHS England?

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My hon. Friend points to a key point that I have made throughout this session. It is not just about how much money is put into the NHS, but about the outcomes that are delivered as a result. He is right to allude to the fact that in Scotland the SNP has not delivered the improvements it promised on the NHS. That is why there is so much dissatisfaction in Scotland with what is happening in the NHS there.

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It is not just integration that will solve the problems in the social care sector. In Trafford, social care providers are being promised £14.61 an hour from this April—well short of what we need to sustain the home care market. What will the Minister do to ensure that there is adequate funding for home care providers?

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The hon. Lady raises a very valid point. It is exactly why we will have a Green Paper this summer looking at what steps need to be taken to address this issue. On both sides of the House, we recognise that more needs to be done on how we address these concerns, and that is what the Green Paper will tackle.

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I am sure that the Minister did not mean to mislead the House regarding the impact of the flu epidemic on our A&Es, so will he confirm that the delays to people being treated in A&E, and the fact that people have been waiting on trollies in corridors and that ambulances have been queueing at the doors of A&E, predated the flu epidemic?

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The hon. Gentleman makes quite a serious allegation of my misleading the House. What I was very clear about is that there has been a 35% increase in attendances at A&E as a result of flu this year compared with last year, and that around 3,000 beds are currently occupied by patients with flu and around 700 beds are occupied by those with norovirus. Clearly, that has resulted in significant seasonal pressures this year, which have placed strain on the system. That was recognised by the Government in the additional funding that was put in place. It was recognised by the NHS, as Sir Bruce Keogh set out in the early planning that was undertaken, and it is simply wrong for the hon. Gentleman to ignore the impact of flu this year, given the way that in 2009 the then Opposition were very responsible in recognising its impact.

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Can the Minister confirm that accountable care organisations, accountable care services and place-based care are being rebranded as integrated care services? Will he explain whether there is actually any difference between those terms, and will he do all he can to ensure that Members in this House are given the opportunity to scrutinise them, as I believe that they are here to act as a Trojan horse to bring in the break-up and privatisation of the national health service?

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We continually hear this myth about privatisation. The reality is that this Government appointed to run NHS England, first, Sir David Nicholson, who had previously been appointed by the Labour party, and then Sir Simon Stevens, who has worked for both sides of the House. Numbers show that the level of private healthcare provision has not changed this year compared with last year. I understand that the Health Committee is due to look into ACOs and integration within a matter of weeks as part of its deliberations, and I very much look forward to reading the conclusions in that Committee’s report.

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The programme to reduce acute hospital services and close blue-light A&Es, like that at Charing Cross Hospital, is about to undergo its fourth change of name in five years—“Shaping a healthier future,” “sustainability and transformation,” “accountable care,” and “integrated care”. Would it not be better to reconsider that policy, which is being driven not by local clinicians, but by his Department?

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The impression given by the hon. Gentleman is that he always seems to oppose reconfiguration of any sort. The reality is that most clinicians will say, “We do need to reconfigure. We do need to look at how services are operated.” The evidence of that can be seen within London in terms of the reconfiguration of stroke, which from memory, he opposed—

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indicated dissent.

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If the hon. Gentleman did not oppose it, I will happily correct that, but he will recognise that the reconfiguration of stroke in London to fewer sites significantly improved outcomes for patients. There is always a discussion to be had about how reconfiguration operates, but clinicians and the royal colleges recognise that the benefits of reconfiguration are better outcomes for patients as well as better outcomes for the NHS.

Grenfell Tower

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the implications of the withdrawal of the Building Research Establishment’s safety test results for insulation materials used on Grenfell Tower.

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I wish to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the decision by the Building Research Establishment to withdraw a building cladding safety test from its website.

The BRE was contacted by the insulation manufacturer, Celotex, after it identified anomalies between the specification for a particular cladding system it had submitted for testing and the actual system tested. It was alerted to the issue last week, and we were informed by the BRE last Wednesday. As a result, the BRE has withdrawn the classification report relating to that specific test, which was carried out in 2014. That is clearly the right thing to do. The cladding system in question included a fibre cement board, rain screen and Celotex RS5000 insulation. Celotex will now schedule a retesting of that system as soon as possible, as detailed in the relevant test report. It is important to make it very clear that this was not a test of the aluminium composite material cladding system that was widely reported and understood to have been present on Grenfell Tower, and it would be wrong to conflate the two.

In the meantime, we understand that Celotex is contacting all its customers who have used this material. We have published advice for building owners on the fire safety of cladding and insulation materials, including this type of insulation, and that advice still stands. As it makes clear, building owners should take professional advice on any further action they think might be necessary, reflecting their buildings’ particular circumstances. More broadly, we continue to expect building owners to progress any necessary remedial works and, where necessary, to implement interim fire safety measures to make sure that residents and their buildings are kept safe.

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The Government’s fire testing system is in chaos, yet the Minister offers no fresh advice, let alone fresh action, to deal with the problems. More than seven months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, only three out of 300 high-rise blocks confirmed to have unsafe cladding have had it removed or replaced, so thousands of families across the country are still living in homes that are not safe, and other privately owned blocks with the same suspect cladding have not even sent it for testing, despite the Government’s saying they should back in August.

On Friday, the Government’s test centre, the BRE, was asked to withdraw the 2014 safety test results that approved the insulation materials on Grenfell Tower. How many other residents are living in how many other high-rise blocks with that same insulation, which now has an invalid approval? Are any other BRE tests similarly flawed? In particular, is the Government’s own testing programme sound? The industry is now saying that Government-commissioned cladding and insulation tests used different standards from those in official guidance, with cavity barriers three times more fire-resistant. Is this the case? What does the Minister say to insurers and landlords who tell residents that the Government’s tests are not sufficient to show they breach building regulations, despite what the Secretary of State has said, and that therefore they will pay no removal or replacement costs, leaving leaseholders liable to foot the full bill?

Seven months on from Grenfell, the national testing regime is in tatters. After this national disaster, people look to national leaders for action. Only Ministers can act to make sure that all high-rise buildings are tested, that all tests are sound and that all dangerous cladding or insulation is removed. When will the Government sort this out?

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I am somewhat disappointed that from this case and the detailed specifications that need to be retested, the right hon. Gentleman has jumped to conflate a much wider range of issues relating to Grenfell. I think that he has done it deliberately, and it is not a responsible thing to do. [Interruption.] Let me now answer his questions directly—and perhaps the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) would like to listen rather than commenting without understanding the facts.

The right hon. Gentleman asks why there was no new advice. There is no new advice because the existing advice is sound. He said that there had been no action. I gave details of the very specific action that has been taken in relation to Celotex. Indeed, on first hearing of this, I ensured at director level in my Department that the managing director of Celotex was contacted. We understand how seriously the company takes the testing issue, and we understand that it will act as soon as reasonably possible to have the product retested. I know the right hon. Gentleman would not suggest that that should be done in a rushed way. We want it to be done correctly, properly and responsibly, so that we understand and can give the reassurances for which he fairly asked.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that homes were not safe. He already knows that as part of the building safety programme, inspectors have identified 284 buildings with cladding that does not comply with the requirements in the regulation, and the fire service has visited every one of those buildings. There are interim measures in place, including measures relating to car parks and ensuring that fire wardens are present, so that we can confidently say that every home is safe.

The right hon. Gentleman asks why the renovations had not been conducted more quickly. We need to engage with construction services responsibly to ensure that the renovations are carried out correctly, accurately and in a way that can reassure tenants and the wider public, and that obviously cannot be done in a hurry. We have reviewed the advice regularly, and it remains sound. We are taking every action that is necessary, both in relation to this case—which was the pretext on which the right hon. Gentleman based the urgent question —and in relation to the sensitive and important wider issue of housing and cladding as it affects local authority and housing association tower blocks and those in the private sector. That is exactly what the public would expect.

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I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. I welcome the Minister to his post. May I ask him how many local authorities have sought financial flexibilities to help with essential fire safety work, and whether he can confirm that no requests for such flexibilities have been turned down?

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I have had personal conversations with local authorities that have been affected. We have made it clear that carrying out the necessary remedial works is the responsibility of the building owner, whichever sector it is in, but that when they need financial support or flexibility, they can come to us. As my hon. Friend suggests, we have not declined any such request.

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The Minister has accused the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) of conflating issues relating to Grenfell. If the Government wanted to keep the House informed and if they were on top of the situation, the Minister would have made a statement rather than our having to rely on an urgent question. The Government promised to keep the House updated on all developments associated with Grenfell, and they have failed badly in that respect.

What steps have been taken to establish how many properties may be affected by the loss of a certificate for this product, and how many other products may be affected in the same way? What investigations will the Government undertake to determine how the wrong information could be supplied to BRE and how tests could have proceeded on the basis of that wrong information? How will the Government ensure in future that correct end-to-end processes—from start to finish—are followed properly and that safe materials are installed in buildings? Will the Government consider giving BRE a wider role, involving more than just carrying out fire tests? How will the fire testing regime feed into future design and product specification? There needs to be a circular procedure. Given that BRE and Celotex seem to be blaming each other, when will the Government get a grip and take a lead?

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The reason why it is a conflation of the two issues is that the system that was tested in a way that has been found to have been flawed is not the same system that is widely understood to have been the one used in relation to Grenfell. We have no expectation or reason to believe that there is a fire safety issue as a result of this flawed testing, but the responsible thing to do is make sure it is retested as swiftly as possible; then we will know the facts and we can give advice. But if any building owner, let alone tenant, has any concern or question in relation to their property, the existing advice about how to get it tested as soon as possible and take interim measures to protect the property stands; that is the most important thing. There should be no suggestion in this House—on either side—that those living in their homes are anything other than perfectly safe if they followed that important guidance.

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Residents want to know that their safety is paramount, and they want clear information on what is a complex issue, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is irresponsible for others to draw a connection between the recent coverage about Celotex and the Government’s building safety programme? Does he agree that this must not distract from the vital work of making the buildings meet the required standards in London and across the country?

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My hon. Friend is right. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how the Celotex case happened, and in relation to the firm and BRE and the action we have taken, it is clear what needs now to be done as soon as possible to get that retesting done, to make sure those questions are answered. The leap into the wider Grenfell issue is deeply sensitive, and a wholesale programme on that is under way to make sure, first, that the interim measures are taken, so that people are safe in their homes; secondly, that the renovations are made, so that we have the proper cladding and systems in place around those buildings; and thirdly, in relation to the wider review of building regulations undertaken by Dame Judith Hackitt, that we learn the wider lessons for building regulation. That is the responsible thing to do. My hon. Friend talked about leadership; we are providing it.