House of Commons
Monday 26 March 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Pension Protection Fund: Former Carillion Employees
There are 12 Carillion defined benefit schemes in a PPF assessment period. The PPF is working with scheme administrators to determine whether they can pay pensions at or above PPF benefits. Where a scheme cannot do this, the PPF will assume responsibility and pay compensation.
As I said, the Carillion schemes are at present in the assessment period for the funds, and we are looking at what happened in those instances. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we have brought forward our White Paper on defined benefits and increasing the regulator’s powers to support these schemes in the best way possible, to make sure pensioners get those pensions that they so rightly deserve. It is the Conservative party that will be strengthening that for workers, to make sure we look after such pensioners.
Will the Secretary of State pay particular attention to that group of public sector workers who transferred into Carillion and are now retired, and who were covered not so much by the PPF, because they were given ex gratia payments rather than pensions, at the time they transferred?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and he is right: a number of Carillion employees were compulsorily transferred from the public sector, and we are looking at whether they can now rejoin the public sector service scheme. We are working hard to determine that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Carillion pension crisis, as well as the many pensions crises over the years, support the Scottish National party calls for the UK Government to urgently set up an independent savings and pension commission to take a robust look at the pensions landscape?
The regulator is independent, and that is what it does: look at pension schemes. We have, through the White Paper, strengthened the regulator’s powers and now for the first time brought forward criminal sanctions should any director or employer bring into harm wilfully and neglectfully the workers’ pension scheme.
The catastrophic collapse of Carillion saw thousands of workers pay the price, including with their pensions. It was a monumental failure of governance and by Government, who knew Carillion was sinking into difficulties and went on awarding contracts despite profit warnings. The Secretary of State has said before the Select Committee that the Pensions Regulator knew about the mounting problems in 2014; were the Government alerted and did they choose to ignore those warnings, or did the regulator chose to ignore them and fail to alert the Government?
The regulator and assessors are now looking into a whole series of issues. Fundamentally, one of them has to be how Carillion’s books went from being a healthy balance-sheet to, a year later, not being a healthy balance-sheet. The auditors and accountants who had signed those books are now being thoroughly examined to establish what happened there before the regulator would have had to look into things, so a lot of investigations are going on.
Universal Credit Roll-out
Universal credit is a modern flexible benefit which provides tailored support to claimants. Three separate research studies show that UC is having a positive impact on employer outcomes. The changes announced in the Budget are giving even more support for claimants.
Before Christmas, many on the Opposition Benches predicted disaster as more of our constituents claimed their benefits through universal credit. In fact—and I believe the changes made by the DWP have made a significant difference—the early anecdotal evidence in Gloucestershire, from the Jobcentre Plus and Gloucester City Homes, is that things are moving smoothly ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is broadly the case across the country, and that the introduction of trusted landlords is making a significant improvement to relationships with housing associations, and will she do more to roll that out?
My hon. Friend is correct. Three independent studies are saying that universal credit is getting people into work quicker, and that they are staying in work longer and also looking for more work. He is exactly right about the trusted partner status. The reason he has started to do extra work with his jobcentre, looking at tenants who might not have a roof over their head, was the false information cited in Prime Minister’s questions by Jeremy Corbyn, who said that one in eight would be evicted. That was not the case, and, as we are seeing, people are now getting into work and their homes are being protected.
I ask the Secretary of State not to give an immediate reply to this question but to ponder it. The Secretary of State has told me that the 98 members of jobcentre staff on temporary contracts in Birkenhead are going to be laid off because they have come to the end of their contract period. Unlike Gloucester, we are having real problems with the roll-out of universal credit. I had five cases last week, including one involving a woman who had been reduced to living on 7p. Might not some, if not all, of those staff be redeployed to ensure a smooth transition from traditional benefits to the new one?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman saying that I could speak to and work with him to see what is happening in Birkenhead. What I know is that we on this side of the House brought forward up to 100% advances, so that anyone in need of money could have it. We have also stopped the waiting days, and from April we are providing the two-week housing payment. That is what we on this side of the House have done to protect the most vulnerable, but the Opposition voted against it.
My hon. Friend is correct, and I want to thank him for going to meet people at his Jobcentre Plus and for speaking to the dedicated work coaches who are working tirelessly to help people to get into work. These are the tales that I am hearing. Universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit. We are about getting people into a job and then helping them with progression, so that they can get into a job and have a career and also have job progression. That is why we have over 3 million more people in work.
We have had this debate before, and this has been corrected many times. Actually, 50,000 more children are going to have free school meals. These scaremongering stories are not true at all. Let us look at what is happening. We now have 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low. We now have 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty—a new record low. There are also 500,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty—a record low. This Government are about helping people to get into work, which is the first step they can take towards taking control of their life. From there, they can have career progression.
Personal Independence Payments: Disability Assessment
Assessments are important, so that people who need support receive the right level. Where there is enough existing evidence to determine benefit entitlement, claimants do not need a face-to-face assessment. We are committed to continuously improving PIP, so that those with degenerative diseases get the support they need in a timely fashion.
People with degenerative neurological conditions, such as motor neurone disease, are still being called for PIP assessments, which is degrading and causes much distress. Will the Minister therefore ensure that the practice ends immediately, so that people’s dignity can be restored?
PIP is working, and it is working well for all people with disabilities, including those with degenerative conditions. The reality is that 89% of claimants with motor neurone disease are on the enhanced rate of daily living and 90% are on the enhanced rate of mobility. That compares with 52% on the higher rate of care and 89% on higher rate mobility under the disability living allowance, the predecessor benefit.
Last week, I hosted a pensioner and senior citizens’ fair in Morley and Wrenthorpe. At the event, a gentleman with Parkinson’s disease told me that he had to reapply for PIP every two to three years, which caused him great distress. What are the Government doing to ensure that claimants with degenerative conditions such as that do not have to go through any unnecessary stress?
It is absolutely right that we would like to make decisions without face-to-face assessments where possible. Where there is medical information, we do not ask people for such assessments. Of course, how often we ask people for reassessments is down to the healthcare professional, so sometimes people are not asked for a long period of time.
Several constituents who are claiming both employment and support allowance and PIP have told me that the application forms are difficult to complete. The forms ask for a lot of the same information and are completed exclusively by some of the most vulnerable in our society. Anyone would think that the Government wanted to make the process and the forms unnecessarily complicated and difficult. Why not make the forms easier to understand and allow applicants to be considered for both benefits with one form?
We work very hard with stakeholders. Our forms are co-designed by disabled people and those who support disabled people, and I am grateful for the efforts to which they go to work with us. It is well worth noting the relatively high levels of satisfaction with the application process, but we are of course always looking for ways to improve things.
I welcome the Department using a collaborative approach with stakeholders and healthcare professionals to ensure that reassessments for severe conditions are as simple as possible. Will my hon. Friend continue to work with those stakeholders, who are often experts in their field, to improve the assessment process, particularly for conditions such as MS?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about how closely we work with disabled people and stakeholders. He makes particular reference to the severe conditions work that we have implemented for ESA claimants, where we have worked with stakeholders to design a new process, so that the most poorly and vulnerable people have a personal, tailor-made process.
Child Poverty: Family Indicators
Good morning, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] The Government are committed to action that improves children’s long-term outcomes by tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. In April 2017, we published nine indicators that track progress in tackling the disadvantages that can affect families and children, and we aim to update them annually. The next publication is due shortly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his constant and vigorous campaigning on the issue, and particularly on the importance he attaches to fatherhood and family stability. The Government agree with him about that, and a number of programmes are designed to move the dial on the nine indicators that we have published. For example, alongside the fight against worklessness and the troubled families programme, we are specifically investing £39 million in a programme to reduce parental conflict and increase family stability.
The Minister may be in a bit of a time warp this morning, but is the Secretary of State on a different planet from the Children’s Commissioner for England? Will she talk to the Children’s Commissioner about child poverty in our country and look at this morning’s report, which links child poverty and low educational expectations? Get on with it, man!
As the hon. Gentleman will know, all hon. Members should be engaged in the battle against poverty. We in particular have chosen to take a different approach. Pleasingly, the Children’s Commissioner has identified that low educational attainment is critical to the future employment and economic prospects of all children. That is why we are focused on it as one of the two planks of Government policy on the matter, why we have concentrated so hard and why we are so pleased that so many more children are going to good and excellent schools.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and is a renowned champion of those in poverty in his constituency. It is interesting to note that nearly three quarters of children in poverty move out of poverty when their parents move into full-time work. We must capture and use that in our constant fight against poverty.
I have seen reports of the new analysis this morning and, obviously, we are more than willing to have a look. However, such reports—there have been several in the past few weeks—tend to accept in the small print that forecasting poverty in the future is a very inexact science and often leads to odd results, not least because they often do not take behavioural change into account. The whole thrust of the Government’s welfare reforms has been not just to ensure that we get assistance and money to people efficaciously, but to effect behavioural change because we know that accessing work is by far and away our most potent tool in the fight against poverty.
School breakfast clubs play a key role in tackling child poverty, including helping parents get to work. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement last week of £26 million investment in school breakfast clubs and commit the Department to supporting them across the country?
There is no question of unfreezing the benefit cap because it is encapsulated in primary legislation. It might be interesting for the hon. Lady to know that, in the year after the benefit cap was imposed, 100,000 children moved out of poverty altogether. I am surprised that she has not welcomed the news that was announced last week that, as the Secretary of State said, more than 1 million people have moved out of absolute poverty. That shows the greater usefulness of the absolute poverty indicator compared with those for relative poverty, which the EHRC used in its report.
Today, we have learned from independent analysis from the Scottish Government the full impact of the UK Government’s cuts on levels of child poverty. Later this week, the Scottish Government will be publishing their plans to do what they can, using the limited powers of the Parliament up the road, to address this looming crisis, but what are this Government doing to address child poverty?
As I outlined in my earlier answers, this Government believe that the two routes out of poverty are education and work. We have seen, in essence, a jobs miracle in this country over the past few years, with millions of people moving into work since 2010. It is absolutely the case that children in workless households achieve less, have less good welfare and have more mental health problems, so moving people into work is critical. I have seen reports in the media of the evidence the Scottish Government have brought forward this morning, and we will look at it carefully. I am always aware that one foundation of nationalism is to blame everyone else for problems, and I look forward to seeing the Scottish National party’s proposals in Scotland and whether they will actually work.
Of course we know that 68% of children living in poverty do so in working households, so the Minister’s rhetoric simply does not match the reality. We also know from the research today that the root cause of child poverty and its predicted rise comes directly from the cuts to the reserved benefits in respect of the benefit freeze and the two-child limit. So when will his Government face up to reality and act to stop children being hungry, because everyone knows that it is this Government’s responsibility?
This Government have moved heaven and earth to help those on lower incomes: with the introduction of the national living wage, they have had the fastest pay rise in 20 years; we have taken millions out of paying tax altogether with the rise in the personal allowance; and we have given parents up to £5,000 of assistance by increasing their access to free childcare up to 30 hours a week. There is an enormous amount done, but an awful lot still to do. As I say, we have yet to see any concrete proposals from the SNP on its much-vaunted plans to deal with poverty in its own patch, and we look forward to seeing them.
Jobcentres in Glasgow
There are no current plans to revisit the announced jobcentre provision in Glasgow. Doubtless the hon. Gentleman will welcome the 1,000 jobs a day created in this country since 2010 and the fact that the claimant count in his constituency has gone down by 50% since then.
Let me bring the Minister back to the nature of the question by asking whether he can answer something else. On 5 February, I asked the Minister for Employment for all the impact assessments done on the closure programme. I did so through a freedom of information request, as he suggested on 12 February. On 23 February, he told me that it would take too much time and cost too much money to provide me with all those things. So will today’s Minister drop the diplomatic and bureaucratic flannel, publish every impact assessment and get them in the post to Glasgow Members of Parliament?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I will take it up with him after this debate; I will be delighted to sit down with him and be clear on that matter. The Minister for Employment is at the G7 in Canada, so he cannot answer that point, but we will take it up.
Child Maintenance: Parents’ Income Increases
Such an obligation already exists.
Paying parents who are in the Child Maintenance Service must declare changes in income immediately if they vary by more than 25% of the previously declared level. Of course every paying parent is subject to an annual review, where adjustments are made to the payments if required.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. As he may know, we have just finished a consultation on what greater powers we can take to ensure proper and efficient recovery for those in receipt of support. We are looking at a series of measures, not least integrating our information systems much more closely with those of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so that we have a fuller picture of people’s income. We will be looking at proposals to make estimates of unearned income and, indeed, imputing income from asset values for those who attempt to conceal their income but still hold very significant assets. In the final analysis, we may well take powers, depending on the results of the consultation, to deny people a passport—and remove their passport—if they refuse to pay.
In-work Households Living in Poverty
As Members would expect, we make constant assessments of the level of poverty in the UK, given that our primary purpose as a Department is to stimulate and support social mobility and give people the tools and assistance to build a better life. There are 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty since 2010, and working families are around four times less likely to be in relative poverty than working-age adults in workless families.
Even though they are in work, many families in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich are struggling to feed their children. That suggests that work is no longer an escape route out of poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that child poverty will increase from the 4.1 million recorded in the Government’s latest figures to 5.2 million by 2022. The Government originally claimed that universal credit could lift 350,000 children out of poverty. How many children do they now expect to lift out of poverty, and by when?
I hope that no one in the House is complacent about poverty, particularly child poverty. As I said in answer to earlier questions, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are entirely focused as a Department on doing what we can to try to deal with these issues, but they are complex and deep-seated, so the solutions will be, too. Having said that, we believe that there are two primary causes and two primary solutions, the first of which is work and the second education. We are throwing everything we have at that to try to improve things. If we look back at the results thus far, we see 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty, 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty since 2010, and half a million fewer working-age adults and 100,000 fewer working-age lone parents in absolute poverty since 2010.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to pay tribute to a stalwart in Coventry who for many years helped the homeless. Mike Parker started the Coventry Open Christmas shelter in 1992 to provide warmth, food and shelter. His funeral was today. The shelter started as a one-night one-off and developed into a long-running campaign. It helps hundreds of homeless people in Coventry every year. Mike Parker helped to ensure that those who were lonely and hungry had somewhere warm and friendly to go. He will be sorely missed in Coventry.
Now for my question: will the Government look into ending the freeze on children’s benefits, lift the two-child limit on tax credit and fix universal credit to help to lift in-work households out of poverty?
May I, too, salute the hon. Gentleman’s constituent? I did not know him, but he sounds like a remarkable man. I am sure he will be missed by those who loved and knew him.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the two-child limit. In our welfare reforms, we have tried to establish for those who require assistance through the welfare system the same choices that are made by those who do not have that kind of assistance. Having said that, we have ensured that nobody who currently has more than one child will suffer, and of course all children will continue to receive child benefit, irrespective of their status.
As we have already heard, the majority of children living in poverty live in households in which at least one person works, so why does the Minister refuse to end the freeze on the majority of in-work social security support and to provide the support that working families so desperately need?
We believe that the solution for working families is universal credit and that people should take control of their own lives and work hard so that they can build a life for themselves and their families. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve through our welfare reforms.
My hon. Friend displays her normal mental acuity in putting her finger on the point here. She is completely right: relative poverty is a poor indicator of how people are faring. For example, if everybody’s wages were to double overnight tonight, absolute poverty would plummet, but relative poverty would stay exactly the same.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: using relative poverty produces perverse results. What is he doing about it and what is a better measure?
My hon. Friend made a remarkably good speech about this just a week or so ago, and I congratulate him on his foresight. He is absolutely right: relative poverty as currently measured suggests that there are quite a lot of poor people in Monte Carlo, which, of course, is not an intuitive picture that people would have. As a Department, we are looking at other measures. We believe that absolute poverty, which currently stands at an all-time low, is a better indicator. Of course material deprivation, which asks specific questions about how people live, holds some promise as an indicator that the public might appreciate.
I am disappointed to hear the Minister be so facetious about a subject as important as child poverty. At the last count, 72% of households whose benefits were capped were those of lone parents and 77% of those lone parents had a child under five. They can escape the cap by working at least 16 hours a week, but are then hit by the cuts to work allowances in universal credit, which trap many in poverty. According to Government figures released last week, more than half a million children are currently in poverty in lone-parent families where their parent—usually the mother—is either in full or part-time work. If the Government really believe in making work pay, will they reverse the cuts to work allowances?
I know that the hon. Lady likes to present herself as some kind of latter-day mahatma and as the only person in this House who cares about poverty, but, of course, that is not true. Many of us—as councillors, voluntary workers, social workers and so on—have spent many years fighting poverty, so it would be helpful to the general tone of debate in this House if she were not quite so accusatory. Our view, and the Office for National Statistics points this out, is that 100,000 fewer work-age lone parents are now in poverty and that their biggest problem—the biggest thing that assails them—is childcare. The 85% payment for childcare under universal credit and the increase in availability to 30 hours will give the greatest assistance to lone parents.
Personal Independence Payment Claims Review
The exercise to identify claimants affected by the MH judgment will start as soon as we have made the changes to the guidance needed to implement the judgment. We are currently engaging with stakeholders to design these changes. Of course, I will continue to regularly update the House.
Earlier on, the Minister said that the personal independence payment was working. Well, of course, if it was working, the Government would not have lost the High Court case in the first place. These delays are simply unacceptable. Why are so many of my constituents still telling me that they are being biased against when they have mental conditions or the degenerative conditions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)? Why are veterans coming to me to express serious concerns about their own employment and support allowance and PIP assessments, and what will she do about that?
We will implement the judgment in full, but it is really important that we continue our work with stakeholders to get this right. We are working at pace to make those changes. On the general points that the hon. Gentleman makes, we are utterly committed to making sure that, with PIP and ESA, people have a good claimant experience, and we are regularly implementing changes.
I recently visited the local centre at Cofa Court in Coventry where PIP assessments take place and saw the process. Will the Minister confirm that assessments are always based on what claimants are able to do and that they are always carried out by a medical practitioner?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for taking the time and trouble actually to visit the centre where the assessments are taking place. If more Members in this House were to do that, they would be better informed about the reality of the process. It is absolutely right that the assessments are undertaken by properly qualified medical professionals.
As well as the gross failings of the personal independence payment, we see another Government failure with the employment and support allowance underpayments where an estimated 70,000 sick and disabled people were incorrectly assessed and denied vital social security support. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that she is making in arranging to identify and to backdate awards to those former incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance claimants?
I am delighted to be able to update the House on this important exercise. Back in August last year, the first payments went out to people who had been identified as underpaid. We are making really good progress with identifying other claimants who will benefit from the additional payments, and we have recruited up to 400 new members of staff, so that we can carry on our work delivering these payments.
How is the Department prioritising ESA claimants underpaid as a result of incorrect assessments, aside from those with terminal illnesses and conditions? Will the Minister confirm that claimants who were victims of underpayment will not be subject to reduced ESA eligibility due to lump sum payments being classed as savings?
On the first point, I assure the hon. Lady that we are working closely with our stakeholders. I am grateful to the disabled people and the organisations who are working with me and my colleagues in the Department to ensure that we are contacting the underpaid people who will most benefit from receiving these payments. On the second point, there are proper practices and procedures within the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that lump-sum payments are not taken into consideration as people’s capital allowances. I have made a detailed statement to the House but if the hon. Lady would like to raise specific questions with me, I suggest that she bring them along to our meeting on 19 April.
Cold-Calling: Pension Fund Transfers
The Secretary of State, Treasury Ministers and I hold regular discussions on this topic as part of our work on the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, which spans both Departments’ policy areas.
Given the importance of pensions and the many changes that have occurred under successive Governments, what proactive steps can the Department take now to ensure that my constituents and others are kept up to date and informed about their own pensions and the options available to them?
Pensions guidance is a vital part of the work that the Government are doing. We are committed to ensuring that people have access to the information and guidance that they need to make effective financial decisions. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are debating the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill in the House tomorrow. I urge him to come and listen to the positive developments in that Bill.
The Port Talbot shift supervisor wept as he told the story of how he had been conned out of his pension, and that 20 people on his shift had followed his lead. The ban on pensions cold-calling is welcome, but will the Minister go further to ensure that it is for the Financial Conduct Authority, not just the Information Commissioner, to play a role in enforcement, so that those who act disreputably using information obtained through cold-calling are struck off and can never practise again?
Disability Confident Scheme
I am pleased that there are 600,000 more disabled people in work than four years ago. Disability confident employers are contributing to the thousands more jobs that we have created every week since 2010. There are now just under 6,000 employers signed up to the disability confident scheme. I am delighted that all Departments have achieved disability confident leader status.
My hon. Friend truly is a champion for his constituents. I am very proud of the terrific Falmouth-based company, Seasalt, which has a shop in his constituency and produces fantastic products. The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership is working with local businesses and agencies as part of the Government’s strategic work and health unit, so that we can ensure that more companies of all sizes become disability confident.
Funding has been agreed for local authorities to implement universal support to help claimants with transition to universal credit. That partnership working is fundamental to the successful implementation of universal credit, which is of course part of the 1,000 jobs a day that we have seen under this Government since 2010.
I agree that it is vital to ensure that people can overcome the barriers to work, including mental health problems and addiction. We are already investing in the skills and capability of the work coaches, but we have also trained 1,800 universal credit work coaches in how to support claimants with specific mental health issues.
Poverty: Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016
Impact assessments of policies in the Act were published in 2015. Evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. The welfare reforms are designed to incentivise people to make the choice to move into work and to give them the tools and assistance to progress.
Does the Minister agree with his colleagues in Westminster Hall last week who were still trying to blame the financial crash of 10 years ago in making it a justification for these reforms? Will he finally admit that the reforms are in fact an ideological smash and grab on the poorest in society by a Government obsessed with rolling back the size of the state?
One of the really disappointing things about the debate on welfare and benefit reform in this place has been the persistent defence of the old benefits system, which was effectively a fraud perpetrated on the poor designed to trap them into being so. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that in the three years to 2016-17 the number of children living in poverty in Scotland was down by 24% compared with the three years to 2009-10, with relative poverty down in the same period too.
Order. The Minister is treating us to a combination of his intellect and his eloquence, and his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), is engaging in a rather undignified finger-wagging exercise with the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell). It is very unseemly and very unfair on the cerebral Minister at the Dispatch Box. Mr Opperman, Mr Campbell: calm yourselves. Take some sort of soothing medicament and you will feel better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is exactly right. Time and again when we visit Jobcentre Pluses—I would recommend that people do so—we hear heartwarming, encouraging and inspiring stories of people who have got themselves out of poverty by working and being educated and trying hard. Our entire objective is to give them the tools and assistance to do so.
Job Vacancy Trends
On average, more than 1,000 people have been employed every day since 2010. There are 816,000 vacancies—a rise of 10,000 since the last quarter and 56,000 since a year ago.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her excellent and informative answer. However, to make sure that the vacancies get filled, we need to link up jobseekers with those vacancies. What action is she taking to ensure that people know what opportunities are out there for them?
My hon. Friend is correct. This Government have brought forward new schemes like work experience, sector-based work academies and support for childcare to enable people who are job-seeking to go for those jobs. Universal credit, which is an in-work and out-of-work benefit, is giving that extra support. Let me just say this: BT Openreach, 3,500 new jobs across the country; UPS, 1,000 jobs in the east midlands; Siemens, 700 skilled jobs in Yorkshire; and Toyota, 3,000 jobs in Derby and Wales. That is what this Government are doing in supporting those people into those jobs.
Ministers have repeatedly said this afternoon that the best way out of poverty is through work and education, so why have they introduced the limit on free school meals under universal credit, which is a work disincentive and will prevent more than 1 million children in poverty from receiving free school meals and the educational achievement they deserve to get out of poverty?
The Opposition have been putting across fake news, or maybe it is clumsy research or just misinformation. Even “Channel 4 News” had to put up a factsheet correcting what the Opposition are saying. Some 50,000 more children will be getting free school meals. We are helping those who need support, with not only childcare but free school meals and progression in work. Please listen and learn.
Eligibility Threshold for Free School Meals
An estimated 50,000 more children will benefit from a taxpayer-funded free school meal by 2022 under universal credit. I will repeat that: 50,000 more children will get a free school meal. We are already ensuring that all existing children receiving free school meals will continue to receive them until roll-out or that phase of education is complete.
There clearly is a serious mismatch between the Secretary of State’s figures and those published by the highly respected Children’s Society, which tells me that 7,000 children will lose out in Sheffield alone. Will she undertake to publish the basis on which she has calculated those figures?
The Department for Education will be doing that. Sometimes charities are given the wrong information and therefore say the wrong information, having been led astray by Opposition Members. The Opposition voted against those free school meals. They voted against the removal of waiting days. They voted against advances of up to 100%, and they voted against two weeks of housing benefit support for the most vulnerable people in society. Shame on you.
We are pleased with the progress we have made on the roll-out of universal credit, which is now live in 250 jobcentres. Universal credit is a modern, flexible benefit that helps people move into work and, importantly, progress in work through tailored support from dedicated work coaches.
The Department is always quick to act in cases of overpayment and sanction claimants for any breach of rules, yet an investigation by the National Audit Office revealed that the Department has underpaid an estimated 70,000 people over the last seven years. What will the Department do to ensure that those who have been left out of pocket are repaid the money they are entitled to as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least because we are approaching the deadline for the switchover of SMI from a benefit to a loan. He is absolutely right—this change is specifically designed to keep people in their homes. I urge people to ignore the scare stories being put around, look at the paperwork, take the phone call that has been made and ensure they make a good decision in time.
Well, it did. I recommend that the Secretary of State rereads it.
In less than two weeks’ time, support for mortgage interest will change from a benefit to a loan. Government figures released on Friday show that, even at this late stage, the DWP has still not managed to contact 40% of claimants by phone to explain the change, and 30% of all claimants have already declined a loan. A large proportion of claimants are pensioners, and Age UK is warning that many may instead try to manage by cutting back on essentials such as heating. Why have the Government failed to give claimants adequate notice, and will they call a halt to this policy, which risks inflicting hardship on thousands?
We have been communicating the changeover with approaching 500,000 pieces of paper since last July, and well over 350,000 telephone calls have been made to the something like 90,000 people in receipt of this benefit. There are specific provisions, post the changeover, to deal with people who perhaps attempt to manage on their own and feel that they cannot do so in that, post the deadline, they can reapply for support and backdate it to 6 April if they so wish.
My hon. Friend is right: we now pay £1,000 more in the basic state pension than in 2010. For those in employment, 23,000 people in his constituency have a private pension due to auto-enrolment. Pensioner poverty of itself has fallen dramatically, but I am happy to take this up and to discuss it with him in more detail.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. She will know—I was asked this question in a Westminster Hall debate last week—that we have attempted to deal with this issue with some sensitivity. The undertaking I have given to her hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central is that if she believes there are particular issues with the system in place for dealing with this, we are more than happy to look at them. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady as well to discuss it.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and one with which I have been grappling since I was appointed to this position. He will know that a number of programmes across the Government are aimed at strengthening families, not least the troubled families programme, which has seen an investment of something like £982 million. On new initiatives, he may have heard me mention in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that we are investing—newly announced in the Budget last year—£39 million in a programme designed to reduce parental conflict. That has been done on the basis of looking for parenting programmes that will create more stability and therefore happier outcomes for families.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, triggering cold weather payments is done on the basis of absolute temperature: it has to fall below 0 °C for a length of time. I must confess that, as someone who is married to a Canadian, I know only too well the effects of wind chill and the significant difference it makes. If he will allow me, I will take away that issue and have a look at it.
I welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work about getting more people with disabilities into work. Given that there are 650 potential employers in this House, what more can be done to improve disability employment in the House and in our offices around the country?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work and his campaigning on this issue. He is himself a Disability Confident employer, as are all Work and Pensions Ministers. Some 70 Members of Parliament have now taken this step, and I really encourage all those who have not done so to come along to one of our excellent Disability Confident events so that they will have the confidence to employ people with disabilities and health conditions.
You can’t have it that we are not helping enough people and then, on the other hand, that we are. What we have said is that this has always been for people who were not in work or those on low incomes. What we have done is slightly raise the threshold, and now more children who need free school meals are getting them. That is something that this Conservative Government are doing. I would also like to welcome the rise in employment in the last quarter in the south-west area and the hon. Gentleman’s seat by another 48,000 people. That is more people in work who can help their children.
My colleague is a fantastic champion for his constituency, and he is absolutely right: every young person should have that opportunity of work experience. I will be delighted to visit Walsall College with him to see the excellent work on supported work experience.
In Scotland we have seen a rise of 207,000 people in employment. This is what universal credit is doing too: making sure people are in work, and making sure they are in work quickly. We are sorting them, and work coaches are supporting them. We have given Scotland the flexibility to do additional work on the ground.
Myself and my opposite number, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), were extraordinarily trendy: we were at a hackathon this morning, which is taking place over two days in Hoxton. The Government are working very hard to make sure that the self-employed have the benefits of auto-enrolment.
On Saturday, I was delighted to launch a new bus route from Ilkeston to East Midlands airport, through Long Eaton and Sandiacre, which will undoubtedly open up more opportunities in terms of the many vacancies in the logistics hubs at the airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that transport providers and employers working together will really make sure that my constituents have every job opportunity?
It has always been about everybody working together. This Government, and this Department in particular, want to make sure that we step outside the silos and work across Departments and that work coaches stand outside what they need to do to make sure that they are reaching into people’s lives to help them progress.
What is the Minister going to do about employers such as the one in my constituency who sacked a lot of young people without paying them the wages they were owed, with the result that one of them—a pregnant woman—ate nothing but Smash for three weeks?
We often hear from Opposition Members that all the new jobs created are zero-hours contract jobs. Given their track record on accurate information, will the Secretary of State set out what proportion of workers are on zero-hours contracts and how many new jobs are actually full-time jobs?
A number of childminders in my constituency are reporting problems with late payment from their customers who are in receipt of universal credit, partly because of the waiting time for the first payment and partly because of bureaucratic requirements. Will the Secretary of State or one of her colleagues meet me to discuss this pressure on childminders?
We would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, who does so much in this area. What I will say, however, is that I do not understand why Opposition Members voted against advance payments up to 100%, why they voted against the two-week home payment and why they voted against the extra support we are giving.
The abolition of support for mortgage interest has been characterised by the poor provision of information to vulnerable claimants with learning disabilities and a very low take-up of the new loan scheme. Will the Secretary of State cancel the abolition of SMIs, or at the very least delay it while these issues can be resolved?
We will not be cancelling or delaying, but we are of course sensitive to vulnerable claimants, in particular those who lack mental capacity and may need assistance or representation when dealing with their financial affairs. There is a separate process for enabling their transfer across and they will not be subject to the deadline. Indeed, our contractor, who is making contact with recipients thus far, has people who are specifically trained to identify those who may have become incapacitated or vulnerable during their receipt of the benefit to make sure they too are not subject to the current deadline.
Does the Minister agree that everyone should have the opportunity to travel? Is she as disgusted as I am by the recent case of Frank Gardner, who was left stuck on a plane at Heathrow for two hours because the airport had lost his wheelchair?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her constituency and she is absolutely right to raise this case. Today, I have already written to the managing director of Heathrow airport. I will be working with my wonderful sector champion, Michael Connolly from Birmingham airport, to bring the industry together with airports to make sure we deal with this issue in the strongest possible terms so that disabled people can absolutely have access to air travel.
Before we come to the urgent question I should advise the House that there is a prime ministerial statement to follow and a heavily subscribed debate. Exceptionally, therefore, I am not looking to run exchanges on the UQ very fully. There will be a brief opportunity to contribute. It will be an initial airing in the Chamber of this issue. Please do not be disappointed if you do not get in today. There are other pressing demands on parliamentary time.
UK Passport Contract
Her Majesty’s Passport Office is currently procuring services to design, manufacture and personalise UK passports from summer 2019, when the current contract ends. HM Passport Office has undertaken a rigorous, fair and open competition in accordance with UK law, and in line with EU and World Trade Organisation rules. This process began in March 2017, at which point HM Passport Office clearly set out the requirements under which potential suppliers should table their bids.
The security of the passport and passport holders’ personal data is paramount, and the tender requirements clearly set out the high standard of security that must be met to undertake the contract. For example, under the next contract, all passports will continue to be personalised with the holder’s personal details in the United Kingdom, which ensures that no personal data will leave the UK. However, the printing of blank passports in the UK is not a new requirement. Robust processes that have been established over a number of years have determined that manufacturing passports overseas presents no security concerns. Under the current contract, up to 20% of blank passports are produced in Europe. There is no reason why overseas production should not continue in the future and, as such, a national security waiver could not apply.
While there are no security or operational impediments to outsourcing the production of passports, there are significant benefits in terms of both value for money, and production innovation and development. This procurement has identified the supplier that best meets the needs of our passport service—keeping the UK passport at the forefront of travel document security, while offering the best value for money. I am unable to confirm any details of the bids while the process remains subject to commercial and legal sensitivities. However, a public announcement to confirm the winning bidder will be made once the contract is formally awarded.
Last week, I visited staff at the De La Rue factory in my constituency who currently work on the passport contract. They provide secure, quality-assured passports with great pride. Can the Minister tell the House and my constituents what assessment has been made of the security implications of the production of UK passports by a non-UK company, or their production outside the UK? What assessment has she made of the deliverability and reliability of Gemalto’s bid, which I understand was over £100 million less than other bids, in the light of the Government’s experience of Carillion’s failure? Why was it felt appropriate for the Prime Minister to open the new headquarters of Thales—the French security and defence company that has recently taken over Gemalto, one of the bidders for the passport contract—during the procurement process? The Government must provide clarity about whether the bid was discussed at all during the visit.
In responding to press inquiries about the contract, the Home Office has drip-fed information and referred consistently to price and best value. However, does the Minister agree that best value is about more than money? It is about having a secure and reliable passport system that works for the UK. There must be questions about how Gemalto can make a contract worth £390 million work. In fact, I understand that the bid from De La Rue was significantly less than the previous price, and that it operates a gain-share agreement whereby any excess profits are returned to the Home Office.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question; she is quite right to champion the excellent staff in her constituency. However, I reassure her that the winning bidder will of course comply with the UK’s security policy framework and international security standards to mitigate and prevent internal and external threats to the manufacture and onward transportation of blank books. It was very important to the Home Office to abide by international rules, and WTO, UK and EU law, regarding the fairness of the procurement process. A great deal of financial due diligence was done on all the bidding companies, and we are of course determined to have a UK passport that will contain the most up-to-date and innovative security features, making sure that our travel document is at the forefront of security globally.
There has been a slightly childlike, jingoistic element to the debate on this issue from the moment it started, as we could have had whatever colour passports we wanted while still remaining members of the European Union. However, given that we are embarked upon this, does my right hon. Friend agree that De La Rue is a very successful British company that wins fair, international tender contracts, and earns a great deal of money for this country by printing other people’s currencies and official documents? When we negotiate trade agreements in the future, we will be pressing other countries to open up their public procurement processes to genuine, fair, international competition. It would be totally ridiculous to abandon that principle now to give into not only constituency pressures, which I understand, but otherwise nationalist nonsense that ought to be ignored.
I very much appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution—how could I not? He is absolutely right to point out that we wish to be a global, outward-looking trading nation. All the companies that participated in this tender process provide identity documents and bank notes, and other passport providers have bid. The reality is that in a fair procurement process, we had to look at quality, security and price, and this was the contract that provided the best value on all counts.
The Minister will be aware of the concern among supporters of every party in this House and none about the prospect of a British passport being printed by a Franco-Dutch company. The Government cannot be allowed to hide behind EU procurement rules. They must take responsibility for the potential fallout on workers, their families, the community and the Government’s wider industrial strategy. Does the Minister accept that it was wrong that the workers at De La Rue were not directly informed of the Government’s decision, but instead heard from the media that their jobs were at risk? Is this what senior Ministers in the leave campaign meant by “taking back control”?
Far from taking back control, it seems we cannot control where our passports are printed. We understand that passports may be manufactured partially in the UK, but it is telling that for security reasons—security reasons that the Minister does not appear concerned about—in countries such as France state-run companies make the passports. What is the total cost of the switch to blue passports? We read reports of savings of £120 million made in the allocation of the contract. Last December, the then Immigration Minister estimated the cost to be £500 million. We are now told that it is £490 million, so the original estimate seems to have been almost exactly correct.
Finally, the Minister must understand why the public see this whole episode as a farce. Labour Members call on Ministers to re-examine this decision and to meet De La Rue, the trade unions and others to ensure that this industry, the quality of the jobs that come with it and our security are protected. Ministers have to understand that the cheapest is not necessarily the best.
I gently point out to the right hon. Lady that it was in 2009 that the rules were changed to enable the British passport to be made overseas and that 20% of blank passports are already printed abroad—[Interruption.] She refers repeatedly from a sedentary position to taking back control. Yes, we are: we are taking back control by awarding a contract within procurement rules—WTO rules as well as EU rules, which are embedded in UK law—and it is imperative that we have the most secure and up to date passports at the best value for money.
I am concerned for the De La Rue plant in Bathford in my constituency, which produces the very high-quality security paper used in Chinese passports, among others. Would it be possible for the Franco-Dutch consortium to buy its secure paper from Somerset, which would of course be De La Rue paper and of very high quality?
My hon. Friend has done well to point out that De La Rue already prints documents for many different countries. Quite rightly, as with any British company, we wish it to be outward looking and global in its perspective. He makes an important point about paper milling in his constituency that I am sure the successful bidders will have heard.
The Scottish National party sympathises with the workers whose jobs are threatened by this decision but, to be frank, the issue of where the new United Kingdom passport is printed as a result of the Government’s handling of Brexit is the least of our worries. Getting a dark blue passport—as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said, we could have had one all along, had we wanted it—will be little consolation for the loss of our EU rights, including the right to travel freely for work, study or pleasure, the right to free healthcare, and the rights protected by EU law and the Court of Justice. What benefits will we get from the dark blue passport to outweigh these losses? How many British citizens lucky enough to have a parent from another EU member state are, like me and many of my constituents, applying for an Irish, French or German passport so that they can hang on to those EU rights?
The hon. and learned Lady appears to have focused on the colour of the passport and Brexit rather than the issue at hand: the need to obtain the best possible value for money in the new passport contract, and also to ensure that whatever the outcome of Brexit, we have one of the most secure travel documents in the world, with a range of innovative features.
The French Government own 26% of Gemalto, and De La Rue was not allowed to compete for the making of the French passport. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any soft loans or subsidies that have been supplied to Gemalto by the French Government, and will she make public the financial assessment of this £120 million so-called saving?
This procurement is still subject to the full legal process, and I have no intention of making public anything that might jeopardise that. My hon. Friend has pointed out that 26% of Gemalto is owned by the French Government. Having their own national provider enables the French to get around EU procurement rules and, indeed, World Trade Organisation rules. What matters to me is that Conservative Members believe in both fair competition and global trade. We should welcome the fact that we have in De La Rue a company that trades successfully around the globe and secures contracts for all sorts of identity documents and, of course, banknotes. We should welcome the fact that we are not going to nationalise that company.
Given the policy of taking back control, will the UK have its own procurement policy for large contracts such as this one for passports separate from the Official Journal of the European Union process? Will that also mean that British firms will be less able to compete for public sector contracts in other EU countries in the many ways in which they can now?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be all sorts of opportunities post Brexit for the UK to determine its own rules, but I should gently point out to him that this is subject to WTO rules, by which I think we should look to be well guided.
My right hon. Friend can be reassured by the fact that in 2010, when I was doing her job, the Labour MP Michael Meacher complained bitterly about the awarding of the contract to De La Rue because it had been taken away from a firm in his constituency. What was interesting about that firm was that it was an American firm, which had been given the contract by the previous Labour Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a degree of chutzpah in the modern Labour party’s saying that the British passport contract needs to be given to a British firm, given that when Labour was in power, it gave that contract to an American firm?
As ever, I can rely on my right hon. Friend to get straight to the point. There is a long history of British passports not necessarily being printed by UK companies. What is important to me is that we award contracts within the rules, that the Government do not seek to circumvent those rules, and that the process is handled fairly.
My right hon. Friend is right to call for a fair and open competition on a level playing field, but is she confident that there will be a level playing field, given that 26% of Gemalto is owned by the French Government? Is she confident that Gemalto’s bid, which was significantly lower than others, is sustainable in the long term?
As my right hon. Friend might expect, there has been close scrutiny of all the bids received—that has included a significant amount of financial due diligence—to ensure that the bidders can deliver on this contract, and deliver in a way that provides a British passport with the most up-to-date and important security features to be found in any travel document anywhere in the world.
I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) as she stands up for her constituents, but does the Minister agree that a lot of young people in this country will look at this debate with absolute bafflement? They never had blue passports; I never had a blue passport. What this actually represents is taking away rights as European Union citizens, which we discussed at great length the other day. That is the real damage in this situation.
The EU leadership group is in turmoil: it is worried about the British passport being made in France, because when the French people see this symbol of freedom and independence and realise that the British people are gaining control of their borders, money and laws, they will rise up and want to leave the EU. What does the Minister have to say to the French?
My hon. Friend tempts me to say something I am really not going to say. What I welcome as part of this whole process is that we have companies in this country and abroad that can take part in a fair bidding process, where the best quality, the best security features and the best value for money wins, regardless of nationality.
An awful lot of the De La Rue staff in Gateshead live in my constituency, although the plant is in the Blaydon constituency. Has the Home Office carried out any assessment of the loss of revenue from national insurance, corporation tax and income tax to the Exchequer when this contract goes to a French Government-owned company?
It is important to reflect upon the fact that the new bidder will be providing new facilities and new jobs in the UK. We will of course seek to work with any company that experiences issues regarding the redundancy of staff, as any responsible Government would, but it is also very important to us that we make sure that we get best value for money for the British taxpayer.
My constituents in Harlow will welcome a saving of £120 million to the taxpayer, but may I put in an early bid by asking my right hon. Friend to spend that £120 million on the NHS by putting it towards scrapping hospital car parking charges?
I never fail to be impressed by my right hon. Friend’s ability to raise the issues about which he rightly campaigns and cares a great deal. Of course we need to consider how we spend any saving to the taxpayer in the best possible way. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the Immigration Act 2016 enables us to use any income received from passport fees to contribute not just towards the costs of the passport, but to securing our borders and making sure that there is easy and safe passage for British citizens through the border.
It is important to reflect on the fact that we do not believe in a protectionist policy. I can tell the hon. Lady that we anticipate that 70 jobs will be created in the UK as a result of the award of this contract, but this is about making sure that we get the best deal for the taxpayer, that we have the most secure and up-to-date travel document and, of course, that we abide by the rules and do not seek to implement protectionist policies in this country.