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Commons Chamber

Volume 652: debated on Monday 7 January 2019

House of Commons

Monday 7 January 2019

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—

Universal Credit: Transition

1. What steps her Department is taking to support households transitioning from legacy benefits to universal credit. (908363)

The purpose of universal credit is to replace an outdated benefits system, ensuring that people are better off in work and that support is targeted to the most vulnerable. We recognise the challenge that this cultural shift represents. We currently provide advance payments and a transitional housing payment to claimants coming on to universal credit. Furthermore, we will spend over £3 billion on transitional protections for 1.1 million households as part of our managed migration regulations.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. I welcome reports that she is considering scaling back the roll-out of the migration to universal credit for those on legacy benefits while problems with the system are identified and resolved. However, we have seen from the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—scandal that a letter from the Department is often not enough to stop even those who are not vulnerable from falling through the cracks. Why has the Secretary of State rejected the recommendation from her own social security advisory committee that legacy benefits claimants should be transferred to universal credit automatically? As a minimum, will she guarantee that nobody has their legacy benefits stopped without an application?

There was a lot in that question. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that ensuring that the transfer from legacy benefits to universal credit is effective, fair and compassionate is absolutely central to the work the Department will be doing. The pilot announced some time ago, involving 10,000 people, will be taking place later this year. It will be absolutely central to ensuring that that is effective. I look forward to further discussions about that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. Her announcement is absolutely right. She knows the whole point of universal credit was the test and learn process, unlike, and learning lessons from, the mess of tax credits. Under tax credits, nearly 1 million people lost all their money. That will not happen under universal credit. I hope she will absolutely see the programme through.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support and pay tribute to the incredible work he did to set up universal credit, particularly focusing on ensuring that universal credit helps people into work. We must remember that under previous legacy rates that took place under Labour, to which he rightly draws attention, there were marginal rates of tax of 90%. No wonder people were discouraged from going into work.

I am so confused. Might I ask the Secretary of State whether the best news we have heard since the benefit was introduced is in fact correct? Is she postponing the mass migration? Is she limiting it to the 10,000? Is she then going to see how those 10,000 are looked after in the transfer? If that is so, may I thank her and congratulate her, and say that it is a real pleasure that she has introduced so quickly a key recommendation of the Select Committee?

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is a little ahead in his fulsome praise for me, which I always appreciate. As I said to him in the Select Committee before Christmas, I will want to consider carefully when I bring to the House the vote for the 3 million managed migration, which is scheduled for 2020. I am still considering when to do that. I can reassure him that there will be a vote on that before it takes place. The 10,000-person pilot, which was announced some time ago, will, as always, inform us how we do that.

21. In Thirsk and Malton, some of my constituents get paid on four-weekly cycles. That means they can get paid twice in a month and can appear to be earning more than they actually do. What more can we do to ensure universal credit responds to such situations, so that people receive the right level of support at the right time? (908384)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has raised this issue with us before. He is right that we need to ensure that universal credit delivers on what it intends to do, which is to give real time financial support based on an actual month’s assessment. We have recently updated the guidance for universal credit so that work coaches can adjust to ensure that where the situation he describes occurs, appropriate adjustments are made.

22. On 12 December, Neil Wright from Plymouth, who is disabled, received 1p in universal credit to live on. He is not able to claim another payment until 14 January. He said he had just 77p to live on at Christmas. Can the Secretary of State understand the utter hopelessness and anger that situations such as Mr Wright’s cause? Will she agree to review his case, and, no matter the good intentions behind universal credit, will she admit that the system still causes misery and poverty for far too many people? (908385)

I am sorry to hear of the particular situation the hon. Gentleman raises. He must write to me, and of course I will take a careful look at it. However, I would just say also that I visited a number of jobcentres last Friday and was shown the work that a particular work coach had done to get three different people advances on the day of their universal credit application—the Friday before Christmas. We must not underestimate the good work that so many work coaches do to help claimants, which is in their interest and in ours.

The Labour party often talks about benefit cuts, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that when universal credit is fully rolled out, there will be £2 billion more going into the benefits system than there would have been under legacy benefits, thanks to the changes in the last Budget?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. It is such an important point that by 2020 the total system will cost approximately £62 billion, which is £2 billion more than the £60 billion that would have been anticipated under the previous benefits, so we are investing in our benefits.

Just before I call the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), may I say to her—I think I do so with the support of the House—how sorry I was to see that her predecessor, an illustrious representative of the Bishop Auckland constituency, Mr Derek Foster, later Lord Foster, had passed away? He was well respected in this place and gave great service to it, and our sympathies go to his widow and the family.

Mr Speaker, thank you. I am sure all the people who live in Bishop Auckland will very much appreciate those sentiments.

The Secretary of State may know that five years ago 30,000 people were fined for wrongly claiming free prescriptions, but last year that figure was 1 million. That is because when people get their awards, they are not told whether they are entitled to free prescriptions. It is a simple piece of admin—will she sort it?

I thank the hon. Lady for drawing that to my attention. I am aware of the changes that need to be made and some of the things that have already been addressed, but I will write to her further to set out how we are addressing exactly what she raises.

The roll-out of universal credit is going well in my constituency. Work coaches have told me—[Interruption.] Jobcentre work coaches have told me how they value being able to give extra help to my constituents to help them into work. Will my right hon. Friend advise me what work she is doing to ensure that housing benefit payments reach the landlords of some of my most vulnerable constituents?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I know she shares my concern that we must ensure that universal credit addresses the needs of the most vulnerable and that, where it needs to be paid directly to landlords, it can be. It is right that we have tried to limit that, but it is also right that we do not have one system that does not take into account the particular needs of the most vulnerable in our society. As we have had the opportunity to discuss, I will be looking further at what else can be done.

16. It is good to get clarification from the Secretary of State about managed migration, but in the meantime, more people will move on to universal credit by natural migration than by managed migration, with no protection whatsoever from the huge drop in income. The Department has published no conclusive list of all the reasons for people having a change of circumstances and being moved on to universal credit. Will she commit to doing that at the earliest opportunity so that people are not transferred wrongly? (908378)

The hon. Lady is right that we now have 1.4 million people on universal credit and we expect another 1.6 million to move on to it during the next 12 months as part of natural migration. I am of course collecting information as we go to ensure that that is done fairly, accurately and efficiently, as I want it to be, but I will take her suggestion on board. I am very keen to ensure that everything we do is evidence-based.

Rugby jobcentre has quite a lot of experience with universal credit, having been a pilot centre since 2013 and on full service since May 2016. The staff there have had a hand in making the transition easier based on the test and learn approach. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the hard work of staff at jobcentres such as Rugby’s in making improvements to the universal credit system?

May I particularly thank the people in the Rugby jobcentre? I have had an opportunity to visit many different jobcentres since being appointed, and I find universally that the people who work in them are enthusiastic about universal credit and passionate, caring and compassionate about the claimants they work for. I urge Opposition Members not to underestimate the good work being done by work coaches in their constituencies to help the people most in need.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Most people will have thought that the weekend’s announcement was perhaps the start of a major shift by the Government with regards to universal credit, but unless it is followed up with meaningful interventions, changes and investment, such as to the benefits freeze, the two-child cap or the sanctions regime, it will be meaningless. Can the Secretary of State confirm if it is her plan to use the delay to the managed migration vote to introduce any changes to universal credit before the summer?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the whole principle of universal credit is test and learn, and so we are always looking to make changes and improvements. This is a tremendously ambitious project, bringing huge benefits to claimants and helping them into work and to stay in work, and we are always ready to learn from new developments as we proceed with the roll-out.

By delaying the vote and bringing forward 10,000 guinea pigs to test the transfer from the legacy system to universal credit, the Secretary of State accepted that there might at least be some problems with universal credit, and yet she cannot come forward with any ideas or bring forward any changes. Does she accept that, unless she brings forward the changes being called for by Members across the House, the United Nations and expert charities and community groups, this exercise will be little more than kicking the can down the road?

I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I am completely committed to the benefits of universal credit and to ensuring that it remains a force for good, helps people into work and does not repeat the terrible mistakes of the past under Labour and the legacy benefits. The new system will work much better for people, and, with the help of all Members of Parliament, people will find that their jobcentres are enthusiastic about it.

If reports over the weekend are true, it seems that the Government are finally waking up to the potentially devastating impact of their managed migration plans on claimants, over one third of whom will be sick or disabled. Therefore, will the Secretary of State now clarify the situation and what action she will take to address the central flaw in these regulations, which places all the onus on claimants to make a new claim for universal credit or risk losing support if they do not make an application on time?

I am grateful for a second opportunity to clarify the situation. As we announced last year, there will be a 10,000-person pilot this summer that will help us to learn how to be most effective in the managed migration. We have 1.4 million already on universal credit through natural migration and 1.6 million are expected to come on during the next 12 months. Making sure that the managed migration is effective, efficient and compassionate is absolutely central to the success of universal credit, and that will be coming forward in 2020.

Only about one third of households due to be claiming universal credit by the time it is fully rolled out were ever scheduled to transfer under managed migration and so receive transitional protection. Universal credit is being used as a vehicle for cuts to social security and is pushing many people into poverty, rent arrears and food banks. Will the Secretary of State now stop the roll-out?

I would ask the hon. Lady to think again about her approach to universal credit. It is doing a good job. I urge all Members who have not had the opportunity to visit their jobcentres and experience it for themselves—talk to the claimants and work coaches—and above all to compare it to the legacy benefits. If they do, they will see the confusion and complication that was there. Now, with our one simple system, it will be much more straightforward for individual claimants.

Universal Credit: Childcare Costs

Universal credit supports working parents with childcare costs, regardless of the number of hours they work. This provides an important financial incentive to those taking their first steps into paid employment. People can recover up to 85% of their eligible childcare costs on universal credit, compared to 70% on the legacy system.

As the Minister will know, one of the big challenges with universal credit is that families have to pay their childcare costs upfront. Save the Children and the Centre for Social Justice have recently warned that this is leaving families in £1,000 of debt when they start work. Under the review that the Department now seems to be conducting, can it look again at this, and can it also look at their other recommendation of making it not 85% but 100% of childcare costs, because this would really benefit those on low pay?

I know that the hon. Lady has worked tirelessly on this issue. The Government recognise its importance, which is why we have increased our financial support by nearly 50% since 2010. We are making improvements specifically in relation to payment in arrears, improving communication and ensuring that the Flexible Support Fund is better known and better used to help those who would otherwise face a financial barrier.

Can the Minister confirm that parents with disabled children will continue to receive additional support under universal credit?

18. Will the Minister ensure that no one else ever suffers the same indignity as Paulette Reid of Acton, a working mum with three kids who, over Christmas, found herself with £10 to her name for the entire holiday season? When she rang the DWP asking for the payment that we are told everyone receives in advance, she was told to go to a food bank. The people at the Department obviously do not understand that that involves a referral process. How can this be happening now in the fifth richest country on earth? It seems that “I, Daniel Blake” is becoming reality in Ealing, queen of the suburbs. (908380)

I am very sorry to hear about that case. The hon. Lady’s constituent should have had access to an advance payment, and if she was down to her last £10, it should have been made on that day. If the hon. Lady will write to me with all the details, we will look at that specific case to see what went wrong.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about examining the impact of universal credit on women, which, through women, often affects children. Will she look again at the single household payment, and consider separate payments to protect women from financial coercion, control and abuse?

This matter relates mostly to domestic abuse. I have been doing a huge amount of work with Women’s Aid, Refuge and ManKind to increase awareness that split payments are available in those circumstances, and to ensure that more work is done to identify, refer and support such claimants.

Employment Trends

Let me first wish you a very happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.7%, and more people are in employment than ever before. Thanks to the policies of this Conservative Government, 3.4 million more people are in work than in 2010, and wages are growing faster than inflation.

Many of my constituents have been able to find work, but much of it involves low-paid service-sector roles and few career prospects. What is my hon. Friend doing to help those who are already in work to move towards higher-paid, more rewarding occupations?

About 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are full-time, permanent, high-skill occupations attracting high wages, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to help people with low earnings to progress. That is why, under universal credit, work coaches offer one-to-one support, and we are undertaking trials to determine what further support we can provide to help people to move into better-paid work.

Since 2010, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by two thirds. Can the Minister tell us how many employment records the Government have broken?

My hon. Friend has highlighted an important point, which, of course, the Opposition never want to talk about. Under this Conservative Government, 18 new employment records have been set since 2015, underlining the confidence that employers have in our policies. That confidence would evaporate if that lot got anywhere near government.

Getting people into work is a good thing, but there is no point in trapping them in in-work poverty. About two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in working households. What is the Minister doing to address that?

The hon. Lady has raised an important point, but I should point out that there has been no particular increase in in-work poverty. Indeed, 1 million fewer people, and 300,000 fewer children, are living in absolute poverty. Ultimately, however, this is about helping people into work, and, as we have said, we are doing an enormous amount through universal credit to ensure that that happens.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), will the Minister not acknowledge that there is a big challenge for many of my constituents who work in more than one job on low wages, who do not have the time or the money to progress to further training, and whose employers are not willing to invest? How will he help those people to move to better, long-term, secure jobs?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, 75% of the jobs created since 2010 are indeed in high-level occupations which attract higher wages, but of course we need to do more and that is why the Government are investing in apprenticeships for both young and more mature workers. We are also investing in a national retraining scheme and technical skills. That is what is going to create support for individuals looking for jobs in the market right now.

How do our low unemployment levels compare with those of France and other countries unfortunate enough to be trapped in the eurozone?

That is a typically forthright question from my right hon. Friend. To compare rates, in France the unemployment rate is over 9% I believe, but of course the other incredibly important progress we have made is in youth unemployment. That has been almost halved since 2010, thanks to the work we have been doing in government.

Order. We are now moving on to question 5, but I say to the hon. Lady that it is the first day back and we should celebrate her enthusiasm.

Universal Credit Roll-out

The roll-out of universal credit is now complete and is available in every jobcentre across the United Kingdom. By 2023, all existing legacy claimants will have been moved to universal credit which, as set out in our business case, will result in £8 billion in economic benefits a year to the British economy.

Local authorities in Scotland have spent over £20 million on mitigating the harmful effects of UC, thus diverting money from key local services. Does the Secretary of State think this is acceptable, and was it envisaged when universal credit was conceived? Is it not more evidence that this system needs to be stopped and fixed to make it fit for purpose?

We do of course have the policy of new burdens funding, and in 2017-18 the Government paid out £30 million to local authorities across the country. If the hon. Lady has specific issues in relation to local councils on her patch, she should come forward as I will be very happy to have a discussion with her outside this oral session.

I would like to highlight one particular universal credit case that my office is dealing with. My constituent has incurable skin cancer which requires using a cream treatment. He has to use the cream at home and it needs to be applied for several hours every day. He has been told that as his treatment for cancer is not radiotherapy or chemotherapy he should be able to attend work. My constituent has daily and lengthy treatment for an incurable condition. Can the Secretary of State or the Minister tell me what my constituent should be applying for?

I am very sorry to hear about the distress the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is undergoing, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his regular engagement with the jobcentre in his constituency. I would be very happy to discuss this case with him in detail and see what more we can do to support his constituent.

Last night on Twitter Steven McAvoy contacted me about the issue of disabled students being unable to access universal credit unless they have already passed their work capability assessment by the time they become a student. This is an incredibly difficult issue for some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, so will the Minister look into this again?

Can the Minister reassure my constituents who have heard claims that some housing associations are refusing to accept tenants in receipt of universal credit by giving an assurance that the Government will make sure this is never the case?

My hon. Friend has huge experience of the housing sector of course, and I thank him for the work he does in his constituency; I have been to visit him. The landlord portal has now been rolled out across almost 70% of the social housing sector, but I will be happy to discuss with him any specific cases he wants to raise.

I very much look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State to Stirling shortly. When she comes will she take time to visit the Jobcentre Plus at Randolph Field, where she can talk to work coaches who will give a far more positive story about the impact—the positive, life-changing impact—of universal credit than the critics on the other side of the House have given?

The Secretary of State has already outlined the visits that she has made, and I know that she is going to make many more. What my hon. Friend describes is something that I also consistently find when I visit job centres—namely, the huge enthusiasm and the real desire to help individuals. For the first time, jobcentre workers and work coaches are able to do precisely that, through the one-to-one support that was not possible under the legacy system.

If true, the reported U-turn on managed migration in response to considerable pressure from the voluntary sector and those on the Labour Benches, is welcome, but any attempt to avoid scrutiny is not. Can the Minister assure the House that those regulations will still be debated in full in this Chamber, and if so, when?

The Secretary of State has set out the position very clearly. Of course we will be bringing forward any potential new regulations. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues talk a lot about supporting vulnerable people, but they voted against the £1.5 billion of support last year and against the £4.5 billion of support introduced in the Budget. He should be supporting those policies, not talking them down.

Universal Credit: Helping People into Work

6. What assessment the Government have made of the effectiveness of universal credit in helping people into work. (908368)

10. What assessment the Government have made of the effectiveness of universal credit in helping people into work. (908372)

12. What assessment the Government have made of the effectiveness of universal credit in helping people into work. (908374)

There are many good reasons why universal credit is effective at helping people into work. The most important is that the legacy system disincentivised people from taking up work, often by applying a tax rate of 90% and above, while the taper rate under universal credit is more likely to be 63%, which enables people genuinely to get into work.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the hard work of the Witney jobcentre? Will she also explain how jobcentres such as the one in Witney are using new technology to help people into work in the digital age?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing this to my attention. I thank the Witney jobcentre for the work that it does in helping people into work, and I also thank him for his work on this as a Member of Parliament. Of course it is essential that we make advanced digital equipment available to our work coaches to ensure that the service they deliver really is first class, and we will always ensure that they do.

At the Stourbridge jobcentre, the work coaches are evangelical about how the flexibility of universal credit allows them to better support the most vulnerable and the hardest-to-help claimants. Will the Secretary of State ensure that this best practice is shared around the country so that more people can find sustainable work for the first time?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the good work being done by the Stourbridge jobcentre and its work coaches. He really highlights the other true benefit of universal credit, which is the personalised approach. It is no longer about signing on; it is about individuals going to the jobcentres and being offered real, tailored support to help them to deal with their challenges and to get into work. This is a revolutionary system.

Given that the planned objective of universal credit is to move people closer to and into the workplace, can the Secretary of State confirm that empirical, rather than anecdotal, evidence is being compiled on a national basis, and that it will be made available for public scrutiny so that the necessary adaptations can be made to ensure that universal credit ultimately achieves its goal?

My hon. Friend is right. Important though anecdotal evidence is—that is what MPs collect when they visit their job centres—it will also be absolutely critical to have full empirical evidence as well. In June last year, we published the universal credit full business case, which showed that universal credit will move more people into work. Once we have completed the managed migration pilot, we will also publish an impact assessment on the first phase.

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that food bank use increased significantly in the 12 months after the full-service roll-out of universal credit in Crewe and Nantwich. Universal credit was intended to lift people out of poverty. What has gone wrong?

I hope that the hon. Lady has seen an improvement since the roll-out started in Crewe and Nantwich—

I suspect that if she speaks to the jobcentre there, she will be reassured that the number of people being paid on time has vastly risen—

I would ask the hon. Lady to come back to me, if she will, and to have a conversation about this. It is absolutely true that when universal credit initially started, the payments were not getting out in time and advance payments were not available. That is now being changed, and claimants are universally noticing a distinct difference.

If the Secretary of State wants some empirical evidence, let me give her some: 55,410 people are on universal credit in Birmingham and food bank demand has increased by two thirds. Birmingham MPs, drawing upon our surgery experiences, have highlighted 13 different problems with the process. The Birmingham Mail has highlighted benefit delays of months on end. Unemployment in the inner city is not going down; it is actually going up. Rather than consider any further roll-out of managed migration, let us stop and fix the problems first before more families are plunged into poverty, homelessness and hunger.

I was in Birmingham last Friday, when I went to the Yardley jobcentre and saw for myself the remarkable work being done and some projects that are reaching people who had never been reached before. Under the legacy benefits, the second named person in a household who was not earning was basically ignored for years and was not invited to participate. We now have a system whereby the people who were ignored for years under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government’s system are being obliged to engage. I am facing the facts, so perhaps he should face them as well. He can have his own views, but he cannot have his own facts.

An interim report commissioned by Centrepoint shows that the Government’s youth obligation programme is failing young people on numerous counts. Almost half of participants dropped out without finding a job or training, young people on the programme were more likely to be sanctioned, many did not understand what the programme was for, and there is no central recording of job destinations beyond the programme. At what stage is the Secretary of State going to get a grip on that situation?

I am not as despondent about the programme as the hon. Gentleman is. I visited Centrepoint between Christmas and new year to find out for myself about the good work it is doing and about the relationship that it has with the universal credit service provider. It has a particular named person who helps with young people to ensure that they get additional personal help when they apply. Ensuring that personal help is available is exactly what universal credit is about, and Centrepoint confirmed to me that that is exactly what young people are getting.

Employment: Ex-offenders

We know that employment is the best way to avoid repeat offending. I should declare that I wrote a book on prisoner rehabilitation called “Doing Time” so I am particularly passionate about the work being done at both the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions with the “See Potential” campaign, which contains guidance to encourage the recruitment of ex-offenders.

The hon. Gentleman’s politeness and the fact that he was born and brought up in my constituency are not altogether unrelated.

We share much in common, Mr Speaker.

A constituent of mine was convicted of an offence abroad 18 years ago when she was 20 years old. Since then, she has rebuilt her life and trained to become a social worker. She got a job, but she was told at the end of her probationary period that she could not keep it for reputational reasons. Will the Minister consider giving guidance to public sector employers to ensure that they will take a risk with people and do not continue to punish them long after their sentence has been spent?

I represented hundreds of people as a criminal legal aid barrister, and the vast majority of my clients deserved rehabilitation and a fresh start, so I wish my hon. Friend’s constituent well. I can confirm that the Government will issue clearer guidance for the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 on that precise point.

The Minister will be aware that the Ministry of Justice recently introduced the female offender strategy, so will he set out what work the DWP is doing to support women ex-offenders back into work, which is one of the biggest causes of social breakdown and why they cannot integrate back into the community?

The reality is that the Ministry of Justice’s education and employment strategy allows each prisoner to be set on a path to employment when they arrive in prison, and the Ministry is working hand in hand with the more than 100 job coaches working inside our prisons.

Universal Credit: Self-employment

Universal credit supports self-employed people to develop and grow their businesses where doing so is the best route for them to become financially self-sufficient. We recently announced changes to the grace period for the minimum income floor and the extension of the new enterprise allowance scheme, all of which provide additional support to self-employed claimants.

Citizens Advice estimated in October that self-employed workers could lose up to £630 a year because of the way universal credit payments are calculated. It also stated that 400,000 claimants could suffer losses because of the minimum income floor, which the Minister mentioned. Those claimants are people who are trying to make a living for their families and themselves. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the effects of the minimum income floor on self-employed workers who are claiming universal credit?

As I highlighted in my earlier answer, we have made a change to the minimum income floor. The grace period will be extended to one year for all people coming in who are gainfully self-employed running a business. Ultimately, different businesses take different lengths of time to reach profitability, so, in the period before the minimum income floor is applied, we are giving people a chance to develop their business. That is also why we provide support through the new enterprise allowance.

Mention was made earlier of the fantastic fall in youth unemployment since 2010—around 50%, I believe. What action can the Minister take, or is the Minister taking, to ensure that that trend continues evenly across the United Kingdom so that our young people get the best start to their working lives?

My hon. Friend highlights a very important point. Youth unemployment has almost halved since 2010, and we have the youth employment support programme to thank for that—the work we do through jobcentres in schools to make sure that people do not end up not in education, employment or training. Ultimately, however, this is about supporting people through the process, and that is what we are doing in universal credit.

I hope it does turn out to be the case, as reported, that the Secretary of State is going to pause the roll-out of universal credit in order to fix it. I hope she has noticed that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) congratulated her because he thought that that was what she had decided. Can the Minister assure the House that those who are being transferred to universal credit from other benefits will not have to wait five weeks before they are entitled to support? That is what is forcing them into debt.

I know the right hon. Gentleman cares very deeply about these issues, and we have had many discussions about this. It is precisely to help people with their cash flows that we have made advances available up front—up to 100%, if that is what they require—as well as two weeks of housing benefit run-on.

Pensions Dashboard

We published the pensions dashboard feasibility report in December, and the consultation closes on 28 January. We will shortly thereafter draft legislation, which will unquestionably benefit the 16,000 men and women in my hon. Friend’s constituency who have an auto-enrolled pension at present.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and I am delighted to hear of my constituents who are benefiting. What more can the Department do to encourage more women to save for their financial futures?

We believe that the dashboard will be a crucial part of that, but my hon. Friend will be aware that female participation in a workplace pension has increased by 3 million since 2012, thanks to auto-enrolment. In the private sector, female participation in a workplace pension has jumped from 40% to 80% in the last five years.

In Hartlepool, one in five claimants lose their disability benefit, and we have an estimated nine food banks. We were one of the pilot areas for universal credit. Will the Secretary of State, as part of her investigations, please come to Hartlepool to see for herself the effects of universal credit on my constituents?

I am not sure that that has much to do with the pensions dashboard, but I can certainly say that universal credit is something that the Government support wholeheartedly, and that the individual matters will be looked into.

Universal Credit: Household Incomes

14. What assessment she has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on household incomes. (908376)

Universal credit spends £2 billion more than the system it replaces. It simplifies the old system and makes work pay. It is already transforming lives across the country.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

What an extraordinary answer. Some 10% of children in the UK live in severely food-insecure households. That is the highest number in the European Union. However and whenever the roll-out of universal credit starts, begins or enters into its full flood, will the Minister work with the Office for National Statistics to measure the extent of childhood food poverty before and after the introduction of universal credit?

I think we all recognise that we need better-quality statistics. Various groups are working on alternatives, and the Government will take those seriously. As has been mentioned, there are 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. On the specific issue of food insecurity, in the past five years alone it has almost halved to 5.4%, which is 2.5% lower than the EU average.

It is very good to welcome the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) back to the House.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

I note the delays to the roll-out of universal credit announced over the weekend, but will the Minister please tell us what justification there can possibly be for people who have had to claim universal credit so far not receiving any protections? Will the Secretary of State agree to halt natural migration, compensate every single person who has lost out, and investigate the circumstances that have led people on to universal credit when there has been no change in their circumstance?

If the hon. Lady looked at the feedback we have had from stakeholders following this week’s announcement, she would see that they make it absolutely clear that they support universal credit over the legacy system. We know that 700,000 people—some of the most vulnerable people in our society—are missing out on £2.4 billion of support because the legacy system is too complicated. Universal credit gives personalised, tailored support and makes sure that people get the support that they need.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I hope that the delay to the full roll-out of universal credit is a sign that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is open to making the many changes to universal credit that are needed. I urge Minister to look in particular at the harsh repayment timescales for loans, which led my constituent to say:

“I should never have taken that 3 month job. It made me worse off”.

Surely that is the very opposite of what the Government are trying to achieve with universal credit.

I, too, welcome the hon. Lady back.

This issue is a real priority for the Secretary of State. We have already made changes: initially, the repayment period was six months, then 12 months, and it is now 16 months, and we have moved the maximum deduction rate down from 40% to 30%. We will continue to review the situation.

Disability: Medical Assessments

15. What recent steps her Department has taken to improve the accuracy of medical assessments of disability for the purpose of claiming benefit. (908377)

Ensuring the quality and accuracy of the assessments undertaken by qualified healthcare assessment providers is a top priority. The Department is implementing a wide range of improvements, as communicated to the Work and Pensions Committee and many stakeholders. All our assessment providers’ claimant satisfaction reviews continue to exceed the minimum satisfaction level of 90%. Accuracy is improving year on year for both personal independence payment and work capability assessments, and the Department closely monitors performance, including through the independent audit of assessment reports.

Some years ago, my constituent Robert Shafer was denied benefits after a Department for Work and Pensions medical assessment was deemed fit for purpose, despite its being contradicted by all other medical evidence and the medical examiner being sent for retraining. Robert Shafer’s case has never been resolved. When will Ministers accept that the whole medical assessment process is in itself not fit for purpose?

I am very sorry to hear about that individual case. I would of course be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to see what more we can do to help. The work capability assessment and PIP assessment process has been subject to a series of independent reviews, which we welcome, and we work vigorously to make sure that we make continuous improvements. For the vast majority of people, the processes work well.

Just before Christmas, the Minister announced yet another review of disabled people being wrong denied vital social security, after 4,600 disabled people had their disability living allowance wrongly stopped and were deprived of PIP. It is the seventh review of its kind in the past year and provides yet another example of the devastating impact of the chaotic shambles at the heart of the DWP. Does the Minister agree that this latest review is the result of institutional indifference to the suffering of disabled people? Or is it simply the result of a Department in utter chaos?

Well, happy new year to the shadow Minister.

I utterly refute the idea that the Department for Work and Pensions and its staff, who work so hard, day in, day out—well, I will not even dignify those comments by repeating the allegations. The Department is there to make sure that people in our society get the benefits that they—[Interruption.] I am very happy to answer the question if the hon. Lady will refrain from chuntering so distractingly from sedentary position. We are utterly determined to make sure we have a benefits system that is compassionate, fair and fit for purpose. We are proceeding at pace to review the PIP claimant cases to make sure that people get all the benefits to which they are entitled.

I have a 31-year-old constituent who has the deteriorating condition cystic fibrosis. With lung function of less than 30%, he is now being assessed for a lung transplant. After a recent medical assessment, his PIP payments were stopped and he now has a 47-week wait for a tribunal date to appeal that medical assessment decision. Will the Minister meet me to discuss my constituent’s case?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing up this case, and I will be very happy to meet her. It is really worth reflecting on the fact that, for the vast majority of people, PIP works well. Many more people are benefiting from PIP than they were under the legacy system, but one mistake is one too many and I will of course work with her.

Leaving the EU: Departmental Spending

19. How much her Department has spent on preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement. (908381)

We have prepared for all eventualities that might take place after March this year, including no deal. Preparations have been undertaken by staff as part of their regular duties, and we are therefore unable to apportion costs to that. However, the Department has been allocated £15 million for 2019-20 for EU exit preparation.

When will the Government publish the report that was leaked to The Times just before Christmas, which revealed the different scenarios for Brexit and their impact on unemployment, homelessness, poverty and much more? Will it be before next week’s meaningful vote?

The Department regularly conducts internal inquiries to reassure ourselves that we are prepared for all eventualities, and I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are prepared.

Motability

20. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the findings in the December 2018 NAO report on the level of profit made by Motability from leasing cars to personal independence payment claimants. (908383)

Asking the National Audit Office to investigate was an important step towards ensuring that disabled people are provided with an excellent, value for money service. It is troubling that excessive amounts have been paid out in bonuses and are sitting in reserves. We accept all the NAO recommendations and will be meeting the chairman of Motability this week to discuss how the organisation plans to implement them.

Does the Minister agree that the great work done by that charity is being undermined by the amount of salary and bonuses that it is paying out? Will she work with it as soon as she possibly can to make sure that that money is used for the benefit of vulnerable people, not the directors of the business?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. The Motability scheme is very much valued by disabled people and I want to make sure that all disabled people with mobility concerns can benefit from it, so we will be asking the organisation to use up its reserves and to make sure that it reaches more disabled people to help them play a full part in society.

Order. The Minister is always most courteous in engaging with the person asking the question, but the rest of the House also wants to hear her, so it would be appreciated if she could look in our direction.

While Motability has created millions of pounds of profits, I have a constituent, 51 years of age and a former NHS nurse, who sustained a serious injury for which she has required more than 20 operations. After six months on sick pay, she was granted the highest PIP mobility rate as well as employment and support allowance at £73.10 a week. Her PIP was subsequently reduced to the lowest rate of £22 a week, and she lost ESA payment of £37 a week and has been deemed fit to work. She is struggling to buy food and to pay her bills. Her mobile phone was restricted by her provider due to two phone calls to the DWP costing her £47, so she has lost all her money. What will the Minister do to sort out this scandalous situation?

The question was an extraordinarily interesting one, and very comprehensive, but it was a classic example of what I call shoehorning. The hon. Gentleman was seeking to shoehorn his issue into a question to which it did not really belong, but the Minister’s dexterity is boundless and I feel sure that she will reply pithily.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Of course, I will meet the hon. Gentleman to go through that case. It is well worth remembering that there are 600,000 people on the mobility scheme, which is many more than there were in 2010 before we had PIP. In fact, 144,000 people have been given enhanced mobility rates, and transitional protection is also available. I will be working with Motability to make sure that more people can benefit from that scheme, but of course we can meet and go through the details of that case.

Care Leavers: Employment

The Government are committed to supporting care leavers. We have introduced a £1,000 bursary for those starting an apprenticeship and a £2,000 bursary for those going into higher education, extended paid internship opportunities across Government and launched the care leaver covenant. We are also working closely with Barnardo’s on an innovative work experience pilot.

Care leavers are some of the most difficult people to get into employment. Social workers are helping with that transition through projects such as Staying Close and Staying Put, but what particular outreach support can the Department deliver to improve the statistics, which do not look good?

I know that my right hon. Friend worked tirelessly on this when he was a Minister in the Department for Education. We have 900 single points of contact who are supporting care leavers across the country. We are also working with a lot of businesses so that they can realise the huge potential that care leavers offer. I had two fantastic visits, to the Big House in London and PGL, which I saw at first hand were benefiting from giving care leavers work opportunities.

Topical Questions

Universal credit is a vital reform that overhauls a legacy system that trapped people out of work; with six different benefits and three different places, it was utterly confusing. All new claimants now receive universal credit. In the future, we will move claimants who have not changed circumstances from legacy benefits to universal credit in an approach known as managed migration. It is right that the Government eventually operate one system. The Department has long planned to support 10,000 people through this process before increasing the number of people migrated. That will provide an opportunity to learn how to provide the best support, while keeping Parliament fully informed of our approach.

The local jobcentre staff in Clacton do some excellent work and should be commended. However, the Secretary of State will know—I raised this case with her a little while ago—that for various reasons one constituent was unable to access some services at the jobcentre. In the end we were able to help this man, but what more can the Department do to ensure that outreach is available so that these vital services can reach even claimants who cannot make it to the jobcentre or who, like me, have difficulty dealing with IT stuff?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing this case to my attention and for all the work he does with the jobcentre to ensure that his constituents have the right access to universal credit. Work coaches are trained to give additional support where it is needed, whether that is with IT or for people who require a home visit. We estimate that there have been nearly 300,000 home visits in the past year to ensure that people get the tailored support they need.

Nearly half a million senior citizens living abroad, who have paid in all their life, currently enjoy the guarantee that their state pension will be uprated annually. The same is true for pension entitlement built up working in another European Union state. With 81 days to go until Brexit, does the Minister recognise that the Government’s total mishandling of Brexit means that we might crash out with a no-deal Brexit, and that in those circumstances it would be not just our jobs and economy that would be put at risk but the security and dignity of a whole generation of pensioners?

The Government have a cross-departmental strategy on Brexit. The reality is that the policy for overseas pensioners has continued since the second world war, was endorsed by the previous Labour Government and is continued by this Government.

T2. I have seen at first hand the benefits that universal credit can bring by giving people a job and helping them to turn their lives around, and I have also heard the frustrations of work coaches that there are still many people on legacy benefits who do not get that same good service. May I therefore welcome the latest test and learn approach, but ask the Secretary of State to ensure that we still move towards change and deliver? (908389)

I thank my hon. Friend for the good work that he has done as a champion of universal credit, recognising, as we all do on the Government Benches—and as I hope all Opposition Members will do—the good work that universal credit does at the hands of really caring, personalised work coaches, who ensure that the claimants we all seek to serve get the tailored support they need. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a resounding yes.

T3. Why have not the Government published a recent equalities impact assessment of the plans for managed migration to universal credit? What have they got to hide? (908391)

We have previously published an equalities assessment and, as we have noted, we will do the same ahead of the full roll-out of managed migration.

T4. As universal credit is rolled out in Havant, I welcome the use of new technology to help applicants. What support is available to those applicants to ensure that they make the best use of the new systems? (908392)

As my hon. Friend will know, we now have a new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver universal credit support, and his constituency is part of the early mobilisation of that programme. However, it is important that for those who are not able to use such technology, we still make a freephone helpline available, and that, as the Secretary of State has outlined, home visits can be arranged.

T6. Church of England figures suggest that 5,500 children in my constituency alone may be affected by the roll-out of the two-child limit, which will restrict all new claims for universal credit to the first two children in a family. By the time this policy rolls out, it will affect 3 million children, pushing them into poverty. Will the Secretary of State meet me and campaigners from different organisations, from the Church of England to Rape Crisis and women’s organisations, to discuss the impact that this policy will have? Will she pause the policy and stop it rolling out from 1 February this year? (908394)

We think this is the right thing to do. It is fair to taxpayers, some of whom are on very low incomes, to ensure that the support that we provide under universal credit is for two children so that people who are on benefits have the same choices to make as people on low incomes in thinking about whether to have a third child. On the other point that the hon. Lady raised, I am carefully considering what action needs to be taken.

T5. I am pleased that employment levels in Crawley are above the national average, but what further support can be provided to get more people into work so that they can realise their full potential and that of our economy? (908393)

I thank my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he does in supporting employers so that they can create jobs. He is right. We need to make sure that the jobs market is very strong, and that is why we make support available through universal credit, with one-to-one interaction.

T7. Does the Minister think that a 47-week average wait for a PIP appeal hearing at the Coventry centre is acceptable, particularly considering that the person appealing will not receive any money during that time and that 80% of decisions are overturned at tribunal? (908395)

No, I do not think that that time is at all acceptable. That is why we have been working so closely with our colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to make sure that people can have their appeals heard much more swiftly. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that more than 200 new judges have been recruited to the tribunal, and that through the use of automation we are beginning to see waiting times for appeals reducing greatly. But let us look at this overall: PIP works for the vast majority of people, and of the decisions that have been made, only 9% have been taken to appeal and 5% overturned. We are constantly looking to make sure that we make the right decision the first time, but the situation is improving.

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency last summer and see the fantastic work and the jobs revolution that is taking place in Basildon. It was also a pleasure to meet dBD Communications, one of his top companies, which has done a fantastic job in creating new employment and getting new training work done, and has an expanded order book that is enhancing job opportunities in Basildon.

T9. On 19 December, I received the observations of the Secretary of State in response to a public petition that I had submitted on behalf of my constituents calling for a halt of universal credit and for the problems to be fixed. Her response concluded that“we can see no reason to halt the rollout of Universal Credit”.So what, if anything, has changed in the past three weeks? (908397)

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there has been no change. We are continuing with the plan to have a pilot of 10,000 people, which we will use to ensure that the managed migration in 2020 happens in the most effective, efficient and compassionate way.

While some employers do fantastic work to help ex-offenders into work, do Ministers agree that we now need some disclosure, to show up employers that blatantly discriminate against ex-offenders for no good reason to stop them getting jobs?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I applaud his campaign to “ban the box”. More companies should be like Timpson, which has been an outstanding employer and has conclusively proved that employing ex-offenders is good policy and that they make great employees.

We have been told time and again that people will not be worse off under universal credit, but my constituent is £463 a month worse off after transferring from tax credits in work to universal credit. Is that something the Government are proud of?

I am happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Lady raises, but I would point out that £2.4 billion was unclaimed under the legacy benefit system, and that is changing under universal credit.

I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State for listening and changing her approach to managed migration. I think we will see a step change in how vulnerable claimants feel about their security under universal credit. I have given her a list of other areas of UC that need improving. I urge her to look at one area that will completely revolutionise how people feel about the system—the five-week wait has got to go. If we make the advance payment the first payment rather than a loan, we will see food bank usage and the whole system transformed immeasurably.

I thank my hon. Friend. There are many contributions on how we can improve universal credit. Some of them carry quite a big price tag, and some have had more success with the Treasury than others. I look forward to further conversations with the Chancellor in due course.

Under tax credits, under-25 lone parents got paid the higher over-25 rate. Under universal credit, they do not. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that? I ask her on behalf of the group of young parents from Newport who are worse off under this system and in hardship.

I am always happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about these issues. As she will know, the changes we introduced in the Budget mean that work allowances are going up by £1,000 precisely to support those who need it—individuals with children and, of course, the disabled.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Changes

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on progress made in achieving legal changes to the EU withdrawal agreement and the timetable in this House for the meaningful vote.

I would like to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all the House a happy new year.

In a tone that I am sure will reflect the year ahead, may I join the Leader of the Opposition in wishing you, Mr Speaker, and colleagues across the House a happy new year?

As the House will be aware, the Prime Minister today launched a new 10-year plan for the NHS, allocating an extra £20.5 billion a year in funding. I am therefore responding to this question on her behalf. I am sure colleagues across the House recognise the importance of the NHS plan.

As confirmed by the Leader of the House in her business statement before the Christmas recess, this Wednesday the House will debate a business motion relating to section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That will be followed by the main debate on section 13(1)(b), which will continue on Thursday 10 January and, subject to the will of the House, Friday 11 January. Discussions are taking place through the usual channels as to the proposed length of that debate and the date of the vote, but ultimately it will be a decision for this House, through the business motion, which will be voted on this Wednesday. Debate will also take place in the House of Lords on Wednesday 9, Thursday 10 and Monday 14 January.

The decision to postpone the debate last year was not taken lightly. Over the two years of negotiations, the Prime Minister won hard-fought battles—most importantly, to agree a bespoke deal, rather than the flawed off-the-shelf options initially offered. But it was clear from the three days of debate held in this House that it was not going to pass the deal and that further reassurances should be sought, particularly on the issue of the backstop.

Following December’s European Council, a series of conclusions were published that went further than the EU had ever gone previously in trying to address the concerns of this House. Over Christmas, the Prime Minister was in contact with a number of her European counterparts on the further legal and political assurances that Parliament needs on the backstop. She has been in touch with the Taoiseach, and indeed British and Irish Government officials have been in contact over the past week. Securing the additional reassurance that Parliament needs remains our priority, and leaders remain in contact. Leaving the EU with the deal that has been agreed is in the interests of both sides.

When the debate begins on Wednesday, the Government will make clear for the House what has been achieved since the vote was deferred last year. As I said when I spoke in the debate on 4 December, the deal will enable us to deliver a fair, skills-based immigration system and to have control over our fisheries policy and agricultural policies—

Unlike the Scottish National party, which wants to retain the European approach. We will have our own trade policy for the first time in more than three decades, and there will be an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU. It is a good deal, it is the only deal, and I believe that it is the right deal, in offering certainty for this country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. With less than three months until we reach the article 50 deadline, there can be no more hiding and no more running away. This issue will define Britain’s future and should not be decided by the internal machinations of the Conservative party. This House and this country deserve much better.

A month ago, the Prime Minister shamefully pulled the meaningful vote, promising to do everything possible to secure assurances from the EU on the temporary nature of the backstop. Now the time has come for the Prime Minister to tell the House exactly what legal assurances she has been given by EU leaders. She achieved nothing at the December summit, but now surely she has plenty to update us on. Although I am delighted to see the Brexit Secretary here today, it is the Prime Minister who should be here to answer these questions. She suggested that a breakthrough had been secured last week. She is not here because she is busy promoting “Project Fear.” It is all hot air.

There also seems to be confusion about exactly what the Prime Minister is demanding from EU leaders. The Leader of the House promised “legal reassurances”, but yesterday the Prime Minister told the BBC:

“We’re not asking for anything new”.

Can the Secretary of State clear this up and tell the House exactly what is being requested, because this morning Ministers in his own Department did not seem to have a clue? When asked what the PM was demanding, the Brexit Minister had to concede that he did not know, but he reassured the whole world by saying that he was “an important person”, so that is all right.

I fear that the reason so many members of the Cabinet are in the dark is that there is nothing to know. If that is the case, what guarantees do we have from the Secretary of State that, faced with yet another humiliating defeat, the Prime Minister will not just run away? Can he do what the Prime Minister should be doing here today by confirming the timetable for the meaningful vote and providing what we have not received so far: a cast-iron promise that it will not be reneged on yet again?

The Government are trying to run down the clock in an attempt to blackmail this House and the country into supporting a botched deal. The Prime Minister has refused to work with the majority over the past few months, in a desperate attempt to spark life into what is actually a Frankenstein’s monster of a deal. Now we are told that, if we do not support the deal, the Government are prepared to push our whole economy off the cliff edge. To prove this, preparations for no deal are now under way.

The Transport Secretary, who has a PhD in incompetence in running Ministries, has awarded a shipping contract to a company that does not have any ships. Even today, we see the farce of lorries being lined up to stage a fake traffic jam in Kent to pretend to the EU that the Government are ready for a no deal—a stunt that the Road Haulage Association describes as “window dressing” and that one of the drivers describes as a “complete waste of time.” The Government are fooling nobody. These shambolic preparations are too little, too late.

The reality is that there is no majority in this House to support no deal. Why will the Government not face up to this truth and stop wasting our time and our money? The Prime Minister should be here updating MPs on what progress she has achieved, if any. Instead, she is continuing her approach, as before Christmas, of ducking scrutiny and dodging accountability. We will hold this Government to account for their incompetence.

Based on the lack of content in that, it is good to know that the Leader of the Opposition had a good break over Christmas. He talks about colleagues not knowing. What they do not know is what Labour’s plan is. However, what they do know is that it is riddled with contradiction. Labour say they want to remain in a customs union, yet they also say that they intend to have an independent trade policy, even though the EU has made it clear that that is an area of EU competence. They say they want to be in the internal market but, at the same time, end free movement, even though the two are contradictory.

The shadow Business Secretary says that he does not want to rule out the option of a second referendum, yet the shadow Education Secretary says that that would be a betrayal of the democracy of the main referendum vote. Page 24 of Labour’s manifesto said that they would respect the referendum result; now they seem to have a policy to go back on that. So the confusion we have is as to what the Leader of the Opposition actually believes. He started out saying in interviews that we could not stop Brexit, yet his shadow Brexit Secretary says that they can.

I am pleased that the Leader of the Opposition started his remarks by seeming to upgrade me. Last time he said that my role is purely ceremonial. Now he seems to welcome me to my post. Yet he seems to suggest that the NHS 10-year plan, with an extra £20.5 billion of investment, is in some way “Project Fear.” Well, we are used to “Project Fear” on the NHS; it is “Project Fear” that we see from the Opposition on a regular basis.

The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman opposes the preparations for no deal, which any responsible Government need to make, while at the same time saying that he will vote against the deal. It is that internal machination in the Labour party that he needs to address, and nothing in his contribution to the House today sought to clarify that. It is now time he became clear. Does he maintain the position in the manifesto, that Labour will respect the referendum result, or does he agree with his shadow Brexit Secretary and want a second referendum?

We have only about 80 days left. The Government face a deadline which depend crucial decisions that will affect future generations and the whole basis of our political and economic relationships with the rest of the world. We are nowhere near consensus, either in this House or in the country, on what new arrangements with the European Union we are actually asking for, let alone on the arrangements that we are likely to achieve. Now we have a completely ridiculous urgent question from the Leader of the Opposition, who has no idea what he wants but who just feels that he has to say something about the crisis we are in.

As we are in this position and as 29 March is an entirely arbitrary date—it was accidentally set when the Prime Minister, for no particular reason, decided to invoke article 50 before she knew what she was going to ask for—may I ask my right hon. Friend: is not it obvious that the national interest requires that we now delay matters by putting off the implementation of article 50 in order to put ourselves in the position where we can negotiate with 27 serious Governments by showing that we know what we are asking for and can deliver from our side, and to protect the national interest and future generations?

It is always good to hear from my right hon. and learned Friend, but I take issue with his question. First, he says this is an arbitrary date. The article 50 process set a two-year timeline and, indeed, this House voted for the date to be set in the Bill. Secondly—he touched on this in his interview on the “Today” programme, when he suggested that we revoke article 50 with a view to having a second referendum decision—the European Court of Justice was clear that revoking article 50 cannot be done as a tactical device in order then to go back on that decision; it has to be a confirmed intention at that time. If this is about extending that, an extension requires the agreement of all 27 member states, but if it is about revoking it, the Court was clear that revoking article 50 is not about buying more time; it is about making a clear decision that we do not intend at that point to proceed.

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members and staff a happy new year?

It is with regret that we return after the Christmas break with no progress from the Government on the withdrawal agreement and—even more remarkable—that we return with no Prime Minister in Parliament. She cannot be bothered to be here. We are now just days away from the deadline to get a deal to protect our economy and the Prime Minister is not in Parliament to explain her lack of progress. Why is the Prime Minister not responding to this urgent question?

It is now clear beyond doubt that the Prime Minister’s tactic is to run down the clock and deprive Parliament of any alternative to her Brexit proposals, bringing the prospect of a no deal closer. The SNP we will work across this House to get support for an alternative that is about having another EU referendum and letting the people take back control from this Government. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: get off the fence and join us. Stop this Government’s chaotic Brexit plan.

Shamefully, we are in exactly the same situation as before Christmas, with the Tory Government again facing defeat but having wasted a month of precious time. The risks are real. The economic disaster facing our communities across these islands is real. It is suggested that the proposed letter between the UK and the EU regarding the backstop will not come before the debate and the meaningful vote. We cannot operate in the dark. This Government must show us the detail and tell us today how they believe these assurances will be enough to win support for their shambolic deal. Moreover, if, which is extremely unlikely, this Government manage to get their vote through, will they commit to extending article 50 immediately and remove the threat of the cliff edge?

The First Minister of Scotland was very clear today that the events of the last few years have made the case for Scotland being an independent country in charge of our own destiny even stronger. Scotland will not be dragged out of the European Union against its will. Our Parliament’s powers are being eroded. The UK Government are treating the Scottish Government with contempt. Even when we seek compromise, our voice—Scotland’s voice—is sidelined. This Government should wake up to the reality. Scotland knows who is leading in our interests, and it is not the Government in Westminster.

I think that Members across the House will recognise that this Prime Minister has spent probably more time at this Dispatch Box answering questions from colleagues across the House than any of the previous incumbents. The right hon. Gentleman asked where she is. As I said in my opening remarks, she is launching the NHS 10-year plan because this party—Members on this side of the House—is committed to ensuring that we have an NHS fit for the future, which is what that announcement is about.

There seems to be, inherent in the right hon. Gentleman’s questions today and in previous questions, a constant refrain from the SNP. On the one hand it calls for referendums, but on the other it cannot seem to cope with the results of the referendums in 2014 or 2016.

The right hon. Gentleman is right as to the concern about a no-deal outcome. That is why the best mitigation of a no deal is to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. It is the only deal on the table and it reflects over two years of hard-fought negotiation with the EU.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about extending article 50, I touched on that in my reply to the Father of the House. The reality is that extending article 50 is not a unilateral decision: it would require the consent of the other 27 member states. It would also raise all sorts of practical issues, not least in relation to the timing of the European parliamentary elections at the end of May. It is the Government’s firm intention not to extend article 50 and to leave the EU as the Prime Minister set out. The SNP should respect the largest vote in the United Kingdom’s history.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Do the Government understand that opposition to the withdrawal agreement goes way beyond the unacceptable Irish backstop and includes paying huge sums of money with nothing nailed down over the future partnership? Worse still, it would plunge us into 21 to 45 more months of endless rows and disagreements, with all the uncertainty that would bring.

May I join you, Mr Speaker, in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood? As regards the interplay between the financial settlement and how a no-deal scenario would be managed, there is a contradiction in saying on the one hand that we can leave the EU with no financial contribution, and on the other that there would be sufficient good will on the EU side for them to move beyond anything more than contingency planning and offer some sort of managed deal, when, at the same time, we are not honouring the legal obligations we have.

The Leader of the Opposition clarified, over the recess, that in the event that the Labour party obtains and wins a general election it will proceed with Brexit, so what are the Minister’s civil service advisers telling it that is in any way different from what the Government are doing?

It is not for me to speculate on what civil servants tell the Leader of the Opposition. I am not sure they would be having those discussions. The reality is that the Leader of the Opposition’s party was the first to offer an in/out referendum. His party should therefore respect the decision, as its then leader said it would. It was the biggest vote in our country’s history and that is why it is right that we avoid further divisiveness and ensure we leave as we said we would.

First, may I endorse the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) about the money side of things? It is not just that the backstop is not sufficient in itself. It is a vital issue, but it is not the whole story by any means. We have the European Court of Justice, the question of control over laws, the question of the extension of time under article 132, the issue of state aid and the incompatibility of the agreement with the repeal of the European Communities 1972 Act. So many aspects of the withdrawal agreement are, if I may say so to the Secretary of State, matters that go way beyond mere reassurances. Reassurances will get nowhere. They are certainly not going to convince anybody who is thinking hard about this when it comes to the vote next week.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister made clear that she has heard the concerns of the House in relation to the backstop and that is subject to the further discussions with European leaders. In terms of its scope, it is worth reminding the House that 80% of our economy is covered by services that would not be within the scope of the backstop. It is worth having some proportion with regard to that discussion. On the other issues, I was not sure whether he was saying he wants more freedom for state aid, which would be the Leader of the Opposition’s position. That is not, characteristically, what I would expect my hon. Friend to be calling for. The reality is that any deal we enter into with the EU will require a backstop. That is the substance of it. Whether that is a Canada option, a Canada-plus, a Canada-plus-plus or a Canada-plus-plus-plus, the reality is that, whatever the deal, it will require a backstop.

Nearly a month has passed since the vote on the Prime Minister’s deal was cancelled, and the EU shows no signs of being willing to offer her the legal assurances she says she is seeking about how long the Northern Ireland backstop might last. Unless the Secretary of State can reassure the House today that such assurances will be forthcoming, I urge the Government to take at least one decision in the national interest now and rule out the disaster that a no-deal Brexit would be for this country.

I am very mindful of what the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee says, and of the letter on this issue signed by a significant number of Members. The core point about ruling out no deal is that the House has to be for something rather than simply to agree what it is against. It is clear that the signatories to the letter suggesting that no deal should be ruled out support a whole spectrum of issues. The House has to decide what it is for, not simply what it is against.

Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituent who runs a chemical business, who says a no deal would be a disaster for him? Can my right hon. Friend give a direct assurance that we will proceed to a vote on the deal next week?

I think we need to move away from some of the more inflammatory language around the consequences of no deal, but I do agree with my hon. Friend that there will be significant issues arising from no deal. I do not support the view expressed by some Members, including the Democratic Unionist party spokesman, who is supremely relaxed about the consequences of no deal. I think the consequences of no deal will be material, but I do not think they will be of the inflammatory sort that we sometimes hear and read about in the press.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a blwyddyn newydd dda i’r Tŷ i gyd.

It is generally regretted that the British Government triggered article 50 in March 2017. They did so with the aid of the Labour party and without any semblance of a plan. The result, as people see, is a Parliament consumed by chaos and disorder. Delaying the meaningful vote a day longer only delays the inevitable. Will the Minister admit that the Government are now acting as a willing agent of crippling economic uncertainty, and immediately make good the harm they are choosing to do by bringing forward the vote to this week?

I feel I must slightly correct the hon. Lady. It was the House that voted to trigger article 50—a clear majority of Members voted that we should send the article 50 letter. On her point about agents of uncertainty, the agents of uncertainty are those Members who are opposing the deal—the deal that will give us an implementation period and give businesses and citizens the certainty they need—while at the same time not coming forward with a proposal that can command the confidence of the House. It is those opposing the Prime Minister’s deal who are generating the uncertainty.

The Secretary of State mentioned legally binding agreements. Will the Attorney General be coming to the House to be challenged on how legally binding some of the agreements will be? Those of us who are sceptical about having agreements rather than things written in law would like to have some of the legal advice we have already explored explained to us in the House.

My hon. Friend is a very experienced Member, and she will know that it is the House that governs its business. As happened with the previous statement, the business is shaped by business motions and what the House does. It is not normal practice—this has been an issue for successive Governments—for legal advice to be published. There are very good reasons for that, which the Attorney General set out, but ultimately the House controls its own business.

Has the Secretary of State been out and about talking to people during the Christmas break? Is he aware that people are saying, “Here we are in the greatest crisis this country has had in any of our lifetimes, at a time when we can have a 10-year plan for the national health service but no 10-year plan for the future of this country”? The people of this country feel let down by politicians on both sides. We have no plan. We have no purpose. We need leadership, and we need it now.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have a genuine plan for the NHS, and I pay tribute to the work of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on that.

On what people say to me and other Members, I am always slightly wary of that, because it is somewhat subjective, and people have a tendency to select the conversations that suit their argument, but the majority of comments I have had from constituents demonstrate a desire for us to get on with it, back the deal, move forward and end this period of divisiveness. That said, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have had different conversations with different constituents.

My right hon. Friend has said that the withdrawal agreement, which we intend to recommence debating this week, represents the best deal and the only deal. Are we to infer from that that any legal assurances we may expect to receive from the European Union will stop short of a rewording of that agreement?

My right hon. Friend, as an ex-Minister in this Department, will understand these issues extremely well. As I said in my opening remarks, we will update the House on the conversations the Prime Minister has had with European leaders in the debate starting later this week, and we will comment further on the nature of the assurances at that point.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the British public understand this whole debate about the EU much better than they are sometimes given credit for here? Does he also agree that some of the wording and scare stories put about on the possibility of going over to WTO rules are outrageous? Will he as Secretary of State make sure that his Department does everything it can to ensure that the full truth of what WTO would mean gets across to the public, who I think are already aware that this is a way forward?

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is in no one’s interest to cause false alarm, but at the same time we should not give false comfort. There are material issues to be addressed in terms of a no deal, and we are working actively in government to mitigate them—I pay tribute to the work of many officials during the festive period who maintained their work in the preparation of those no-deal plans. Indeed, we are stepping up our communication—there will be a big communication campaign of radio and social media ads tomorrow and in the days ahead—but people cannot suggest that not honouring our legal obligations and not paying the financial settlement would allow us to enter some sort of managed no deal that allows us to cherry-pick the bits we want and avoid the bits we do not.

Did my right hon. Friend see the interview in the Augsburger Allgemeine on 11 December given by Martin Selmayr, secretary-general of the European Commission, in which he said about the Commission:

“We have negotiated hard, and realised all our objectives”?

He says that the agreement

“shows that leaving the EU…doesn’t work”.

Other Brussels officials have said that the UK is “locked in” and that

“losing Northern Ireland is the price Britain has to pay for Brexit”.

Is my right hon. Friend really as enthusiastic as Martin Selmayr and the Commission about this agreement?