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Commons Chamber

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

House of Commons

Monday 28 June 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

Throughout the pandemic, our priority has been to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we spent an additional £7.4 billion last year to strengthen the welfare safety support for working-age people. Our ambition is to help parents return to work as quickly as possible, as there is clear evidence of the importance of having parents in work for reducing the risk of child poverty. That is why we are spending over £30 billion on a comprehensive plan for jobs.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but 60% of kids in my constituency are living in poverty, and over 4.2 million live in poverty across the country. The numbers have gone up by 700,000 since 2010, and the Government’s limited extension to the local support grants does not make up for the cuts to universal credit, which will mean that families are £1,000 a year worse off from September. Is it not time that the Minister reconsidered that decision and made sure that families do not lose £1,000 from September, so that more children are not forced into poverty?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are wholly committed to supporting families with children. We spent an estimated £111 billion, including £7.4 billion on covid-related measures, on working-age welfare in 2020-21. In addition, as the hon. Lady referenced, we introduced the covid local support grant. We have now extended that grant with an additional £160 million in funding between 21 June and 30 September. That brings the total funding package to £429 million. For the hon. Lady’s constituency—I reference Tower Hamlets London Borough Council—it means an overall funding package of over £3 million.

What we have been hearing from the Government is, frankly, rubbish. In Leeds East alone, 11,000 children—that is approaching half of all children—live in poverty. It is not getting better for the children of Harehills, and it is not getting better for the children of Cross Gates, Gipton, Seacroft or anywhere else; it is getting worse. Poverty levels went up by 25% in the five years before the pandemic, and it is going to get worse when £20 of universal credit is taken away from families in October. I dare the Minister today to come to the food banks of Leeds East and tell people in my community why the Tory party thinks that their children should be forced into further poverty this winter.

Recent statistics show that before the covid-19 pandemic, we were in a strong position, with rising incomes and 1.3 million fewer people, including 300,000 fewer children, in absolute poverty, after housing costs, compared with 2010. There were also over 600,000 fewer children in workless households. Our long-term ambition is to support economic recovery across our United Kingdom, and our new plan for jobs is already supporting people to move into and to progress in work.

In-work poverty has hit a record high and the vast majority of the millions of children in poverty have working parents, but the Government’s response is to cut universal credit this September. There is no sign of an employment Bill to improve conditions at work, and they have also frozen help with housing costs. What is the Government’s plan to tackle in-work poverty? A good way to start would be to cancel that cut to universal credit this September.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. As our economy improves, we will increasingly focus our support on in-work progression to improve opportunities for those in low-paid work and support them towards financial independence. As part of our comprehensive £30 billion plan for jobs, there is an extra 13,500 work coaches, the kickstart scheme, the restart scheme, SWAP—the sector-based work academy programme—and our in-work progression commission, which will report shortly on the barriers to progression for those on persistent low pay and recommend a strategy for overcoming them.

I would remind the Minister that universal credit is an in-work benefit and it is means-tested. If people do progress, they will not be eligible for that support, so it is not an argument for proceeding with that cut in September.

Can I ask the Minister about a significant barrier to work, which is childcare? He will know that soaring childcare costs have to be paid up front, but universal credit is paid in arrears, leaving parents in debt. I recently met the campaign Mums on a Mission, which has been forced to bring legal action to try to make the system work for parents. More people would be able to work the hours they wanted if we got this right, but do Ministers understand just how significant a problem this is?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I will not be able to comment on live litigation, but what I would say is that we do have a comprehensive childcare offer, both as a Government and specifically as a Department. I would also say that, unlike the previous benefit system, in which childcare costs could be up to 70% recoverable, in universal credit the figure is 85%, so it is a far more generous system.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has told the Work and Pensions Committee that cutting £20 a week from universal credit in October will reduce unemployment support to the lowest level for over 30 years at exactly the point when unemployment is being increased by the ending of the furlough scheme, and that it will also pull 400,000 people, including many children, below the poverty line. What assessment will the Minister make of the impact of that cut on child poverty before the cut goes ahead?

The first thing I would say is that the Government have always been clear that the £20 increase to universal credit was a temporary measure to support households most affected by the economic shock of covid-19, and that decisions on whether to extend support would be made as the economic and health picture became clearer. There have been significant positive developments in the public health situation since the increase was first announced, with the vaccine roll-out now significantly gathering pace. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that any look at measures of that kind in terms of forecasting is purely speculative, but it is our expectation that this additional financial support and other direct covid support will end once our economy has opened.

Jobcentre Services

What steps she is taking to help people back into work through the provision of jobcentre services. (901838)

What steps she is taking to help people back into work through the provision of jobcentre services. (901849)

What steps she is taking to help people back into work through the provision of jobcentre services. (901852)

What steps she is taking to help people back into work through the provision of jobcentre services. (901870)

We have recruited thousands of new work coaches and expanded our jobcentre network through our plan for jobs. That, alongside our successful vaccine roll-out, means that we are seeing more claimants face-to-face in a covid-secure way. We are also delivering additional provision, including job-finding support, job entry targeted support, our £2 billion kickstart scheme and our restart scheme. We have also opened new Department for Work and Pensions youth hubs, expanded the sector-based work academy programme and increased our flexible support fund. Thanks to our work coaches and the plan for jobs, they now have more tools than ever to support claimants back into work.

I welcome the Minister’s response, but my two local jobcentres are seeing a number of people fail to turn up for their appointments with work coaches. That appears to be driven by the lack of sanctions because of the pandemic, so what is my hon. Friend doing to make it easier for jobcentres to use sanctions?

I am proud that our jobcentres have remained open throughout the pandemic to support the most vulnerable customers. Claimant commitments have continued to be tailored to individual circumstances by work coaches since July last year, meaning that sanctions remain at record low levels as we fully consider individual circumstances before deciding whether to apply a sanction.

It is really important that young people who are looking for that first break into employment do not pay the heaviest price from the pandemic. That is why the youth hubs, including the one in Burnley, are so welcome. I thank all the local jobcentre staff for the work they have done to set that up. To encourage young people to go and use it, will the Minister confirm what support they will get when they go into the youth hub, and would she like to join me in visiting the one in Burnley, so that we can get as many people through the door as possible?

I have visited new youth hubs, both physically and virtually, including in Caterham, Rotherham, Liverpool and Winsford, and I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend and the team at Burnley. I know that they are working in partnership with the council, Calico, Burnley Together, the Prince’s Trust, Active Lancashire and Burnley football club. Our youth hubs tailor their support, alongside local partners, to the needs of the community, and that is why they are so important in helping our young people to thrive.

Last Friday, I was very pleased to see a young apprentice at a local Staffordshire engineering business whom I had met previously when she was studying at Stafford College. Will my hon. Friend explain what she is planning to do to help the jobcentre in Stafford and how the Government will provide more employment opportunities for young people in Staffordshire to help to level up the west midlands?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in her Jobcentre Plus, as she updated me following her visit. I remind Members that since September 2020, our enhanced DWP youth offer has provided wraparound support for 18 to 24-year-old claimants, providing a 13-week tailored pre-employment course. I am pleased that Stafford JCP is hosting an interactive kickstart event tomorrow; our JCPs do that kind of event and engagement regularly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her team are doing to support people back into work. In conversations with my local jobcentre staff this week, they reported very positive progress. They asked what opportunities there might be to consider extending kickstart-style schemes or incentives, so they are able to help out-of-work adults as well as young people. I wonder if my hon. Friend could help me to answer their question.

I am proud that our plan for jobs supports people, at any age and at any career stage, who are looking for new opportunities through, for example, our sector-based work academy programmes, our enhanced “50 PLUS: Choices” offer, and the new DWP “Train and Progress”, through which people can train for longer into a growing sector using the flexibilities built in within universal credit.

I thank my hon. Friend for her earlier answers. Before this terrible pandemic hit, I had the opportunity to visit my local jobcentre in Clacton. Its staff are enthusiastic and devoted to their work, but that workload has increased dramatically as our hospitality and tourism sectors have been hit. These sectors are vital to the Clacton economy. Is the Minister taking account of our often overlooked and deprived coastal areas as the Government continue their important work of helping people affected by this terrible pandemic back into work?

Understanding the needs of every community is key—[Interruption.] I hear the Secretary of State mention Suffolk Coastal. The success of our jobcentres in understanding the local economy and getting local people back into work is key. Our JCPs change lives every day. One recent success story in Clacton was a customer who recently started a kickstart job in wildlife conservation—I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is joining him there at the moment—as a result of the five-week pre-employment course at the DWP.

Disabled people require support to get back into work. Disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as

“a physical or mental impairment”

that

“has a substantial and long-term adverse effect”

on their

“ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Of the 2 million in the UK with long covid, three in 10 have experienced symptoms lasting longer than a year, including fatigue, difficulty concentrating and shortness of breath. This is resulting in widespread disadvantage and discrimination, and is erecting barriers to employment. Will the Minister commit to recognising long covid as a disability from the point of diagnosis to ensure that workers have support and protection against discrimination in the workplace?

We always tailor personalised support to individual circumstances. I am proud of what we have done throughout the pandemic, particularly at our JCPs, to keep them open and keep people feeling safe, and to support businesses and workers to feel safe. I recently joined a spot check at the Bootle HQ with the CEO of the Health and Safety Executive. We have done over a quarter of a million checks to make sure that people feel safe at work.

Benefit Cap

What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of households subject to the benefit cap. (901837)

The most recent publication shows the proportion of capped households remains low, at 2.9% of the overall housing benefit and universal credit case load as of February 2021.

Today is a day of action for the “Right to Food” campaign, which I fully support. I can offer the Minister one possible policy to alleviate food poverty: drop the benefit cap. Food insecurity disproportionately affects families who are also most affected by the cap. The Child Poverty Action Group found that lifting the cap could take 150,000 children out of poverty. Will the Minister please explain her reasoning for not lifting it?

The hon. Lady will be keen to know that, even in these current times, people moving out of the benefit cap and into work is going in the right direction. There are multiple vacancies in the hospitality, construction, care and logistics sectors. The benefits system provides a crucial safety net for people at their time of need and the benefit cap also provides a strong incentive for claimants to get into work and increase their hours so that the benefit cap does not apply.

Last week, former Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud described the benefit cap, which is now hitting 120,000 more households than at the beginning of the pandemic, as “ghastly”. Efforts to protect incomes during covid have been undermined as increased universal credit and housing allowance rates led to more families being capped, with numbers rising as the grace period for universal credit expires. If the supposed aim of the benefit cap is for families to go into work and to cut their housing costs by moving, will the Minister explain how families have been supposed to do that in the past 12 months, when neither option was effectively possible?

I remind hon. Members that the benefit cap is set at the equivalent annual salary of £24,000, or £28,000 in London, which importantly provides fairness between taxpayers in employment and those with working-age support. Claimants can approach their local authority for discretionary housing payments if they need additional support to meet rental costs, or indeed for hardship grants. The hon. Lady should look out for the forthcoming in-work progression report, which will look at all these matters. We should take all this in the round.

Rules for Terminal Illness Review

If her Department will publish the findings from its review of the special rules for terminal illness before the summer 2021 parliamentary recess. (901840)

The Department is committed to publishing the outcome of the evaluation, and it will be announced in due course. I understand that the delay has been frustrating, and I remain absolutely committed to delivering an improved benefit system for claimants who are nearing the end of their lives.

As the Minister knows, it is nearly two years since the DWP announced its review of the special rules for terminal illness and we are still waiting for it to be published. Last July, the Minister said it would be published shortly; today, he says, “in due course”. In the meantime, many have died while waiting for benefits decisions. How long do we have to wait until the Government scrap the six-month rule?

I pay tribute to the hon. Member, who has been brilliant at championing the need to make changes, with which the Department agrees as part of its review to raise awareness of support, improve consistency with other services and, crucially, change that six-month rule. We will be able to make changes very, very soon.

Like the review of the special rules for terminal illness, the Government’s disability strategy has been much delayed. After two long years, we are told to expect it “soon”. Disabled people are hoping for radical policies that will improve their lives. However, many fear it will contain warm words and platitudes but no real action. Can the Minister convince us that his strategy will be published with a fanfare and not just a whimper?

Absolutely. I am grateful to all the stakeholders and those with real-lived experience, including disabled people themselves, who have been working with the Department on: the proposed changes to SRTI; our forthcoming health and disability Green Paper, which will look at both disability benefits and support and disability employment, of which we have delivered record amounts; and our national strategy for disabled people, which has the Prime Minister’s personal support and will, for the first time, bring genuine cross-Government focus to create more inclusivity and remove barriers. All of those are due very soon, and I am confident that they will be well received.

British Sign Language

What recent assessment she has made of the potential merits of bringing forward legislative proposals to provide British Sign Language with full legal status. (901842)

On 18 March 2003, the UK Government formally recognised that British Sign Language is a language in its own right. Provision for accessing services by users of BSL are already covered by the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty.

My constituent Feras Al-Moubayed is engaged in a dispute with a high street bank but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to secure time with a BSL interpreter to sort through and categorise evidence documents for his case. As a result, he has missed several Financial Ombudsman Service deadlines, which has caused considerable stress and anxiety. If the Minister will not commit to bringing forward legislative proposals to provide BSL with a full legal status, will he commit to making more provision available to support people such as Mr Al-Moubayed in my constituency in the interim?

I thank the hon. Member for raising that matter; I encourage her also to raise it with our Treasury colleagues, because it sounds like additional support is needed. On the broad principle, I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), who has a great deal of personal experience in this area, is looking at a potential private Member’s Bill, for which I have offered my full support by hosting a roundtable with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, stakeholders and cross-Government officials to look at how the public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010 are or are not providing sufficient support for those who rely on BSL. I welcome all support in that area.

Kickstart Scheme

What recent assessment she has made of the progress made by the kickstart scheme in creating jobs for young people. (901853)

I am delighted to say that we have agreed funding for over 230,000 jobs. What matters, though, is whether young people are starting those jobs. Over 36,000 young people have—nearly doubling since the previous DWP questions—and there are about 100,000 jobs currently live in the system waiting to be filled, so it is a very exciting time for young people to get kickstarted.

Getting young people into these kickstarter positions is hugely important, but it is only a first step, so will my right hon. Friend tell me what support is available to those young people to turn these kickstarter opportunities into permanent roles?

One of the key features of the kickstart role is the £1,500 that is given for employability support. Combined with that, there are now over 27,000 work coaches right across Great Britain. What will tend to happen is that those young people, after four months of being on kickstart, will be engaged to see what the next role could be. That could be an apprenticeship or a permanent role, and we are already seeing people get permanent work with their kickstart employers. I particularly pay tribute to Tesco, which has been absolutely amazing in the process so far, and I encourage other employers who are equally standing up to the challenge to continue to try to make sure that every young person gets a chance.

£20 Universal Credit Uplift

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect of removing the £20 a week uplift to universal credit and working tax credit on child poverty in Scotland. (901844)

No assessment has been made. Projecting the impact of an individual policy on poverty levels is complex and inherently speculative. It is difficult to isolate the specific impact of one policy and determine its effect on how many people fall below the poverty threshold, which itself changes over time.

That is simply not good enough. Ploughing ahead with the scheduled cut to universal credit means ignoring the advice of three Select Committees—the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee and the Lords Economic Affairs Committee—over 100 Tory MPs, former Tory Minister Lord Freud and over 50 anti-poverty charities. In the face of that, how can the UK Government justify cutting £20 a week for millions of families already living on subsistence incomes?

Our expectation is that, as the vaccine is widely rolled out, restrictions will be lifted and our economy will reopen over the next few months. Therefore, the Government’s focus will rightly shift towards supporting people’s incomes by helping them back into work and to increase their earnings through progression as part of our comprehensive plan for jobs. We have consistently shown throughout the crisis that we will continue to assess how best to support individuals and businesses as the situation develops.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report stated that before the pandemic over half of working-age people receiving income-related benefits were already below the poverty line. We are at a critical juncture. This Tory Government can carry out one of the biggest cuts to benefits in decades, bringing the basic level of benefits back to early-1990s levels, or they can provide substantial long-term support to people, so which will it be?

As I said, our expectation is that as the vaccine roll-out gathers pace, as restrictions are eased, as our economy opens up and as our labour market starts to grow again over the next few months, it is absolutely right that our focus shifts towards supporting and empowering people back into work, because we know—all the evidence shows us—that work is the best route of poverty. We will do that through our £30 billion comprehensive plan for jobs.

Levelling-up Agenda

Levelling up is the Prime Minister’s key priority, making sure that people right across this country have the opportunity to thrive. The way that the Department does that is to work with other Departments, particularly thinking about skills and people going into in-work progression, as well as the use of levers, such things as the flexible support fund, that are aimed at removing barriers for people to take advantage of the opportunities available.

You will know, Mr Speaker, and the Secretary of State should know that Huddersfield is a prosperous, highly skilled area of our country—yes, in Yorkshire and the north of England. Just like our next-door neighbour, Batley and Spen, we are waiting for the promises and the slogans to turn into leadership and change. It is not good enough to talk about a northern powerhouse that never arrives or levelling up that is never delivered. When will we see the high rates of unemployment in our part of West Yorkshire and the high levels of people on social benefits reduced? Bring back prosperity—let’s have some leadership on this, I beg you.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s ambition and am very confident that Ryan Stephenson will make an excellent MP in the future to bring that to Batley and Spen. It is important to recognise the wider issues that the hon. Gentleman and his area face. I am sure that we will continue to work with Tracy Brabin following her election as Mayor to ensure we get the skills relevant to those areas, but it will take local leadership as well as the leadership that we offer from the centre.

In-work Poverty

The number of working-age adults in working families in absolute poverty before housing costs fell by 300,000 in 2019-20. We have strengthened the welfare system, spending £7.4 billion in 2020-21 on measures such as the universal credit uplift. This is on top of additional support such as the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme.

Wandsworth food bank does an excellent job of helping people in need, but it would like not to exist. Some 56% of the current food bank referrals from my constituents are due to wages being too low; 43% are due to unpredictable work from the gig economy. Many of my constituents in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton are working two or three jobs, and across the country one in six working households are unable to make ends meet. What steps has the Department taken to ensure that work always pays?

The Government are wholly committed to supporting the most vulnerable in our society, spending over £111 billion on working-age benefits in 2020-21, including an additional £7.4 billion in covid-related welfare policy measures. Additionally, my Department’s covid winter grant scheme—now the covid local support grant—has helped those families most in need with the cost of food and other essentials. We take the issue of food insecurity incredibly seriously; that is why we have published data on household food insecurity from the family resources survey for the first time, to get a better understanding of the lived experience of families.

The Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that the Government believe that the way out of family poverty is to get people into work. What would he honestly say to a child growing up in a family in my constituency whose parents work and who is still living in poverty? What words would he use?

Of course I do not want to see anybody in this country, let alone any child, growing up in poverty. Working-age adults in working families were approximately four times less likely to be in absolute poverty than working-age adults in workless families. A child living in a household where nobody works is five times more likely to be in absolute poverty than a child in a household where every adult is working. As I said, we have to focus on in-work progression and tackling in-work poverty, and we are doing that: we have the In-Work Progression Commission, which will report shortly on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay and set out a strategy for overcoming them.

Benefit Sanctions

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect of reintroducing benefit sanctions on vulnerable claimants. (901847)

As we approach 19 July, we have to have a business-as-usual approach in how we traditionally respond to the needs of our claimants, but I want to stress that, as ever, the claimant commitments are perfectly tailored to different benefit recipients. We also take into account the different vulnerabilities that people face. That is why, just over a year ago, we changed the process so that decisions would be made in a more centralised way to get a consistent approach, recognising that we want to ensure that people fulfil their commitments and the requirements made by DWP in order to continue to receive the benefits that they have.

As the DWP resumes face-to-face assessments, we know that more people will be hit with sanctions. We also know that this will disproportionately affect care leavers, as they are more likely to be sanctioned. Beyond scrapping sanctions altogether, will the DWP set up an internal marker and a single point of contact in each jobcentre to assist care-experienced claimants?

I will be open: I do not know how the law applies in Scotland. I know that in England and Wales there is a duty on councils to continue to have an element of responsibility for people who have left care until they reach the age of 25. I want to encourage the hon. Lady by saying that, right around the country, our jobcentres and work coaches are mindful of the extra demands, and that we continue to make sure that people’s individual vulnerabilities are accounted for.

Disability Employment Gap: Covid-19

The disability employment gap has narrowed by 0.3 percentage points in the year to March 2021 and now stands at 28.6 percentage points. The Government remain committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, despite the challenges of covid.

MPs, like businesses, must do everything possible to ensure inclusion in employment for people with disabilities, but there is great concern that the employment gap will increase as a result of covid-19. I would like to thank the Department and the Minister for their recent assistance; a quarter of MPs across the House have now signed up as Disability Confident employers following our recent all-party parliamentary group for disability workshop. Could the Minister encourage those MPs who are still considering signing up to do so, so that we can reach our next target of a third of cross-party MPs being Disability Confident employers and ensuring that Parliament is a role model for inclusive workplaces?

The hon. Member has been an absolute superstar in her role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. She organised a brilliant event to incentivise, encourage and cajole MPs from across the House to lead by example by signing up to be Disability Confident employers, and we saw a huge increase in the number of MPs who are signed up. She is absolutely right to keep pushing, because collectively we can make a difference, and she has personally led on that.

Benefits System: Fraud and Error

The Department has taken huge steps to reduce and minimise fraud and error during the last 12 months. We have introduced a range of measures, including optimising digital capability, expanding our integrated risk and intelligence service and policy functions, developing prepayment risking techniques and introducing a prepayment enhanced checking service for high-risk claims.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. Of course, errors are inevitable in such a large system, be they errors with overpayment or underpayment. Apart from trying to stop that, the key thing is to make sure that they are communicated clearly and resolved swiftly, so what is his Department doing to ensure that this is the case?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we want to see issues resolved as quickly as possible. I would stress that the vast majority—around 95%—of payments are paid correctly, and the Department has processed over 4.3 million new universal credit claims since March 2020. The priority has been to get money to those people who need it desperately as quickly as possible. To do that, we streamlined some of our normal checks, but we are currently revisiting any high-risk claims that we paid during the covid-19 trust and protect period. I would of course be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this issue in more detail.

Supporting Young People into Work

What steps she is taking to work with (a) charities and (b) training providers to support young people back into work. (901854)

What steps she is taking to work with (a) charities and (b) training providers to support young people back into work. (901856)

What steps she is taking to work with (a) charities and (b) training providers to support young people back into work. (901858)

Engaging with charities and training providers is central to our support for young people. This collaborative working includes the co-delivery of our national network of more than 130 new DWP youth hubs, helping us to assist young people to be ready to take up opportunities in growing sectors and move into new kickstart roles.

I am one of those people who do not think it is a good idea for everybody to work from home, because it means that young people do not have older workers that they can observe and chat to, to learn the ropes. However, while a lot of office space sits empty or underoccupied, would my hon. Friend consider encouraging employers to make that space available to charities and training providers in order to train young people in the skills they need?

I very much understand my colleague’s comments. Supporting young people to thrive and find new opportunities is an important priority for me, and I take his comments on board. This is exactly what we are doing with our new DWP youth hubs. Jobcentre Plus works with employers, training providers and charities to identify local training needs and to ensure that opportunities and suitable outreach are available for all claimants, including young people.

Careers fairs can be a fantastic way of promoting opportunity in the local area, which is why I plan to host one in my constituency of Meriden in the coming months. Given the strengths of jobcentres and their local relationships, what support can they provide to help make careers fairs such as mine a success?

Jobcentre staff have a wealth of knowledge of the local labour market, cultivated by working closely with MPs, partners and businesses in their local community. My hon. Friend’s careers fair will be a very welcome addition to the ongoing work of Jobcentre Plus branches in the area, which are inviting employers on a one-to-one basis for kickstart interviews daily. They have virtual group information sessions as well to get young people into work.

The Lakota Training Group, set up by Joanne and Paul in Stockton, does incredible work, helping the long-term unemployed to develop the skills and confidence they need to get great jobs—they go above and beyond to change the lives of so many people. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to help training providers such as Lakota continue to help people find work and unleash their full potential?

I know that my hon. Friend’s local Jobcentre Plus in Stockton has a very important relationship with Lakota and they have been working closely together for a number of years. They are currently offering motivational and employability courses, including “All about you”, which builds on the customer’s skills, confidence and job search techniques and will help us, crucially, to deliver good job outcomes for local people in Stockton.

Personal Independence Payments

What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of personal independence payment applications her Department has approved during the period that covid-19 restrictions have been in place. (901855)

Volumes of new PIP claims awarded have remained stable since the introduction of covid-19 restrictions. Official statistics show that since April 2020 some 225,000 new PIP claimants have had awards. Over this period, we have continued to assess all claims on the basis of paper evidence or telephone assessments, where necessary.

One of my constituents who is severely disabled and vulnerable had her personal independence payments removed and lost vital care as a result—that was because medical advice was ignored by the assessors. Another lost his mobility car at the height of the pandemic, leaving him trapped, isolated and suicidal, unable to access vital services. Another had to turn to food banks to survive. They all had rejected applications overturned many months later at tribunal. Four out of five disabled and vulnerable applicants have faced unnecessary barriers to PIP support during covid. I am proud of my team in Cardiff North, who have been there to support my constituents through this traumatic time, but many are not so fortunate. So what is the Minister doing to make sure that assessments are right first time, to avoid this trauma and delay?

Although the vast majority of assessments—we have had over 4 million PIP assessments —are right first time, there are serious implications for those involved where they are not. As part of the forthcoming health and disability Green Paper we will be looking at claimants’ ability to get good-quality supportive evidence; the role of advocacy; the role of the assessment itself; and further changes on mandatory reconsideration and appeals, building on the holistic changes we brought in that allowed us to nearly the double the successful changes at the mandatory reconsideration stage, rather than have claimants having to go through the long appeal process. The key bit here is that the vast majority of successful appeals are because of additional written or oral evidence at that stage, and we need to make it is easy as possible to get such evidence into the beginning of the application.

Universal Credit Claimants

What steps she is taking to ensure that universal credit claimants are able to take advantage of sector-specific training opportunities. (901861)

Through our plan for jobs, we are working with employers to deliver sector-based work academy programmes and swaps, and to provide bespoke training and experience, alongside a guaranteed interview for a real job in growing sectors. Additionally, DWP Train and Progress has provided even more flexibility for universal credit claimants to access training for longer, including new skills boot camps led by the Department for Education.

I thank the Minister for her answer. In Truro and Falmouth, and around Cornwall, hospitality businesses are struggling to recruit staff at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that UC claimants could be provided with hospitality sector-specific training, and, potentially, with further incentives, to ensure that these vacancies in this hugely important sector are filled?

I am working strongly with the sector. These are some of the most rewarding, varied and enjoyable roles that there are. It is right that we encourage people to work in hospitality, as well as to enjoy its reopening. In Falmouth, we have created an intensive programme to provide claimants with an interest in hospitality with a set of transferable skills to ensure that they have the skills they need to flourish in this vital sector in beautiful Cornwall.

Topical Questions

Mr Speaker, I was really looking forward to answering Question 35, from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), but that is okay.

Well, there we are. By the way, Christine, the answer is none.

On the topical statement, on the basis of a successful G7, at which the employers taskforce fed into the discussions about work, I was able to participate in the G20 last week in Italy, as well as work on the OECD in terms of some of the work we want to do to make sure that, as a world, when we build back better we share and collaborate, because we want to make sure that we build back fairer and greener. I am particularly excited about the opportunities to help people with health conditions and disability to re-enter the world of work.

Increasingly sophisticated digital skills are ever more crucial for those seeking work. With that in mind, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help all universal credit claimants to improve and strengthen their digital skills as they seek work?

I am conscious that digital inclusion is a key part of the skills issue. We are working collaboratively with the DFE, particularly on digital boot camps, and we have even changed the rules of aspects of universal credit to make sure that people can fully participate in extended courses. We will continue to use and signpost people to whatever resources are available.

The Public and Commercial Services union has been clear that the rush back to face-to-face assessments poses a serious risk to vulnerable claimants and staff alike. Given those concerns, I was quite surprised to learn that the Secretary of State has not personally met the PCS union in her nearly two years in office. Will she do better than just commend DWP staff for their tireless work throughout the pandemic and actually meet the union that represents those staff to listen to their serious concerns about safety?

DWP staff are real staff at the very frontline. We undertake risk assessments for every single jobcentre. Dealing with trade unions is an operational matter that is ably done by senior officials in my Department. I am confident and we know that our workers are keen to get back into the office and to make sure that they encourage people there. Our mission is to try to help people to get back into work and we know that face-to-face interventions are the most successful way to make that happen.

Young jobseekers who were just starting to build their CVs when the pandemic hit will have different needs in respect of entering the world of work from those who may have years of experience to draw on. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what dedicated support is available specifically to help young people to take those first crucial steps into the working world? (901896)

Probably the most obvious element is the £2 billion of funding for the kickstart scheme. Let me give a recent example of where I have seen kickstart work well: a young man in south-west Scotland started off an apprenticeship and was very quickly set aside, and then his confidence was rebuilt by a work coach and he managed to get into a kickstart placement and is now thriving. It is important that our 27,000 work coaches in well over 700 jobcentres already are making sure that young people are at the forefront in respect of the help we are seeking to provide.

One of Britain’s best-known companies, P&O, has failed to pay £140 million that it owes to the merchant navy pension fund. This debt could cause serious problems for the fund, which has 24,000 members who work in a wide range of firms far beyond P&O. Despite P&O owing this enormous sum, the Government have awarded its parent company two lucrative freeport contracts. Will the Minister explain how on earth the Government allowed this to happen? We are getting used to sleaze and cronyism; is this an example of sleaze and cronyism, or is it sheer, unadulterated incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Labour party. He will recall that it was the Labour party that set up the Pensions Regulator with operational independence to deal with these matters. He may have forgotten the basis on which the Pensions Regulator was set up, but I have not. It is a matter between the Pensions Regulator and the individual company, but I am sure that he will take that up when he meets the Pensions Regulator.

This is in no way a criticism of the very hard-working DWP staff in the north of Scotland, but, prior to covid, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has pointed out, one-time face-to-face meetings did work. However, since covid, we have had virtual meetings, often followed by another virtual meeting and yet another virtual meeting, or even a face-to face, which has led to huge delays, and, if that is followed by an appeal, this is really unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State look at two things: first, will she ensure that we go back to timely face-to-face meetings; and, secondly, if there is a geographic element to this, because I represent such a huge constituency, could that be looked into as well with a view to sorting it out? (901897)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the rural elements. That is taken into account in the prioritisation of people we may wish to see in face-to-face interventions. We treat every claimant as an individual in trying to help them at this stage, and none more so than in his part of Scotland.

As the furlough programme comes to an end, a great many people will be concerned about their prospects. Does my hon. Friend share my appreciation of the work of the Bolton and Leigh jobcentres and all the work that they have done to make sure that they are fully prepared to support people during this difficult time? Will she also welcome the fact that many employers locally are reporting that they have jobs for people to go to? (901900)

I hugely appreciate the endeavours of all our work coaches, especially and including those in Bolton and Leigh JCPs. The Office for National Statistics says that our new monthly experimental vacancy data suggest that we are almost back to the pre-pandemic level in terms of vacancies; it was over 800,000 in May. Through our Jobcentre Plus provision, we have a wide variety of support available to help employers to fill those vacancies.

Always a pleasure, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister exempt the £500 Scottish Government covid-19 payment to health and social care employees resident in Scotland from the Department’s calculation for the payment of universal credit? (901899)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that I have written to him—if I have not written to him, I know that I have written to a number of his colleagues on this matter. We do owe a huge debt of gratitude to health and social care workers for the work that they have done over the course of the pandemic. This is not as simple as he suggests. We follow exactly the same treatment of moneys coming into universal credit as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does and, as a result, that is very difficult to do, which is why we will not be doing it.

The impact of poverty is individual, but just by way of statistics, 40,000 families in the Rochdale borough are dependent on universal credit or legacy benefit; 30% of our children are growing up in poverty; yet the Government’s response is to take out, through universal credit, planned cuts of £23 million every year from the borough. The Secretary of State talked about building back fairer. Let me ask her: is that fair? (901901)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his knighthood; it is well-deserved given his political and public service.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have made on this matter. As the House will well know, we are absolutely committed not only to making sure that this is a temporary measure, but to helping people get back into work. We believe that that continues to be the best way, especially as there are vacancies across the country, and we will strain every sinew to help make that happen.

Last week was Armed Forces Week. One of the great things about a career in the armed forces is the skills and qualifications that our men and women receive. What work is the Department doing with the Ministry of Defence to support our personnel as they transition back into civilian life to make sure that those skills and qualifications are fully utilised? (901905)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The vast majority of veterans make a successful transition to life outside the armed forces, with around 85% securing employment easily. The DWP provides support to veterans in a number of different ways, including through our voluntary entry to the work and health programme and through our network of hard-working armed forces champions up and down the country. That work complements the resettlement support provided by the Ministry of Defence, sponsored by Career Transition Partnership.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Little Village baby bank in Roehampton in my constituency, whose staff do fantastic work helping struggling families. I asked them what would make the most difference for those families, and they said that the two-child benefit cap causes the most damage. Is it not time that the Minister looked again at that benefit cap and scrapped it? (901902)

I am afraid I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. I appreciate the question, but the two-child limit is a question of fairness and of putting those who are in receipt of benefits in the same position—facing the same life choices—as those who are not in receipt of benefits.

Three quarters of children living in poverty have at least one adult working in their household. What is the Minister doing to make work pay, so that children can have a decent standard of living? (901903)

I think I have covered this one. As our economy improves, we will increasingly focus our support and work on in-work progression to improve the opportunities for those who are in low-paid work and to support them towards financial independence. The in-work progression commission will report shortly on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay. Our plan for jobs—those extra 13,500 work coaches, kickstart, restart, job entry targeted support and the sector-based work academy programme—will make a difference, and of course we have the strategy coming out of the in-work progression commission.

Some 2.1 million pensioners now live in poverty. Figures from Independent Age show that ensuring the uptake of pension credit could help to address that. My older constituents are losing out on up to £3.5 million in pension credit that is going unclaimed. Will the Secretary of State now produce a dedicated action plan to increase the uptake of pension credit? (901910)

As the hon. Lady should be aware, on 16 June we had a pension credit awareness day, working with Age UK, Independent Age, various other charitable organisations and the BBC to get greater uptake of pension credit, and I am pleased to say that pension credit numbers are improving. There is more to do, but we are working with stakeholders to ensure that that does happen.

On Friday, I was pleased to meet Carole Dawe, who is the manager of the Maesteg JCP office in my constituency. What came across was that this deeply dedicated team of people have been working right through the pandemic as one of the few front-of-house services that is still open, no matter what is put in front of them. Among the real concerns that were put to me was that they are doing an awful lot of bereavement support and that clients are arriving with significant mental health problems. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give me that, as we begin to open up, more support, training and, where needed, staff will be provided to ensure that our constituents get the very best support from what is becoming a lot more than just a simple jobcentre? (901911)

The hon. Gentleman is right to praise the staff at Maesteg jobcentre, and I join him in that. This is where the “Plus” is part of Jobcentre Plus. We are conscious that people may need to have many skills, and we continue to try to upskill our work coaches right across the country to make sure they do. It is fair to say that we need to make sure that our work coaches are trained to signpost people to the right services in their area. Many go above and beyond what would normally be expected, and I commend them for doing so.

I thank the Department and particularly the Harlow jobcentre for the work they have done in supporting vulnerable families during the pandemic. I welcome the kickstart scheme, which will provide a real incentive for employers to employ young people, but will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to reform the apprenticeship levy so that big companies can use more of the levy if they employ disadvantaged young apprentices?

My right hon. Friend is right to praise the staff at Harlow jobcentre, and I agree that they do an excellent job. In terms of what could be done with reform of the apprenticeship levy, that is one of the factors we should be considering in ensuring that some of the most disadvantaged young people get that extra foot on the ladder. We are trying to do that in certain ways through kickstart and then to provide elements of a pathway for those young people to make sure they have a longer lasting job, whether they go into an apprenticeship or directly into permanent employment.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Loss of Secret Documents

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to update the House on the leak of classified and sensitive documents from the Ministry of Defence.

As the House will be aware, a number of Ministry of Defence classified documents were lost by a senior official early last week. Upon realising the loss of documents, the individual self-reported on Tuesday 22 June. The documents lost included a paper that was marked “Secret UK Eyes Only”. The documents were found by a member of the public at a bus stop in Kent. The member of the public then handed the papers to the BBC. The Ministry of Defence has launched a full investigation. The papers have now been recovered from the BBC and are being assessed as I speak to check that all documents missing have been recovered and what mitigation actions might be necessary. The investigation will look at the actions of individuals, including the printing of the papers through to the management of the reported incident, and at the underlying processes for printing and carriage of papers in Defence. The investigation is expected to complete shortly. While the investigation is being conducted, the individual’s access to sensitive material has been suspended. It would be inappropriate to comment on the findings of the investigation while it is still under way.

That sensitive MOD documents were found strewn behind a bus stop in Kent last Tuesday morning is certainly embarrassing for Ministers, but it is deeply worrying for those concerned with our national security, so I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This is not the first time that there have been known leaks based on classified documents from the MOD that have found their way beyond the MOD. In January, it was the assessment of how far short of our fighting strength our infantry battalions are. Early this month, it was personal details of more than 1,000 forces personnel, including special forces, which the Armed Forces Minister has now confirmed to me is also subject to a military police investigation. Are the military police involved in this investigation?

I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that the investigation will look at how and why these highly classified documents were copied and then carried out of the Department. When will it report, and will he publish the findings? He needs to do more to reassure us about the risks involved in the leak. Will he confirm the level of “UK Eyes Only” classification that the document had? Has the inquiry yet ruled out espionage? Were our allies informed immediately, and at what appropriate level?

The Minister mentions ongoing operations. Our frontline forces on HMS Defender were totally professional in dealing with aggressive Russian actions in the Black sea last week, but they must be asking, “What about our back-up at the MOD?” when top secret documents about their mission, ahead of their mission, found their way to the back of this bus stop in Kent. Finally, Ministers need to do more to reassure the public and our forces personnel that they have a grip of their Department, and have taken actions to stop the series of security breaches at the Department.

I will take all those points in turn. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern over the incident. We take the loss of all data and documents very seriously. In direct answer to his question, the MOD police are involved as part of this investigation. On the timing, I have said “shortly”. I hope that it will be in very short order. I hope that it will be as little as a week, but I cannot commit to that in case the investigation finds more stuff that they need to go into. I would hope that it will be a very short process indeed, and that we will be able to inform the House in Defence questions next week, but forgive me, Mr Speaker, if the investigation needs to take longer. We will explain that on Monday if so.

Regarding espionage, again this is clearly a matter for the investigation, but I emphasise to the House that the individual self-reported when he became aware—when the individual became aware—that the documents had been mislaid. We have certainly informed the United States. It is aware of this circumstance. If anything further comes out of the investigation, it will be informed again. The right hon. Gentleman referred to our armed forces’ totally professional conduct in the Black sea last week. He is absolutely right to do so. They behaved absolutely impeccably, and I share his concerns that we must always be providing good back-up and good support to those armed forces.

I assure the House that, as it would expect, there is intense preparation and intense work to ensure that every angle and every analysis is covered before armed forces conduct themselves around the world, but clearly evidence of that should not be forthcoming from the Department. These are secret documents. The investigation will be appropriately conducted, and we will see what we can learn to improve our procedures for the future.

One thing that would seem only common sense to anyone finding classified documents is that they should hand them to the police. Can the Minister advise us what the legal position is? Was any official secrets legislation broken by somebody handing these documents to anybody other than the police? Was any official secrets legislation broken by the BBC in not handling them directly to the police but in choosing instead selectively to quote from classified information? Will the Government inquire as to whether the BBC paid any money for the acquisition of these documents from someone who ought to have handed them to the police straightaway?

In an ideal and proper world, the documents should not have been available where they were, so that is where the original fault clearly lies. In the event of documents of this nature being found, clearly one would encourage members of the public to hand them in to the police. In this instance, they were handed in to the BBC. Naturally, I would have preferred the BBC to hand them over immediately and not made reference to them, but it has a job to do, and I recognise that it has behaved responsibly and handed the documents back to the Department. We are analysing that now.

There was certainly something of Le Carré in the faintly absurd discovery of these soggy documents behind a bus stop in the garden of England. I do not think that we can help but notice the general context. The documents were discovered in the same week in which a more serious security breach—that of confidential CCTV images from a Whitehall Ministry, which leaves many of us unsure and distrustful of the motives of those involved. The whole thing reminds me of one of my favourite Le Carré quotes:

“Cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.”

Does the Minister accept that many of us are worried about these episodes and what they say about the decline of standards in public life? I do not mean the quality of the cabbage served up in the canteen of Main Building.

This is a mistake, it appears. I do not want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that it is a mistake by an individual. It is important that one gets on top of that mistake, what can be learned and how we can help to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again. I am here to speak about this particular incident—I think that another urgent question follows this one on another issue—but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I know that it is genuinely intended. I am sorry that this incident has happened, and the investigation will be thorough.

Putting aside the particulars of this recent incident, may I ask the Minister of State when the Government will introduce their reform of the Official Secrets Act, particularly on the classification of papers and punishment for those who breach the Act? Given that the Act is over 100 years old, is it not the case that in some situations it is no longer fit for purpose, and that reform needs to come sooner rather than later?

I understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. This is something that he has mentioned previously in the House. As I recall, there was reference to this in the Queen’s Speech. It is not my direct departmental business, but I understand that it is something that the Government are looking into.

I think that the documents pertained to HMS Defender, which must concern us as much as any other ones. Since Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and Jellicoe commanded the Grand Fleet and Beatty the battlecruisers, all documents pertaining to what the fleet was doing were kept totally confidential to the Ministry of Defence and never left that building, so I hope that the inquiry will pick up what exactly happened. The morale of our armed services depends on their confidence in this sort of thing not happening. I hope that the Minister accepts that, because the morale of those brave people who defend the country is, above all else, crucial.

On the latter point, I could not agree more fully. The comments I have received from members of the armed forces today reiterate that. It is absolutely vital that they should have confidence in such procedures, which they follow themselves. There are policies and procedures in place under which documents can be taken out of the Department, but they are tightly constrained. It is up to the investigation to find out whether or not they were followed in this case.

Personally, I am rather saddened that the BBC saw fit to publish information that was secret, rather than pass it straight to the police or refer it to the Ministry of Defence. I think that reflects poorly on the BBC, which is, after all, a public service broadcaster. In the past it was normal practice for anyone in the MOD carrying restricted, classified or sensitive documents out of a secure location to do so in an approved briefcase, which was often manacled to the carrier’s wrist. Have such arrangements stopped now?

As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), there are policies and procedures in place as to how documents can be safely taken out of the Department on the rare occasions when that is necessary. I think it is for the investigation to work through whether those procedures were followed in this instance and whether those procedures need to be reformed or improved for the future.

I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was absolutely right to contrast the exemplary professionalism of our forces on HMS Defender with this unfortunate episode. I understand that the Minister has said that there will be a inquiry that will report as quickly as possible, but will he confirm that when that inquiry reports we will not have to have another urgent question? Will he commit today to a statement on the Floor of the House, so that all the facts that can be publicly known can be discussed, rather than a Minister having to be dragged here for another urgent question?

We will certainly ensure that that information is known to Members. We should ensure that the outcome of the investigation, and certainly whether any further tightening of our procedures is required, are shared with the House.

The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine, highlighted by the recent trilateral agreement signed on board HMS Defender, but maintaining the highest levels of information security is critical to retaining confidence and credibility with our allies. I am reassured that the Minister’s Department is launching an investigation, but have the Minister and the Secretary of State spoken with our counterparts in the Ukrainian Government, along with our ambassador to Ukraine, to ensure that confidence and credibility with our allies has not been undermined and that Ukraine and the wider region remains uncompromised by this leak?

I would not, as a matter of course, comment on the discussions we hold with our friends and allies overseas, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the agreement struck last week. It was an important agreement for British shipbuilding and for Babcock, and I look forward to that enhancing the Ukrainian navy in due course.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened, and I am sure it will not be the last. It is so serious an issue that the BBC chose not to report on various details in the bundle, because it could have endangered the security of service personnel in Afghanistan. What steps have the Government taken to secure the safety of service personnel in Afghanistan and in the Carrier Strike Group?

The hon. Lady refers to the BBC choosing not to report, and I think that was right. One would have preferred the BBC to have handed the documents straight over, but it acted responsibly by not relaying information that could have caused problems. We are going through the investigation. We are ensuring that all those documents have been returned, and we will be ensuring that any mitigating actions that need to be taken are put in place.

Given the loss of these sensitive documents, can my hon. Friend confirm that we have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the safety of our serving personnel has not been compromised?

Absolutely; that is an ongoing task. There is intense planning behind all defence engagements and activities. That continues to be the case, and we always ensure that it is the defence, the safety and the security of our defence personnel that is uppermost in our minds.

After this weekend, with sensitive military documents left at a bus stop and questions over the surveillance of a Secretary of State in his ministerial office, and as we are well aware that adversaries of our country, be they hostile states or terrorists, forever probe our national security for weaknesses, can the Minister tell the House which organisations are involved in the investigation into how documents were compromised in this way?

I have already confirmed that the MOD police are involved in this process, but I can assure the right hon. Lady that all those whose involvement in the investigation is relevant and appropriate will be involved. She is absolutely right to refer to the ongoing threat to our national security in cyber terms as well as in the context of physical documents, and we as a Government ensure that we have the right advice from the right professionals in the right way.

I believe my hon. Friend said that the documents were reported missing last Tuesday, and of course HMS Defender was hassled on Wednesday. The investigation will say whether there was a link between those two incidents, but what it raises in my mind is the information that has come out about the situation in Afghanistan. It is a very tense situation right now, with the Americans withdrawing and the problems we are hearing about. Is the Ministry of Defence now reassessing the plans with our allies, including the Americans? We do not know at the moment what information there may be on the ground in Afghanistan and the security threat that it represents, including for ongoing security issues. Is my hon. Friend having conversations with our allies about potentially needing to reassess the next 12 months in Afghanistan?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that we constantly update and keep abreast of developments on the ground in Afghanistan and indeed in other theatres, but I would not wish to alarm him. There is an investigation under way that will test what information was in those documents, whether they have been returned and what mitigating actions, if any, need to be taken as a result.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and the Minister for his very helpful responses. Recognising that the protection of internal waters may provoke Russian aggression—it may not be very hard to do that—can the Minister confirm that, alongside allies, we will not duck, but rather that we will maintain maritime freedoms in that area? Will the Minister further confirm that those trusted with classified documents will treat such information with the appropriate level of care?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will not go into the details regarding HMS Defender—that has been the source of a written ministerial statement—but it and its innocent passage may well be the subject of questions at Defence questions next week. I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that maintaining the proper classification and proper secrecy of documents is absolutely critical. That is the purpose of this investigation, and if we need to tighten our procedures, we certainly shall.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Because of the nature of my constituents, I very rarely speak about defence matters, but I cannot begin to tell the House how angry I am that this civil servant or whoever it was who scattered these papers put the lives of 190 personnel at risk on HMS Defender. If you go to a military funeral, Mr Speaker, you will appreciate, as I am sure you do, how precious our service personnel are. I want the Minister, if he possibly can, to confirm to the House that the punishment for this sort of breach of security will match the risk to those people on HMS Defender as a result of this stupidity and incompetence.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I can reassure him that we always emphasise the need for safety and security on Defender and other ships in the Royal Navy. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said at the outset, they behaved in the most professional and exemplary fashion in conducting their innocent passage in the Black sea. I totally endorse what he says regarding the seriousness of this issue, but he will of course appreciate that the investigation must come first. We need to see the outcome of that investigation before any further consideration as to action should be taken.

This is not the first time there has been a security breach at the Ministry of Defence; in fact, it is the third time in six months. The Minister said that there are policies and procedures in place for secure documents leaving secure settings, but clearly those policies and procedures are inadequate or not working. Can he reassure the House that those policies and procedures will change as a result of this investigation?

It appears to be a loss of documents rather than a deliberate act, although, as I say, I should not prejudge the investigation. That needs to be determined finally, but the loss of documents was reported by the individual concerned. Above official sensitive level, that is an extremely rare occurrence; no incidents have happened in the last 18 months. I checked over the last 18 months for the loss of documents above that level.

However, the hon. Lady is right that no one should take with equanimity information leaving the MOD in circumstances where it should not leave. The investigation is ongoing. I hope that it will report shortly. We will see whether it has recommendations as to how we can further tighten our procedures or whether this was a case of those procedures not being followed. If there are recommendations, we will take that very seriously and we will certainly share with the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Clearly, one of the concerns here is that, had these materials been on a tablet or some other electronic device, they would have been properly security protected. The fact that the documents were literally that—printed documents —means that they were removed from the Ministry of Defence. I understand completely that we cannot know the circumstances, but can my hon. Friend confirm that there are restrictions in place on taking classified documents out of the Ministry of Defence in this way, and that they will continue to be in place? It seems astonishing that we are in this position.

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point: tablets and electronic devices have password protection and encryption, which, as I understand it, prevent these incidents from happening and provide a greater level of protection. In relation to the physical carrying of paper documents, as I say, there are restrictions in place. There are procedures that should be followed. It is down to the investigation to find out whether they were followed in this instance and whether we need to tighten them up further.

The seriousness of a leak such as this comes not just from classified information being put in the public domain, but from the fact that we know our adversaries will be poring over it to find potential weaknesses, including looking at planned movements of Royal Navy vessels and things like that. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that all our operations will continue to be in line with international rules, sticking up for the rule of the UN and law of the sea?

Absolutely. Again, that is not the subject of this UQ, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to conduct ourselves appropriately and professionally, as the Royal Navy always does and as it did last week in its innocent passage across the Black sea. That is absolutely the case. I sincerely hope that this is not a case of our adversaries having sight of these documents, but that is something that has to be confirmed by the investigation.

While there have been attempts today to scapegoat the civil servant involved and the BBC, the fact is that whether the civil servant’s actions were caused by carelessness, forgetfulness, malice or whatever, at least one other person had a responsibility to stop that civil servant getting those papers out the door of the MOD, so at least one other person, and possibly a whole chain of precautions, has failed. Will the Minister give an assurance, first of all, that the investigation will not be allowed to become a blame allocation or scapegoating exercise? Will he also assure us that not only will Parliament be advised of the result of the investigation, but that he or one of his colleagues will come back to give a statement and be questioned and held to account by Members of Parliament on the results of that investigation when it is ready?

The investigation is partly to find out what happened and the circumstances behind the mislaying of these documents. I will not prejudge whether others were involved; it just needs to be discovered. I totally take the hon. Gentleman’s point that one should not jump to conclusions. We need to have a proper investigation. As I say, the police are involved. We need to find the conclusions of that. We also need to find out what we need to learn for the future, and I will make certain that the House is advised of the conclusions of the investigation.

Recent incidents would appear to suggest that the MOD has some difficulty in safeguarding the nation’s secrets. Aside from the loss of documents, there would also have had to be a deliberate act in removing pink paper from a secure area. Will the Minister please confirm that when the culprit is proven to be negligent, he or she will be invited to walk the plank?

I understand my hon. and gallant Friend’s concern, which will be shared by other hon. and gallant Members and by his former serving colleagues, but I think it is important that we have the investigation and find out exactly what is at fault. That also includes an examination of our policies and procedures to make certain that they are fit for purpose.

The Minister recognised in his comments, I think, that revealing this information could have put the safety or even the lives of our serving personnel at risk. In that context, it is not scapegoating to say that if it was human recklessness, it has to be dealt with in a salutary manner—but if there is system failure, Ministers have to look very carefully at themselves and at senior officials to know why it could have taken place. The investigation has to give reassurance that this can never happen again.

I am not going to say whether it is human recklessness, or what it is, until the investigation has reported. As I say, there are quite serious policies and procedures in place; whether they need to be tightened again is a subject for the investigation, and I will be interested to hear what it says. We will take what it says very seriously, I can assure the hon. Gentleman.

The success of all security processes clearly lies with the people who implement them. Is the Minister able to outline what document security training is undertaken at the MOD, who receives it and how often?

There is indeed a security brief; my understanding is that it is mandated to take place for all employees annually and that it includes information on how documents should be properly and professionally handled.

The thing is that the Minister is far too nice and is being far too reasonable. Should we not all be a bit more angry about this? Carelessness is a form of treachery when dealing with documents of the significance to which he has referred in the House. Frankly, I do not understand why the Secretary of State is not here. This is a very, very serious point, and the Government need to make sure that if somebody has acted recklessly and put British service personnel in danger, that person will be expected to resign.

Mr Speaker, you will be very relieved that the Secretary of State is not here, given that he was in contact with someone who has tested positive for covid-19.

The hon. Gentleman gets the point. I am sure that the Secretary of State would have wished to be here otherwise, so please do not take it as a lack of interest on his part. He is doing the right and responsible thing. We all want our colleagues to do the right and responsible thing in all circumstances.

Please do not take my desire to hear the results of the investigation to be covering up anything other than serious disquiet, and indeed anger, that this has happened. It should not have happened; these documents should not have been mislaid. I am deeply sorry that that has been the case. We need to see from the investigation the circumstances that led to it and get the full details, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking it very seriously.

This latest breach further demonstrates why the Government are not trusted with data. From the NHS data grab and the Home Office’s loss of 15,000 arrest records to losing details of thousands of covid cases in a track and trace Excel spreadsheet, and now this—how can the Minister reassure the public that breaches of this severity will not happen in future? When will the Government publish details of a more comprehensive and robust investigation into wider security practices?

The irony will not be lost on the hon. Gentleman that, whereas he referred to massive data accumulations through the internet and online services, what we are talking about here is paper documentation being left and mislaid. It is a different scenario. As I say, the investigation will check what happened, why it happened, what we can do to prevent document loss in future and whether there are more measures we need to put in place. Ultimately, however, this is the loss of physical documents. It should not happen. As I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) earlier, I did do a trawl and we have no record of documents being mislaid at above official sensitive level in the last 18 months. I hope that this is an extremely rare circumstance, but we still need to learn the lessons.

This is clearly a “never” event: it should never happen. In the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), he talked about the training that individuals go through to avoid such events. Of course, they can happen—like a fire or a pandemic can happen. Can my hon. Friend enlighten me on whether there are drills for such never events? If not, will he consider implementing drills to deal with these kinds of fallouts?

There are procedures in place if lost documents are reported. The investigation will certainly check that we took the right actions on the reporting and in the actions that were taken subsequently.

Once again, secret documents have been lost from the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, it is the third major breach in the last six months. The Secretary of State seems to be asleep at the wheel while our nation is becoming the butt end of jokes in the international security community. Will the Minister confirm that the safety of our brave British troops has not been compromised? Can he also advise what conversations have been had with our allies, whose personnel may have been put at risk as a result of this breach?

I have no evidence to suggest that the safety of our personnel has been compromised, but clearly, as I have said, this is an investigation. It will go through the documents. It will ensure that missing documents have now been returned. It will go through the contents of the documents and put in place any mitigations that are needed. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have been in contact with the United States. It is aware of the issue and we will keep it updated if we need to in future.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Security of Ministers’ Offices and Communications

Order. Before we come to the next urgent question, I want to say something about the implications for this House of the apparent security breach involving the Department of Health and Social Care. We do not comment on the detail of security arrangements on the Floor of the House. However, I want the House to be reassured that I have directed senior officials to consider what implications there are for security arrangements in the House from the recent event in Whitehall and to take any necessary steps with urgency. I will not take any points of order on this matter.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on security arrangements relating to ministerial offices and communications.

I appreciate your comments, Mr Speaker, about matters in relation to the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for his question and for the chance to address concerns felt across the House about the security of ministerial offices and communications. These are concerns that the Government also take very seriously.

As has been the practice of successive Administrations, the Government do not generally comment on internal security matters. On the specific incident relating to the leak of footage from a security camera to the media, given the public interest in the case I can confirm that the Department of Health and Social Care has launched an investigation that is supported, as appropriate, by the Government security group based in the Cabinet Office. Until the investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to give further details. I am sorry to hon. Members who will understandably be seeking a lot of details on this matter. It is the case, however, that robust safeguards are in place around the security of Ministers, parliamentarians and Members of devolved legislatures.

My hon. Friend may also want to ask about ministerial communications, which I am happy to go into. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information. Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business, but each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way. How that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and for your comments. I thank the Minister for her response, but it seems to me that the revelations over the weekend that the Secretary of State for Health’s personal office had recording devices in it should be of national concern. If Government and parliamentary offices have recording devices in them—whether audio, visual or both—it is of the utmost concern. Since the disclosure, several Cabinet Ministers have gone on the record to say that they had no knowledge that their offices might be subject to surveillance.

It is totally unacceptable for private conversations between Ministers, civil servants, Members of Parliament and members of the public to be secretly recorded. It also brings into question whether the Wilson doctrine has been broken. Since the premiership of Harold Wilson, it has been a long-standing rule that secret recordings of Members of Parliament by the police, security services or state are outlawed, so I have a number of questions for the Minister on which I hope she will be able to be a little more forthcoming.

First, do the offices of Ministers or Members of Parliament have recording devices in them? If so, who authorised them? Who has access to the recordings? What is the purpose of the recordings? How long are they kept? Has the Wilson doctrine been broken? Are there currently any Members of Parliament under surveillance by the police, intelligence agencies or the state? What measures are taken to ensure that there are no illicit recording devices in ministerial and parliamentary offices? Are they routinely swept for those devices?

Before you answer that, Minister, I should say that you have no responsibility for the House. That is a responsibility of the House that I am looking into, but everything else is fair game.

I appreciate that clarification, Mr Speaker, which is important.

I wish to assure my hon. Friend that we do endorse the Wilson doctrine, and I agree that it is unacceptable should there be any secret recordings within Government offices. My understanding in this case is that this was a CCTV camera operated by the Department of Health and Social Care, which is why it is being investigated by that Department. We do not believe that there are covert concerns at this moment, but there is an ongoing investigation into this, which, unfortunately, we are going to have to be patient on and wait for the details of. But once that investigation has been completed, notwithstanding the security concerns, we will want to provide him with reassurances on a number of the extremely important questions that he has raised.

My hon. Friend also asked about the extent to which offices are regularly swept. There is an organisation called UK NACE—UK National Authority for Counter Eavesdropping. It is the Government lead for counter-eavesdropping and this includes the technical manipulation of protective security systems, including CCTV. This is an area where it works very closely with the Government Security Group. My understanding is that it takes a risk-based assessment when it comes to sweeping, so in Departments where there are particular security sensitivities and concerns, those sweeps are taking place on a relatively regular basis, but Departments are accountable for the way in which their security is maintained within the Departments. The Cabinet Office plays a supporting role through the Government Security Group, setting out standards to which Departments are expected to adhere.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on securing this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for her opening comments regarding CCTV and the limitations, but, given how little we currently seem to know, will she come back to the House when she does have some answers regarding this?

Incredibly, this is not even the biggest scandal of the day when it comes to ministerial security and communications, and the Minister alluded to this comments. This morning, a Government spokesperson claimed that all Ministers only conduct Government business through their departmental email addresses yet I have, right here, the minutes of a departmental meeting in which senior civil servants report Government contracts being approved from a Minister’s private email address. Who is telling the truth? It is a pity that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could not be here in person, given his personal experience of the perils of using his private emails to conduct ministerial business and to try and avoid freedom of information laws.

And it goes well beyond one Department. Last week, the Cabinet Office refused to answer my questions about the Prime Minister’s mobile phone. Today, it has been reported that he, too, will not deny using private email addresses. Can the Minister now say from the Dispatch Box, categorically and on the record, that no Minister or Prime Minister has used, or does use, private email for Government business, especially when it involves spending public money?

This morning, the Justice Secretary agreed that private email was a huge security issue. He admitted that this revelation does raise legitimate questions. On this, he is right. Now it is time to answer those questions. Will those involved refer themselves to the Information Commissioner so that a genuinely independent investigation can take place? If any Ministers have used private email for Government business, what action will be taken and what will be done to prevent it from happening again? What steps have been and will be taken to preserve private emails as evidence for the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?

Our country faces daily threats from hostile foreign states that have already, for example, hacked the private email account of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). What advice have the Government taken on the security of Ministers’ private email accounts? What does it say about this Government that they will launch an inquiry into leaks of CCTV but not into their own Ministers?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her important questions, which I will seek to answer. It is important to understand that Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information. Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business. Each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way, but how that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

The right hon. Lady asked about the procurement of personal protective equipment, I believe, or a covid contract that was conducted allegedly via a private email address. I am happy to look into that. But there needs to be understanding of the fact that when we were at the height of the pandemic, a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses, their parliamentary email addresses and their ministerial email addresses.

I am not suggesting that there is something we should not be looking into. My point is that—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could wait for me to finish. Some 15,000 offers of help to secure PPE came in following the Prime Minister’s call for assistance. Obviously people wanted to respond to that call, and then we needed to manage the sheer volume of correspondence. The important thing to note is that when PPE offers did come in, they went through the same eight-stage process, so no matter which way those things were communicated, they went through the same process, and that should provide assurance.

Insofar as there are questions to answer, I want to assure the right hon. Lady that we have conducted a number of internal and external inquiries into this matter. There is the Boardman investigation into contracts and there was a National Audit Office investigation into contracts, so I assure her that this matter has already been looked into. She is absolutely right to ask questions and I am absolutely right to reassure her.

I would add that there have been a number of debates on covid contracts in this House, one of which took place in Westminster Hall. I was on maternity leave at the time of the pandemic. I shared the right hon. Lady’s concerns and wanted to understand what had happened, so I responded to a debate in Westminster Hall on those questions and I set out very candidly some of the concerns and challenges that we faced at the height of the pandemic. A number of hon. Members engaged in that debate and asked very legitimate questions to which I responded to the best of my ability. I am not aware that the right hon. Lady has ever engaged in any of those debates. If she wishes to generate a lot of hue and cry over this, that is understandable from a political point of view, but it is my duty to set out the challenges we faced and the ways we are addressing some of the concerns.

I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the Dispatch Box to answer the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). As she will know, the Wilson doctrine covers deliberate surveillance, so what safeguards are there for whistleblowers who may inadvertently discover material that is in the public interest?

It is important that a distinction is made between material that was inappropriately sourced and then leaked and people who are trying to raise legitimate concerns that require public transparency. I shall look into the concern that my hon. Friend has raised to make sure that there is no blurring of those two very important and distinct issues.

I will follow your strictures precisely, Mr Speaker—all my questions are about ministerial offices.

Was the former Health Secretary aware, and indeed, was the security officer in his Department aware, of the CCTV camera in his office? Is the Minister aware of similar CCTV cameras in any other ministerial office? Who installs such systems in Ministries and who monitors them and has access to their feeds? Do they record video only or is it sound and vision? Given that there were reports of this footage being touted on Instagram for some time, is it true that staff from private companies manage those systems and monitor the footage? If it is true, who is responsible for vetting, and what is the process for vetting, such staff?

Finally, and most importantly, how confident is the Minister that others—states and non-state actors who would do us harm—have not already compromised other staff or gained direct access to some of these CCTV feeds?

Those legitimate concerns will be raised and, I hope, addressed through the Department of Health and Social Care investigation. As I say, the Cabinet Office is there to set the standards, on which we have regular correspondence and engagement with Departments.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points—who installs such machines and so on—that we need to look into via the Department of Health and Social Care investigation. My understanding is that it was a CCTV camera, not a covert device. There are obviously questions to answer about the way in which civil servants are vetted—they do go through stringent vetting processes—and in respect of a risk-based approach as to which Departments need to be more regularly swept. I hope that some of the answers that the hon. Gentleman seeks will be answered by the Department of Health and Social Care investigation into this matter.

During a pandemic, the position of Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is one of the most safety-critical roles. People should have been able to have the frankest of conversations with him regarding the nation’s health without fear of being recorded. Throughout this awful crisis there have been a number of leaks, with the most notable being the one before the second lockdown in November last year. Will the Minister assure the House that, along with cameras, ministerial offices should not have microphones hidden in them, and that any review of security will ensure that all ministerial offices are checked for them regularly?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important point. As I have said, sweeps are conducted across Departments. Ultimately, the permanent secretaries of Departments are accountable for security within them, but the Cabinet Office sets out clear guidance and continues to liaise with Departments about how that is adhered to. My hon. Friend raises an important point about covert devices, and we all seek the same reassurances as him on these matters.

Crikey, Mr Speaker—who would be a Minister on a day like today?

I do not want to go into the detail of what happened on the day in question, but it occurs to me that the security camera—I think we are accepting that it was a security camera—must surely to goodness have been pretty covert. I know where the security cameras are in my local high street where I live in the highlands. The more we go into this matter, the odder it gets. The public deserve an absolutely open explanation as to what has happened. If the cameras are covert, or semi-covert, why are they? Why does a Secretary of State not know, on a need-to-know basis, about this sort of thing and where the cameras are?

My understanding is that the camera was not covert, but, as I say, the Department of Health and Social Care is conducting an investigation and that will answer some of these questions.

There is currently a lot of speculation in the newspapers about the implications in respect of foreign powers using these sorts of surveillance tools. Will my hon. Friend confirm that at this stage there is no reason to believe that foreign powers have been involved in respect of this particular camera at the Department of Health and Social Care but that the investigation will look at whether there is any connection?

My understanding is that there have been some reports about whether there is anything to be concerned about in relation to covert surveillance; I think some of that is just speculation. I am afraid I cannot comment on security matters, as my hon. Friend will understand, but I assure him that all these questions are being asked within Government to make sure that we have watertight systems.

I accept the need for external CCTV coverage to ascertain entry and exit, but have any checks been made to establish whether any other internal offices, where Ministers, MPs or staff could be monitored, have a device installed covertly? Has the country of origin of the device used in this instance been established?

I speak on behalf of the Cabinet Office. I asked questions about my own office today and received assurances, and I imagine that Ministers across the Government estate will be asking the same. As I say, the Department of Health and Social Care has launched its own investigation and will be accountable for that.

The leaking of footage from inside private ministerial offices raises two important questions. Why had a camera been installed? If it had been done legitimately, how did the footage come into the public domain? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the matter will be investigated with the urgency it requires?

I can provide my hon. Friend with those assurances, as I have provided them to the House this afternoon.

The Minister did not give a straightforward answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), so I will ask her again: is she confirming that Ministers did use private email addresses to approve contracts and that the Department of Health and Social Care therefore misled the public in its statement denying categorically that that happened? Given just how serious this is, will she agree to refer it to the Information Commissioner so that there is an independent investigation, not another Government whitewash?

My understanding is that it is not within the Minister’s power to approve contracts—that goes through the approval of civil servants. I would like to offer the hon. Lady that assurance, but I am happy to look into the particular incident she highlights further if there are concerns that need to be looked into.

Ministers will often need to discuss matters of the highest confidential nature and see highly confidential documents, so does the Minister agree that Ministers should be able to make such decisions in the British interest, without any fear or favour?