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House of Commons

Monday 24 February 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Reform (Sick and Disabled People)

1. Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): If he will undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the effects of the Government’s welfare reforms on sick and disabled people. [902598]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): The Treasury regularly produces analysis of the cumulative effects of the coalition’s changes, including to welfare, but even the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that there are no real results that can be broken down and are reliable enough to show the effect on disabled people.

Stephen Twigg: My constituents Natasha Wilson and Katie Lyson are young women with cancer. With support from CLIC Sargent, they applied for personal independence payments seven months ago. Last week, Natasha finally got her money, but Katie is still waiting. Does the Minister agree that a seven-month wait for payment for a young cancer patient is simply unacceptable? Will he look into Katie’s case as a matter of urgency?

Mike Penning: I fully agree that that length of wait is unacceptable, and I have been working on this with the two suppliers since I came into office, as did my predecessor. I will personally look into the case and if those involved would like to come to see me, I would be more than happy to meet them.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that although we must always be sensitive in our handling of cases involving the disabled, many people who are extremely disabled welcome the opportunity to be encouraged on pathways to work? The fact that all of us know severely disabled people who work suggests that the broad thrust of Government policy is going in the right direction.

Mike Penning: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, about 70% of people on the previous benefit, the disability living allowance, were put on it for life. They were, in effect, written off, and this Government will not do that.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): A constituent of mine, aged 52, had worked all her life despite having congenital bone disease, until her condition worsened last year. She has to go into hospital next week to have both hips replaced, just at the time that Jobcentre Plus has declared her fit for work and stopped her benefit. When will the Minister ensure that people with disabilities get adequate support and are not treated in this completely harsh and cruel way?

Mike Penning: Assessments were brought in by the previous Administration—admittedly, in relation to the work capability assessment. So assessments are nothing new for this Administration, because the previous Administration introduced them. They did not do that very well, but we agree with assessments. Of course if someone is unfit for work, they can have a sick note put

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in while they are waiting for an appeal to go through—should that happen—and they will be entitled to jobseeker’s allowance. I completely agree that anyone who has gone into hospital cannot be fit for work at that time, but let us hope that the hon. Lady’s constituent is fit and well soon, and can return to work.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the emphasis on continuous improvement in the Litchfield and Harrington reviews shows that any cumulative assessment is either impossible or meaningless? Is it not better to rely on the robust statistics on fulfilling potential as the measure of whether the Government’s policy is being successful in this field?

Mike Penning: I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and that is exactly what our plans are; that is what we want to try to do, and I look forward to working with him on this project.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): How can the Government justify removing all phone lines to local jobcentres such as the one in Neath? How are people, especially disabled and sick people, supposed to cope with the fiendishly complex benefits system, or get into jobs, without personalised help and advice? Does the Minister not understand that the most vulnerable people often cannot get online, afford costly daily travel to jobcentres or hang on for ages on expensive 0845 lines?

Mike Penning: The 0845 numbers came in when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, and we are eradicating them now. Advisers are in place all the time. Most work is done online these days, but the advisers are there to help people, which is why we have been so successful in getting people into work.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Last Saturday, a constituent told me that her husband has throat cancer and is able to breathe only as a result of a laryngectomy and nebuliser treatment. He was found fit to work by Atos and is concerned about the six-week reassessment of what seems to be an inexplicable decision. Will the Minister assure me that there is a direction to improve and get people’s acts together as well as to make the appeals process quicker?

Mike Penning: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue with me before we came into Question Time. This looks like a case where something should be done. I will wait for the medical professionals to do this; it is a paper-based assessment, not a face-to-face one. I will look into it and come back to my hon. Friend as soon as I can.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): While the UK Government have resisted calls for a cumulative impact assessment of their welfare reforms, the Scottish Government have undertaken such an assessment. It showed that, overwhelmingly, the £4.5 billion-worth of cuts are falling on disabled people and mothers. Does the Minister accept that the reason he will not carry out such an assessment is because he is scared that it will expose his Government’s priorities and their willingness to punish the poor?

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Mike Penning: Although I respect what the Scottish Government do, our own Treasury and our own independent forecasts are saying that it is not possible to do that accurately. What I can say to the hon. Lady is that in every year of this coalition Government funding for disabled benefits has gone up, and it will continue to go up through 2015-16—more than was left by the previous Administration.

Youth Unemployment

2. Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made on reducing youth unemployment. [902599]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): The Government’s approach is working. For the 20th consecutive month, we have seen the youth claimant count reduce, so it is down on the month, down on the year and down since the election.

Mr Robertson: It is very good news that young people are finding work, but there are still far too many out of work. None the less, engineering and manufacturing companies in my constituency cannot find young people to employ. What discussions is the Minister’s Department having with Jobcentre Plus and with its colleagues in the Department for Education about giving young people the right kind of career advice?

Esther McVey: My hon. Friend does a lot in his constituency of Tewkesbury with engineering and manufacturing companies. I know that he regards it as vital that more people are involved in manufacturing and science, and that is a view that we all share, which is why we are doing more on apprenticeships—half a million this year—and on advanced apprenticeships. We have also brought together the youth action groups, so the Minister for Civil Society can now lead the way for all Departments and the voluntary and charity sector to work together.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): The Minister reels off statistics, but will she help me communicate with young people in Merseyside? What are they supposed to think when they see the figures in the Liverpool Echo today that show that more people have been sanctioned in Merseyside than have found work through her Work programme? What are young people supposed to think?

Esther McVey: I do a lot on Merseyside—whether it is with the Merseyside youth entrepreneurship scheme or with young kids and helping to provide them with role models. Supporting people on Merseyside has shaped my career for the past 15 years. Indeed, I grew up there during the 1980s. What we are doing should be looked at in its entirety. We cannot look at sanctions in isolation. This is about the claimant commitment, the extra traineeships since 2011—more than half a million—and the extra apprenticeships. We are doing a lot. I am focusing on youth unemployment. It is going in the right direction, but there is still plenty more work to be done.

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Work Capability Assessments

3. Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): What timetable his Department is working to for the retendering of contracts to deliver work capability assessments; what progress has been made with such retendering; and if he will make a statement. [902600]

4. Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of Atos to discuss its work for his Department. [902601]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): Although we have seen some improvements in Atos quality, we are still in ongoing commercial discussions. Unlike Atos, we respect the commercial confidentiality of those discussions. It is important to get the procurement right. The previous Administration did not share that view, which is why we are in this mess today.

Anne Marie Morris: Will the Minister inform the House of what steps he is taking to address the significant backlog that has been created by the delays in claimants receiving their work capability assessments? In my constituency, individuals say that they have been waiting for up to six months, which has a real impact on their financial circumstances.

Mike Penning: The issues to do with the work capability assessment and the unacceptable backlog that Atos has built up over the years are due to capacity and quality. The quality, which was very poor earlier on, has been improved. That means that there is now a huge backlog, which is why we are currently in negotiations with Atos.

Mr Bellingham: Given that Atos has now announced that it wants to withdraw from the contract that was negotiated with Labour, does the Minister agree that it would be an absolute disgrace if the hard-pressed taxpayer had to pay any form of compensation to the company?

Mike Penning: Since we came into power, we have been warning Atos of the need to improve its service. We are seeking agreements with it to ensure that that is done, some of which have not come to fruition. If we terminate the contract today, as the Opposition have suggested, the financial consequences would fall on the taxpayer and not on Atos, which would be absolutely wrong and something that I will not accept.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is glad that he is here rather than in my area where there is a clash of the Cabinets. At least, he has managed to avoid the travel chaos.

Atos has acted as a lightning rod for all that is wrong with the work capability assessment. However, it is delivering a Government contract to Government specifications. What guarantee has the Minister got that any new contract will recognise the problems and the flaws of the system and the sheer misery that Atos has caused in delivering its contracts to ensure that they are not repeated?

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Mike Penning: That is why we have had five reviews and the rolling reviews continue to take place, and we must learn from the mistakes of the previous Administration, who awarded this contract to Atos—something that they cannot run away from, although they seem to want to do so.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Now that the Minister has admitted that Atos is in a mess, notwithstanding when that began, will he give a guarantee that there cannot be a test for fitness for work if no one there has medical experience?

Mike Penning: All the assessors have medical experience and are clinicians, but the hon. Gentleman cannot run away from the previous Administration, as he loves to try to do, although he was elected on a manifesto with WCA.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): It is no surprise to many that Atos, appointed by the last Labour Government, has now failed its own work capability assessment. Considering that appeals have been upheld for 40% of the original decisions, what can be done to ensure that original decisions are far more accurate and right much more of the time?

Mike Penning: We are driving many of the improvements through, and I have actually instigated measures to ensure that we look carefully at what goes to tribunal, because some of the cases should not have gone there. That is why I have instigated the review that is taking place at the moment.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that the Minister will not need reminding that, in fact, his Government extended the contract with Atos and rolled out the move from incapacity benefit, without taking account of the issues that arose in the pilot studies early in his Government’s term in office. Now that Atos has accepted that it cannot deliver this contract, rather than just retendering it, will the Minister take the opportunity to ensure that it is properly fit for purpose, so that it helps those people who want to and who can get into work, rather than hounding those who cannot?

Mike Penning: That is exactly what we are doing in the negotiations that we have been involved in for several months now. That is why we are in negotiations with Atos about the future and bringing in more capacity. But this mess was created by the Government—previous Government—and that is the problem, and we extended the contract because we had absolutely no choice whatsoever.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Atos claims that one of the reasons for getting out of the contract is that its staff have received death threats. Is the Minister able to verify that, and if so, does he agree that, whatever the problems of Atos and the contract agreed by the last Labour Government, there is never any justification for threats of violence or violence against front-line staff—whether nurses, doctors, teachers or, in this case, Atos staff?

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Mike Penning: I would hope that everyone across the House condemns any of the abuse and the threats against the employees of Atos as completely unacceptable, no matter what their view of Atos.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): This Government have had nearly four years to sort this out, and pinning the blame on Atos will not get around that. Why, knowing the weaknesses of that organisation and all the flaws in how it was working, was it awarded a contract to implement the personal independence payment, which is causing huge delays?

Mike Penning: The contract for WCA is completely different from the contract for PIP, with a completely different set of assessments. Four years in, we are still trapped by a contract signed by the previous Administration —something that I intend to get out of, but without penalising the taxpayer.

Work Experience Programme

5. Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s work experience programme. [902602]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): Tomorrow, we will publish the Youth Contract claimant survey research, which contains a range of information on claimants’ experiences and an analysis of the early impacts. However, the latest figures showed that we previously had 113,000 people who started work experience and that 50% of them got a job; that there were 21,000 wage incentive starts and that 30,000 people went to sector-based work academies.

Mr Amess: Having run an employment agency before becoming a Member of Parliament, I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that, in a tough labour market, work experience provides a useful tool for our young people to gain access to the permanent jobs market. Should we not do everything that we can to enhance the programme?

Esther McVey: My hon. Friend, who has such great knowledge in this area, is spot on. Only this morning, I was with a group of young people from Livity, as well as various large employers—Capgemini, Ernst and Young and Tesco—and they all said that it was vital that they had work experience. They felt that they could not get a job without work experience. We have put that in place, and the more people who get on board and support it, the better.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Work experience can certainly be helpful, but given that the Department has recently published a glowing evaluation of Labour’s future jobs fund, why will the Minister not introduce a jobs guarantee scheme?

Esther McVey: That was certainly a rewrite of history, but Labour is used to doing that. The future jobs fund cost £6,500 per person and had only a 50% success rate, but not in the private sector, because most people did not end up there. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to

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know that with the work experience programmes and sector-based work academies we are introducing, we are achieving better success rates at one twentieth of the cost—£325 per person.

Single-tier Pension

6. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What steps he has taken to help those reaching retirement age before the introduction of the single-tier pension. [902603]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): For those who will reach pension age before the introduction of the new state pension, we have introduced a new class of national insurance contributions, which will allow those pensioners the opportunity to increase their state pension in retirement. More details of the scheme will be announced later this year.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that answer and it is extremely encouraging. Can my hon. Friend the Minister say what the Government have done to ensure that pensioners in my constituency are able to manage the cost of living rises in this Parliament?

Steve Webb: As my hon. Friend knows, the manifesto on which she and I stood proposed a triple lock, which was implemented by this coalition Government. It means that each year the pension will rise by the highest of the growth in average earnings or prices or by 2.5%, so the state pension is now a higher share of national average earnings than at any time in more than 20 years.

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): The Minister has today laid before the House a pensions written ministerial statement that intimates that following a year-long Labour campaign the Government intend to ensure that pension fund managers in the City disclose the fees that they charge for trading all of our pension assets. That is welcome, but of course the devil will be in the detail. On that basis, can he confirm today that that disclosure will include the number of times that fund managers churn our pension assets for a fee?

Steve Webb: I know that the Opposition like to bluster a lot to cover their embarrassment at taking no steps at all on this in 13 years in government. By contrast, this week this Government are legislating to shine a light in the murky corners of the pensions industry, so that value for money is finally achieved for pension savers.

Benefits Cap

9. Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): How many people have had their benefits reduced to the maximum of £26,000 (a) nationally and (b) on the Isle of Wight to date. [902607]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): By December 2013, 36,471 households had been capped nationally. Local figures obviously vary from area to area. The Isle of Wight is an area that does not get capped as much; some 100 households or

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fewer have been capped so far. These numbers include single households without children, for whom the cap is less than £26,000.

Mr Turner: The average gross wage on the Isle of Wight is just over £18,000, so take-home pay is about £15,000. The benefits cap is £10,000 more than the average islander earns. How can I explain this to islanders? Does the Minister think that I should mention that the Labour party believes that there should be no limit at all on the largesse of taxpayers?

Mr Duncan Smith: Far be it for me to recommend to my hon. Friend what he should mention to his constituents, but he might well start with the fact that this benefits cap was opposed by Labour when we implemented it. His point about the level is simple. We have embedded the cap now, it has been rolled out and we have made sure that it has worked properly. We have seen a huge number of people move back to work; some 19,000 people who were going to be capped have gone to work and thus avoided the cap. So the cap is successful everywhere. However, we should remember that there are differences in income and in London a lower cap would be a rather severe penalty to put on people. Therefore, although I keep the cap under review, I have no plans at the moment to change its level.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) clearly wants the cap to be reduced in his area and the Secretary of State makes an important point about London. Does that not suggest that there is some argument for taking into account regional variations in costs, so that the cap reflects what is happening locally?

Mr Duncan Smith: I am intrigued and pleased that the hon. Gentleman says that he supports the principle of the cap, which is more—in essence—than the Opposition have ever done in any vote. They voted against the cap—just in case they have forgotten. My point to him is a viable one. The trouble is where should regional calculations be made? Cities in regions have different levels of income from some of the countryside, so it starts to become quite a complicated process. Of course, I am willing to discuss this issue with the hon. Gentleman and anybody else who thinks that they have a plan, and I will certainly look at that, but right now the cap is successful, the majority of the public think it is a good idea and it was only his Front-Bench team who decided to vote against it.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State think it appropriate to consider putting a cap on the amount of housing benefit that landlords can receive? Can we at the very least have some transparency, so that we can see how many people who support the Tory party rake in hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits?

Mr Duncan Smith: I do not know if it is now Labour policy to cap landlords in that way; I suspect that the immediate effect would be fewer landlords making properties available. It seems to me that that would be a complicated, tortuous and pointless policy. However, I think there is plenty of transparency; some of the papers seem to have found out the facts for themselves.

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Discretionary Housing Payments

10. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of councils’ use of discretionary housing payments in this financial year. [902608]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Details of how local authorities used discretionary housing payments in the first half of this year were published on 20 December. That report gives an early indication of how that funding is supporting people, including disabled people living in specially adapted accommodation, and of the type of choices that people are making in response to the changes, such as seeking to move to alternative accommodation or looking for work.

Annette Brooke: Does the Minister agree that councils should use all available funds provided by his Department to offset the ending of the spare room subsidy for those who are disabled and have a clear need for two bedrooms or more, and those who cannot find smaller accommodation? Will the underspending this year affect next year’s allocation?

Steve Webb: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the funding being made available to local authorities for cases where it would be inappropriate for individuals to make up the shortfall should be spent. In addition, this Government have made available an extra £20 million, in-year, but less than a quarter of local authorities bid for that money. We want local authorities to spend the money being made available, so that those who can move do so, but those for whom that would be inappropriate have the top-up that they need.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): One of the worst cases that I have dealt with recently was of a homeless mother with a severely disabled child who receives disability living allowance. That allowance was taken into account in deciding their discretionary housing payment, which left the family with virtually nothing to live on. Will the Minister issue guidance to local authorities saying that they should not take into account disability living allowance when making DHP payments?

Steve Webb: The hon. Lady is very knowledgeable about these matters, and she will know that local authorities make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, they do not have to include income from DLA, but they are free to do so. If she believes that her local authority should not have done so in an individual case, she should make representations to it.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Following on from that question, the Minister must know that in assessing entitlement to income-related benefits, entitlement to disability benefits is not taken into account. The one exception to that policy is discretionary housing payments. It is specifically in the guidance that local authorities can take them into account and means-test them in the way that he described. Will he change and reissue the guidance, so that this one area where disability payments are means-tested is removed from the scene?

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Steve Webb: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the key is in the word “discretionary”. Local authorities can ignore DLA if they think that that is appropriate, but they have the freedom to judge on a case-by-base basis; that seems to be the right way to respond to individual need.

Automatic Pension Transfers

11. Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): What progress he has made on implementation of the pot-follows-member model of automatic pension transfers. [902609]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I can announce that we have been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to examine the feasibility of using the pay-as-you-earn data and system to deliver a secure, efficient and straightforward pot-matching element to the pot-follows-member system. A pot-follows-member system leads to more efficiency, potentially better member engagement, greater consolidation and better outcomes in retirement.

Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer, but as we are all living longer, which is great news, it is an ever greater priority to ensure that people save for their retirement. Is he looking at options such as the auto-enrolment system in place in Australia? Will he also consider a savings and retirement account for future pensioners?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend will know that our auto-enrolment programme, which we are in the middle of rolling out, has been highly successful, with nine out of 10 people choosing to stay in that programme. The Australian version is compulsory; we have chosen not to do that in this country. The fact that most people are choosing voluntarily to stay in pensions saving is a judgment that we have made the right choice. I should add that the Australians have said that they wish that they had introduced from the beginning the pot-follows-member system that we are introducing.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): The pensions Minister is consulting on a charges cap. For the avoidance of doubt, will he confirm to the House that he still plans to introduce the cap during the lifetime of this Parliament?

Steve Webb: I refer my hon. Friend to the written statement that we issued today, which confirms precisely that we will shortly bring forth our announcement, and that we will see through our agenda during the course of this Parliament.

Personal Independence Payments

12. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the implementation of personal independence payments. [902610]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): Personal independence payments were only introduced nationally for new claims in June 2013, and reassessment of existing disability living allowance claimants is being gradually implemented from

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October 2013, so we are at an early stage. However, the process is taking too long—I accept that—and, working with officials, I am pushing through an agenda to change that.

Jessica Morden: Newport citizens advice bureau has assisted many clients with applications for PIPs, and has reported that most decisions take about five months, but some people have been waiting for a decision since July. There are serious delays at both the DWP and the Capita end, although we were assured by previous Ministers that the PIP process would be fit for purpose. Does the Minister accept the stress and hardship that that causes vulnerable people, and why has it taken Ministers so long to get to grips with the problem?

Mike Penning: The reason we are phasing the measure in is to make sure that we get it right. There are internal DWP processes that are taking too long. The assessment is taking too long, and it is also the case that some claimants are taking too long to return the forms that have been sent to them. We are working on this with both providers, and we will get there.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Under the current DLA system, it is hard for people with severe mental health conditions to get the higher-rate amount, but will that change when PIP is implemented?

Mike Penning: We often hear about the negative side of PIP, and we have heard again from the Opposition today about their opposition to some parts of it, but there is a great success story for people with mental health issues. Under the old DLA system, they would not be able to get the higher rate that they will receive under PIP, which should be welcomed across the House.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Last year, there were 229,700 claims for PIP, but decisions were taken on only 43,800—fewer than one in five. How can it be right to take up to six months to reach a decision of such significance for severely disabled people? Has the Minister actually set a target for timely decisions, and what penalties will he impose on the assessors—Capita and Atos—for failing to meet it?

Mike Penning: It is always difficult to ask a question that has been written before hearing the previous answers. We accept that there are delays: we accept that within PIP, and we accept that within Atos and Capita. We are working closely with them to deal with that. Under the previous system, less than 6% of people ever had a face-to-face assessment; now it is 97%, which we should welcome. We need to get that down so that we can address paper claims quicker, particularly in cases of terminal illness, which we are working on. However, we must push this forward.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It cannot be too early for my constituents who have experienced waits of between five and six months to get an assessment after they have submitted their PIP claim, and others have been told by service providers to expect to wait up to three months to get a decision after the assessment. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to make sure that service providers face consequences if they do not improve those times?

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Mike Penning: There are contractual requirements on both providers, and if they do not meet them they will be penalised financially. I also have to say that there are internal delays in DWP, so I am not going to pass the buck entirely on to them, but we will address the problem, and we are doing so. There are measures that we introduced last week which I hope will address the situation with an accumulative effect.

Mr Speaker: Mr Kevin Brennan.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is taking months—

Mr Speaker: Question 13 is a good idea. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, and probably not for the last, is ahead of himself.


13. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the performance of Capita in relation to personal independence payment assessments. [902611]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): Latest analysis is telling us that the end-to-end claimant journey is taking longer, as I said previously, than expected with both providers—Capita and Atos. As I previously stated, we are taking urgent action on this.

Kevin Brennan: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for not allowing me to get ahead of myself earlier.

It is taking months and months for constituents to get these assessments done, and the issue is clogging up a lot of our surgeries as a result of those delays. In his answer to the previous question, the Minister said that claimants were to blame. How much of the problem is he saying is caused by claimants, because I can assure him that, in the case of my constituents, that is not the problem?

Mike Penning: As we bed down the new benefit and the new policies, there will be issues within the Department, issues with the contractors and issues not only with people giving advice to claimants, but with claimants themselves. I am not blaming claimants. What we are saying is that there are delays in the forms coming back and delays because they are not filled in correctly. That is something that we need to work on. We need to be more informative about how those forms are to be filled in, and we are working on that. On the terminal illness side, we are working with Macmillan so that it works closely with those claimants.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): My constituent Pamela Brown applied for her personal independence payment in July last year, but the persistent failures by Capita meant that she faced a delay of more than three months just to get an assessment. She had numerous appointments that were cancelled and Capita did not even tell her. It was only after she put in numerous formal complaints that Capita addressed the matter. Pamela’s case is clearly far from unique, so can the Minister say a little more about what he is doing to sort out the mess at Capita’s end?

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Mike Penning: I get people coming to see me at my surgery about exactly the same situation, but the vast majority of assessments are going through and we are trying very hard. We must make sure we get it right. There were issues of quality, which caused the delays, and we are addressing those. That is why the benefit is being phased in, and as we go through we will get a better result for our constituents across the House.

Universal Credit

14. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): How many people are currently claiming universal credit. [902612]

18. Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made on the roll-out of universal credit. [902616]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): Since October, universal credit has started running in Hammersmith, Rugby and Inverness and it is rolling out today in Harrogate and Bath. It is already out in a number of other centres up in the north-west. Based on caseload projections, some 6,000-plus people are likely to be paid universal credit in the pathfinder. That will be subject to confirmation in the official statistics. Many more claim jobseeker’s allowance using the key elements of universal credit, which are also being rolled out to a wider audience. Some 270,000 jobseekers are now using elements such as the claimant commitment, which is part of universal credit.

Nick Smith: Well, the Secretary of State is certainly going faster than universal credit.

Under the Government’s original timetable 1 million people would be receiving universal credit by April this year. When does the Secretary of State now expect this 1 million target to be met?

Mr Duncan Smith: I have said constantly and I continue to say that we will not be giving out targets for dates. As I said earlier, roll-out has begun. I invite the hon. Gentleman to go to any one of the centres and talk to the staff there and to the claimants. He will find that what is happening is a real improvement in their seeking work and getting work, and in the advisers being able to apply themselves to those with the greatest difficulty. Universal credit will have rolled through by 2016, as I said, with all those benefits merged into one, and people will be claiming universal credit, not any other benefit.

Mr Speaker: I call Laura Sandys.

Laura Sandys: No. 18, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: The hon. Lady’s question has been grouped with 14 and therefore she asks her question now.

Laura Sandys: Thank you so much—very informative!

Mr Speaker: It is always useful to have a bit of information, and I endeavour to be helpful to Members. The hon. Lady need not sound quite so surprised.

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Laura Sandys: I am a strong believer in behavioural change, and my behaviour will change shortly—but just before it does, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the behavioural change that is happening as a result of the introduction of universal credit?

Mr Duncan Smith: I say to my hon. and highly informed Friend that it is important for us to understand what this is all about. Colleagues on either side of the House should attend centres where universal credit has been rolled out. They will hear from the advisers that we are beginning to see a real change in culture among those who are claiming benefit and those who are delivering it. All the centres that I have visited believe that this is improving the situation for claimants, and it makes life a lot easier and a lot more efficient for advisers in jobcentres.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Would that the Secretary of State were as informative as the Speaker. The answer to the question on the Order Paper—in other words, how many people are on universal credit—is 3,200. Bearing in mind that so far universal credit has cost £612 million, that is £191,250 per person, which does not compare very well with the £6,500 per person that was mentioned for the future jobs fund. It seems that the Prime Minister was right when it comes to Government pet projects: money is no object. When will the Secretary of State allow the Opposition direct access to his officials so that we can sort out his mess?

Mr Duncan Smith: I rather hope that at some point the hon. Gentleman had a maths O-level, because his maths is so pathetic as to make it risible. He has all the numbers and all the amounts that are relevant to the development of all the equipment that will roll out the complete universal credit. [Interruption.] I am going to answer this question. In truth, the operational running costs of the pathfinder, which is what we are running at the moment, are some £6 million, which equates to £200 per claim. By the way, he needs a little correction. In case he had not noticed, we have already invited him and all his colleagues to come and visit us. I think they are down to visit us this week, so he needs to check his diary, or maybe his colleagues did not want him to come with them. I do not know.

Incapacity Benefit

15. Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects of the migration of claimants from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. [902613]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): At March 2013, as a result of incapacity benefit reassessment, over 650,000 people have been reassessed and are now either preparing or looking for work.

Graeme Morrice: Is the Minister aware that between October 2012 and September 2013, using his own Department’s figures, the ESA participant group performance was 6.6% against the DWP minimum target of 16.5%? Will he now accept that the Government’s Work programme experiment has been a complete waste of time and money, and will they now scrap it?

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Mike Penning: No, we will not, because we are already two thirds of the way through the incapacity benefit reassessment process. We have 1 million people in the process and, as I said earlier, 650,000 have already progressed through.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I am very pleased that the employment rate for disabled people has now reached 45%. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows that, with the right support, disabled people can find and keep work and provide for their own families?

Mike Penning: I welcome the fact that it is now 45%, but we can do better, and we need to do better for those disabled people who want to get back into the workplace. That is why Disability Confident is going around the country showing employers how easy and right it is that they employ people with long-term illness and disabilities, and that has been very successful.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

16. Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What assessment he has made of trends in the number of 18 to 24-year-olds claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Bury North constituency. [902614]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): The number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Bury North has fallen by 17% over the last year and the number of long-term young claimants has fallen by a third.

Mr Nuttall: I am grateful to the Minister for confirming the good news that hundreds more young people in my constituency now have the security of a regular pay packet. Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether that encouraging trend is also reflected in the other age groups and categories of unemployed in Bury North?

Esther McVey: I can indeed answer that question from my hon. Friend, who is a particularly active local MP and holds us all to account thoroughly in his constituency. The claimant count is down 17% across the board in his constituency, and nationally we have got record numbers of people into work—more than 30 million—and we have got a record number of women into work, and at a record rate. That really does show that the Government’s long-term plan is working.

Zero-hours Contracts

17. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the extent of abuse of zero-hours contracts in back-to-work schemes. [902615]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): Under the Work programme, providers are paid for getting people into sustained work, generally a job of at least 16 hours a week, paid at the national minimum wage or more, and which lasts for a minimum of six months. That can be two or three jobs, but none the less, they have to last for six months.

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Outcomes are counted on that basis, therefore DWP does not hold information about the employment contract itself. Moving someone on to a zero-hours contract would not count as a job outcome unless it entailed meaningful work that was registered, taking them off benefits.

Chi Onwurah: My constituent was taken on by a security company on a zero-hours contract with a promise of 40 hours a week, but he has been given only 17 hours, while the company takes on more staff from the Work programme with more promises of proper hours. He cannot pay his rent, he cannot sign on because he would be considered to have made himself unemployed, he cannot plan and he cannot live. When will the Secretary of State end this abuse of zero-hours contracts?

Mr Duncan Smith: As I understand it from what the hon. Lady said, her constituent was not taken on under the Work programme, but others in the Work programme were, which was causing him the problem. If she wants to give me the full details of the case I will look at it, because that is slightly different from what I understood her question to be about. If there is an abuse among the Work programme providers in this regard, I will certainly deal with it.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State look at those vacancies, particularly in the Ryedale jobcentre, that are the most difficult to fill, which tend to be in the care sector? Will he also look at any abuse of zero-hours contracts in the employment of carers, whether under the Work programme or any other long-term sustainable work?

Mr Duncan Smith: First, may I say how pleased I am to see my hon. Friend in her place? It is my personal hope that she remains there and returns to the House again, because she gets great coverage for her constituents. The issue she raises is an important one, but we need to get the right balance between what zero-hours contracts deliver and any abuses there might be. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is carrying out a consultation, and we are fully co-operating in that and will ensure that such contracts do not cause problems in the Work programme. However, it is worth remembering that those contracts also provide people with a flexible way of working and the freedom to arrange jobs around other commitments, and they allow employers to be competitive in response to market trends. I therefore think that we must get the balance right with zero-hours contracts and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We must recognise that for many people they are positive and helpful, but we also want to end any abuses there might be for others.

Trussell Trust

19. Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): What plans he has to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust. [902617]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): Although food banks are not a Department for Work and Pensions or Government responsibility, Department representatives and Ministers—myself

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included—have on occasion had cause to meet representatives of food banks, including the Trussell Trust.

Susan Elan Jones: A decade ago at Easterhouse the Secretary of State said how important small, grass-roots community organisations are. If he really believes what he said then, when he spoke the rhetoric of broken Britain, is not it time he set a date, met the representatives and listened to what they have to say about food poverty in the United Kingdom?

Mr Duncan Smith: I have two points for the hon. Lady. First, I have just said that all of us have at some point met representatives of the Trussell Trust. Secondly, I absolutely think that those involved in food banks and in supporting those who are in difficulty or in need are very valuable members of the community, and I celebrate the work they do. I believe that it is the right thing for them to do. I think that all those involved in food banks are decent people trying to do a decent bit of work for those in need of help, and we support that in general terms as constituency MPs. However, I must say that the over-politicisation of this issue has done no help at all, as some leaders of food banks have attested over the past week.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): The Trussell Trust has been exposing the real impact of Ministers’ policies, so out of pique they have refused to meet the trust’s representatives since last summer. Now that they have been overruled by the Prime Minister, who met trust representatives last week, will DWP Ministers at last step up to their responsibilities? Was not the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster absolutely right when he said last week that

“there shouldn’t be people living with nothing, in destitution, in a country which is as prosperous as this”?

Mr Duncan Smith: I have two points for the right hon. Gentleman. First, he, his party and others have deliberately set out to politicise the issue of food banks—[Interruption.] Well, those are not my words. The person who runs the Oxford food bank has said:

“I think this whole debate has become hopelessly politicised.”

Food banks do a good service, but they have been much in the news. People know they are free. They know about them and they will ask social workers to refer them. It would be wrong to pretend that the mass of publicity has not also been a driver in their increased use. The Opposition, notwithstanding the fact that under them the number of food banks increased tenfold, are trying to make a political issue out of this. They have done no service to those who need help and support and no service to those who run the food banks.

Topical Questions

T1. [902648] Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): Today I welcome the latest statistics showing the growth in employment over the past year. Against a rise of 54,000 foreign nationals at work, 360,000 more UK nationals are employed, a far better record than under the previous Government. With new

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measures to tighten up on immigration still further, such as the minimum earnings threshold announced last week, we are ensuring that those who want to work and who will work hard and play by the rules will see the benefits of Britain’s growth.

Steve Baker: The bishops have said that there is an “acute moral imperative” to act on welfare, and I agree, because that has been clear since at least 2006, when the Centre for Social Justice published its report, “Breakdown Britain”. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is still on a moral mission to break those cycles of deprivation that lead to entrenched poverty so that people can live lives of hope and fulfilment?

Mr Duncan Smith: I am determined, as I have been since I arrived as Secretary of State, to improve the welfare system so that it supports people back into positive lifestyles, and that is what we are doing. More people have moved from economic inactivity, which is now at its lowest levels, back into work. There are now fewer workless households than there were on our arrival. When we came into government, one in 20—a fifth—of all households were without work; that figure has now reduced for the first time in 30 years.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): On 13 January, the Secretary of State told this House that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were wrongly paying the bedroom tax because of a loophole in the legislation. Since then, councils have been trawling through years of records to find out who has been overpaid. Will the Secretary of State update us on how many people were wrongly paying the bedroom tax?

Mr Duncan Smith: On the loophole that I talked about when I made that comment, the estimate we had, which was drawn from local authorities and still stands, in our view, was that some 5,000 people may be affected. That is based on the most up-to-date data that local authorities have given. I know that the hon. Lady and her team have made a freedom of information request, but the key thing is that the information we have is based on all the local authorities’ evidence to us, and I do not believe that her evidence is in any way accurate.

Rachel Reeves: Yes, we have put in a freedom of information request, because we did not think that the Secretary of State’s numbers were correct, and, as it turns out, they are not. The FOI request shows that with 194 out of 346 councils having responded so far, a staggering 21,500 people have been wrongly paying the bedroom tax, including 4,198 in Tory local authorities, so perhaps they have got their numbers wrong too. There are 275 in Tory Chester, 200 in Tory Peterborough, 234—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but the question is too long. I have got Back Benchers to accommodate, so I know that the final sentence, which will be a short one, is on its way.

Rachel Reeves: Instead of trying stealthily to close the loophole, will the Secretary of State now do the right thing and scrap the cruel and hated bedroom tax?

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Mr Duncan Smith: Yet again we hear from the hon. Lady a complete failure to mention the fact that in all her Government’s time in power, they did nothing for those who lived in overcrowded accommodation. A quarter of a million people were left to us who suffer every day because they cannot get the right rooms. One million people were left on the waiting list, and the house building programme fell to its lowest point since the 1920s. There is only one answer to her: sorting this out is the right thing to do, and shame on a Government who did nothing for those in greatest difficulty.

T2. [902649] Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fall in unemployment in my constituency over the past three years? We now have about 2,500 more people in work than in 2010, benefiting young and old, those in full-time and part-time positions, and men and women. Does not this highlight how important it is for the Government to stick to their economic plans and ensure that the well-being of this country improves?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): My hon. Friend is right to say that we have got a record number of people into work across the board. What is most interesting as I travel up and down the country is to see how local Jobcentres Plus are working with local businesses to support their local work forces. In particular, the learning shop at Bluewater is doing tremendous work. My hon. Friend is right. We have done a lot; we have more to do.

T3. [902650] Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): A constituent of mine recently had his benefits wrongly withdrawn. He has severe learning difficulties and cannot use the internet independently, and therefore has great difficulty in applying for jobs online. Does the Secretary of State agree that targeted support would be more successful in getting my constituent and others back into work than damaging, wrongly imposed benefit sanctions?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): It is very important that we help everybody to get back into work, no matter who it is. If benefits have been stopped incorrectly, I promise to look into that for the hon. Lady.

T4. [902651] Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): The Minister will be aware of the 16% drop in unemployment in my constituency, along with the 34% drop in youth unemployment. Will he join me in welcoming the support of local businesses at our next annual Enfield jobs fair on 7 March, where employers are coming to support us in helping to find work for the unemployed?

Mr Duncan Smith: I will do everything I can to make sure I am there to support my hon. Friend, who is also my parliamentary neighbour. He is right to say that what we have seen in the recent employment figures has happened only because we stuck to the course of our economic plan and because the welfare reforms are delivering more people into work. All that would be damaged if that lot were in power.

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T7. [902654] Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Two of my constituents—both of whom are UK citizens—went to other European Union countries to find work, but when those jobs ended and they came home they found they were no longer eligible to receive benefits in the UK. Did the Government mean to penalise UK citizens who go abroad to get off the UK unemployment register, and is not that exactly the wrong signal to give? Will the Secretary of State change the regulations?

Mr Duncan Smith: As the hon. Gentleman should know, we are bringing forward tougher sanctions on those who come here just to take benefits, rather than to work. Of course, British citizens working abroad are more likely to have gone abroad with a strong work record in the UK, so when they come back that is taken into account. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about a particular case, perhaps he would like to write to me and I will take it up. The sanctions are fair because they stop people coming to countries such as Britain just because they have better welfare systems than theirs.

T5. [902652] Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on all the work he has put into getting people back into employment, but I was visited this weekend by one of my constituents, Paul Vachon, who has been unemployed for more than 12 months and is highly skilled. His major concern is that, because he is close to the point of retirement, his employability is diminished. What are the Government doing to encourage and support those such as Paul who are seeking jobs at the point when they are about to retire?

Esther McVey: My hon. Friend raises an important question about how we support all people back into work. It really is important that advisers have the flexibility to offer skills and job-search support to people of all ages, including those who might need extra support on the Work programme and, equally, those in local areas that might have an over-50s digital group or 50-plus work clubs. We need to make sure that everybody is getting the support and I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

T8. [902655] Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): I have put this question to the Department for Work and Pensions on two previous occasions in the Chamber, but I will try again and perhaps, as the old adage goes, this will be third time lucky. More than 90% of the Work programme participants in my home city of Dundee have not been helped into work by it, so my simple question is: why not?

Esther McVey: The Work programme supports those people who are furthest away from the job market. We have helped more than 1.4 million people and we now know that more than 400,000 of them have had a job start. We have to get them closer to the workplace, so it is working well. We always say that there is more to do, but this has done a significant amount for those people who are the hardest to help.

T6. [902653] Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will Ministers do something about the fact that, of all the people being helped with personal independence

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payment claims by the Berwick citizens advice bureau, not one remaining in the area has received an assessment since the scheme started?

Mike Penning: Of course, as we roll out PIP, this is a really difficult situation and we must make sure we get the quality right. I will look into that individual case for my right hon. Friend and make sure we get it right in his area.

T9. [902656] Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), a number of my constituents have been on the employment and support programme for two years, or nearly two years, and have had not a sniff of a work opportunity. Do the Government have a solution for how to get people with complex needs into work, because clearly the Work programme is not delivering?

Esther McVey: The Work programme is working. For those people who are on employment and support allowance, it is about getting closer to the job market and that is what we are doing—putting provision in place. I remind the hon. Lady that, under her Government, those people were not supported in any consistent way whatsoever.

T10. [902657] Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): One of the issues raised during the last debate before the recess was payment of benefits to terminally ill patients. Will Ministers update the House on what additional help and support is available for recipients of PIP?

Mike Penning: It is very important for the families and loved ones of people who are terminally ill to make sure that we get the PIP payment through as fast as possible. The period was too long; we have got it down now, and we need to get it down more. I said to the Select Committee that the proportion should be below 10%. Working with Macmillan, we are going to a PDF as well as a paper-based system for the 2%, but it is very important that we get that right, and that is why I have changed the rules.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): Mr Speaker, you will remember that during exchanges at the last Work and Pensions questions, the Secretary of State said that Manchester had spent very little of its discretionary housing allocation. I wonder whether he wants to use this opportunity to clarify that allegation, given that only two days later, his Department granted Manchester city council an extra £200,000 of discretionary housing payment in recognition that its money was nearly spent.

Mr Duncan Smith: I stand by the figures I gave the hon. Lady, and I also stand by the fact that Manchester—[Interruption.] No, the figures I gave her were the halfway cut for the year, when she said that it had already overspent—[Interruption.] No, she cannot run away from it. She said that it had overspent, and the reality is that it had not overspent. Since then, it has asked for more money. We have a pot, and we have

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allowed it to have more money. That is the point of the discretionary housing payment. Welcome to the world of decision making.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): My constituent Jane has been receiving treatment for cancer since her diagnosis last October, but she was wrongly told that she was excluded from applying for help unless she resigned from her job altogether or became pregnant. Will the Minister meet me to discuss Jane’s suggestions to improve how patients receiving treatment for serious illnesses are referred by the NHS towards help, such as personal independence payment, in the interests of joined-up government?

Mike Penning: There is a very simple answer to the hon. Lady’s question: yes, I will meet her as soon as possible.

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Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): Further to all the questions about people who are seriously ill, does the Minister think it right that my constituent, who has a weakened heart, has been told that she will not get the personal independence payment? Surely it is just not right that, to avoid reaching rock bottom, she has to not follow her doctor’s advice not to work, and has to lie about her condition. Surely now is the time to see just how fit for purpose his welfare benefits system is—it is not working.

Mike Penning: Assessment was brought in by the previous Administration. I fully accept that there are such individual cases. If the hon. Lady’s constituent has not got PIP, she is entitled to appeal and go to a tribunal and the higher tribunal, and she can also register for JSA and produce a sicknote. I will look into the individual case if the hon. Lady so wishes.

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The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Michael Joseph Patrick Kane, for Wythenshawe and Sale East.

24 Feb 2014 : Column 26

Ukraine, Syria and Iran

3.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Syria and on relations with Iran.

Last week, more than 80 people were killed and 600 injured during the worst bloodshed in Ukraine since the fall of communism. It was the culmination of unrest that began in November, when President Yanukovych announced that the Government would not sign an EU association agreement. I know that the House will join me in sending condolences to the families of those who died or were injured.

On Thursday, I attended the emergency meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, which agreed to sanctions on those who have been responsible for the violence, as well as assistance to promote political dialogue and help for the injured. On Friday, President Yanukovych and the Opposition signed an agreement, supported by the whole European Union. I pay tribute to my French, Polish and German colleagues for their efforts to bring that about.

Events moved rapidly after that, including the departure of President Yanukovych from Kiev and the removal of guards from Government buildings. On Saturday, the Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, voted to restore the 2004 constitution, to release Yuliya Tymoshenko and to impeach the President. He has said that he will not step down, but it is clear that his authority is no longer widely accepted. A number of members of the previous Government have been dismissed and appointments have been made to a new unity Government. Speaker Turchynov of the Rada has been appointed acting President until early elections take place on 25 May.

Ukraine has a pressing need for constitutional reform, improvements to its political culture, free elections, an end to pervasive corruption and the building of a stable political structure. We look to the new Government to create the conditions for such change in a spirit of reconciliation, while ensuring that there is accountability for human rights violations.

For our part, the international community must work with the new Government to discourage further violence and agree international financial support. Ukraine’s financial situation is very serious and, without outside assistance, may not be sustainable. An economic crisis in Ukraine would be a grave threat to the country’s stability and could have damaging wider consequences. I discussed that work with the German and Polish Foreign Ministers over the weekend and I spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia earlier this afternoon. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Putin, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Tusk, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer discussed Ukraine with G20 Finance Ministers in Australia. Later today, I will go to Washington to discuss this and other issues with Secretary Kerry.

While in Washington, I will hold talks with the International Monetary Fund, which is best placed to provide financial support and technical advice to Ukraine. Such support could be provided quickly once it has been requested by the new Government. It requires a

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stable and legitimate Government to be in place and for there to be a commitment to the reforms that are necessary to produce economic stability. International financial support cannot be provided without conditions and clarity that it will be put to proper use.

Baroness Ashton is visiting Kiev today and I will visit shortly. Our fundamental interest is democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine. This is not about a choice for Ukraine between Russia and the EU; it is about setting the country on a democratic path for the future. We want the people of Ukraine to be free to determine their own future, which is what we also seek for the people of Syria.

On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2139 on humanitarian assistance to Syria, which the United Kingdom called for and co-sponsored. It is the first resolution that has been adopted by the Security Council on the humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict three years ago, and it was agreed unanimously. It demands an immediate end to the violence, the lifting of the sieges of besieged areas, and the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid including, importantly, across borders where necessary. It authorises the UN to work with civil society to deliver aid to the whole of Syria. It condemns terrorist attacks and demands the implementation of the Geneva communiqué, leading to a political transition. It states that that should include the full participation of women.

The passing of the resolution is an important achievement, but it will make a practical difference only if it is implemented in full. We will work with the United Nations and our partners to try to ensure that the regime’s stranglehold on starving people is broken.

The UK continues to set an example to the world on humanitarian assistance. Our contribution to the Syrian people now stands at £600 million: £241 million has been allocated for humanitarian assistance inside Syria; £265 million has been allocated to support refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt; and £94 million of allocations are currently being finalised. We have pressed for other countries to do more, including at the Kuwait conference last month, which resulted in more than $2.2 billion in new pledges.

The Security Council resolution is a chink of light in an otherwise bleak and deteriorating situation. An estimated 5,000 Syrians are dying every month and a quarter of a million remain trapped in areas under siege. The bombardment of civilian areas with barrel bombs continues unabated, and there are reports of attacks with cluster munitions as well. An inquiry led by distinguished British experts reported on the photos of the bodies of around 11,000 tortured and executed Syrian detainees. Some 2.5 million Syrians are refugees in the region, three quarters of them women and children. The UN expects 4 million refugees by the end of this year.

Against this horrifying backdrop we continue to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but there is no sign of the Assad regime having any willingness whatsoever to negotiate the political transition demanded by the UN Security Council. The second round of Geneva II negotiations ended on 15 February without agreement on future talks. UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had proposed an agenda for a third round of

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talks focusing on violence and terrorism—the regime’s stated priority—and a transitional governing body, in parallel. The regime refused this. As a result the talks were suspended, with Mr Brahimi clearly laying responsibility for that at the regime’s door.

The national coalition, by contrast, approached the negotiations constructively and in good faith. It published a statement of principles for the transitional governing body, stating that it would enable the Syrian people to decide their own future and protect the rights and freedoms of all Syrians. Those supporting the regime side, including the Russian and Iranian Governments, need to do far more to press the regime to take this process seriously and to reach a political settlement, as we have done with the opposition. We will continue our support to the national coalition and to civil society in Syria. We are providing £2.1 million for Syrian civil defence teams to help local communities deal with attacks, and improve the capability of local councils to save the lives of those injured and alleviate humanitarian suffering. This includes training, which is now under way, and £700,000 of civil defence equipment including personal radios, rescue tools, fire-fighting clothing, fire extinguishers, stretchers and medical kits.

The UK is also proposing a £2 million package of training, technical assistance and equipment support to build up the capacity of the Free Syrian Police, working with the US and Denmark. I have laid before Parliament a minute to approve £910,000 of equipment, including communications equipment, uniforms and vehicles for the Free Syrian Police. We also intend to make a contribution to the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, established by the UAE and Germany, focusing on health care, water supply, energy supply and food security. We are working with the Supreme Military Council to agree the best way of restarting our non-lethal support, which we halted temporarily in December.

The regime’s foot-dragging is also clear on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, only 11% of Syria’s declared chemical stockpile has been removed, and the regime has missed the 5 February deadline for removing all chemicals. That has delayed the destruction operation by months, and puts the 30 June final destruction deadline in jeopardy. This slow rate of progress is unacceptable. The UN Secretary-General and the OPCW have made it clear that Syria has all the necessary equipment to enable the movement of the chemicals. The OPCW’s director general is pressing the Syrians to accept a plan that would see the removal of all Syrian chemicals in a considerably shorter period, enabling the deadline to be met.

Turning finally to Iran, the first step agreement with Iran came into force on 20 January and continues to be implemented. The E3 plus 3 and Iran met last week to start negotiations on a comprehensive agreement, aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is and always will be exclusively peaceful. The talks were constructive. The E3 plus 3 and Iran agreed on the issues that need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement, and in broad terms on the approach to negotiations in the coming months. The next round of talks will be in mid-March in Vienna. The E3 plus 3 and Iran plan to meet monthly in order to make swift progress on the issues that need to be resolved in the ambitious time frame we agreed in the Geneva deal in November. The House should be under no illusion that the challenges

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remain very considerable. A comprehensive solution must address all proliferation concerns related to Iran’s nuclear programme. To that end, existing sanctions remain intact and we will enforce them robustly.

We continue to expand our bilateral contact with Iran; indeed, Iran’s non-resident chargé d’affaires is visiting the UK today. Last Thursday, the UK and Iran brought protecting power arrangements to an end. This is a sign of increasing confidence that we can conduct bilateral business directly between capitals, rather than through intermediaries. I thank the Governments of Sweden and Oman for acting as protecting powers since the closure of our embassy, and for their strong friendship and support to the UK. We will continue step by step with those improvements in our bilateral relations, providing they remain reciprocal. We are, for example, working together on ways to make it easier for Iranians and British citizens to obtain consular and visa services.

On all these issues, we will maintain intensive diplomatic activity in the days ahead and I will continue to keep the House informed on our work with other nations—whether in Europe, the middle east or on the prevention of nuclear proliferation—to ensure a more peaceful and stable world.

3.46 pm

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.

On Syria, I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming UN Security Council resolution 2139. Despite the progress made in securing this resolution, however, the UN’s humanitarian appeal sadly remains chronically underfunded. Will the Foreign Secretary join the calls we have made for a fresh donor conference urgently to secure additional funds? If not, will he set out for the House the mechanism by which he judges the funding gap can be better closed? The Foreign Secretary acknowledges that those supporting the regime’s side, including the Russian and Iranian Governments, need to do far more to press the regime to take the process seriously and to reach a political settlement. Will he therefore explain his continued opposition to the establishment of a Syria contact group that could get these Governments around the table?

On Iran, we welcome the agreement on a framework for negotiations on a comprehensive deal in Vienna last week, but progress on a comprehensive deal must be made explicitly contingent on Iran adhering to the terms of the interim joint action plan signed up to in November. Iran is reportedly still operating more than 10,000 centrifuges, yet the interim deal sets out a much lower target. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what ongoing steps are being taken to bring Iran into line with the existing demands of the deal it has already signed up to? Will the Foreign Secretary set out the Government’s most recent estimates of the benefits that limited sanctions relief has so far brought to the Iranian economy, and whether the UK has any plans to push for extending, or indeed limiting, the existing relief package agreed by the P5+1, so as not to undermine the twin-track approach supported on both sides of the House?

Turning now to the events in Ukraine, may I join the Foreign Secretary in offering condolences to the families of those killed and injured during the latest violence? Recent days have seen protest, tragedy and change on

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the streets of Kiev. The first priority must of course be to ensure that the transition to an interim Government is peaceful and that further bloodshed is avoided. We welcome the work already done by the EU High Representative, including on her most recent visit to Kiev today, to try to facilitate this transition, but does the Foreign Secretary believe that the EU should now appoint a dedicated special envoy to support these efforts?

Alongside political turmoil, the Ukrainian economy has been in a long decline and is now on the verge of collapse. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has established, during his call with Foreign Minister Lavrov, whether the Russian offer of financial support, which was previously made to the Yanukovych Government, has now been withdrawn? In December, I asked the Foreign Secretary about his readiness to call on International Monetary Fund reserves to be used to help to stabilise the Ukrainian economy. At that time, he said:

“If Ukraine is to make use of that facility, it is necessary for it to engage in important structural reforms.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 764.]

Yesterday, two months since I first raised the issue, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that he believes the IMF should be prepared to act. We have all seen in recent months the geopolitical risks of delay in delivering effective financial action, so does the Foreign Secretary recognise that while conditionality is of course necessary, there are potentially urgent issues around solvency that may need to be addressed? If he does accept that, how does he propose that they should be addressed?

The European Union association agreement which sparked the recent crisis could still prove vital in helping to revive the rebalancing of the Ukrainian economy in the long term. Will the Foreign Secretary be pushing for negotiations on the reopening of the agreement, and should the terms of the deal itself be kept closed or be revisited? President Obama was right to say that Ukraine could no longer be seen simply as a “cold war chessboard”, but will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he was aware of any guarantees from Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia would not encourage southern and eastern regions of Ukraine to break away from the rest of the country? Of course Ukrainians have divergent views on the future of their country, strongly shaped by geopolitics, language, economics, and indeed geography, but the territorial integrity of Ukraine remains a matter of significance not just to Ukraine itself, but to the whole wider region.

The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland, alongside Catherine Ashton, have done vital work in recent days, and the Foreign Secretary was right to praise their efforts. Indeed, recent events in Ukraine have made it clear that—as in other instances—the influence of the United Kingdom Government, acting alone, would have had much less impact without our ability to amplify our influence through our membership of the European Union. However, although that important work has been done in recent days, all of us in the European Union and the international community should acknowledge that much work still lies ahead in relation to this troubled but important country.

Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for Security Council regulation 2139, which was passed at the weekend. As he said, only part

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of the $6.5 billion for which the UN appealed has been provided; $2.2 billion was secured at the pledging conference in Kuwait last month, which means that much more needs to be raised. Given that that conference was held only five weeks ago, I do not think that holding another now would greatly change the position, but it is very important for us to follow up last month’s conference. Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development are doing that all the time, and are pressing for other donations. I do not rule out the need for further such conferences—indeed, I am sure that no supportive Government would do so—but if we are to achieve the momentum that will enable us to secure more donations, we shall need a wider gap than the five weeks that have elapsed so far.

The important aspect of the resolution that was passed at the weekend is that, while it does not change the amounts involved, it does allow us to try to help in new ways. The provisions relating to the delivery of aid across borders, which the UN has not previously authorised, and to aid for civil society in Syria, are very important if they can now be followed up. If implemented, the resolution will help to improve the humanitarian situation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a contact group. I do not think that I have ever said that I was opposed to such a group, but, as with any issue, a useful contact group must be cohesive in its purpose. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that one commodity we are not short of, in relation to Syria, is meetings about Syria. I do not know how many hundreds I have attended over the past three years, but if they were the solution, everything would have been resolved a long time ago.

Progress is made—and it has been made in relation to chemical weapons and the resolution passed at the weekend—when the five permanent members of the Security Council achieve some cohesion, in this case with the strong encouragement of Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg on the Security Council, and that remains the most promising way in which to move forward on Syria. However, if we could achieve more cohesion in regard to purposes and pressure on both sides, contact groups could be established in the future. I am not opposed to that.

Iran is currently implementing the agreement, as far as everyone—including the International Atomic Energy Authority—can see. We are not considering extending or limiting the sanctions relief of approximately $7 billion in the current six-month period, which is the amount specified in the agreement. The agreement can be renewed after six months, for further periods of six months. If it were renewed, further sanctions relief would need to be negotiated, but within this six-month period, we must and will stick to the agreed amount, and will not extend or limit it. The estimated amount of about $7 billion must be set in the context of about $60 billion to $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen worldwide. That is small relief, relative to the total, but it is an important signal of our seriousness, and it will maintain the pressure on Iran to come to a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issues.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions on Ukraine, it is not clear at the moment how Russia will proceed with financial assistance. He appeared to suggest that

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there should be unconditional IMF or other assistance for the country. He rightly pointed out that I said, months ago, that there were important conditions to be attached, and I still say that today. It is vital that such economic assistance, through international financial institutions, should not be wasted and that it should not indirectly subsidise Russia. Any such money therefore has to be accompanied by serious reform in Ukraine. The IMF could put together a package very quickly; a programme has been almost ready to go for some time, and the groundwork has all been laid, but the Ukrainian Government’s commitment to much-needed reform is important—as it is in any country receiving support from the IMF.

Ukraine needs to demonstrate the stability of its public debt burden as well as strong prospects for access to private capital markets and the political capacity and will to deliver reform. There is no reason why a new Government should not do those things very quickly. The association agreement remains on the table, but the priority now is to achieve an end to violence, to establish a unity Government and to hold free elections that are fair to all concerned. The appointment of a special envoy is a matter for the High Representative to consider, but it is something that the United Kingdom would support.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that bold, visionary and generous thinking is now required in Ukraine, in stark contrast to the corrupt brutality and incompetence of its Government? If the EU and Russia were to resolve this matter together, without strings attached, it would do a great deal to draw a line under this serious post-war hangover and create law-based liberty for all Ukrainians.

Mr Hague: My right hon. Friend is right to call for visionary leadership to bring to an end the pervasive culture of corruption and the divisive politics. That is absolutely what is needed in this situation. It is also important for the EU nations and Russia to work together; that is one of the reasons why I have been talking to Foreign Minister Lavrov this afternoon. Incidentally, I did not respond to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s point on that matter. He emphasised, as I did on the telephone to Mr Lavrov, the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and of the country staying together. It is important that all channels of communication between Russia and the EU should stay open and that we are able to support such a new vision.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the rapacious and endemic corruption in Ukraine is not confined to the regime of Mr Yanukovych, and that it has now spread and infected virtually the whole of Ukrainian society? We should be generous with financial aid, but it is absolutely right that we should insist on stringent conditionality. On Iran, I welcome the steps that the Foreign Secretary has taken. Will he tell us what steps the British Government are taking to implement the clear obligation in the 24 November agreement to designate certain banks and financial institutions in this country as facilitators of sanctions relief?

Mr Hague: The right hon. Gentleman’s first point is absolutely right; that is the point that I was making a moment ago, and he might want to reinforce it to the

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shadow Foreign Secretary when he gets a chance. The word I used to describe the corruption was “pervasive”, and we have to be clear about the conditions attached to any financial support for Ukraine. On his question about banks, there are explicit exemptions under the EU sanctions for transactions made for humanitarian purposes and non-sanctioned purposes. There is no legal barrier to banks in the EU undertaking such transactions, but that is a commercial decision for them. I will look further at the point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): As my right hon. Friend has implied, a common thread runs through the three difficult issues he has discussed: Iran, Syria and Ukraine. In both Iran and Syria, progress, however limited, was made as a result of engagement with Russia. What possible viable future does he conceive of for Ukraine unless there is similar engagement with Russia?

Mr Hague: This is a very important point. Again, it is why the Prime Minister spoke to President Putin on Friday, and why I have spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov today and agreed to speak again in the near future. It is very important that we present this correctly. We are seeking a democratic and free future for Ukraine, one in which it makes its own decisions. We believe that closer economic links between Ukraine and the European Union can be beneficial to that entire region, including to Russia. We are not presenting this as a strategic competition between east and west—it would be a mistake to do so—so continuous contact with Russia and recognition of the fact that its approach to Ukraine will always be important to its stability will be a continuing feature of our policy.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): I welcome UN resolution 2139, but when it comes to ensuring that humanitarian assistance gets into Syria, and indeed across borders into countries where there are millions of refugees, the power brokers are still Russia and Iran. What persuasion is being exerted on those countries to exercise their power in such a way that the innocent civilians in Syria are not left either starving or slaughtered?

Mr Hague: The hon. Lady makes a crucial point. The one encouraging sign—I do not in any way guarantee success in this—is that Russia was part of the agreement on this Security Council resolution. It could not have been passed without the support of Russia. The text has been negotiated painstakingly over the past two weeks, including with Russia. Now that it has been passed, we will hold Russia to the implementation of the resolution. It is a step forward—as I have described, it is a chink of light in a depressing scene—but we will continually press Russia to assist with the implementation of this resolution, which means getting humanitarian aid more effectively to millions of people who need it.

Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of the problems in Ukraine have been stoked by the policies of the Kremlin? Will he and his international colleagues take every opportunity to remind the Russian leadership that the era of the Soviet Union is over, that interference in what they

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regard as their near abroad is counter-productive and anachronistic, and that sovereign nations should be allowed to operate self-determination without hindrance or interference?

Mr Hague: We will always stand clearly for democratic nations being able to make their own decisions without outside interference—without duress—from other nations. We have made that clear both in our own statements and those from the whole of the European Union in the conclusions, over several months of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, and we will continue to make that clear. Of course, I pointed out to Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier today that in the events over the weekend many Ukrainians joined in these decisions, including people who were previously of the governing party. They voted in the Rada for the impeachment of the President and for the elections to be held early, so these are decisions that are being made across parties in Ukraine and they are decisions we should respect.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): During the recess, I was in Kiev, at the Rada and on the streets, and I wish to thank our ambassador for his good advice and help. I, too, am convinced that Ukraine’s future lies in a choice not between east and west but between the autocracy, corruption and cronyism of the past and a future of human rights and the rule of law. What will the UK and the EU be doing to persuade Ukraine’s new Government to establish an independent judiciary, a fair and balanced electoral commission and an anti-corruption commission with teeth?

Mr Hague: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has returned safely, and I will pass on his thanks to our ambassador. We are already conveying those messages through our embassy. I have asked to talk to the Speaker who has been declared the acting President—[Interruption.] I am not sure about encouraging that thought, Mr Speaker. I have asked to speak to the acting President to convey the message from the UK that the new Government should not be as divisive as the old one so evidently was. They should seek reconciliation and be a true unity Government who try to establish a new political culture. If they do those things, they will receive a great deal of international support.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Foreign Secretary may know that the EU-Ukraine association agreement is still under scrutiny in the European Scrutiny Committee and will certainly require a debate. It is important that he has mentioned the fact that the International Monetary Fund, and not the EU, should be the lead on this. The amount of money that could be required of the United Kingdom in the light of an EU financial deal could be so horrendous as to make it completely unacceptable.

Mr Hague: I have consciously tried to reassure my hon. Friend on that matter. I deliberately mentioned IMF support. There will be opportunities for European Investment Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development support as part of a broader international package, but those options do not involve a quick fix. The focus now needs to be on ensuring that the IMF is at the front and the centre of any package of assistance to Ukraine. I will be discussing that with it in Washington later this week, as I am sure other EU countries will do as well.

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Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Like others, I have been disturbed by the violence that we have witnessed in Ukraine in recent days, but I have also been struck by the footage of ordinary citizens who have been prepared to put themselves on the front line to secure accountable government. Will the Secretary of State assure us that protecting human rights and civilians will be the Government’s top priority in their diplomatic efforts in the days ahead?

Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely. That is why I emphasise that our fundamental interest is in a free and democratic Ukraine that respects human rights. In that way, it can then make its own decisions, whatever they may be, in foreign and domestic policy. The hon. Lady is right: there is a demand from citizens all over the world for accountable government. We are seeing that in many countries. It reaches fever pitch in countries where the Government are particularly corrupt or where the political systems are unresponsive to public opinion. That is a lesson for many Governments and political systems all over the world.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am sure that the wide-ranging nature of the Foreign Secretary’s statement today reflects the extraordinary volatility of the new world order. I suggest that the House might like to have the opportunity to debate this matter further rather than simply hearing a statement. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with Mr Lavrov of Russia, has there been any mention of Crimea, because of course it is the Russian Black sea fleet that is based at Sevastopol? One must bear in mind the fact that a large proportion of the population there have Russian passports. Did Mr Lavrov give the Foreign Secretary a cast-iron commitment that Russia will not intervene?

Mr Hague: On the question of a debate, the Deputy Leader of the House is in his place and will have heard that request. My hon. Friend will be pleased and somewhat reassured to hear that Mr Lavrov did not raise the issue of military intervention in Ukraine. My hon. Friend was right to point out that the Russian Black sea fleet is based at Sevastopol, but it is clear, as I said on the television yesterday, that any notion of this kind is manifestly not in the interests of Russia or Ukraine, and I hope that that point is well understood.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Two weeks ago, Abdul Waheed Majid became the first British citizen to conduct a suicide bombing in Syria. So far, 360 British citizens have travelled to fight in Syria. Estimates of other conflicts indicate that one in nine of those returning will take part in domestic terrorism. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with the Home Secretary to try to prevent British citizens from going abroad to engage in terrorist activities?

Mr Hague: Of course we have regular discussions in the Government and with our allies on this very important subject. It is now of serious concern, as I and the Home Secretary have mentioned previously. I cannot go into details, for obvious reasons, about all those discussions, but I can say, as the Home Secretary has said, that we will always protect our national security. I remind people that our advice is against all travel to Syria and that, if necessary, the Home Secretary has the power to remove

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passports or to revoke leave to remain in this country, and all our security and law enforcement agencies are working very closely together on this.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whether in relation to Iran, Syria or Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s ability to influence events positively is largely enhanced by our being a member of the European Union and that the EU’s ability to influence events is largely enhanced by the fact that it has been able to speak with one voice on these issues?

Mr Hague: We work very effectively with other countries in the European Union. Of course, I would point out that being a member of the UN Security Council is pretty key to all this as well, but we will always use our membership of all the international institutions of which we are members to try to address such crises and to resolve them.

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): As several hon. Members have said, Russia’s role in providing an enduring solution in Iran, Ukraine and Syria is vital. What is the Government’s medium to longer-term strategy for better engaging Russia on these and other issues?

Mr Hague: This Government set out from the beginning to create a better working relationship with Russia, which had become very difficult through no fault of the previous Government in the previous few years. Of course, there remain serious difficulties, such as over the murder of Litvinenko and over human rights issues, which are often raised in the House, but for the reasons that the hon. Lady sets out—for reasons of working together in the UN Security Council on many more issues than just this one—it is important to have a good working relationship. We have established a frank and good working relationship. That does not mean that we agree on everything, but it does mean that, at such times of crisis, the channels of communication are fully open.

Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the UK’s role in achieving the Syria resolution—I quite agree with him that it was an important achievement. On Ukraine, does he agree that one of the many reasons for the present crisis was the EU’s early hesitation and a lack of clarity in its aid package? Will he elaborate on what his discussions with the IMF and the World Bank will involve? Given that the elections in Ukraine are far from becoming a foregone conclusion, does he agree that it may make sense to wait until those elections are over before concluding that agreement?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his congratulations. Our diplomats in New York again did an excellent job in helping to secure the resolution, by working on it hard over the past two weeks.

On Ukraine, it is not clear that it is possible to wait that long for a financial package. The situation there is very serious. Ukraine has dwindling reserves, a depreciating currency, large foreign exchange debts that are falling due, a large public deficit and a large current account deficit, and it is shut out of private capital markets.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Like Britain.

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Mr Hague: Actually, it is more like Britain was before the current Government came to power, but it is worse even than that. Therefore, the package cannot necessarily wait until 25 May. It is important for the new Government being formed now in Ukraine to show their readiness to undertake the necessary reforms.

Mr Skinner: Have I got it right, or not, that a Tory Foreign Secretary has come to the House to take money out of the pockets of people in Britain—flood-ravaged and austerity-riddled Britain—to hand it over to the EU fanatics in Ukraine? Is that correct? Is money no object, and how much money will we give them?

Mr Hague: That is not correct—let us be clear about that. [Interruption.]Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that what we are talking about is IMF support, which does not involve tax rises in the United Kingdom; it does not involve any extra money being taken out of the pockets of anyone in the UK. We are talking about IMF support under agreed conditions, given to people who are willing to undertake economic reforms in Ukraine, and I do not think that they would all come under the description of “EU fanatics” any more than the hon. Gentleman would. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. From a sedentary position, the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) moderately unkindly suggested that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was “bonkers”. I do not seek to make any judgment on that matter, but I simply remind the House that the right hon. Gentleman served for some years—he may still do so, for all I know—either as patron or president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, a post for which I think the whole House will agree he was extremely well equipped.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): May I express that last question in a slightly gentler way by asking if we can avoid any Russophobia in this debate? “Ukrayina” means “borderland” in Russian, and Ukraine has always been a legitimate sphere of Russian interest. In the shape of the Kievan Rus, it was the foundation of the modern Russian state in 800 AD, so can we accept that only the Russians can bail out this state to any significant extent and we have to work with them?

Mr Hague: Russophobia, as my hon. Friend described it, certainly has no place in our diplomacy on this issue. It is very important for Russia to respect the democratic wishes of the people of Ukraine; it is important for all nations to do that. However, it is also important for all of us not to describe this as a binary choice for people in Ukraine. It is important for Ukraine to have a future in which it is able to have close links and co-operation with the European Union and Russia. That should be what we are seeking, and Russian understanding of that is important to long-term stability in the region.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I gently suggest to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) that homophobia does not have a role in Russia either.

The Foreign Secretary has suggested that there is corruption in Ukraine, and he is absolutely right, but Russia’s involvement since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 has been pernicious, self-serving and corrupt. Is

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it not time that the whole idea of “my backyard” or “your backyard” was put away, as a means of securing a prosperous future for the people of Ukraine?

Mr Hague: Since I am trying to make sure that in the long term we can work with Russia on this, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have put things in a slightly different way from the words that he is using. It is of course important to have Russia’s co-operation and support in achieving long-term stability and recognition of democracy in a country such as Ukraine. We should always work together on securing that and we should always talk to Russia about those matters.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be wrong to lend money to Ukraine before she has a stable democratic Government in charge and one that has the respect of the people, and before she has an economic plan that might work? The British people will not thank him if we lend Ukraine money that we do not get back and the economic crisis there gets worse.

Mr Hague: I do not think that anyone in the IMF will want to lend money that there would be little chance of getting back, so the readiness to undertake economic reforms—for instance, any observer of the economics of Ukraine would see that gas price reform is necessary—will be important in Ukraine agreeing an IMF package. That will require some difficult political choices in Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for this, so it is a question of how quickly a new Government in Ukraine can supply the necessary political will.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Given that Russia has developed a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and, suddenly and more recently, Armenia, is it not the case that despite the Foreign Secretary’s wish—he said that there was not a choice between Russia and the European Union—President Putin sees things in a different way?

Mr Hague: It is very important for us, however anybody else may see this, to maintain this narrative and perspective, which is true: we do not intend association between the Ukraine and the EU to be hostile or damaging to Russia. However anybody else may present this, we should be insistent on that point.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Prime Minister Medvedev has just described events in Ukraine as an “armed mutiny”. Did the Foreign Secretary make it clear to Mr Lavrov that the whole European Union, while sensitive to Russian interests and concerns, will support the people of Ukraine if they choose a free and democratic future in closer association with the European Union, as well as good relations with Russia?

Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely, and both parts of what my hon. Friend says are important: they are what I have been saying. We support that association, including an association agreement with the EU. Our prime interest is in a free and democratic future for Ukraine, but that need not exclude economic co-operation and working with Russia on many issues. We are absolutely clear about that, and he is right that the whole European Union will support that free and democratic future for Ukraine.

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Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): On Ukraine, recognising the popular demonstration against the discredited president, and deploring the killing of demonstrators—this House should not be indifferent to those killings—will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind the activities of the far right? It is important to note that, unfortunately and tragically, Ukraine has a long history, over centuries, of racial intolerance and crimes.

Mr Hague: It is very important; and we were clear about this in our comments last Wednesday and Thursday, when the violence was taking place: we called for all violence on all sides to stop. A great deal, but not necessarily all, of the responsibility for that violence fell on the then Government, so it is important to make it clear that our message about avoiding violence is to all sides. It is also clear, however, from events over the weekend, when more than 300 Members of the Ukrainian Parliament voted for various measures that have now been enacted, that there is a great deal of cross-party support in their country for what has happened, including among many who were in the Party of Regions, the party of Mr Yanukovych. That political change is taking place with the support of many more people than just any far-right elements.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): May I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the heroes of the Maidan who gave their lives, and will he confirm that the UK will do all it can to work with the new Government to bring to justice all those responsible for the deaths, including possibly freezing financial assets held in London?

Mr Hague: Yes; I think that the right way for the new Government to approach this, as I said in my statement, is in a spirit of reconciliation but holding to account those responsible for human rights violations. Of course we resolved at the Foreign Affairs Council on Thursday to impose visa bans and asset freezes on those who we know are responsible for such violence, so we can exercise that power.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly rightly said that Ukrainians must decide the future of Ukraine, and that political change must be achieved peacefully. Accepting those constraints, what does he think, in practice, the EU can and should do to build capacity and support political development?

Mr Hague: We can do a great deal, as we have in many other countries. The hon. Lady raises an important issue. Through the work of our embassies, we can give the Ukrainian authorities clear advice, as I have been doing in public today, and shall do in private, about how matters should be conducted to achieve that free, democratic future with financial support from international institutions. However, it is also important to communicate that message more widely across many different sectors of society in Ukraine—our embassy has begun to do that —and it is possible to find in European Union countries funding to support democratic development and political capacity building. We will be ready to do that.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Whether we like it or not, Ukraine is a polarised society, with large parts looking towards the west and significant parts looking towards Russia. Does the Secretary of State think, therefore, that the constitutional advice we

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give should include a recommendation for some form of devolved government so that Ukraine does not become a focus for east-west tension or, heaven forbid, confrontation?

Mr Hague: That analysis is correct. I said earlier that it is important not to present this as a binary choice for Ukraine. My hon. Friend’s argument is the reason for that: a binary choice would always make it difficult for a nation with that composition to give a 100% clear answer. It is important to leave open the wider possibilities of co-operation, both with Russia and with the European Union in future. It is for Ukraine to decide its constitutional structure. We can support the objectives of territorial integrity and the workings of a democratic state, but it is for it to decide the means of doing so.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): In 2011, I visited Kiev with the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) as part of the efforts by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to try to build a stronger Parliament. Those efforts failed. Has the Foreign Secretary given active consideration to finding fresh funding to restart that process as one of the things that we do to help the Rada move forward?

Mr Hague: That is a possibility, as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). It is for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to decide its own dispositions. My job is to maintain the funding for that, which I have done, so that it can make those decisions. We will need a fresh look altogether at how we can support that democratic development under the right conditions.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to working with Russia to secure a stable and democratic future for Ukraine and to resolve the problems in Syria and Iran. However, will he make it clear that no nation in today’s world is entitled to establish or to seek to maintain spheres of influence? In this year, of all centenary years, we should remember that that is the politics that leads to war.

Mr Hague: I agree very much with my hon. Friend about working with Russia, and that in the 21st century we live in a world of global networks in which the power of ideas has become more important than spheres of influence. Democracy, accountability and human rights are ideas that cannot be suppressed, and should not be suppressed. We look at international diplomacy in that way. I agree that the age of spheres of influence is now over.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Chancellor and others about the role that international financial regulatory bodies, banks and, indeed, other treasuries can play to give practical support to investigations into corruption? Where wrongdoing is proven, what steps can be taken not only to freeze but return assets to the Ukrainian people?

Mr Hague: Where we have evidence of corruption, we can act: those who are called politically exposed persons and who live in the UK are subject to that scrutiny. The Treasury is very much in favour of that. The Foreign Office and Treasury will work closely in ensuring that the international financial support I have been speaking about is based on clear conditions and on transparency and that it is used effectively, not in a way that feeds corruption.

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Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): What chance does my right hon. Friend think there is of a marked improvement in Anglo-Iranian relations and, besides the enormous nuclear question, what issues must be settled for this important rapprochement to begin to happen?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is right to say that this is an enormous issue and that until it is resolved it is an impediment to relations of the sort that we want to see. But we also want to see a wider change in the foreign policy of Iran, which has created great difficulties for the region through the Iranians’ involvement in Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the middle east. We would like them to work much more constructively with their various neighbours, including those in the Gulf, and we would like to see a marked improvement in their appalling human rights record.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I am sure I am not the only Member of Parliament struggling to resolve cases of Ukrainians born before 1991 seeking safety in this country who are, in effect, stateless. Would the Foreign Secretary have a gentle word with his colleagues in the Home Office regarding the exceptional circumstances of those who had only internal passports, who have no external passports and find themselves trapped in our asylum process?

Mr Hague: This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as the hon. Gentleman knows and correctly identifies, so I cannot give a more detailed answer than the Home Office has given him in the past, but I will draw the attention of my colleagues to the point he raises.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Some of us on the Foreign Affairs Committee met the Iranian chargé d’affaires this afternoon. He expressed regret at what happened to our embassy. He realises the significance, and apparently Tehran is willing to meet all the assurances sought by London in order to speed up the process of establishing two embassies—something that he himself expressed frustration at. Meanwhile, planeloads of French and German businessmen are visiting Tehran, securing trade deals. Is there at least a chance that the UK is missing a trick here?

Mr Hague: I welcome the attitude of many in the Iranian Foreign Ministry to this improvement in the bilateral contact we have been building up over recent months. My hon. Friend understands very well the complex power structure in Iran. At the time that our embassy compounds were invaded in 2011, I doubt very much that this was at the behest of the Iranian Foreign Ministry or with the approval of that ministry. So it is necessary for us to be confident that the Iranian system as a whole is ready to let an embassy fulfil the normal functions of an embassy. Good progress is being made on that, as he has seen for himself. On trade relations, it is very important to uphold existing sanctions, not to send a false signal to Iran that it now need not worry about the economic situation, and the United Kingdom will be careful not to send such a false signal.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): How does the Foreign Secretary see the implementation of the United Nations resolution on aid to Syria? Surely that will be very difficult to implement.

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Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that is going to be difficult to implement, because the presidential statement of the Security Council agreed on 2 October last year was certainly not implemented. That is why we have gone back to the Security Council for a resolution. This has the additional force of a resolution. It has the force of international law behind it and the world behind it, including Russia’s agreement. So it is a much more substantial product of the Security Council and I hope, therefore, as I said, that Russia will now join in the pressure on the Syrian regime to permit its implementation, but nothing is yet guaranteed on that.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): My question has just been asked, so I will waste the House’s time no more.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Members of Nottingham’s Association of Ukrainians assembled yesterday to remember those killed in the recent violence, and I am sure that they will welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement today. What discussions has he had with colleagues in other Departments about how we can support Ukraine and its economy at this critical time?

Mr Hague: I was just thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the precedent of not asking a question that had been asked before could revolutionise proceedings in this House—and indeed the answers.

The hon. Lady has asked a different question though, and a very important one. Our discussions are primarily with the Treasury about support from the IMF programme. The Chancellor has been discussing this with his G20 colleagues at their meeting in Australia this weekend and I will discuss it with the IMF in Washington this week, so we are in close touch about how not just Britain but the world can provide that financial assistance, but in a way that meets conditions so that we know that it will be used for genuine and productive purposes.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for making this statement, as it is vital that there is clarity about what is in our national interest and what we are prepared to do to protect it for the benefit of a domestic audience as well as a foreign one. Is there similar resolve among the foreign ministries of other EU member states?

Mr Hague: Yes, I hope and believe so. I think we are all clear that what I set out earlier is our primary interest here—a Ukraine with democracy and freedom of expression that respects human rights. That is then the basis of everything else. It can then make its own decisions about how it wants to work with the EU and Russia. I will certainly continue to make this point, and I think we have it in common with our EU partners.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I take it from what the Foreign Secretary said earlier that he did not seek any specific assurances from Foreign Minister Lavrov about the possibility of military intervention. Will he explain why that is the case and who the UK Government recognise as Head of State in Ukraine?

Mr Hague: I put it to Foreign Minister Lavrov that Ukraine would benefit from reassurance from Russia about this situation and about how we will all try to

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work with the new Government in Ukraine. As I mentioned earlier, he was very clear, as I was, about the importance of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Those points were made very clearly. We are working with the new Government in Ukraine. There is, of course, a dispute constitutionally about who is the President, but in this situation it is clear that whatever the constitutional provisions, the authority of Mr Yanukovych as President is no longer widely recognised. In order to achieve the objectives that I have just set out it is necessary for us to talk to the Speaker, who has been declared the acting President.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the steps that are being taken to seek to stabilise the Ukrainian economy and the recognition that urgent action is required, but what further steps are being taken on the other vital task, in the Foreign Office and with other Departments, to help with the constitutional reform that is required across the political landscape in Ukraine?

Mr Hague: The Ukrainian Parliament has voted to adopt the 2004 constitution, a system with less presidential power, although that remains to be implemented and will be bound up in the elections planned for 25 May. Our embassy will make it clear that the UK has a great deal of expertise, including in tackling corruption and transparency in government. For instance, the UK is very much at the heart of the Open Government Partnership, which we advocate all over the world to combat corruption and give citizens confidence in the administration of their country, and we can bring the benefits of that to Ukraine as well.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary will be aware of recent reports that Hezbollah forces are now fighting alongside the Syrian army loyal to President Assad close to the Syrian-Lebanese border. Given the potential that has for wider regional instability, what more can be done beyond the Geneva II process to prevent other parties from being drawn into what is already a highly volatile and bloody conflict?

Mr Hague: Yes, there have been reports of that on and off for a long time, as the hon. Gentleman will know, particularly in early 2013, when large numbers of Hezbollah fighters were clearly in Syria. Indeed, quite a large number of them were killed. It is important for us to help stabilise neighbouring countries so that they are less likely to be drawn into the conflict. We are doing that in a big way in Lebanon, where we are assisting with education and humanitarian aid and helping the Lebanese army with its border observation posts. However, the only answer to the risks he spells out is a political solution to end the crisis, and that is our top priority.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): My right hon. Friend has recognised the importance of economic stability to the long-term structural stability of Ukraine. Does he agree that long-term economic stability also requires transparency and national and international trust in Ukraine’s legal systems and systems of public administration, which it currently lacks, as does Russia? Will Britain see what more it can do, in

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addition to economic aid, to assist in enhancing Ukraine’s legal systems, both directly and through our membership of the Council of Europe?

Mr Hague: I will make that important point to the authorities in Ukraine when I visit. Britain has a lot to offer when it comes to well-functioning legal systems that create confidence in the rule of law and in property rights, which encourages investment. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will be making that point.

Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), UK banks are often intimidated by extraterritorial US congressional sanctions on any business with Iran, even if those transactions are licensed by the Treasury and are in accordance with EU sanctions requirements. If we are to meet our Geneva accord obligation, I urge the Foreign Secretary please to do more than just leave it to commercial decisions and proactively to nominate a UK bank to handle future EU and Iran humanitarian transactions, in the same way that the French and German Governments have done.

Mr Hague: As my hon. Friend knows, and as I said to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), there are explicit exemptions, but he is well aware of that point. As he and the right hon. Gentleman have raised it, I will certainly look at it again.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When the Foreign Secretary refers to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, I trust that that applies to all peoples and nations. In the concluding paragraph of his statement, he referred to