9.8 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): All of us across the House are concerned about the most vulnerable people in our constituencies. It is deeply disappointing that many Opposition Members have implied today that universal credit, changes to the benefit system and the PIP are the function of a harsh Government who have no sympathy for the weakest among us. That is wrong: it is precisely because we have recognised that it was unsustainable to struggle on with over 50 separate benefits that did not respond effectively to minor changes in people’s day-to-day lives.

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How could it be right that around 50% of decisions on disability living allowance were made on the basis of the claim form alone without a face-to-face assessment, and that changes in circumstances—for good and bad—went unaddressed by a benefits system that was not attuned to individuals and the needs of their conditions? Some 71% of DLA recipients got it for life. That was not right either for the taxpayer or for the people who had been written off callously by the state. More than 4 million working-age people were on out-of-work benefits and almost 2 million children were growing up in workless households under the last Government.

Yes, universal credit is the most ambitious programme to reform welfare in a generation and it is essential that it succeeds. However, as the Government have always said, it cannot happen overnight. It would not happen overnight under any Government. It is a task of substantial complexity. It is therefore unsurprising that there are challenges in its smooth delivery and the smooth delivery of the IT systems that are required to make it work.

Universal credit is just one part of the bigger picture. It is far from the chaos that the Opposition have presented this afternoon. Forty-five welfare reforms are under way, 42,000 people have had their benefits capped, 23,000 staff have been trained in universal credit and 550,000 participants have started a job following on from the Work programme. As we have heard, the welfare reforms are set to save £50 billion over the course of this Parliament, with the cap bringing almost £120 billion of Government spending under control. We have done all that on top of dealing with the backlog of ESA cases that was inherited from the previous Government.

It is crucial that we get universal credit right and that we do not replicate what has happened with previous programmes by rolling it out too quickly. That would be truly irresponsible. Any programme that changes a system that affects more than 7 million people will be challenging. The question is whether the Government have the courage to do the right thing, no matter how difficult, and whether they will give in when emotive political challenges are cynically deployed to give the impression that if only the Government changed, all would be well.

Where universal credit has been implemented, it is working. In the pathfinder areas, more than 60% of claimants said that it was easier to understand, provided a better financial incentive and rewarded small amounts of additional work. People on universal credit are spending twice as long looking for work each week as a result.

I say, let us continue down this difficult pathway—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. I call Michael Connarty.

9.12 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): The fact that we know about the work capability assessment is that 700,000 people are still waiting to be assessed.

We have heard a lot of talk about DLA. Disability benefits, including DLA, were basically Margaret Thatcher’s Government’s dumping ground for people she did not want to put on the unemployment register.

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Employment and support allowance and PIP are a problem because people are not getting assessed. The problem is not about the delivery company. It is not about whether it is Atos or someone else. It is about the basis of the assessment. I had two recent cases. I had a letter in January from a woman who said, “Thank you for believing in my husband. He got his benefit back. Sadly, he died over the Christmas holidays.” He clearly was not fit to work.

I met another lady who said that the DWP had killed her husband. He had a Co-op book. Perhaps people who do not know about working-class communities do not know what a Co-op book is. It is where people pay their insurance to somebody who comes round every Friday night. He was told that he was fit to work. He got no benefit, so he took a book back. He literally dropped down dead going round the village with his book on a Friday.

The contract had no penalties. Even though 158,000 cases were overturned by the DWP and the benefit appeals system cost £40 million, the contract had no penalties for Atos or anyone else. I hope that the Government will not let a similar contract in the future.

The system must be based on medical assessments. That has gone under this Government. People relied on the assessment of a consultant. That would be taken really seriously and people would keep their benefits. It would be realised that they were not capable of work. That has all gone. Now someone is partly trained to sit at a computer and tap away, without even looking at the person who is asking for the appeal or for the benefits. That has got to stop; we have to go back to medically based assessments.

We are told that there are fewer people on the claimant count—people are in employment—but the fact is, as I said to the Secretary of State, that £13.5 billion more had to be borrowed because of the fall in income tax receipts. He said that that is because the personal allowance has now been raised to £10,000—that is £200 a week; that is 20 hours maximum. People are still getting tax credits to top that up, which is why we still have basically the working poor claiming benefits while they are working.

On jobseeker’s allowance, everyone I talk to about the Universal Jobmatch says, “Oh, it’s out of date. The jobs have gone by the time you apply.” People are searching the world for jobs when they are looking for a job locally, and they may not have the skills or education to take the things that are on offer. Telephones have been removed by the DWP from jobcentres. People cannot phone in to make their claims so they have to go and find some other way of doing it.

The Government refuse to believe diligent jobseekers. I know someone who made 20 job applications a day and was told, “We do not believe you”—sanctioned. Another person was sent for a training or work interview on the same day as they were signing on, so they did not turn up for their interview—sanctioned. Another was told at their job interview, “14 hours at a basic minimum wage”, so they would therefore lose all of their benefit to keep their home, which was a private rent—sanctioned. Those are the case-by-case facts. It is quite clear that the Secretary of State lives in a parallel universe, and so do most of the people who have been defending him.

Pathways to Work worked, and I remember the pleasure of people being trained back into work capability. Finally, we must have some concerns with DWP and jobcentre

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staff. I opened a telephone bank, and I said at the time, “You need counsellors to support people because they are stressed; they are missing work because they are ill, and that is caused by this Government.”

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order.

9.16 pm

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I was fortunate in the late ’70s and early ’80s to be doing voluntary work in the great cities of Liverpool and Manchester, and I gained a great appreciation for the character and resilience of the people who live in those communities and throughout the north-west. In 1981, when the riots literally exploded on to the street in Toxteth and Moss Side, they brought to the surface the real depth of complexity, and the challenges that those communities were facing. Those challenges were profound and very complex, but what I learned from that experience—I still believe this passionately—is that the way to help people out of poverty is through work. The way to help people out of being disadvantaged and to cope with the challenges in their lives and take care of their families is through work, and having an engaged, stronger community is helped by providing worthwhile work.

That whole experience brought me into politics, shaped my thinking of what I needed to do in my career, and got me involved with wanting to create sustainable jobs in the private sector. One of the most rewarding things in my career has been the creation of hundreds of jobs for people so that they can go on and pay their mortgages, look after their families, and help build their careers by creating more jobs and moving the virtuous circle further forward.

When we consider welfare and welfare reform, the tragedy since those days is that it was such a missed opportunity for people to bring about the reform that obviously needed to happen. Yes, it was challenging and difficult, but too many people ducked the issue and missed the opportunity, and they parked welfare reform into the “too difficult to do” box. In his autobiography, Tony Blair speaks with real regret at not having seized that opportunity early on with his landslide majority in 1997. Even now the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is quoted as saying in November 2010:

“I don’t think we did enough on welfare reform. I agree.”

There have been notable exceptions. As always, the strong contribution from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) stands out as a beacon to us all as somebody who takes these matters seriously. However, the courageous and honourable approach to welfare reform has been brought about by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. His pioneering approach has brought the Conservative party and the coalition Government on a journey, and tackled the big issues that have been ducked for so long. They have tackled the fundamental challenges, including through universal credit. Opposition Members have been quick to point out the challenges along the way. Okay, there were teething problems and challenges, but the key is that we have learned from the mistakes of the previous Government, and learned how to roll things out on a phased basis to make them possible.

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We have seen progress on the Work programme, which other hon. Members have mentioned. One of the key things is that we are looking to make our approach relevant to the world of work today. Self-employment is not something to be shirked. We should encourage people into it. I am delighted that the new enterprise allowance recognises that. Forty-six thousand people in total have been able to create their own business on the back of that scheme, and 8,600 of them are disabled. That is a refreshing approach when self-employment is clearly becoming such an important trend in employment. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce predicts that self-employment will be more important than the public sector in due course.

I commend the Government’s approach and will not vote for the motion.

9.20 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Our welfare state was established to protect the most vulnerable in society, and to protect us all with support in times of need, so that whether we are young or old, sick or unemployed, we are not reliant on charity. I am incredibly grateful for the work of Nottingham’s churches, faith groups and voluntary organisations, which are seeking to mitigate the worst impacts of the Government’s welfare changes, but their work in trying to meet unmet need is no substitute for citizens’ rights.

We need a social security system that is fair and affordable, and one that supports those who need help while tackling the underlying causes of that need, be it worklessness, low pay or lack of affordable housing. The Government have launched a series of reforms that are failing to deliver. Key programmes are behind schedule and over budget. Taxpayers’ money is being wasted and those who need support are being left to rely on food banks or, worse still, to go hungry.

My constituents deserve so much better. Alex McEwan became ill in May 2013 and applied for personal independence payment in September. His claim was referred to Capita for assessment. Twice, visits from Capita were arranged, and twice they were cancelled at the last moment. It was not until mid-January that Alex’s assessment was carried out. It was almost a further three months before Capita provided sufficient information for the DWP to reach a decision. It took precisely seven months for Alex to receive the help he needed.

When I raised Alex’s case with the Minister, he said that his officials had looked into it, but that

“unfortunately there have been quite significant delays with this case.”

I am not sure whether the Minister believed that to be an adequate explanation. It seemed to me and my constituent that it was nothing more than a statement of the blindingly obvious. Alex told me that the delays had caused him great inconvenience and financial hardship when he simply wanted to get a semblance of his life and independence back. The Government let Alex down, and he is not the only one.

Pamela Brown suffers from multiple sclerosis and her husband Mike has given up work to care for her. She applied for PIP in July 2013 and faced numerous difficulties just to secure an assessment. Finally, the Browns succeeded

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in booking an appointment in October, only to arrive at the assessment centre to find that Capita had cancelled the appointment without notifying them. Pamela’s next appointment was a home visit three and a half weeks later. Capita failed to turn up and, when challenged, said that it had cancelled the appointment. It again failed to notify Pamela and Mike. It took more than five months for that couple to get the support they needed. They asked me to raise their case because they wanted others who apply for PIP in future not to suffer the same troubles.

Pamela suffers from a progressive neurological condition for which there is no cure, and yet five months later, she has to undergo reassessment. The last process was extremely stressful, and Pam and Mike believe it made her MS symptoms even worse. Mike described Pamela as being in tears at the thought of having to go through it again. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for disabled people, has agreed to meet me to discuss the case. I hope he can provide answers on why my constituents are treated so badly, and more importantly on how he is seeking to fix the problems. Unfortunately, my constituents are not the exception, but the norm.

Advice Nottingham advisers met the DWP recently to discuss some of the issues they face. They face delays and cancellations of assessments and decisions; clients waiting more than six months simply to be reassessed; and delays to mandatory reconsideration requests. How can it be right that claimants have only 28 days to seek mandatory reconsideration, but there is no time limit for the DWP to respond, despite people waiting with no benefit while appeals are ongoing? It is no surprise that people have to turn to food banks, but in the 21st century, it really should not be necessary.

9.24 pm

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this Opposition day debate on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions. I have to say that for a while I thought it would be a debate on the shadow Secretary of State, who is in her place. Although I have the highest regard for her intelligence and abilities, which will carry her a long way, hers was a truly lamentable performance today. It focused on who did or did not write letters to her and whether she did or did not make some incendiary remarks to the Christian left. But her speech was important, as is the motion, because they shine a light not so much on the state of welfare and work in this country, but on the state of mind of the Labour party.

Nowhere in the motion does it mention work, the engine of growth in our country. It is also the best mechanism to raise people up out of dependency and despair, on to the road to achieving their aspirations. In 2005, when Labour last won a general election in Tamworth, my constituency was bedevilled by dependency. Because the Labour Government failed to reform welfare and relied too much on public sector work and the financial services industry—and because they spent more than they earned—unemployment was twice the rate that it is today. Those were meant to be Labour’s good times. Fast forward a couple of years to the bad times and

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unemployment had risen to 8%. Firms were going to the wall, jobs were being lost and down the Tamworth road or the Glascote road, house after house bore repossession notices. Under Labour, people were not simply losing their jobs: they were losing their homes as well. That is the grisly welfare and work legacy that Labour bequeathed to us in 2010.

Because of the changes made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my constituency has just 755 unemployed people today—1.6% of the working population. Marston’s, Jaguar Land Rover and John Lewis have come to town and Spline Gauges is employing skilled professional workers. When I held a jobs fair at the end of last year, 300 to 400 jobs were available and 276 people came along. There were more jobs available than people looking for jobs. BMW is now in town and Tamworth has become the automotive hub of Staffordshire, with an automotive centre at the Torc vocational centre. Thanks to this Government, hope is returning.

When I talk to businesses in my constituency, 75% say that they will expand and take on workers. They say that they are looking forward to the future and 80% say that they will stay in Tamworth. The one caveat they have is the worry that younger people are not sufficiently infused with the work ethic. That is a challenge for the education system, but it is all the more reason why we need to get the Work programme and universal credit going—so that it always pays to work. Young people will be enthused about work and businesses will feel able to take them on.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not to listen to the siren voices of the Opposition—those serried ranks of overfed Bourbons who have remembered nothing from their history. Press on, because we are behind you and so is the country.

9.28 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Despite the best efforts of DWP staff, no part of the Department seems to be working effectively at the moment. It appears that the Government came into office with the view that those unfortunate enough to be unemployed, sick, disabled or a carer are simply scroungers and malingerers. They decided that the cost of welfare was too high without any empirical evidence and, as a result, have introduced policies that are causing untold misery to my constituents, many of whom have worked all their lives. When they needed the safety net of the welfare state, they discovered that it is now full of massive holes.

The Secretary of State and his Back Benchers tell us that everything is fine, and that there is no problem with universal credit, but the Prime Minister told me on 21 November 2012 that the second phase would be introduced in April 2013. The Secretary of State now says, if we can believe him, that it will be introduced in April 2016—but everything is fine. The Secretary of State and his Back Benchers tell us that everything is fine with PIP, even though at the current rate it would take 42 years to complete all the assessments. They cannot see a problem with the Work programme, even though only one in 20 disabled people is getting a job. They defend the bedroom tax, even when two thirds of the people affected are disabled, and they cannot see fundamental problems with ESA and work capability

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assessments, particularly for those with mental health issues and fluctuating conditions who, when they win their appeals, are then sent for another assessment. They cannot see how illnesses are getting worse as a result of stress and poverty.

Then there are those with multiple problems who hit the magic 15 points, but not in respect of one measure alone, so they are put in the work-related activity group and have reached 365 days with no prospect of working—and now have no money. Some people are even taking their own lives because they cannot cope with the stress and can see no other way out. Furthermore, the Secretary of State and his Back Benchers cannot see any problems with the sanctions regime in which sanctions are unfairly applied and 58% appealing those sanctions win. They cannot see how people are unable to heat their homes and are driven to food banks and into the arms of payday lenders.

It is very easy when we sit in this place to forget about the real lives of real people outside who have no food in their cupboards tonight and have no gas or electricity in their homes. In my last few minutes, let me say a few things about some of the 91 ESA and 24 PIP problems suffered by my constituents whom we have tried to help.

John, a firefighter, received horrific burns at work. His wife had to give up her job to look after him. He received an initial ESA payment, but had difficulties attending an Atos assessment. He was refused a home visit and was too ill to attend an assessment, so had his ESA suspended and had no income at all. It took 51 weeks to get an award. He said:

“I am currently not making ends meet, yet alone the embarrassment of my wife having to care for me full-time. I have done nothing wrong, only getting injured and I am so upset at my treatment.”

Paul, an ex-serviceman, had serious leg injuries after a walking holiday. He receives DLA, but a processing issue at the DWP resulted in the termination of his benefit, just at the time they decided to amputate his leg. Twenty-five weeks later, he got a PIP payment. With Margaret, a double mastectomy cancer sufferer, it took 46 weeks.

I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has helped me resolve many of my cases, but what about those who do not know where to go for help and who do not come to see their MP? I have so many heart-breaking stories, but no time to tell them. We are the sixth-richest country in the world, yet we have people unable to feed their families. The Secretary of State should move on from his patronising complacency, talk to the people who are being failed by him and sort out the mess in his Department.

9.32 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I am probably tail-end Charlie on this occasion, so I will be brief. The Opposition have given us a tour de force on what they think is wrong in their constituencies, but when they look at themselves in the mirror and see the pain and misery going on in their constituencies, I wonder what it must look like to them when they look over to our side and see, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) talking about how unemployment has been cut by at least a half

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or my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) talking about the changes that have happened in his constituency.

We on the Government Benches like to think that the glass is half full, because we are prepared to roll our sleeves up and provide leadership in our constituencies. We have provided job fairs in our constituencies and worked with food banks and mental health charities, for example. I know that there are some good, honourable people on the Opposition Benches—

Kwasi Kwarteng: Who?

Heather Wheeler: I would never name them; Mr Speaker would not appreciate that.

I say to those honourable people who earn their money as MPs and are proud to represent their constituencies, “Actually, guys, what is happening in your constituencies? What is going to change in your constituencies? When are you going to get out of the mental state that you seem to have, whereby everything is bad, nothing is ever going to change, nothing is ever going to get better. Well, it is.” Unemployment in South Derbyshire used to be 25%; now it is 1.8%. We used to have 13 mines; we do not have those any more, but we have apprenticeships, we have engineering, and we have tourism. We have numerous really special jobs, and people are working jolly hard. They are rolling their sleeves up because they want better for their families. They are not prepared to live on welfare. They are not prepared to have that as a lifestyle. They want everything for their families in the future.

It is sad that we have spent four years trying to turn the oil tanker around. Welfare used to be “what you did”, but things cannot be like that any more, and I want Members in all parts of the House to realise that they have to change. We must live within our means. We want people to come out of this in the right way. We want to help all our mental health charities, and we want to help all our young kids to get apprenticeships. That is the way forward; welfare is not.

9.36 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Let us be clear: this is not a debate about the philosophy of welfare reform. It is a debate about the way in which it is delivered, and about the service that our constituents receive. Today we have presented a catalogue of anxiety, chaos and waste: a catalogue of extra cost to the taxpayer, huge pressures on DWP staff, and inappropriate and hostile language used about benefits recipients—never challenged by Ministers, but hurtful and offensive, as we heard from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and for Darlington (Jenny Chapman).

We have heard about anxiety, fear and hardship among those who rely on social security, namely most of us at some point in our lives. The Secretary of State, who is responsible for this calamity, is in denial, while his Department is on the brink of meltdown. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee: the Department has bitten off more than it can chew, and we are all paying the price.

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This is what we have heard about today. Universal credit, the Government’s flagship policy, was intended to reach 7.7 million households by 2017, but in April it was reaching fewer than 6,000 people. It will take 1,052 years to roll out fully at this rate, and the cost to the taxpayer is rising. The Secretary of State will be concerned about that. The National Audit Office has drawn attention to the write-off of assets worth £40 million which have never been used, and a further £91 million of assets that will last for only five years. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that the NAO is talking nonsense. I am surprised that he is prepared to put that statement on record tonight.

The Department is having to invest in two system solutions in parallel. As the Select Committee has pointed out, we have no idea how or when the final system solution will be achieved, or how much it will cost. We still have no idea about the treatment of passported benefits following the introduction of universal credit. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) asked about that in 2011, but we still do not know about the treatment of free school meals. There is no clarity about the scale, the cost, or who will receive them. We also have no idea of how or when housing benefit will migrate. The local support services framework, which the Department itself has said is as important as universal credit, is not in place, and is not yet even being piloted in universal credit areas. We do not know when that framework will arrive.

This is a tale of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) rightly described as cumulative disaster, but Ministers have been determined to deny it. That is why we are demanding that the Government publish the risk register and other documentation relating to the delivery of universal credit, and the courts agree with us.

Then there is the failing Work programme—with overpayments to providers totalling £11 million, and getting just 7% of employment and support allowance claimants into work—coupled with the crisis of confidence in the work capability assessment that has been presided over by this Government. We have been told this evening, and the Minister told the Work and Pensions Committee a couple of weeks ago, that 700,000 cases, or just under, are now outstanding and awaiting WCAs, and 294,000 of those are former incapacity benefit recipients. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and others pointed out, that backlog of nearly 700,000 cases was not created by the Labour Government. It is a product of the mass migration of IB claimants by this Government, despite the warnings that we gave them that the system could not, and should not, bear that.

Meanwhile, nearly half the cases that are appealed are successful; reassessments have been halted altogether for two years; according to a leaked internal document, decisions are taking nine months; and I tell those who have said that the benefit, or annually managed expenditure, cap is one of the great achievements of this Government—the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) will be interested to know this—that it has resulted in an extra £800 million of costs since December on ESA and there will be an extra £13 billion by 2018-19, meaning the AME cap will be breached.

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Kwasi Kwarteng: All I was observing in my speech was that it is the single most popular Government policy since the war according to opinion polls.

Kate Green: I think the hon. Gentleman has got two policies confused, which shows how on the ball he is. I am talking about the AME cap, not the £26,000 benefit cap—the AME cap that this Government are introducing and which is now, even before it is in place, going to be breached.

Government Members rightly pointed to trends in employment, and it is good to see more people in work, but too often they are working for poverty pay. I have to say to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and others that Labour was never content to abandon people to a life on benefits. That is why we introduced the successful new deals that increased lone-parent employment by 15%. It is why we introduced the future jobs fund which, far from being a failure, was extremely good at getting young people into work and keeping them in work when the programme came to an end. We introduced tax credits that made work pay. Making work pay is not an invention of this Government; it was done under Labour first.

PIP is another tale of disaster—it was not piloted, there were misleading statements on Atos’s bids, and there were long delays in decisions. Like others, I have had constituents waiting for an assessment since last October—in one of those cases, my constituent had it only last week. There are huge backlogs already, which at the current rate of progress will take 42 years to clear. To put it another way, the Minister will need to increase the number of assessments from 7,000 a month to 73,000 a month immediately if he is to get the programme back on track, and this is also wasting taxpayer money. Each decision costs £1,500 for a benefit which for many is only worth £1,120. The NAO has said it does not represent value for money and the £3 billion savings are likely to be wiped out by the costs.

We know the bedroom tax is a disaster. Just 6% of those affected have moved. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out that savings are £115 million lower than they should be, and many households, including two thirds with a disabled family member, and more than 60,000 carers face hardship and fear.

Robert Halfon: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: No, I will not.

The Secretary of State said the Child Support Agency was a success. The NAO is rather more cautious. It says it has not really been tested yet and will not be until charging is introduced. In the meantime, full roll-out is expected to exceed by £70 million the costs projected in 2012.

What is really shocking is the effect of all this failure. For the first time more of the people in poverty are in work than out of work—two thirds of children in poverty are in working households. It is leading to a shocking rise in debt and the use of food banks, and it is a catalogue of failure that would be farcical if it were not so desperately serious for us all. It is serious for individuals and families who look to the system to protect them but who are being appallingly let down; it is serious for charities, local authorities, housing providers and others picking up the pieces from this disastrous

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state of affairs; it is serious for the staff working in the Department, who are under pressure, demoralised and blamed and cannot provide the service they would like; and it is serious for the taxpayer, who is footing a bill that is rising and threatens to spiral out of control. It is serious for everyone except the Secretary of State, who has his head in the sand. He denies the facts when they are inconvenient, but tonight those facts have come out. This Secretary of State has presided over disaster and chaos. It is time to get this Department back on track and to call a halt to this catastrophe—it is time for a Labour Government to clear up the mess.

9.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): We have heard 41 speeches in a very worthwhile debate, including some particularly thoughtful contributions. We have heard from many members of the Select Committee, including its Chair, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), and I will respond to her comments in a moment. Let me start, however, by discussing the clue in the title—it is the Department for Work and Pensions. From listening to the debate people would think that nobody is getting jobs these days and that pensions had been left alone in the state in which we inherited them. They would not realise that we have record levels of employment and they would not know that we have had falls in youth unemployment, female unemployment and long-term unemployment month after month after month, Even in the hardest-to-help groups, such as young people not in education, employment or training, the numbers are coming down. The Opposition motion had nothing to say about getting people back to work, yet that is the centre of our welfare reform and our strategy is working.

This is not all just about making work pay, although my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), a former ministerial colleague, made a powerful contribution in which he mentioned sitting in a jobcentre and trying to work out whether or not someone would be better off in work. We are dealing with that situation through the universal credit reform, which will make work pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said, not only are we making work pay, but we are making saving pay. In the pensions space, we have seen state pension reform; effective automatic enrolment, with 3.6 million people auto-enrolled; charge caps, which are new to reform; and new models of workplace pension. Whether we are talking about work or pensions, this Department is working.

Before I move on to deal with the substance of some of the operational issues that have been rightly raised, I want to address the allegation the shadow Secretary of State made and to give her the chance to retract it. She said—I quote from the transcript—that “when we write to the Department with our constituents’ problems we only ever get replies from the correspondence unit.” She made the even more outrageous comment, “Well, maybe there is one rule for Tory Back Benchers and another rule for Labour party MPs”. So we checked our records and we found that she obviously does not read her own correspondence, as since 2010 DWP Ministers—[Interruption.] I hope I do not get in the way of her tweeting—it is #Igotitwrong. Since 2010 DWP Ministers have sent 46 letters directly to her, 33 to the hon.

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Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), 86 to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), 93 to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) and 98 to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). So much for not replying to their letters!

Rachel Reeves rose

Steve Webb: I am happy to give way if the hon. Lady wants to apologise.

Rachel Reeves: I thank the Minister for giving me a chance to reply, as I have checked the letters I have written to the Secretary of State. I have had a reply from him to a letter regarding a constituent of mine called Latimer Saunders and the reply came from Gabriella Monk. I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State regarding a constituent called Mark Norris and I have received no response at all, despite the fact that my letter was sent last year. I have never received a letter from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in response to any of the letters I have sent to him.

Steve Webb: It is a good job I have the transcript of what the hon. Lady said, which was “when we write to the Department…we only ever get replies from the correspondence unit.” When the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for disabled people, rose to intervene, she said “I will give way; I haven’t had any letters from this one either.” We waved a letter that she had received, so I hope she will withdraw that remark.

Moving on to the substance of reform, we talked about the record of the two Governments on reform. Let us take the case of child maintenance. I want to read out what was said about child maintenance reform by the National Audit Office, which was quoted by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. It said:

“So far, the reforms had cost £539 million for a scheme that had performed no better than its predecessor”.

Unfortunately, that is not our reform; that is Labour’s reform in 2006. That is what happened when Labour reformed child maintenance. The NAO said the scheme was no better than the one that went before, despite costing half a billion pounds. That is why we have to replace it with a new scheme. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said that no doubt this one will go wrong. Actually, we have been running it quietly since 2012, phasing it in, learning the lessons from the other party and, as a result, the scheme is being highly effective. We already have record numbers of people being paid directly under the new scheme. Alongside major reform, we are getting more maintenance paid to more children than ever before. In other words, we are reforming, but not taking our eyes off the day job.

A number of Members mentioned the performance of Atos. As several of my hon. Friends pointed out, there is a bit of collective amnesia regarding who, in 2005, gave Atos a seven-year contract with a three-year option to renew. By last autumn, Labour was saying, “Let’s get rid of Atos; let’s sack it”, but that would have cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. Instead, we have terminated Atos’s contract in a managed way. My right

30 Jun 2014 : Column 711

hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people has done that, as a result of which the taxpayer gets money and Atos begins to clear the backlog of the work that it has been doing.

As well as the changes that we are making to bring down the backlog on employment and support allowance—it has been said that it has come down significantly in the past couple of months—it is worth remembering that every one of the people in that backlog is getting benefit. It is sometimes made out that they are waiting for money, but they are currently receiving the assessment rate of ESA and incapacity benefit. Those figures relate to people who are getting benefit and are awaiting assessment.

Let me give the House some further examples of how we have been improving the service we deliver to the people who depend on our help. A year ago, the number of jobseeker’s allowance new claims dealt with in 10 days was 66%; now it is 90%. The number of ESA new claims dealt with in 10 days was 66%; now it is 80%. The number of appeals outstanding a year ago was 150,000; now it is 4,000. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, this is at a time when we are taking running costs out to make central Government more efficient.

A number of Members referred to the PIP. We are ensuring that the contractors, Atos and Capital, recruit more health care professionals to deal with the backlog. The number of appeals we are facing has fallen precipitously. It is an extraordinary fall in the number of people appealing against ESA decisions. Back in the first quarter of last year, we received 109,000 appeals against ESA decisions. In the first quarter of this year, it was 11,000. That is an 89% fall in the number of people claiming ESA who are appealing. The reason for that is that we, unlike Labour, are finding far more people eligible for benefit. Let me give the House the evidence for that claim. In late 2008, when Labour was undertaking work capability assessments, it was finding 64% of people fit for work. In the most recent quarter, we found not 64% but 27% fit for work. Far from it being this Government who are using the work capability assessment to throw sick people off benefit, it was the Labour party that used the WCA for that purpose.

During the debate, a number of Members said that we needed to make changes to the WCA, and that is what we have been doing as part of the Harrington review process. We have accepted about 50 recommendations. One reason why we are getting the number of people we are on to ESA and why we have a bigger proportion of people in the support group than ever before is that we have taken Labour’s failed WCA and reformed it to make it fairer. That is what a good Government does. We want to ensure that the right money goes to the right people.

Ian Paisley: Will the Minister take the opportunity tonight to make it abundantly clear from the Dispatch Box to all Members of this House that any concessions that the Government intend to make on welfare reform will be made as a result of arguments made in this place by Members who take their seats in this place, and that none will be made to a party that refuses to take its seats?

30 Jun 2014 : Column 712

Steve Webb: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we believe that our welfare reforms are good for the people of the United Kingdom and should be adopted in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Let me move on to some of the contributions made in the debate. It was a great pleasure to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who I had the great privilege of working alongside and who laid the foundations for a number of the vital reforms we are making. She pointed out that contrary to the rhetoric we sometimes hear, we are increasing the support for disabled people while also ensuring that more of the money goes to those who are most in need, which is absolutely the right priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) pointed out that although we have a motion from the Labour party, we do not appear to have any policy options from the Labour party. Despite the fact that there was, I think, some sort of launch last week, we had hardly any reference to the alternative. Once again, it is like talking into a vacuum—we do not know what is coming back from the other side.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) asked about the support given to people waiting for benefit. There are two forms of support. One is the short-term benefit advance, when somebody is entitled but the money has not come through, meaning that they are in financial need, and when somebody has a change of circumstance that results in an increase to their benefit award. The other is a hardship payment, for when people are subject to sanction. We will be happy to respond to the right hon. Gentleman further if he has any further questions.

The hon. Member for East Lothian asked a couple of questions. If I could distract her from her phone for a moment—

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): That is not the Member for East Lothian.

Steve Webb: I apologise.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) asked two questions. She asked whether carer’s allowance would be backdated—[Interruption.] I have apologised. It is backdated if someone’s claim for PIP comes through. She asked about the definition of terminal illness, and we use the same definition as the previous Government. There is a six-month definition based on our judgment that takes account of and is informed by the advice of a health professional, such as a consultant or a Macmillan nurse. I hope that that makes it clear to her.

Fiona O’Donnell: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: No, I have already given way.

The shadow Secretary of State asked about zero-hours contracts and how many people were on them. The answer is that they make up less than 2% of employment. The Opposition make out that all the new jobs are part time or involve zero-hours contracts, but nothing could be further from the truth: 98% of jobs are not on that basis. It is simply misleading to imply that the economic growth we have seen and the jobs that have been created are part time, insecure or on zero-hours contracts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

30 Jun 2014 : Column 713

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck)—[Interruption.] I am trying to respond to the debate. The hon. Lady asked about a constituent who had had to travel a long distance for a PIP assessment. Clearly, it is unacceptable that someone should have to travel that far. The guidance is that people should not have to travel for more than 90 minutes maximum by public transport. If that has happened, we would like the details and we will seek to address that point.

The heart of the debate is as follows: the Department for Work and Pensions is delivering work and pensions reform for millions of people. It is making sure that month after month, instead of having to rely on benefits people can find jobs and stand on their own two feet. We are reforming through the universal credit and that will be the legacy of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in making work pay, in taking children out of poverty, and in helping disabled people to take part-time work and to get back into the labour market. We are making sure that work pays and that welfare is reformed.

The Work programme is working and is ensuring that people who have been failed by Labour’s employment policies get back into work. That is a record of a Department that I am proud to defend, and I ask the House to oppose the Opposition motion.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 225, Noes 310.

Division No. 24]


9.59 pm


Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Ali, Rushanara

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Barron, rh Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blomfield, Paul

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doughty, Stephen

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hood, Mr Jim

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meale, Sir Alan

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Powell, Lucy

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Wright, David

Tellers for the Ayes:

Heidi Alexander


Tom Blenkinsop


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, rh Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Sir William

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Farron, Tim

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Hughes, rh Simon

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, rh Esther

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Sir Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Thornton, Mike

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Claire Perry


Mark Hunter

Question accordingly negatived.

30 Jun 2014 : Column 714

30 Jun 2014 : Column 715

30 Jun 2014 : Column 716

30 Jun 2014 : Column 717

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Electronic Communications

That the draft Communications Act 2003 (Disclosure of Information) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 31 March 2014, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

30 Jun 2014 : Column 718


That the draft Legislative Reform (Patents) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 6 May 2014, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 145(3)),

That this House agrees with the Report of the Liaison Committee of 25 June:

That a day not later than 5 August be allotted for the consideration of the following Estimates for financial year 2014-15:

Department for Work and Pensions, in so far as it relates to the implementation of Universal Credit; and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in so far as it relates to the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy in England.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Question agreed to.

Backbench Business


That Mr David Amess, Mr David Anderson, Bob Blackman, Oliver Colvile, John Hemming and Ian Mearns be members of the Backbench Business Committee.—(Greg Hands, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Foreign Affairs


That Rory Stewart be discharged from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Nadhim Zahawi be added.—(Greg Hands, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Public Accounts


That Ian Swales be discharged from the Committee of Public Accounts and John Pugh be added.—(Greg Hands, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

30 Jun 2014 : Column 719

Bin Charges: South Gloucestershire

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

10.13 pm

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): I rise to speak about an issue that has divided local opinion in south Gloucestershire: the introduction of green bin charges. On one side of the divide, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and I, the local MP for Kingswood, along with local Conservative councillors, are determined to stand up for hard-working residents, who have had little say over the increase in the money they have to pay for services that used to be included in their council tax. On the other side of the divide are the local Labour and Lib Dem councillors, whose votes ushered in the £36 charge for green bins and who are determined to retain the charge in spite of overwhelming local opposition that has dubbed the charge the “green bin tax”.

Let us be clear: no resident locally voted for a party pledging the introduction of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire. No party stood for the local elections in 2011 on a platform of introducing the charge, which takes even more money from local people’s pockets. The way in which the green bin tax has been introduced amounts to nothing less than a stealth tax for which nobody voted and which nobody wants.

The green bin tax came into being late last year, in September 2013, when the communities committee of South Gloucestershire council voted to introduce the £36 charge for green bins. The committee was split on its decision to introduce the charge, with six Conservative councillors opposing the policy. Despite this, the green bin tax was voted in by seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors, with a majority of one. 1 recognise that local councils have the freedom to introduce charges, but it cannot be right that just 10% of all councillors in South Gloucestershire—seven out of a total of 70—voted in the green bin tax.

After local Conservative councillors were outvoted in this way, I, as the local MP, set up a petition for local residents calling on South Gloucestershire council to reconsider its green bin charge. The petition was signed by over 4,200 local people in the Kingswood constituency alone. I presented the petition to South Gloucestershire council and to Parliament. This triggered a debate in the council. However, Lib Dem and Labour councillors teamed up to ensure that the debate took place not in full council, where local people would be able to see how their local councillor voted—for or against the green bin tax—but, again, within the small cabal of the communities committee.

The green bin tax was introduced in South Gloucestershire on 31 March this year. So far it has cost £650,000 to implement, while the most recent figures show that just 36,000 out of 109,000 households have paid for their green bins. On their website, Lib Dem councillors have dubbed this a “success”. Celebrating charging residents more by forcing them to pay for their green bin waste collection seems to me an odd way of defining success. On the doorstep, time and again, I meet local residents who are furious that Labour and Lib Dem councillors have introduced the green bin tax

30 Jun 2014 : Column 720

despite having no electoral mandate to do so. For these councillors to declare their forced policy a “success” simply adds insult to injury.

On 29 April this year, I formally submitted my petition of 4,200 local residents to Parliament. On 3 June, I received a welcome formal response from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who stated:

“Ministers believe that councils should not be introducing stealth taxes by imposing new charges on local residents. Instead, councils should be making sensible savings by better procurement, more joint working and cutting fraud, in order to protect frontline services and keeping council tax and charges down”.

I was grateful that in his reply he stated on the record that he

“endorses the Petitioners’ suggestion that the council reconsider its actions in imposing these new charges.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1P.]

During the debate in the communities committee of South Gloucestershire council triggered by the 4,200-signature petition of local residents, councillors voted to review the impact of the green bin tax on local residents. I hope that they will listen closely to the Secretary of State’s comments on the petition. I would welcome any comments that the Minister has for South Gloucestershire councillors on what they should be doing to focus on further efficiency savings rather than simply increasing and passing on the costs to local residents.

The introduction of the green bin tax in South Gloucestershire has important implications for whether councils can legitimately claim that they have frozen council tax. This Government have rightly urged councils to freeze council tax, and that has taken place in South Gloucestershire over the past three years, in marked contrast to what happened under the Labour Government, when band D council tax rose from £635 to £1,245. In fact, the Government have provided incentives for councils to freeze council tax, at the same time introducing a referendum trigger if they increase it by more than 2%. South Gloucestershire council claims to have frozen council tax this year, yet when the £36 green bin charge is added to the bill of a band D council tax payer, that results in a total increase of more than 2% being paid to the council—something that would have triggered a referendum if the bin charges had been included in council tax alone. The many residents who have pointed that out to me are surely right to claim that the bin tax is nothing but a stealth tax, imposed through the back door to avoid the scrutiny of local democracy or giving residents a say through local referendums.

Rather than confining the trigger for a referendum to council tax alone, I urge the Minister to consider whether the mechanism should be expanded to include any additional charges imposed by local councils, so that the overall cost of local government and the overall amount of money that councils are taking out of local people’s pockets can be more accurately reflected. In that way, rather than the green bin tax being introduced by just seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors, local people would have been able to vote for the waste services they want and the cost of delivering them.

On a similar point, although local authorities have the freedom to introduce charges, I believe that should be done only through a named vote at a meeting of full council, so that local residents can be fully aware of

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how their own local councillor voted on additional charges that will cost them personally. Surely this is a simple matter of openness and transparency, so local councillors should be able to vote individually on these matters on behalf of their residents. Local people in Kingswood deserve to know if their local councillor would vote for or against charging. Few people could argue that the vote of just seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors reflects the decision of an entire council on behalf of its residents.

Both I and local Conservatives will continue to campaign for the reversal of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire. As a result of the combined determination of Labour and Lib Dem councillors to defend the bin tax for which they voted, we may have to wait until the next time local residents have a chance to voice their own opinion on the matter at the next local elections in May 2015.

The experience of the introduction of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire points to a worrying decline in local accountability over exactly how local authorities can impose charging on residents. I hope the Minister will continue to monitor the situation regarding local authority charging policy on waste, both in south Gloucestershire and nationally, and consider taking appropriate action in due course.

10.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing this debate. I know that he has spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the matter and, as he has said, that he has submitted a petition signed by more than 4,000 Kingswood residents opposing South Gloucestershire council’s charge of £36 for the collection of their garden waste. I fully endorse the petitioners’ suggestions.

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point about the transparency of decision making. Councils that are considering introducing or raising charges might want to think about discussing it at full council, where there is full transparency of how councillors vote, especially given that we are talking about decisions about front-line services. South Gloucestershire residents can rightly ask why a council with about £43.5 million in reserves is looking to impose more charges on them.

I believe the council may be considering a report in September on how the tax can be scrapped. I strongly urge the council to listen to its residents and to do the right thing. Prevailing legislation allows for councils to charge for discretionary services such as the collection of garden waste. However, we have made clear our belief that councils should not introduce stealth taxes by imposing new charges on local residents. Instead, they should make sensible savings through better procurement, more joint working, and cutting fraud, while protecting their front-line services and, quite rightly, keeping down council tax and charges. That can be done in a range of ways. All councils should look at our practice guidance, “50 ways to save”, because taxpayers should not be treated as cash cows, which the residents under discussion would be right to argue is what is happening in their case.

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It is disappointing that South Gloucestershire council is introducing a charge for garden waste collection. Such charges threaten to increase fly-tipping, increasing the clean-up costs for the council and harming the environment in the long run as well. Indeed, recent research by the university of Kent has found that the adequacy of garden waste collection is significantly related to fly-tipping behaviour. In areas where respondents reported that garden waste collection was not adequate, they admitted that they were more likely to fly-tip compared with respondents who reported that their service was adequate for their household needs.

It is particularly disappointing that charging has been introduced in an area where fortnightly collections of residual waste have recently been introduced. That means that there has been a significant reduction in services for the residents, as in South Gloucestershire, at the same time as charges have gone up. I hope the council will look at how it can reduce council tax to match the increase in charges.

We of course know where this all started. The previous Government had a policy of actively pushing fortnightly bin collections, and of hitting hard-working families with stealth taxes. Cutting weekly rubbish collections was not originally a locally-led initiative, but an explicit Whitehall mission pursued with zeal. What did the previous Government do? Their “Household Waste Prevention Policy Side Research Programme” report advocated

“collection limitations in terms of rubbish bin size or the interval between collections”,

and sought

“to nationalise this policy among local authorities”.

Legislation in 2005 allowed the introduction of bin fines for minor breaches of complex and confusing bin rules. Further legislation in 2008 watered down councils’ legal duties to collect rubbish. The previous Government funded the covert imposition of “Bin Brother” microchips in families’ bins. In 2009, the pre-Budget report made it clear that a further wave of bin cuts was planned. In short, the town hall Taliban doubled council tax and halved bin collections.

We do not agree with those measures; there are other ways of dealing with such things. This Government believe that households deserve a frequent and comprehensive rubbish and recycling service in return for the average of £122 a month paid in council tax by a typical band D household, especially given that the typical refuse collection service costs councils only £6 to £7 a month to provide. It is reasonable for householders to expect their waste to be collected every week. It is the most visible service people get for their council tax, and it is often the No. 1 item on their list of what they expect for it.

South Gloucestershire council has stated that if it does not charge for the green bin service, it will have to make cuts that might affect other services, such as libraries. It is a very tired old refrain to put front-line services on the line by saying that it is a question either of charging more for discretionary services or of making cuts. The statistics simply do not back up that story, which is why we are so against stealth charges, as is highlighted by this important debate. Instead of moaning, the council could start by collecting all the council tax it is owed: in 2012-13, £2.2 million of council tax went uncollected. The council should focus its energy on changing the way in which it does business, rather than on a back-door bin tax.

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We are supporting local areas through a range of opportunities, and we are clear that there is more they can do. Great councils are finding ways of saving money and improving front-line services. Some 337 councils are involved in 383 shared service arrangements, saving about £357 million a year. Shared chief executive and senior management teams can save between £500,000 and £1 million a year for small district councils. We have brought in the transformation challenge award of £410 million to help councils to transform the way they run their local services to put users first. Other examples of good practice include shared services, such as between Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils, and cracking down on fraud, with Ealing council set to realise nearly £7 million of savings by taking action against fraudulent council tax claims.

Moving to a fortnightly collection of residual waste may appear an easy or lazy choice for a council that wishes to save some money, but such a decision can often be made without thinking creatively about how to make cost-effective changes to the service while retaining a five-star weekly refuse collection frequency. There is no need to introduce any more stealth taxes for refuse.

In fact, we are working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of waste collections, to make it easier to recycle and to encourage reward schemes to increase recycling. If we want more recycling in our country, we need to encourage and motivate people, not penalise them for what seems to be the very normal way of putting out their rubbish.

In February 2012, we set up a £250 million fund to help local authorities to provide a weekly waste collection service. Since November 2012, 82 local authorities have been implementing their successful bids. We will see huge investment over the period of 2012 to 2015 to support the delivery of cost-effective, high-performing weekly collection services. The scheme will safeguard weekly collections for around 6 million households until 2017, with an extra 400,000 tonnes of material being recycled and a million fewer tonnes of waste-related carbon dioxide emitted.

Our recent guidance on weekly rubbish collections demonstrated how local authorities can improve recycling and make common-sense savings on waste collection while preserving the frequency of rubbish collection. It challenged myths we have heard before, such as the idea that people do not want their bins emptied every week. As my hon. Friend has outlined, talking to any resident on any street will prove that to be false. Research found that two thirds of people think frequent and regular rubbish collections are the most important feature of the waste service. Another survey found that two thirds of the public thought that the Government should mandate weekly collections, that weekly collections were better and that problems with flies and smells were much worse with fortnightly collections.

A number of successful bidders to the weekly collection support scheme passed on the views of their residents, which were similar to those my hon. Friend has outlined in Kingswood and South Gloucestershire. Cornwall council told us that its bid

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“emphasises our commitment to the weekly black bag collection service that our residents said they wanted to keep.”

North Tyneside council said:

“Our weekly bin collections are one of the council services most valued by the residents of North Tyneside.”

Dartford held a referendum: 95.3% of respondents agreed with the borough council’s decision to keep weekly collections of residual waste.

We have taken a series of other steps to help households. We have supported over 40 innovative reward schemes to back recycling. Through the Localism Act 2011 we revoked the 2008 legislation that allowed for the imposition of new bin taxes. We have been changing building regulations to tackle bin blight. We have removed powers of entry and snooping powers from the “binquisition” inspectors and have scrapped guidance telling councils to rifle through people’s bins. We have issued guidance to stop the imposition of illegal back-door bin charging on household bins. We stopped Audit Commission inspections marking down councils that do not adopt fortnightly collections and abolished the local area agreements and national indicator 191, imposed by Whitehall, which created perverse incentives to downgrade waste collection services.

We scrapped the Whitehall requirement for municipal annual efficiency statements—I am sure many people read those on a quiet Friday night—that allowed a reduction in the frequency of household rubbish collection to qualify as a valid efficiency. We also scrapped the imposition of eco-towns, which would have had fortnightly bin collections or bin taxes as part of the eco-standards, and stopped funding the Waste Improvement Network, which told councils to adopt fortnightly collections.

We challenged the incorrect interpretation by some bodies that European Union directives require fortnightly collections, and resisted the imposition of bin taxes by the European Union. Through the Deregulation Bill we are changing the law to scrap unfair bin fines. In short, ours has been a fundamentally different approach from that of the Labour Government: we are working with families to help and encourage them to go green, but believe in regular and comprehensive collections for tax-paying households. They already pay enough in council tax and deserve a first-class waste service.

To conclude, this charge is unreasonable. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I applaud him for standing up for the residents of Kingswood and elsewhere in this debate. It is a stealth tax. I urge the council to stop treating its taxpayers with contempt and to start looking at reducing unnecessary costs—we have shown a number of ways to do that. Many authorities are radically reducing management and changing the way they deliver services to deliver substantial savings while keeping first-class front-line services, and even improving their services. South Gloucestershire needs to follow suit instead of using taxpayers as cash cows. In September the council has a chance to put things right; I hope it does the decent thing and scraps the bin tax.

Question put and agreed to.

10.34 pm

House adjourned.