Chillingly, in answer to parliamentary questions about the connection between assessment tests and the incidence of suicide or mental health problems in disability claimants, the Department has admitted that it neither holds such information nor has any plans to collect it. I think that is significant. There has also been an admission that it does not have information on how much, on average, it costs the Department to fund an appeal against a fit for work decision. It is clear—and becoming increasingly clear to claimants—that the system is in a mess. There is clear capacity shortage; there are also wildly optimistic targets, a lack of transparency and problems with hiring

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and training staff—within the context of dealing with individuals with long-term and serious health problems who are simply trying to access the support they need to survive. The National Audit Office has concluded that this system has

“significant financial and human costs”.

The current situation is cruel, inhumane and demeaning; as has repeatedly been pointed out in the debate, the system is not fit for purpose. I sincerely hope that the Minister will respond to the debate in a positive way and consider the significant financial and human costs to those who need, rather than bureaucracy and judgment, our support and compassion. The debate is about much more than simple work capability assessments. Ultimately it is about the kind of society we want to create, and the society we aspire to be.

3.5 pm

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (Ind): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing an important debate, in which I am pleased to speak.

An essential part of any social security system that supports people with disabilities and long-term sickness is a fair and effective means of identifying who needs support, and in what way. The current system of work capability assessment cannot be said to fit that description. Indeed, it was clear from the initial roll-out under previous Governments that there were deep flaws in the system. Early on, horror stories began to emerge of the extremely difficult and distressing experiences of people with serious disabilities and mental health conditions. Atos, the company in charge of the assessment process until March 2015, became a word firmly associated with the uncaring inhumanity of the welfare reform agenda.

We can all recount stories of the effects on our constituents. One such constituent of mine has a serious long-term mental health condition, and resulting medicine-related physical disabilities. She was forced to go to Edinburgh from Glasgow, unaccompanied, for an assessment; she was in a panic. She was found fit for work, despite significant medical evidence of extended stays in mental health hospitals, and long-term conditions with an impact on her health and physical wellbeing.

We are all aware of high-profile cases such as those of Michael O’Sullivan and Stephen Carre, who were demonstrably failed by a system that provided nothing but an extremely distressing experience, rather than targeting the help that they needed. Coroners have ruled in those cases that the men’s ordeals, through the fitness to work test, centrally contributed to their suicides. Distressingly, in the case of Stephen Carre, the coroner sent an official legal warning to the Department for Work and Pensions of a potential risk of further deaths from its WCA practices. He urged that there should be an urgent review of the policy not to seek further medical evidence from a psychiatrist or GP in the case of claimants with a mental health condition. That letter was not passed on to the Harrington review, conducted in 2010. It appears that the coroner never received a

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response to his letter, despite the legal requirement for that to happen within 56 days. I think he is still waiting for a response.

In that case, as in others, the Government have failed demonstrably. They have failed disabled people and have abjectly failed to learn the lessons from their mistakes. The consequences of that are potentially disastrous. How many people could we tally who have lost their lives subsequent to those cases in which professionals such as coroners gave early warnings? With further revelations emerging of adverse effects on the lives of people who undergo the work capability assessment process, the system clearly remains unfit for purpose. People with long-term sickness and disability still have a hugely distressing experience, in a system they do not trust. Those with mental health conditions such as Stephen Carre have been failed particularly by a process that too often has seemed to persecute claimants instead of protecting and supporting them. The UK Government are systematically limiting, restricting and undermining provision for disabled people in the social security system as, yet again, austerity attacks those who need support the most. As the Government attempt to take another axe to employment and support allowance, they are actively making it even more difficult and distressing for disabled people to obtain the support they need.

We need to take a more holistic look at support for disabled people—at how to help those who want work and can do it to get into meaningful and accessible employment, and at how to support those who are unable to do that, and ensure that they have a decent quality of life. That means creating appropriate and sustainable new opportunities, and ensuring that financial support keeps disabled people out of poverty. Crucially, it also means having an assessment system that treats people fairly, preserves their dignity and does not make matters worse. That requires fundamentally rethinking the system, particularly how it interacts with more vulnerable people and those with mental health issues.

I understand that the Minister has come here in good faith and will argue that progress has been made, and I am sure her intentions are good, but the Government’s record of failing to learn the lessons from their mistakes has made it absolutely clear that we need an urgent and wide-reaching review of the work capability assessment process as part of a wider review of Government support for disabled people. The Government have simply got it wrong too many times for people living with long-term sickness or disabilities. It is about time that we started figuring out together how we can get it right.

3.10 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing this debate.

The dysfunctionality of the work capability assessment has been a recurring theme in Parliament for as long as I have been here. It has been a running sore for the Government, so I am glad that in recent months they seem finally to have acknowledged that tinkering with the system will not fix it, and that a fundamentally

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different approach is required. I look forwarded to the much-heralded White Paper expected this spring, which I hope will tackle some of the problems.

We have heard about a wide range of problems associated with the work capability assessment. If the Government are serious about devising a better system, it is important that we all understand the present shortcomings fully, so that we are not destined simply to reinvent the wheel and create another heartless bureaucracy that fails to provide the safety net of support that people need when they are sick or disabled.

Over the last few years, successive reviews of the work capability assessment have been conducted by Professors Harrington and Litchfield, and various attempts have been made to improve the process, some of which it is fair to say have helped around the edges. However, due to recurrent problems with getting appropriate medical background information on claimants’ conditions, with how claimants are categorised and with the accuracy of the assessments, the impact has been limited. One private sector contractor has left early under something of a cloud, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley described in some detail, and another company has taken over the contract with a remit for changes, spending more money per assessment and awarding support to a larger proportion of claimants.

However, the underlying problems are still there. The work capability assessment itself remains unfit for work. Many claimants wait an inordinate time for assessment: as we have heard, it takes an average of 23 weeks for a decision, and the current backlog is 280,000 cases. I know that my constituents are still battling the challenges of travelling significant distances from remote and rural locations to assessments. In the past, constituents of mine who have made long and expensive journeys have been sent home unassessed because their appointment was double or even triple-booked. That does not apply only to my area; it echoes a point made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). Such administrative issues, particularly delays in assessment, cause claimants distress and financial hardship at a time when they may be exceptionally vulnerable and facing severe financial worries due to a sudden and sharp drop in income after a breakdown in their health.

However, the greatest weaknesses of the work capability assessment relate to how it measures the impact of fluctuating and progressive conditions on a person’s fitness for work. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry), mentioned the situation of people with mental health conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned Parkinson’s UK, which cites examples of assessments conducted by staff who lack the basic clinical knowledge to understand that Parkinson’s is a progressive and incurable condition that will deteriorate over time. I am not a medic, but even I know that. It seems pretty basic to me.

That is why it is crucial that additional evidence from qualified clinicians familiar with the claimant’s health be brought into the assessment process from the start. I pressed Ministers on this issue repeatedly during the previous Parliament, but we now have an opportunity to get it right and ensure that we have the information in the system to make good decisions possible.

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Mark Durkan: Does it not strike the hon. Lady that although we often hear from the Government, in relation to many other arguments, that policy and Government decisions must be based on evidence, on this fundamental matter the Government rigged the legislation, so that medical evidence could be ignored in favour of the bizarre assumptions and interpretations that the people who carry out the tests come up with?

Dr Whiteford: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point clearly. There is no reason why people’s medical history should not be included in the assessments. Often, consultants—sometimes it is a GP, but in cases of serious illness it is more likely to be a consultant—are in a position to provide insight into the longevity of a condition as well as its immediate acute effects.

Neil Coyle: Is the hon. Lady aware that the Government, during the last Parliament, also shortened the timeframe within which individuals can provide independent medical evidence? As it takes longer to see a consultant or specialist, that inevitably means that some people cannot provide that information in time, which contributes to the number of reassessments, the backlog and the cost to the taxpayer.

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The shortening of the timeframe makes it extremely difficult for people to contribute, which is why that opportunity needs to be included right at the start. If people can nominate someone—an advocate, a consultant, a GP or a community nurse—to provide such information as part of the application process, we could get around a lot of those problems.

For people with complex disabilities, people who suffer from more than one condition or people whose condition fluctuates, the tick-box exercise of the work capability assessment fails to capture the impact of their health on their ability to work. Around half of those in receipt of employment and support allowance have a mental health condition, yet the work capability assessment has proved poor at accurately assessing conditions that are not visible, and people with mental health or incapacity issues are not always able to articulate well the effects of their condition.

I pressed hard during the last Parliament for improvements to how mental function champions operate within the assessment process, but there is increasing evidence that as things stand, the work capability assessment causes so much distress and anxiety for some people that it is actively harming their health, pushing them further away from being able to work and—in extreme cases such as the ones mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow East—towards harming themselves.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed serious concerns for some years about the impact of the work capability assessment on the health of people with mental illness, but as evidence of harm grows, the college is becoming more outspoken. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, robust research conducted at the universities of Liverpool and Oxford suggests a correlation between mental health problems and the roll-out of work capability assessments. That backs up the findings of voluntary sector service providers such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which has extensive experience of people who use its services suffering setbacks in their recovery due to the assessment process.

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The bottom line is that too many people are still being wrongly assessed. We know that because of the extraordinary success rate when claimants who have been found fit for work appeal that decision. Between 2010 and 2013, it hovered around the 40% mark; since the introduction of mandatory reconsideration in 2013, it has shot up to around 54%. In other words, more than half of those who appeal are likely to get the original decision overturned. Successful appeals on that scale indicate major underlying flaws in the assessment process, and they cost the Government a lot of needless time and money. More than that, they mean that sick and disabled people are left feeling abandoned and desperate for months without the support that they need. The human cost is enormous, as is the financial cost, as the National Audit Office has pointed out.

We must also remember those who do not appeal but who are nevertheless extremely unwell or seriously disabled. Many people in our constituencies who are destitute or living in extreme poverty are people whose access to ESA has expired, or who have been found fit for work but cannot qualify for jobseeker’s allowance—because they really are not fit for work and cannot comply with the conditions attached to JSA, or because they have tried to comply but have been sanctioned, or because they have disengaged from the system altogether and have simply dropped out of view.

I have no idea how many people fall into that latter category, but I know that I am meeting such people regularly. They live off other family members or friends, some of whom are themselves not wealthy, and they depend on food parcels from church voluntary groups or food banks. Consequently, when the Government consider how they might proceed with a replacement for the WCA, they need to take on board the systemic failures of the current approach and think beyond simplistic functionality.

The first, and probably the most valuable thing that the Government could do is to work with disabled people and their representatives from the outset. Throughout the past few years, health and disability organisations have been coming forward with constructive suggestions to improve the existing system, and contributing to the successive reviews. Some of their ideas have been taken on board, at least partially, but the opportunity presented by a new White Paper to get stakeholders around the table and—more significantly—really listen to what they say has never been more important.

I also urge the Government to go back to the work that was done around the evidence-based review of 2012-13 and the alternative assessment that was developed under that process. I know that Ministers were not convinced by that review at the time, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, a much stronger evidence base has been developed and I think there is a lot of substance in that review, not least in the way that it suggests descriptors that would account for the impact of pain and fatigue on a person with an illness or a long-term condition. That review could really usefully inform a new approach.

Lastly, I urge the Government to learn from international experiences. The UK does not have a disproportionately high number of sick and disabled people compared with the rest of the OECD. Clearly, there are regional

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variations, even within the UK, with higher numbers of claimants in economically deprived or heavily industrialised areas, where health outcomes and life expectancy are significantly lower than average. On the whole, however, we are grappling with the same challenges as other industrialised countries and on a broadly similar scale.

A number of countries have used what have been called “real world incapacity assessments” that take account of a person’s age, skills and work experience, as well as their health or disability, when assessing their fitness for work and considering what kind of work they might be able to do. This seems just to be common sense and means that someone is assessed as a rounded human being. The same condition with the same severity will affect two people differently in relation to their ability to work, depending on whether their work experience has been in physically demanding manual jobs, whether they sit at a desk or whatever. The Government should explore the models used in other countries to see what is working well.

We all agree with the Government that the social security system needs to support people to move towards work, but it also needs to provide a safety net and a dignified life for those who are not fit for work, and not only those who will never return to work but those with long-term conditions and those who need time to recover from serious illness or injury.

The work capability assessment has failed a lot of sick and disabled people, and it has proved extremely inefficient. What follows must be better, and I hope that the Government’s keenly anticipated White Paper will reflect the concerns that have been raised today.

3.22 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): May I reiterate what other people have commented—that it is lovely to see you in the Chair today, Mrs Moon? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) not only on securing this debate but on an excellent speech; it really was very informative.

We have already heard a number of Members say that the current work capability assessment, which was introduced under the coalition Government, is failing on a number of counts and needs to be overhauled. I share the view of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) that the fact no Government Members have spoken, and the imminent White Paper, suggest that the Government are finally getting it. I really hope that is the case. However, I need to reiterate some of the points that have been made about why the Government need to think again.

The WCA needs a complete overhaul. It is not fit for purpose, and we have heard that it is failing to assess a person’s fitness for work, or work-related activity, accurately or reliably. We have heard the figures about appeals. More than half of people—54%—who appeal against a decision that they are fit to work have the decision overturned. We have also heard about how the costs of the WCA have spiralled out of control, which reflects the woeful performance. Obviously, the National Audit Office report last month was very damning indeed, although I have to say that it came several weeks after it was clear what was going to happen.

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Fundamentally, the WCA fails the most important requirement of any Government policy—that it will not knowingly harm citizens. For almost a year now, the Government have obfuscated and tried to evade revealing the toll that the WCA process is having on the people being subjected to it, even after stark warnings from the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. The mounting evidence against the WCA cannot be ignored any longer; hopefully the Government are listening to it.

There have been five independent reviews of the WCA since 2010. The Work and Pensions Committee undertook two of them in the last Parliament; I was pleased to be serving on the Committee when it undertook the review in 2014. The most recent report from that Committee included evidence taken from the reviewers, who warned the Government that in spite of all the reviews that had happened before—Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield have produced reviews—the process was still flawed. They said that people with progressive and fluctuating conditions, such as Parkinson’s, were particularly likely to fall foul of the process. I will never forget taking evidence from people in Newcastle as part of that Select Committee inquiry in 2014 and hearing their personal testimonies. The evident pain and humiliation that they had experienced as part of the process was quite shocking.

Like other hon. Members we have heard from today, I have had evidence from my own constituents. A man who came to see me had a serious heart condition. In a WCA, he was told by the nurse undertaking it that he was in the process of having a heart attack; that was how stressful the WCA was. He was told to go to hospital, but two weeks later he received a letter telling him that he had been sanctioned because he had left the WCA. There are similar examples up and down the country.

The former chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, spoke on the issue and said:

“When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system. When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points”—

that is the maximum score, which means the person is completely unfit for work—

“there is something wrong”.

I hope that we are seeing a different view from the Government now, but in their response to the Work and Pensions Committee at the end of 2014 they were having none of its report; there was the usual rhetoric. I would be interested to know what the Minister would say today if Dame Anne’s former constituent was standing here in Parliament now.

The Committee said that simply rebranding the WCA by taking on a new provider would not work, and it recommended a complete overhaul of the system. We still believe that that is needed, and such an overhaul is Labour party policy; I have said that consistently since my appointment to the Front Bench. What is required is not just a process to determine eligibility for employment and support allowance but an examination of health-related barriers to work. I agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that we need to look at the international data. I know that work has already been done to compare different processes, and adopting a more personalised and holistic approach is important. I remember producing

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such a piece of work before I came to the House, and there are lessons to be learned from elsewhere. However, as I have said, at the time of the Select Committee inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions was not particularly inclined to consider those lessons.

When the Minister responds to the debate today, I am sure she will talk about the new work and health unit. However, I would also like her to describe, if she can, the discussions that the Government have had with the royal colleges, because I have some concerns. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has raised the issues of medical ethics, treatments and interventions, the principle of consent, and the qualifications of the staff involved in WCAs. I would be grateful if she referred to those points in her wind-up.

My next point is about poor performance. We know that last month’s National Audit Office report reiterated that the WCA is not only unfit for purpose but poor value for money, as many of my hon. Friends have already mentioned. The Government have failed in their fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. They have failed to monitor and performance-manage work capability assessment contracts and hold the providers to account.

The NAO report stated that under contract with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, which is a subsidiary of Maximus, the cost of each assessment has risen to approximately £190, compared with £115 under the previous contract with Atos. If that was an investment in greater efficiency and a smoother process, one might possibly say that it was value for money, but the NAO described the performance output issues, with a backlog of 280,000 assessments and the contractor not being expected to meet its performance targets for last year.

The NAO went on to describe how the Department for Work and Pensions was struggling with target setting and had failed to test bidders’ assumptions during the tender process, for example on staff recruitment and training. Will the Minister describes how that is being addressed? After six years, it is a real problem if we are trying to ensure that we live within our means.

The biggest indictment of the Government’s work capability assessment process is the potential harm it does to people who are put through it. As we have heard, last November the University of Liverpool and the University of Oxford published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. It is a peer-reviewed journal, and papers with Mickey Mouse statistics are not published in such journals—they would not be tolerated. It is a robust[Interruption.] I hear some chuntering from the Government Benches. These are robust data; papers would not be allowed if the data were not robust[Interruption.] There is still chuntering, but I will carry on. That study showed that between 2010 and 2013 the Government’s work capability assessment regime was independently associated with an additional 590 suicides, 280,000 cases of self-reported mental health issues and 725,000 antidepressant prescriptions.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has raised the concern that for people with mental health conditions, the work capability assessment process can cause a relapse, thus hindering rather than helping in their recovery. Just before I came to the debate I was provided with a list of coroners’ reports containing concerns that the deaths, including suicides, were associated with the work capability assessment. I am particularly concerned

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about the case of Stephen Carre, which has already been mentioned, in which the coroner wrote to Ministers and the Department and apparently did not receive a response, as required by law. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to that point.

The findings reported in the paper in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health—in a paper entitled “First, do no harm”—came on top of published data relating to the deaths of incapacity benefit and ESA claimants between November 2011 and May 2014. The Government were compelled by the Information Commissioner to publish those figures. At the end of April, an appeal went to that body, which ruled in favour of the appellant and required the Government to produce the figures. But when did they produce them? Just before the end-of-August bank holiday.

The figures showed that the overall death rate for people on IB or ESA was 4.3 times higher than in the general population—an increase from 3.6 times higher in 2003. People in the support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population, and people in the work-related activity group, from whom the Government want to take £30 more a week via the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is going through the House, are 2.2 times more likely to die.

The Government’s innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be “faking it” or are “feckless” or, as the Prime Minister said shockingly last week, are “making a lifestyle choice”, is grotesque and belies the epidemiological data. IB and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators, in that they reflect areas with an industrial backgrounds and areas of poor health.

Neil Coyle: My hon. Friend describes the impact on people. One of my constituents has referred to it as the Secretary of State adopting a pterodactyl style of management, flapping around high above, making a lot of noise and—pardon the expression—dumping on the little people down below. Does my hon. Friend share that view?

Debbie Abrahams: I would not put it in quite those words, perhaps, but I know exactly what my hon. Friend is getting at.

The Government’s own data show that the people involved are sick and disabled. They need support; they do not need vilification. Unfortunately that is too often what happens, as at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions.

Being disabled or being ill is not a lifestyle choice. Alarmingly, we now hear reports of people in the ESA support group—people who have been found not fit for work, including people who are terminally ill—being required to go to work-focused interviews. The Minister might be aware of that. We have evidence only from England so far, but I would be grateful if she could give us an explanation.

For me, that latest revelation says it all. It is about cuts for disabled people and the seriously ill. The Government are not content with having cut £23.8 billion from 3.7 million disabled people since 2013 under the Welfare Reform Act 2012; they are going for more cuts, and the work capability assessment and the Welfare Reform and Work Bill are another way of achieving them.

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The Government have tried to regenerate the economy on the backs of the poor and disabled. Their modus operandi is division and blame, deserving and undeserving. Like the NHS, our social security system is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us all our dignity and the basics of life should any one of us become ill and disabled. The Government need to remember that and stop their attacks on disabled people.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I remind her to allow two minutes at the end for the mover of the motion, Louise Haigh, to have the opportunity to respond. I call Priti Patel.

3.38 pm

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I start my remarks by commenting that the debate has been wide-ranging, and I thank everyone who has contributed. This is obviously an important subject, and we must put it in the context of the overall commitment we all feel should rightly be in place to support people who cannot work because of health conditions and disabilities. We must also reflect on the fact that we have a system that obviously seeks to support such individuals.

A range of comments have been made that pre-date me as a Department for Work and Pensions Minister. I will do my utmost to address as many of them as I can, but it would only be fair to write to hon. Members whose points I do not address directly. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned the very tragic case of Mr Carre, and it might be more appropriate if I write to her about that.

We all recognise that work is good for individuals—it enhances physical and mental well-being—and we also recognise that being out of work, for whatever reason and whatever the condition, can exacerbate poor health conditions and make people’s situations even worse. A system that supports people is vital. I will talk about contracting later, but we want to move away from a system that tells people they cannot do any work to one that supports them in what they can do. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) touched on the forthcoming White Paper that will focus on the support that can be given to individuals, and I will address that shortly.

The work capability assessment was established under the previous Labour Government in 2008 and it has had quite a journey, not just in relation to the contracting process; the assessments have come under scrutiny under previous Governments and under the present Government. There have been more than 100 recommendations in response to the five independent reviews of the work capability assessment. That has made the assessment process more reliable and has improved the claimant experience

In the final independent review of the work capability assessment, Dr Litchfield commented that, having looked at the systems in comparable countries, there was

“no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf”.

Neil Coyle: There is a concern among the disability and advice sector that the Government continue to say they have accepted the recommendations of the independent reviews. Will the Minister outline how many of the recommendations have been fully implemented?

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Priti Patel: It is fair to say—this will link to many of the forthcoming reforms in the White Paper—that we have implemented many of the recommendations. On top of that, we will continue to review them and work with the system. Any system of financial support for people who are not able to work needs to have a reliable method of assessing entitlement to that support. That is the basis of this afternoon’s debate.

I will talk about the current provider before I address the points about contracting that were raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). Since the Centre for Health and Disability Assessment, known as CHDA, took over the contract to carry out assessments in March 2015, it has made a number of improvements to the claimants’ experience of assessments. It has focused on increasing the number of healthcare professionals by 39% since March 2015, and it has opened up 100 new assessment rooms so that it can see more people in more locations. I do not want to rehearse many of the points already made in the debate, but a lot of the focus has been on the new contracting arrangements with CHDA, which has reduced the backlog of assessments by 62%. It has also introduced claimant-focused improvements, including setting up a customer representative group with leading charities that have regular meetings with the chief executive and clinical leadership team.

There is also a focus, because we are speaking about people and the experience of individuals going through the process, on rolling out greater disability awareness training for all staff. The recent National Audit Office report acknowledges the progress that has been made in improving contracted-out health and disability assessments, and we have taken steps to help people with mental health conditions in their assessments following the reviews. We have trialled new awareness training for administrative staff that will now be rolled out nationally. We are also improving services on telephone engagement and how claimants are assisted; and that level of interaction has improved.

I want to address the points about contracting, which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley focused on. I hope she will forgive me because I cannot speak about Maximus in 2007 and what took place in America, but I must make it abundantly clear that there is a full and transparent contracting process, undertaken with a negotiated procedure to enable the Department for Work and Pensions to fully test bidders and their propositions to meet the objectives for service delivery. I am speaking about the previous contractor, Atos, and the improvements that we seek under the new contract with CHDA.

Louise Haigh: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for her response so far, but is she seriously saying that previous fraud and theft from taxpayers cannot be taken into consideration when the Government are handing out a very similar contract in the UK?

Priti Patel: I cannot speak specifically to previous contracting processes and bids that took place outside of the United Kingdom—it is not for me to comment on—but let us be clear. The Department is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of public money—taxpayers’ money. On our processes of procurement, renegotiation and accountability, we have a clear approach to the scrutiny of providers, and rightly so. That applies

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to all Departments, and the same applies when it comes to failure. The contract has an open-book accounting approach and a robust validation of data. I think the hon. Lady mentioned falsification of data at one point. We have a clear process on the validation of data. She also went on to comment on how providers are incentivised, but our providers are not incentivised by benefits outcomes. We have a full range of balanced performance measures that focus on quality and volumes and customer satisfaction. That brings me back to the fact that we are speaking about people and how the interaction with people through assessments actually takes place.

Performance reviews and performance are fundamental in all Government contracts to ensure governance arrangements, and the Department takes steps to implement regular weekly and daily meetings with DWP officials and the CHDA.

Debbie Abrahams: Will the Minister give way?

Priti Patel: I will give way, but I want to emphasise that service credits are applied when a supplier does not meet an agreed service level.

Debbie Abrahams: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for her response so far. Will she tell us whether there is a requirement in the tendering process for disclosure of previous legal action?

Priti Patel: I cannot answer that question, but I will find out and write to the hon. Lady. I would be astonished if the Department did not have a system for looking back and assessing companies’ previous conduct before we engage with them. All bidders have to be thoroughly scrutinised by not only my Department but others. Much of that work is done with the Cabinet Office, which sets out guidelines and guidance. I have no doubt that the right systems and efficacy procedures are in place for contracting and the types of contractor with which the Government engage.

Bidder’s assumptions are tested as part of the negotiated procedure, and they are provided with information as part of the dialogue that takes place. The WCA contract was originally with Atos. Since the CHDA has picked up the contract, there have been challenges and backlogs, which have been referred to throughout the debate. It is only right that the Department continues to address those challenges and sets stretching and ambitious targets for its providers. We will ensure that we deliver value for money for our contracts. Again, the assumptions are tested through the bid process, but we are clear that a new financial support model has been in place as part of the CHDA contract. We have also contracted for a more sustainable service, part of which includes more face-to-face assessment—that direct engagement which did not take place under the previous contract. The focus is also very much on reducing the backlog and improving waiting times.

The NAO report has been mentioned several times. The report recognised that the Department has made particular progress and acknowledged the fact that there is now a relentless focus on performance when it comes to reducing backlogs and driving down delays. It also recognised the increased performance management capacity. Although there is more to do—we can never stand still in this space—we have learned from our

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experiences in the contracting process and will ensure that we continue to make improvements.

A number of Members mentioned cases from their constituencies. I would, of course, be happy to look at any individual cases that Members would like to refer to me, but I should emphasise that we clearly do support people through the system. A great deal of money has been put into providing support to help people to go back to work. Over the next three years, £43 million is being invested in trialling the provision of specialist support for people with mental health conditions. The Government also recognise the importance of promoting positive attitudes among employers when it comes to them employing people with disabilities or health conditions. That will be at the heart of the White Paper that will be published—

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.6 pm

On resuming

Priti Patel: I acknowledge that there is more to do to support people with health and disability issues. In the recent spending review, we outlined our commitment to support people with disabilities into work. We announced a real-terms increase in funding for Access to Work, which will enable up to 25,000 additional disabled people to receive support. We will expand the Fit for Work service to support more people on long-term sickness absence with return to work plans, and we will provide at least £115 million for the new joint work and health unit, including £40 million for a work and health innovation fund. We will set out some new long-term reforms in the White Paper, which will be published in the spring.

This is about not reinventing the wheel, but learning from insights. Hon. Members spoke about evidence, support and insights from charities, stakeholders and third parties, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned. My Department is working with stakeholders through the joint work and health unit, and a new taskforce has been set up to gain insights into providing support for individuals in a more targeted, tailored and personalised way. If people are assessed and put on a benefit, we do not want there to be no dialogue and interaction with them during that period about the additional support that they require to get back into work. The White Paper will be published in the spring, but we are open to thoughts and comments through the consultation process.

This not just about the WCA; we must have a much more holistic approach to supporting individuals. Before the Division, I mentioned employers, and there is a lot more that can be done to promote positive attitudes to employing people with disabilities and health conditions. Employers must find the right balance and the right way to support people in the workplace. For example, they can utilise occupational health and look at our Disability Confident campaign and the work that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people is doing.

Looking at this issue holistically, our reforms are all aimed at improving the quality of life of those who need the support the most. It is right that we recognise

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that there is no single method for each individual and their particular circumstances. Every person in the benefits system is an individual and their situations will be different, difficult and challenging. No system can offer a one-size-fits-all interaction, but we must ensure that the system works with individuals and recognises their particular backgrounds and circumstances. Protecting the most vulnerable in society is this Government’s priority.

Debbie Abrahams: Given that 90% of disabilities are acquired, I recognise and support all that the Minister has said about ensuring that people can stay in work as much as possible and that people are helped back into work, but that does not currently happen. Some half a million disabled people will be affected by the change in the employment and support allowance and the cuts. How can the cuts be justified before the support to enable people to stay in or get into work is in place?

Priti Patel: The hon. Lady mentioned the current changes and referred to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that is being considered in the House of Lords this afternoon. She will recall that this issue was debated extensively in Committee. I have emphasised that the Government have a clear commitment to protect the most vulnerable in society, including disabled people. No one who is currently in receipt of ESA will see a financial loss; the changes will not affect anyone whose capacity to work is significantly limited. The personal independence payment will also continue to help meet the extra costs of living that disabled people face, and exempted benefits contribute to the additional costs of disability and care resulting from the benefits freeze.

Looking at the debate holistically, we know that the WCA has caused many previous challenges. Yes, reforms are coming and, yes, changes are afoot, but I think hon. Members will agree that we cannot write off the people who, for various reasons, have not been supported into work. If they can work, we want to support and encourage them.

The Government spend a great deal of money on protecting the vulnerable not only through benefits, but through additional support to help with living costs. It is right that we provide that support and safety net. I hope that future debates and the White Paper will help to introduce new suggestions, new ways of working and new practices to ensure that we do not again see the situation that we had in 2008, 2009 or 2010 with Atos and the WCA. We should broaden the interface of support available through not only agencies or Government Departments, but specialist support organisations, stakeholders, practitioners and those in the care sector, recognising that we can always do more to support people. I am conscious of the time, Mrs Moon, so I will close my remarks there.

4.14 pm

Louise Haigh: I thank the Minister for that, if I may say so, uncharacteristically measured and conciliatory response. It is fantastic to hear that we agree on so many matters, and that the Government recognise the issues with the work capability assessment. We disagree, however, about the reliability of assessments. The evidence, not least the huge increase in successful appeals over the past couple of years, shows that reliability has not improved.

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The Minister referred to the recommendations that have been implemented, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) asked about those that have not been applied. It is important that assessments are documented so that records can be used as proof afterwards, because, as I mentioned earlier, there have been allegations of falsification.

On the Minister’s remarks about the previous performance of Maximus, as a shadow Cabinet Office Minister I can tell her that the guidelines for considering past performance are completely unsatisfactory. It is no surprise to me that a contractor with prior performance as appalling as that of Maximus, which has failed so singularly in the past, has been awarded a contract. We welcome the improved targets and oversight, but transparency on whether Maximus has met its targets, on spending and on WCA appeals is vital in order to hold the contractor to account.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, the cuts are completely unjustified before the changes that the Minister outlined come into force. I hope the Government will rethink them in the Bill that the House of Lords is considering today.

I look forward to the response to my points and those of my hon. Friends, to the publication of the White Paper and to the much-needed long-term reforms, learning from the mistakes made by successive Governments in the management of the work capability assessment.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered work capability assessments.

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Communications Infrastructure and Flooding: North West

[Andrew Percy in the Chair]

4.17 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Ind): I beg to move,

That this House has considered communications infrastructure and flooding in the North West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I think it is the first occasion on which I have done so, and I am sure it will be a delight.

As many people will have seen, before and after Christmas, many towns, villages and communities in the north-west witnessed some of the worst flooding for years, which inflicted a great deal of pain on the people of Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow. I want to begin by paying a few tributes and saying that I have never been more proud to represent the people of Rochdale than after I witnessed their reaction to the floods. I pay tribute to the many individuals who worked tirelessly to help those affected and to the council for its quick action in getting out on to the streets and ensuring that people had access to emergency funds of £500 and other grants. We also saw a fantastic response from various businesses, voluntary groups and community-spirited individuals. The people of Rochdale came together as a community to help one another, and it was a particularly moving moment in the wake of such destruction.

However, the people of Rochdale have been let down by some larger companies dragging their feet. The response from telecommunication companies in getting vital phone and broadband lines restored to hundreds of people and small businesses in Rochdale has not been so positive. It is hard enough for people who have been affected by the devastation of the floods, but that has simply compounded their misery. Without vital communications lines, many small businesses have lost thousands of pounds-worth of custom, which can easily make the difference between staying afloat and going under. I have received reports of businesses being unable to take card payments, receive any phone calls or access the internet. Those are vital services that so many people rely on and cannot do without in their everyday lives.

We too often refer to figures in debates—x number of people have been affected by this, or y number of people have received that—but the floods’ effects were not about figures or statistics; they hit individuals, and it was they who had to deal with the problems. We sometimes dehumanise the human and personal grievances in such cases. So I will use a personal example to explain the deeply concerning effect of the communications failure on my constituents. I also point out that I had to receive the information by text, because this person’s internet was still not up and running consistently.

Emma King runs a small business of her own called Lola Ashleigh Florist, on Oldham Road in Rochdale. On 31 December, after returning from Christmas, a few days after the floods, she was serving a customer and tried to process a £100 payment for a bouquet. When the customer tried to pay by card, there was a problem with the card machine, which was not taking payment.

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Luckily, the customer showed some Rochdalian spirit and kindly agreed to make the payment once the card reader was back up and running. Although that meant not receiving the payment, Emma believed it was a better option than letting her customer down and losing custom. She thought that there would be a quick solution to the problem.

Emma made contact with her phone line provider, Axis for Business, to inquire what was going on. The company informed her that a note on the system said that there were widespread problems, although Emma had received no warning of that—not an email, a letter or even a phone call. Axis told her that it could provide no further information, as the responsibility for repairs lay with Openreach, but she was assured that the problems were likely to be resolved in a couple of days. It was new year’s eve and Emma, like others, would be closed for a couple of days, so she accepted that and went on with her business as best she could.

New year passed and Emma returned to work on 3 January—still no phone lines and no card reader. She got on her mobile phone to Axis and was informed that there would be no solution until 5 January. That date passed with no resolution and no new information. Emma was left stranded, with no fix in sight and with no way of taking card payments or receiving calls from potential customers. In addition, the local banks were closed due to the flooding and, because she runs her small business on her own, she was unable to drive to the bank in the next town, Bury. Emma had money going out, cash building up and no money going into the bank. Her ability to trade and run a business was being constrained. The only information she was receiving was via Axis—Openreach believed that the problem would now be fixed by 11 January.

Emma was not alone. Many independent businesses throughout Rochdale were facing similar problems. They were given different dates for when the problem would be sorted out. They, too, were having to turn away custom because people could not pay by card. To put the problem into perspective, in November alone there were 127.5 million contactless card transactions in the UK. That shows the size of the problem. In 2016 it is vital for small businesses to have 24/7 access to card payment facilities. Periods when they cannot accept such payments can be fatal for them.

The problem persisted, however, with everyone being given little or no information. Emma tried to contact Openreach, but found it near impossible. She was told that Openreach would not even talk to individuals, who must contact their line provider. I see no reason why Openreach should be totally unaccountable to the people it serves.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my opinion that it is surprising that what is supposedly a communications company is so bad at communicating with the customers it should be seeking to serve? The experience in Lancaster during and after the floods is probably similar to that of his constituents in Rochdale. Cunningham Jewellers in Lancaster was flooded, but continued to trade throughout. However, because the card reader was not working and the staff had no idea when it would be working, they

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were forced to have cash-only payments. As the House can appreciate, for a jewellers that is a significant amount of cash in the run-up to Christmas.

Simon Danczuk: My hon. Friend’s intervention illustrates that the problem exists not only in Rochdale, but throughout the north-west.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the time being taken to fix the damage to communications infrastructure throughout the community? In my constituency, for example, Westhead Lathom St James Primary School and the village of Westhead have been left without telephones since Boxing day, when the exchange box was damaged by flooding. In recent days the school wrote to me to say that it was unable to communicate with parents and that people are being placed in danger. Neither Openreach nor any of the communications companies can simply walk away.

Simon Danczuk: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point—as she points out, it is not only businesses that are being affected but schools and individuals, such as people who need to use the phone to communicate with Careline. There is real danger attached to the inadequacies of BT Openreach and its failure to improve the situation.

I have outlined how little communication Axis was providing, but I find the next bit particularly ridiculous: the only written communication Emma ever received was the phone bill—I kid you not. She had no information on the floods, when service would resume or what compensation she might receive; she was asked only to cough up for a service that she was not receiving at all.

Dissatisfied with the situation, Emma decided that since the telecom providers were not fulfilling their duty, at a cost to herself, she would have to redirect the phone line to her mobile and connect her chip and PIN machine to the internet via her mobile. She was repeatedly told by Axis that that was not possible, but it was—another communications blunder. That solution provided some relief, but connections were intermittent at best.

Ironically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) pointed out, there seems to have been a severe communications deficit on the part of the providers. The only communication Emma got was when she made expensive phone calls to her providers. At an already extremely difficult time, why should the burden be on the small business to find out information? The negligence of the companies has put many small shops at risk. One might conclude that the telecommunications companies need a lesson in communications, and fast.

Emma and her florist business were not the only ones suffering. A renowned hairdressers in Rochdale faced similar problems: phone lines down and an inability to take card payments or to elicit any information from the providers. Only this past Friday I had another constituent, Christina Hammersley, at my surgery. She also runs a florist, on Whitworth Road, and receives a lot of work via the internet, but she says that the problems persist. She is extremely concerned that she will not be able to process orders for Valentine’s day, one of her busiest days of the year. She, too, has faced extra costs in order to get temporary solutions.

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Such businesses are heavily reliant on receiving phone calls for business and on taking card payments. Businesses such as florists and hairdressers, due to the nature of the service that they provide, take large payments, which are more often than not paid for by card. The problems have had a clear and tangible effect on their business and yet, to my understanding, no compensation has been given. Even worse, BT has said that all faults have been repaired, and the regional director told me only last week that all problems would be fixed the following day, but that has not been the case. I am repeatedly hearing reports of continuing issues and problems with telecommunications access.

Even Rochdale Council has faced problems contacting those responsible for the phone and broadband lines and getting them fixed. Council officers raised issues with Openreach, but got the same limited information that was being provided to individuals and small businesses. Only when the council went to the regional director of BT did progress begin to happen. Regular updates were then provided. If local government struggles to get hold of adequate information and problems resolved, what hope do individuals and small businesses have?

Running a business alone is tough, and people effectively have to take on multiple roles on their own. Never mind the risks to their economic wellbeing, the last thing they need is to have to lobby their phone and broadband providers to get the basic services for which they are already paying. That is scandalous, and something needs to happen.

I arranged for the debate because the response from the telecommunications companies has not been good enough. We must shine a light on this shocking issue to ensure that it does not happen again. After the flood, Manchester city centre was back up and running in a matter of days. It might have seen less of the floods, but the fact that vital services for businesses in Rochdale are still not back to 100% more than a month after the flood is simply not good enough. There is clearly an accountability deficit.

The deeply concerning and personal story that I have referred to shows that we must do better to protect small businesses. We need to realise the importance to people of phone and broadband lines, which are essential services, and the reaction to problems with them must take into account that importance. We must also improve the communications between provider and recipient. Openreach should communicate directly with those affected. It should not be possible for providers to absolve themselves of their duties by making lines of communication so complex and long.

It is also unacceptable that it takes so long for action to occur. I was interested to see that Ofcom says in section 13 of its “Strategic Review of Digital Communications” that when networks fail to put things right in an adequate amount of time, that raises questions that the service providers need to answer to ensure that that does not happen again. I must ask the Minister: what will the Government and Ofcom do to ensure that the problems are addressed?

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I call Minister Vaizey to respond.

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4.30 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Thank you for that warm welcome, Mr Percy. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that your constituency has been affected by flooding, so no doubt you will be taking a personal interest.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for securing the debate. He is a doughty champion on behalf of his constituents on numerous issues and I hope he will not think it too frivolous of me to note on Shrove Tuesday that Rochdale is also the home of the world’s largest pancake, which was made in 1994. This year, therefore, is the 22nd anniversary of that, but Rochdale also has a fantastic Member of Parliament who quite rightly brings this issue to the House’s attention. I also thank the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) for their contributions.

As Members of the House know well, December was a record-breaking month for rainfall in many parts of the UK and exceptional amounts of rain fell on to already saturated ground. It was an horrific time for a great many people and those of us who were lucky enough not to be affected nevertheless saw what was happening on our televisions. Many Ministers went to see for themselves what was happening.

Rivers broke records when, on Boxing day, the River Calder in Yorkshire and the River Aire in Leeds reached their highest levels ever recorded. It goes without saying that the Government will stay squarely behind the residents and businesses affected by the floods. The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly focused his remarks on the effect of damage on his small businesses. Our task is to do everything we can to help the towns and communities to recover from the devastating floods.

Before I turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman, it is worth saying that we are investing nearly £200 million to help communities to recover from both Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. The first payments were made to councils in flooded areas within six days of the first floods and £48 million has already been paid out to 37 authorities in the affected areas. We have also made it clear that anyone displaced from their home or business premises will not have to pay council tax or business rates for as long as they are out of their properties. The fund includes £50 million for affected residents and businesses, £4 million in match funding for charities, and £40 million to repair roads, bridges and other key areas. We are also building 1,500 new flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 more homes, with an extra £2.3 billion of capital investment to help our most at-risk communities.

In December, my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary announced that there will be a national flood resilience review, the purpose of which will be to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events and, importantly for this debate, the effects of such flooding. We are due to publish the review this summer with a view to work beginning in autumn to implement short-term measures and to review longer-term strategy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks will be taken into account in the review.

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Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): The Minister will be well aware that not only the north-west but York suffered badly from flooding and we lost telecommunications for a number of days across the city. What can he do to bring the telecommunications industry to account to deliver a flood resilience scheme that can match the country’s need?

Mr Vaizey: My hon. Friend is quite right to bring me to account and ensure that I return to the subject matter in hand, but I wanted to mention the review because it will take telecoms resilience into account. I will go on to talk about that in more detail in a minute, but it is important to note that that work is in addition to that of the ministerial recovery group, which was established to ensure that local areas continue to receive co-ordinated support as they rebuild after the winter’s flooding.

Let me turn to what happened with telecoms infrastructure as a result of the floods. It is the case that it was affected badly in places, so my hon. Friend’s point was well made. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, telecoms is essential to all of our small businesses as well as to us all in our lives, so any disruption has a major impact on our ability to go about our lives and run our businesses. It is interesting to note that the main disruption was caused not by the telecoms network being taken out, but by power failures in the region. However, flooding did affect two key infrastructure sites: one was at the BT exchange in York and the other was at a Vodafone site—actually it was at a Cable & Wireless site, which is owned by Vodafone—in Leeds. The flooding in York on 27 December affected about 50,000 fixed-line and 46,000 broadband customers and there were knock-on impacts on mobile operators whose networks went through the exchange. BT brought the system back online within 24 hours and it worked with the fire service to protect the exchange, because Storm Frank was on its way.

The flooding at the Vodafone site, which also happened on 27 December, disrupted 999 services for a matter of hours as well as some emergency services communications. I stress that I was in touch with both companies throughout the incidents and the national alert for telecoms was invoked several times. That process brings together representatives from the UK’s major communications providers with Government bodies to ensure that everyone across the industry and Government has the latest information on what is happening.

In relation to Rochdale, there were four separate incidents that involved damaged cables. Two were quite complex, technical cable repairs that involved several thousand connections. The other two were located under carriageways, one of which was not damage caused by flooding per se but damage to a BT cable caused by other contractors. Obviously, it takes time to locate the exact point of the cable break and such repairs require permission from the local council to dig up the carriageways and various permits from councils in connection with access to manhole covers, putting traffic-light controls in place and so on.

Simon Danczuk: For the record, Rochdale Council was excellent in meeting those requirements and it acted as soon as it was contacted by BT Openreach. However, BT Openreach was lax in calling for the authority to take action.

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Mr Vaizey: I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I will respond to him imminently.

Cat Smith: I remind the Minister that the debate is about communications in the north-west, and although it is important that we discuss what happened in Leeds and York, they are not in the north-west but in Yorkshire. To draw him back to the north-west, will he say something about the issues the fire brigade faced with communications? When mobile telephone networks went down, people found it difficult to contact the fire brigade. Cumbria fire and rescue also had a problem with its internal Airwave communications system, so will he comment on that?

Mr Vaizey: I thank the hon. Lady for bringing me back geographically to the subject of the debate. First, I am pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about Rochdale Council. I am glad that it acted promptly when contacted by Openreach and I hope that Openreach has noted that it is incumbent on it to contact the council as soon as possible. Some councils perhaps do not respond as quickly as they should, but it is good to hear that Rochdale acted immediately, particularly given the urgency of the situation.

The Airwave network is robust and resilient, but sometimes if a major cable is taken out, that can affect the backhaul, the mobile communications and mobile masts, so we need to look at that in the flood resilience review. I am sorry that I strayed towards the north-east, but those were the two most prominent examples of a major exchange being taken out by flooding and I wanted to reassure hon. Members that Ministers and the operators were alive to repairing the situation. We were also obviously aware of the concern when the emergency services network was affected, but I am pleased to say from my own experience of sitting on that committee over the Christmas recess that the co-ordination between the telecoms operators, the emergency services and local authorities seemed to be very robust.

Let me return to the specific subject of what has happened to the constituents of the hon. Member for Rochdale. I take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to them. We know that events such as flooding fundamentally affect the way a small business running on tight margins operates, and the people running those businesses are quite entitled to expect a speedy service to get them back on track.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the excellent work of Rochdale Council. I am pleased that Openreach stayed in touch with the council on these matters. The council may have operated speedily, but it will also have been aware of the need to repair the cable and to keep the highways and carriageways running. Even when we have the excellent co-operation that happened between Rochdale Council and Openreach, such repairs can be technically and logistically complex.

I am not minimising at all what the hon. Gentleman says. We can learn lessons from what has happened, and particularly from the terrible disruption to the two small businesses that he highlighted in his remarks. As with any disruption on that scale, we will work with the industry to understand what happened and what measures we can put in place to ensure that the response to such events continues to improve.

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It was mentioned that Openreach would not talk to individuals. Openreach is a wholesale provider of telecoms services to retail providers, including BT and other well-known retailers. I am certainly not here to defend either Openreach or, indeed, telecoms retailers’ customer services. What I am robust in defending, however, are broadband roll-out programmes.

I know, as a constituency MP and the go-to person for my colleagues’ frustrations, how woeful the customer service can be; it is sometimes utterly Kafkaesque. Why operators often cannot sort out their customer service in the most simple and straightforward fashion possible is baffling. I hope that Openreach and retail providers will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, because he brought to the House real case studies of people who frankly found themselves banging their heads against a brick wall when they wanted quick, robust service to get their business up and running.

Be that as it may, I turn to some better news: as of Thursday last week, 135 businesses in Rochdale had applied for financial support under the business support scheme, of which 107, as I understand it, have received payments totalling more than £53,000. The Government are committed to supporting those affected by the floods and to ensuring that the country is better protected from future flooding. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these matters to the House’s attention, and I am always available to any hon. Member who experiences frustrations with either Openreach or a retail telecoms provider.

I hope that customer service will improve. The outgoing chief executive of Openreach was effective and brought some much-needed changes to the organisation, but we now have a new chief executive. I hope he and his team will read this debate, take some lessons from it and perhaps even engage directly with the hon. Gentleman so that they can hear at first hand how the systems and real people interact.

Question put and agreed to.

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Social Mobility Index

4.44 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the social mobility index.

May I ask, Mr Percy, whether we have an hour for this debate from this moment?

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): Yes. There is an hour for the debate from this moment, with the Opposition Front Benches being allocated five minutes each and the Minister being allocated 10 minutes.

Chloe Smith: Thank you; that is very helpful.

I am not in the business today of doing my constituency and my city down. Indeed, only last week Norwich was named the happiest place to work in the United Kingdom. In 2014, it was voted the happiest place for children, thanks to a combination of open spaces, public amenities, safe roads and other factors. It is a great city. We from Norwich proudly call it “the fine city”, and you cannot beat Norfolk pride itself. Admiral Lord Nelson told us:

“I am a Norfolk man and I glory in being so.”

In fact, Nelson himself is arguably a fine example of social mobility. Born in rural Norfolk, the son of a vicar, to a family of modest means, he lost his mother when he was young and was only average at school. He took an apprenticeship, had the benefit of leadership mentoring and rose to lead the Royal Navy and be seen as one of the greatest Britons of all time.

Then there is Thomas Paine, radical and revolutionary, who wrote the best-selling work of the 18th century and helped to found America—not bad if you expect low aspiration from the son of a Norfolk manufacturer of ladies’ underwear. There is the fact that we invented the office of Prime Minister in Robert Walpole, and then there is the first woman writer in English, Julian of Norwich. From my reading of her stuff, she may well have been mad, but none the less she went and did it. Indeed, the first Act of Parliament held in the parliamentary archives—from 1497, no less—is about Norfolk apprentices.

However much I love my city and my county and want to talk it up, it is wrong to ignore important and serious research when it is presented. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently produced its social mobility index, which shows that children growing up in the Norwich City Council area have some of the worst life chances in England. If Nelson said that,

“England expects that every man will do his duty”,

Norwich children should now expect us to do our duty and put that right.

The commission’s analysis uses data about educational attainment from the early years through to further education and higher education and potential for people to be not in education, employment or training. It also includes adult prospects such as jobs, housing and pay. In simple terms, the report compares the chances for children across the country from poorer backgrounds in doing well at school, finding a good job and having a decent standard of living.

We also know, separate to the report, that Norwich has more children defined as being in poverty than the national average—in my constituency, around one in five. The commission that produced the report is sponsored

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by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office. I am grateful to the Minister for being here today, and I am sure he agrees that there is plenty of work to do in Government across Departments on this issue. There is also work for us in Parliament on any Bench to do to improve children’s life chances. Responsibility also, quite rightly, lies locally. The report is about the boundaries of Norwich City Council, and I hope that the council takes it as seriously as I do. We need to work together to improve Norwich children’s prospects.

The report also goes deep into educational data, and sadly—for that reason at least—it comes as little surprise, in the sense that the county council’s children’s services department has been improving from inadequacy for some time. A 2015 peer review of the council’s performance towards those not in education, employment or training found the overall impression that there were passionate and committed staff within the authority but no overall coherent political and strategic leadership commitment to the young people of Norfolk.

Let us look at what is in the report. The first half looks at the educational attainment of those from poorer backgrounds in each local area. I think we can all agree that background is one of the most important drivers of a child’s life chances. Under that heading, we start with early years provision. There is clear evidence that children from poorer backgrounds perform worse than their more affluent peers during the early years. For many children, that translates into worse outcomes as they go through their schooling. A Government-commissioned study of 2010 found that by school age, children who arrive in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there. The indicators in the report for that life stage are the proportion of nursery provision in the local area that is rated good or outstanding, and the proportion of five-year-olds eligible for free school meals who achieve a good level of development at the end of the stage.

I have been arguing for some time that we need more childcare provision in north Norwich in particular, where there is a shortage already. That is before parents become rightly keen to take up the 30 hours of provision that we will fund from 2017 and parents of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds make use of their entitlement. Let us ensure that that provision is of the highest quality.

I turn to the school years. There are a number of indicators in the report that determine how children who have free school meals do at primary and secondary school and then at key stages of achievement. The Norwich City Council area, I am sad to say, comes in as the 14th worst in the country in this section. It will be no secret to those who follow the issue that Norfolk has consistently performed below the national average when it comes to all students—not just the poorest—achieving the gold standard of five GCSEs. Indeed, in 2014 Norwich was the worst city in England for GCSE results.

I want every school in Norwich to be rated good or outstanding, and I would like to hear more from the Minister today about the Government’s part in that. I know that the local education authority and local academies are applying themselves to that question too, for the thousands of students in Norwich who are being let down. I also want local leaders in schools to continue to

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use pupil premium money in the most imaginative and ambitious ways possible, to help the poorest students break out.

The report goes on to assess the years following school—in other words, a youth measure. As the report says, those years are crucial to social mobility, for two reasons. First, that is likely to be the first time that a young person will make a key choice about their own life and, secondly, what a young person has achieved at that point in their life has a significant impact on their chances as an adult, so it is important to be on the right track during that period.

The Norwich City Council area chips in as the 17th worst in the country in that section. The point about young people being able to go into work and make their own choices is precisely why I have worked so hard with many others locally to help young people into work through the Norwich for Jobs project, which I founded and which has helped to halve our city’s youth unemployment, but there is clearly much more to do. I would like to hear from the Minister how the Earn or Learn taskforce is addressing the problem and what else officials in Jobcentre Plus and other Departments are doing to help young people to make good and ambitious choices that suit them.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): The hon. Lady is making a compelling speech. Does she agree that this is about not just getting young people into jobs, but affording young people with potential the ability to start their own business and providing support in that regard?

Chloe Smith: The hon. Lady has anticipated one of the next things that I was going to say. She is absolutely right, and for the record I will add that this section of the report—I am sure that hon. Members have read it themselves—is also about further and higher education, so we should talk about a range of options and opportunities at this point.

The second half of the report looks at the outcomes achieved by adults in the area, and this is where employment, and the types of job and pay come in.

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): The hon. Lady is explaining very cogently all the different indicators, but does she not agree that there is a glaring omission in turning away from income as a measure of child poverty? I wonder what she makes of the comment by Alan Milburn, the chair of the commission, that

“without acknowledging the most obvious symptom of poverty, lack of money”,

the Government’s

“agenda…will lack both ambition and credibility.”

Chloe Smith: Funnily enough, I had anticipated that line of argument. I think that most of it accrues to the Minister to answer, but I will say this. We need to understand child poverty across a number of indicators. That is the argument that I am putting in my contribution. I will go on to make a few more points about what adult prospects consist of. Of course the hon Lady is right to say that money matters, but it is not the only thing that matters, and that is what we should be aware of as we plough our way through this kind of analysis.

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Let me recap what is in the second part of the report. It is about people’s prospects of converting good educational attainment into good adulthood outcomes, so it looks at the weekly pay of employees, housing affordability, the proportion of managerial and professional jobs, the proportion of jobs that pay an hourly rate less than the living wage and the proportion of families with children who own their own home.

In my constituency, unemployment and youth unemployment are now lower than the national average, which I welcome, but so are earnings. The gross median wage in Norwich North for full-time work in 2015 was £440—a whole £90 below the UK average of £530. In addition—this is why I welcomed the intervention from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—Norwich North has started up new businesses at about half the rate of the UK. I share her passion to see that number rise.

In the report, the Norwich City Council area is in the bottom 20 for adult social mobility. Locally, we might generally understand that some of the brightest young people leave the area to study because other parts of the country seem to be more exciting and have more opportunities, but there are now so many exciting industries and avenues in Norwich that I could talk all day about why bright people do not need to leave. However, that is not the point. This debate is about the people whose prospects are not so obvious, who began life with less.

Let me pick out one other thing that is noted in the report as an ingredient for a social mobility hotspot, which is about practicalities, not abstract concepts. Norwich does not yet have good enough transport links. The report rightly notes that public transport links and links to the motorway network provide advantages for those from disadvantaged backgrounds in less isolated areas, through access to job opportunities and the attractiveness to education professionals of working in schools in the local area.

Before the debate, I asked a few constituents about their experience. One young man said that he was not surprised by the report because “that is the nature of living in such an area—fewer people, fewer opportunities, fewer jobs. It’s not something that can be changed easily.” It is obvious, then, that transport and the access to more people that it brings can help to create more opportunities. Norwich has only just been connected to the rest of the country by a fully dualled road, thanks to many campaigners’ efforts and this Government getting it done. I lead the campaign for better rail links for our city, which we estimate will bring thousands of jobs.

I want to add a personal view at this point. I went into politics because I was that 16-year-old growing up in Norfolk, frustrated by the lack of opportunities and keen to do my bit to make it better. I had loving and supportive parents and encouraging teachers, but little access to people or places. It could be said that I did not even know what I did not know. As a teenager, I laughed a lot at Harry Enfield—perhaps you did too, Mr Percy. Do you remember that sketch in which women were told to know their limits? Of course, it was funny because it had once been true; it was cutting because it had once been true, but I do not want it ever to be true that a child in Norwich today should see limits.

Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab): Picking up on Harry Enfield, which I think is an appropriate in-point—

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Chloe Smith: Let me guess which one you are going to pick.

Clive Lewis: Well, obviously the catchphrase of one of his key characters was “Loadsamoney!” I think that was the expression. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) raise the issue of income, and I heard the hon. Lady’s answer, which was that many factors go towards child attainment and social mobility. We all understand that, but one of the key ones for many Labour Members is child poverty. The hon. Lady and I both know that in our city of Norwich—

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): Order.

Clive Lewis: A quarter of—

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): No. Excuse me. This intervention is too long. The hon. Gentleman will sit down. I call Chloe Smith.

Chloe Smith: Thank you, Mr Percy. I look forward to continuing that discussion some other time. May I say that I am delighted that the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) has turned up and been able to take part in the debate? It is important that we work together on these issues, and I have every confidence that we will do so.

I had the luck, at that time in my own life, to meet an excellent role model—my then MP, who is now the noble Baroness Shephard and who is in fact the deputy chair of the commission that authored the piece of work we are discussing. As Norfolk women, we share the burning belief that it is not where people come from that counts, but where they are going. That is my credo and, indeed, it is the Conservative credo. That call can be answered only by opportunity, by ensuring that every person has the chance to make of themselves what they want. Work must pay and responsibility must pay off. Conservatives believe fundamentally in people and their freedom, because people are enterprising and can make their own choices best, but they need the opportunity and the means to do so.

I am proud that it is a Conservative Prime Minister who is now setting out action that spans families, the early years, education, treatment and support, an end to discrimination, and increased opportunity. He is right to look out of Downing Street at the hopes and the quiet wishes of mums and dads, rich and poor alike, for their children every minute of the day, and he is right to seek to give every child the chance and the tools that they need. It is particularly important, as he said in a recent speech, to hail work experience and mentorship, as they can often open up a new world of contacts. It is even better when relatable role models provide those chances. Young businesspeople—for instance, those who are under 30—can be massively motivational.

Another constituent told me about the value of work experience, which gave him “exciting things”. People gave him responsibility, looked out for him, checked on his wellbeing and gave him purpose so that he felt valued, and he needed that to make the jump into paid work. Of course, there is also value to businesses in providing such experiences, as there are a lot of talented people in Norwich who just have not had their chance yet.

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Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): I completely agree about work experience, but what message are we sending to our young people who are going into work when the new minimum wage premium will not apply to them as under-25s?

Chloe Smith: There has been an accepted principle that there are age gradations in the minimum wage. That is not new. Leeway is given for the time needed to train someone up to be able to do their job well. For me, that is the principle that drives age gradation.

We need to make more efforts to ensure that all Norwich children—and, indeed, children everywhere in the country—have the knowledge, skills, confidence and network to be able to meet the chances they require and take the chances they want. I am calling on Norwich businesspeople to step up even further and work with every school to provide a network and an opportunity for inspiration that is focused on the poorest children, who need it most.

Many good schemes exist or are coming in shortly, such as enterprise advisers. I urge the Minister to consider how to support those schemes stably over the long term. I want more great teachers to consider coming to Norfolk, because it is a great place to teach, and not to feel that they have to apply elsewhere because of the challenges that exist. I want every administrator who has the privilege to push a pen in the service of Norwich children to ask themselves, “How have I shown my ambition for Norwich children today?” I want the Government to understand that a lack of opportunity is hiding in perhaps surprising parts of our country, not just in traditional inner cities.

Most of all, I would like us to approach this debate without petty party politics. I have already mentioned the hon. Member for Norwich South, and it would be a pleasure to work with him on the issue. In fact, the Labour leader of Norwich City Council was a history teacher when I was at school. That is indeed history, and now we need to work together.

Tackling the issue is not about more welfare and more Government intervention alone, as that can address symptoms rather than causes and make dependency more entrenched. Nor is it only about the free market, although it is my view, with global evidence, that the free market has been by far the best thing ever invented for generating prosperity and improving living standards. There are obvious ways in which businesspeople can do more for the young people in their communities.

Breaking the social cage is not only about welfare or funding formulas. It is about ambition and leadership. It is our duty in Parliament and in local authorities to show ambition and to lead the hard work that is needed to break the cage. It is our duty to acknowledge the challenges of a city such as Norwich, as represented in the report, alongside the things that make the city great, so that it can be great for the poorest who grow up there as well. This is our opportunity to marshal an even more ambitious contribution from the business community, and from many others who can be role models and inspiring mentors to the poorest children in Norwich and help them access knowledge, skills, confidence and a network.

I used a series of Norfolk examples in my opening remarks to show that there are people who got on and did it from modest beginnings, but this is not only about

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what they did for themselves. It is about what they did for others. The issue is deeply rooted and will not be solved by one person or one solution. We need to understand what the report is telling us, raise our ambitions, show leadership and marshal more opportunities for the poorest children, who need them most.

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I am now imposing a five-minute time limit so that we can get everybody in. I ask hon. Members to keep interventions brief.

5.4 pm

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on initiating this debate on the important social mobility index that was published recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

I begin by celebrating the fact that the borough I represent in outer north-east London—the London Borough of Redbridge—was identified as being third in England for social mobility across a range of factors. That is testament to the hard work of the young people, their teachers, the broader educational establishment of local authorities, academies and multi-academy trusts, and families. I represent an increasingly diverse community, and it says something about the character of that community that we have produced such results. However, I am afraid the report that was published a week or so ago painted a picture of England as an increasingly divided nation where life chances are determined by postcode rather than potential. I wholeheartedly agree with the words of Alan Milburn, the chair of the commission, who said:

“It is not ability that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is opportunity.”

It is clear from some of the results in the report that many people are let down from the moment they are born because of the opportunities that are available or not available on their doorstep.

Beneath that grim reading, I want to focus on the remarkable Labour success story that is our great city of London. When I was growing up, London was a byword for failure, and schools were notorious for failing young people and letting down whole communities. I stand here as a product of the remarkable progress that was made—first through the London challenge and, secondly, through the excellence in cities scheme. By 2005, London schools were performing above the national average, and by the time Labour left office in 2010, London had a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than anywhere else in England.

We have to return to the mantra, “What matters is what works”, which underpinned Labour’s successful approach to the debate about educational opportunities. Looking back on the London challenge, a number of things made the programme particularly successful, including the fact that it brought a sharp focus on the quality of leadership, and on teaching and learning. It really was about standards rather than structures. The programme enabled collaboration between different schools and used data sets to compare schools serving similar populations. Frankly, there was no place to hide for people who would do down the aspirations and abilities of pupils because they happened to serve a particularly

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deprived community. There was an expectation that any child born in this city should be able to achieve their full potential, and that is why we saw those remarkable results. I am afraid that we seem to have moved further away from that with our increasing focus on structures rather than standards.

The Government should consider a number of things off the back of the report. First, they should consider introducing a coastal challenge and a rural challenge, taking the successful ingredients that underpinned the London challenge and applying them to the social mobility blackspots highlighted by Alan Milburn’s commission.

Secondly, the Government ought to reinvigorate the important but increasingly discredited northern powerhouse agenda by developing an industrial strategy for the north of England that includes a real focus on education and skills. In particular, there should be a focus on ensuring that people have opportunities not only for education and training, but for employment on their doorstep that matches a whole range of talents and abilities. That is difficult in the current climate given the industrial challenges faced, particularly in steel communities.

The third thing we need to do is to look seriously at the amount of money spent on widening participation in higher education. So many of our academically elite universities continue to be far too socially elite, and so many universities that claim to be success stories in widening participation in fact have poor graduate destination data and track records of retention. We need to start asking, amid all the hand-wringing and the emphasis that is placed on schools, whether the £718 million that is likely to be spent towards the end of the decade might be better spent on schools and early years. If we do that, we may be in a far better place when it comes to future reports. Every child—whatever their background and wherever they were born—should have the same opportunity to succeed as far as their abilities and talents will take them.

5.9 pm

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con): It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for securing this important debate and for highlighting some of the issues arising in the report. Like her, I am proud of my constituency and of all the people who work so hard to do well by our young people.

I particularly wanted to take part in the debate because Telford has significant areas of disadvantage and underperformance of young people. In fact, my constituency ranks in the bottom decile of the Sutton Trust’s social mobility index, with a ranking of 494 out of 533 constituencies in England. Telford has pockets of significant deprivation, and there is no doubt that that affects the life chances of our young people. Only last week I secured a Westminster Hall debate to consider four of Telford’s secondary schools that were put in special measures following inadequate Ofsted ratings. Those schools have very high numbers of children in receipt of the pupil premium and serve disadvantaged catchment areas.

In that debate I considered why the schools had failed, so that lessons could be learned for the future. The key reason for failure was the widening achievement

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gap for the most disadvantaged young people and a culture of low expectations in attendance, behaviour and achievement. There was also a failure in the multi-academy trust’s leadership and governance. The GCSE results in all the schools within the academy chain were below the national floor target, and two thirds of children at some of the schools in the chain were leaving without five good GCSEs including maths and English. Most worrying of all were the stats showing that of the children receiving the pupil premium—the most disadvantaged—only 20% were leaving school with five good GCSEs including maths and English. I wanted to speak for the 80% who did not have those basic qualifications, about their life chances and the impact on their futures.

Even when disadvantaged young people in my constituency obtain qualifications, they tend not to go to university, and if they do, they tend not to end up in professional occupations. Telford ranks among the lowest areas for non-privileged graduates going on to professional occupations. Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, it is not about a lack of jobs in Telford. The figures for young people not in education, employment or training have completely dropped—they have halved in the past three years—and the number on jobseeker’s allowance has similarly fallen. The difficulty is that the most disadvantaged young people are going into low-income jobs, yet Telford has high-tech, new-economy professional jobs, and our employers say that there is a skills gap. They say that young people leaving school do not have the skills to do the jobs that are on offer. Soft skills are critical in a modern workplace, such as sociability, confidence, negotiation and influencing skills, relationships, communication skills, emotional intelligence and empathy. A good education helps a young person to develop those skills.

Despite Telford’s ranking, there are some welcome signs of improvement, particularly in the early years. We would all agree that that is where inequality starts. Equality of opportunity at the earliest stages is essential to prevent gaps in attainment from opening up. We also have some fantastic primary schools in Telford, such as Old Park Primary School in Malinslee—I thank Jayden, Keeley and Jamie, who came to work in my office before Christmas—and the very special Newdale Primary School, which is about to visit Parliament in a few weeks’ time.

We have thriving academies in disadvantaged areas, and I take up the point made by Opposition Members that poverty affects achievement, which is not always the case. We have good academies with good results for children from the most deprived areas. It is about leadership, good governance, high expectations and instilling a sense of personal responsibility, self-worth and valuing education.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): The hon. Lady is making a thoughtful speech. She is talking in particular about areas with the greatest levels of deprivation, yet the Government have removed the key indicator for levels of deprivation, which is income. Does that not render meaningless the analysis that she is trying to present?

Lucy Allan: I refer the hon. Gentleman to Abraham Darby Academy in my constituency—the school is in a very deprived estate with the highest levels of pupil premium. His point is not correct.

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In Telford we also have organisations such as Juniper Training, which teaches employability skills, and increasing numbers of apprenticeships. I passionately believe that all young people, no matter where they come from and no matter what their background, deserve the life chances that a good education provides. A good education is an open door to future opportunity, and I urge the Minister to do everything possible to narrow educational disadvantage so that all children in Telford can have the same opportunities and life chances.

5.15 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate on a vital issue. I also congratulate the commission on its work, and particularly its chair, and hopefully my friend, the Government’s social mobility tsar and former new Labour warrior Health Secretary, Alan Milburn. I have long been a great supporter of the Sutton Trust and its terrific work, of which the social mobility index is just one of many examples. I also endorse the conclusions of its report, “Missing Talent.”

My constituency of Mitcham and Morden is relatively average in the UK-wide social mobility index, but in London it sits in the 10 worst-ranked constituencies for social mobility and is part of a pocket of underperforming south London constituencies. The challenges on social mobility remain stark, especially for white working-class students. A significant attainment gap between children receiving free school meals and those who are not eligible exists even at pre-school level. By GCSE age, only 32% of white working-class British students achieve the GCSE benchmark, compared with 44% of mixed-race students, 59% of Bangladeshi students, 42% of black Caribbean students and 47% of Pakistani students—those figures are all for students receiving free school meals. On top of that, prospects have been improving much more slowly for white working-class students over the past 10 years than for almost any other ethnic group. Most importantly, there is a tremendous difference between the performance of white working-class students in inadequate schools and those in outstanding schools, which demonstrates the huge influence that a good school can have.

We know what works in schools. I will compare the Harris Federation academy chain in south London with national averages. Only about 56% of white British students nationwide secure five A* to C-grade GCSEs, but at Harris Academy Greenwich 60% of white British students secured such grades in 2015. Just five years ago the school was in special measures, but now, under the excellent leadership of its strong principal, George McMillan, the school has undertaken an unimaginable transformation. A staggering 73% of white British students at Harris Academy Falconwood secure five A* to C-grade GCSEs. Yet again, the rate of the school’s success is incredible. In 2008, only 17% of its students achieved such grades, but under the leadership of Terrie Askew the school is now judged outstanding by Ofsted. Those schools have demonstrated consistent relentlessness in both discipline and high achievement. They promote zero tolerance of bullying, they pick up children directly from their home if they

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have a habit of truanting, and they provide breakfast clubs and after-school network clubs, which serve nutritious food.

Members of this House also have a responsibility to do all they can, which is why I set up my own work experience scheme in Mitcham and Morden to link young, unemployed constituents with local businesses and organisations to get the experience they need to access a full-time job. I am proud that since 2011, more than 350 participants in our scheme have found full-time employment, and I am planning my own mentoring scheme in the constituency to match children and young people with successful adults. Experts, including Robert Putnam, have argued that such social capital, defined as a young person having an older role model to look up to who is not their parent, is key to ensuring their future prosperity.

As “Missing Talent” argues, we urgently need to incentivise better use of the pupil premium to ensure that disadvantaged pupils receive the focused support they need. As well as greater support for highly able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, I hope to see more support for average students, because that is precisely what most of us are. I want students who get average GCSE grades to do better and have access to better-paid apprenticeships and better alternatives to university if they feel that university is not for them. Social mobility is not only about the children at the top doing well; it is about all children being able to aspire, and to surpass their own and everybody else’s expectations.

5.20 pm

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility.

Improving social mobility is arguably one of the biggest and most complicated challenges of our times. This country is too unequal, too closed and too divided. It is a country where, far too often, where a person is born and who they are born to, define what their life chances will be. The income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, and the UK stands alongside the United States in having the lowest social mobility among advanced nations.

As they progress through life, young people from the most disadvantaged areas are nearly 10 times less likely than those from the most advantaged to take up a place at a top university. Our professions are disproportionately populated with people who studied at Oxbridge or in private education; the all-party group will shortly launch an inquiry into access to the professions. Tackling such issues is not just a moral imperative but an economic one.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, the commission’s social mobility index is not a new concept, as it was pioneered by the Sutton Trust last year through its mobility map. However, it is instructive to look at both studies, as their findings were similar: that the issue is far more complex than the conventional wisdom of looking simply at rich areas versus poor areas, or urban versus rural.

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Although the affluence of an area and the life chances of the young people who live there are undoubtedly linked, we now know that social mobility issues affect not only the poorest areas in our country but some of the wealthiest. In many cases, affluent areas are not doing as well by their disadvantaged children as places that are much more deprived. We also know that children living in similar areas, sometimes just a few miles apart, can have markedly different life chances.

Although the commission’s report considers local authorities, the Sutton Trust mobility map allows us to drill down into individual constituencies, where we can find significant differences within a local authority area. For example, in my council area of Cheshire West, City of Chester is shown to have a significantly higher level of social mobility than my constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston, although they are both in the same local authority area and only a few miles apart. Such differences are simply not apparent in the commission’s index. In a local authority area with a population of more than 330,000, I suggest that pockets where social mobility is at its worst can be easily overlooked. Indeed, although a constituency basis is a much more useful indicator than a local authority one, I would go further: it ought to be done at a ward or super output area level.

Maybe we will get to that point in future, but we do not need that level of detail to conclude what is clear from both indexes: London and its commuter belt are pulling away from the rest of the country. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in those areas are far more likely than others in the rest of the country to achieve good outcomes in school. What is so valuable about the social mobility index and the mobility map is that at least we can now begin to map and question why such variations exist. Such is the variety of potential factors influencing outcomes that establishing the most effective way to improve social mobility can at times be a little like trying to nail blancmange to a wall, but there are some fundamentals with which we can start.

For example, we know that the effects of good teaching are especially significant for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In one year with very effective teachers, a child can gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning, so we need to consider better policies to incentivise teachers to work in disadvantaged areas. We also need to give local authorities across the country the resources and powers to replicate what was done with the London Challenge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) discussed eloquently earlier. There is a huge amount of good practice out there. In London we have seen that, through concerted effort by a range of partners, the gap between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged pupils can be reduced.

I hope that this debate signals a genuine intention across all political parties to improve social mobility. I sense that it is there, but all good intentions need to be matched with a little self-awareness that some Government policies do not help social mobility but in fact hinder it. I have grave concerns about some of the recent changes to student finance and the proposals that will shortly be consulted on for changes to the nurse bursary system, which the shadow Minister will undoubtedly address in his comments.

Wes Streeting: My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech. I also have concerns about housing. When I was growing up, I always had the security of the council flat

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where I lived, whereas many families in similar situations whom I represent live on the other side of London and commute in.

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I say to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) that I wanted to call the Front-Bench speakers at this point. Can he please respond to the intervention and then conclude?

Justin Madders: I am happy to do so, Mr Percy. We could certainly spend a lot of time discussing the more divisive aspects of Government policy, but I will conclude. Giving everyone opportunity in life is a core part of why I am involved in politics. To me, it is about fairness, and it should be a basic ingredient in any progressive society. Let us ensure that every new policy and initiative is met with the same question from all parties: “Will this help improve social mobility?”

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I remind the SNP spokesman and the shadow Minister that they have five minutes each to respond, and that they should try to stick to that.

5.25 pm

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing it, and on her positive contribution in admirably defending and promoting her constituency in light of the report. She said in her speech that she expects us all to do our duty to those children suffering poorer life chances. Absolutely; I hope that she will communicate that directly to this Minister, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

It is interesting that the hon. Member for Norwich North mentioned childcare provision. I absolutely agree. It should be a key area for improving children’s life chances, and we must do more on that front. I also support her comments on improving business links with schools in areas of deprivation to improve skills and access to the employment market. I congratulate her on her speech, and I pay tribute to the contributions made by the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group. They certainly made for a good debate.

The social mobility index, released in January, shows the massive differences between different parts of England and the chances that poorer children who live there have of doing well in life. Although the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission covers Scotland, the index is for England only. Key findings include the fact that London and its surrounding areas are pulling away from the rest of the country. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in those areas are far more likely to achieve better outcomes in school and have more opportunities to do well as adults than those in the rest of England. In addition, coastal areas and industrial towns are becoming social mobility cold spots. Many such areas perform badly on both educational measures and adulthood outcomes, giving young people from less advantaged backgrounds limited opportunities to get on.

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As the study related purely to England, we cannot compare figures for Scotland. The best comparison that can be made with Scotland involves educational attainment, and what is going on in Scotland may provide examples to be followed elsewhere. The Scottish National party and the SNP Scottish Government recognise that education is the best avenue for social mobility. The SNP is absolutely committed to closing the gap in educational achievement between children from wealthy and low-income backgrounds. The Attainment Scotland fund supports more than 300 primary schools that collectively serve more than 54,000 primary-aged children living in the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland. That represents 64% of the total number of primary-aged children living in Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas 1 and 2.

The first seven councils to benefit from the £100 million attainment fund include Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire and North Lanarkshire, which covers my constituency. They have been allocated £11.7 million in 2015-16 to raise attainment in schools in areas of greatest deprivation. An additional 57 schools based in areas of concentrated local need across a further 14 local authorities will also benefit from £2.5 million from the attainment fund.

There is more to do, but the attainment gap is narrowing in Scotland. There have been annual increases in the proportion of school leavers reaching at least SCQF level 5—from 73.2% in 2007-08 to 84.4% in 2013-14—and the gap between the most deprived 20% and the least deprived 20% of pupils achieving that level has decreased from 36 percentage points in 2007-08 to 22 points in 2013-14.

As time is limited, I will try to come to a conclusion. A key figure for me is that UCAS figures for this year show that since 2006 there has been a 50% increase in university applications from 18-year-olds in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland. That is clear evidence that access to free higher and further education is working in Scotland, and that getting on has to be about the ability to learn and not the ability to pay.

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for staying within his time.

5.30 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate. I thought she spoke extremely well, particularly about the importance of the early years.

There were some great contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) spoke very well about the situation in London. The quote that he used about life chances being decided by postcode rather than potential is an important one.

The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) spoke very well about her constituency. I am pleased to hear a Conservative Back-Bench contribution today, because the previous two times that I have been a shadow Minister responding to child poverty debates there has not been

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a Tory Back Bencher to make a contribution. I am pleased that she felt able to come along and do that today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke very well about the influence and importance of good schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke with great authority in his role as the chair of the all-party group on social mobility.

Prior to coming to this House, I was involved for many years—well over 10—in Oxford admissions and examining work that could be done to address the problem of how we could attract applicants from a wider range of backgrounds. I was very proud to play a part in the Oxbridge ambassador for Wales project, which was run by my predecessor as the MP for Torfaen, Paul Murphy, who is now Lord Murphy of Torfaen in the other place. The project aimed to increase the diversity of Oxbridge applicants.

I was very sorry to see the Prime Minister’s attack in recent weeks on diversity at Oxford and Cambridge. Although I absolutely agree that there has to be greater diversity, the first thing that concerned me about the Prime Minister’s comments was the lack of acknowledgment of work that has already been done. Let me just give an example. In the period from 2005 to 2010, the number of applications to Russell Group universities rose far more quickly from students on free school meals than from students who were not. That is evidence of social mobility during those years.

The second thing that worried me was that the Prime Minister sought to avoid blame for the consequences of his own policies and to push it away somewhere else. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke, for example, about the abolition of nursing bursaries. However, there is a deeper point here. Let us remember that for all the talk of worklessness, 1.5 million children who are in poverty are in working households. That is what the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission says.

If we accept income as a measure of child poverty, which all Labour Members do, some issues must be extremely worrying, such as low pay, zero-hours contracts and the cuts to the universal credit work allowance that will be happening from this spring onwards, all of which affect people in work.

That brings me on to the central issue of how we measure child poverty, because measuring it is absolutely key. Let me just quote the Minister for Employment herself on 26 January 2016, and I look forward hearing her words endorsed by the Minister who is here today:

“Income is a significant part of this issue, but there are many other causes as well.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 72WH.]

If income is a significant part of this issue, why are the Government refusing to measure it? What possible rational explanation is there for them not doing so?

Clive Lewis: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I will happily and quickly give way.

Clive Lewis: One of the issues that the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) did not mention is that a quarter of all the children in Norwich are from low-income families. She neglected to mention that.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely powerful point and I say to the Minister who is here today, “Be careful about this issue of defining child poverty.” The Centre for Social Justice—with which, of course, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is uniquely associated because he founded it—says:

“Growing up in a single-parent household could count as a form of ‘poverty’”.

That is an absolutely unbelievable comment and I really hope that the Minister will take the chance today to distance himself entirely from it, and to criticise it as stigmatising lone parents.

Dr Huq: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I will quickly give way.

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): Very briefly, I call Rupa Huq to speak.

Dr Huq: I just wondered whether my hon. Friend was aware of Fiona Weir from Gingerbread, who says:

“Further stigmatising single parent families will do nothing to tackle child poverty. Family breakdown doesn’t cause child poverty. It is unaffordable childcare, low levels of maternal employment and poor wages—”

Andrew Percy (in the Chair): I call the shadow Minister.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I entirely agree with that point and I will conclude my remarks, Mr Percy. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said just before Christmas that,

“the existing child poverty targets…will be missed by a country mile.”

I sincerely hope that the Government are not simply trying to redefine child poverty to hide their own failure.

5.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): Thank you, Mr Percy, for calling me to speak. I am very proud to serve under your chairmanship, particularly because of your genuine interest in this topic, both as a former teacher at Kingswood High School in Bransholme and even now when, as a busy constituency MP, you find time to be a chair of governors at a local school, making a real difference in your community.

This debate is a real tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is continuing her tireless work in her constituency, including working at the local jobcentre, and vice-chairing the all-party group on youth unemployment. Time and time again, I have been impressed by her hands-on approach, which is making a real difference in her community. That is a real sign of local leadership and my hon. Friend is a real credit to Norwich North.

Social mobility is a topic that I am particularly interested in. I know that it covers many different Departments, particularly the Department for Education. I went to a school that was bottom of the league tables; my father died at an early age; and all too often people seemed to think that someone in that position would have no opportunity or aspiration. That was my calling to enter Parliament, because I believe that everybody deserves a chance in life, regardless of background.

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The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) both showed a real understanding of the opportunities and challenges. They both justified their growing reputations in this House and showed that they really understand the importance of creating opportunities, both within their constituencies and much more widely.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke and it was great to hear the namechecks for George McMillan and Terrie Askew for what they have done in terms of transformation. Again, it shows that under any circumstances real changes can be made—and good luck with the work experience scheme.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) provided a really good analysis of the sorts of challenges that exist, and I wish him good luck with his ongoing work with the all-party group.

I turn to the debate now. There are four fundamental components to the Government action on social mobility, so I will try to say something on each in the time I have. Turning to education first, we are determined to deliver educational excellence everywhere, so that every child—regardless of their background—reaches their potential.

In early years education, we are supporting parents of young children and investing in childcare at record levels. By 2019-20, we will be spending more than £6 billion on early years and childcare. I have seen in my own constituency what a difference this approach can make. In one of the schools, Seven Fields, on average the children would arrive one and a half years behind the national average, but through the leadership of the teachers and the headteacher, and working with the parents, the extra funding—

Nick Thomas-Symonds: Will the Minister give way?

Justin Tomlinson: I will be tough on time, but I may give way at the end of my speech.

In that school, the teachers were able to get those children back up to the national average. That is a real transformation, which had to start in early years education as well as in the traditional school years.

We have a clear focus on quality and our early years education system is underpinned by the early years foundation stage statutory framework. The EYFS profile data results for 2014-15 already show a 14.6 percentage point increase in the proportion of children reaching a “good level of development” by age five in the past two years.

In schools, 1.4 million more pupils are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, which is much welcomed by parents. We are introducing new measures to transform failing and coasting schools, including creating a national teaching service and sending some of our best teachers to the areas that need them most. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will encourage them to head to Norwich with their great skills. We have also introduced the pupil premium, which is worth £2.5 billion in 2015-16; in the case of Norwich North, that is £3.7 million of additional spending.

Also, £137 million has been invested in the Education Endowment Foundation to research and share best practice with disadvantaged pupils. There have been

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examples of really good best practice, and we should rightly do all we can to share that information as far as we can.

On wider education, we have opened 39 university technical colleges and a further 20 are in development. There is an UTC in Swindon, so I have seen what a real transformation UTCs can achieve with young people, transforming them into young adults with real skills.

The Prime Minister has committed to ambitious goals, whereby we will double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by 2020. We recently announced that universities will be required to publish admissions and retention data by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic class, and in 2016-17 universities expect to spend £745 million on measures to support the success of disadvantaged students. I fully support the Prime Minister’s determination to extend the national citizens scheme to all young people. There will be a complete transformation in young people of all backgrounds who take advantage of that scheme.

On the economy, it is key to a strong labour market that we have a strong economy, and the Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering that. Since 2010 there have been more than 2.3 million more jobs in every region and country of the UK, wages have been rising—for 15 months in a row now—and inflation of about 3% compared with 0% is making a big difference. That growth has been dominated by full-time and permanent jobs. Someone mentioned zero-hours contracts. They make up only about 2%, which is exactly what the percentage was in the heyday of the last new Labour Government.

Nearly two-thirds of the growth in private employment has been outside of London and the south-east, with the east of England, Scotland, the north-west, the east midlands, the south-west and the south-east all having higher employment rates than London. We have the introduction of the national living wage coming forward, and we continue to increase the personal tax allowance. We all recognise that the current system of welfare is too complex. There is broad support for the introduction of universal credit, which will be a much simpler system and will improve work incentives and provide named coaches to support people. We are also committing to the creation of 3 million more apprenticeships.