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I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister will be one of the awkward squad and that he will raise the
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issues that have been set out in the debate and speak robustly not just for Britain’s interests but for common sense, which suggests that many of the areas covered by the phrase “critical infrastructure” are not that critical—at least to Europe as a whole, although they might be critical for the interests of a particular nation state. Some things are critical and of serious interest; for example, nuclear power generation poses appalling risks to life if things go wrong, so there is clearly an international interest in it. We are heavily dependent on the supply of gas from Russia via a pipeline going through Germany, so we should take a great interest in that. With other Members, I recently attended a meeting in the House at which a German academic read a paper that suggested that Germany was working closely with Russia to make sure that gas went through Germany, because the Germans wanted to maintain a strong interest in the control of the gas supply. As we saw, Russia made life uncomfortable for Ukraine over gas supplies, so those aspects of critical infrastructure give rise to serious issues in which we and our European colleagues have an interest.

The key is to make sure that there is a hierarchy of risk and interests, but we should not get into deep water over—shall we say?—water, which is much more of a national provision. By and large, water is not transported between nation states, certainly not to Britain. Although the Welsh might complain that they are supplying water to us in England, we are still—I think—the same nation state. Some aspects can be put to one side, because they should not be covered. I have mentioned the areas of interest.

The proposals make a powerful case for nation states such as Britain to generate as much of their own energy as possible and to become less dependent on supplies from other parts of the world that are sometimes unstable and may not be friendly towards us in future. There is a powerful case for generating electricity safely and securely through tidal barrages, especially across the Severn and Thames estuaries, offshore wind farms, microgeneration and combined heat and power. Locally supplied generation and microgeneration is much less vulnerable to the risks we have been debating. Europe-wide structures for energy are much more vulnerable than local, domestic and microgeneration. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) speaks on the subject frequently and he is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of looking to renewable sources, and I urge Ministers especially to consider those that are local, micro, national and less vulnerable. Perhaps that goes rather wider of the debate than you might wish, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is an important issue.

I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister coming back from Europe having secured a common-sense agreement, having got positive answers to all the issues raised here and by the European Scrutiny Committee, and having spoken for the British national interest and for common sense.

2.10 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): As I indicated in an intervention on the Chairman of the Committee earlier, to a certain extent my concern turns on the manner in which these decisions tend to get taken by
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Government. I am not going to engage in a hostile confrontation with the Minister over this matter. As much as anything, it is a matter of attitude. The problem is as follows. Albeit that in 2004 the Council of Ministers asked for these questions to be considered, the reality is that in terms of the critical mass of the institutional changes, the attitude of mind—which is that everything should be Europeanised because that is the nature of the underlying concept of the European constitution, which has by no means been given up—means that all matters and questions of legal capacity have to be decided against the background of an assumption. That assumption is that if a choice has to be made, it would be better made at a European level than otherwise.

There is also the issue of terrorism, which the Committee has stressed in this context, noting the fact that it had not been dealt with properly in relation to the role of the European Union counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Mr. de Vries, who was brought into the issue somewhat late in the day. The fact is that there are often decisions—particularly in relation to matters of national security—where the question of why something is being done is in lower case. It is something that emerges only in the course of a debate of this kind. Of course, it is precisely because the European Scrutiny Committee is so diligent and accurate in its analysis—given our expert advisers and legal advisers—that we are in a position to be able to challenge the assumptions on which things otherwise would simply roll forward. For example, in some other countries—the Minister might take note of this— [ Interruption. ] The Minister is wandering around the House like a caged lion. I do not know whether he is a lion or a mouse.

Mr. McNulty: I was speaking to the Deputy Speaker. I was not prowling about like any sort of lion.

Mr. Cash: The Minister might find it quite useful to hear some of the arguments—

Mr. McNulty: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cash: No. The Minister might find it quite useful to listen to some of the arguments of those of us who have a little more experience than he does of some of these matters and the way in which the European Union has functioned. The plain fact is that the question of creeping competence, of which this matter is a good example, is the reason why not I by myself as the Member for Stone on his own, but the whole of the European Scrutiny Committee—the majority whose members come from the Minister’s own party—has come to the conclusion that it is important that this matter should be debated on the Floor of the House. The Committee has come to that conclusion responsibly and on the basis of considered advice.

I understand the restlessness of the Minister, but it would not do him much harm to listen to what is being said. Wandering around in that way clearly indicated that he was not interested in a word that was being uttered. He might just bear in mind that we are talking about national security and about the failure of the Government to be completely transparent about the connection between the proposals and terrorism. The
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bottom line is that the use of article 308—in relation to which the Minister says that protecting critical infrastructure

is an example of the very point that I am making. A gap is being filled in order to enhance the Europeanisation of this issue, which is of direct importance, as the Committee says in its report, to the fundamental question of national security. If we do not control our own national security, the Government are betraying this country in the context of what the Committee recommended. We on the Committee said:

We are debating the issues. The Minister knows in advance that there will not be a Division on this question, so, as I said before, he might just as well have given us a better explanation of the basis on which a satisfactory resolution of the outstanding concerns will be delivered. Time is running out, so I want to get on the record— [ Interruption. ] I was unable to be here then, but I know enough about the subject matter—and I am on the Committee—to know that the issue is of great importance, which is why we are debating it.

When we are talking about things such as the channel tunnel and other things that are susceptible to terrorist attacks, it does not matter what the Government may wish to put forward by way of an argument that the issues should be dealt with at the European level. Those issues are essentially a matter of national security. As we say in our report, it is a fundamental necessity that we retain control over these matters. That is why we want them to be debated. There is no need for me to go into all the detail. I am sure that the civil servants and the members of the
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European Commission will look at that. The important and simple point is that the Government, as usual—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair , pursuant to Standing Order No. 16(1).

Question agreed to.



Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7),

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Welfare Reform Bill

Lords amendments considered.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 1.

2.17 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 55.

Mr. Murphy: I am pleased to report to the House that just as the Bill left this place in a good condition, with a strong consensus, that approach was maintained in the other place, where all of those with a keen interest in this important issue played an important part in helping to maintain that consensus. There has been continued engagement with stakeholders, disability organisations and others. It is fair to say at the outset that that has been assisted by the consensus approach across political parties in this and the other place. The one exception is the Scottish National party, which played no role whatsoever in our proceedings at any part of the process. Indeed, today SNP Members have not shown up to their work.

There are five areas of the Bill and its policy aims that are the subject of amendment. I would like to talk about each briefly in turn. First, I will talk about the issue of the annual report on the operation of the revised personal capability assessment. Amendment No. 1 concerns the operation of the new benefit, the employment and support allowance. The amendment introduces a requirement for the Secretary of State to lay an annual independent report before Parliament on the operation of the revised personal capability assessment.

As I previously confirmed, it has always been our intention that there should be ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the revised PCA. I gave an undertaking on Report that there would be ongoing independent monitoring by the technical working groups for the first two years following implementation of the revised assessment. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton gave a similar undertaking in the other place and made a further commitment that monitoring would continue for the first five years following implementation and report to Parliament. That is reflected by the duration of reporting required by the amendment.

Lords amendments Nos. 2, 13, 15, 16 and 55 relate to health care professionals other than doctors carrying out a medical examination to provide information used in making a decision on entitlement to benefits. From the outset, the Bill provided for the use of heath care professionals in assessments for ESA. However, shortly after the Bill left the Commons, it became clear that the current legislation did not include the power to make full use of health care professionals in the provision of medical services for customers claiming other benefits,
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such as disability living allowance, attendance allowance and industrial injuries benefits. Lords amendment No. 13 will enable us to take full advantage of the skills that health care professionals offer in the delivery of medical services for purposes involving social security benefits.

Lords amendment No. 2 will commit us to using only health care professionals who are members of regulated professions. It gives a consistent definition of a health care professional across the benefit system. All health care professionals will, of course, be given full training. They will need to be approved by the Secretary of State before they are able to carry out assessments. Lords amendment No. 55 will ensure that all health care professionals carrying out medical examinations will be bound by the same duties of confidentiality as departmental staff with respect to information about individual customers.

Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 7 relate to the contracting out of welfare to work services. They will ensure that the Secretary of State cannot authorise a contractor to undertake decision making that could lead to sanctions under the ESA conditionality regime. The Government made such amendments to the Bill in response to concerns expressed about the possible problems associated with the contracting out of sanctions decision making. While, of course, there are potential advantages in moving decision making closer to front-line services, we accept that there is more to be done before we will be aware of how that will work in practice. We will thus not take such a power in the Bill.

The fourth group of amendments covers sanctioning following an eviction for antisocial behaviour. Lords amendment No. 9 relates to the housing benefit sanction following an eviction for antisocial behaviour and a refusal to accept support. We believe that the sanction will be an important power for local authorities to use in tackling antisocial behaviour in our communities. The amendment provides for a limit to the piloting period. The Government will thus be allowed to press ahead with piloting the scheme, but if there is to be a scheme in place after 31 December 2010, further primary legislation will be required.

We have made a commitment that piloting will be a key element of our plans. If the measure works as we intend and the threat of sanctions encourages antisocial households and families to engage in support programmes, the end date of 31 December 2010 that is specified in the amendment will mean that we will have sufficient time to learn lessons that could inform national design and possible implementation.

The fifth group is, by necessity, made up of technical drafting amendments. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee reported on the Bill and we tabled appropriate amendments following those reports. Lords amendments Nos. 8, 22 and 23 will mean that the regulations that will be made under the identified powers relating to entitlement to components and the loss of benefit will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Lords amendments Nos. 10 and 11 make it explicit that the powers in clause 40 relating to the use of social security information are to be used solely to encourage people to claim the benefits to which they may be entitled.

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Lords amendment No. 17 to schedule 3 will ensure that the Secretary of State will have an obligation to review the relevant ESA amounts in each tax year to determine whether they have retained their value. Lords amendments Nos. 21 to 54 will amend schedule 4 to provide a power to migrate those with an existing award of a benefit relating to incapacity or disability to ESA. The amendments do not affect the policy position that we have taken previously on the migration of existing customers.

I urge the House to agree to the Lords amendments to this important Bill. During the Bill’s passage, we have managed to maintain a remarkable degree of well-considered consensus between both sides of the House. Together we can be confident that the Bill will make a real and lasting change to the lives of many people who were written off for so long in the past.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s remarks. The modern Conservative party supported the principles of the Bill, the details of which required non-partisan, thorough and vigilant scrutiny in Committee here and in another place. I believe that it has been given such scrutiny. It has been hugely assisted by the advice, wisdom and insight of many groups and bodies that work hard and tirelessly to help those who need the support of a modern welfare state. I pay tribute to them as the passage of the Bill draws to its close.

The key purpose of Lords amendment No. 1 is to ensure that the scrutiny of the Bill’s operation continues long after it has been passed. The requirement for annual reports will put Ministers to the test when they explain how the new ESA is benefiting—as we hope and trust that it will—many claimants who are able to work, but need support to get back into work. We know that many such people want to work. A welcome improvement was made to the Bill in the other place—Lord McKenzie was the Minister—through the insertion of a provision requiring the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an annual independent report on the operation of the limited capability for work test and the limited capability for work-related activity assessment for the first five years after they came into effect.

I welcome the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform’s decision not to disagree with that proposition of the Lords. However, it is important that we underscore concerns that are being expressed by outside bodies about the new PCA. There is worry that the early stages of the design of the PCA have, albeit in a well-meaning way, been subject to dummy runs. It is clear we must get right something as important as a gateway to a new incapacity benefit—ESA—because it will affect millions of people. The Government have promised that the PCA will be rigorously evaluated. The Minister has explained that a two-part evaluation is being carried out to ensure that the revised PCA constitutes a fair, robust and evidence-based assessment of limited capability for work. However, we must be vigilant. We believe that the annual reporting requirement will deliver rigorous scrutiny.

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