I want to highlight the effects of welfare reforms on disabled people and their families and carers. The context of those reforms has already been mentioned, but I want to emphasise the effects of the proposed cuts—the 1%—in out-of-work benefits and the change from DLA

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to PIP. The economy is already depressed, with 6.4 million people lacking the paid work that they want, and 1.4 million people in part-time work who want full-time work, which is the highest figure in 20 years. We have already heard about the increase in living costs, with people having to choose between eating and heating, and cuts to local services—more than half my local council’s budget is being attacked—and social care. Those will have short-term effects on disabled people, but we must also bear in mind evidence about the impacts on life expectancy and the exacerbation of existing health inequalities. The cuts in motability allowance are just one example of how disabled people are being affected. I will finish now, Mr Chope, but you can see the scale of the issue.

3.6 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this debate.

It is important to discuss the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but a lot that has already been said in this debate makes for unhappy listening. The campaigns that exist about the effects of the Government’s welfare reforms on disabled people have led to an outbreak of fear-mongering and panic. It was important to have this debate to put a balanced argument on the record, so that people understand that the Government are doing all they can for disabled people and their families in a harsh economic climate.

The recent Welfare Reform Act was an attempt to help disabled people and their families. I welcome the fact that, in recognition of the additional needs that disability brings, all households with somebody who is receiving disability living allowance or constant attendance allowance will be exempt from the cap.

Kate Green: It is not absolutely correct that all households with somebody in receipt of disability living allowance will be exempt. If there is an adult non-dependent child in receipt of DLA in the household, that exemption will not apply to the main household.

Sheryll Murray: The hon. Lady is obviously going along the fear-mongering route, and perhaps the Minister will address that. The exemption will be extended to include a person in receipt of a personal independence payment, which will replace DLA for individuals of working age from April 2013.

The current system has its faults. One of my constituents has applied for DLA, because he is partially sighted and his sight is deteriorating rapidly. Medical records that were used in determining whether he was eligible for DLA were out of date, despite his ophthalmologist having issued up-to-date information more than once. My constituent was refused DLA, but he is appealing. I hope that, under the new system, he will receive what he needs, and that any appeals can be dealt with promptly and in a way that assists and protects those in need. Another constituent was so poorly that my senior caseworker had to go to his home to help him fill out his ESA and DLA forms. I want the Government to assure me that the application process will be accessible for the most vulnerable in our society and that there will be

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help for those who have difficulty with any application.

I will continue to fight for constituents who are not getting the benefits they need because of their disability. I am determined not to let the most vulnerable in our society suffer at the hands of bureaucracy. There were issues with the system as it stood, but I hope the Welfare Reform Act will address them. It does a wide range of things, such as reducing the culture of welfare dependency for those who can work. It has the intention of protecting and helping the disabled, and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

3.10 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this timely and important debate. The number of Opposition Members here is testament to the importance of this subject. It is excellent that they have come along to express concerns on behalf of their communities and of disabled people, who are up in arms.

I would like to challenge the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who suggested that Labour Members were somehow scaremongering about the scale and impact of the cuts. For the record, I have done a little research on my area, County Durham, and the impact is absolutely huge: changes to ESA will affect 26,000 people there. The Government’s 20% reduction in DLA funding and the predicted escalation in the case load will cost County Durham £12.83 million. In my constituency alone, £2.76 million of support for disabled people will be withdrawn as the migration to PIP occurs. Overall, County Durham is predicted to lose £11.59 million a year in income just from changes to tax credits. We could contrast that with what is happening in some of the more affluent parts of the country, such as the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is predicted to lose just £1.7 million. If we break the figures down according to population, we find that £77.22 is lost per working-age person in County Durham, compared with £17 in Kensington and Chelsea. That has huge implications for the local economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead mentioned the Chancellor, who said:

“Too often, when countries undertake major consolidations of this kind, it is the poorest—those who had least to do with the cause of the economic misfortunes—who are hit hardest.”

He suggested that that was

“a mistake that our country has made in the past. This coalition Government will be different.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 180.]

However, if we examine what has happened since the emergency Budget in June 2010, we find that disabled people and their carers have experienced a major drop in their income of £500 million. There is a huge credibility gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the practical implications of their policy on the ground.

According to the Scope-Demos report “Destination Unknown”, Britain’s 3.6 million disabled people in receipt of disability benefits will have become £9 billion worse off between 2010 and the end of this Parliament.

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Mrs Hodgson: I just want to add that Carers UK estimates that 10,000 carers could lose their carer’s allowance as a result of the changes to DLA. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a disgrace?

Grahame M. Morris: It is outrageous. Local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets. I thank Easington carers for the information they have provided to me. The number of carers’ centres across my county is going down from five to one, and carers report severe cuts in services, with many now being run using volunteers. So, yes, the issue is a huge concern, and carers are the unsung heroes of the community in many respects.

I will have to curtail my remarks, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about being led by the views of disabled groups does not hold water. A number of surveys have been carried out, and a commission led by Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson found that 450,000 disabled people and their families could lose up to £58 a week under the coalition’s universal credit reform—cuts so deep that one in 10 disabled households with children fear they may lose their homes, with many struggling to pay for basic essentials such as food and heating.

There is no doubt the cuts are taking money from people who are already struggling, and disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens. I call on the Government urgently to review the impact of their welfare reforms on those who are most in need.

3.15 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing the debate.

One group of carers I have particular concerns about is the parents of disabled adults who provide care and support for their sons and daughters at home. In the short time available, I want to focus on a couple of stories from my constituency that highlight not only the shortcomings of the work capability assessments, but the long-term impacts of caring on families’ income levels and on the health of carers. The big challenge is how to make the home situation sustainable for people who are very much the backbone of our community care system.

It is important and relevant to point out that Aberdeenshire was part of the pilot that introduced the new assessment scheme. We are therefore somewhat ahead of the curve in the implementation of the changes, and we are perhaps starting to see the impacts ahead of other parts of the country.

The first family I want to talk about have a severely disabled son with a range of complex learning and physical disabilities. It is clear from his assessments that he will never be expected to work, and he will need support all his life. However, he can walk without the use of aids—he cannot walk far, but he can nevertheless walk—so his mobility needs have recently been downgraded, which has had significant consequences for his family. Initially, the most serious was that he lost the gateway services that the council provided, which gave him access and transport to a day centre. I intervened in the case, and we have managed to get that decision rolled back, but the loss of part of my constituent’s mobility allowance has put a significant strain on his working parents, who

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juggle their working lives and shifts around his mobility requirements. They now have to use public transport in a rural area where services are not regular, and that is highly inappropriate, given their son’s medical condition, because they need to get him to regular hospital appointments in Aberdeen. That situation is not sustainable, and I am left wondering how long those parents will be able to continue to care for their son at home. They have made it clear they do not want him in residential care, but they are also clear that the situation they are in is simply not sustainable. The Government really need to address that issue.

The other family I want to talk about have been very unlucky in the health lottery. Until recently, the mother received ESA for her own health problems. She looks after a severely disabled husband, who is a bit older and who is basically housebound. She also looks after a disabled daughter, who is a wheelchair user with other, complicating health conditions. It is difficult in a short debate such as this to assess the extent to which the mother’s health problems have been compounded and exacerbated by that long-term caring. However, she now receives £29 a week because she has exhausted her entitlement to contributory benefits, and she must, as it were, live off her disabled relatives, although she has a small occupational pension from earlier in her life, when she was able to work. The family are trying hard to live with dignity in tough economic circumstances. They have not asked to be unhealthy; they have had to deal for a long time—well over 30 years—with a child who has severe disabilities and who has needed a lot of care and attention.

The impact on such families, the strain on social services and the long-term implications for our health care service and for residential care provision are significant. At a human and a social level, the system needs to address and support the needs of carers, and particularly those who are caring for an indefinite period.

3.19 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing the debate.

I am going to pre-empt the Minister, because I expect her to say in reply to the debate, as she keeps saying, “You”—not meaning any of us personally, but the Opposition—“did not have a cumulative impact assessment when you were in power.” However, I cannot think of a time when so many things have been happening simultaneously. The roll-out of incapacity benefit to ESA is still going on. We will have the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. We have housing benefit changes and universal credit. The reason we want a cumulative impact assessment is that what is happening is unprecedented. We need to know what will happen to people like my constituent who is 59 and has lived in her home for 30 years; she has severe back and hip problems and has just received a letter telling her she will lose housing benefit in April unless she can find somewhere to move to. Currently her grandchildren stay over for part of the week, which helps her family out. If she cannot do that any more, it will have an impact on their living and working arrangements. A ripple effect happens.

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I have not yet dared tell my constituent that almost certainly she will in due course lose severe disability premium, which she currently gets because she is in receipt of income support and has no carer in the household. That, doubtless, is still to come, but I do not want to make her too fearful. The things that she does know about are happening already. They are not a myth being created by us or the disability movement.

When people become ill they experience a fantastic loss of income anyway, and an increase in costs. The Government appear to be oblivious to that. If a couple have been working—one full-time and one part-time—and the one who worked full-time suffers a stroke and must give up work, they go down to half an income and ESA. At the end of a year, if the person in question ends up in the ESA work-related activity group, their income falls again: the ESA will be lost because it is contributory; they will not qualify for the non-contributory version—even though they have worked and paid in all their lives they will not get that—so their income will go down to that of a part-time employee. Again, there are ripple effects and cumulative effects on people at a time when they are incurring greater costs. Someone who is at home more than they were when they went to work will have increased fuel and transport costs to meet. The person who is ill and has a disability may always have been the driver for the household, so there will be taxi and increased public transport costs. People in that position already have a substantial reduction in income.

I am glad that the Minister realised that the initial plans for rolling out DLA into PIP were totally unrealistic, and that the time scale has been extended, but there will still be clear losers. Our accounts are not scare stories. The information comes from the Government’s figures: 170,000 people, on reassessment, will lose DLA altogether before October 2015. That is a lot of people. That, apparently, is reality in the Government’s terms. I ask the Minister please to agree to a cumulative impact assessment.

3.23 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on bringing the matter to the House. I thank him, because it is one that is close to my heart, for two reasons. The first is personal, because my brother, Keith, had an accident in which he received serious brain injuries. He had many years of rehabilitation, and although it did not mean he could lead the independent life he once had, he can have some sort of independent life, because of his carers and my parents. My parents give as much help as they can, but my mother is 81 and my father is 83, so they will be able to give less and less help. There will be greater emphasis on the NHS and what it does through carers, but also on the DLA award that helps Keith to have carers in the house on a more permanent basis. He relies on the award to pay for the help he needs. If that were to change—I hope that the Minister is taking this on board—his quality of life would change dramatically. He would have to go to a health facility elsewhere.

Is my brother the only person in my constituency to whom that has happened? Of course not: there are hundreds—indeed, thousands—who fit into that category. All over the country people have made me aware of

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that. Some of the hon. Members present for the debate attended Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s inquiry. In her report she has said that

“230,000 severely disabled people who do not have another adult to assist them could receive between £28 and £58 a week less”.


“100,000 disabled children stand to lose up to £28 a week”

and 116,000 disabled people who work risk losing up to £40 per week from payments towards additional costs of being disabled. Clearly, those figures cannot be ignored. Those are the facts of the case and that is how things will happen. A recent newspaper comment said:

“DLA helps disabled people to manage some of their own care needs; without this support, they could increasingly rely on family members.”

Yes, that is so if the family members are alive and accessible. If not, that cannot happen.

Other hon. Members have mentioned Carers UK and the Hardest Hit survey. Three in 10 disabled people stated that without DLA their care would not work. The figures are clear. Family carers provide an unmatched service in the United Kingdom, saving the Government millions upon millions of pounds each year. The Government must address care-in-the-home needs. There is only so much that families can do and while we are trying to save money care in the community cannot bear the brunt, but that is what is happening. Private care companies are under pressure and have less money available to them. That means that elderly people are living in unfit conditions, and much more is required of their carers.

Many young and single-parent families find it very difficult to cope. Young mothers try their best to do without the absent father, but they cannot juggle taking care of the home as well as looking after children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are many in that situation in my constituency, and that will be true of the constituencies of many other hon. Members. Those mothers have particular problems, trying to hold down a job of 16 to 20 hours a week to qualify for help, and they are under tremendous strain, which in turn leads to breakdowns in their health. Voluntary sector groups used to fill the gap, and sometimes they can, but mostly they cannot. Such a mother is under pressure, worried about DLA and the effect on her son, and about her increasing child care costs. Those problems multiply. I want to make a quick mention of Home-Start, a charity at home in my constituency and many others, which does marvellous work and can look after a child for a year for £422. Where else could anyone get that?

In conclusion, there is a degree of penny wise, pound foolish about what is happening—saving money in the short term, while in the long term there will be no saving. Worse, in the long term families will be pulled apart, disabled people will be isolated and the community will not function as it could, all because the big picture was not looked at. I urge the Minister to rethink the reform at this stage, consider its impact on individual lives, and put in place an efficiency package that saves money without doing it at the expense of decent quality of life.

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): I will reduce the time limit to three minutes now.

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3.27 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): At a recent AGM of Hackney carers association, carers raised concerns with me about many things. One was the carers allowance, which is only £55.50 a week. I want to ask the Minister to comment on the proposal by some bodies that that should be increased. Many carers in my constituency have been on low incomes for long periods of their lives already. It is not as if they have reserves to fall back on.

I wanted to touch on the general issue of disabled households typically being poorer, often because disability has meant being able to work less over time. Many carers have had to give up jobs to care. I am a former working carer, and I cared for two disabled adults. Annie, who sadly died in October, went to live with her sister, who was also a working carer. The Minister needs to understand that the pressure on carers is immense. As many hon. Members have mentioned, the cumulative impact of many changes can be very complicated.

When I cared for two disabled adults, at one point I dealt with 13 different agencies just to get the basics of care, support and medical support in place. Happily for me, at that time we were not dealing with many changes in the benefit system. I am not saying it was all perfect, but it was at least a stable system. All the changes coming hard on the heels of one another add stress to carers who must navigate through the system in addition to all the other challenges of being a carer. We live in a world now where people should be able to work and care, but we make it more difficult for them to do it. When I was a working carer my husband’s cousin was a carer for her sister. We worked because we had to—to pay bills and pay for our families. There was no option for us. Many people have taken the option of not working, and that has considerably reduced their household income.

I want to touch briefly on the work done by Contact a Family in my constituency, and ask the Minister to comment on the disability addition under universal credit, which seems to cut the weekly tax credit for families with a disabled child from £57 to £28. The issues for families with children are immense. If we do not get this right now, it says bad things about what our society wants to do for disabled people. Those families want to ensure that their children have the best start in life to increase their chances of independent living later on. Without proper support in the early stages, families can break down under the immense pressure. As we know, many marriages struggle under the strain of coping with a disabled child. I urge the Minister to comment on that point and to look more widely at the work of organisations such as Contact a Family, which, by the way, is quite supportive of some of the Government changes, but has some particular points that I urge the Minister to consider.

3.30 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this important debate. There can be no doubt that the UK Government’s programme of welfare reform will have a devastating impact on the incomes and well-being of thousands of disabled people in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

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One common theme runs across the many different types of benefits, and that is that “reform” means “cuts in income”, and disabled people are among the most badly affected. Next year, disabled people will feel the effects of even more stringent cuts. According to the impact assessment of the Tory-led coalition, the Government expect 500,000 people to lose PIP by 2015-16, compared with what would have happened under DLA. The reality is that the Government are trying to mould a benefit around these cuts, rather than around the needs of individual disabled people.

A Citizens Advice report in Scotland has estimated that the replacement of the disability living allowance with personal independence payments will require 225,000 working-age DLA claimants in Scotland to undergo an assessment, with some 75,000 in danger of losing their entitlement. Capability Scotland notes that all PIP claimants, including

“those with complex learning disabilities, severely visually impaired people, double amputees and deaf people”

will be assessed by an independent medical officer.

To reduce the number of claimants, everyone on DLA will have an Atos test. Where do I start with Atos? Many people fear the Atos test, and with good reason. In fact, my constituents believe that Atos stands for “another Tory oppressive system”. I tell them that that is not the case, because that would be letting off the Lib Dems too lightly. We are told that 40% of Atos test decisions were wrong and have been overturned on appeal. In my constituency of Inverclyde, the percentage is significantly higher; something like 60% of cases are overturned. I know that colleagues have had many frightened and worried constituents contact them about the medical assessment process.

The UK Government plan to halve tax credits for disabled children. The carers, too, will be hit hard. Welfare cuts will push families caring for ill or disabled relatives to crisis point. As the financial pressure on carers grows, there is the increasing risk that they will be unable to continue to care for their loved ones.

We have a Government who, while slashing the welfare budget, provide a £40,000 tax break for millionaires. The Government’s Welfare Reform Act 2012 crosses the basic line of decency.

3.33 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened it. In the little time I have, I want to focus on the carers of people with disabilities.

Carers’ organisations have told me that they fear that the welfare reform measures proposed by this Government will seriously undermine the ability of carers to care for people with disabilities and for older family members. On the reform of the disability living allowance, the Government’s original impact assessment said:

“We expect that the introduction of Personal Independence Payment will not affect the overall size of the Carer’s Allowance population”,

but analysis by Carers UK shows that there will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect on those who claim carer’s allowance. If the number of claimants of the allowance falls, as it moves to PIP, in line with the caseload for DLA, Carers UK estimate that 23,800 carers will be unable to claim carer’s allowance.

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On the housing benefit cap, it seems clear that around 5,000 households that will be capped in 2013-14 are expected to contain a carer. Those carers will see an average reduction in income of £105 a week. That is quite clearly at odds with the Government’s stated policy for the cap.

Around 1 million carers have either given up work or reduced their working hours in order to care. An average drop in income of £105 per week is a cruel way to treat carers who have given up their careers. It could also be counter-productive, in that it could make caring for a family member financially untenable and force more people into taking up the option of care homes or residential homes.

Many carers already face financial hardship. A survey of carers by Carers UK found that 45% of them were cutting back on essentials such as heating or food, and four in 10 were in debt as a result of caring. Carers are not choosing to give up work, but being forced into doing so by the crisis in social care. Carers UK found in a survey that 31% of working age carers gave up work or reduced their working hours to care because support services were not flexible enough, the person for whom they cared did not qualify for support, there were no suitable services in the area, or the services were too expensive or not reliable enough. There is not time now to go through how care charges have gone up.

In an earlier debate on social care, I talked about the impact of financial issues on the lives of carers. I have heard of one carer who had to take on a part-time cleaning job in the early evening because money was so tight. She puts her husband to bed at 4pm so that he is safe while she is at work. That is the reality.

Grahame M. Morris: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a case not just of money—pounds and pence—but of the dignity of disabled people?

Barbara Keeley: Indeed it is. The House of Commons has received reports that criticise care agencies for putting people to bed at 6 o’clock or 8 o’clock. This carer has to put her husband to bed at 4 o’clock. How must that feel to her? I have had further evidence that shows that that is not an isolated example. It is very common for carers who can no longer afford respite care to have to leave a person, perhaps wearing an incontinence pad, and hope that they will be safe in a chair while the carer has a hospital appointment or goes to work.

I question whether anyone here believes that it is right or fair to hit carers with further cuts to their income when changes already made by this Government are clearly hitting them. The manager of my local carers centre in Salford told me that, this Christmas, the centre’s staff are collecting and distributing food parcels to carers. That is something that they have not had to do since the 1980s. She said, “This does not bode well.” It does not, and it should not be happening to carers, who already give so much. I call on the Minister for a rethink on welfare reform for carers.

3.37 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Sometimes our role as MPs is to bear witness, so it is important that the words spoken by people with disabilities and their carers are put on the record. Professor Peter

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Beresford of Brunel university, working as the chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation network, undertook a massive survey of people with disabilities and their carers. The Spartacus report was published earlier this year, and has now been revamped. I just want to quote a few brief statements from people with disabilities. This is one person’s family member:

“John is so severely disabled he has to wear nappies and is fed through a tube. He is blind and deaf, cannot speak, suffers frequent seizures and requires 24-hour care. But he has now been told by a Government decision maker that he is ‘capable of work’ — and that he is no longer entitled to benefits. Family members have contacted officials who say that an appeal against the decision will have to be lodged.”

What happens when those appeals take place? Let me quote a person with a disability:

“It’s like doing a crime. I am a human being who needs additional support but here I am facing a panel who are making a decision on my life. I am tired of fighting officials who seem to think they know more about my disabilities and needs than I do. It now makes me feel ashamed of who I am. I am being punished for being disabled and feel powerless.”

What happens in the assessment itself? Here is a quote from a wife:

“I can honestly say there are lies that go into that assessment. I do shorthand and I took down word for word my husband’s whole assessment. What actually came back was practically the opposite of everything he said.”

Let me quote another claimant:

“They are now ordering claimants (and their companions) to surrender any notes they have taken during the interview. Before the assessment even began, both I and my companion were warned that we had to first agree first to hand over our notes at the end of the assessment. We were told that the notes would be photocopied and stored on a database. I was told that the penalty for refusing to agree to this condition was the immediate termination of the assessment.”

The implicit warning was that they would lose benefits.

What happens in the administration of these benefits? I will give another example. The client’s husband is in hospital in a coma. He was sent an ESA50 form. The client contacted the Department for Work and Pensions to explain the situation, and was asked to obtain a letter from the hospital confirming that the client’s husband was in a coma. The client did so, and sent it to Atos rather than the local benefit disability centre. The client was then sent a letter saying that they had failed to return the appropriate form and the client’s husband was no longer entitled to the benefit.

Let me save the final words for Karen Sherlock, 44. She was put in a work-related activity group. She was required to attend interviews. She suffered from a whole range of conditions. Her husband Nigel said it was a disgrace that she was refused benefits. Last year, she lost the long process of appeal against the decision. In April 2012, as a result of the time-limiting of employment and support allowance to one year, she lost her benefits. She won her appeal a few weeks later and was finally put in the support group. She died eight days later, on 8 June.

Read the Spartacus report. It gives example after example of the inhumane treatment of people with disabilities and their families. It shames any Government to treat people in this way.

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Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. I call Ann McGuire.

3.40 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I thank the many Members who have made a contribution to this debate, and indeed I also thank the many Members who sat here in Westminster Hall but did not speak; they did not make a contribution but wanted to show their support for my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who promoted today’s debate very successfully.

I have to say, in passing, that rarely have I seen a Government Minister so ill-supported by people on her side. Frankly, she is supported more by the number of officials with her than by Back Benchers.

I also thank the many organisations that have given us briefings, and indeed would probably have given briefings to many MPs from all parties. They include Scope, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, the British Medical Association, the Disabled People Against Cuts, the Hardest Hit campaign, Rethink, Action for Children, Disability Rights UK, Mind, Pat’s Petition, the Gateshead Carers Association and the Gateshead Citizens Advice Bureau, which of course are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, Carers UK, and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Many Members have commented on the Chancellor’s statement of 22 June 2010, in which he said that the Government would not grind the poorest into the ground. Frankly, what a difference two years has made. This is the same Chancellor who is now looking for more cuts from the Department for Work and Pensions. As many colleagues have said, there are many hidden costs to being disabled, which do not always compute.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the costs that has not been mentioned today is the additional cost of child care for a child with a disability, the benefit for which is being reduced under universal credit?

Mrs McGuire: Yes, and because of the width of the spectrum of impact that we are having to deal with, it has been very difficult to highlight every particular aspect of that impact. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue.

There is a hidden accumulation of disadvantages that this Government have consistently tried to hide, in the face of the evidence that has been presented to them over the past two years by some of the organisations that I referred to.

The Minister told me last week in response to my question about a cumulative impact assessment—I think this was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore)—that there had never been a cumulative impact assessment under Labour, as if that somehow absolved her from undertaking a cumulative impact assessment. I find that an astonishing answer, because no Government—neither Conservative nor Labour—have ever launched such a torrent of changes, with such a speed of change, in the way that this Government have done in tackling the support that

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we give to disabled people. I worked with disabled people during the premiership of Baroness Thatcher, and frankly I have never seen anything like this—never.

According to the figures, disabled people have dropped at least a massive £500 million in income since that emergency Budget statement two years ago, when the Chancellor said that he would not be breaking the backs of the poorest in our society. The cuts to the incomes of disabled households go up to more than £2,000 a year; they vary, depending on individual circumstances.

We can see what the impact of those cuts is. There has been the imposition of the 12-month rule on employment and support allowance, a benefit that is intended to support people who are too ill or too disabled to work. The Government were so stubborn that they would not even accept an Opposition proposal to extend ESA to two years, to give people the opportunity either to adapt to a long-term disability or to receive the treatment that they needed to take them out of illness. That change is underpinned by a flawed work capability assessment, which states that disabled people are ready for work when they are palpably not ready; we have heard examples of that today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead that we should not just attack Atos. There are issues to do with Atos and the professionalism with which it is conducting some of the assessments, but we should pin the responsibility on the Ministers who are supposed to be managing the Atos contract. If it is not the Ministers who are responsible—as is the way with this Government—there will be a civil servant somewhere who will have to accept some responsibility.

We have an appeals service that is logjammed, and many people, after months of uncertainty, find that their benefits are restored. Sometimes that happens—this shows the bizarre economics of this situation—after they have had their Motability car repossessed; several months later, they find that they are to get it back again. What sort of economics is that?

Although I welcomed some of the mitigation, or easement, that the Minister announced in the changes to the personal independence payment, there are still many descriptors that are causing concern. I appreciate that the Minister has only a few minutes to respond to the debate, but perhaps she will share with us details of where the new descriptors in activity 12 come from. It looks as though the 12 points needed for the enhanced mobility rate can be achieved solely by people who have only a physical impairment and who are not able to stand or move more than 20 metres. Perhaps she can tell the House how many people will lose access to their Motability vehicles as a result of this further tightening of the gateway. I point out to her that even in the 1970s disabled people qualified for those little blue single-seater cars if they were able to move more than 20 metres, aided or unaided. Talk about back to the future.

From April next year, families with disabled children will receive £1,300 less than they would receive under the current system. It is estimated that about 450,000 families will lose out under universal credit. Until the last couple of weeks, the Government gave the distinct impression—this was a clever dodge—that if a carer was in the same household as a disabled adult child, their carer’s allowance would not be included in the

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benefit cap. The Government have now had to admit that an adult disabled person will be assessed as being in a different household from their parents’ household.

Before the Minister says to me, “That’s always been the way; when an adult reaches the age of maturity, or the age at which they can receive benefits in their own right, they are a separate household”, I accept that is true, but what we never did—indeed, what no Government ever did before—was decouple a carer’s allowance from the disabled person whom it is intended to help. That is what this Government are doing.

I say to the Minister in all honesty that if this Government are so sure that what they are doing is right, and that, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) said, they have the best intentions as regards disabled people, why in heaven’s name will they not carry out a cumulative impact assessment? I have said this to the Minister and to the previous Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport: it is surely not beyond the wit of the best brains in the DWP to come up with a cumulative impact assessment that will prove either the Government’s case or ours.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) for securing this debate on such an important issue, and I welcome all contributions to the debate about how our welfare reforms will better support disabled people, their carers and their families.

The UK has a proud history of furthering the rights of disabled people and I am pleased to say that, even in these very tough economic times, the Government continue to spend around £50 billion a year on disabled people and their services, to enable those who face the greatest barriers to participate fully in society. That compares well internationally. We spend almost double the OECD average, as a percentage of our gross domestic product, with only Norway and Iceland out of the 34 OECD countries spending more, and we spend a fifth more than the European average. More money will be spent on disability living allowance and the personal independence payment in every year up to 2015-16 than was spent in 2009-10.

We are world leaders in dealing with people with disabilities, but we should not be complacent, because disabled people are not a static group and we have to support them every which way we can. Some 3.2 million disabled people are on DLA and, over a year, the impairments of a third of them will change. Some people might get worse, and some will stay the same, but some will improve and get better and will no longer get the benefit as they will not be entitled to it. We will, however, support those who need support, or more support. The Government are committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and play a full part in society, but money needs to be targeted more effectively to ensure that support continues to be available to those who need it most, that there is a lasting impact, and that interventions provide a fair deal for the taxpayer.

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Nearly half of disabled people are in work. Only 9% of working-age disabled people, and only 5% of those over the age of 25, have never worked. If we want to make a sustainable difference, we must do all we can to help more disabled people who can work to get into mainstream employment, and support them to stay in work. We know that many disabled people want to work but feel that the risk of losing their benefits is too great. By simplifying the benefits system and ensuring that work pays, universal credit will remove the financial risks involved in taking the first steps back into employment, and will increase the incentives of working, even if that work is for just a few hours a week. Universal credit will provide unconditional support to disabled people who are not expected to do any work.

Disability living allowance is an outdated benefit that has not been fundamentally reformed since it was introduced in 1992, and both sides of the House agreed that a change was needed. The reforms present an opportunity to start afresh, keeping the best elements of DLA that disabled people value, but bringing the benefit up to date and making it fit for the 21st century.

Debbie Abrahams: Does the Minister think that articles 19 and 20 of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities are compromised by what the Government are doing in, for example, removing the Motability allowance from about 500,000 people?

Esther McVey: Of course we do not believe that the rights of disabled people are compromised. As I said at the start of my speech, we aim to strengthen and support them in every way we can.

The personal independence payment will be easier to understand and administer, and will be financially sustainable and more objective—the payment has not been so to date. It will be better targeted at those in most need. Throughout the development of the payment, we have consulted widely with disabled people and have used their views to inform policy design. It has taken more than two years of intense consultation, of listening and of working to adjust the criteria and the assessment, to get it right. We listened to people’s concerns about the speed of reassessments and, as I announced last week, we will now carry out a slower reassessment timetable to ensure that we get it right. The peak period of reassessments will not start until October 2015. Furthermore, the Government confirmed in last week’s autumn statement that disability benefits will continue to be uprated in line with inflation.

Carers provide an invaluable service to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and we want to ensure that they continue to get the support they need. We have committed to linking carer’s allowance to receipt of either rate of the daily living component of PIP, which is an important safeguard for carers. Our earlier analysis indicated that the link to PIP would result in broadly the same number of carers being entitled to carer’s allowance, even though there would be some churn between those who are newly entitled and others losing entitlement. Now that we have finalised the PIP assessment criteria we are, of course, considering that, and our objective remains to ensure that people caring for those with the greatest need get the right level of support.

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Barbara Keeley: The Minister is right to comment on carers, but does she see how deeply unfair it is to apply the benefit cap to them? They will lose £105 a week. This stuff about households and the way in which they are defined is just nonsense; 5,000 carers should not lose out.

Esther McVey: I will explain to the hon. Lady why the changes have to be brought about. At the moment, there are 1 million spare bedrooms, 250,000 households living in overcrowded conditions and 1.8 million households on the waiting list, so we have a size criterion in the private sector, and we must get this right. We have to support people. We have to work with what we have, and we will introduce the changes because we have to get this right—it has not been right, and the previous Government left it to get into this predicament.

Barbara Keeley rose—

Esther McVey: I will not give way.

Work must always pay more than benefits, and that is why we are introducing the cap on the amount of benefits that working-age people can receive. It is not reasonable or fair that people out of work can get an income from benefits that is greater than the average weekly wage for working households. We understand, however, that disabled people face extra costs, and that is why we are exempting from the cap households receiving DLA, PIP or the support component of the employment and support allowance.

It is fair that the benefits system should support people in public housing in the same way as it does those in private housing, but we have made changes to the housing benefit regulations, in recognition of the fact that some people need an additional room for an overnight carer who lives elsewhere. We have also listened to concerns about disabled people living in significantly adapted accommodation, and have announced additional discretionary housing payment funding of £30 million for 2013-14, to cover both that group and foster carers.

Instead of simply cutting money from everyone, we chose the more difficult but principled option of modernising the benefit and focusing support where it is needed most. PIP will be awarded on the basis of fair, consistent and objective assessments, and such assessments are not in place at the moment. The assessments have taken two years to develop. We consulted with disabled people and made key changes as we received their feedback.

Although they are different assessments that will work in different ways, we have learned from the experiences of the work capability assessment—something that the Opposition brought in—and we had to introduce Professor Harrington, who produced recommendations that we are still working through, to get this right. That will enable us more accurately and consistently to ensure that support is targeted at those who face the greatest barriers to leading independent lives. More than a fifth of PIP recipients will get both of the highest rates, worth £134.40 a week, compared with only 16% of those who are on DLA at the moment.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving way when time is so short. I have listened carefully to everything she has said, and what I do not

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understand, at the end of it, is this: why will disabled people be financially worse off, when she says that everything in the garden is rosy? I truly do not understand how she can say that, when every day on which we have a surgery we face people coming in to say how they are suffering under the Government’s policies. I do not understand—

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. That is enough.

Esther McVey: Once universal credit has been introduced, many disabled families will receive more support than they do now, with the higher rate of support for all disabled children who are registered blind, for example. Households with one or more disabled adults will keep up to £647 a month—some £7,000 a year—of their earnings before seeing any reduction. Universal credit also offers a more flexible system for people whose condition and ability to work fluctuate. No one whose circumstances remain the same will lose out in cash terms as a direct result of the move to universal credit—there will be protection.

As we have talked about the cumulative impact, I will say that we have published impact assessments on reforms to workplace pensions, the child support regulations, automatic enrolment, PIP, universal credit and the benefit cap—the list continues. Labour embarked on a number of reforms, including moving from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, the introduction of local housing, and changes for lone parents, on which no cumulative impact assessments were done, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) said. It would have been far simpler to do a cumulative impact assessment, but because of the shift and the fact that the measures will not be in place until 2017-18 we have taken the advice that such an assessment would not be possible in its entirety. These are principled reforms, and we should all be proud that we are delivering them.

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Votes for 16 and 17-year-olds

4 pm

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, and I thank you, Mr Chope, for allowing me to open the debate, in which I will call for the voting age to be lowered to 16. It is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship.

I am grateful to be granted this debate and to initiate discussion about an issue that many people across the country are currently considering. As Members know, the Scottish Government recently announced that, in the upcoming referendum of autumn 2014, 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to take part in the ballot. That decision to lower the voting age will enfranchise 8.2% of the UK’s 16 and 17-year-olds. The decision has reignited the issue of votes at 16 at a national level.

With that in mind, it seems the right time to reconsider lowering the voting age to 16 in all elections and referendums held in the UK. It would be wrong to send the message that it is right for some of the UK’s 16 and 17-year-olds to be deemed capable of voting while others are not. In July 2012, the devolved Welsh Assembly, in a debate on the issue, voted on a motion expressing support for lowering the voting age to 16 that had cross-party support.

The Minister will know that constitutional reform, including lowering the voting age, is not devolved and, therefore, the responsibility for making that happen still rests with the UK Government. For the sake of a more equal, inclusive political system across the whole UK, the Government and the Electoral Commission must consider extending the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds across the country. With recent developments, this seems the opportune time to start revisiting the issue.

In our society, we rightly demand respect from young people and often require them to act and behave like adults. At the same time, however, society should respect young people’s views and aspirations.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote would enable engagement with younger people, by allowing the House to hear what they want us to do for them?

Julie Elliott: I could not agree more with that valuable point, which I will address.

Some 16 and 17-year-olds hold positions of great responsibility and already contribute much to our society, and they should be given the opportunity to influence key decisions that directly affect their lives and communities. We should ensure that they and their issues are represented.

In law, as a society, we already allow 16 and 17-year-olds to give full consent to medical treatment, to leave school and enter work or training, to pay income tax and national insurance, to obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right, to consent to sexual relationships, to get married or enter a civil partnership, to change their name by deed poll, to become a director of a company, to join the armed forces and to become a member of a trade union or co-operative society. Granting them the vote would align their responsibilities with their rights as citizens. Surely, it cannot be right that we ask a young man or woman to serve their country

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bravely by joining the armed forces without recognising their contribution or giving them the choice to influence their future in return.

There is an old American saying: no taxation without representation. As a citizen benefiting from this country, 16 and 17-year-olds are expected to pay tax yet, by being excluded from the right to vote, they have no say on how that money is spent. With rights come responsibilities, but it should work both ways: with responsibilities should come rights.

Across the country, 16 and 17-year-olds are demonstrating that they can make such complex decisions and take on wide-ranging responsibilities. They are actively showing, in practice, their willingness to make a positive difference and contribution to our society. We should give them the chance to make a difference by empowering them further through recognising their right to influence decisions that will affect their future. That is also reflected in public opinion. In a recent poll carried out by The Daily Telegraph,53% of the population said that they are in favour of lowering the voting age to 16.

I pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Votes at 16 coalition on promoting and raising awareness of the issue. The coalition is made up of more than 70 organisations, including the British Youth Council, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the Trades Union Congress, the Co-operative and the National Union of Students.

Lowering the voting age to 16 would further encourage youth democratic engagement. There are more than 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in this country.

As the Member of Parliament for Sunderland Central, I often visit schools in my constituency to talk to students and young people about my job and what it means to represent them. The 16 and 17-year-olds I have met on such visits have shown that they are knowledgeable and interested in the world around them—from the Arab spring in the middle east and the effects of climate change to youth provisions in their own neighbourhoods. They are also passionate people: passionate to learn more and to participate. They have demonstrated to me that they are more than capable of engaging with the democratic system, as much as any other citizen.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems that we have in this country is voter turnout? When I was elected, turnout was 65% of those on the electoral register; in the first election in the area in which I voted, turnout was 83%. That is one of the important reasons, as sixth-form students at Ysgol Dinas Brân, who put me through my paces at election time, reminded me.

Julie Elliott: Anything we can do to encourage people to participate is a good thing for our democratic process.

Some 16 and 17-year-olds have carried out their own research into the issue and have ended up lobbying me on my visits about their right to vote. Last month, we saw members of the Youth Parliament take to our usual seats in the House of Commons. More than 300 members from across the UK, elected by their peers, participated

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in debates. More than 250,000 young people aged between 11 and 18 years old voted for the issues they wanted to see debated, which is a huge increase on the 65,000 votes the previous year. Those young people, representing their peers and their equivalent constituencies, did themselves proud. They were an inspiration to watch and could give some of us a run for our money.

Since the introduction of citizenship classes, that rise in democratic processes among young people is far from unusual. Across the country, thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds are coming together to engage in direct democracy and to encourage community participation and leadership. In the last academic year, more than 590,000 young people voted in youth elections, and 85% of young people now go to a school with a school council that works with staff to make positive improvements to the school. We might also note that both the Labour party and the Conservative party give their members the right to vote for the leader of their political party from the age of 15.

A generation of 16 and 17-year-olds are emerging from the education system well equipped to understand, engage and participate in democracy. Every 16-year-old receiving school education will have completed citizenship classes, so they know and understand the principles of democracy. We would, of course, hope that lowering the voting age will further their interest in politics. Turnouts are already low among young people in our elections. Engaging them earlier in the process would, I hope, raise participation, thereby helping to raise turnouts in elections.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): At a recent meeting of the all-party group on youth affairs, where the issue was debated, a small number of the young people present did not believe that they should have the vote at 16, but the main reason that they gave was that young people do not have enough knowledge. Does my hon. Friend agree that if they do not have the knowledge at 16, when they have left education, they will be no more knowledgeable at 18? Giving them the vote would put much more onus on people to teach young people about politics at an earlier age.

Julie Elliott: I could not agree more. If having enough knowledge to understand what one is voting about were a prerequisite, it would rule out many people.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a clear case. As somebody who has spent pretty much all my working life with 16 and 17-year-olds, and who has worked for the past two years with Members of Parliament, I must say that 16 and 17-year-olds have as much to say and as much stake in things as we do.

Julie Elliott: Absolutely, and they often say it with much more passion and punch than we do. Young people of 16 and 17 know and understand the principles of democracy. We hope that lowering the voting age would further increase their interest in politics. Election turnouts among young people are already low. We would raise participation.

Many countries have already granted their young people the right to vote, albeit with some conditions, including the Isle of Man, Austria, Brazil, Germany and Norway. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary

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Assembly has also urged the Committee of Ministers to encourage member states to reconsider the age-related restrictions placed on voting rights, to encourage young people’s participation in political life.

It seems to me that there is a strong case for giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote. I will therefore discuss briefly what I would like to see happen to progress the issue. I believe that the Government should consider improving citizenship education for young people, to be followed by a free vote in Parliament on reducing the voting age to 16. Indeed, the Labour party pledged to do so in our 2010 manifesto.

I entirely support citizenship classes, but I believe that they could be improved yet further. I would like to see the Government commission a report on how best to improve and expand citizenship education to raise standards, with the intention of making parliamentary time available to debate it. I would then like to see a commitment to providing a free vote in Parliament on lowering the voting age to 16.

I recently tabled some parliamentary questions to the Deputy Prime Minister about what representations had been received on the issue and what research had been commissioned recently. I was disappointed to be informed in the answer from the Cabinet Office that no recent research has been undertaken or commissioned and that there is no consensus within the Government for lowering the voting age to 16.

I remind the Minister that the Liberal Democrats made a commitment in their 2010 manifesto to introduce voting rights from the age of 16. I hope that she will consider my arguments for lowering the voting age and for commissioning research into the matter.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned that there was no commitment in the Conservative party’s manifesto or the coalition agreement, but that has not stopped the coalition from coming forward with ideas that were not part of the agreement. Surely, it could do so here.

Julie Elliott: That is a good point.

Lowering the voting age to 16 will inspire young people to get involved in our democracy and extend the rights due to them. Our 16 and 17-year-olds are ready and willing to participate in our democratic system. The next step is surely to grant votes at 16, which would empower young people to engage better in society and influence the decisions that will affect their future.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this debate and for her considered remarks. I also thank other colleagues for their contributions.

It falls to me to respond to some of the questions that she raised, and I am happy to do so. I start by noting what has already been noted: Parliament has taken no fixed view over time on the question whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. Many Members hold diverging views on both ends of the spectrum, often passionately. It is fair to say that those differences

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reflect a divergence of opinion in wider society; I simply do not think that there is an open-and-shut case for us to discuss.

I shall tackle head-on the comments about my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. He has made clear on several occasions his personal view that he would like votes at 16, and that is the view of his party. His views are shared by many not only in his party but across the House. For my own part and that of the Conservative party, I happen to disagree. I have yet to be convinced by the evidence available, although I look forward to drawing it out somewhat in the few minutes available to me. I am far from alone in suggesting that position. The most recent research that I am aware of, which I shall come to in a second, backs that up in that it shows that people remain to be convinced of the merits of the case.

On the points made by Members, the Votes at 16 coalition circulated a briefing to all hon. Members before this debate that clearly set out a range of arguments in favour of lowering the voting age to 16: 16-year-olds can leave school, get a job and pay tax on their earnings, marry and join the armed forces. The last point gives me cause to dwell on the list for a second. It can be done only with parental consent, and Ministry of Defence policy is that no one under 18 will take part in combat. The situation is by no means as straightforward as a simple reading out of the list of ages would suggest.

Wayne David: Will the Minister explain the Government’s thinking? If they accept that 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in the referendum on Scottish independence, why can 16 and 17-year-olds not vote in elections more generally? What is the difference?

Miss Smith: The hon. Gentleman is as mischievous as ever. He knows very well that, in the case that he has just cited, it is the desire of the Scottish Government that that should be the franchise for the referendum. The Government of whom I am a part are led by the Prime Minister, who signed an agreement with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Scotland that we shall enable a referendum to take place for Scotland. That is quite a different thing, and it remains UK Government policy that the franchise should be for those 18 years old and over.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Does the Minister not feel that there might be some dangers in conceding as the Government have done in Scotland—in a way that might not be as well controlled as if the Electoral Commission had had full control—rather than doing so properly for the country as a whole? That would have been the right way to proceed.

Miss Smith: The UK Government’s view is that many things would be better if we were to stay together as a United Kingdom. That might be one of the many questions that should be raised in the next two years of the campaign. However, the hon. Lady raises a wise point in the context of the debate. The Scottish Government have sought that franchise and Westminster has agreed a memorandum of understanding enabling them to do so, but there is no consensus within the UK Government on the age of franchise overall.

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The hon. Member for Sunderland Central rightly spoke of the many things that society seeks to enable 16-year-olds to do, but I wish to balance that by noting the many things that society and Parliament do not believe that 16 and 17-year-olds should yet be able to do. They include smoking, buying alcohol, placing a bet, standing for election and serving on a jury. The fact is that there is no standard age of majority in the United Kingdom and no single point at which one moves from being a child to being an adult. That may be a matter for debate in itself, but it is right to note that the rights and responsibilities that we accord young people in society build over time. There is no single on-off switch.

I am familiar with the argument, repeated in the Votes at 16 coalition briefing, that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote would help engage young people in our democracy and political processes at an earlier age. I should like to mention some of the evidence available. I remain unconvinced that we might achieve that worthy aim by this method. I am all for young people taking part in politics—I hope that any hon. Member who observed the age at which I entered the House appreciates that—but we have to do lots of things to achieve more young people being involved in politics; it is not only a matter of the voting age.

Let me turn to a couple of points of evidence. First, the Youth Citizenship Commission, which the previous Government set up, looked at ways to develop young people’s understanding of citizenship and increase their participation in politics. As part of that, it considered whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. It reported in summer 2009 and felt unable to make a recommendation on whether the voting age should be lowered. It suggested that there was a lack of evidence available regarding the merits of votes at 16 and noted that there were, as I have already said, vigorous and strongly held views on either side of the debate. The YCC’s view was that the voting age is not the principal factor in encouraging young people’s interest and involvement in politics and citizenship.

Many wise points are made in the YCC report, but it did not find significant evidence on which to base a recommendation. I am sure that all hon. Members agree about what it set out to consider: civic awareness, understanding, maturity of judgment, the place of citizenship education, the impact on turnout and responsible voting, the impact on young people’s perceptions and civic activity and the administrative issues that would go with such a change, all of which are valuable elements in that research and in the debate that we ought to have if we had longer than half an hour. The YCC found that

“the issue is not the principal factor in encouraging young people’s interest and involvement in politics and citizenship.”

Where else might we turn for evidence? I am also interested in a YouGov poll released in November 2009, shortly after the YCC report, done for the Citizenship Foundation, which I am sure all hon. Members have worked with in their time as parliamentarians. It does much good work. The poll looked at 14 to 25-year-olds. The point that I want to draw out of it is that, although it might be expected that 16-year-olds would say, “Yes, please. I am interested in majority and the vote,” as per the figures that the hon. Lady used, in that category of

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14 to 25-year-olds—some on either side of the grouping—54% are against, 31% are for and 15% do not know. Those figures should provoke enough thought to cause us to stop and consider not only the range of views, but the high number of those who do not know, which is a matter that we might discuss.

The hon. Lady mentioned turnout, as did the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). We all want higher turnout and greater participation in the electoral process, but a relevant fact here is that, since the 1997 election, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds, who can vote, has fallen from 51% to 44%. Registration among young people is lower than for other population groups. Far be it from me to rest this debate on a point of mathematics—no doubt, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) will realise this—but if participation followed what we see already in that most youthful age bracket, turnout overall would fall, and that would not be the outcome that we were focusing on. That is a dry maths point, but the broader point is there and can be brought to life for people. We do not want lower turnout. We want turnout to be higher. Is lowering the voting age the tool to achieve that? I am yet to be convinced of that, but this debate does good work in addressing the matter.

An issue of engagement goes far beyond the franchise. We in the Government are trying to deal with that among some of the other activities that we are running. For example, in the pilots of the Bite the Ballot programme, we are talking to young people in schools and colleges— I was with a group in Norwich doing that in the past few weeks—about the importance of registering to vote. That is in the context of individual electoral registration. I am amazed that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has not yet mentioned that this afternoon, but I should be delighted to take it up whenever he wishes. All hon. Members agree that it is important that the individual right and responsibility to register and to vote should be treated carefully and wisely.

Wayne David: The Minister has provoked me. She mentions consultation with Bite the Ballot, for example. Surely she will have picked up that that organisation, like all the others that she has engaged with regarding individual electoral registration, supports votes at 16. Have they not persuaded her yet?

Miss Smith: I am afraid that they have not. I look forward to hearing a conclusive argument, if there is one, that takes the majority of society with it. I must return to the point that we in Parliament seek to represent our constituents. I could not honestly say that a majority of my constituents would want me to support votes at 16. I do not think that that is so. There is wide spread of views throughout society. Some of the stats that I have mentioned back that up and give us food for thought. There is no single magic bullet for increasing youth engagement in politics. The franchise is but one factor, as the Youth Citizenship Commission shows.

Wayne David: For me, the bottom line is that, if a young person aged 16 can give full consent to medical treatment, leave school and enter work or training, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain tax credits

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and welfare benefits in their own right, consent to sexual relationships, get married or enter a civil partnership, change their name by deed poll—

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief.

Wayne David: I am just coming to the end. They may also join the armed forces and become a company director. Surely, if all those things apply, logically, why should voting be exempt?

Miss Smith: Mr Chope, if I had more time than you might allow me, the direct answer would be that that is because the following things do not apply when a person is 16: holding a licence to drive any vehicle, except certain heavy ones, engaging in street trading, holding an air rifle, etc. I do not wish simply to read out the other half of the list. The point is that, as I have said, a range of activities signal majority from 16 through to 18. Indeed, there are eight of them, on certain counts.

Nic Dakin: I compliment the Minister on her engaging contribution to the debate. However, I have not heard any reason for not giving the vote at 16. I hope that she welcomes an ongoing debate about this, so that we can take it forward together.

Miss Smith: I welcome that debate and welcome everything that has gone into this debate. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central on securing the debate. I welcome the interest that is regularly shown in this debate by those whom we seek to represent and work with. I welcome that not only as a younger person in politics, but as a person who seeks to have other young people involved in politics, as I seek to take the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill through its remaining parliamentary stages. It is vital that registration and turnout increase in this country. We all seek to achieve that.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Caerphilly an emphatic yes, a tick in the box or franchise on a plate, because I do not think that there is consensus in the country for it. That is not reflected in what our constituents ask us to do. There are divergent views. Accordingly, there is no consensus within the Government on this issue. I shall not hide that fact. It was not included in the coalition agreement for Government, so there are no plans for a change in this Parliament.

I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive suggestions about citizenship education, which I will be sure to pass on to my colleagues in the relevant Departments. I look forward very much to continuing this debate and to all of us doing everything that we can to encourage young people to play the fullest possible part in civic and democratic life.

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Outsourcing of Public Services

4.29 pm

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I called for a debate this afternoon on the outsourcing of our public services. I am grateful to Social Enterprise UK, in particular Celia Richardson, for putting together the report, “The Shadow State”, and for raising this important matter and providing fresh insight.

Although politicians can easily become fixated on the high-level discussions in politics, we need to remember that one of the most important roles of government for most people is the provision of high-quality, front-line public services. Over the past 200 years in Britain and throughout the world, Government have become more and more central to the delivery of services vital for millions of people: health care, child care, policing, prisons, helping people back to work, education and transport are just a few of the areas that the public sector reaches. Since 1945, Britain has seen a vast centralisation of such responsibilities away from the local level and from independent organisations and towards central Government. In 2010 prices, the budget has gone from £234 billion in 1945 to £660 billion.

A large proportion of the budget has been spent on public services, and we have seen massive improvements in many areas. I am proud of some of the achievements that have been secured, but we face difficult economic times and cannot expect to keep spending large quantities of money in order to increase the quality of public services. The vast structures of the public sector, which were appropriate in the 1940s and ’50s, are now starting to struggle to deliver the improvements in services and the productivity increases that we need for the decades ahead.

Over the past 20 years, Governments of all colours have increasingly turned to the private sector for delivery of public services, in order to reduce costs and to provide better outcomes. Oxford Economics has estimated that the current outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82 billion, representing 24% of the total spend on goods and services by public services. Rightly, therefore, in July 2011 the Government released their “Open Public Services” White Paper, which sought to lay out the future direction of public services through five key principles: first, wherever possible to increase choice; secondly, to decentralise public services to the lowest appropriate levels; thirdly, to open public services to a range of providers; fourthly, to ensure fair access to public services; and, fifthly, to make public services accountable to users and taxpayers alike.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a recent Confederation of British Industry report stated that more opportunity for private and independent sourcing of public services could produce savings of £22.6 billion, while maintaining the quality of service? Is that what we should be looking at?

Chris White: I appreciate both the point made by the hon. Gentleman and the CBI’s report. I will be coming to some of those issues later in my comments.

I support those five principles, which I am confident that Members in all parties support as well. The Government have been clear that they are seeking to

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increase the amount of public services delivered by independent organisations. Seymour Pierce has predicted that the value of the public services sector will increase to £140 billion by 2014. That is a huge amount of public money and, rightly, we should be concentrating on how that money is spent and on how we ensure maximum benefit for our community. A concern, however, is that the principles outlined in the “Open Public Services” White Paper, to make our public services more accountable, more transparent and more in the control of communities, have not been realised in practice.

One deep concern is explained in the Social Enterprise UK report, “The Shadow State”, which has highlighted a significant lack of transparency and accountability, with information from those delivering our public services hard to come by. It also highlighted the increasing dominance of our public services by a small group of large multinational businesses and the difficulties that small business, charities and social enterprises have experienced in accessing provision of our public services.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): My hon. Friend is a champion of social enterprise in the House, and we pay great tribute to his work. He is making a point about large private sector organisations. Is he, like me, sceptical about the big state, but also sceptical about big private corporations? The Government are making some strides in promoting local organisations, but does he believe they are being somewhat timid in their agenda to promote social enterprise locally?

Chris White: My hon. Friend is also a champion of such issues. My speech is about that very subject: the change from public sector monopolies to, perhaps, private sector monopolies. We should be sceptical about that, as he said.

We need to be clear that, if we are opening our public services, we are doing so to achieve what is best for our communities, in a way that gives choice to commissioners and service users and that ensures appropriate levels of accountability. Unless the Government are able to deliver on their principles, we will not get the outcomes that we want from public sector outsourcing.

Over the past two years, through my work on the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, I have had the opportunity to speak to many community organisations and social enterprises about the Government proposals for opening up public services. Most are keen to engage in the process and to deliver services that are important to their local community. There appears, however, to be a number of obstacles to their involvement, some of which have been highlighted in the report.

First, the size of many contracts is a problem. I appreciate that commissioning on a large scale can create efficient economies of scale, but those are not the only economies that we should be focusing on; the most useful economy is secured through successful outcomes. Large contracts do not always lead to better outcomes, and can increase costs in the long term. For example, the UK Border Agency issued £1.7 billion in contracts for asylum-seeker services in March this year, but each of the contracts was for more than £100 million, completely locking out our charities, social enterprises and small

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businesses. The Work programme, in which £3.3 billion of contracts were awarded, saw one quarter of the contracts go to one company. That is not the opening- up of public services. Only a handful of organisations can bid for contracts of such size. More accessible contract sizes would go a long way to change the situation, as well as enabling a larger degree of social value, as such contracts are able to target additional benefits to be created through the commissioning process.

Secondly, there is an issue of governance and transparency. Despite extensive research, it is difficult for the public to access information about many public sector contracts. If I or my constituents have questions about state-delivered public services, we may ask questions in this place or through correspondence with Departments to get the appropriate answer. Private companies, however, are often not so willing or forthcoming with information, leaving a sense of unease among the public. Only greater levels of transparency and accountability can change that. I fully support the Government’s efforts to provide details on public spending over £100,000 at both central and local government level. That transparency should and can be extended to all public service providers. We cannot have one rule for public sector organisations and another for private sector providers. I appreciate that some information will be commercially sensitive, but I am confident that we can find a method that balances the public’s right to know with commercial privacy.

There should also be a central register of public sector contracts, both local and national, that are being provided by independent organisations, whether private sector companies, social enterprises, or charities, both past and present. That should outline the size of the contracts, their length, the expected outcome, and information about their success. All that should be online for ease of public access, and would not involve significant cost, because such information should be collected by commissioners in the regular course of their work. That would enable the public to see not only who is providing what services, but how successful providers have been, and could be a useful tool for commissioners.

The Government have rightly championed the cause of transparency to improve our public services, but that must be carried out across providers. I hope that the Government will work with commissioners, private businesses, charities and social enterprises.

Richard Fuller: My hon. Friend is making a good point about the role of national Government and supporting local commissioners. Is there a role for national Government to name and shame commissioners who are too slow in opening up to local providers, and to name those who are doing a good job and are at the forefront of the breakthrough of social enterprise, but shame those who just want the default of taking what had been a public service and giving it to the large national contractors?

Chris White: Absolutely. Naming and shaming is always a useful tool in such circumstances. Our commissioners should be encouraged to have a greater sense of urgency in dealing with such matters.

The Government have rightly championed the cause of transparency, and public sector commissioners should take a closer look and a closer interest in the corporate

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structure of the organisations they are commissioning from. Traditional large multinational companies may have some advantages, but the social enterprise model may also have the potential to deliver better outcomes for our communities. At a time when we are seeking to spend every penny possible on better outcomes, there is concern that traditional private sector models that seek to deliver large returns for shareholders may lead to money seeping out of our public services that might otherwise be spent on improvements to those services.

Social enterprise combines the need to deliver profitability, to innovate and to deliver better outcomes with a sense of community purpose. Not only that, but most social enterprises reinvest their profits either back into the services they provide, or into the communities where they are based. Moreover, through the structure of community interest companies, which are a model that many social enterprises are adopting for public service delivery, communities are directly involved in the governance of the organisation. That gives communities greater levels of accountability than if those services are provided by larger organisations with less accessible governance structures such as multinational corporations. Sometimes that will not be possible, but the Government should encourage commissioners to be creative and to experiment with differing governance needs.

Thirdly, the Treasury can help directly by ensuring that small businesses, social enterprises and charities can have access to the finance they need to bid for these contracts directly. The creation of Big Society Capital has been an excellent example of the Government taking a direct approach to stimulate the social investment market, and social impact bonds also have great potential. However, those methods do not resolve all the issues that are in the way of civil society organisations, which is why the Treasury’s internal review of social investment is so important.

We must ensure that we create a new climate of confidence in the social investment market, so that mainstream lenders and institutional investors feel that they can participate. Big Society Capital is an important step forward, but on its own it will not be able rapidly to expand the social investment market. That will take place only when our banks, pension funds and venture capitalists take a full part in the market, so I hope that the Minister will give us an update on the progress of that internal review, and the main policy areas that the Government seek to address. Broadening community investment tax relief into social investment tax relief that gives incentives for direct investment into social enterprises and their intermediaries could be transformational, and relatively inexpensive.

The report—“The Shadow State”— highlights a number of key policy areas, such as child care, prison, welfare to work, and adult social care, which need to be addressed. The report is constructive and proposes solutions. I hope the Minister will take the time to read the report, and I am happy to give him a copy if he has not already read it.

As we embark on a change in how we deliver our public services, it is vital that we do so in the right way so that the public feel engaged in the process and we deliver services not only with the best outcomes, but in the right manner. Confidence in our public services is important because, without confidence, there is a danger

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that people will not access the services they need, leading to more expensive interventions down the line. Communities need to feel a strong relationship with the provision of those services, and that is why social enterprises, charities and small businesses are often better placed to deliver them.

The Government have rightly identified a problem in our banking sector about institutions that are too big to fail, yet there is a danger that by relying on a small clique of large multinational organisations to deliver our public services, we end up creating the same problem in public service delivery. The way to combat that is through changing the contract process so that we make contracts more winnable for smaller organisations, helping to build supply chains that are resilient and have a plethora of providers. That will not only reduce costs in the long term through proper competition on costs, but will spur forward innovation and enable greater personalisation and localisation of services.

The White Paper, “Open Public Services”, was a step in the right direction, building on a set of principles that have wide-ranging consensus. All parties went into the election promising to open the door for delivery of our public services, particularly to social enterprises, mutuals and charities. We must now all work together to ensure that implementation matches the rhetoric.

“The Shadow State” report has been useful in helping to refocus minds in this debate, and we must consider the issues now, while we are in the process of reform. We have a fantastic opportunity to change our public services for the better, to realise a future in which people feel ownership of the services they are using, and to spur innovation and creativity. The Government have rightly seen the need to reform public services, despite a period of considerable economic difficulty, but we now need to deliver on the principles that we have outlined.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent speech, and on his leadership in this matter. This debate contrasts enormously with another on the same subject in which at least two Opposition Members were decrying any involvement of private companies in the public sector. My Surrey community health care contract has gone to Virgin Care, and even within the first six months of operation, using much the same staff, but lifting the bar and using new working methods, the average waiting time for referral for a first appointment has gone down from 31 days to 19 days, and the waiting time to see a community nurse has gone down from seven days to two days. Customer satisfaction has risen from 71% to 82%. Is that not the sort of improvement that, if it were across the whole public sector, would do enormous good for all our residents?

Chris White: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we should applaud such improvements. The same team is delivering the same products and achieving very different results. We should be able to see that across the sector.

To conclude, I hope that the Government will engage with all sides and work with our civil society organisations to help deliver our public services. We have a window of opportunity; let us use it.

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4.49 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

The outsourcing of public services is an area in which my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) has a great deal of experience; he feels strongly indeed. I commend him for the successful private Member’s Bill that he pushed through Parliament with support across the Benches and congratulate him on securing today’s debate. I agree with a number of points that he has made this afternoon, and I hope that he will, in turn, agree with some of the sentiments that I will express.

My hon. Friend referred rightly to the biggest issue facing the country: the size of the public sector deficit. There are a number of ways in which we need to go about fixing that problem. One of the most important is that when we spend public money—the taxes of hard-working people—we receive the best possible value in return. The outsourcing of public services, whether to small and medium-sized enterprises, social enterprises or larger organisations, is an excellent way to achieve that. I want to lay out the broad principles behind the Government’s approach and then talk about some of the specific reforms. I also want to talk about some of the measures that we have taken specifically to help SMEs and social enterprises.

The Government are committed to improving the quality of public services and delivering them more efficiently. Last July, as my hon. Friend rightly said— I am glad that he welcomed this—we published the “Open Public Services” White Paper, which set out five key principles: choice, decentralisation, fairness, accountability and diversity. If we are going to be successful in achieving those principles, transparency, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, is key. He talked about it, rightly, at length. Transparency is important to achieving all those principles.

Key elements of our approach include increasing the amount of services that we commission out, taking advantage of efficiencies and real-world benefits that the voluntary and private sectors can deliver and ensuring a diverse provision of services to drive quality through competition. We are also making greater use of payment by results, which is good for Government, because the financial risk is taken by the investor, not the taxpayer. It is also good for the voluntary sector, as it opens up many more opportunities for social enterprises and charities to deliver public services. I am sure that our thinking is very much in the same sentiment as that of my hon. Friend.

Let me turn to some of the key reforms. I know that it is easy for a Minister to stand on this spot and talk about theories and ideologies, so let me be a bit more specific and give some examples of concrete action that the Government have been taking. An example is the Work programme. The Government have taken tens of thousands of people off benefits and helped them into jobs. Figures released last month show that at least 56% of the scheme’s earliest participants have come off benefits, with 19% spending at least six consecutive months off them.

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Another example is social impact bonds. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of access to finance, particularly for SMEs, if they are to win contracts. Social impact bonds are a valuable new way to involve the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Government contracts based on payment by results. Already, almost 10 SIBs have been issued throughout the country, tackling reoffending, youth unemployment, homelessness and family breakdown.

We also have a big new opportunity for payment by results in probation, where we are testing a range of models with the private, public and voluntary sectors. As the Prime Minister said just a couple of months ago:

“With payment by results, your money goes into what works: prisoners going straight, crime coming down, our country getting safer.”

He has indicated that he wants to see payment by results spread right across the rehabilitation system by the end of 2015.

Richard Fuller: Regarding payment by results, I urge the Minister to be cautious about the difference between the desire to achieve improved performance based on payment by results in the short term and the provision of competitive tendering for Government contracts in the long term. One of the issues with privatisation is that it was a good way to make a substantial amount of money in the short term, but there have been competitive results in the long term. I think that part of today’s debate is about ensuring that the Government have the right balance between large corporations that can deliver in the short term and providing more availability for small and medium-sized enterprises to provide that competitive tendering in the long term.

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the tensions that sometimes exist between short-term goals and long-term goals, and he has used the excellent example of previous privatisation programmes. The Government will indeed take that into account.

With regard to prison procurement, we currently have five new contracts in train, bringing the total number of contracted-out prisons to 14. Let me move on to another example. In health care, we have seen an increased volume of treatments being delivered via independent providers. We heard an excellent example from my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who referred to Virgin Care in his own constituency. In 2010-11, 17% of hip replacements were delivered by independent providers—a rise from 0% in 2003-04. By outsourcing the services that I have highlighted, we are not only driving up the quality of services available and saving the public’s money, but increasing the public’s choice about the services that they receive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington spoke eloquently about the importance of social value in procurement. He is passionate about improving access to contracts for SMEs and social enterprises. I hope that he is pleased that the Government share that passion. In fact, every Department in Whitehall has a nominated SME Minister who is responsible for delivering an SME procurement action plan for that Minister’s Department. In the case of my Department, that Minister is me, so he will know who to harass if he believes that the Treasury is not making suitable progress in this area.

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Thanks to the provision that I have described, more than 2,000 of the 5,700 contracts awarded through the Government’s contracts finder website have been allocated to SMEs, and we are taking steps to give SMEs greater opportunities to bid for contracts. The Government’s procurement pipelines give forward visibility of future potential public sector procurement opportunities, providing greater confidence for industry to invest. The Cabinet Office is tracking a pipeline of about 100 developing and established projects, worth £84 billion in total.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington not only for allowing us the opportunity to discuss this issue today, but for his tireless work in this

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area during the past two and a half years. “Procurement” and “outsourcing” are rather dry words that can, if we are perfectly honest, force more than the odd eye to glaze over. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree, though, that discussions about procurement and outsourcing are crucial to ensuring that public money is spent wisely. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today and I thank you, Mr Chope, for your chairmanship.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.