“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century—a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”

Earlier this year, I met Roland Schilling, the UNHCR’s UK representative, and I have met the Refugee Council, to see what we can do to take matters forward.

Members will know that there was pressure for us to adopt a scheme to allow refugees to come to the UK. Last Christmas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) called publicly for Ministers to accept up to 500 Syrian refugees who met strict criteria—that they were torture victims, people with family connections in Britain or women and girls at high risk. She did that in response to the UN call for assistance, and we have been given the figures for other countries, but they are worth repeating. Some 21 countries have responded to the UN call for refugees to be accepted. Some 20,000 have been accepted by Germany, 1,500 by Austria, 1,200 by Sweden and 1,000 by Norway. The United States has given an open-ended commitment on resettlement. The many other countries that have taken refugees under the UN scheme include Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, France, Finland, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and Belarus. We have to respond, and I hope the Government will, to ensure we play our role in meeting those international obligations.

The Government did not initially warm to my right hon. Friend’s call for 500 refugees to be accepted. We had a statement in the Commons, Home Office questions and an Opposition day debate calling for the matter to be addressed. We had pressure from Government Back Benchers during the statement and the Opposition day debate. During Prime Minister’s questions, pressure was put on the Prime Minister by not only my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, but Members on both sides of the House.

There was concerted pressure, but the former Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said any proposals would be a “token” gesture—that was the word that appeared in Hansard. However, the Government ultimately announced in a statement that they would accept refugees, reflecting UN proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for

16 July 2014 : Column 300WH

Hayes and Harlington said, therefore, there is not a proud tradition on this issue. As a result of pressure from outside and inside the House, the Government accepted the need to act, and I was pleased when they did act.

I want to help the Minister, but my concern is that, as a result of the statement in January about accepting refugees, we have not seen materialise the sort of numbers—I am waiting for more information later—that would meet even the obligations my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford spoke of last Christmas.

Jim Shannon: I think there is a willingness in the nation we represent—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—to see greater numbers coming here from Syria. If that is what I and other Members feel, it is up to the Government, and the Minister in particular, to respond with the numbers we wish to see coming. That is the issue: if people want this, the Government should reflect that.

Mr Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I hope I can call him that—for raising that issue. We need to put on record the fact that refugee status is not the same as immigration. There is general concern about immigration, but these people would, I believe, ultimately want to return to their home nation when the situation there was settled and the conflict that drove them out of their home nation in the first place was resolved. There is a willingness to help, and there has been historically.

Sarah Teather: Members may not be aware of this, but a poll was done of first-time voters during refugee week. It showed that 70% supported the Government’s decision to resettle in the UK some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. I just want to give the Government some confidence that this proposal is popular; they are not working against a tide of popular opinion—people genuinely want this to happen.

Mr Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I appreciate the way in which she has phrased her remarks, although Governments sometimes have to do things that are unpopular, even if those are the right things to do. That aside, this is the right thing to do.

In the short time I have, I want to test the Minister on a number of the practicalities of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. First, I would genuinely welcome an update on how many people have arrived under the scheme, which was announced in January. The last answer to a parliamentary question on this issue was on 24 June—three weeks ago—and it indicated that 50 individuals had arrived as part of the scheme. I would welcome confirmation of how many have arrived as of 16 July. Like other hon. Members, I would also welcome an assessment of how many people are in the pipeline and may arrive in the next six months.

I accept, although I may not agree it was justified, that there were difficulties in establishing the Government’s scheme, rather than using the UN’s existing scheme. I would welcome an update from the Minister on whether proper assessments are in place to deliver a number of individuals. I would also welcome his assessment of how many people will go through the system and arrive

16 July 2014 : Column 301WH

in the UK in not only the next six months, but up to the general election next May, although we cannot commit beyond that.

I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of how many local authorities have signed up to assist with the Government’s scheme. I asked the Minister that question earlier this year, but he was unable to given an indication. He may not want to name the local authorities, but it would be helpful if he said that there was a certain number, that they were in London, that they were metropolitan or regional authorities, or that they were in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, just so that we can get some flavour of how the scheme will progress downstream. When people arrive, they have to be dispersed and to have accommodation.

I would welcome an assessment of whether there are problems with local authorities. I have picked up that they may be worried about their ongoing costs and whether the Government will commit to meet those costs beyond a particular time. I would also welcome the Minister’s comments on what he regards as the minimum standard of support for those who arrive. The scheme is different from the UN one, and I would welcome his outlining the support he anticipates those arriving in the UK will receive from the Government.

In a further answer to a parliamentary question from me, the Minister said:

“Costs will be recovered wherever possible, including from the EU.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 427W.]

I would welcome an indication from the Minister of how much resource the Government have spent to date on the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, what he expects to spend by the end of the first full financial year, which started in April, and whether he expects to recoup any or all of that money from the EU.

I would also welcome an overall assessment of the longer-term picture. We do not know who will be in government post-May 2015, but does the Minister believe, on the basis of the position today, that the scheme will progress after that time? If so, how will it progress and for how long, given the still devastating political instability in the region? I believe that we need to respond in a positive way, as Opposition Members and the hon. Member for Brent Central have said. She has performed a service in bringing the matter before the House today. The House has been pressing the Government to say how their aspirations are being met on the ground and what support—when, where, how and for how many—they are giving through the scheme. I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister’s response.

3.20 pm

The Minister for Security and Immigration (James Brokenshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing a debate on such an important matter. We have benefited from her direct testimony of visits to refugee camps, in which she explained the conditions and the situation. I recognise the passion, commitment and focus that she has brought to the issue, not just in the past few months but for a considerable time. She is committed to dealing with the refugee issue, which has motivated her to obtain this afternoon’s debate.

My hon. Friend made important points about the crisis in Syria, together with the continuing instability in Iraq, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim

16 July 2014 : Column 302WH

Shannon) also pointed out. It is right that the question of what support we provide to those in need provokes passion, and that was exemplified by the speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the contribution that this country should make to supporting people who are vulnerable and in need, and who are suffering during a huge humanitarian crisis.

I am sure that all hon. Members share our deep concern about the appalling violence in Syria and the suffering and hardship that that has caused for millions of people. Nearly 3 million refugees have now been displaced into surrounding countries and 6.4 million people are internally displaced inside Syria; 10.8 million require humanitarian aid. The scale of that tragedy caused my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central to pause in her speech, and it is worth pausing and reflecting on how staggering the figures are. The Government have always been clear that the crisis is of international proportions and that it needs a fitting response from the UK and the international community.

The Government have three clear priorities in Syria: supporting efforts to find a political solution to the conflict; alleviating suffering; and protecting UK security by tackling extremism and getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. I strongly believe that only a political settlement will ensure that Syrian families who have fled the crisis can return to their homes and livelihoods in peace. In the meantime, only humanitarian aid can help the majority of those in the region who so desperately need our help. Aid is also the best way to ease the enormous burden on Syria’s neighbours, and I think that was clear from what my hon. Friend said about her visit to Jordan and the pressure that the situation is causing in the countries that are most generously hosting and supporting refugees.

That is why the UK has pledged £600 million to the regional relief effort, making us the largest bilateral donor after the USA. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) acknowledged and appraised that fact fairly. UK funding is helping to support hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. The hon. Member for Strangford was seeking detail about that in some of his questions. For example, the UK provides food for up to 535,000 people a month, drinking water for more than 1.5 million and funding for more than 300,000 medical consultations. I think that that is the largest humanitarian aid effort that the UK Government have ever attempted, which shows the huge scale of the tragedy that has unfolded before us.

It is important to recognise the way in which aid can be focused on some of the most vulnerable people. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central highlighted the situation of children, and their lack of education. The UK helped to launch and mobilise international support for UNICEF’s “no lost generation” initiative, which provides education, psycho-social support and protection for Syrian children.

Humanitarian aid is the best way to ensure that the UK’s help has the greatest impact for Syrian refugees and their host countries. Compared with aid, resettlement can only ever support a comparatively small number of people in need. However, we recognise that there are some particularly vulnerable people who cannot be supported effectively in the region. That is why, in January, the Home Secretary launched the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to provide sanctuary in the UK for displaced Syrians who are most at risk.

16 July 2014 : Column 303WH

We are working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify the people who need our help most. In particular, the scheme prioritises support for those with serious medical needs, survivors of torture and violence, and women and children at risk. Beneficiaries of the scheme are granted five years’ humanitarian protection, with all the rights and benefits that go with that status, including access to public funds, access to the labour market and the possibility of family reunion. All people who arrive under the scheme also receive a 12-month package of integration support to help them to start to build a new life in the UK.

I announced the scheme in January and am pleased to say that the first group arrived at the end of March, just eight weeks after that announcement. Groups are now arriving in the UK on a monthly basis. We expect more arrivals in July and August, and we intend to relocate two or three families a month. The figure of 50 people that has been cited is the number who had come by the end of June. We intend to provide the House with quarterly updates; as we publish transparency data in the Home Office, we intend to provide an update on the numbers who have benefited from the scheme, to keep the House and the public updated. Those who have benefited include a number of adults and children with severe medical needs, who could not get the treatment they desperately needed in the region.

The right hon. Member for Delyn asked me to provide estimates of future cost, but that is difficult, given that the needs will relate to particular families’ and individuals’ specific circumstances. We are not working on a quota at all. Rather, we are working on the basis of need with the UNHCR. Given the severe vulnerabilities of the beneficiaries, it is important that we ensure that the support and accommodation they need is in place before they arrive. As I said, we are working closely with UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and local authority partners to achieve that.

Mr Hanson: Will the Minister say when the first quarterly update is due, from today?

James Brokenshire: Yes, the first update is due in August. We are providing quarterly updates on that basis, in that regular pattern. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see, quarterly, on our transparency release, the numbers of people who have benefited from the scheme. The intent is to provide a regular update in that way and that is fair and appropriate.

Jim Shannon: The shadow Minister mentioned regional variations. Has there been any discussion with the devolved Assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to see whether they can contribute to the resettlement of the refugees, at least in the short term? I am keen to know whether that is so. If there has not been such a discussion, I am keen that there should be.

James Brokenshire: Of course. I am keen to support more local authorities signing up to the scheme. Across the UK, a number of local authorities have already indicated their willingness and we are in discussions with others that have expressed an interest. Obviously,

16 July 2014 : Column 304WH

the scheme is based on vulnerability, including women and children at risk, medical needs and survivors of torture and violence.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I apologise, Mr Dobbin; I could not be here at the beginning of the debate due to a constituency commitment.

Will the Minister say a bit more about the process and the criteria by which the number of vulnerable cases is identified? It is difficult to imagine that there are not very many more who would fit the criteria, but who we are not taking. I am interested in liaison with the UN and how the numbers are determined.

James Brokenshire: In respect of liaison, we are working with the UN to identify families and then to ensure that the support that they need is there before they arrive. As I said, two to three families are arriving steadily each month, under the regular plan for continuation of the scheme that we have in place. I will come to the overall numbers and reaffirm the commitment made by the Home Secretary in that regard.

The scheme is to ensure that families receive the support that they need in local areas, given their vulnerability, and central Government are responsible for its overall funding. However, as was mentioned, we will recover costs, if possible, from the EU and other funding sources, and work and discussions continue in that regard.

The Government have delivered what we promised in January: a bespoke scheme to complement the UK’s humanitarian aid, focused on giving sanctuary to the most vulnerable refugees and ensuring they get all the care and support they need in the UK.

Sarah Teather: I want to press the Minister a little further, because there is concern about numbers. I want to get from him a sense of whether this scheme is proceeding at the pace he expected. Was the Government’s initial ambition simply that we would only resettle two or three a month or was it higher? Has there been a problem and, if there has, what is it and what are the Government doing to try to resolve it? Two to three families a month is a small number; even my own council manages to move more people into accommodation per month, and this is across the whole of Britain. What is the problem?

James Brokenshire: To respond directly to my hon. Friend, we said we would support several hundred of the most vulnerable Syrians over the next three years. It was always envisaged that there would be a focus on a steady process of identifying families and seeing that they have the support that they need to be settled, working with the UNCHR, delivering the commitment to taking several hundred over the next three years. I believe that we remain on course to deliver on the commitment as a result of the excellent collaboration with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

John McDonnell: I calculate that there will not be several hundred if we are taking only two to three a month, but never mind. How did we arrive at several hundred? What assessment was made about only several hundred wanting to come here or whether we would cope with that demand?

16 July 2014 : Column 305WH

James Brokenshire: That was the basis of the statement made by the Home Secretary in January, on assessing specific needs and the ability to ensure that resources and capabilities could be in place to see that some challenged family groups—it is groups that will see this continued roll-out through the coming months—are supported, to ensure that there is appropriate integration.

I believe that we remain on track to meet the commitments that we stated to the House at the beginning of January. That is obviously in addition to the places available to refugees of other nationalities under our established programmes, which offer the opportunity of a new life in the UK for those in long-term, protracted refugee situations, for whom the only viable long-term solution is resettlement.

Sarah Teather: The Minister did not quite answer the question put by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), which I also asked. The Minister mentioned the basis of the Government’s statement, but did not explain how we arrived at the position of saying that we would support several hundred, as opposed to several thousand or tens of thousands. Why that particular figure?

James Brokenshire: Clearly, the Government considered what would be a suitable figure, to ensure that the scheme could deliver on its aims and ambitions to meet the needs of some of the most challenged and vulnerable, including some who need specific medical care and assistance, and ensure that they could be resettled within the UK with that support and that package. It was on that basis that the assessment and the programme was drawn up.

Given their vulnerabilities, it is essential that we give beneficiaries of the scheme the specific care they need as soon as they arrive in the UK. We have therefore had to ensure that the support and accommodation they need is properly in place before arrival, and we have been liaising, in the way I mentioned, to achieve this. Successful delivery of the scheme depends on the capacity of local authorities and health bodies to provide the high level of support required by beneficiaries of the scheme. Our emphasis is therefore on quality, not quantity. We are extraordinarily grateful to local authorities and health and education partners who have supported the scheme; they have played a vital role in helping those arriving under the scheme settle into a new, safe life in the UK.

We are, of course, continuing to consider Syrian asylum claims under our normal rules. Since the crisis began in 2011, we have received over 4,000 Syrian asylum claims. During the same time, we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to more than 2,700 Syrian nationals and dependants. We also operate an immigration concession for Syrian nationals who are already legally present in the UK, to enable them to extend their stay or switch immigration category without leaving the UK.

Sarah Teather: I should like to take the Minister back a little and question him on local authorities and health services. What is his Department doing to encourage local authorities to take more people? Is he having difficulty persuading them? If so, are there any particular barriers? Knowing that would help those of us who are

16 July 2014 : Column 306WH

interested in this issue, partly to see whether there might be anything we can do to help encourage local authorities increase interest. Will he give a bit more information on his discussions in that regard?

James Brokenshire: There have been discussions with local authorities, a number of which have been extraordinarily generous and positive in taking part in the scheme. As I said, other local authorities are expressing an interest in joining the scheme. Hon. Members have commented on individuals who have volunteered their homes and their personal support.

Having seen correspondence on my ministerial desk, I am struck by the generosity and desire of so many people wanting personally to see what they can do to provide support and assist in this appalling crisis. There have been ongoing conversations. I am confident that more authorities are coming forward, that we are able to house vulnerable Syrians fleeing the conflict and that we will provide support for them in different parts of the country.

We are, of course, aware that the international community has responded to the crisis in different ways. In the face of such an enormous challenge, it is right that the international community should use all means to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. It is ultimately for individual states to decide for themselves how they help those displaced by the crisis, but we would not want to see a strengthened focus on resettlement detract from the international community’s continued relief effort to support the majority of refugees who remain in the region and their host countries. I do not see that it has detracted from that, but we need to retain focus on that.

I am conscious that the hon. Member for Strangford is no longer in his place, but I wanted to respond to the point he raised about protecting Christians in Syria. I share his concerns about those who are at risk due to the crisis, including Syrian Christians. There are a growing number of reports of Christians and other minority groups being targeted in Syria. The Syrian National Coalition has responded to those reports, emphasising that they are contrary to the coalition’s vision of a future Syria that protects pluralism and the rights of all its citizens. In that context, it is important to note that it is not only Christians who are being identified, brutalised and murdered as a consequence of their faith; we are aware of other minority communities that are also being targeted on that basis.

It is important to recognise that a brutalising group such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant does not seek to concern itself in virtually anything. ISIL is a brutal organisation that kills those who do not hold the perverse beliefs that it puts forward. That means killing Muslims, whether Shi’a or Sunni, and other minority groups. That is why it is so important that we support the international efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria and that we support the Government of Iraq in finding a solution for that country that brings together all faiths and confronts the challenge that ISIL has brought forward.

To come back to the focus of the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central, we believe that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme will make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable refugees, who can only be supported in countries such as the UK. I am delighted to see those who have

16 July 2014 : Column 307WH

arrived so far settling into their new homes and receiving the care they need, and I look forward to us welcoming further families to the UK as the scheme progresses. We must not, however, lose sight of the majority, who remain in the region. Continuing our efforts to help them must remain our highest priority, along with providing a long-term political solution for Syria.

3.42 pm

Sitting suspended.

16 July 2014 : Column 308WH

Welfare Reform (Cumbria)

4.30 pm

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin, in this brief debate. The social cost of the current Government’s welfare reforms is extremely high and is being keenly felt in west Cumbria. The Welfare Reform Act received Royal Assent in March 2012 and has now been in force for more than a year. This debate, however brief, is crucial in assessing some of the devastating consequences of that Act on the people and communities of west Cumbria.

Before I begin, I would like to express my thanks to the Right Rev. James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle, to Willie Slavin, an incredible community champion in my constituency, and for the work of the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission. The report that it has produced forensically details the impact of the Government’s reforms and informs much of what I wish to say. If the Minister has not had the opportunity to read that report, I hope that she will.

In the introduction to the commission’s report, the Bishop of Carlisle makes it clear that it is not a party political report. He states:

“We hope that our findings and recommendations will be of general use to politicians, civil servants, volunteers and benefit claimants alike. We also believe that, if implemented, those recommendations would ultimately help to save money rather than costing the Exchequer more.”

That is a crucial point in the entire debate.

I also thank the many people in west Cumbria and, indeed, throughout the country who do so much to help those in need. Staff in support roles and the many volunteers who do their best to ensure that those who need support get it deserve the highest praise. I dread to think how much worse the situation would be if we were left without their compassion and commitment.

The reforms seen in the past two years have been all-encompassing. There have been changes to support for in-work benefits and unemployed adults, changes to support for adults with disabilities, the introduction of the bedroom tax and more. The impact of these on individuals and families has been extremely tough, and I will touch on each of them in the debate. But that is not all; the impact on households resonates throughout the entire community and beyond.

The cumulative impact on individual families in a community can have major consequences for local esteem, pride, self-worth and, of course, the local economy. To understand fully the ramifications of what are ham-fisted reforms, we must examine not only the financial hardship that they are causing, but the damage done to communities such as mine and to the people who live in them. The harrowing testimonies of my constituents and the work done by the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission are tangible evidence that families and communities in west Cumbria are feeling the painful brunt of the Government’s reforms.

The Opposition have consistently supported the principle of universal credit. That has the potential to simplify the working age benefits system and to make it much clearer to people how their financial position would change on moving from unemployment into work. That is right and proper, and we completely welcome it.

16 July 2014 : Column 309WH

However, that will be possible only if it is implemented properly and if there is a significant improvement in the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and claimants. The Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission highlighted serious concerns on how that has been done to date.

The Government’s welfare reforms will require enormous local capacity to ensure that changes are delivered with minimal disruption, but the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission report details a truly worrying situation that will inevitably lead to many serious problems when universal credit is eventually rolled out in late 2014 or early next year. The commission states that locally

“Commissioners heard of significant capacity problems within DWP, and many current cases of delays in deciding claims. DWP have recently reduced staffing levels in Cumbria and Commissioners were told that while many back to work advisers genuinely wanted to help, claimants felt they were ‘overwhelmed’. One adviser said he had 400 cases per fortnight; one client said he had not seen an adviser in a year.”

The situation will only get worse. The success of any reforms will live or die by the ease—or, in this case, the difficulty—of getting access to services, advice and support. It is clear that before universal credit is even rolled out, the Government are failing my constituents.

One jobseeker’s allowance claimant told the commission that

“the system is in meltdown...I am no longer able to contact local jobcentre. There is a national helpline but it has long delays. I can’t afford to stay on the phone for hours”.

A young mother who had previously claimed JSA commented:

“I hate the way it’s”—

she was referring to the DWP—

“run…they don’t care…you phone the call centre and they say ‘it’s not our fault…the computer’s not working’...I hate being on benefits”.

A welfare adviser in Whitehaven slammed access to over-the-phone advice, saying:

“DWP call centre—it’s the most expensive way I know to listen to Vivaldi.”

The situation cannot be allowed to continue. The Minister must address these points in her response. I hope that if she cannot, she will commit to writing to me to detail the steps that she will take to improve the situation.

A breakdown in the relationship between claimants and clients and the DWP can have dire consequences. When people find themselves in times of hardship, additional stress and worry can cause significant additional distress. That brings me to an issue that has had an impact on many of my constituents: sanctions. The chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, when describing the current system of sanctions, said:

“The regime is not only self-defeating, it is also poorly administered.”

The evidence just does not exist to support the imposition of disproportionately heavy sanctions. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation international review shows the limited benefits of that, and the Cumbria commission found that research conducted in the United States that suggests some success from sanctions in getting people off benefits is down to claimants dropping out of the system altogether, rather than going into paid employment of any kind. Studies from Europe also show that the use of sanctions is likely to lead to worse employment outcomes, such as lower pay for benefit claimants when they do eventually get into work. The Cumbria commission argues:

16 July 2014 : Column 310WH

“This is because the threat or use of sanctions makes people take lower-quality jobs than if they had been allowed to wait for a better opportunity.”

With regard to zero-hours contracts, the commission states:

“At present their wages plus benefits still leave many unable to pay the basics such as food and shelter. In particular there is a risk of a vicious circle whereby people on a zero hours contract can have their benefits cut if they can’t demonstrate that they can look for other work, but not only does uncertainty about hours required to work in these contracts make this availability difficult, but some employers use exclusivity clauses in their own contracts preventing employees from taking on other work in the rest of their time.”

That paints a desperate picture of the working poor.

In a damning indictment of Government policy, the Department told the Cumbria commission that sanctions

“make the vulnerable more vulnerable”.

How can the Minister allow that to continue? What will the Government do to address it? The Government definition of “vulnerable” is:

“An individual who is identified as having complex needs and/or requires additional support to enable them to access DWP benefits and use our services”.

That is too narrow a definition and will result in many people needing additional support falling through the cracks. The commission found that

“many people sanctioned in recent months have been sanctioned despite exhibiting vulnerability—indeed the sanctioning is often a result of such an expression.”

The impact of welfare reforms on Cumbria’s adults with disabilities is profound, too. Disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to live in poverty; that is well understood and accepted across the House. Those unable to work are disproportionately dependent on benefit rates and therefore, obviously—QED—feel the changes to benefits more acutely than any other section of society. The Government have estimated that, through the introduction of the personal independence payment, the claimant count will fall by 23% compared with the number on disability living allowance. In Cumbria, there are 4,300 DLA claimants, so at least 1,000 individuals will lose their support.

The inquiry by Baroness Grey-Thompson found that severely disabled people living alone or with only a young carer will lose between £28 and £58 a week. One hundred thousand disabled children stand to lose £28 a week, and 116,000 disabled people who work will lose about £40 a week. Those are significant sums, and losing those amounts will have serious consequences on claimants and their families. They are outside this detached, self-obsessed, increasingly weird Westminster club. Let us not forget what is happening to people out there in the real world.

The commission reports:

“Where there are delays and stoppage of benefits, some families also face financial meltdown, leaning on family and friends for money and often becoming dependent on doorstep lenders.”

That has the potential to create a perfect storm of financial hardship, no support and mounting debt. It is a scenario that the Government’s reforms are actively facilitating.

That brings me to the impact of changes to housing benefit. The biggest reform in this field is clearly the Government’s bedroom tax, which affects approximately 4,750 households across Cumbria. It is simply an ill- thought-out policy. The unintended and far-reaching

16 July 2014 : Column 311WH

consequences of the bedroom tax are well known. The commission undertook to find out why people “under-occupy”. The vast majority of people do not under-occupy consciously; they do not choose to do it. They find themselves in that position usually as a result of family breakdown, children leaving home or the death of a family member. The Government should realise that after such events, most people would prefer to remain in their own homes close to neighbours, their family and the familiar support networks on which they rely.

Government figures show that two thirds of those who are affected are disabled. When the cumulative impact of the welfare reforms is assessed, it becomes crystal clear why so many of those people are facing serious financial hardship. For many, a spare room is not a luxury that they do not want to sacrifice, but an absolute necessity. I have heard reports of a recently separated father having to sleep on his sofa so that his children can have a bed to sleep in when they visit, and of returning university students who cannot remain in halls of residence outside term time but who cannot move back in with their parents because there is no longer a room for them. I have heard in my constituency offices about young soldiers returning home from conflicts in the middle east and having nowhere to stay.

The Government’s bedroom tax is a blunt and ineffective tool. Families who are forced to move out of social housing into the private rented sector will cost the taxpayer more in higher rents, and more will be lost as a result of arrears and evictions. The National Housing Federation states that two thirds of those who are hit by the bedroom tax cannot find the money to pay their rent, and one in seven are at risk of eviction. Consider that for a moment. That is the clear effect of Government policy. This has been said by many of my colleagues over recent years, but it is worth repeating: let there be no doubt that the next Labour Government will repeal the bedroom tax. As I have said, there is not only a financial cost to the families who are affected, but a cost to our local communities, as I see in my own community.

The report by the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission highlights a deliberate policy to reduce child density in areas of concentrated social housing, to reduce and manage antisocial behaviour and to create more constructive living environments. The bedroom tax completely undermines those efforts. I am sure the Minister will claim that it is not a tax, but it is. What else could it be? People are forced to pay. They cannot move to a smaller property because there are no smaller properties. In Cumbria, for housing associations to house all under-occupying residents correctly and appropriately, it would be necessary to rebuild the equivalent of 7.5% of our total rented stock as one-bedroom properties.

The Department for Work and Pensions report “Evaluation of Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy”, which was published yesterday, shows that only 4.6% of claimants affected have moved to a smaller home in the social sector. The report contains some startling statistics. For example, 80% of affected claimants say that it is difficult to afford the amount of rent they pay. More than half of claimants report that they often run out of money before the end of the week or month. I sincerely hope the Minister can offer some meaningful advice to people who cannot afford the bedroom tax but cannot move because there is no other housing available.

16 July 2014 : Column 312WH

The impact of the reforms can be seen clearly in my constituency and elsewhere across the communities of Cumbria. There are wards in Copeland in which almost a third of children live in poverty, and in Sandwith the rate is even higher. Food bank use continues to rise and shows no sign of slowing. In the last year, it was up by a third, and now almost 2,000 people rely on food banks. There is a clear correlation between the areas with the highest rates of child poverty and those with the highest prevalence of food bank usage. In Harbour ward almost 400 people, including more than 70 children, used the food bank in the last financial year. We used to believe that to be born British was to have won the lottery of life, but I am afraid those figures paint a very different picture. We repeatedly warned the Government that the effect of their policies would be most keenly felt by the most vulnerable in our society and by the most vulnerable peripheral economies, and so it has proven. Almost one in three referrals to a food bank has been the result of a delay in benefit payments, and a further 17% of referrals are the result of benefit changes. Together, they add up to almost half of all referrals.

The final verdict on any Government is based on how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable in society during the hardest times. The rise in the use of food banks, the reliance on payday lenders and the financial hardship faced by many, which have been brought on or at least significantly exacerbated by some of the Government’s most pernicious welfare reforms, are a damning indictment of their time in office. The Government’s legacy, the legacy of the Secretary of State, the legacy of Ministers and the Prime Minister is one of a growing class of working poor, of disabled people in hardship and of too many people living in turmoil and anguish caused by uncertainty, inflexibility and instability.

The Government should heed the advice of the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission and the stakeholders who contributed to the report, and review their policies to secure successful implementation of universal credit, ensure that sanctions are not unfairly applied, reduce the complexity and delays in personal independence payments and work capability assessments, and stop pushing families into hardship as a result of their hated bedroom tax. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.44 pm

The Minister for Employment (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to reply to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed). I congratulate him on securing the debate. I have listened closely to all that he has said, so I will answer all the points he has raised.

It is important to put the situation into context. When the Government came into office, it was clear that the welfare system we inherited was in need of reform and was not working. For far too long, Governments had shied away from making any significant reform, and we had ended up with a complex system that had numerous add-ons. It was complicated for all concerned. The benefit system frequently locked people into benefits rather than liberating them and allowing them to get into work. We had to look at that and think about how we could best sort out a complex system that had grown exponentially under Labour.

If we look at the costs, Labour spent £170 billion on tax credits between 2003-04 and 2010, and contributed to a 60% rise in the welfare bill. Supporting that bill was

16 July 2014 : Column 313WH

costing every individual an extra £3,000 a year, and 1.4 million people spent most of the past decade trapped on out-of-work benefits. Around 2.8 million people spent at least five years on some sort of out-of-work benefit. Youth unemployment rose by 45% and long-term unemployment doubled under Labour. Those were the things we had to tackle. The explosion in those numbers came during what some might have called a boom period, between 1997 and 2005.

It is worth noting that at the 2010 election, when we took over, there were 600,000 more people in relative poverty than there are today. There were 300,000 more children and 200,000 more pensioners in relative poverty. There were 400,000 more workless households and 50,000 more households in which no member of the household had ever worked. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the debate did not relate to the reality of those facts and figures.

Mr Reed: I am grateful to the Minister for her response so far, but she has not yet touched on a single issue that I raised about my constituents and the county of Cumbria.

Esther McVey: I am putting the situation in context and showing how many of the figures that the hon. Gentleman cited were inaccurate. I am putting into context why and how we are doing things. Today, the most recent employment statistics have been published. The aim of all our benefit changes has been to liberate people and help them to get into work, and today we have seen a record rate of people getting into work—a rate matched only pre-recession, in 2005. That is nearly 1 million extra people in work this year, and nearly 1.8 million people in work since 2010.

Mr Reed rose

Esther McVey: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will provide some facts rather than fantasy.

Mr Reed: Fantasy is the Minister’s exclusive preserve. We clearly disagree over the figures, so will she come to my constituency? Will she come and do a tour of Cumbria, meet people and speak to them about the realities of their lives and the effects of her policies? Yes or no?

Esther McVey: I was in Cumbria only a week or two ago, discussing those things. I get out regularly and speak to people right across the country, many of whom have told me how they had been abandoned on long-term unemployment, but not any more. Many of them have been on the Work programme and they have now got a job. About 5 million people have been through the Work programme and 300,000 have got sustained work.

Looking specifically at unemployment in Copeland, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted that unemployment has come down by 25%, long-term unemployment is down 30%, youth unemployment is down 36% and long-term youth unemployment is down 40%. That is specifically in his constituency, and those figures are not mine or the Government’s; they are the latest independent, verified figures. I would like the hon. Gentleman to apologise for what he said.

16 July 2014 : Column 314WH

Mr Reed: Of course there is no apology to be offered, because none is deserved. Does the Minister recognise the phenomenon of in-work poverty?

Esther McVey: There have always been people in work who find things hard. The figures I read out have significantly reduced under this Government. The process, ideology and thought behind universal credit is to ensure that work pays and that every extra hour worked pays, rather than having cliff edges as we had under the old system with which the hon. Gentleman was happy to live. People did not know whether it was right to get a job. They could be locked into benefits because there was a cliff edge at 16 hours a week. We have sought to remove all those things.

Cumbria county council has set up a county welfare reform group to keep a keen eye on the delivery and administration of welfare reform. A Jobcentre Plus manager is part of that group, enabling us to ensure that all concerns and worries are heard and addressed. I understand there is a good, close working relationship, so if anyone has any specific issues or concerns, they can go through Jobcentre Plus, and that is reflected in the survey of what goes on in the area. All of that is key.

There are nearly 24,000 Jobcentre Plus staff across the country. Their main aim is to support people by helping them with the benefits they need when they come through the door and by helping them into work. The Government have ensured that that relationship is more personal than ever before. We have introduced a claimant commitment, so that when someone comes in they can say, “This is what I hope to do,” and we will say, “Okay. How do we get you on that journey?” There has been a significant shift in the approach and in what people do. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to visit his Jobcentre Plus and see that transformation in everything that happens.

Mr Reed: The Minister will appreciate that I have done that many times. The report makes it clear that there is an obvious competence deficit in the roll-out of these policies by the Department and Ministers. It is not only claimants who are saying that; people who work in jobcentres and non-party political figures such as the Bishop of Carlisle are saying it, too. Does the Minister regret the lack of competence in the entire policy platform?

Esther McVey: The chap obviously wants to write a press release—he wants to write something that is not true—to put in his local papers. Competence is not an issue. We have introduced some of the biggest ever welfare changes. We know they are working, because the things that the hon. Gentleman and his party talked about, such as double-dip and triple-dip recessions, never happened. They talked about an extra 1 million people being unemployed. It was wrong—it did not happen. He and his party put across terrible scare stories, but they did not happen. In fact, the total reverse happened. Nearly 2 million extra people are now in work, and they are predominantly full-time, permanent jobs. That is wonderful news. There are record rates of women in employment. Youth unemployment has fallen for 10 consecutive months, and it is now 127,000 lower than at the general election. Long-term youth unemployment is also lower than at the general election. I gave him the unemployment figures for his specific area, and they are all significantly down.

16 July 2014 : Column 315WH

Mr Reed: I am uncertain whether the Minister is disputing the figures in the independent report. Will she be categorically clear about that? Does she accept the figures and the findings of the report? The Bishop of Carlisle and an independent group of people assessed the impact of welfare reform on Cumbria, not just my constituency. Are they wrong? Are their figures wrong? If they are, what is their motivation?

Esther McVey: Most people’s motivation is for the best and is to support people—

Mr Reed: Are the figures right or wrong?

Esther McVey: Hang on a second. People produce figures that have not been fully authorised, cleared or passed off. Our figures have to go through the National Audit Office and independent bodies such as the International Labour Organisation because their estimation of what has happened are much more thorough and valid. Estimates based on very small samples may be right, but they can be distorted by the smallness of the sample.

I will now make a little headway, as I believe I have been generous in giving way. The hon. Gentleman has made many points that, as I have pointed out, are not particularly accurate or are distorted by the prism through which he wants to see things.

Mr Reed: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: No, I will not give way at the moment. We have talked about why the spare room subsidy was introduced—

Mr Reed: Bedroom tax.

Esther McVey: The hon. Gentleman wants to call it by another name. I am happy to call it by either name, but in statute it is the removal of the spare room subsidy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is smiling, so he obviously realises that his own party introduced it for the private rented sector in 2008. Indeed, his party was going to introduce it for the social rented sector, as we have read in Hansard. He is smiling and pretending that it is something that he might or might not do, but in reality it came from his party. Why did that come about? Because the housing bill had doubled in 10 years, reaching £26 billion, which we all know was a bill that we could not afford after the financial crash and after the biggest ever recession in peacetime since 1930.

Mr Reed: On a point of order, Mr Dobbin. The Minister is refusing to talk about the issue at hand. There is a blanket refusal to talk about the impact of welfare reform in Cumbria and west Cumbria in particular. How can that be in order?

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I cannot take that decision. I am chairing this debate, that is all, so it is not a matter for me.

16 July 2014 : Column 316WH

Esther McVey: I am in order. I have given the employment stats for what is going on in the constituency of the hon. Member for Copeland, and I have spoken clearly about what is happening in his jobcentres. We are now talking clearly about what is going on in his constituency with the spare room subsidy. I am saying why those decisions were taken, because I cannot give a specific answer unless people know the generality.

What happened with the spare room subsidy? We could not afford it. Labour had already introduced the measure. We have to consider the 2 million people on the housing waiting list and the 400,000 people in overcrowded accommodation. We have to ask how we will support the taxpayers paying for it, who might not have spare bedrooms themselves, as well as the people on waiting lists and the people in overcrowded accommodation. We took a decision, which had to be that people with a spare bedroom who are more than happy to stay would now have to pay for that spare bedroom. We also said that we would treble discretionary housing payments for affected areas to allow people to move if they wanted.

Discretionary housing payments were given to six different areas in Cumbria, but interestingly, although councils that needed more money for discretionary housing payments applied for money from a £20 million pot shared across the country, Cumbria did not do that. There was not one bid. There could have been—if Cumbria had thought that it needed more money to help more people in the area, there was an extra pot of £20 million. Unfortunately, only £13 million was deployed to the various places that made requests, and £7 million went back to central Government. Places such as Copeland did not ask for that money, so it must have been deduced that they did not need the money. If the local MP would have liked to have helped his local council and constituents by doing a bit more prep and homework—rather than arguing afterwards, once he had missed the money and once the money had been spent—he could have got some of that money and helped the constituents he is talking about. Unfortunately, he chose not to do that.

We were talking about how PIP is being introduced and why. DLA spending had increased considerably, and there is still an increase in expenditure. DLA has not been cut—it has been increased; it is just not growing as rapidly as in the past. What we had seen under DLA, which is why we are changing it, was that people did not have additional corroborating medical evidence. More than half of DLA claims do not have such evidence, so we are saying, “Under this Government, and in this Parliament, we will give out this money and we will support people as best we can, but we need to focus that money on those who need it the most. It is therefore vital that we have that corroborating medical evidence.” That is what we are doing.

Mr Reed: The Minister should be embarrassed by her response to this debate. She has refused to accept—

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).