Bordering my constituency is Tower Hamlets, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Great Britain. We are all familiar with the sometimes negative press coverage of elements of that borough in recent years, but that is only a very small part of the story of Tower Hamlets—I say that as I look into the eyes of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He knows as well as I do that it is an incredibly vibrant borough, which produces aspirational, motivated young people who go into the tech and banking jobs in Canary Wharf, which is in his constituency and, to the west, crosses the border with the City of London. It is also great to see the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) leading the charge on parliamentary representation from

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that community. We should be proud that there are now three female Bangladeshis in the Commons representing London seats.

However, major tensions and political problems remain in Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans rightly pointed out, they sadly spill over, to an extent, into this country. We see close at hand some of the factionalism within the main political parties and a group of smaller parties. We particularly have to watch for the creeping influence of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is thought to have founded the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has been promoted in London mosques, in particular the East London mosque down the Whitechapel Road.

Hon. Members will be aware that I have recently been vocal in the House about the persecution of religious minorities in the middle east, particularly the ancient Christian communities such as the 8.5 million Copts in Egypt, and the 2 million Christians who until recently resided in Syria. Many go back to communities that were proselytised by St Paul in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Christianity.

Precious little is said about the situation of religious minorities in Bangladesh. I am afraid that has deteriorated in tandem with the rapid rise of militant Islam and its influence on Bangladeshi politics. I take this opportunity to raise the plight of the 20 million Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and indigenous minorities living in Bangladesh. Since the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal in February 2013, which handed a life sentence to the leading Jamaat-e-Islami figure for war crimes in 1971, members of Jamaat have responded by destroying many places of worship, and murdering and attacking innocent people for their religious views, as has been pointed out.

That is incredibly depressing, particularly because, with a young and vibrant population getting a much stronger education both in Bangladesh and in our diaspora here, it is a country that should be looking to the future, not constantly harping on the past. Terrible and dreadful things did happen 44 years ago on all sides of the divide. It ill behoves any Government to utilise their position in power and manoeuvres with the judiciary to give a one-sided approach, as has happened. Clearly, justice has to be done, and I accept that an element of reconciliation has to take place. The worry is that this episode will continue in a downward spiral in years to come, with different sets of politicians taking the opportunity to make narrow, partisan points, without looking to the future of the country.

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the current ruling Awami League is nominally secular and has promised to bring the ageing leaders of Jamaat to justice for their role in the 1971 genocide. However, in the face of violence and the broader band of Islamists, that is no easy task. Attacks on those minority communities in Bangladesh are, I fear, frequent and continuous and may well continue.

I reiterate my hon. Friend’s message about the importance of maintaining that secular society. We are lucky that our relationship with Bangladesh has, to a large extent, kept terrorism at bay, but we cannot be complacent about that, particularly with large numbers of Bengalis in this country potentially being influenced by events in their homeland.

Mrs Main: I have been told, although I have no proof, that Jamaat is actively funded by Islamists in Pakistan, to help fund their destruction of Bangladesh. These things are interlinked.

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Mark Field: They are. One difficulty, of course, is that we are fighting the battles pre-1971. Because of the upsurge in religious cases, it becomes a downward spiral with an eye on the past, rather than the future.

As everyone knows, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. It is estimated that by 2025 that substantial population will have reached 190 million, of which 43% will be under 30. There is little doubt that many of Bangladesh’s problems relate to poverty and a lack of education for some of its young people, although there are significant improvements. The question of how Bangladesh retains educated professionals and builds a future for them in Bangladesh will be one of the biggest challenges going forward. I hope that this country can play our part, given the passion clearly shown by the large Bengali diaspora here. No doubt we will have many more of these debates, with a sense of friendship. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we must be critical friends at times. Equally, there is so much good to be said about that country, and we want to play our part in ensuring that the world gets to see that.

3.5 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you, Sir Alan, presiding over business this afternoon. I look forward to hearing the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, for leading the group with distinction and enthusiasm. She knew that I was thinking of challenging her for the chair but I thought that would be churlish, given how well she has led us for five years. I probably could not have beaten her, anyway, so that was entirely fatuous on my part. I am delighted she secured this debate and pleased that the title refers to the future of Bangladesh. That is very much what we all want to see, although she also covered the history, as have other speakers.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). He is my neighbour and friend. In this debate we are all friends because we are all friends of Bangladesh. We may be in different parties but we all want the best for that country. I know we all agree, as other speakers have touched on, that it is not our role to play sides in Bangladesh. We are not supporters of the Awami League or of the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Whichever party—BNP or Awami League—has won the support of the Bangladeshi people, I and colleagues have supported the Government of Bangladesh.

The right hon. Gentleman made some pertinent points about some political organisations in Bangladesh, in particular Jamaat-e-Islami. That is the sister organisation of the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has such a bad influence on our young people in the UK. Jamaat has been an ally of the Awami League in previous elections, though in more recent years has been associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. That is disturbing because, as has been referred to, Bangladesh has a proud secular history.

Another matter already raised is that of the violence against minority communities. I know the Bangladesh Government want to do more to protect minority

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communities. We want to see them redouble those efforts because those attacks are deeply disturbing for a country that was founded as a secular democracy. I criticised the Awami League for boycotting the last BNP election victory and I criticised the BNP when it boycotted elections two years ago. Many of us thought the BNP could have won that election and I thought the boycott was completely wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to confidence in the electoral process. The UK, the European Union, the United States and international organisations have a huge role to play in rebuilding the confidence within Bangladesh about transitional arrangements and the confidence in elections. The UK Government played a huge role in validating the electoral roll in Bangladesh, where 80 million voters were registered in 18 months. That demonstrated that we should have confidence in the electoral structures and arrangements within Bangladesh for future elections. There is a lot of pressure to accelerate the elections, and they have got to be timed to have the confidence of the international community as well as of the Bangladeshi people, so that the outcome will be respected internally and externally.

We all know, and reference has been made to the fact, that Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Although its people are among the poorest in the world, it has had 6% growth for the past five to 10 years—a growth rate we would all bite their hands off for. That is not a criticism of the UK Government’s economic plan, although we all know it is not working that well, notwithstanding what the Conservatives say, but we would all love a 6% growth rate.

One side product of that growth, of course, was the disaster at the Rana Plaza. The acceleration in growth has meant that the regulation and protection of workers, wages and conditions have fallen behind. It was therefore reassuring to read an email this week from GreenGrade, an organisation the hon. Member for St Albans invited to make a presentation to the all-party group last year. GreenGrade, which helps garment workers and garment factory owners to improve the industry’s standing, says that

“Rana Plaza workers will get full compensation”

and that the donor trust fund, which was set up by the ILO,

“has reached its US $30 million target”

this year. Victims and families will therefore get compensation.

Colleagues will know that I am patron of the Sreepur village orphanage, which has been running in Bangladesh for 25 years. I am proud that it has helped a whole number of children who were made orphans by the Rana Plaza disaster. They have been housed, and they are being looked after. Clearly, a lot of good is coming out of a very tragic story.

Mrs Main: The hon. Gentleman is being a little too modest: the Sreepur office is run by his wife, who is absolutely fabulous—she came to make a presentation to the all-party group. I pay tribute to the efforts of the

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hon. Gentleman and his wife in rescuing children from the exploitation they may have been drawn into as a result of Rana Plaza.

Jim Fitzpatrick: It is very generous of the hon. Lady to mention my wife, who is a trustee of the orphanage. It was set up by Pat Kerr, who was born in Scotland and who was a cabin crew member with British Airways. The orphanage now looks after 500 children and 150 destitute mums. It has looked after women and children for the past 25 years, and it is a huge success story. It goes from strength to strength, and it has a lot of support in the House, including from the hon. Lady.

I want to refer quickly to elections. As I said, we need to build confidence in the electoral process. Accusations have been made about corruption and fraud. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster touched lightly on the fact that we in Tower Hamlets are not unused to corruption and fraud—our mayor was recently taken out by the election court. However, it was great to see Sheikh Hasina here this week giving commitments on the drive to rebuild confidence in the electoral process and institutions. Incidentally, it was also great to see her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), make her impressive maiden speech yesterday. She will be a real asset to not only the Labour party, but the whole House in due course. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is rightly proud of her.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): When Sheikh Hasina came over, it was also fantastic to hear the older brother of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) speaking about the wonderful work he has been doing in Bangladesh to extend broadband. However, as we are talking about the future of Bangladesh, will the hon. Gentleman reiterate the point that corruption, fraud and demonstrations such as those that happened here in London at a community event with Sheikh Hasina may hinder progress in Bangladesh unless we get things right over the next few years?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The all-party group, which the hon. Member for St Albans leads so well, has a really important role in helping to bring the two sides together. Lord Avebury has been working on that for many years. There needs to be dialogue. The good news is that, for the past few months, the situation has been quieter than it has been for the best part of two years. If the country is to get back to having a normal political future, that needs to continue.

As parliamentarians, we have great respect in Bangladesh. This debate will, I know, be covered in Dhaka’sDaily Star. It will also feature on Bangladesh TV here in the UK and back in Dhaka and Sylhet. The message we collectively want to send to the Bangladesh Government is: “We are your friends. We are here to help. We want to do everything we can to see continued progress in your country, which has made fantastic progress in the last 40-odd years. We are a resource and an asset.”

When the Minister and the shadow Minister respond—I am sure the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire will reinforce this point—I am sure they will say we are all in the same endgame: helping Bangladesh to move forward. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

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3.15 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for securing the debate and for giving us all a chance to put on record our views on the future of Bangladesh. I also thank her for work as the chair of the all-party group. On our last visit, she and I spent a great deal of time on the roads of Dhaka and travelling around Bangladesh. There is no doubt that her commitment is absolutely genuine, and I am pleased to see her continue in her role.

I want to add a few comments to the distinguished speeches we have heard. Bangladesh has a tremendous future and a really important relationship with the UK. The challenges it faces can be overcome, but they need to be addressed, because they are important.

I pay tribute to the British Bangladeshi population in my constituency—we have a substantial community in Hyde. To be honest, I did not grow up with a great deal of diversity; I grew up in a very white working-class part of north-east England, so I was not familiar until my adult life with any sort of diversity. In fact, I acutely remember being at university in Manchester and experiencing Eid for the first time. I lived just at the edge of Rusholme, and everyone came down the road, beeping their horns and waving flags. I honestly thought that there must have been an explosion and that everyone was fleeing to safety. People sometimes take the time to tell us about their faith, background, history or culture and they invite us into their homes to share that experience with us. That is a wonderful part of being an MP, and I treasure it a great deal, although we do not always talk about it enough.

My community has not been without its challenges. Like many communities, we have had situations such as that in 2012, when we had an invasion—that is the word I would use—by the English Defence League. Its members came to Hyde and harassed people, trying to exploit community tensions and to get a foothold in the community. When members of our communities—people of different backgrounds, political views and ethnicities—stand together and say, “We don’t welcome you. In fact we oppose this invasion of our town,” that, too, is a special thing. We are not tough enough on organisations such as the EDL, which come in and tell people who are second or third-generation British citizens that they should not be here. They should not have the right to do that. Of course, they have the right to express their view, but, equally, we must protect our citizens as they go peacefully about their lives.

When we talk in future about the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, I hope that Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance will have further strengthened that relationship. Despite all the political problems with forming Governments and having peaceful transitions into power, the growth rate in Bangladesh is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, something we in the UK very much aspire to. Given the language and discourse in the UK around India, China and the MINT countries—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey—the Next 11 countries, of which Bangladesh is one, could become the vogue, fashionable countries that this country wants a relationship with. The links the UK has with Bangladesh could be a tremendous asset, not just to the UK as a whole, but to towns such as mine.

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Mrs Main: The hon. Gentleman was brave enough to travel the roads of Dhaka. The important thing we saw over there was the power lines draped outside buildings and the roads, which made us feel like putting our hands over our eyes while we travelled on them. If business is to keep investing and trusting in Bangladesh, we need to see infrastructure growth, and I would like to hear comments from the Minister about that. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that infrastructure growth and resilience are important if we are to support growth?

Jonathan Reynolds: I absolutely agree, and I want briefly to mention three issues we came across when we went to Bangladesh, because they are important for the future.

The first is the context of our visit: the Rana Plaza disaster, which was one of the worst industrial accidents the world has seen—some 1,100 people died. That came just after the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 people. Clearly, they should be addressed in the context of the development of Bangladesh’s economy. To be honest, when I went there, I perhaps had a predetermined view that the question was primarily one of exploitation, with western companies using the cheap labour rates of Bangladesh to make profits. I still believe that western companies have a duty not just morally but in terms of their reputation and brand to make supply chains transparent and to do what they can.

However, the situation is complex. The standards adhered to by western factories that export to this country are clearly higher than those of the domestic garment industry in Bangladesh. Many of the problems that we encountered were to do not just with the behaviour of western companies, and labour standards, but the whole system of governance in Bangladesh—the need for good governance, and for corruption to be rooted out. Those are central challenges that have been mentioned in the debate, and they lead to my second point, which is on the political culture and political violence in Bangladesh, and the need for change.

I am sure that all of us with an interest in Bangladesh—particularly in Tower Hamlets, I should imagine—have had experience of people wanting to take our photo and get a comment from us endorsing one side or another in regional or national elections, or perhaps in Bangladesh’s historical disputes. I completely understand that there are legitimate grievances on either side of Bangladesh’s political history, but my message to those people is always that there is much to be gained from trying to find a way through to a peaceful transition of power in Bangladesh.

For all the differences between parties in the House, we can honestly say that when one side wins an election—usually the Conservative party—we are willing to give up the keys to Downing Street. I was surprised by the amount of interest there was in that way of doing things when I was in Bangladesh. People were taken aback by the fact that we were an all-party delegation, and could not relate to that. If either side can reach the point of having faith in the central idea of adhering to the rules of the political system, and to the rule of law, perhaps through the mediation and support of countries such as ours, Bangladesh has a huge future, and proceeding in that way is extremely important.

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Political violence in Bangladesh clearly continues to be a concern. I asked for figures from the Library. I believe that 120 people have been killed this year in political violence—half of those are believed to have been burned to death. It would be terrible if people took that as indicating the nature of Bangladesh as a whole. It is much more than such statistics. Many people, and not only those with an ethnic or historical link to the country, want to visit it, to have a relationship with it and to do business with it. UK investment in Bangladesh is of huge importance to our economy, just as it is to that of Bangladesh, so it is important to get past the issues I have outlined.

I want finally to make brief mention of climate change. Most people in this country who consider the challenges are aware that Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable. Today, there is a lobby of Parliament on climate change on the theme “Speak up for the love of”. Bangladesh produces 0.3% of global emissions, but it is one of the countries most at risk from rising sea levels. The Ganges delta has 230 rivers, and there are 160 million people living in an almost completely flat area one fifth the size of France. A sense of justice and equity, regardless of what side of the political divide we are on, will tell us that there is a need to do the right thing this year in this Parliament to tackle the situation.

People often ask about the consequences of climate change, and they need to realise that it will affect not only countries such as Bangladesh, but the UK. It will create refugees and problems of food supply and food security. There will be huge knock-on effects for this country as people go to places where they have relatives, or that they have relationships with. That brings us back to the fundamental point that it is in our interest for UK parliamentarians to take the right steps for the UK’s national interest and for the world. I hope that we will do that throughout this Parliament.

I warmly welcome the debate, and the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, which I agree is extremely important to parliamentarians. We are all friends of Bangladesh and I hope that the relationship will become even more important in future.

3.24 pm

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for her excellent presentation, and look forward to working with her in future. I am of mixed heritage and have background from Pakistan, which shares issues with Bangladesh. I want to focus on child marriage, climate change, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), and climate justice.

Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report called “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, ranking Bangladesh fourth in the world for child marriage, and describing the practice as an epidemic. Sixty-five per cent. of young women in Bangladesh are married before 18, and 29% before 15, according to UNICEF figures. Child marriage leads to dangerously early pregnancies, lack of education, and greater chances of domestic violence and poverty—issues that are, of course, of great concern to all.

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Meanwhile, however, the UN has praised Bangladesh for meeting other development goals, including on the reduction of poverty, gender parity in school enrolment, and reduction of maternal mortality. If some of the development goals have been met, the question must be raised of what is going wrong on child marriage. Gender discrimination has been mentioned as one possibility in the Human Rights Watch report, along with desperate poverty that means parents cannot afford to feed or educate their daughters, and natural disasters caused by climate change, which force families to adopt survival strategies.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about marriage. The Human Rights Watch report made great play of the fact that because of poverty the option for many families is either to find a husband for the daughter, or for someone in the family to starve. It is a difficult choice—whether to keep a girl in the family and keep the family together, or marry her off so she can survive. We in this country could not countenance that situation.

Ms Ahmed-Sheikh: As the hon. Gentleman says, we cannot possibly imagine facing such choices, but people living in Bangladesh make such stark choices daily. The Human Rights Watch report is specific in its comments about child marriage rates in Bangladesh:

“Natural disasters in Bangladesh, and the lack of an adequate government safety net for families affected by them, compound the poverty that drives child marriage. Bangladesh’s geophysical location makes it prone to frequent and sometimes extreme natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, river bank erosion, and earthquakes, which cause widespread loss of life and property damage.”

The report continued:

“Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters—some for example rushed to marry off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion.”

Bangladesh is the most vulnerable nation in the world to the impact of climate change, according to the risk analysis firm Maplecroft; 57 rivers enter the country at one side and drain out at the other. The country has no control over the water flow and is particularly vulnerable to rises in global sea level. It is densely populated, with widespread poverty, little capacity to adapt and ineffective governance. The people are powerless in the face of natural disaster.

That leads me on to the matter of climate justice. The poor and vulnerable—often women and children in particular—are always the first to be affected by climate change, and they suffer the most, when in many cases it is the richer countries and populations that have caused the problem. Acknowledging that imbalance is central to climate justice. Climate change threatens basic human rights: to water, food, a home, an education, economic development and life itself. It reverses hard-won progress on human rights and development, and we can see that clearly happening in Bangladesh. Climate justice puts people, and a human rights-based approach, at the heart of decisions on global sustainable development. It means benefiting the environment, alleviating poverty and improving equality.

The Scottish Government are leading the way in the realm of climate justice, with a dedicated climate justice fund, which is possibly the only fund of its type in the

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world. The £6 million fund currently supports 11 projects in Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia, empowering the poorest and most vulnerable communities to access their rights and to become more resilient with respect to climate change. The fund’s emphasis is on access to clean water, enabling communities to assert their water rights, and sharing best practice in natural resource management. The results have been inspiring. Communities are brought together to work towards a better future, sickness is banished, crops are healthy, and children can return to school.

The Scottish Government have stimulated conversations about climate justice nationally and internationally among businesses and communities, and in academia and the public sector. Glasgow Caledonian University this year launched the world’s first masters programme in climate justice. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recognises Scotland’s pioneering role, stating last December:

“Within the UK, the Scottish Government continues to take a lead in putting climate justice on the international and domestic agendas, with a renewed commitment to the cause of human rights and an announcement of new projects supported through its Climate Justice Fund.”

As Humza Yousaf, Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development, has said:

“We aim to be a world leader and a progressive voice on the global stage—we hope our commitment to helping the world’s poorest will inspire many people, both home and abroad.”

The Scottish National party manifesto for 2015 promised that

“we will call on the UK government to match the approach of the Scottish Government with a dedicated Climate Justice Fund.”

This debate highlights perfectly the need for such a fund, to help countries including Bangladesh, which suffers an endless stream of disaster caused by climate change—a problem not of its own making that leaves millions in deprivation and forces families to give up on their own daughters’ futures, as was shown in the Human Rights Watch report.

Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, is doing its best to make social and economic progress in the face of ongoing environmental catastrophe. We can call on its Government to restore full democracy and call for strong action on child marriage, but as first-world contributors to the global climate crisis, which affects countries such as Bangladesh disproportionately, we have a strong moral obligation to help. Will the Minister promise to take a close look at the Scottish Government’s climate justice policy, with a view to creating a similar fund at UK level?

3.32 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate. It is not the first time that we have debated Bangladesh in this Chamber. She has done an excellent job chairing the all-party group and obviously continues to show passion for the country.

We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) about the importance of free and fair elections, which must have the confidence of the international community and the people of Bangladesh—I will mention that—and peaceful transition from one Government to another.

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The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) mentioned the important issues of child marriage and tackling climate change. Many of us will today have been lobbied by constituents on the Climate Coalition’s summer rally. It is important that we highlight the impact of climate change on countries such as Bangladesh when urging the Government to make progress in the talks that will happen later this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made an interesting speech, with a new take on this topic from the trade union point of view: he spoke about labour standards in the shipbuilding yards and among garment workers. Most importantly, he name-checked his local restaurant, which is always a good move for an MP; there will be free poppadums for him next time he is there, I am sure.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes an important point about name-checking, but given that Tower Hamlets is the curry capital of Britain, there are just far too many good restaurants for me to mention.

Kerry McCarthy: Perhaps the next time my hon. Friend speaks he will give a long list, and then he will get free poppadums in all of them.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) talked about the plight of Hindus, which I will mention, and about the diaspora community in his constituency and its passion for education. I think that all of us with ethnically diverse constituencies realise that levels of aspiration in some of these communities are extremely high.

The Bangladesh diaspora is an important part of our communities that maintains our strong historical links to Bangladesh, which the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned. The connection between our two countries was reaffirmed this week with the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whom many of us had the opportunity to meet. She was in the public gallery for the maiden speech of her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has become, as has already been mentioned, one of three MPs of Bangladeshi heritage in the House, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq).

We have heard that Bangladesh has made progress on poverty reduction and prosperity is rising. Its economy has grown by around 6% a year despite political instability, structural constraints and the global financial crisis. Many of the millennium development goals have been reached, such as the goal on getting girls as well as boys into primary and secondary education, although there is always an issue about children dropping out as they get into secondary education—particularly girls, when marriage is on the cards.

The country is heavily reliant on agriculture and the garment industry; the latter accounts for more than 80% of exports. We have heard about Rana Plaza, to which I will return in a moment. There is potential for growth in some sectors, such as the information and communication technology sector, which generates some $300 million in revenue. At a very local level, microfinance has made a real difference. I was fortunate, when I visited Bangladesh with Results UK, to meet Muhammad

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Yunus, the Nobel peace prize winner, whose microcredit system has reached out to some 7 million of the world’s poorest, many of them in Bangladesh, and helped when the conventional banking system would not. It is notable that he said that 95% of its loans were given to women. Women are very much the driving force of economic regeneration locally.

Remittances from the diaspora community accounted for 8% of GDP in 2014, which is some $14 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has done excellent work on this front, trying to ensure that the flow of remittances continues to countries such as Bangladesh, but there is still a need to look at whether remittances can be better channelled into growth, so that it is not just about subsistence and supporting families to keep their heads above—let us leave that metaphor. It should not just be about supporting families to get by on a daily basis.

Bangladesh remains a poor country. Political violence is a major concern. Last year’s elections were boycotted by the main Opposition party and more than half of the 300 seats were uncontested. There was violence on election day, including arson attacks on polling stations; 21 people died, adding to the death toll after 120 people lost their lives in pre-election violence. This year, with the anniversary of the election, there were more deaths and fires, and thousands of people were arrested. Amnesty International has reported in the past on the use of excessive force, torture and extrajudicial killings by the police in Bangladesh. Questions have to be asked about the police response to the violence. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said about conversations in his local restaurant regarding developing policing, and about the contribution that we can perhaps make on that front.

The Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, reportedly encouraged protests in January. The Minister will be aware that she has been charged with corruption—allegations that must be dealt with independently and in accordance with the rule of law. I hope that, during her visit, the Foreign Office discussed the matter with the Prime Minister in more detail.

The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 was one of the world’s most serious industrial accidents, as hon. Members mentioned, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and 2,500 people were injured. It exposed the hidden costs of the clothes we buy on our high streets. The TUC and organisations such as the Bristol-based Labour Behind the Label have done great work to campaign for justice and reforms. I understand that the compensation target was finally reached in the last few weeks. The tragedy demonstrates the importance of the International Labour Organisation, yet the coalition Government withdrew funding for it. Of course, we have seen plans to erode workers’ rights at home, too.

It would help if the Minister outlined how the FCO was working with Bangladesh to improve rights and safety conditions for workers, and how it was demonstrating to the international community, as well as to businesses operating in the UK, that this is a concern for the Government; and it would help if he said that the Government recognised the importance of raising labour standards, not just internationally in Bangladesh, but to protect those in this country.

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As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. It produces just 0.3% of global emissions, but is especially susceptible to cyclones and rising sea levels, which threaten the lives, homes, food and livelihoods of its 160 million people. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I were at a meeting with climate scientists this morning, and some of the facts and statistics they put in front of us were absolutely frightening. If the world does not act, rising sea levels and global warming will impact on not just such countries as Bangladesh, but every country. That is why we need a strong global deal on the table at the Paris talks later this year. It is also why we need action on climate change when the conference on the sustainable development goals meets in the autumn.

Bangladesh warned last year that it would need £3 billion over five years to adapt to current climate challenges, including help to build 700 km of coastal defences. If that is not done by 2050, rising sea levels could cover 17% of Bangladesh, displacing millions and potentially forcing 50 million people to flee. If any more incentive were needed—again, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire touched on this—we need only look at the wider impact of climate change. According to Human Rights Watch, 29% of girls in Bangladesh marry before the age of 15, despite that being illegal. That percentage is higher than in any other country. By the age of 18, 65% of girls are married, in part because of poverty and lack of access to education. Climate change is another driver of that, with parents marrying off their young daughters after losing their home or crops to floods or soil erosion.

Mrs Main: The APG visited an institute for the paralysed. While we were there, we saw many children who looked like they had cerebral palsy, but it was the result of young women giving birth and those births going wrong. It is important that young women are protected from entering into having children at a young age.

Kerry McCarthy: The hon. Lady makes a good point. Parents may see marriage as a way of securing a better life for their daughters, but too often they suffer abuse in marriages. Even where that is not the case, the physical risks of giving birth at such a young age can be bad indeed. Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh and the Prime Minister made some encouraging commitments at the girl summit in London last year. Reports indicate, however, that there has been little progress on her pledges. There has even been some discussion about the legal age for marriage being reduced in Bangladesh. The UK Government were rightly lauded for hosting the summit, so I hope the Minister can update us on how they have been trying to maintain that momentum and get Bangladesh to deliver on the commitments made there.

As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned, there is serious concern about the persecution of Hindu communities and the decline of the Hindu population in Bangladesh. Freedom of religion and expression are a grave concern. Earlier this year, three secular bloggers were hacked to death on Bangladesh’s streets. Those responsible for such horrendous acts must be brought to justice, and the Government must protect the rights of religious minorities and atheists in Bangladesh, as well as the majority Muslim population.

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We have seen bloggers, Facebook users and human rights organisation officials arrested because of what they have put online. The FCO listed freedom of expression on the internet as one of its six human rights priorities, so perhaps the Minister can advise us on whether the new Government continue to have those six priorities. How have they been working with Bangladesh to support reform in this area? Abolition of the death penalty was another of the FCO’s priorities, and the UK must continue to push for a moratorium in Bangladesh, as we do elsewhere.

Finally, one area where Bangladesh has been less proactive is the boat crisis with Burmese and Bangladesh migrants. We have previously discussed our concerns that Bangladesh has returned Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma and blocked aid agencies from accessing Rakhine state. The international community is horrified by the discovery of mass graves and scenes of migrants from Burma and Bangladesh packed on board ships and risking their lives in search of a new home in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. I know that the Minister responded to an Adjournment debate in the Chamber only last week or the week before on the situation in Burma, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has dismissed the Rohingya as economic migrants who are “mentally sick”, and said they should be punished, as they were

“tainting the image of the country”.

Will the Minister comment on the situation from the Bangladesh perspective?

I hope the Minister will agree that the international community needs to address not only the immediate crisis in the Andaman sea, but the underlying issues forcing people to flee their homes in Burma and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is of course part of the discussions about Rohingya citizenship and whether they can eventually be given rights of citizenship in Burma.

I regret that my remarks may appear rather negative; I started by saying that there was much in Bangladesh’s future to be positive about, but it is important, as other Members have said, to highlight some of the issues, in a spirit of friendship, so that we can, with our common shared history and our role in the Commonwealth, work with Bangladesh to address them.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister to speak, I remind him that there are approximately 15 minutes to go. It would be helpful if at the end he could find a little time for Mrs Main to respond to the debate and thank Members for their participation.

3.45 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I shall certainly try to do as you suggest, Sir Alan. On that subject, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate and on the almost universal acclaim from all parts of the House for her work as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I commend the commitment that she and all the group’s members, some of whom are with us this afternoon, have shown over the years to strengthening and deepening our relations with Bangladesh, as well as to encouraging progress in many areas, from human rights and economic and social development to educational and trade links.

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In January 2014—more than 16 months ago—the House had a debate on Bangladesh immediately after its 10th parliamentary elections. Those taking part in that debate expressed concerns about: the high levels of violence and disruption; the removal from Bangladesh’s constitution of the provision for a caretaker Government, following the annulment of that provision by the Supreme Court; and the consequent lack of participation by some of Bangladesh’s political parties in the elections. Indeed, as we know, before a single vote was cast, just more than half of all seats were declared, meaning that 46 million out of 92 million voters were deprived of choice at the ballot box. While that was deeply disappointing, the UK recognised that elections had been held, in accordance with Bangladesh’s constitution, which was amended by its Parliament in 2011. While it is not for the UK to prescribe the constitutional provisions of other countries, I add that the caretaker Government system was not without its flaws and was open to criticisms of manipulation and abuse. It is certainly not the panacea or path to participatory democracy that some have claimed.

Since then, alongside our international partners, we have encouraged Bangladesh’s political parties to take bold steps towards building much-needed confidence, mutual understanding and co-operation as the only way for the country to remain on a strong democratic path with full political participation, so that its people continue to have political choices. That is a message I have conveyed personally in my engagements with Bangladeshi Ministers.

It was therefore deeply concerning when the situation deteriorated in Bangladesh earlier this year. There have been: restrictions on public gatherings around the first anniversary of the 2014 elections; nationwide transport blockades and enforced labour strikes declared by the Bangladesh Nationalist party; outbreaks of violence and disruption; more than 100 deaths, horrific arson attacks and many more injuries; and opposition and activist arrests, which a tough law and order response that saw a number of fatalities. On 5 March, I issued a statement calling for a peaceful way forward. Preparations for city corporation elections in Chittagong and Dhaka in April presented a real opportunity for Bangladesh to focus on democratic processes once more, but that opportunity was lost after the BNP withdrew part way through, citing widespread irregularities. The Election Working Group—an umbrella non-governmental organisation that the UK, among others, supports—found election day to be marred by significant levels of electoral fraud and violence, and judged the elections not to have been credible.

We and many other international partners called for all allegations of irregularity to be investigated swiftly and impartially. Sadly, that does not yet seem to have happened. The UK cares deeply about Bangladesh, so we continue to urge the political parties to do the right thing by Bangladesh’s future. Like any modern, vibrant democracy, Bangladesh must protect and promote civil society and human rights, and not least freedom of expression, whether through allowing peaceful protests on the streets, media commentary or digital expression. No one should fear reprisals if they express a view. I associate myself closely with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) about the importance of a secular society.

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The recent horrifying and brutal murders of three bloggers in Bangladesh caused consternation around the world. The perpetrators must be brought to justice and the Bangladeshi Government must be unequivocal in protecting those who speak up. We are also deeply concerned about allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Again, where allegations are credible, we call on the Bangladeshi Government to hold the perpetrators to account through impartial, transparent investigations.

I should note the final verdict yesterday in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh’s appellate division, confirming the death sentence against Jamaat secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, for crimes committed during the 1971 liberation war. Although I fully understand the strong desire finally to bring those who committed terrible atrocities to account, the UK remains strongly opposed to use of the death penalty in any circumstances.

Bangladesh has a strong network of non-governmental organisations, all contributing to Bangladesh’s future in a range of sectors, from supporting women’s and children’s issues, to food security and poverty alleviation. We regularly engage with the Bangladeshi Government to ensure that they support the vital work of these organisations and address legitimate concerns, including revisions to new legislation governing NGOs.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) commented on the Human Rights Watch report, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to passages in that report about girls being married off so that others can eat or be educated. We welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment at the girl summit last year to ending marriage for under-15s by 2021, and for under-18s by 2041. With two thirds of women in Bangladesh currently married before they are 18, it is hugely important that the new Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions. We continue to discuss with the Bangladeshi Government our concerns about the proposed legislation to lower the legal age for marriage.

We invest heavily in Bangladesh’s development. UK aid currently stands at £191 million a year. That support aims to lift 1.5 million Bangladeshi citizens out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people, and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete primary school education. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans asked how the UK aid schemes are audited; the situation is complicated. I will ask my colleagues at the Department for International Development to write to her. Nevertheless, I can assure her that none of our aid is paid as direct budget support to the Bangladeshi Government.

Climate change is of course hugely important to Bangladesh. I remind the House that the Government set up the international climate fund to provide £3.87 billion between April 2011 and March 2016 to help the world’s poorest to adapt to climate change and promote cleaner and greener growth.

Hon. Members rightly mentioned the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza two years ago, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 innocent lives, many of them women’s. We welcomed the all-party group’s report

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and recommendations. The garment industry in Bangladesh has played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s development by helping to reduce poverty and empower women. Significant steps have been taken to improve building safety and working conditions, but there is still more to be done. All the parties involved in the supply chain, including Government agencies, building owners, factory owners, and the international brands, need to share responsibility for ensuring that change happens.

The UK is providing £7.4 million to fund factory inspections, train new inspectors, strengthen factory health and safety, help garment workers to understand their rights and help survivors of Rana Plaza to find new jobs or start their own businesses. We are pleased that the $30 million Rana Plaza fund has now been met in full. Primark’s contribution of an additional $13 million, on top of its $1 million donation to the fund, is particularly noteworthy and will help to ensure that victims and their families are properly supported.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), mentioned the migrant crisis in the bay of Bengal and Andaman sea. I recently discussed the matter with the permanent under-secretary from the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and urged Bangladesh to take steps to improve border security and address the root causes of the crisis. He invited me to go with him to Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to see for myself what is going on there. I very much hope to take him up on that offer. In parallel, UK aid is providing £4.79 million for food security, livelihoods and relief co-ordination for the Rohingya and host communities in Bangladesh, in addition to the significant existing UK aid programmes in Rakhine.

Before I draw my remarks to a close, it is worth reflecting on Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh. It is important that countries in the region collaborate to ensure the region’s long-term stability and prosperity. We therefore welcome the Indian Parliament’s long overdue ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and the 2011 protocol. That will make a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of citizens living in enclaves on either side of the border. We hope that this historic agreement, along with other Bangladesh-India bilateral agreements made during Mr Modi’s visit, paves the way for even more—for example, on Teesta water sharing. Incidentally, the boundary realignments have already unleashed a whole tranche of long-overdue Indian investment in infrastructure—I think my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans alluded to that earlier.

It is important that all countries in south Asia continue to play a role in tackling the threats of terrorism, extremism and radicalisation. I therefore welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to eradicating terrorism, although it is important that, when countering risks, law enforcement agencies do so transparently, fairly and within the bounds of the law.

To conclude, the United Kingdom values its relationship with Bangladesh deeply. The 440,000-plus people of Bangladeshi origin in the UK make an enormous contribution to British society. That is why the Government will continue to work closely with Bangladesh on its democratic path and as it grows to be a strong and more prosperous nation that benefits all its people. On behalf of the whole House, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans for her work and for the opportunity to

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debate these important issues, and I thank other Members for their continuing interest in furthering the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Before I call Mrs Main, may I point out that a vote is due at 4 pm? Please make your summing up short.

3.58 pm

Mrs Main: Thank you for that guidance, Sir Alan. I shall do so.

I thank all Members who have participated for their contributions. This has been a model debate in terms of the friendliness expressed by Members from all parties. I thank the Minister for his response. He gave us his thoughts about the election irregularities that he has asked be investigated. I really hope that they are, because such helpful pressure, which we are putting on all political parties in Bangladesh, will move things forward.

The all-party group expressed a desire at its inaugural meeting to look at flooding—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) really wants to look into that. Infrastructure resilience is hugely important in Bangladesh. If the country is to grow, it is critical that it moves itself forward with the infrastructure upgrades that it so desperately needs.

I again thank the Minister. I am sure we will be asking for further updates.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): That concludes the debate. I must point out that, although a Division has not yet been called, one is expected in a few seconds’ time at 4 pm. If that is the case, the next debate will not start until 4.15 pm.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards Assessments

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

4.14 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered deprivation of liberty safeguards assessments.

It is a great privilege, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship.

I am highlighting an expensive bureaucratic nightmare that is engulfing councils up and down the country. Local authorities are struggling to cope with the tenfold increase in applications for deprivation of liberty safeguards, known as DOLS, which is not only costing millions of pounds and tying up countless police and other resources, but causing untold distress to relatives of dementia sufferers who are treated when they die as if they had died in state detention.

We need first to look at how we arrived at such an unsustainable position. DOLS were introduced by the Department of Health in 2009 under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. They were intended to comply with articles 5.1 and 5.4 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that appropriate safeguards were in place to protect adults deprived of their liberty. DOLS provide a procedure for authorising any deprivation of liberty in care homes, hospitals and supported living arrangements. I am particularly interested in the increase in applications for DOLS assessments from care homes.

If DOLS were working effectively, the system would prevent potentially abusive restraint and sedation. It would also help to ensure that day-to-day practice in a care home did not restrict a person’s liberty—for example, people with dementia should be able to move around as they wish, as long as it was safe, and should not be required to stay in one place simply because that was easier for the staff.

In March 2014, the UK Supreme Court handed down two judgments, commonly known as Cheshire West, which outline the test that must be used in determining whether arrangements made for the care of an individual lacking capacity amount to a deprivation of liberty. The key test is whether the person concerned is “under continuous supervision” and “not free to leave”. The judgments in effect lowered the threshold and resulted in the colossal increase in the number of DOLS applications to local councils.

The situation was first brought to my attention by GPs in my constituency, council officers and distressed relatives of dementia sufferers living in local care homes. To get an overview of the national picture, I tabled a parliamentary question in March asking, with reference to the Supreme Court judgment, how many requests for DOLS assessments there had been in each local authority area. The answer revealed massive increases. In 2012-13, there were only 11,887 applications for the year, but the latest figure, for only the three months January to March this year, was 36,000, and of those, two thirds—68%—had not been processed. The numbers are rising every month and the Local Government Association estimates that an additional £136 million is needed this year to cope with the additional applications.

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Between 1 April 2014 and the end of January 2015, Stockport received 612 applications. It now has about 230 cases that have not yet been processed. All cases agreed will be reassessed automatically in 12 months’ time. Stockport council is now spending almost £1.2 million a year on DOLS assessments and employing six new social workers, a special DOLS co-ordinator and a part-time solicitor. The council has also had to draft in a private agency, because each average assessment takes about nine to 12 hours. That is a lot of time and money when social care budgets are being squeezed.

One of the main aspects worrying me on behalf of my constituents is the consequences of guidance issued by the Chief Coroner to local coroners in December 2014, subsequent to the Supreme Court judgments. The guidance stated that all deaths of people subject to a DOLS order must be investigated by the coroner, whether the death was from natural causes or not, and that such people were deemed to be “in state detention”.

As a result, when a dementia sufferer subject to a DOLS dies in a care home, GPs have to notify police, who must come and sit with the body until it is collected by the coroner’s mortician to be taken to the hospital mortuary, where it has to be formally identified before a formal inquest process starts. That system is causing untold distress to relatives and leading to an increased workload throughout the public sector. I understand that Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, has written to adult social care teams looking for information amid concern about how the changes will impact on police time and resources.

One lady contacted me about her 86-year-old husband, who has Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. She was very distressed about what would happen when he died and to learn that he was classed as being in state detention:

“He’s not a prisoner just because he has a lockable door. He is not in prison—he has done nothing wrong.”

The couple have been married for 60 years and she visits him every day.

Another lady, whose father lives in a care home, told me:

“I am absolutely appalled at the ruling that residents in a care home with dementia and their families, need to be put through so much after death. Not only will it be a drain on public services that are already stretched to the limit but it will also prolong the agony of the grieving families at a really stressful and upsetting time.”

She added:

“I would like the guidance to be looked at again with more compassion towards grieving families.”

Nationally, there have been reports of relatives of dementia sufferers who pass away in care homes being forced to wait months to bury loved ones because of the rules.

In addition to individual constituents, I have been approached by the local GP practice in Brinnington, Stockport, an area in which there are 234 elderly care beds and five care homes, most of whose residents have some form of dementia. The GPs have said that they are worried that the Chief Coroner’s advice will have an enormous and far-reaching impact across a great many services,

“not least affecting patients and grieving relatives.”

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Their main concern is that those subject to DOLS must have their death reported to a coroner. They pointed out that, technically, that could involve every single care home resident in Stockport: all care homes have lockable doors to help to protect resident welfare, so every resident could be liable to a DOLS assessment.

Nationally, doctors are unhappy. The British Medical Association is calling for an urgent review of DOLS to simplify the system, which it says is a time-consuming and cumbersome process that will divert resources from front-line services.

I wrote to the Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC, to express my concerns. He confirmed in a reply in March that, in his view of the law,

“and as I set out in the Guidance, persons who die in a hospital or care home subject to an authorised DoLS die ‘in state detention’. Their death must therefore be referred to and investigated by the Coroner.”

He said that that interpretation of the law was shared by the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health, and was also the view of the Labour Government during the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, he accepted that

“the consequences of the law… may not have been appreciated at the time of enactment. They involve consideration by Coroners of all DoLS cases even where the death was from natural causes. That is unfortunate and may cause extra distress to the bereaved families, which should be avoided if at all possible.”

He went on:

“Within the framework of the law at present, I am therefore considering ways of easing the burden of such cases on families and easing the extra burden of work for coroners (an additional expense for local authorities). But this in itself may require a change in the law which will be a matter for Parliament.”

I understand that the Law Commission is reviewing DOLS following a critical report by a House of Lords Select Committee in March 2014—ironically, a few days before the Supreme Court ruling that said DOLS were “not fit for purpose”. However, the Law Commission’s recommendations are not due until 2017 and there might be no change in practice until 2020.

The setting up of the post of Chief Coroner was quite controversial. There were concerns that trying to introduce uniformity to the system would take away discretion from experienced local coroners, and it would appear that that is exactly what has happened in this regard. Local coroners, who make decisions every day about whether to have inquests, now feel obliged to have an inquest on someone because they were subject to a DOLS even though their death was entirely expected. The need for an inquest is being determined not by the nature of the death, but by a person’s status of being in state detention when they died.

I have been told about a case of a lady who died of natural causes in a care home and was cremated, only for it to be discovered afterwards that she was subject to a DOLS. The coroner then had to get permission to carry out an inquest in the absence of a body. The family were very upset because they had to revisit the death. Another elderly gentleman subject to a DOLS died of a type of cancer of the lung often linked to exposure to asbestos, and there now has to be an inquest with a jury because that is an unnatural cause of death for someone subject to a DOLS. That all takes time and money.

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The Chief Coroner’s guidance, however, is essentially his opinion. Paragraph 46 of the guidance states:

“The Chief Coroner, who sits in the High Court on coroner cases, is not providing a judgment or ruling. This guidance is no more than the expression of an opinion, subject to the ruling of the High Court. Coroners, who are of course entitled to make their own independent judicial decisions, will do as they see fit in any particular case. But they are invited to take this guidance into account.”

The Chief Coroner may argue that it is therefore up to local coroners to make decisions, but the last sentence of the paragraph has been interpreted by local coroners as an order rather than guidance. The Chief Coroner, of course, has the authority of a judge. If that last sentence was removed, local coroners might feel they had more discretion over when to hold an inquest.

In reference to state detention, the Chief Coroner says in his guidance that there are two alternative views. The first is that the death of a person in hospital or a care home who was subject to a DOLS would not automatically require a coroner’s investigation. Indeed, in most cases there would be no need for an investigation, although the coroner would have to decide case by case whether one was necessary. However, the Chief Coroner has taken the second view, which is that a person subject to a DOLS

“falls squarely within the 2009 Act’s definition of ‘in state detention’.”

Given the distress caused to relatives, the diversion of resources from front-line care and the Chief Coroner’s stated objective of easing relatives’ suffering, it is time for him to reconsider his position on state detention.

Without a shadow of a doubt, that phrase, “state detention”, is causing great upset to relatives who, on top of their grief, have to cope with all the additional formality of process accompanying a state detention, such as, for example, the attendance of the police and an inquest. Further, if all the applications for 2014-15 had been processed, we would have had an additional 142,902 people in state detention. That could give rise to a misunderstanding among the international community, which might think that we were approaching the levels of detention in North Korea.

Although DOLS were introduced with good intentions, the situation is now out of control. The police, GPs and coroners are overloaded, local authorities are spending millions of pounds from reserves, grieving relatives are in terrible distress and two thirds of all applications are not being processed, meaning that some people are not being protected by a DOLS and could be having their liberty curtailed unnecessarily. Frankly, this is a tsunami and it is fast sweeping over us. We cannot wait until 2017 for the Law Commission review. We need a solution urgently.

There is also concern that some applications are unnecessary. Care home residents have differing capacities and the fact that a care home has some locked doors does not mean that every resident, as a matter of course, should be referred for a DOLS. The Care Quality Commission has an important role to play as an inspectorate to ensure that there is proper understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and DOLS among care providers, as well as an understanding that they need to provide environments that are flexible to residents’ needs, so as to ensure the greatest liberty consistent with their capacity. I welcome the CQC inspection regime of adult care that began in April 2014.

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Care England represents independent care providers. Its main concern is the time it takes to process assessments, which has led to many providers being placed in a position in which their services are being inspected by the CQC yet they do not have DOLS authorisations in place for all the residents who should have them. Care England also stresses that the delay in burials caused by waiting for inquests is upsetting cultural norms. For example, there are care homes solely for members of the Jewish faith, whose beliefs require a quick burial after death. If the coroner has to carry out a full investigation, that will preclude the family from being able to carry out a quick burial.

I suggest the following way forward to the Minister. The Law Commission review should be speeded up and conducted urgently, before 2017. In the meantime, opportunities should be taken to change the law to make it clear that not all deaths need an inquest. The Chief Coroner should be invited to look again at his guidance and review it in relation to state detention and automatic inquests. The Minister could consider mounting a legal challenge to the Chief Coroner’s guidance on behalf of all those adversely affected by the administration of DOLS, including those residents in care homes whose applications have not yet been processed. Perhaps the Government might consider whether state detention should now be statutorily defined and finally conduct an urgent review of the DOLS regulations to simplify this bureaucratic and time-consuming system—for example, the fact that DOLS have to be reassessed automatically every 12 months.

The system takes a sledgehammer approach, which is not remotely sensitive, and the issue has aroused widespread concern. My concern, on behalf of my constituents, is that when their loved ones die in a care home they should not have their grief exacerbated. They have often spent months deliberating about admitting their relatives to a home and feel guilty that they cannot care for them themselves. The process now surrounding the death of a person subject to DOLS adds immeasurably to their distress. When someone asks, “How did your mother die?”, who wants to reply, “In state detention.”? The situation must be resolved.

4.30 pm

The Minister for Community and Social Care (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) not only for raising an issue that she is closely involved in and has a great deal of knowledge about, but for kindly sending my office a copy of her speech to enable us to give the best possible response. I appreciate both that and the detailed but measured way in which she presented what has become a very difficult situation. She quoted the Chief Coroner as saying that

“the consequences of the law, however, may not have been appreciated at the time of enactment.”

If we all had £1 for every time that phrase was uttered, we would all be fairly rich. In answer to his quote, I would say, “You bet they weren’t,” but let me develop my argument further.

I welcome the opportunity to provide clarity and more information about what my Department is doing to support professionals in relation to DOLS. DOLS derive

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from the simple premise that a person who may lack capacity through a mental health disorder and is receiving care and support from the state has as much right to freedom of movement and choice as someone with full capacity. The background to DOLS is not always appreciated, but it is important, and I doubt that there is any difference between the hon. Lady and I on that point.

The phrase “deprivation of liberty” is, like “state detention”, an emotive one and derives from the legal framework. It may seem counterintuitive, but in some circumstances, a deprivation of liberty can be entirely appropriate in providing care and treatment for an individual who may lack capacity. Furthermore, it is worth emphasising that DOLS are firmly based within the Mental Capacity Act and, as such, reflect the Act’s core principles: namely, that a person’s wishes and feelings must be central to the decision-making process, and that the least restrictive form of care and treatment should be pursued wherever possible.

I stress that DOLS are a positive tool in that the assessments undertaken ensure that when a person is—in the legal sense—deprived of their liberty, it must be in their best interests. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that where DOLS are working effectively, they can prevent unnecessary restrictive measures and prevent people with dementia from being required to stay in one place simply because it is easier for staff.

As the hon. Lady said, until March 2014 the number of DOLS assessments a year was approximately 13,000. The Care Quality Commission noted in its annual reports that that figure seemed low. Then, in March 2014, in the case of Cheshire West, the Supreme Court clarified the law on what constitutes a deprivation of liberty by setting out a so-called acid test. I will not repeat that test now because the hon. Lady and the House know it well, but it is clear that the effect of the Supreme Court judgment has been to lower the threshold for what constitutes a deprivation of liberty when compared with previous standard professional practice. Official statistics from the Health & Social Care Information Centre have borne that out, showing that there have been 113,000 applications in 2014-15—roughly a tenfold increase on the previous year.

I will turn to the wider issues related to that in a moment, but let me concentrate first on the implications for coroners, which the hon. Lady spent the majority of time dealing with in her speech. The Supreme Court’s judgment had a number of unforeseen implications. One, which I know to be of particular concern to her, is the rise in coroners’ investigations.

The Chief Coroner for England and Wales has provided guidance to coroners in which he states his view that, under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the death of a person who is subject to a DOLS authorisation is regarded as a “death in state detention” and, as such, should be subject to a coroner’s investigation. Helpfully however, the Chief Coroner states that coroners are able to make their own judgment on that matter. He also states that, where appropriate, any inquest could be paper-based and certainly that neither a jury inquest nor a post mortem is required. None the less, I have heard distressing reports of coroners’ investigations

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leading to unforeseen delays in funeral arrangements and causing great anguish for relatives.

The Department has issued guidance urging local authorities to work closely with their coroner to develop a proportionate response. I am aware that many have done so and, for the time being, that may be the way through the difficulties. I can tell the hon. Lady today that my Department will issue further guidance on this specific matter in the next few weeks. Furthermore, I commit to writing to the Chief Coroner to ensure that we are doing all we can to encourage an approach that minimises the potential distress to relatives.

Ann Coffey: As I think I said in my speech, part of the problem is that the Chief Coroner is a judge and his guidance is seen as a question of law. If he could perhaps make it clearer that he is giving discretion to coroners, that might also help move things forward. Might the Minister take that up with the Chief Coroner?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Lady, in her concluding remarks, suggested that there might be a legal challenge to the Chief Coroner, but at this stage, I am not persuaded that that would be the best way forward. Perhaps we might leave it at this: depending on the Chief Coroner’s response to my letter, I might seek a meeting with him, so that I might have the opportunity to talk to him in a slightly different manner about some problems that the hon. Lady has raised and get an opportunity to take things further. I ought to get the Chief Coroner’s written response in the first place, but I appreciate her point of view.

We want to encourage an approach that minimises relatives’ potential distress, which, as the hon. Lady set out, can be severe. The key to best practice is good communication and information exchange between partners in the system. Leicester City Council is indicative of a local authority that has worked closely with its local coroner. Together they have designed a shared protocol that includes the clear steer that, unless there are suspicious circumstances, notification of a death can wait until office hours, negating the need for distressing out-of-hours visits from uniformed police officers. In the vast majority of those cases, police involvement will not be necessary. Certainly, 999 calls are not appropriate.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for stressing the importance of this issue. The Law Commission, which I will refer to in a second, is also looking at the issue of coroners’ investigations, and I want to see the results of that.

Let me say more about the Law Commission, having dealt with coroners to an extent. The Government’s policy is twofold in dealing with the significant challenge that has been given to local authorities and health and care providers now charged with implementing DOLS. First, we seek to understand whether legislative change can provide a system that is sustainable in the long term and that better balances the protection of individuals against the need for minimum bureaucracy to ensure that existing limited resource is maximised. Secondly, we are seeking to provide practical support and guidance to manage the challenges in the interim.

The case for a thorough review of the legislation in this area is unambiguous. The legislation underpinning DOLS was introduced by the then Government in 2007. It was criticised by Select Committees of both Houses,

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even before the implications of the Supreme Court judgment became clear. Following the judgment, the Government are funding the independent Law Commission to review the legislation underpinning DOLS. It will launch a four-month public consultation on a proposed new scheme on 7 July 2015.

Following the hon. Lady’s intervention, it has occurred to me that she and other parliamentary colleagues may appreciate a dedicated consultation event with the Law Commission on the parliamentary estate. If she agrees, I shall endeavour to make arrangements for that. I will contact the Law Commission to suggest such an event and I hope that it might want a session here so that it can listen to the expertise of colleagues. I am sure the commission would benefit from such expertise, and I will write to her and let her know what it makes of that suggestion.

Given the criticism of the current DOLS legislation, and bearing in mind the likelihood of unintended consequences, I strongly believe that it is important for the Law Commission to be given the time to consider the entire legislation in the round and, if appropriate, propose a comprehensive solution. It would be unwise to rush into specific legislative changes, the repercussions of which might not be clear, so I am not tempted at the moment to make any changes to the regulations.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady on greater urgency. The Law Commission’s review was scheduled to be completed, in the form of detailed policy proposals and a draft Bill, in the summer of 2017. I think, having taken up my duties, that that needs to happen quicker. Accordingly, I have proposed, and the Law Commission has agreed, an acceleration of the review to ensure that it will now be completed, in the form of detailed policy proposals and a draft Bill, by the end of 2016. I know that that is still some time away, but bearing in mind the complexity of the issue, I do not think we can afford to get the next bite at this wrong, so I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that news.

In the interim, my Department has been working with various partners to support the system’s response to the Supreme Court judgment. I reiterate now that the response to that judgment must be rooted in the principles and values of the Mental Capacity Act. Our efforts have to be focused primarily on realising real benefits for individuals. DOLS are about people, not paperwork. My Department has issued clear guidance that has emphasised the importance of a proportionate Mental Capacity Act-centred approach, and emphasised that so-called bulk applications for all the residents of a care home are not acceptable. DOLS apply only to those who lack the specific capacity to consent to their accommodation. Many in care homes and hospitals will have that capacity and so not be eligible for DOLS. That must be made clear.

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We recognise that the scale of the challenge set by the Supreme Court means that some local authorities will be unable to process DOLS applications within the 21-day legal timeframe. The Care Quality Commission has been clear that providers will not be unfairly punished for such technical breaches. However, the CQC has been equally clear, quite rightly, that a do-nothing approach is unacceptable, so providers and local authorities must have a plan in place for ensuring that those who stand to benefit most from a DOLS assessment receive one in a timely manner.

The Department has funded a reduction in the non-statutory bureaucracy accompanying the DOLS process, reducing the number of application forms from 32 to 13. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, which delivered that project, deserves particular praise for the support it has provided to its member organisations since the Supreme Court judgment.

The Department has funded the Law Society to produce excellent comprehensive guidance, in collaboration with practitioners, to assist in identifying a true deprivation of liberty, and in March this year, the Government announced that they would provide local authorities with an extra £25 million to support their efforts on DOLS in 2015-16.

I reassure the hon. Lady that I understand the concerns that some local authorities have about the cost of DOLS, and I praise the hard work of local DOLS teams. However, I am aware that there is considerable variation among local authorities as regards the number of applications that they have been able to process. Clearly, it is important that we identify and learn from current best practice, so my officials are in close contact with providers and local authorities, and I have instructed them to make further visits across England this summer to continue to understand the local response.

Although some may baulk at the idea of 100,000 DOLS applications a year, we should remember that every one of those applications represents a person having their care independently scrutinised. DOLS can help to shine a light on care that is unnecessarily restrictive and does not put the person’s views first and foremost. Therefore, we should strongly back the principles of DOLS. Our shared challenge now is, through the Law Commission review, to understand how those principles can be better applied in the day-to-day reality of the health and care system and after the unintended consequences of the judgment.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising these important issues. My Department and I would be grateful for any further insight she may have, conscious as we are of her expertise in the social care field. I hope that we have touched this afternoon—

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Personal Independence Payment Applications

4.44 pm

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.

It is a novel and pleasant experience to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome to his place the new Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). As my colleagues know, and as people across the House will find, he will be excellent in this role. He has great ability and compassion, and I am sure that we all wish him well in delivering for disabled people throughout the country.

Over the past several months, I have been contacted by a number of desperate constituents who feel like they have nowhere to turn. They are often severely disabled people who already have to suffer significant physical pain and distress daily. On top of their conditions, they have had to endure months of delays in applying for the personal independence payment. A system designed to help them is instead increasing their hardship and anxiety. I called for this debate to give those vulnerable people a voice.

I begin by saying that I support the underlying principle of the personal independence payment. Under the old system of disability living allowance, half of all claimants never had to undergo an assessment, and 71% of people who received the benefit never had their award reviewed. That meant that people whose conditions worsened were underpaid and those whose conditions improved received more than was necessary. That system was neither effective nor compassionate in supporting disabled people. Clearly, the money was not being well targeted at those who genuinely needed it.

By contrast, the personal independence payment is a more dynamic benefit, capable, at least in theory, of adapting to disabled people’s complex and often changing conditions, and providing them with the appropriate level of support. However, I have dealt with many cases locally of people waiting far longer than the target of 16 weeks to have their PIP claim processed. I have serious concerns that the administration of the new benefit has not functioned as well as it should have done in order properly to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

When PIP was introduced in the last Parliament, average delays were as long as 30 weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rightly acknowledged that those delays were “unacceptable”. Since then, the number of healthcare professionals has doubled, the number of assessment centres has increased and their opening hours have been extended. I understand that that has helped to bring down average waiting times substantially, which is welcome. I commend the Minister, who has been in office for a limited time, and his predecessors on their work in getting to grips with the issue. However, the many letters and emails that I continue to receive from my constituents, including one only yesterday and another as I waited for this debate to start, suggest that there are still unacceptable delays.

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To highlight my concerns, I shall describe in detail two cases. After having an accident at work, Mrs Lynn Dodds from Beverley suffers from two chronic pain conditions: chronic regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia. She has to use crutches to get around her house and needs a wheelchair whenever she goes out. She has a carer for 37 hours a week. She suffers daily seizures, brought on by stress and anxiety.

Mrs Dodds first applied for the personal independence payment in November 2013 and she had to wait eight months before being assessed. In that time, her condition deteriorated. She was then, unbelievably, told by Department for Work and Pensions staff that she had to start the whole application process again. Devastated by that news, she none the less reapplied for PIP in August 2014. She had to wait a further seven months to receive her reassessment. The healthcare professional told her that the decision could have been made on paper, without a face-to-face assessment. That is what she was told after all that time.

Mrs Dodds was then told that she would receive a decision within four weeks. It has been nine weeks and she is still waiting, although I think that something may have happened in the last few days, coincidentally or otherwise. When I raised the case with the DWP, I was told that the delays in her application were due to a heavy workload. When Mrs Dodds inquired herself, she was informed that the reason was that Atos had not yet sent her assessment forms to the DWP. She is frustrated that whenever she phones up to try to register a complaint, she is told that she must wait five working days for a call-back—call-backs that of course do not come within the five days, or at any time. After her initial attempt to lodge a complaint four weeks ago, she is still waiting for the DWP to call back. So much for five days.

Mrs Dodds says that following her experiences over the past two years, she suffers from depression and anxiety. We can easily understand why. She has gone from being a wife and mother looking after her family full time to being completely dependent on the care of others. I understand there are inherent difficulties in introducing a whole new benefit. I also understand that PIP’s more rigorous and improved assessment process will lead to an increase in work for DWP staff, but the length of time it has taken to process Mrs Dodds’ claim is unacceptable and completely wrong.

The second constituent’s case that I want to highlight is that of Mr Terry Read, also from Beverley. He lives with his 16-year-old daughter and is unable to work because of his disability. Following a deterioration in his condition, he applied for a reassessment of his personal independence payment to reflect his change of circumstances in October 2014. It was not until April 2015 that he was given a medical assessment. Every day his condition was deteriorating. Every day he called the DWP to ask why the decision was taking so long. When he contacted me, he said he was at his wits’ end. When DWP eventually awarded him the benefit last week, it did not backdate it to when the decision was made, so even after months of delays, he was given less money than he was entitled to in order to support the costs of his deteriorating condition.

Although I have named only two examples, many others have contacted me in the last few months about delays in receiving the personal independence payment. Mr Davies, you may be aware of a recent verdict in the

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High Court: the judge ruled that the delays experienced by two PIP claimants were unlawful. In that case, the claimants had to wait more than seven months for their benefit applications to be processed. The benefit should assist with the additional costs of disabilities, but the delays make disabled people reliant on family, friends and carers, when they want to be able to support themselves. In many cases, the delays cause added stress and anxiety, which aggravates claimants’ conditions.

From October this year, those still claiming disability living allowance will be invited to make a claim for the personal independence payment. That is why it is so vital that problems in the system are resolved now, and that average delays continue to decrease. What steps has the Minister taken to reduce delays in processing applications? What lessons can be learned from the roll-out so far, as October will be the beginning of a large and doubtless challenging process? What is his analysis of what has gone wrong?

I am aware that there are particular difficulties in setting up and running assessment centres in sparsely populated rural areas. I chair the Rural Fair Share campaign and the all-party group on rural services. It is easy to design policies in this place that do not work very well for vulnerable disabled people in rural areas, where there might be few, if any, public transport services and there is a real challenge in getting to cities to be assessed. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the need for the Government to ensure that their policies are rural-proofed. A disabled person who happens to live in a rural area should not have to wait longer for an assessment for the financial support on which they rely for their independence.

Is the Minister investigating the feasibility of pop-up assessment centres that have shorter opening hours, but that enable people living in rural areas, such as my constituents, to have their assessments carried out locally? If further work could be done, or if there were guidelines on what such a pop-up centre might require, perhaps communities including those in my area could look at them and identify premises where such provision could be made available.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He seems to be implying that rural constituencies such as his and mine suffer more delays than urban constituencies. Has he been able to conduct any research into this, because one would assume that it is more difficult to employ assessors in urban areas than in rural areas?

Graham Stuart: I cannot claim to have done such research, but perhaps the Minister can cast some light on the matter. Perhaps we could jointly request further work to see what can be done to try to make sure that we have a balanced system that serves everybody as equitably as possible.

I do not know whether it is wise to pick up something from Facebook at the last minute, but in response to a notice about this debate, a constituent posted this a few minutes ago:

“8 weeks to decide if you are eligible. Another 8 weeks to receive the form. You have 2 weeks to complete it. It then takes then another 8 weeks to arrange someone to visit you and a further 8 weeks for them to decide. That was what I got told this

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morning when I rang up! That's 34 weeks!!!! How on earth can they justify that????? We will back date it to the date I applied. It will be no good by then....!! Idiots and that's being polite”.

I hope the Minister will be able throw light on that and make sure people are not given such messages, because that is not my understanding of what the situation should look like.

I conclude by stressing again that I support in full the principle behind the Government’s reform of disability benefit. It is right that we target financial assistance at those who need it most, in a way that takes into account the changing nature of many people’s disabilities. I commend the Government’s success in bringing down the overall average processing time in recent months, albeit from unacceptable heights. However, my constituents’ cases show that significant further progress is still required in implementing this reform effectively and ensuring that the system is capable of handling the 1.5 million claimants who still need to migrate from DLA to PIP later this year. I look forward to working constructively with the Government to address the remaining delays that compound the despair and anguish felt by many of my disabled constituents.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): I intend to go to the Front Benchers no later than 5.25 pm. Five people are seeking to catch my eye. You can do the maths yourselves, but if everyone is to get a fair crack of the whip, there will be about five minutes each. I am not imposing a time limit, but I hope people will be mindful of that, so that everyone gets a fair chance.

4.57 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and on the measured way in which he introduced it. I reiterate his point about the High Court ruling on 5 June, paragraph 93 of which stated that the way two claimants’ applications for PIP were processed was “not only unacceptable” but “unlawful”. They had been waiting for 13 and 10 months respectively. I wanted to set the record straight on that point.

PIP has been beset with problems since it was introduced. In October 2012, I remember the former Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, debating this issue. She raised concerns about the migration from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. At that point, 40,000 assessments a month were being undertaken; the further 70,000 assessments estimated for DLA/PIP that would be breaking point for the assessment providers. She did not feel the capacity was there, and she has been proven right on this issue, as on others.

Opposition Members welcome welfare reforms where we can see there will be genuine benefit. I mentioned the other assessment process; we feel that the accumulation of assessments has not necessarily been wise. They underpin what is behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. An estimated 607,000 people in receipt of DLA will not be eligible for PIP. In total, it has been assessed that the Government will have cut nearly £24 billion from 3.7 million disabled people by 2018. Concerns have been raised about the reliability of the assessment process, as well as the limited involvement of the Royal

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Colleges on specific conditions, and of disabled people themselves in determining the metrics. The toll of the PIP process cannot be overestimated.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this debate. Does the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) agree that, for people with mental health issues or particularly traumatic disabilities who finally get to an assessment centre, the process can be traumatic? Perhaps the process needs to be reconsidered for such people.

Debbie Abrahams: As I was about to say, I had a meeting with Mind yesterday. One of the people in attendance said that he is due to have his PIP assessment tomorrow, and he is absolutely terrified. About a third of respondents to a survey of more than 4,000 Parkinson’s sufferers became financially worse off after they were diagnosed; for a quarter of them, money concerns are having a negative impact on their Parkinson’s. Those impacts are compounded by the process and their experience of PIP.

Dame Anne got it right two and a half years ago, and it is a shame that the Government did not listen at the time to her and my other former colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, Sheila Gilmore and Glenda Jackson. It was not until the February 2014 National Audit Office report described “poor early operational performance” and “long uncertain delays” for new PIP claimants, and until the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee pointed to the unacceptable delays, that the Government finally took action. At that time, the average wait was 107 days, and in some cases many months more, whereas there was a 74-day target for completion. For terminally ill claimants, claims were taking 28 days on average when they should have taken only 10 days.

Last year’s report by the Work and Pensions Committee made a number of recommendations; in particular, it suggested that penalty clauses in the contracts for assessment providers be used to recoup money when the providers fail to deliver value for taxpayers’ money. What moneys have been recouped? I am pleased that we are now seeing progress, for the sake of claimants and the taxpayer, but we are still not getting it right, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has shown. Some 42,000 people are waiting more than 42 weeks, and four out of 10 people are still waiting for their PIP claim to be processed.

I heard from a woman whose partner has cancer and is waiting for radiotherapy. They have been living on £113 a week since they applied at the beginning of April, and there is also an effect on passported benefits such as carer’s allowance, disability premiums and concessionary travel. I have also heard about the case of someone who received a full PIP award last July but has been told by the Department for Work and Pensions that she has to go through the process again. That beggars belief.

I recognise that the median waiting time has been coming down, and I am pleased about that, but I am concerned about the measures that have been used to bring it down. We have heard about people having to

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travel considerable distances to remote assessment centres. One person with Parkinson’s was required to get to a 9 am appointment in Deptford from Crawley, which exacerbated their condition. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that paper assessments can be undertaken instead of face-to-face assessments? On the training and skill of assessors, what steps has he taken to ensure the use of skilled assessors who are able to interpret clinical evidence for a range of clinical, physical and mental health conditions? Given the recent capacity issues, will the Department be revising the roll-out of PIP to a further 1.7 million DLA claimants in October?

My final couple of points are about the independent review of PIP that was published last year, which recommended that there be a full evaluation. I have already mentioned the concerns about the effectiveness of the assessment process, and it was recommended that the Government put in place a rigorous quantitative and qualitative evaluation strategy. When might we expect to see that strategy? Finally—this is definitely my final point—we know that the Chancellor will be announcing further cuts to social security in next month’s Budget. What cuts are being considered to disability and associated benefits, including through taxation? Will the administration of those benefits also be affected? Given that the introduction of PIP did not have an impact assessment, which was a big failing, will the Minister guarantee that any changes to disability benefits will have the necessary impact assessment?

Philip Davies (in the Chair): I will try to make myself a bit clearer. I will call the Front Benchers from 5.25 pm, and if we carry on with speeches of that length at least one person will not get in. I urge people to be mindful of others who wish to speak.

5.6 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and will try very hard to conform to your stricture; in fact, my speech will last less than five minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).

I congratulate the Minister on his maiden appearance in this Chamber. I had a very bad constituency case. The media contacted me about it, and his Department tracked my interview on Radio Gloucestershire. He invited me in to talk about it and, having talked about it, I am now much more reassured about the PIP process, so I am particularly grateful to him.

Like other Members who have spoken, I support the replacement of DLA with PIP, which is a much more targeted allowance. My particular constituent, Mr Stephen Smart, had to wait more than a year for his PIP payment, and we would all admit that in the past the system was far too slow. Waiting for more than a year is completely unacceptable. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth referred to the court case, and no doubt the Minister and his Department will have to react to that. The only thing I would say about my constituent’s case is that, had the Cirencester citizens advice bureau brought it to my attention much sooner, I believe that, as a Member of Parliament, I could have helped to

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resolve it. Indeed, I was able to resolve a number of other cases last year, so I urge my CAB to refer cases to me much quicker.

I am delighted that, in March, claim times were down to 15 weeks from 41 weeks last year. That is a terrific step in the right direction. For people with terminal illnesses, 99% of decisions lead to an award, with an average clearance time of six working days. I agree with the hon. Lady that claims involving terminal illnesses are particularly sensitive, and it is right that the time has come down.

The new scheme will need to find new resources to manage the claims process, so I am glad that the Government have doubled the number of staff working on PIP, but I suspect that the system is still patchy across the country. There are particular problems with recruiting staff in London, and I wonder whether there is the same problem in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, and maybe in my own constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that, although we discussed it in the meeting and I think our constituents are assessed in the Minister’s Swindon constituency. I think we are one of the better performers, so hopefully there has been considerable improvement since my experience. It is regrettable that I was not contacted much earlier in my constituent’s claim, which would have given me time to act on his behalf.

As others have said, the trials of the scheme will go nationwide in October, and hopefully the transition will be complete for those 1.5 million people early in this Parliament. It will be a great milestone when we get everybody on to the new system. We must ensure that it is properly targeted so that they get the benefits they should have and are able to apply and get help in their own home in the most severe cases. We must be sensitive to the fact that, for some people, filling in the form is difficult. I would welcome the Minister’s assurance on that.

We should consider the issue of the appeals process to the tribunal. In particular, I urge the Minister to address the issue of further appeals to the upper tribunal. I have known cases of appeals to the upper tribunal—not just for PIP payments—to take an interminably long time. He needs to look at that to ensure that, for every Government process, everybody has access to a reasonable appeals mechanism. Things do not always go right. When things go wrong, people need to feel that there is a reasonable mechanism for putting things right if they have a justifiable case.

I absolutely take the point about people with mental health problems, which are often difficult to diagnose. The assessors need to be particularly sensitive to that.

5.10 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate.

I want to bring to the Minister’s attention some issues that have been brought to me by some of my constituents who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. As he is aware, Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable disease. It presents some visible symptoms, such as tremors, and some

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non-visible symptoms, such as dementia, depression and, often, pain. Against that background, I make the following points.

First, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) raised the issue of delays. Parkinson’s disease can be exacerbated by the stress and anxiety caused by delays. Awards have been backdated where there has been a delay, but will the Minister consider apologising to the people who have suffered due to the delays?

Secondly, on the nature of the assessment process, the Department for Work and Pensions guidance states that, where there is sufficient medical evidence, the assessment should take place on paper. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be widely known throughout the system. I have been told by some of my constituents that the norm is still that a face-to-face assessment is expected. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the guidance, which is of some antiquity now, is known to staff throughout the system? It would not only help claimants, but relieve the assessment burden, if fewer people had to go to the assessment centres.

Thirdly, there is consistency. There are, as the Minister is aware, what are known as informal observations—in other words, people are observed as they approach the assessment centre. What they are carrying is often taken into account. Will there be a robust system in place to ensure that there is a set of objective criteria? Even when informal observations are taken into account in an assessment, they should be evidence-based.

I am wary of your strictures on time, Mr Davies, so I will finish on this point. How confident is the Minister in the robustness of the system? As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said, more and more people will be migrating from long-term disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, but will the system cope? We must not have delays of the scale we have had in the past. Is the system sensitive to the particular conditions—particularly progressive and incurable conditions—that people are suffering from? What steps can the Minister take to ensure that assessors such as Atos and Capita gather the information that will enable them to be sensitive to those conditions?

5.14 pm

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate. Like him, I have had many constituents contact me because they are worried and distressed about the transfer from DLA to PIP and the delays that have been taking place.

My constituency is in the north-west of England, which has been particularly hard-hit by the delays. They have caused an unacceptable number of my constituents to be living in financial hardship. I echo the points made about problems in rural areas, as my constituency has poor public transport.

I am pleased that improvements have been made to the system. I am aware that the Minister has confirmed this week that the average claimant wait is seven weeks for PIP assessments, down from the 16-week target set by the Secretary of State. Although I welcome those long-awaited improvements, will the Minister clarify whether the 16-week target covers the whole process from the applicant’s request to the final decision?

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In January, the Minister confirmed that DWP would implement the full PIP roll-out in a way that is commensurate with capacity. He said:

“Claimants will be randomly selected...on a post code basis where we are confident that capacity exists.”

It would be helpful to know exactly how that is being assessed and how capacity across all parts of the system will be maintained.

As has already been mentioned, October is the beginning of the most challenging phase of reassessing people currently in receipt of DLA. In addition to dealing with new claims and the fixed-award DLA claims that are ending, the Department will have to manage the PIP awards that are ending and the roll-out of indefinite awards. I seek assurance that the Government have taken that into account when assessing the capacity, so that we do not go backwards and return to the delays and unacceptable waits for assessments and decisions.

It is important to recognise that PIP is a gateway to other areas of support, such as tax credits and carer’s allowance. People cannot access those other benefits until they have had a decision about PIP. The problem is that, particularly with the delays that have been happening, although PIP is backdated to the date the claim was made, the other benefits are not. That is grossly unfair. Why does that have to be the case, and will the Minister consider reviewing it?

What really concerns me, and what I genuinely fail to understand, is how, when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told us that PIP was created to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society would get proper support for the extra costs that have to be borne through long-term illness and disability, my constituents feel they are being punished and victimised because they are unwell or disabled. I have seen people in tears on the doorstep because they are genuinely frightened for their future. We need to look at how the Department manages people.

Finally, I want to mention some of the language that is used when discussing PIP and disability allowances. The Prime Minister, in reply to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June about cutting disability benefits, said:

“What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 589.]

Whether that is actually true is open to challenge, but I want to talk about the phrase “most disabled”. Redefining people as “most disabled” is incredibly unpleasant, because so much hinges on some form of recovery, which is something that medical practitioners have commented on. How do we judge whether someone is “most disabled”? Is it in the same way that we assess whether someone with a learning disability is more mobility impaired than a person who can walk 25 metres? I would like to know how the Government calculate that the people with the most severe disabilities have had an increase, either in overall terms or in benefit levels.

Disabled and ill people want to be part of society; they are part of society. They want to work, and they do not deserve to be treated in the way they have been. I would like the Minister to assure people on such benefits

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that he understands their needs and that they will be treated with the respect and compassion they deserve—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness spoke about that—as he continues to roll out PIP.

5.19 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I will be as quick as I can, Mr Davies.

I declare an interest as the past chair of the all-party parliamentary group on motor neurone disease and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Parkinson’s in the previous Parliament. I also declare an interest because my late husband, who died recently of motor neurone disease—a condition called Pick’s disease—was in receipt of personal independence payment.

I do not think we can stress enough how PIP provides a financial lifeline for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, which both bring increased costs to daily living, whether relating to the need for constant heating; additional laundry costs; the equipment that people need to buy; the aids and adaptation to make their home liveable in; the food wasted as they try to find food they can eat and swallow; the transport costs related to keeping a normal life, getting people out of the home and accessing daily living; and the change in clothing as weight changes. Those are just a few of the huge costs that people face—never mind the stress and anxiety that hon. Members mentioned—that make it essential to get the processing of the change to PIP right. Those changes create anxiety every day, not just for the sufferer, but for their carers, who carry on caring while being denied access to carer’s allowance because the PIP process has not been completed.

If a visual assessment is being made, the outward signs can vary, depending on the progress of the condition: in the early stages, it can include simply slowness and stiffness when moving; breathing and walking difficulties; incontinence; and loss or slurring of speech. The less physical signs are pain, depression, anxiety and memory loss, all of which are exacerbated when the process goes slowly. I remind hon. Members that those diagnosed with some conditions of motor neurone disease can be dead within one year, so people can die before accessing the benefit if there is a delay in the process.

I stress the importance of paper-based assessments for people with such long-term conditions for which there is no relief, from which there is no going back and which mean a death sentence. It is nonsense that people are still being called in for face-to-face assessments. It is also nonsense that people are being assessed in places across the other side of a town, or a country area, that are difficult to access when people get to them, with, for example, long distances to walk or steps to climb. When they get to the assessment in such a place, having suffered the pain, anxiety and difficulty of getting there, they are told, “Well, you’re obviously well enough, because you’ve managed to get here.” It is nonsense. Will the Minister commission a detailed review of delays and problems with PIP, ahead of the independent review that is due in 2016?

Lord Freud said in the other place that the Government have speeded up the PIP process by giving paper assessments for those with incurable and progressive conditions. We all welcome that, but the evidence shows it is not

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happening. Will the Minister please make an assessment, with providers, and ensure that they adhere to the policy and report back to the House on progress?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am sure that the hon. Lady was at the Motor Neurone Disease Association gathering yesterday. Les Halpin, a constituent of mine, had motor neurone disease. He told me that he had got a death sentence of between six and two years. It is just that simple. It is a dreadful disease: all the body’s organs close down one by one, except the brain. I have been listening to the hon. Lady. Will the Minister consider giving more guidance to the assessor, so that once a disease such as that is diagnosed, they have detailed notes on their IT systems on how it is likely to progress?

Mrs Moon: It ought, automatically, to mean that such a diagnosis leads to a rapid paper assessment, because people are facing a death sentence and their carers need to be given the financial support to help them cope with the horrible life that is ahead of them—and I promise hon. Members that it is a horrible life.

Finally, will the Minister meet Parkinson’s UK and the MNDA to hear first hand about the difficulties that people with those conditions are facing and that the PIP assessment is adding to their daily lives?

5.24 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to congratulate the Minister, too, and welcome him to his new position.

As we have heard, this debate is important for many of our constituents who have applied for PIP and experienced long delays, anxiety and hardship. We heard about the recent case of Ms C and Mr W, where it was found that the delays were unlawful. It is regrettable that we have not yet had any expression of apology from the Government for those delays. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to offer that apology.

Many MPs know of cases in our constituencies where assessments and decisions have taken a long time. In my constituency, in at least one case the waiting time, end to end, was more than a year and the Department had to pay compensation. This afternoon we have all welcomed the improvements in the time taken for assessment and processing since the benefit was first introduced, including welcome improvements to speed up assessment for special terminal illness cases including cancer. We have also welcomed today’s figures from the Department that show further improvements; it is now 15 weeks, end to end, for new claims, and 11 weeks for reassessments. However, we must recognise that these have been achieved because of a significant increase in the number of healthcare professionals and fewer face-to-face assessments than had been envisaged. In fact, this represents a significant policy change by the Department. An early criticism of DLA by the coalition Government was that it lacked face-to-face assessments; those were to be one of the marks of a new approach under PIP.

We are pleased to see the improvements. However, as hon. Members have noted, Ministers now face a significant new challenge in embarking on the mass migration of the 1.5 million DLA cases to PIP, which is due to commence in October. The independent reviewer, Paul Gray,

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has said that this is the most challenging phase of the roll-out of the benefit. It is not just challenging for the Department and the assessment companies; it is causing uncertainty and anxiety among many DLA recipients. It is also causing uncertainty in respect of the public purse. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which has already revised spending forecasts upwards by £1 billion per annum between 2014 and 2015, said in the welfare trends report last week that structural changes to welfare benefits, such as migration from DLA to the new benefit, PIP, mean that any spending forecasts made are

“subject to even greater uncertainty”.

It is important, as we have heard, that this mass migration is not botched or rushed. That is the lesson from the earlier phases of the roll-out of this benefit, and from the roll-out of other benefits with intrinsic assessment processes, particularly the work capability assessment.

The Minister said on 15 June, in a written answer to my question 1541, that roll-out will be “commensurate with capacity” and

“on a post code basis”.

That still causes a great deal of anxiety to claimants: they are not sure where they fit in that postcode lottery. It is not clear what it means for the overall profile of public spending on the benefit, and it is unclear when the end date of the migration will be. Will the Minister assure us that there will be sufficient capacity, both in the Department and among the independent assessors, and say what extra cost is being incurred to ensure that that capacity is sufficient? During the migration, how many face-to-face assessments does the Minister expect there to be, or what proportion of assessments would be done face to face? How many home visits will there be? What use is the Department making of the opportunity to share information with other assessment processes, as Paul Gray suggested?

The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly highlighted appeals. It has been assumed that 40%—a very high level—will go to appeal. I hope the Minister assures us that not just the Department, but the Courts and Tribunals Service, can handle the appeals that are expected. Can he say how many people are expected to lose benefit or receive a lower payment than under the disability living allowance? We know from Motability that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and therefore their Motability vehicles. It would be interesting to hear what further forecast the Minister makes.

Most worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, is the backdrop of £12 billion of welfare cuts—“Newsnight” suggested yesterday that it could be as much as £15 billion—and what they might mean for the roll-out of the personal independence payment. In the House of Lords on 10 June, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton pointed out that the Prime Minister said during the general election campaign that PIP would be enhanced and protected. In response, Lord Freud only confirmed that disabled people would be “supported”, which is not quite the same thing. As has been pointed out, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister failed to rule out cuts to disability benefits. Indeed, he claimed

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that the Government had increased the benefits paid to disabled people by introducing PIP, which he said was more generous to the most disabled. That is a startling statement, given that there has been no change in the top rate of payments as regards PIP and DLA, that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and that the Government introduced the benefit with the intention of making a 20% budget cut.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): A little patience might be useful, might it not? We have heard in this debate about the very vulnerable people who rely on this payment. Rather than shroud-waving and trying to second-guess the Chancellor and what might be announced on 8 July, might it not be better not to further worry people who might already be worried?

Kate Green: What would give disabled people the most reassurance is if the Minister categorically said this afternoon that PIP will not be subject to the proposed £12 billion of cuts. Perhaps he will take that opportunity.

Finally, will the Minister say what progress has been made with the independent reviewer’s recommendations? Paul Gray highlighted a disjointed claimant journey, a lack of trust in the process and a lack of transparency. He also highlighted the nonsense of so-called interventions, which mean starting a new assessment process pretty much as soon as the last one has been decided. He proposed a series of actions to address some of those concerns. We have also heard about ongoing operational problems with venues, inaccessibility, long journeys and difficulties in rural areas. Sheffield citizens advice bureau in particular has highlighted problems in that regard. Inappropriate expertise or behaviour from assessors was mentioned in a recent report from Inclusion Scotland. As one Member said this afternoon, there have been delays when circumstances have changed in the middle of a claim. I am grateful for the chance to ask the Minister questions. This issue is the major challenge facing the Department when it comes to disability benefits, and the history is not entirely encouraging. We need to know that lessons are being learned, and we look forward to his response.

5.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Justin Tomlinson): It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, especially as you were the first to invite me to come on an official visit to a constituency. I am very much looking forward to it, but we will wait to see whether I will be invited a second time. The tone and the constructive and proactive nature of the debate are a real credit to Members. It is such an important subject, and Members gave a lot of first-hand experiences that will help shape how I take things forward, and I am grateful for that.

In the limited time I have, I will try to respond to as many of the points that were made as I can. If I have missed something, I will follow up on it after the debate. The debate is a credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), who is widely respected for standing up for his constituents. He faces the challenges of representing a rural community, and he has done it a good service today. I am delighted

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that the particular cases that were highlighted at the beginning of his contribution have, we believe, been resolved. It was absolutely right, however, to highlight the principle.

This is my first debate as the Minister for disabled people. As a Conservative, I am very proud that, when William Hague was the Minister, we introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We have made a clear commitment to halving the disability employment gap, which we would all welcome and support. It is a role where I know I can make a tangible difference. I have already spent a huge amount of time engaging and working with stakeholders, and I have made numerous visits.

During my five years as a constituency MP, I have done a huge amount with local organisations, charities and businesses acting in that area, and the one big thing that I get when I talk to people is that they are enthused about opportunity, and in particular about the opportunity to work. Only this morning, I met Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. She said that disabled people are too often seen as recipients when all they want is to be net contributors. That was brought home to me when I went to the fantastic charity Whizz-Kidz. I met the Kidz Board ambassadors, George Fielding, who is the chair, and Kayleigh Miller. George is a politics student, and he knows more about politics than all of us. He will come to take our jobs before too long. They made it clear that they want a focus that gives them the same opportunities that their friends enjoy in going to work. They both have fantastic career prospects. As a former employer who has employed people with disabilities, I would snap them up without hesitation.

It is important to reflect why we are doing what we are doing. There was a real need for reform. DLA was too often a crude, blunt instrument in providing support. Only 6% of claimants had a face-to-face assessment. Some 50% were assessed without any medical evidence and 71% of people were given an indefinite award, yet one in three will have their circumstances change within 12 months. It could be that their circumstances got worse and they were not getting appropriate support. The system needed to be changed. PIP considers how impairment affects a person’s life, rather than labelling individuals on the basis of their impairment. It rightly recognises that every disability is unique.

Through the face-to-face assessment, there is an opportunity to articulate individual challenges that cannot be done purely on a paper-based form, and in my visits, it has been repeated to me how important that is. Trained healthcare professionals can tease out exactly what support is needed. I have sat through an assessment in my constituency of Swindon. Those professionals do it in a fantastic manner and try to be supportive. I understand that people are nervous, and I am keen to see a lot more videos put online so that people can see in advance what to expect. That is an important message that has come forward today, and I want to see more work on that. Crucially, the system will pick up on such things as mental health conditions and learning disabilities, which it was felt that the paper-based system simply did not pick up on, and there is broad stakeholder support for that. For the most vulnerable people who need the most support, 22% of people who go through the system will expect to get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, that was only 16%.

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Members have rightly highlighted that there have been delays, and in some cases that is clearly unacceptable. However, a huge amount of work has been done by the Department, the providers, my predecessor and me. I am having two or three meetings a day on PIP, and am beginning to dream about it. The headline is that we have quadrupled the number of healthcare professionals. I went to Cardiff to sit through a claimant’s entire journey, and I will continue to look closely to try to find ways to improve that process. We have over 200 more assessment rooms. We have doubled the number of DWP staff. In the initial stages, productivity levels for decision makers was at about four cases a day; it is now up to about eight a day, which is making a big difference. The IT systems have been improved and are a lot more reliable, which was greatly welcomed by the staff in Cardiff at a question and answer session I attended. There are also more prompts in the system, so if the same things are being written repeatedly, that will be picked up. Again, that improves productivity.

On communications, letters are being improved to remind people of the types of evidence they need to bring in so that the system flows more smoothly for them. We are being proactive: when people are sent forms to fill in we would expect them to be returned within 28 days. If after 20 days we have not heard anything, the system automatically triggers two telephone call reminders, as well as a letter, and we are now looking at text messaging. We are trying to be proactive, and that is making a big difference. We are clearing the backlog. Since August 2014, every month, month on month, we have seen cases being cleared. Between January and April this year, we cleared about 71,000 claims a month, against an average of 52,000 new claims a month coming into the system. That is four times the rate in January 2014.

Neil Gray: I welcome the Minister to his post. I appreciate the statistics he is rolling out, but they do not reflect the comments that I hear from my constituents. There are concerns that the delays will continue. In that vein, will he consider supporting the devolution of all welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament through the Scotland Bill? That would be supported by Enable Scotland and Inclusion Scotland. Will he also consider delaying the roll-out of PIP until that process is complete?

Justin Tomlinson: My job is to continue with the roll-out. Greater minds than mine are continuing the discussions, and it may well be that welfare powers will be devolved, but we will leave it to the greater minds that represent us both to decide that.

Average claimant waiting time has been reduced by around three quarters since June 2014, so we are now looking at a new claimant waiting just five weeks for an assessment, with reassessments down to four weeks. Crucially, the median time for the whole journey, end to end, is now 11 weeks, which is a considerable improvement. Having cleared significant amounts of the backlog, we expect to be operating as “business as usual”. That is very welcome. The end-to-end time for terminally ill people, which was highlighted, is now down to six days, with 99% of claimants awarded.

I am conscious of time, so will try to rattle through—

Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con): Will the Minister give way?