I am aware that recruits under the age of 18 are not required to fight in active combat roles. There may well be an argument in favour of allowing those with a

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calling—a vocation—to serve in the armed forces where they do not possess the drive or desire to pursue an otherwise academic route, or have a vocational route into other employment. For them, joining the armed forces provides focus and allows them a route to fulfilment. I am not opposed to children of 16 and 17 years of age being able to demonstrate their interest in the armed forces, or to their joining groups that can help them prepare for a career in the armed forces if that is what they wish to do upon reaching adulthood and the age of consent. What I am opposed to is the recruitment of minors into the armed forces, and the potential for such young people to make binding commitments at an unacceptably early age. I believe the Government should end this anomaly, live up to the standards they claim to demand from others and end the recruitment of minors.

At the very least—this is the thinking behind new clause 2—those under the age of 18 should be freely able to discharge themselves from duty should they so wish and not have to give three months’ notice, during which time they may very well be pressurised to change their minds. Three months is too long a period to have to wait having made that decision. They should also be robustly informed of the right to withdraw with a shorter period of notice—14 days—when they enlist.

The Duty of Care report emphasises that the youngest recruits, particularly those under the age of 18, who are legally children, were the ones who presented greatest concern in relation to duty of care. The report’s recommendation for a review has since been followed by a number of similar calls from national and international bodies. In 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked that the UK

“Reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces”.

It also recommended that the Government ensure that recruitment

“Does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families,”

And that

“Parents are included from the outset and during the entire process of recruitment and enlistment.”

This policy has been called into question by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and many other respected bodies, including children’s commissioners.

The welfare of young recruits has been in sharp focus since the tragic events at Deepcut barracks, which is in the news again with the announcement of the inquest early next year. Indeed, it is hard to believe that a decade has passed since those tragic events, yet the Government have still not implemented the recommendations of the Defence Committee’s crucial “Duty of Care” report, which recommended that the MOD examine the potential impact of raising to 18 the recruitment age for all three services, and ensure that those under 18 do not undertake armed guard duty. It also recommended a review of material, setting out rights, responsibilities and the nature of commitment in the sort of language that potential recruits will understand.

All four deaths at Deepcut involved a young recruit on guard duty, and two were just 17, yet the practice of under-18s taking part in armed guard duty continues to this day, despite the “Duty of Care” report. The MOD is prioritising operational effectiveness over the rights

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and welfare of young people in its care. It is high time for the UK to move into line and adhere to international norms on the military recruitment age.

It is also a matter of concern that the youngest recruits are most likely to be enlisted into roles that, when they do come of age, are potentially the most dangerous. I understand that that is particularly true of the infantry, which is concerned about bringing in more recruits. Young people will find themselves committed to a particularly dangerous role at an early age.

I have deep concerns about the armed forces and, as I have said, about the infantry’s recruitment practices of targeting schools while masquerading as educational visits, as well as frequenting poorer areas where other economic opportunities are fewer compared with those in wealthier areas. That is particularly true in areas of Wales and in my own constituency. However, those are matters for another time.

Mark Lancaster: Has the hon. Lady visited the Army Foundation College at Harrogate? If not, may I invite her to do so?

Liz Saville Roberts: I have not visited the college, but I would be delighted to do so. My background is in further education, and I have taught public services courses where boys and girls—young men and young women—were actively targeted, so I have some experience in this matter.

As I have just said, the matters that I have just raised are perhaps for another time. Today, we are concerned with the specific need to change the law, so that recruitment in the armed forces is in line with international and developed world standards and norms. I urge the Government to consider the proposed new clauses. If they are not minded to accept them, perhaps they can bring forward their own proposals.

Jim Shannon: I rise to endorse the status quo. I am sorry that I cannot agree with the new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), for whom I have the greatest respect.

Training starts at an early age. It starts with the cadets for a great many of our young boys and girls who go on, in the greater spectrum of life, to become the men and women in uniform. That introduction and early training at cadet level gives young people a chance to show their potential and an interest in the armed forces. It also enables them to go further with the training if that is what they wish to do. I am keen to see that training encouraged and retained. I am also conscious, as I know the Minister is, of the fact that a level of training needs to be achieved before a person reaches the age of 18. If we can start from the age of 15 or 16, or even earlier, we will have young soldiers—male and female—equipped and trained to the highest standard and with the necessary experience. With great respect, I feel that what we have at present is perfectly acceptable.

Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke eloquently and sincerely, but I am afraid that I disagree with her. Many young men and women in my constituency, St Helens North, join the armed forces for the benefits of a constructive education, training and employment, and for those young adults serving their country drives social mobility.

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Recruitment at 16 is fully compliant with the UN convention on the rights of the child. As the hon. Lady recognised, soldiers are not deployed until they reach the age of 18.

I caution against the use of the word “children” and particularly the term “child soldier”, which is not only incorrect but somewhat offensive. Indeed, it belittles the trauma and plight of those children across the world who are forced into war and soldiery. For all those reasons, I am afraid that, despite the hon. Lady’s forceful argument, I cannot support new clauses 2 or 3.

Kirsten Oswald: The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) makes her points regarding service personnel aged under 18 well. However, my hon. Friends and I think it important that young people have the opportunity to have as many career options and life choices as possible at that stage in their lives.

I echo the hon. Lady’s words when she said that it is our responsibility to remember the duty of care for service personnel young and old. In particular, we have a duty of care for younger members of our armed forces. We do not support the new clause, which would prohibit those who are under 18 from joining the armed services, and we note that they are not deployed at that age.

Young people who join the armed services have the opportunity to change career paths, and it does not seem unreasonable for them to do so by giving less notice, so we support the hon. Lady’s suggestion of their having additional opportunities to change their career paths if they so wish after a short period of notice.

Mr Kevan Jones: The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) rightly raises recruitment to the armed forces at 16, and as she says, this is not the first time that the issue has been addressed. It was discussed when I served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Act 2006. Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), I think that it does us no service trying to draw an analogy between the recruitment of youngsters in the UK at 16 and those who are forced to join up to fight in wars, for example, in west Africa and other parts of the world. The contrast could not be starker, and as my hon. Friend said, it does no good to our cause of trying to eradicate the practices that take place in other parts of the world.

Youngsters recruited from the age of 16 cannot be deployed until they are 18, and the activities that those individuals undertake are a force for good. I have visited Harrogate, and one of my most inspiring days as a Minister was spent at HMS Raleigh, taking a passing out parade. When talking to the individuals who had completed their basic training there, the changes that had taken place were clear, as was not only their pride but that of their families who attended the event. Some of the parents told me afterwards that the changes that they saw in the short time—10 weeks—that those individuals had been in the Navy was nothing short of remarkable.

On the tragic circumstances at Deepcut, I served on the Defence Committee, along with you, Mr Crausby, when we did a major investigation into the duty of care.

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Not only the last Government but this Government are committed to the changes proposed not only in the Select Committee report but in that of Mr Nicholas Blake QC on the tragic events at Deepcut. Is it right to say that there were problems? Yes, there were problems, and we referred to them in our report. Many of them have been addressed, including guard duty, which was used to occupy people’s time between phase 1 and phase 2 training.

The work that all three services do with the individuals who join up at 16 is certainly important. All three services do remarkable work correcting the problems that some of those individuals have had in the education system. Work such as that done at Harrogate and Catterick with Darlington college, for example, to try to raise literacy rates is not only helpful to the individual, but remarkably successful.

4.15 pm

I see no problem with the recruitment of young people at 16. The involvement of parents has been mentioned. As far as I am aware, they are fully involved in the process before people agree to join the armed forces, and their involvement is ongoing. All three services work closely with parents and guardians. One aspect that we covered in the report by the Defence Committee was the case of young people coming out of care and joining the armed forces. I know that the MOD has put in place clear protocols for dealing with individuals in that situation.

An issue that requires attention, which I struggled with and which I think the Minister will struggle with as well, is early service leavers—people who leave not after basic training, but shortly after joining the armed forces. Such cases raise difficult questions about how the armed forces can help those young people in their transition back to civilian life, and how civilian life can address some of the problems that those young people have, not necessarily as a result of their career in the armed forces, but deep-seated problems that were present before they joined.

Anyone who meets recruits at our basic training facilities cannot fail to be impressed by the transformation of those individuals. We sometimes concentrate on the negative aspects of being a member of our armed forces. I have always been proud to say that in most cases being a member of the armed forces is life changing for those individuals, and has a positive impact on their career choices, their lives in the armed forces and subsequently, when they leave and become Government Ministers, like the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster).

Mark Lancaster: I am delighted to be joined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice who, I hear, joined the Army at the age of 16 years and two days—[Interruption.] A long time ago, yes.

I recognise that there are a variety of views across the House and I am grateful to be able to debate the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). The MOD sees junior entry as offering a range of benefits to the individual, the armed forces and society, providing a valuable vocational training opportunity for those wishing to follow a career in the armed forces. We take our duty of care for

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entrants under 18 extremely seriously. Close attention has been given to this subject in recent years, especially after the tragic deaths at Deepcut. We have robust, effective and independently verified safeguards in place to ensure that under-18s are cared for properly.

The provision of education and training for 16-year-old school leavers provides a route into the armed forces that complies with Government education policy and provides a significant foundation for emotional, physical and educational development throughout an individual’s career. There is no compulsory recruitment into the armed forces. Our recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No one under the age of 18 can join the armed forces without formal parental consent, which is checked twice during the application process. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to be engaged with the recruiting staff during the process.

Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK except where the operation does not involve personnel becoming engaged in, or exposed to, hostilities. In July 2015, the High Court dismissed a judicial review brought by the organisation Child Soldiers International, alleging that the enlistment of Army recruits aged 16 to 18 was in conflict with the equal treatment directive. All service personnel have a statutory right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday, and the right of discharge is made clear to all service personnel on joining the armed forces. There is a long-standing legal right of all new recruits, regardless of age, to discharge within their first three to six months, depending on their service, if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them.

Under armed forces regulations, everyone under the age of 18 serving in the armed forces has a further right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday. For the first six months of service, this is achieved by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer after an initial period of 28 days’ service. At any other time after six months’ service, those under the age of 18 who wish to leave must give notice in writing to their commanding officer, who must then discharge the under-18 within the next three months. For those who give notice just prior to their 18th birthday, this means that the latest they will be discharged is at 18 years and three months of age. These three months represent a cooling-off period to avoid the unintended consequence of a decision made in the heat of the moment. A shorter period may well be agreed with the commanding officer, but three months provides the under-18 with a period of due reflection and the right to rescind their request for discharge. This process ensures that individuals under the age of 18 have an appropriate period of time to consider their decision to leave, and offers flexibility depending on individual circumstances. Ultimately, all service personnel under the age of 18 have a statutory right to leave the armed forces up until their 18th birthday.

All recruits aged under age 18 receive key skills education in literacy and numeracy, should they need it, and all are enrolled on to apprenticeships. The armed forces remain the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, equipping young people with valuable and transferable skills for life. Over 95% of all recruits, no matter what their age or prior qualifications, enrol in an apprenticeship each year. The armed forces offer courses in a wide range of skills, such as engineering, information and communications technology, construction, driving, and

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animal care. Ofsted regularly inspects our care of newly joined young recruits, and we are very proud of the standards we achieve. We welcome this specialist confirmation that we treat our young recruits well. In the Select Committee, the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nick Carter, described the process of recruiting young people, treating them in the right way, and providing them with new opportunities as “incredibly positive”. I take pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people while in service.

I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and agree with him, about his concerns for early leavers. I am focusing on that area, and I am delighted that it is addressed by the new career transition partnership that was introduced on 1 October.

Liz Saville Roberts: I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 5

Requirement to publish statistics on sexual assault and rape

‘(1) Each service police force must collect and publish annually anonymised statistics on the number of allegations of sexual assault and rape made by and against members of the armed forces.

(2) The Director of Service Prosecutions must collect and publish annually anonymised statistics on the number of cases involving allegations of sexual assault and rape made by and against members of the armed forces, including but not necessarily limited to—

(a) the number of cases referred from the service police forces;

(b) how many of these cases were prosecuted; and

(c) how many convictions were secured.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr Kevan Jones: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Temporary Chair(Mr David Crausby): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Removal of Commanding Officer’s discretion to investigate allegations of sexual assault

‘(1) Schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 [Schedule 2 offences] is amended as follows.

(2) In sub-paragraph (12)(at), leave out “3, 66, 67 or”

New clause 7—Civilian investigations and prosecutions relating to murder, sexual assault, and rape

‘(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 118 [Duty of service policeman to notify CO of referral to DSP] insert—

“118A Civilian investigations and prosecutions relating to murder, sexual assault, and rape

(1) Criminal investigations into allegations of murder, sexual assault, and rape by and against members of the Armed Forces shall be undertaken by the relevant civilian police authorities.

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(2) Criminal prosecutions of charges involving murder, sexual assault, and rape by and against members of the Armed Forces shall be undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service.””

Mr Jones: It gives me great pleasure to speak to new clauses 5, 6 and 7. I apologise to members of the Committee who are here, because they have heard many of these issues discussed before. In the replies that we got in Committee, undertakings were given that some of those issues would be looked at. These are mainly probing amendments, but I will wait to see what the Minister brings forward.

New clause 5 is about the service police gathering statistics on serious sexual assaults and rapes. For the civilian police, there is no statutory obligation to do this, but it is now best practice, and individuals are able to look at trends in different police forces. In Committee, we were told by the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) that the service police already collect such statistics and that they can be obtained through the use of parliamentary questions or freedom of information requests.

I give credit both to the Ministry of Defence and to General Sir Nick Carter, who gave evidence to the Select Committee. I think he is genuinely committed to changing attitudes in the Army, to ensure not only openness and transparency, but, as he has outlined in his introductory leadership guide, zero tolerance of anyone who steps outside of the law. He has also been commended for his efforts not only to recruit more women to the Army, but to ensure that they progress through the armed forces to more senior positions.

Evidence in the 2005 report shows that 39% of servicewomen questioned said that they had faced harassment, and that cannot be right. It also notes that 33% said that they had faced unwelcome attempts to talk about sexual matters or had felt uncomfortable in some conversations. Why is it important to publish such statistics? Clearly, they have already been collated. I know that the Ministry of Defence moves at a snail’s pace and occasionally needs a push to come up with best practice, but I cannot see any reason why the statistics should not be produced annually, given that they are already available. Doing so would enable us to look at trends—that has been important in civilian police forces—and at whether the initiatives to bear down on unacceptable behaviour in all three services are actually having an effect.

Members should not have to ask a parliamentary question or have to make a freedom of information request in order to get that information. I cannot for the life of me understand the reluctance towards making it available, apart from the usual conservativism—with a small “c”—and snail’s pace of the Ministry of Defence. Let us be honest: if the statistics are published annually, I assure anyone who is watching that the sky will not fall in. I think it would send a proper and clear message. It is important that what General Carter and others are saying about advancing and promoting women, and about bearing down on unacceptable behaviour, is scrutinised properly.

New clause 6 relates to the commanding officer, who is in the unique position of being able to decide whether an allegation of sexual assault should be referred to the military police or to the civil police for investigation. The Select Committee had a long discussion about this

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issue and I certainly feel that it puts a commanding officer in the position of making judgments when he or she might not be in full cognisance of the facts, so a referral to the police would be a better approach. However, General Carter indicated to the Select Committee that commanding officers are recommended to take legal advice before deciding how to deal with such cases. One way to reach compromise would be to codify an obligation on commanding officers to take legal advice in all instances before taking such a decision.

4.30 pm

New clause 7 deals with the serious issues not only of violent crime, but of rape. I tabled the new clause to raise the question of whether the military police have the capacity or expertise to deal with serious rape or murder cases. I accept what the Minister said in the Select Committee about the great advances made in training and support for the military police, as well as the techniques available. There has been some movement on things that are done as a matter of course by the civilian police.

We discussed the matter in the Select Committee, but I repeat that some of the cases, especially rape cases, are complex. Civilian forces have developed techniques, such as the use of rape suites for victims. The volume of cases dealt with by civilian forces means that they are more capable not only of supporting victims when they come forward, but of investigating such serious sexual assaults or rape. Thankfully, the number of instances dealt with in the armed forces is low. The Metropolitan police and other large forces clearly deal with a large number of cases, and they have both expertise and officers who have dealt with different types of sexual assault and rape. Such individuals or police forces would be better placed to ensure that a victim in the military received the same high standards and support that we would expect for the victims of such crimes in civilian life.

Jim Shannon: I wish to ask a question about new clause 7. I agree with the shadow Minister, who has very carefully and cautiously outlined the issues. In the past, there have been examples of women who have been abused and raped, which has led to suicide, trauma or depression. These are very important matters. Will the Minister confirm that, as part of an investigation within the existing process, an investigating officer has the power to call any soldiers whatever, male or female, who may have been present when something took place, and that none of them can say, “No, we won’t do that”? I want to make sure that there is a full investigation, and that the person assaulted is given the necessary protection.

Kirsten Oswald: It is vital that all matters relating to allegations of or concerns about serious and complex crimes, including sexual assault, rape and murder, are handled with the utmost seriousness, so it is important that such cases are dealt with by the appropriate authorities and with the benefit of the best legal advice. Commanding officers in our armed forces are men and women of skill, professionalism, grit and integrity, but it may simply not be fair to expect them to possess the same level of specialist investigatory skills as those with a professional background in such skills. We would not expect that of any other group. If the victims and

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alleged perpetrators are dealt with by specialist authorities, everyone will be aware that such matters are handled, as we would all hope, with the appropriate structure, uniformity of approach, transparency and professional best practice.

The maintenance and publication of statistics on sexual assault and rape are key. It is simply not possible or desirable to make assumptions about the level or severity of allegations, prosecutions or convictions. We can only know such details via robust, consistently formatted and regularly produced statistics that are put in the public domain. We would wish to see improvements in the 2017 survey relating to sexual harassment, compared with 2014.

Releasing such statistics is part of our duty of care towards service personnel. It was interesting and heartening to hear in the Select Committee that some of that happens anyway, but it is not approached in a uniform or consistent manner across all services. Without a uniform approach that has the same definitions, frameworks and publication dates, we cannot reasonably keep this matter under review, which we absolutely should do to ensure that we continue to work towards transparency, clarity and improvement for the benefit of all service personnel.

Mark Lancaster: I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has returned to these proposals and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters before the Committee.

Allegations of sexual assault and rape should never be treated lightly. It is important to us that members of the armed forces are treated well and that we foster an environment in which people have confidence that unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated and that allegations of such behaviour are dealt with. It is important that we are active in driving that forward.

The hon. Member for North Durham is right to raise the publication of statistics. During the Select Committee consideration of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) set out the current arrangements in the service justice system for the collection and publication of crime statistics. I will repeat them for the benefit of the Committee.

The service police crime bureau keeps records for all three services of allegations of rape and sexual assault that are made to the service police. That information is released regularly in response to parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests. In the case of the latter, the information is uploaded to the MOD’s online publication scheme, where it can be freely accessed. Let me be clear that I want to explore how we can be more proactive in releasing this information.

The service police crime bureau has been liaising with the Home Office police forces to analyse crime recording practices and rules to identify methods of improving crime recording. As a result, the bureau is working to establish a post of crime registrar, similar to that found in all other police forces, with a remit to scrutinise and audit the recording of crimes on the service police investigation management system. That will lead to further improvements.

The Service Prosecuting Authority records, for each year, the number of cases referred to it, the number of cases in which charges are preferred and the number of cases in which a conviction is secured. The Military

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Court Service publishes on the internet, on a regular basis, details of every case that is heard at the court martial, including offences, outcomes and punishments. There is, therefore, a clear picture of the extent of this type of offending within the services, giving a strong indication of the proportion of cases referred from the service police to the Service Prosecuting Authority that were prosecuted and of the conviction rate in such cases.

As General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff, said when giving evidence to the Select Committee on the Bill:

“In terms of publishing facts, figures and statistics, I am very solidly behind trying to do that.”

He said that the legislation goes far enough at the moment, but that we must do more, and I agree. Although I am not convinced that it is necessary or appropriate to set out requirements in legislation for the publication of such data, I am determined to make the data that we publish robust, consistent and accessible. To that end, I am actively considering how best to publish the data as an official statistic.

Turning to new clause 6 on the commanding officer’s discretion to investigate, I reassure the Committee that the armed forces already have procedures in place to ensure that allegations of sexual assault are handled appropriately. The commanding officer’s duties in that respect are clear. The starting point is that if a commanding officer becomes aware of an allegation or evidence that would indicate to a reasonable person that a service offence may have been committed by someone under his command, he must ensure that it is investigated “appropriately”. That is a specific statutory duty under the Armed Forces Act 2006. The commanding officer must therefore refer the matter to the service police if it would be appropriate.

The service police can, and do, act on their own initiative, even if a commanding officer does not think it appropriate to ensure that they are aware of the case. For example, the service police could be approached by a victim or a witness, they could come across an offence while patrolling, or the civilian police could become involved and pass them the case.

Almost all of the large number of sexual offences under part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, including rape and assault by penetration, are already schedule 2 offences. If a commanding officer becomes aware of an allegation, or of evidence that would indicate to a reasonable person that one of those offences may have been committed by someone under his command, he must report that to the service police. We must consider whether a commanding officer should have any discretion over whether to report an allegation of sexual assault, exposure or voyeurism to the service police, in circumstances where a victim or witness does not report the matter to the service or civilian police, and when the service police are not otherwise aware of it.

Importantly, before a commanding officer takes command, he receives training in how to exercise his powers under the Act, and he has access to legal advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nick Carter, made clear, there is a specific requirement in the manual of service law that a commanding officer is to take legal advice when sexual

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assault, voyeurism or exposure have been alleged. The manual has been amended to make specific mention of those offences in the section on “deciding how to investigate”, and it states that there should be a presumption that the commanding officer will normally ensure that the service police are aware of an allegation of such an offence.

Crucially, although it will rarely be appropriate for the commanding officer not to refer an allegation of sexual assault to the service police, the offence is so wide that I consider it right for the commanding officer to have some discretion, taking into account the wishes of the victim. I fear that an unintended consequence of the new clause may be to discourage some victims from coming forward, since the matter of reporting to the police will be taken out of their hands. The victim, of course, retains the ability to report directly to the service police. I believe that there is already a robust framework and that it is not necessary to impose on commanding officers a statutory duty—which does not apply to any other employer—to refer every allegation of sexual assault and the other offences covered by the new clause to the service police, regardless of what the victim may want.

New clause 7 deals with civilian investigations into serious offences, and would require all investigations into allegations of murder, rape and sexual assault by and against service personnel to be undertaken by the civilian police, and all prosecutions for such offences to be undertaken by the civilian Crown Prosecution Service. The service police and prosecuting authority have the necessary expertise and independence to investigate effectively and prosecute serious offences, including murder, rape and sexual assault by and against service personnel. The service justice system has been scrutinised by the UK courts, and in Strasbourg, and has been held to be compliant with the European convention on human rights for investigations and prosecutions in the UK and abroad where the civilian police do not have jurisdiction.

The service police have been held by the courts to be structurally, and in practice, independent from the chain of command, and they are trained and able to carry out investigations into the most serious offences at home and abroad. All prospective members of the special investigation branch, which investigates serious crimes, must pass the serious crime investigation course before being selected for that unit. Officers receive specialist training on the handling of sexual offences, investigative techniques, forensic awareness, dealing with witnesses and suspects, the preservation of evidence, and interaction with victims.

Selected members of the service police attend a range of specialist and advanced detective training at the Defence College of Policing and Guarding, or externally with the College of Policing or training providers accredited by that college. At the Service Prosecuting Authority, prosecutors are trained to prosecute serious cases effectively. For example, prosecution of serious sexual offences requires attendance on the CPS rape and serious sexual offences specialist training course, and the SPA ensures that decisions on charging are taken only by prosecutors who have completed that training.

The prosecutors protocol of 2011 between the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Director of Service Prosecutions, and the Defence Secretary, recognises that any offence can be dealt with by the service authorities. The main

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principle in deciding who acts is whether the offence has any civilian context, especially a civilian victim. The protocol provides that cases with a civilian context are dealt with by the civilian criminal justice system.

4.45 pm

I should also say something about independence, both of the service police and the Director of Service Prosecutions. This is important, because I want to make clear that there is no room for interference in investigations. The service police have been held by the courts to be structurally, and in practice, independent from the chain of command for investigative purposes. Like any police force, it is recognised that there is a need for arrangements to be in place to ensure that the independence of an investigation is not compromised, or perceived to be compromised. For example, it is recognised there are times when a particular service police force should not investigate. There is a tri-service investigations protocol, which provides for another service police force to carry out an investigation where a service police force would otherwise be investigating its own personnel.

With regards to the independence of the Director of Service Prosecutions, he is an independent civilian office-holder exercising statutory powers under the superintendence of the Attorney General. The Service Prosecuting Authority is created by statute, with three main elements. The first element is the creation of the office of Director of Service Prosecutions and his appointment by Her Majesty. The director is appointed on the basis of fair and open competition. The second element is the provision for who may act on his behalf. The Director specifies the lawyers who may act on his behalf. The third element is that the necessary statutory powers in relation to prosecutions in service courts are given to the Director personally, and not to the chain of command.

I believe that the service police and the Service Prosecuting Authority have the necessary expertise and independence to investigate effectively and prosecute the full range of offences. It is crucial to remember that, given that service personnel are subject to the provisions of the Armed Forces Act wherever they serve in the world, service police remain able to investigate in these areas where their civilian counterparts may not. This ensures that our personnel are dealt with fairly and consistently. I am confident that we do not need to legislate further on these matters. On that basis, I hope the hon. Member for North Durham will withdraw his amendments.

Mr Jones: I thank the Minister for his reply. I was not wanting to question the independence of the military service police, but there is ongoing concern about its capacity and expertise. One way forward, on which the Ministry of Defence is moving very slowly, is the independent inspection of that force.

On the commanding officer, I hear what the Minister says. When General Carter came before the Committee, people were reassured that in practice allegations are taken very seriously and that when victims come forward legal advice is not only available but referred to. In saying that, if it is not going to be in the Bill that commanding officers should take legal advice before deciding on whether to take forward or dismiss a complaint, the services perhaps need to consider whether it should be codified through some kind of internal process.

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On the publication of statistics, it is welcome that common sense has finally blossomed. The Minister is right that statistics are available. I cannot think he has anything to hide by not publishing them. I respect his commitment to come up with a system to publish them annually. I accept that perhaps more work needs to be done on the format and where they are produced. With the passage of the Bill I will be looking, as I am sure will fellow members of the Committee, to see how that advances. If I may give him a word of advice, in my experience he should insist on a timeline. Otherwise—no disrespect to some very able civil servants in the MOD—it might get pushed off into a siding and, if he leaves his post, might not be not picked up by his successor. This is important. Neither the military nor the MOD has anything to fear from producing these figures, and it would add to the good work being done by the MOD and the three services to address these issues. With those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 8

Review of compensation available to veterans suffering from mesothelioma

Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must commission a review of how former members of the armed forces who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in the course of their military service are compensated, and must lay the report of this review before both Houses of Parliament.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr Kevan Jones: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause, which is similar to one I moved at an earlier stage, would affect veterans who have the misfortune to suffer from mesothelioma. You will know, Mr Crausby, from your engineering background, how debilitating this terrible condition is and the death sentence it imposes.

In 2014, the Government set up the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme under the Mesothelioma Act 2014 to pay lump sum compensation to civilians who contracted mesothelioma in cases where former employers or insurance companies could not be traced. Under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, many veterans are not covered by the scheme and so do not have the option to sue the MOD over this death sentence.

Great strides have been made to improve health and safety in handling asbestos, not just in civilian life but within the MOD, but we are talking here about cases that go back 30 or 40 years, if not further. Mesothelioma is one of those terrible conditions that affects people at random. In a previous life, when I was legal officer for the GMB, I saw old shipyard workers with asbestos scars on their hands who did not suffer from any other conditions, while some people exposed to quite low levels of asbestos developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.

Under the current provisions, affected veterans can apply for a 100% war pension, if it is agreed that their diagnosis is related to their service. The Royal British Legion, which has campaigned on this, estimates that the option to claim compensation would affect 2,500 personnel, mainly—not surprisingly—naval veterans who handled asbestos in the course of their work. It tells me

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that asbestos has some peculiar effects for single individuals and widowers. The proposal is that the Secretary of State come forward with a scheme for veterans similar to the one outlined by the Government in 2014. It would also continue their work of supporting veterans, irrespective of where they served, and bring the law for veterans suffering from mesothelioma into line with that for civilians, who are covered by the 2014 Act. That is what organisations such as the Royal British Legion have been campaigning for.

Kirsten Oswald: I support the view of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that this matter must be dealt with. There is an urgency to it, because veterans suffering from mesothelioma simply do not have time for us to delay any further. We have heard about the campaign of the Royal British Legion, which calls on the Government to find fairer ways of compensating veterans suffering from this devastating condition. It has been an effective campaign, and it is right to highlight what a terrible disease mesothelioma is.

It is an unimaginable tragedy for veterans and their families to receive this diagnosis. We cannot imagine the enormous impact it has on their lives. To be clear, rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anybody suffering from the disease any better, but it might improve the quality of the period of life they have left and it might mean less anxiety about those they leave behind them.

Thousands of people serving in our armed forces prior to 1987 were exposed to asbestos while under military orders and have subsequently been diagnosed with mesothelioma. As the hon. Member for North Durham said, approximately 2,500 ex-service personnel are affected in this way. They clearly lose out very significantly when compared with civilians in the same position. For instance, while the civilian population suffering from mesothelioma is eligible for up to £180,000 in compensation, our ex-service personnel are eligible for only £31,000. Our veterans are clearly being treated less well than their civilian counterparts. This is a very significant difference, and it is no way to support our service personnel. I hope to hear some positive words from the Minister about this.

The military covenant commits the Government to removing disadvantages to service personnel—and this is most certainly a disadvantage at a very difficult time in people’s lives. We need to be able to deal with this—and quickly. The Royal British Legion summarises the situation very well when it says that it is

“unfair and has to change!”.

It is unacceptable to treat our terminally ill veterans in this way; the hon. Member for North Durham is correct in his call for urgency.

My concern is that this matter was already being discussed and highlighted as urgent when the Mesothelioma Act 2014 was being reviewed as a Bill in July 2013, yet so far this issue has not been resolved—despite assurances on many occasions that action was imminent. It is our duty to deal with it now before other ex-service personnel have their final months blighted by this financial worry and inequity. I hope that the Minister can allay these concerns today, so that we can see some positive progress made and deal with our veterans as we should.

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Jim Shannon: I endorse the comments of the shadow Minister once again. As the Minister will know, we have had some fringe discussions on this issue in the Defence Committee. Furthermore, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who usually sits behind me but is not in his place, has tabled an early-day motion to highlight the issue. The Royal British Legion, as the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) have said, has been part of the campaign and has lobbied hard.

We are all aware of some constituents who have this problem, but if I can be forgiven for saying it, the longer this goes on, the more the guys who would probably qualify for any agreed compensation are likely not to be here any more. That may sound cynical, but it crosses the minds of the potential recipients of the compensation and those of elected representatives who want to reflect the opinion that they are given by such people.

I and the shadow Minister both want to see a fair and equal distribution coming out of the compensation process—as it is for civilians, so it should be for those who have served in uniform. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said when she dealt with the military covenant, these things should really happen normally, without any need for requests from this Chamber. The military covenant is clear; the negative obstacles should be taken away. Members should be able to express their opinion here on behalf of their constituents. There is an urgency about this matter because we need to put right an injustice. I just want to add my support to that of the shadow Minister and other Members who are not in their places today but would love to be here to support this request.

Martin John Docherty (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): I commend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for tabling the new clause. I wish to associate myself with what he said, and with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also congratulate the Royal British Legion on the campaign it has been conducting over the past few months.

5 pm

I believe that the Members who have already spoken have conveyed to the Minister the depth of feeling about mesothelioma and the impact of asbestos-related conditions on our service personnel. My constituency has a clear, direct link with mesothelioma through shipbuilding. We see the daily impact of asbestos on the lives of communities, not just the people who were in contact with it in the shipyards—both men and women—but their families.

It is inexplicable to me that we might not wish to provide equal support for our armed forces personnel. I think particularly of naval personnel who have been involved in the lagging of ship hulls during tours of duty, but I think also of Army personnel who have been based in premises that were built with asbestos cement, and mechanics who have dealt with vehicles that were insulated with asbestos. They will have not only come into contact with blue or white asbestos dust during their working lives, but brought it into their home lives.

I hope that the Government will recognise the intentions of the hon. Member for North Durham, and will seek to ensure that at least some cross-party work is done to

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enable us to bring this to a conclusion. Enough is enough: asbestos-related conditions form a major part of my constituency work. I am grateful to Clydebank Asbestos Group, which for many years, and with the support of many of my predecessors, has continued to work with other asbestos-related groups.

The Government really must listen to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Let us get this done.

Mark Lancaster: The new clause would impose an obligation on the Defence Secretary to instigate a review of compensation for veterans with mesothelioma. My view is that such a step would not require legislation, and has been overtaken by events.

As I said on 19 November during the Adjournment debate on compensation for our military veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, we recognise that it is a devastating disease that changes the lives not only of the people who are diagnosed with it but of those who care about them: their families and loved ones.

Veterans with mesothelioma caused by their military service are entitled to make a claim for no-fault compensation from the Ministry of Defence. The war pensions scheme provides a tax-free pension and supplementary allowances, along with dependants’ benefits. The Government ascribe great importance to the health and well-being of our veterans, and we are clear about the fact that they should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service. We are absolutely committed to supporting them and the wider armed forces community.

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and 40 years or more can often pass before it manifests itself and an individual is diagnosed, tragically with a short life expectancy thereafter. That is why it is so important to ensure that we provide the right support for those who are affected by the disease. We owe them all a debt of profound gratitude. I am therefore pleased to announce that any veteran who is diagnosed from mesothelioma from today will be offered a choice between receiving a lump sum of £140,000 and receiving the traditional war pension payments. It is currently proposed that the necessary legislative changes will come into force on 11 April 2016, but I am keen to consider options for bringing the date forward. Claimants choosing the option of a lump sum will continue to receive a monthly payment until the lump sum is paid. The Veterans Welfare Service will be on hand to help claimants to understand the new option.

As my hon. Friends will know, the policy of no retrospection has been maintained by successive Governments. Whether it should be applied to this group is a complex issue that has been the subject of much discussion within the Government. However, I have directed my Department to continue to review the options to support these claimants in a similar manner. I have received a great deal of correspondence, and I intend to write to the Members who have contacted my Department with a full update.

On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for North Durham to withdraw his motion.

Mr Kevan Jones: I think it would be rather churlish if I did not! I thank the Minister. What he has said shows his determination to put this wrong right, and, as with many issues, he approaches it not only with compassion

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but with the aim of ensuring that we do the right thing. This is doing the right thing by these veterans, to whom we owe a huge debt. I congratulate him on his stance and I will look with hope at the other work he is doing on retrospection. I accept that there are difficulties with that and I would not expect solutions tomorrow, but I take his commitment at least to look at retrospection. On the happy note that this is moving in the right direction, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 9

Homosexual acts no longer to constitute grounds for discharging a member of HM armed forces (No. 2)

‘(1) The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 146(4), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or” and the words “or, in the case of a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, where the act occurs in conjunction with other acts or circumstances,”.

(3) In section 147(3), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or” and the words “or, in the case of a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, where the act occurs in conjunction with other acts or circumstances,”.’—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

This amendment removes the provisions applying to the armed forces from sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr Kevan Jones: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 9 attempts—I referred to this in the Select Committee—to remove redundant legislation from the statute book. Sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 contain provisions relating to a homosexual act constituting grounds for discharge from the armed services. The Act repealed a provision relating to male homosexual acts and the armed forces in the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Clearly, that has been superseded by the fact that homosexuality in itself is not now grounds, thankfully, for being dismissed from the armed services, but the legislation referring to the armed forces remains on the statute book. I am not for one minute suggesting that anyone involved in a homosexual or heterosexual act in the course of their service should not be disciplined or could not be dismissed, but people think that it is discriminatory, and I agree, that the Act refers to homosexual acts, and not heterosexual acts in any way.

That legislation is redundant because we have moved, rightly, to ensure that members of our armed forces are not judged by their sexuality. My aim in the Select Committee and today is to find a mechanism—and I accept what the Minister said about the way forward—to take the provision off the statute book. It clearly discriminates against homosexuality, has no place on the statute book and serves no useful purpose.

Martin John Docherty: I associate SNP Members with the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about the redundancy of this provision. On a personal level, I am shocked that it is still there

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and that homosexual members of the armed forces should be seen differently from heterosexual members of the armed forces who might be having sexual relations. Strangely enough, that seems to be a human element of sexual relations: they happen to people, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual, and no law is going to prohibit that. I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that those on the SNP Benches fully support the new clause. We hope that the Minister will again reflect on what has been said and seek a way to take this forward.

Kirsten Oswald: I agree entirely with the comments of my hon. Friend. It was positive in the Select Committee to hear the universal support for the repeal of this archaic and discriminatory provision. I understand that the current law has not actually been enforced for many years, and I realise that repealing the provision is out of scope for us today. However, I join my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in urging the Government to find a way to deal with the issue, and to do so with some urgency. It is unacceptable that, albeit unused, this provision remains. In 2015, we are better than that as a society, and our armed forces deserve the framework they operate within to reflect that and the fact that the provision is unacceptable and derogatory.

Mark Lancaster: I have much sympathy with the basis for this new clause. Sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 are clearly redundant. They have no practical effect and their existence is inconsistent with the Department’s policy on homosexuality within Her Majesty’s armed forces and the Government’s equality and discrimination policies more generally. We are very proud in the MOD of the significant progress that has been made over a comparatively short time in respect of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff. Since changes were made to the law in 2000 to allow homosexual men, lesbians and transgender personnel to serve openly in the armed forces, we have taken many positive steps. All three services now feature in Stonewall’s top 100 employers list.

We continue to engage widely to benchmark our activities in support of our LGBT staff, to ensure that

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we are doing as much as we can. In celebration of this year’s London Pride, the rainbow flag was flown over the MOD main building for the first time, while over 200 service personnel and MOD civil servants marched together.

It is clear, therefore, that this redundant piece of legislation in no way reflects the position of today’s armed forces, or indeed the position of the merchant navy, which is also included in those provisions. We would wish to repeal the legislation for both groups, but that is not possible in this Bill as the merchant navy falls under the auspices of the Department for Transport.

I am keen to repeal this legislation as soon as possible, and will undertake to update the House on this matter on Report. I have also discussed this with my colleagues in the Department for Transport, who echo the intent to review this legislation with regard to the merchant navy as soon as possible. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) to withdraw his new clause.

Mr Kevan Jones: What we have had today is what we had in the Select Committee: universal agreement that this is not only redundant legislation, but is discriminatory and should not be on the statute book. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to look at finding a way to remove this. He has said he will report back on Report, and that will stop people pushing it off into a siding. I look forward to the Minister coming back with a way of changing this not only for the armed forces but, through the Department for Transport, for members of the merchant navy. With those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule agreed to.


Amendment made: 2, line 2, after “discipline;” insert

“to make provision about war pensions committees established under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989;”.—(Mark Lancaster.)

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported.

Bill to be considered tomorrow.

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Welfare Cap

5.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Shailesh Vara): I beg to move,

That, pursuant to the Charter for Budget Responsibility: Summer Budget 2015 update, which was approved by this House on 14 October 2015, under Section 1 of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, this House agrees that the breach of the Welfare Cap in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 resulting from the decision not to pursue proposed changes to tax credits, as laid out in the Autumn Statement 2015, is justified and that no further debate will be required in relation to this specific breach.

The motion is about the Government accounting to Parliament and the public for decisions about welfare spending. It is something we on this side of the House take very seriously. That is why in 2013 the Chancellor announced we would be bringing forward a welfare cap to control welfare spending in a way that has never been done before. The cap would be set shortly after each new Parliament and assessed each year by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Any breach of the cap requires my Department to come to the House to set out one of three courses of action. The first would be to propose measures to reduce welfare spending to within the level of the cap. The second would be to seek the approval of the House to increase the level of the cap. The third would be to explain why a breach of the cap was justified. The House will be aware that, following the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the cap is forecast not to be met in the short term. The motion seeks agreement that this is justified.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Even this early in the debate, the Minister is saying that he is going to justify breaching the cap. Is he not somewhat embarrassed about that?

Mr Vara: Not at all. If the hon. Gentleman will give me time, I will explain the justification. He will be aware that there has been a huge amount of debate on this issue, and that the Chancellor has listened.

Ian Lavery: I must have missed that.

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman obviously did.

In making our case, I want to set out the circumstances that have led to this forecast. The cap was initially set in line with the OBR’s March 2014 forecast. In the summer Budget, the Chancellor set a lower welfare cap to help to reflect our move to a lower-tax, lower-welfare and higher-wage economy. Since then, as part of the autumn statement, the Chancellor took the decision not to pursue proposed changes to tax credits. This will give families longer to adjust as we make work pay and provide better support for people in work.

This change has been possible partly because of improvements in the nation’s finances, including improved tax receipts and lower debt interest payments. These are not free choices, however, and as a result of this change, we will be spending more in the shorter term than had been forecast in the summer Budget. That means that, based on current forecasts, the cap will not be met for the next three years: 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

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Ian Lavery: The Chancellor stood up and said that he was proud to have these targets set in stone. He tried to set a trap for the Labour party on this issue, but he wanted the benefits cap set in stone. The Minister is now explaining that, for the next two or three years, there is no chance of meeting those targets. Please tell us that you are slightly embarrassed or concerned.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): Order. I am not embarrassed or concerned. The Minister might be, but I am not.

Mr Vara: If we are talking about embarrassment, perhaps it is the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), along with those on the Opposition Front Bench, who ought to be embarrassed. They ought to be embarrassed about the millions of people who lived in misery because they were forced to become unemployed. They ought to be embarrassed because, under Labour, the welfare cap was out of control. They ought to be pleased that this Government have the guts to take the difficult decisions to bring the welfare cap back under control.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): It is Christmas, and I think the Minister would like to know that his Government have won first prize for being the first Government ever to breach £1 trillion in welfare spending over five years. That is £130 billion more than the Labour Government spent in their last five years. You have won the prize!

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman speaks of Christmas spirit. In that spirit, perhaps he would like to apologise to the House on behalf of his party for the mess that it left us. Perhaps he would like to apologise to the people out there—yes, the public—who endured misery and ended up being unemployed under Labour’s policies. Perhaps he would like to apologise to the taxpayers for letting the welfare budget get completely out of control. As a result, we are having to take the tough decisions. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) if he would like to apologise. [Interruption.] I have given him the opportunity to apologise but he would rather not do so.

Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): On the subject of Christmas, I would just encourage all of us, please, to remember that there are people at the heart of these decisions, and this should not be the moment for political footballs. We are here to say that things have changed and that our view, policies and outlook have changed. I implore every Member in this House to remember that we are speaking on behalf of people, not our own personal political agendas.

Mr Vara: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and let me put on the record the fact that it is our welfare programme that is improving people’s lives. It is no bad thing occasionally to ask the people who created the mess to apologise. I think the public outside would welcome an apology, because they have had to endure quite a lot of misery as a consequence of the people who took the decisions earlier on. She makes a good point when she says that people are watching, but I would also say to her that those people want an apology. I make no apology to the House for requesting that apology from the Opposition.

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Owen Smith rose

Mr Vara: I will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to apologise. He needs to apologise and I will give him that opportunity.

Owen Smith: I rise in the spirit of the intervention made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and to say that I absolutely welcome the decision by the Government today to breach the welfare cap in order to reverse-ferret on the cut for 3 million recipients of tax credits—low-wage workers right across Britain. It is an excellent thing the Government have done and we will be fully supportive of it. I hope that she will be supportive of us when we call for a similar reversal on universal credit work allowances.

Mr Vara: The House will have noted, as will the people who are watching at home, that still we have no apology.

The Government are determined to continue the work that we have done to date and to honour the mandate from the British people at the general election, so that we can tackle welfare dependency and fix the nation’s finances. Despite this short-term additional spending, we have made sure that, through our welfare reforms, the cap will be met later in this Parliament—by 2019-20. Let me be clear: the Government are committed to the welfare cap, and the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that the cap is met in the medium term. The OBR also forecasts that welfare spending within the cap will fall as a proportion of GDP from 6% to 5% over the welfare cap period. That is a fall of 1%, in line with the 1% fall forecast at the summer Budget. By 2019-20, therefore, we will still achieve the £12 billion a year welfare savings that we said we would achieve—

Owen Smith rose

Mr Vara: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have given him plenty of opportunity to apologise, and he is not doing what the nation wants. If he is not going to do that, he needs to sit quietly and contemplate what policies his party is going to produce. On policies, it is worth noting that he, along with the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), actually supported the measure that introduced this cap, as did several other welfare Cabinet Ministers when Labour was in government, so it is ironic that they now seek to make cheap political points. As I say, by 2019-20 we will have achieved our £12 billion welfare savings. That is what we pledged at the election, that is what the public gave us a mandate for and that is exactly what we will deliver. We can do this because of the permanent savings that we have already made and the long-term reforms that we are making.

The simple fact is that Labour completely overspent on welfare during its 13 years in power. Under Labour, welfare spending went up by almost 60% and the benefits system cost every household an extra £3,000 a year. Spending on tax credits increased by 330%. That is £24 billion—

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): You are still spending more than us.

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Mr Vara: The Labour party is a little slow in hearing, so I will repeat the figure for the Opposition’s benefit: £24 billion. We had a welfare system that did not incentivise work and left some people getting more in benefits than they would in work. That was not fair to the hard-working taxpayers who paid for it and it certainly was not fair to those who had become dependent on the state, with no hope for a brighter future. What did Labour have to show after all that spending? Nearly one in five households had no one working. The number of households in which no one had ever worked had nearly doubled. Some 1.4 million people had been on benefits for most of the previous decade, and close to half of all households in the social rented sector had no one in work. Ever more spending on welfare just is not the answer.

We were right to bear down and get a grip of a welfare bill that was simply out of control. The introduction of the cap has brought greater scrutiny and challenge around welfare spending, and that is the way forward. The Chancellor said that he would listen on tax credits, and he has. This one-nation Government are determined to move to a lower tax, lower welfare and higher wage economy. We are doing so in a way that ensures families have more time to adjust to the changes. I commend the motion to the House.

5.25 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Let me start by wishing a very merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and all the Ministers on the replete Front Bench, especially the Secretary of State who I had hoped would be leading the debate today. Indeed, I had hoped that it might be the Chancellor, because I seem to recall—

Mr Vara rose

Owen Smith: I will certainly give way. I had not really started, but the hon. Gentleman can carry on.

Mr Vara: For the record, the reason why I am addressing this debate is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was chairing a Cabinet meeting, and he arrived after I had started speaking, and the record will show that.

Owen Smith: I was here in the Chamber, and I saw the Secretary of State arrive just before the Minister rose to speak. While we are on the subject, perhaps the Minister can clear up this matter. He said to us on Monday at Department for Work and Pensions questions that the Secretary of State had visited a food bank. We submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister asking when that occasion had taken place. The interesting answer—in truth it was a slightly slippery answer—was that Ministers, not the Secretary of State, have attended lots of things, including food banks. I gather there is another question. Perhaps he could tell us when the Secretary of State went to a food bank. [Interruption.] Clearly, he does not want to say.

As I was saying before the Minister intervened on me, it was a year ago when, to a packed House, the Chancellor unveiled his latest wheeze, the welfare cap. He had a

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mile-wide smirk on his face like one of the famous cats from his Cheshire constituency. He was positively purring as he laid down what he thought would be a trap for a future Labour Chancellor. He said:

“The welfare cap marks an important moment in the development of the British welfare state…and ensures that never again can the costs spiral out of control”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 374 and 381.]

He wanted Labour Members to stand up

“and say exactly what they think of the welfare cap, and tell us that they support it, and that they should have introduced it when they were in office. They look such a cheery bunch.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 380.]

Well, we are cheery this afternoon, as we look for the soles of the feet of the Cheshire cat Chancellor who has carelessly and ignominiously fallen into his own welfare cat trap. It is less a case of being hoisted by his own petard, as slipping on his own smirk. Where is he today to answer these questions? A year ago, he was insistent that it would be he who would be called to account in this House for the breach in the welfare cap. He said in the same debate:

“The charter makes clear what will happen if the welfare cap is breached. The Chancellor—

not the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions or one of his Ministers, but the Chancellor—

“must come to Parliament, account for the failure of public expenditure control, and set out the action that will be taken to address the breach.” —[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 380.]

But cometh the hour, there is no sign of the cat. He has disappeared. Even the smirk has disappeared.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us about where the shadow Chancellor is—or does he disagree with him?

Owen Smith: I am sure that the shadow Chancellor is up to some extremely important business. Ostensibly, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is meant to account for this on behalf of the Chancellor—talk about adding insult to injury or rubbing salt in the wounds, not only has his budget been raided to pay for the embarrassing reversal on tax credits and the breach of the welfare cap, but he was asked to come here to explain it to the House. I do not blame him for one minute for deciding to attend a really important Cabinet Committee instead of coming to the House to explain about the welfare cap.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith) rose

Owen Smith: Oh, I am delighted.

Mr Duncan Smith: As it is Christmas and I want to help the hon. Gentleman out as much as I can, because he is clearly floundering—[Interruption.] Well, he is floundering, and I do not want him to, because it would be bad for his reputation. I actually trust and support my Ministers. I believe that every one of them is capable of doing the debate better than the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he would like to trust his shadow Ministers as well sometime.

Owen Smith: I would trust my shadow Ministers with my life. However, I thought that this was a very important subject. I thought that the welfare cap was one of those

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things that—what did I say earlier on?—was a great step forward in the British welfare state. I thought that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions should respond, and I cannot understand for a minute why the right hon. Gentleman wanted his junior Minister to do this belittling debate. The shadow Chancellor is not here. He has disappeared, much like the Cheshire cat—better than that, like Macavity the cat.

Mr Vara: You mean the Chancellor.

Owen Smith: I know, okay, the Chancellor: the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), in Cheshire—the Cheshire cat—and given that he is rather like Macavity, rather than the Cheshire cat, I thought that I would give the House a treat. I read that there were no Etonians on the Front Bench among the new intake, and I was worried that the lack of classical education from which the Treasury Bench normally benefits might mean that the Macavity reference went over Ministers’ heads, so I brought a little book with me, and I shall read a section from it. [Interruption.] It is not Mao; it is T.S. Eliot’s collected poems. It gives us Macavity the mystery cat, who is, of course, the Chancellor:

there’s no one like Macavity…

he’s very tall and thin;

You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in—

I think that is the 5:2 diet—

He’s outwardly respectable


(They say he cheats at cards.)—

I bet he does—

And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled…

He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:

At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!

Macavity is not here today, is he? And the deed that he is ducking, of course, is this embarrassing, humiliating U-turn. The cap has been breached, and the Government have done it, of course, because of the spectacular, screeching U-turn on tax credits.

Ian Lavery: If my hon. Friend—he is a really good friend of mine—had done what the Chancellor has done in promising that the welfare cap would not be breached, would he have sat there and done nothing? I am sure that he would have been prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box, have the courage of his convictions and perhaps apologise.

Owen Smith: I would have been mortified had I been the Chancellor responsible for such a terrible U-turn and such an extraordinary, humiliating, screeching U-turn.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): Again, in this great spirit of festive tidings, let me say that if that is really the best that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman can do on such an important issue, he and his party really have not got a cat in hell’s chance of ever being back in government.

Owen Smith: I thought I was doing rather better than that. I thought the House might enjoy a bit of Christmas spirit.

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The real crime that Macavity is hiding from today is not the breach of the welfare cap, however embarrassing that may be. The real larder that has been looted is universal credit. Opening the debate, the Minister said several times that the Government would meet the welfare cap in 2019-20 and he is right that the OBR confirms that, but he signally failed to tell the House how they would do it. I suspect that that is because of the other reason that the Secretary of State did not wish to address the House today. We know precisely how he will meet the cap: through the £10 billion cut to the work allowance that we will see by 2020; a cut of £3 billion a year, nearly making up for the £3 billion that was to be taken away in tax credits, butchering the work incentives that are supposed to make universal credit worth while.

Who are the victims of this crime? The Secretary of State is for one, because he has had his budget raided once more—the seventh time, I believe. However, the true victims are the millions of constituents in Labour and Tory seats who will still lose thousands of pounds as a result of the Chancellor’s cut to universal credit. Some 500,000 people will be on UC by next April, and according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2.6 million households will lose £1,600 by 2020. They are the victims of this crime, the people who are paying for the Chancellor’s hubris with £3 billion of their own money in 2020 and every year thereafter. They are the people being fleeced by the postcode lottery that is being created in support for low-wage workers, whereby those lucky enough to stay on tax credits will be massively better off than their neighbours on universal credit.

A single mother working full-time on the new national minimum wage with two children will be £2,981 worse off than another mother, perhaps living next door in precisely the same circumstances but still on tax credits. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position, “What about child care?” Yes, if that mother has children who are three or four, she may be better off, but if her children are one, five, seven or 12, they will not be. That is the reality and we should not be misleading the House, from a sedentary position or otherwise.

That disparity cannot be fair and cannot be right. It may not even be legal. We are seeking advice as to the legality of that move. I suspect that is not what the Chancellor told the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) or other Tory Back Benchers when he reassured them that he was making good the tax credit cut, even if it meant breaching the welfare cap.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making some important points. Is it the case—I have seen the suggestion that it may well be—that the small number of people who are currently receiving universal credit will see the enormous reductions in their income that were to have been imposed on tax credit recipients? There has been a U-turn on tax credits, but is it the case that those who are getting universal credit will be hit?

Owen Smith: I think that is precisely the case. My right hon. Friend is right. There are currently around 140,000 recipients of tax credits, not all of whom get the work component; we do not know that precise

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number—it may be around 40,000. There are predicted to be 500,000 people, on the Government’s own numbers, in that circumstance by next April. When I put it to the Secretary of State at Work and Pensions questions last week that those people would lose out precisely as my right hon. Friend suggested, he said that the flexible support grant would more than make up for those losses.

I have looked at the flexible support grant and, as far as I can see, it is a £69 million grant that is available to local Jobcentre Plus managers to help people who are close to the workplace, perhaps for a new suit or a ticket to get on the bus to the interview. Even if it were permissible to use the money in that way, £69 million would in no way make up for the £100 million shortfall next year, the £1.2 billion shortfall the year after, and certainly not the £3.2 billion shortfall in 2020. It is impossible, and I fear it is also misleading for the public.

I will bet a pound to a penny that the Secretary of State and the Chancellor did not also mention that offsetting the cuts to universal credit will hit precisely the same Tory and Labour constituents just before the next election, in 2019-20. I would also wager that they still do not appreciate that the Chancellor cannot U-turn on this issue. The reverse ferret is not available any longer, because if he does not make good his promise to make those cuts to universal credit, he will not be able to keep the promise that the Minister just made again on maintaining the welfare cap in 2020, and he will certainly not be able to deliver his other promise of a £10 billion budget surplus in the same year.

Perhaps the lesson we should all take from today’s U-turn on the welfare cap, snuck in shamefacedly at the fag end of the Parliament, is that no one should take this Chancellor’s traps and tricks, his games and gimmicks, terribly seriously any more. He can meet them or breach them—he does not mind which, because what he is really about is not sound management of the public finances but the political games of public schoolboys. That is why he cut universal credit seven times before it had even started, making a mockery of any claims to make work pay or support for the low-paid. That is why he continues with his fantastical claims, repeated by the Minister, that welfare spending is under control, even as the housing benefit bill went up by £30 billion in the previous Parliament, and even as Ministers breached £1 trillion on welfare spending for the first time.

We will back the Government in voting to secure Labour’s demand to reverse the tax credit cuts, and we will continue to press them for the same reversal for the victims of universal credit. But we should not pay too much attention to the Chancellor’s tricks and traps in future, because his flagrant breach of the welfare cap, deemed so essential just a few months ago, has exposed the true extent of his stunts. The welfare trap has caught him. Eliot’s detectives could not catch Macavity, but he has been rumbled.

5.42 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): In the spirit of the season, let me congratulate Tory Front Benchers on recognising the futility of having passed legislation a year ago and now agreeing with the SNP’s position that the benefits cap was wrong.

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The breach of the welfare cap prompts the question of what is the point of it if it can be exceeded within its first year. I remind the House that in 2014 the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:

“The welfare cap brings responsibility, accountability and fairness…From now on, any Government who want to spend more on welfare will have to be honest with the public—honest about the costs—and secure the approval of Parliament in order to breach the cap.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 381.]

He will have to eat his own words. To save his blushes, he should abandon this inflexible, unworkable, draconian policy and focus on tackling the root causes of welfare dependency at source.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): The hon. Gentleman knows full well that this is an example of the cap working. The Government have had to explain why they have had to do this, and explain the context of the changes announced in the autumn statement. That is absolutely right and proper, and he should support the Government.

Ian Blackford: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Of course we will support the Government tonight, but the fact remains that we should not be having this debate because the cap should not have existed in the first place.

We have to recognise that social security protects the poorest and the vulnerable in our society, but we do not do that through these false measures, which is exactly what this is.

Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con): In his festive mood, the hon. Gentleman has perhaps forgotten what the good people of Scotland said earlier this year, so it is worth reminding him. A Survation poll in Scotland said that a majority of its people, just like those in my constituency and across the UK, support efforts to reduce the cost of welfare, so are not he and his party out of touch with the people of Scotland?

Ian Blackford: I am truly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. Of course the Scottish National party wants to reduce the cost of welfare, but we will do that by fixing the economy, driving up productivity and creating jobs. What we should not do is punish people. While we are on the subject of the election, let me take this opportunity to remind the House that we won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, and we did that while standing on a platform of investing in our communities and in job creation, making sure that we did not punish people with a failed austerity programme, and arguing for investment of an additional £140 billion throughout the whole of the UK over the next five years. That responsible position would have led to the financial deficit coming down to 2% of net national income by the end of this Parliament. The people of Scotland were very happy to support that much more responsible approach, and I commend it to this House.

Although we welcome today’s decision to breach the cap, it is apparent that the Chancellor cannot even stick to his own targets. When will this Conservative Government realise that the inflexibility of the welfare cap is unworkable and that the fact that they will breach the cap illustrates the need to abandon the policy?

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We are calling on the Chancellor to abandon the cap and instead to focus on welfare dependency by tackling the structural drivers of higher welfare spending, such as rising rents, low pay and worklessness, as well as the barriers to work. That is a much more progressive way of dealing with the problems we face in the United Kingdom. We agree that it is sensible to control welfare spending, but the Government are simply not doing that with their continued focus on the austerity agenda. The welfare cap is simply not the correct approach.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has chosen not to be here today. I am grateful to the Minister for speaking earlier, but he is here, cap in hand, to seek our support for the Government breaching their own rules and missing yet another target.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the Chancellor is absent and the Work and Pensions Secretary was late, perhaps they ought to be sanctioned?

Ian Blackford: Indeed. Perhaps Opposition Members could handle the appeal—let us see how they would get on in such circumstances. I have some sympathy for the Minister, though, because it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who ought to be answerable to the House on this issue.

Of course, the Chancellor has form when it comes to missing targets. Let us remind ourselves that the Government have spectacularly missed their targets for the budget deficit and for net debt. We were supposed to be in the black by now, but with growth and tax receipts in particular consistently coming in below target, the deficit and debt have remained above target. We must pose the question: when will the Government learn that their false optimism has a price, and that price is the cuts to budgets as they seek to balance the books?

On the autumn statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility managed to magic up an additional £27 billion of forecast revenues—talk about a sleight of hand to dig the Chancellor out of another hole of his own making. We know that the OBR has a history of over-estimating tax receipts. The respected Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said of the Chancellor’s plans:

“If he is unlucky—and that’s almost a 50-50 shot—he will have either to revisit these spending decisions, raise taxes, or abandon the surplus target.”

Talk about having form. If I may use some football terminology, I would not want the Chancellor to take a last-minute penalty for my team in a cup final—he would only miss the target. Own goals are much more the Chancellor’s speciality.

Why am I raising these matters? It is because social security spending is linked to the failure to deliver a robust economy, drive up tax receipts and limit the need for the safety net that social security provides. That is why the welfare cap is wrong: it does not deal with the cause of, or the need for, welfare.

The disastrous policy—made in No. 11 Downing Street—of punishing millions of hard-working families by reducing tax credits and thereby dramatically cutting the income of lower-paid workers has, thankfully, been reversed. If the benefit cap is breached as a consequence of sense prevailing, we should be grateful. We are mindful, however, of the fact that although the vindictive

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impact of the tax credit cuts has been avoided, there will be pain in years to come because the Government are still wedded to reducing the social security budget by £12 billion, with universal credit bearing the brunt.

We are not fooled by the Chancellor’s words that this is a reversal of the Tory ideological assault on the most disadvantaged. He announced that he would, in effect, spend £3.4 billion in 2016-17 to reverse the changes to the threshold and the taper rate, but it is important to note that the planned reductions in tax credits for families with more than two children will still apply. Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics said that

“this may be a U-turn in April 2016, but it doesn’t look like a U-turn by 2020.”

I want to point out that the IFS estimates that cuts in universal credit will mean that 2.6 million working families will be an average of £1,600 a year worse off.

The continued lack of ambition by the Tory Government to take fiscal responsibility means that alternative action must be taken in Scotland to put off the impact of the austerity we are now facing. I am glad that the Scottish Government have taken measures, as they have in their budget today, to protect the people of Scotland. The Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think-tank, has found that low-income families in Scotland will face a reduction in income of more than £800 by 2020 as a result of UK Government cuts, but the richest 40% will see an increase in income as a result of the tax cuts.

We are in this situation not because of structural issues with social security, but simply because we have not been able to drive sustainable growth to a level that would drive job creation and, crucially, raise real wages, which is the best way of curtailing the demand for social security. We cannot fix the problem of poverty in our country by cutting social security, particularly in-work benefits, but we can do so by creating the circumstances that allow people to find meaningful employment, and in doing so work the hours that will assist them to put food on the table and to heat their homes.

Heidi Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on one of the elements of universal credit, which is that it is not just an IT system but an entire way for people to work with a mentor and somebody in the jobcentre who will assist them to build a life of better employment and higher wages? That is what he should be talking about if he wants to get people out of poverty.

Ian Blackford: Absolutely. We fully support that: we want people to be able to move out of poverty and into meaningful work that is well paid, where the social security system will support them. We would happily support some reforms, but problems remain in relation to the level of sanctions and the cuts to universal credit that will happen over the next few years.

Ian Lavery: The real issue concerns in-work benefits and people who are in work. The Sports Direct model is failing, but the Conservatives are not prepared to get stuck into the likes of Sports Direct and of Mike Ashley. They believe that that is a fantastic model of employment, but it is not acceptable.

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Ian Blackford: I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to deal with low pay in our economy. The only way to do so is to have a real debate about how to drive up productivity in this country, and about how to tackle companies that are abusing the minimum wage. Such companies must be held to account for what has happened.

We often hear from the Government and their myriad Back Benchers about a mythical long-term economic plan. I say “mythical” because it is a meaningless soundbite, and we are left asking, “Where is the detail? Where is the substance?” If there is a long-term economic plan to benefit workers, a core theme must be a rise in productivity that will help to drive up wages and living standards sustainably. The hon. Gentleman has just made that point.

Let us look at what the OBR said in its publication on the day of the autumn statement:

“Although actual productivity growth has picked up in the latest two quarters, some of this has been cyclical or reflects broader temporary factors… But since it is difficult to explain the abrupt fall and persistent weakness of productivity in recent years, it is also hard to judge when or if productivity growth will sustainably return to its historical average.”

It is well worth dwelling on that. It can be paraphrased as the OBR saying that it has not got a clue why productivity in the UK has been so weak in the past few years. It is certainly the case that the Government do not have a clue. I would suggest that they have no clue and no strategy for driving up productivity in the UK economy and for dealing with our social security bill.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) famously quoted from his little red book and then tossed it at the Chancellor during the autumn statement. However, it is not that red book that should concern us, but the stark reality of what is contained in the OBR Blue Book that offers little comfort for many in this country. We will support this motion, but we should not be having this debate because we should not have a benefits cap. We need a meaningful long-term economic plan, not Government gimmicks and soundbites.

5.54 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I welcome this U-turn. Sometimes, it is right to accept that one is wrong and has made a mistake. I commend the Government on doing so on this issue.

I also commend all those who took part in what was very much a cross-party campaign, in which all the Opposition parties and some Government Back Benchers worked together. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) for the courageous way in which she spoke out, which was noticed around the country and did this place a real service.

I also pay tribute to the other place. Although I will always campaign for that House to be abolished in its current form and replaced, finally, with a wholly elected Chamber, which is what we should have in this country and the only justifiable way to run a modern democracy, it did show that it has a role to play in this Parliament. I commend my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place, who made it clear that they would speak and vote against the tax credit cut. That was crucial in leading to the U-turn.

As a liberal as well as a Liberal Democrat, I will always be extremely proud that it was the great, reforming Liberal Government of 1906 to 1914 that brought in

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the very welfare state that we are discussing. That is a great achievement of my party.

However, we accepted in our five years in coalition, in difficult financial circumstances, that the welfare state had got out of control and was no longer sufficiently focused on those who needed it. I was a member of the Work and Pensions Committee for five years and that Committee, which had members from all parties, was entirely clear that there was a disincentive to work and that too many people were incentivised to be on benefits, rather than to work. I am very proud that, in the five years of the coalition, we did a lot to tackle that.

Ian Blackford: Will the hon. Gentleman remind us how the Liberal Democrats voted when the welfare cap came before Parliament last year?

Greg Mulholland: I am very happy to. As usual, the contribution from the SNP Benches contained the usual milk and honey, promising everything to everyone and not taking any difficult decisions. In the end, even in Scotland, the shine will come off and people will start to see the reality of the false veneer of the Scottish National party. That is something that the rest of us will welcome.

I am not even sure that the hon. Gentleman knows what he is talking about. There are two different issues: the household benefit cap and the welfare cap. He seemed to confuse and conflate the two things. We absolutely supported the household benefit cap, which was brought in under the coalition, because it is entirely right and all our constituents support not having a situation in which a single household can take an unlimited amount in benefits, when hard-working families are unable to raise the same amount. The welfare cap is an entirely different thing. It seeks to control the amount of money that the Treasury allocates to welfare as a whole. He does not seem to understand the distinction, which is worrying, given his position.

Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab): There is increasing evidence that this policy will cost the public purse more. Is it not a false economy?

Greg Mulholland: I am absolutely clear that there have been changes to the benefits system that were mistaken, including under the last Government, and I said so at the time. However, I absolutely support the household benefit cap. I do agree, however, that we need a sensible approach, and we must incentivise work and focus social security on those who need it. Those of us who believe passionately in the welfare state—I am sure the hon. Lady does, as do I—must be able to justify it and show that it is helping people who cannot work or are unable to find work. That must be the focus, but it has not been previously.

I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that some of the changes brought in by this Conservative majority Government, without the Liberal Democrats to restrain them, have been mistaken and ideological, particularly the cap on child benefit on the basis of the number of children that someone has, regardless of circumstance. We opposed and stopped such measures, but now people are seeing what a Conservative majority Government with an ideological policy, as opposed to a pragmatic one, will do.

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We welcome the fact that the right decision was made on tax credits, and on this occasion it is right to be prepared to breach the welfare cap. In other years we would like that cap to be adhered to, but given current circumstances and the projections for what the change to tax credits will do, this is the right decision, and those on the Treasury Bench should not be criticised for being prepared to breach the welfare cap for that reason in this financial year. That would be playing politics with this issue in the way that the Chancellor did with his ideological nonsense of the fiscal charter, when he sought to stop the Treasury having the flexibility that any Chancellor—and in this case the Secretary of State—must have.

We welcome this U-turn and fully accept the need to breach the welfare cap this year. We hope that the Government will live within their means in future years, but not by balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. We will continue to take a pragmatic approach and oppose anything that we believe is draconian, ideologically driven and unfair. At the same, we hope that the Government will continue in the same vein as the coalition Government, by incentivising people to work, and by getting more people into work with fewer people on benefits. As a civilised society we must ensure that our welfare state continues to help people who are unable to work or who genuinely cannot find it. That is our position and we will continue to make that case.

6.2 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): As someone who voted against the welfare cap when it was introduced and whenever it was reset, I am happy that the Government are trying to relax the original level of that cap. During the Budget statement in July, the Chancellor revised the welfare cap figures that he announced in the spring. He reduced that cap over four financial years by £46 billion, to include changes to tax credits and some of the other changes to universal credit that have been mentioned, and for that reason we would have opposed the measure.

As we have heard, the welfare cap is a fairly political argument. It has its origin in the opposition of Labour Members to the benefit cap in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and they came under some pressure for that. At one point, the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), announced that he would do better than a benefits cap and introduce a welfare cap on the overall budget. We could see the lights go on for the Chancellor of the Exchequer who decided, “That will do nicely. We’ll go for a welfare cap as well.” He proceeded to set up his working group to consider that, on the basis, he said, that annually managed expenditure is not managed but needs to be in future. That is how the welfare cap was introduced, and that is why the then Opposition were trapped into voting for it, whereas some of the smaller parties—and some Labour Back Benchers—felt free to vote against it.

When the welfare cap was introduced it was bubble-wrapped as a neutral budgetary tool, but many of us recognised that it would end up being brandished as a weapon for cuts, and that is exactly how the Chancellor used it this year in the July Budget. Of course, he was forced to revise his propositions on tax credits by a combination of opposition from right hon. and hon. Members right across the House. In fairness, some

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Government Members did not just vote against the measures but spoke against them too, making valid and pointed arguments about just some of the difficulties caused by the Chancellor’s plans. It is good that, with the range of consideration and argument outside and inside this House and in the other place, that the Chancellor had to revise his position. That is now reflected in the adjusted proposals for the welfare cap.

The Chancellor, in his autumn statement, made it clear that he will still get to the quantum of cuts he wants to achieve. The issue is how far the welfare cap will, in itself, be used as an instrument for forcing some of those cuts. We have also yet to hear from Ministers exactly how they are going to get to that quantum. Will they need to table amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently going through Parliament to deliver the cuts within the time the Chancellor has projected, or do they feel that they will be able to arrive at the same cuts using existing legislation? There are powers of regulation under the 2012 Act and provisions in the Bill, not least the sweeping provisions in clauses 13 and 14 that could see significant benefits—universal credit, employment and support allowance, and the work-related activity group—disappear or be very heavily eroded. If the Government still intend to arrive at the quantum of £12 billion of cuts in terms of the welfare cap, how do they propose to deliver it?

That matters in the context of Northern Ireland. If the cuts are to be delivered under existing legislation or the Bill, the fact that direct rule powers are in the hands of Department for Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland Office Ministers means that the cuts will be put through under the sunset clause which will be exercised here up until the end of the next calendar year. We have the right to ask: what future cuts will go through under existing legislation and the Bill, and what would require further reductions in future?

We did not get clarification on welfare measures during the passage of the Scotland Bill, or on other occasions when we have asked Ministers about this more informally. Will the Minister clarify whether the welfare spending that can be undertaken by the Scottish Government of £2.7 billion—the last figure I heard—will count as part of the UK welfare cap, or is that absolutely outside the UK welfare cap? Is that a precedent for other factors? Ministers have been unable to address that point.

In welcoming the Government’s position today, I take no comfort from it. Their original intent to use the welfare cap as a cuts weapon is still there. I want clarification on their plans for the Bill. Will they table amendments to achieve further cuts, or do they believe that they can achieve the full £12 billion as the clauses currently stand?

6.8 pm

Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): The 1997 to 2010 Labour Government paid off more debt than any previous Government on record—debt left by the Conservative Government. We always know when Conservative Members’ arguments are weak, because they come out with the mantra about the financial mess left by the Labour Government. The financial mess was created and started in America with Lehman Brothers.

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They use that—





This really doesn’t bother me, because I don’t hear what they’ve got to say.—




Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order.

Mr Duncan Smith: It’s Christmas.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It would appear that it is Christmas. I hope the House has not been attending too many Christmas parties. We behave in a reasonable and polite fashion. If anybody needs to be told to be quiet, I can do that.

Marie Rimmer: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Marie Rimmer: No. The hon. Gentleman will wait until I have had my say.

The financial crisis was caused by the Lehman Brothers in America and started in 2008. Had Labour been returned to power—had someone not been greedy for power—we would not be in this mess today because the Conservatives would not be in power. Our strategy was actually working. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Conservative Members do not like the truth.

Several hon. Members rose

Marie Rimmer: I will not give way until Members start to behave and listen to me.

Several hon. Members rose

Marie Rimmer: Sit down! I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We always know when the Government are at their weakest, because they go on and on about the financial crisis. But let us get to the welfare cap. Of the two major cuts to in-work support in the summer Budget—to tax credits and its replacement, universal credit—only the tax credits element has been reversed. The reason we are in this state is that the Chancellor originally set the cap at a level that, in the first instance, simply tracked the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projections for spending on those benefits and tax credits that were in scope—as one of my colleagues mentioned, tax credits are in scope, which is unacceptable. The cap started in 2015-16 and extends for the next five years, meaning that, for now, the cap has no policy effect whatsoever. The Government are simply committed to operating future policy on the basis of not overshooting the current estimate of financial spending over the coming years. We could be in this position next year and the year after, because there are no real policy decisions. It is short term. It is nothing else.

As predicted, that led to the announcement of emergency cuts, including those to tax credits, but they were resoundingly kicked out by the Lords—the Conservatives at prayer, as someone described them. Although I am not in favour of an unelected second Chamber, I applaud them for taking that action. Only the tax credits element was reversed, however, and working families remain on the front line of further assaults, such as the cap and the universal credit cuts. The latter will affect many people—more than 200,000, I think—from April 2016, and the majority of those on universal credit are in the north-west.

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They are the ones who suffer the most from unemployment and financial deprivation—much of which is caused by zero-hours contracts, insecure employment, low pay and part-time work—which is why they are on benefits.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Marie Rimmer: No, I want to carry on.

Owen Smith: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Marie Rimmer: Not at the moment. Hon. Members will hear what I have to say.

We need reforms that address the structural drivers of social security spending. We need good, secure employment; we need to get rid of zero-hours contracts and low pay; and we need to ensure an adequate supply of affordable homes.

Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Marie Rimmer: No. Hon. Members need to learn that I will not give way until I have had my say. [Interruption.] Yes, the House needs to know what type of woman I am.

We need to shift the balance of expenditure from the cost of failure towards investment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has said, the large rise in housing benefit expenditure in the 20 years before the financial crisis came at a time when the number of households receiving help to pay their rent stayed broadly flat. That should have triggered a major focus on those trends and led to serious reform of policy and spending, but it did not. As a consequence, the benefits system was extremely vulnerable to economic shocks, as large numbers of people were in more expensive private rented accommodation. When the crisis really hit in 2010-11—it came a couple of years later—housing benefit shot up, and in response we have seen a series of arbitrary attempts to hack back the costs. We have seen 14 changes to housing benefit, including the bedroom tax, which was entirely unrelated to the causes of the rising expenditure. We need to get down to the policy and the causes.

Ministers are leaning too heavily on the political dividing-line and not enough on designing a cap that would advance structural reforms. Although it is set over five years on a rolling basis, the Government’s cap will bite on an annual basis. With the Office for Budget Responsibility warning about the overshooting of the autumn statement, we call today for compensating action in the next Budget.

We have had emergency cuts, not long-term saving. The cap has been set in nominal cash terms. Higher expenditure, driven by inflation, will trigger policy action, which risks locking in lower living standards for those reliant on benefits. General price rises feeding through into uprating decisions do not count as a structural divide in spending. In line with consumer prices index forecasts for the coming years, the Chancellor set out a margin of error of 2%, which will not trigger action.

The cap makes no distinction between contribution-based and income-based benefit spending, consistent with the drift of social security policy over decades, but they are

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different, and should be treated as such. Entitlement to contributory benefits, which are financed by national insurance contributions, should stand outside the mainstream of Government revenue and be taken out of the cap, strengthening the integrity of the national insurance fund.

I urge the Government to backtrack on the political ideology-driven trajectory that they are on, with 80% of cuts coming from public spending and welfare and 20% from tax, and with tax cuts being provided to people who do not need them and will not spend the extra money, so it will not go into the economy and will not feature in the drive for more jobs. The Government should invest in proper affordable housing for those who need it. Never mind all these dressed-up schemes—let us have some honesty in this place and address the issues for the public out there. I think the Government are living in a virtual world; it is certainly not the world that I move in.

Question put and agreed to.


That, pursuant to the Charter for Budget Responsibility: Summer Budget 2015 update, which was approved by this House on 14 October 2015, under Section 1 of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, this House agrees that the breach of the Welfare Cap in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 resulting from the decision not to pursue proposed changes to tax credits, as laid out in the Autumn Statement 2015, is justified and that no further debate will be required in relation to this specific breach.

Riot Compensation Bill (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Riot Compensation Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act by local policing bodies, by way of compensation for damage, destruction or theft occurring in the course of riots, out of money so provided.—(Mike Penning.)

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I want to raise the modest question of why this Bill has not been introduced under Standing Order No. 50, as it seems to me that the primary purpose is a charge. For a Bill of this kind, Standing Order No. 50 is the usual process. I know it has the Government’s support, but I am puzzled that that approach has not been taken.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point, which I am sure has been taken on board by those on the Treasury Bench.

Question put and agreed to.

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order 119(11)),

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 17228/13, a Commission Communication: Towards the elimination of female genital mutilation.—(Guy Opperman.)

Question agreed to.

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Climate Change

6.18 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I rise to present a petition from students at Notre Dame high school in Norwich, which includes many signatures from across Norfolk. It contains 1,127 signatures in total.

The petition states:

The petition of residents of the UK,

Declares that the UK should show leadership internationally to secure fair and ambitious agreements on tackling climate change and poverty; and further that the petitioners are inspired by their Catholic faith.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to cut carbon emissions to keep global temperature rise below the dangerous threshold of 1.5°C, and to prevent climate change pushing people deeper into poverty.

And the petitioners remain, etc.