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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 January 2016

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Disabled People: Support

9.30 am

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the changes to funding of support for disabled people.

I thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing this important debate, and I thank everyone for attending. I also thank all the organisations—especially the Disability Benefits Consortium—that have briefed MPs on today’s debate. [Interruption.] I also thank whoever is phoning.

The debate is important. The disadvantage experienced by disabled people is well evidenced. They are twice as likely as other people to live in poverty. The percentage of working-age disabled people in employment has dropped in recent years. Even in work, disabled people are worse off than non-disabled people. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, disabled men in work face an 11% pay gap, while disabled women face a 22% pay gap.

Disabled people also experience higher routine costs of living. The Scope-facilitated Extra Costs Commission, which began its work in 2014, has set out in detail the hundreds of pounds a week that many disabled people spend every week as a direct result of living with certain health conditions and impairments. Sadly, Government policies—particularly since 2010—have made things far worse for disabled people and caused them greater difficulty.

As to my personal background on this issue, my mum has schizophrenia, and that contributed to my work choices —I worked for the Disability Rights Commission, the National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance UK among others. The issue is also very relevant to my constituency, because we have a higher incidence of certain mental health conditions, and about 12,500 disabled people—about one in nine of my constituents —live in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, according to the Library. The issue should, however, matter to everyone, because we should facilitate a society in which anyone can contribute, to the maximum of their potential. Sadly, however, that possibility is being undermined.

The debate’s timing is useful. Tomorrow is the last day of the Government’s consultation on the future of personal independence payments. Fears about disabled people losing work as a direct result of the introduction of personal independence payments are beginning to be realised. Over the weekend, the Daily Mirror covered the case of Denise Haddon: yet another example of a disabled person who uses a Motability vehicle for work, but who could see that vehicle withdrawn, with them being forced out of work as a direct result of Government policy.

Today, colleagues in the House of Lords—certainly, Labour colleagues—will also be pushing amendments on the work-related activity group cuts in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will affect half a million

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disabled people. This afternoon, we will have an Opposition day debate on supported housing, in which we will call for an exemption for such housing from housing benefit cuts. This debate is therefore very timely.

The Government have their priorities wrong. They keep coming back to disabled people and undermining support, rather than focusing on areas where there is more potential. Just this week, for example, we saw the Google fiasco, which demonstrates yet again that we are not all in this together and that there is a significant imbalance in who the Government choose to squeeze more out of.

What is worse, the Government suggest that their measures are about supporting disabled people into work or about providing more support to those who need it most. If they believe that any group of disabled people has definitely benefited more as a direct result of any policy since 2010, I would welcome the Minister providing evidence to back that up.

On work, 53% of working-age disabled people were in work in 2010, but the figure is now under 50%. The Library has pointed out that, of the 320,000 disabled people on employment and support allowance referred to the Work programme since 2011, only 16% got a job. Although 43% of those on Work Choice—a more specialised programme—could be supported into work, which is of benefit, the Government have announced that the two schemes will be merged in 2017. It would be useful to have a stronger indication from the Minister whether we will see a levelling up or a levelling down of the support provided to disabled people. Will we see a return to more specialised, localised support, with smaller suppliers who are better able to provide the dedicated support that many disabled people need? We saw good schemes under things such as the future jobs fund and the working neighbourhoods fund, which were more localised and specialised, but which were unable to compete following the changes introduced in 2010.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the issue is sometimes ensuring that training makes the right skills available for disabled people? Many disabled people want to get into work, but they are prevented from doing so by the inability to access the very skills they need to get into the workplace.

Neil Coyle: I completely agree that that training needs to be there. It would be useful to hear from the Minister how whatever new programme is put in place in 2017 will make training and dedicated, specialised support available.

Another thing we have seen is that the number of disability employment advisers, who have specialist knowledge, has dropped by 20% since 2010. There is now less than one adviser per 600 disabled people who are meant to be supported, so we are heading in the wrong direction.

People have been in touch with me about the Access to Work programme. For anyone who is unfamiliar with it, it is a specialised programme that helps disabled people to retain or attain work. The Department for Work and Pensions used to accept—it seems to shy away from accepting this know—that, for every pound spent on Access to Work, about £1.48 was returned through things such as national insurance contributions and income tax. However, fewer disabled people are now supported under Access to Work than in 2009-10—the

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figure has dropped from just over 37,000 to 36,700. That needs addressing, and it would be welcome if the Minister told us whether there will be more targeted support under Access to Work to increase those numbers.

In 2014, the Government said they were expanding Access to Work to include work placements acquired by the individual disabled person. I have asked questions about that and received no information to show whether the Government are actually delivering on that. In 2011, the Government said that they accepted all the recommendations of the Sayce review, including those on Access to Work. Perhaps we could have an update on how they are taking forward the review’s retention and promotion aspects. In the 2015 spending review, the Government announced that Access to Work funding would support 25,000 additional disabled people by providing IT help, but we have no information on what that means or how it will be rolled out in practice. It would be useful to hear more about that significant target.

The Down’s Syndrome Association has been in touch and has provided briefing for the debate to highlight its WorkFit programme. The association says the programme has supported 75 individuals with Down’s syndrome into work, but that only three have met the stringent eligibility criteria for Access to Work. The association feels that that needs to change, and it is keen to hear from the Minister whether the Government will take forward its recommendations.

I want to raise the issue of assessments and accessible information. I have a constituent called Norma who lives in Walworth. Her daughter, who is about 50, has learning disabilities and a visual impairment, and she is deaf. The DWP has been contacting Norma to press for her daughter to be assessed, and Norma feels that her daughter is being told she should be working, even though she cannot leave her home without support. Norma feels she is under considerable pressure. I will write to the Minister about this specific example after the debate, and I will encourage him to explain why Norma and her daughter feel they are under such pressure from the DWP.

Disabled people have also been in touch with significant concerns about universal credit. Some projections suggest that universal credit will be about 1,000 years in delivery, so perhaps some of the fears are unnecessary, as we will not be here. However, it appears that the Government have scrapped the limited capability for work element before any disabled person has been able to access it, which will leave 116,000 working disabled people £40 a week worse off. Once again, the idea that the Government want to support people into work is undermined by their policies. Citizens Advice has also highlighted in a report that in-work single disabled people will be worse off because of the scrapping of the severe disability premium, which will leave almost 250,000 disabled people worse off by between £28 and £58 a week. The Children’s Society has pointed out that, under universal credit, 100,000 disabled children could also lose £28 a week. I ask the Minister what message that sends to those disabled people.

Employment and support allowance is also a significant concern for many of my constituents, 5,630 of whom receive it. The Government recently announced that a cut of £1.4 billion will affect disabled people in the

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work-related activity group; that is £30 a week for half a million disabled people. DWP statistics show who those people are. They include a quarter of a million people with learning disabilities, autism or significant mental health problems. Again, I ask the Minister why those specific people were chosen for that measure. What are the Government seeking to achieve by targeting such a disadvantaged and vulnerable group?

An example given to me by Parkinson’s UK shows something of the challenge that disabled people have in accepting that the Government agenda is genuine. In a written answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on Monday, the Minister for Employment revealed that since 2008, when ESA was introduced, 200 people with Parkinson’s in the work-related activity group were assessed and given a medical prognosis by the DWP that they would not be able to return to work for at least two years, or longer. The Department is telling people whom it has assessed as unable to work for two years that they will be receiving £1,500 less per year to get them back into work within that period. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. I hope, too, that he will answer the suggestion raised elsewhere that there will be no change for those already in the work-related activity group. Does that include those whose circumstances change, and those who undergo repeat assessments?

The change to ESA follows previous changes, including the time limiting of some support, which has left 280,000 disabled people with no out-of-work benefit. Some have very low incomes, and it is most unfortunate that the Government have managed to pick that group for an increase in poverty. I would welcome a comment from the Minister about that.

I want briefly to cover sanctions. In its briefing, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the fact that some sanctions mean that 100% of a person’s financial support goes. Those sanctions can last up to three years, under the increasingly automated system introduced by the previous Government. [Interruption.] I am glad that some Members find that funny. I find that very strange. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): No, because I am about to make a speech, but thank the hon. Gentleman for the offer.

Neil Coyle: The hon. Gentleman is welcome. Perhaps I will enjoy his contribution as much as he appears to be enjoying mine.

The concern that I have about sanctions is the growing number of disabled people who experience them; 70,000 sanctions have been imposed on ESA claimants between December 2012 and June 2015 alone. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions highlighted the fact that safeguards may not always work effectively. My question for the Minister is: if he believes the system is adequate, how has he responded to the Committee’s recommendations, and when will the Department publish its own findings of a review of sanctions? Furthermore, as sanctions and benefit changes are specifically mentioned in some people’s suicide notes, how does the Department support Jobcentre Plus staff and other agencies in handling suicidal claimants and those who raise the matter of suicide in meetings with Government officials?

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Disability living allowance and personal independence payments are a growing concern for many disabled people. In Bermondsey and Old Southwark, 3,600 working-age disabled people will be affected by the abolition of DLA and hundreds more children will be affected as they reach the age of 16. The DWP has revealed that 607,000 disabled people will lose help with the abolition of DLA. That struck me as quite odd, given that a former Minister for Disabled People accused charities such as the Disability Action Alliance when it suggested that half a million disabled people would be affected. Now that the Government have revealed that the figure will be 607,000, perhaps Ministers should apologise to the charities they accused. Instead, the Government attacks charities’ ability to challenge the Government agenda, which is most unfortunate.

The Disability Benefits Consortium, among others, recommended that there should be better trials of the new assessment process. The DWP chose to ignore that advice; then the National Audit Office reported that the early operational performance of PIP was poor, and the Public Accounts Committee suggested that early delivery was

“nothing short of a fiasco”.

What assessment is the Minister making and what monitoring is the Department undertaking of those changes and how they are affecting disabled people’s ability to work, in the context of the stories about Denise Haddon and others? What is the impact of the changes on NHS demand, for example? It would also be useful to have an update on the backlog issue to do with PIP assessments. Citizens Advice reported in August that PIP has now overtaken ESA as the most complained-about benefit system.

I want briefly to focus on the bedroom tax. The DWP acknowledges that two out of three people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people. That is 440,000 disabled people. Assuming that average amount is £14 per week since the introduction of the bedroom tax, by the time it reaches its third birthday at the end of April, it will amount to a disability tax of almost £1 billion. Disabled people are also affected by issues such as the freezing of benefit of uprating. Even for those on ESA, the value of the uprating for the vast majority of their benefits is lower than the rises in their energy bills or transport costs, for example.

On housing, I have been contacted by John, who is pleased about this debate and the one this afternoon. He says that he lives in supported housing, which he relies on to live independently. He says that he has

“lived securely, independently and safely in a social housing wheelchair designated flat provided by Habinteg for 27 years and this is now potentially under threat.”

Many of his neighbours have considerably greater needs and are equally threatened. He finds the threat alone destabilising, let alone what could happen if the changes go through as the Government intend. He believes that the Government’s plans will stem the supply of wheelchair-accessible housing, particularly as there is already a shortfall in the availability of genuinely accessible housing. Has the Minister undertaken any impact assessment of how that specific change will affect the supply of accessible housing over time, given that we have an ageing population and growing demand for wheelchair-accessible homes?

On social care, a recent report from the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Age UK suggested that more than 12,000 blind and partially sighted people

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over 65 lost access to social care between 2009 and 2013. That is more than a third of those who were previously getting support. The role of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People should not just be to act as an apologist for the DWP. It should be cross-Government. I am intrigued to know what monitoring the Minister is undertaking with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, or the Department of Health, about where those disabled people go next if they lose social care. For example, is there a rise in demand for NHS services? Reductions in support for disabled people inevitably mean an increase in the demand for informal carers, who, without adequate support, can go on to experience health conditions and impairments of their own. There has been a rise in the number of children providing support for disabled parents and grandparents, which is a risk to their own long-term prospects if they do not receive sufficient support.

The independent living fund is being abolished. Its 18,000 users are very nervous about what happens next. It would be useful to have an indication from the Minister about how the people who lose it will be monitored, to see where they go next, given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services estimates that social care has lost £3.5 billion in funding since 2010. Many councils are losing about 28% of their budget but are spending about a third of their entire budget on social care. Councils cannot pick up the loss; they cannot step in and fill that gap.

I am sure that the Minister will want to mention the better care fund. My understanding of that fund is that it will only support new services, so those losing independent living fund support may not qualify for help. Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and the National Autistic Society have estimated that one in six care users have fallen out of the system since 2008, and a further 36,000 working-age disabled people could lose access under the latest cuts as a result of the autumn statement. Will the Minister comment on what that loss could mean for other Government services?

Not only have social security and social care services been undermined by changes since 2010, but changes to a whole range of services used and needed by disabled people have had a negative impact. For example, there are 3,000 fewer nurses and hundreds fewer doctors in mental healthcare than in 2010. In my borough, we have therefore seen a rise in crisis treatment—that is, a rise in the number of people with mental health problems arriving at A&E, rather than having the right support further upstream.

In education, we have seen changes to the disabled students’ allowance. Randstad provided a briefing for this debate in which it highlights its concerns about both the changes to DSA and the regulatory change to how provision is administered. It quotes its survey of disabled students, which found that almost 28% of disabled students would not have attended university if DSA had not been available. Another third said they were unsure whether they would have attended university. The survey also found that more than three quarters of disabled students said that attending university as a disabled student was more expensive, with 42% saying they were more likely to drop out as a result of losing DSA. Furthermore, 87% of students said they were concerned that not completing their studies would impact on their future employment prospects. Will the Minister

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try to demonstrate that the Government are taking a long-term approach and looking at what DSA changes might mean in lowering income for disabled people and lowering tax contributions to the Government in the longer term?

Even on legal aid, the Government have acknowledged that changes to funding have the potential to discriminate against disabled people unduly. That is borne out in the case summaries since the changes. In 2011-12, there were 7,676 disability discrimination-related cases. That has fallen to 3,106 cases—less than half—in the last year stats were available. That collapse is not due to discrimination ending, though it would be useful if that were so. The Government’s concern should be that, without disabled people receiving the right support, the Government will not meet their commendable target to cut the employment gap for disabled people.

I suspect that the Minister will mention in his contribution the £50 billion a year spent on disabled people. The Resolution Foundation estimates that disabled people have lost more than £28 billion in support under a whole range of funding changes since 2010. If the Minister were to use that figure, he would therefore acknowledge that the Government have cut resources by about one third. That is not a record I would trumpet. It would be welcome if that figure were broken down into the different pots of support it covers. My concern is that it includes social care funding, without taking into account the charges that many disabled people pay to use social services, so it is not representative.

I want to conclude with a reference to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities inquiry into the rights of people with disabilities in the UK, which should report next year. Investigations by the committee are confidential, and the process, extent and scope of the inquiry are unknown, but it is widely believed that it will consider policies introduced by the coalition Government since 2010 in relation to welfare and social security benefits and, in particular, their compatibility with articles 19 and 28 of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which cover their rights to live independently and to enjoy an adequate standard of living.

The UK is the first country in the world to be investigated by the UN in relation to that convention. We have moved from being at the forefront of disability rights, respect and inclusion globally to being the first state in the world under investigation for rolling back disabled people’s rights and undermining their equal citizenship. I simply end by asking the Minister this: can he genuinely be proud of that position for the UK?

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I intend to call the three Front-Bench Members starting at 10.30 am. If they could give Mr Coyle an opportunity to sum up briefly at the end, I would appreciate it. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but if Members could self-regulate, that would be best.

9.54 am

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on his wide-ranging speech and obvious knowledge of the issues concerned.

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I have learned in my time in the House that it is often best not to attack an individual Member before they have stood up to speak, just in case that Member might actually intend to be helpful to the cause—at least the hon. Gentleman has saved me that dilemma, in a sense. I learned another lesson today, which is never to have stray thoughts during any parliamentary debate. I was not expecting to be here today—I was due to have a meeting at 10 o’clock, which got cancelled. I had an ironic thought about why it had been cancelled and the chance that I happened to be here, but if the hon. Gentleman in any way took offence at me making an audible noise, I apologise.

Since the hon. Gentleman thought I was referring to sanctions, let us talk about that for a few minutes. Sanctions are a particular concern in my constituency. I was fortunate to serve with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we looked into sanctions. Indeed, I tabled amendments to our Committee’s report that went beyond anything even the shadow Minister felt able to table.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned particular suicide notes citing sanctions. I remain a firm supporter of the idea that where there is any question of the benefits system playing a role in any untoward event, there should be a body—similar in scope to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, perhaps—that looks at the individual’s entire journey, from the first day they engaged with any Government Department to the end of their life, to establish what went wrong and where. Often, the fact that people experience a sanction is the end of a process of being poorly served by the benefits system, not the start of a process. I was pleased to see that mentioned in the final report.

I also gently make the point to the hon. Gentleman that much of what the Government brought forward in response to our Committee’s report far exceeded my reasonable expectation. I am sure it did not satisfy the shadow Minister, because she and I rarely agreed in our time on that Committee, but it went beyond what I reasonably expected the Government to deliver, so I welcome that.

The other interesting lesson I have drawn today, in addition to how I should keep a straight face during debates, is what happens when I walk past an annunciator. Walking past an annunciator yesterday, I saw that the short title of today’s debate was, “Support for disabled people,” and I thought, “Gosh! That’s very wide, isn’t it? That could almost cover anything at all.” I see today, however, that the title is actually, “Changes to funding of support for disabled people.”

An interesting observation we can make here is that support can never just be financial. One frustration I have found in my six years in this place is that when we discuss disability, we often start from a financial perspective. Most of the critique is about the amount of money going left, right and centre. I do not dispute for a moment that without a stable financial base of support for disabled people and a well run benefits system giving support to those who need it most, anything else is simply window-dressing. We always need to look at the wider picture of disability: support needs to be about more than just the amount of money we happen to give someone in some

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way. The Minister’s role has to be far more than administering our benefits system. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark pointed out that the Minister’s role has to be cross-governmental; it cannot just be located within DWP.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. I said in this place just over a week ago that the Conservative party was the only party to make that commitment. We get a lot of credit from the various component parts of the Disability Benefits Consortium for making that commitment. They want to see it evidenced in policy, and I accept that entirely. I know how hard the Minister is working on the Disability Confident campaign, which may be nebulous in its concept and hard to measure but is fundamental to changing the nature of the debate. Once again, it is about not only the amount of money that the state gives but the amount of money that individuals themselves can obtain through employment, and the benefits that will flow from that.

We need to take other aspects of funding of support for disabled people into account as well. Given the hon. Gentleman’s professional background before he came into the House, I am sure that he is aware of Scope’s Extra Costs Commission, which reported just before the last election. The commission looked at the issue of the “purple pound”, as we like to call it now, and why we often talk about the poverty premium as a disability premium, too. It is a cost that people face.

Although disability living allowance and the personal independence payment are there to cover extra costs faced by disabled people, very often they cannot cover all of them. Scope rightly tried to look at how we can not only increase PIP, but decrease the extra costs. Why is it so hard for charities to perform collective energy price switching on behalf of many of their members and supporters? Why has there never been a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into why aids and appliances seem to have over-inflated prices, compared with the cost of producing them? The commission produced a thick, voluminous report, full of very challenging ideas, many of which can be taken hold of not only by Government but by the market. The hon. Gentleman talked about the Minister having a more wide-ranging role, and that is the sort of thing I envisage.

The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the current controversy over employment and support allowance and the work-related activity group, and I do not disagree that it is a difficult area for Government. His speech was a bit of a Christmas tree of briefings from all the different charities within the DBC, many of which I have met too. They seem to have great unanimity on what the Government are doing wrong, but when it comes to solutions and what we should do instead, I have found great differences in what they are suggesting. Each charity seems to have its own answer about what should be done, even though their analysis appears to have a degree of commonality.

I certainly see a specific problem in my constituency. People may not pass or get the result that they want from their work capability assessment. They may then not accept the judgment and might even reject participation in the ongoing process, but what they do not feel able to do is transition on to jobseeker’s allowance, whereby they might get different, more appropriate levels of help that might get them back into work. They get stuck in a

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no man’s land, because of the financial jeopardy of losing money as they transition on to jobseeker’s allowance. I accept that removing that financial gap is not the answer for every single person, but it is an honest attempt, in my view, to solve what I see as a real problem in my constituency.

In the longer term, however, I will urge the Government to look at ESA as a whole. To me, it is now one of the last in the suite of disability benefits that was conceived when we saw disability mainly as a physical manifestation. Nowadays, we know about the interaction between mental health and physical health, and I think that benefits now—particularly PIP—are doing much more to look at how mental health comes into the picture.

I think that ESA needs more than just tinkering with; it needs substantial reform, because two people with an identical degenerative condition might be at the same stage in their prognosis but might be responding to that undoubtedly terrible news in very different ways. One might have a positive get-up-and-go approach and the other might be totally bowled over by it and unable to cope. Both responses are perfectly legitimate, but they have a major impact on how that person engages in the workplace. The benefit system has to be able to accommodate both those outcomes, without judging them in any way, shape or form. At the moment, I am not convinced that ESA is able to do that. That is why I would argue for a much more fundamental reform. As with other reviews of both WCA and PIP tests, for which we have the annual review, I feel that all we are seeing is more and more people being placed in the support group, almost as a default doctrine. I do not think that would fulfil the Government’s policy objective in the medium term.

I realise that we are trying to keep speeches brief, so I will try to do so. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Access to Work. We are always right to keep pressing the Government about how they are spending Access to Work money, which is a really important pot of money. The fact that there is no cap on it means that I would always argue for more ways to spend it, and he identified a few. I am very keen to see apprenticeships and pre-work situations being brought into the programme’s remit. Many people find, for example, that when they leave university they cannot access the help they need to demonstrate that they can do a job, so that they can get credibility with an employer and get the job offer. Bringing that process to a pre-appointment stage might give employers slightly more confidence that the person they want to employ can be employed and supported in the job. I continue to urge that we do far more to use Access to Work to keep people in work. I know that the Minister is doing more on that issue, but I think more could still be done.

The hon. Gentleman talked about IT. In my understanding, that relates mainly to some of the more mental health-focused interventions that Access to Work is now involved in. There has been, if I recall correctly, a 200% increase in the number of people benefiting from mental health interventions. Given the current levels of demand, I suspect that that needs to be 2,000%, but it is a good start none the less.

Finally, when it comes to financial support for disabled people—if we take that as the title of the debate—there is always room for continuous improvement in the delivery of benefits. I cannot think of a single suite of

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benefits that the Work and Pensions Committee could look at and not find recommendations on how it could be improved. I live in a constituency that is perhaps a bit similar to the hon. Gentleman’s, with a very high level of transience in the population. Many people do not have addresses that are stable from month to month. The methods of communication are often not suited to those highly vulnerable people, who are often facing addiction challenges of one sort of another. There are always ways of improving how we deliver the benefits necessary to support the most vulnerable, so the Minister’s role will always be about continuous improvement, but it cannot just be about managing a benefit system, because financial support has to come in numerous ways. Part of that financial support is considering what else the Government can do to lower the extra costs across the community—it is not just about how we give people more money to meet those extra costs. Both are important, and we need to give more attention to how we meet some of the extra costs through non-benefit means as well. My speech was not short enough, but it was an attempt at being short.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. If Members can keep their contributions to around seven minutes, they should all get in.

10.7 am

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you as our Chair, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which he opened it.

I want to touch on the impact that the Government’s policies and proposals are having and are likely to have not only on disabled people, but on their family carers. The toxic combination of cuts to local authority budgets and changes to support are having a significant negative impact on disabled people and on their carers. My hon. Friend gave an excellent analysis of many of those impacts.

Social care is widely seen to be in crisis. The most recent survey by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services reported that 400,000 fewer people are receiving social care services than in 2009-10. Of those who are still supported, a significant number are now getting less care. Most directors expect that still fewer people will get access to services over the next two years.

There have been five years of funding reductions, totalling £4.6 billion and representing nearly one third of real-terms net budgets for local authorities. This year, adult social care budgets will reduce by a further half a billion pounds in cash terms. Taking the growth in numbers of older and disabled people into account, an additional £1.1 billion would be needed to provide just the same level of service as last year. Before the Minister tells us that the Government are putting £3.5 billion back into social care in future years, I should tell him that I see the Government’s funding plans for social care as risky, uncertain and late.

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Proposed increases to the better care fund are risky, because they are so back-loaded. They do not reach £1.5 billion until 2019, but as I said, demand is growing each year before then and we have already lost £4.6 billion. Funding from the social care precept is uncertain; it can only raise £1.6 billion by 2019-20 if every single council decides to raise council tax by the maximum possible, and they may not do so. However, adult social care is in crisis now and there have been significant cuts since 2010. Local authorities are not helped by Government funding that is too little and that comes too late.

Two months ago, the High Court ruled that the benefit cap unfairly discriminates against disabled people and their carers. I am glad that the Government are finally conforming to the Court’s ruling and exempting full-time carers from the benefit cap. However, other changes to social security are still in the pipeline and are causing serious concern for carers. The Government have announced consultation on the possible devolution of attendance allowance to local authorities in England and Wales. I know that Carers UK is deeply concerned about that announcement.

Attendance allowance is an important source of financial support for older people with care needs. It is a gateway benefit entitling the carer to claim carer’s allowance. Currently 295,000 people receive carer’s allowance or other financial support because they are caring for somebody who is receiving attendance allowance. There are deep concerns that the Government’s proposals will mean further delays and variations in people receiving these essential benefits. Local authorities, such as mine, Salford City Council, are still under severe financial pressure due to budget cuts. Salford has had to cut its budget for adult social care by £15 million since 2010.

Without ring-fencing, it is feared that the funding for attendance allowance will be absorbed into local authority social care budgets and then start to be subject to ongoing cuts. It is unclear whether local authorities will be allowed to change the eligibility criteria and level of payment for attendance allowance. If they are given that flexibility, it could lead to eligible carers losing the right to receive their carer’s allowance.

I am sure we all accept that carers provide the bulk of the social care in this country and save the state billions of pounds. If carers are unable to claim carer’s allowance they may be unable to continue caring and be forced back to work, putting pressure on local NHS and care services. Will the Minister say what steps are planned to ensure that the availability of attendance allowance and the eligibility criteria for it will be protected from local variations? It would be helpful if he told us whether he has assessed how many carers would lose access to carer’s allowance as a result of the proposed changes to personal independence payment eligibility. I will come to that.

The proposals to alter the aids and appliances eligibility criteria for PIP may also mean that fewer disabled people will receive the support they need. Currently, 35% of people who are ill or disabled qualify for PIP solely through the aids and appliances descriptors. As PIP is also a gateway benefit for carer’s allowance, any move to restrict PIP eligibility will have a significant impact for carers. I understand that the evidence base for the proposed reforms to PIP is based on an analysis of only 105 claimants when over 611,000 people are claiming PIP. That seems to be an absurd evidence base. The PIP

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assessment cannot encompass the complexity and fluctuating nature of many health conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The Government’s rushed consultation on the changes will close on 29 January. Disability and carer’s charities have said that all five of the Government’s proposed changes would restrict access to PIP and therefore carer’s allowance. Cutting PIP further is likely to put disabled people and their carers at risk. There are currently more than 7 million carers in the UK and hundreds of thousands of them may be hit by the Government’s proposed changes to support for disabled people. In a submission to the Government, Carers Trust has said:

“Failing to support carers means failing to protect and secure the longevity of our health and social care system.”

Continued underfunding of social care will undermine plans for the NHS and the integration of health and social care. The key point is that it will also damage the health of carers, many of whom—Carers UK reports—are already reaching breaking point.

10.13 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, Mr Crausby. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) setting out clearly what many of us feel about the system that, with great respect, fails the people who need it most. That is what I feel and, in fairness, I believe that it is what everyone in the House feels.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of charities and I will not give a roll-call of them, but they have also contacted me. More than 30, including Mencap, Macmillan Cancer Support, Parkinson’s UK, RNIB, the MS Society UK and Mind, have written to the Minister outlining their deep concerns at the cuts in support for disabled people. This is not the first time we have discussed this matter in Westminster Hall. A debate not long ago was initiated by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).

A poll by Populus on behalf of charities found that 71% of people think cuts to welfare will make the UK a worse place for disabled people to live. How will the Government address that? The Minister is always gracious in his responses and I know he will provide some answers and information. Just 6% of people thought the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would make the UK a better place for disabled people. In other words, 94% did not think that. Whatever people say about statistics, that cannot be ignored—94% of people are not satisfied or convinced.

We all know there needs to be an effort to make public finances sounder and that we must be careful with the budget for which the House, particularly the Government, is responsible. All Departments are being made to tighten their belts, but it is clear that public opinion sees these latest reforms as an attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I judge society by its attitude to those who are less well off. My duty in the House is to help vulnerable people to manage better and that is also the Government’s responsibility.

Despite great services, such as the Access to Work programme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low and, according to Mencap, which represents people

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with learning difficulties, seems immune to economic factors. That is worrying for us all. Indeed, the proportion of learning-disabled people known to social service in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14, so there has been a fall. Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of how the Government will respond to that and how they will directly address the issue.

The majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work, so let us encourage them and give them the opportunity. The figures are stark when the national employment rate of 76% is compared with an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. In the Conservative party’s manifesto, the Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. I am sure the Minister will say how the Government are trying to meet that manifesto commitment. Welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, but the facts show that more needs to be done and more action needs to be taken.

In Northern Ireland, we have a scheme to help to reduce the disability employment gap. In addition to the Access to Work programme, Workable (NI) is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. The matter is devolved. These organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities. Using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting the sector. Sometimes, it is necessary to innovate, to be different and to think outside the box. The Minister is aware of our scheme and what we do, so I respectfully ask whether the Government are considering it for the mainland. If they are, it would be good news. Perhaps the Government will look at how the devolved Administrations are working to assist disabled people into work and at the solutions to the long-term problem that can be shared across the United Kingdom’s institutions of government.

On the face of it, these changes look completely contradictory to the Government’s manifesto promise and are seen not as a genuine attempt to put more disabled people who can work into work, but as an ideologically driven policy. The Minister will give us statistics, which I am keen to hear, but the cuts are at risk of doing the exact opposite of what they are designed to do. Disabled people already find it much harder to get and keep jobs and to access employment compared with non-disabled people. Their chances will be even less if they are unable to pay telephone or broadband bills, or afford smart clothes and transport to interviews or the jobcentre. Those are all necessities for job searching and they will be even harder to afford when the cuts have been made. When someone goes for an interview, presentation is so important. Employers know that, as do MPs who see people who come to us for jobs.

Some £640 million will be saved by 2020-21, but should we really be targeting vulnerable groups to make savings in public finances? It is already hard enough for ESA recipients to survive on £5,300 a year. Expecting new claimants to be more likely to find work on £3,800 is, with respect, nonsensical. In addition to these cuts, Department for Work and Pensions data show that between 2011 and 2015 the number of Jobcentres employing a full-time advisor to help disabled people fell by over 60% from 226 to just 90, with reductions in every recorded year.The reduction in Jobcentre disability advisers

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is surely contradictory to the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap. The effects of those cuts to services need to be closely monitored to ensure that they are not having an adverse effect on the efforts to reduce disability unemployment.

I will conclude, Mr Crausby, because I am conscious of what you said about keeping contributions to seven minutes. The Government need to look again at the proposals and ask whether this is really the right approach to getting more disabled people back into work, especially when such a plethora of stakeholders are making it clear that the proposals will have the opposite effect to what is intended. That is the opinion of those who are at the coalface and know what is happening; they have concerns. We want the number of disabled people in work to increase, but cutting ESA will only make it harder for disabled people who can work, to find work; and ultimately all the savings will be hindered by the increased payment of benefits when disabled people who want to work simply cannot afford to go on the job hunt itself.

10.20 am

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): It is a great honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate. I agree with the sentiment that he expressed in his excellent speech with regard to the UN investigation and I agree with my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party, who, at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 October last year, said that it was very sad that the UK was being investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, judging by the speeches this morning and from disabled people’s accounts of their experiences, it is little surprise that we are in this state.

I am pleased to say that I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group for muscular dystrophy. I would like to highlight how the Government’s reforms have affected people who suffer from muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting conditions. It is worth bearing in mind that such conditions are serious and progressive; they range from mild to severe disability and even result in premature death. Nationally, more than 70,000 people are affected. That is one in every 1,000 people in our constituencies.

The charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, which works with and for people with muscle-wasting conditions, has called for the Government to abolish the spare room subsidy, which we all know as the bedroom tax, because of its devastating impact on those who are struggling financially while facing the challenges of living with a long-term disability. For many people in that situation, extra space is essential for vital home adaptations and to store equipment, but only those who have been designated as needing 24-hour care and assistance from an overnight carer from outside the family are exempt. That means that many disabled people, who fall outside the exemption, are forced to pay the bedroom tax even though they need the extra bedroom to store essential equipment because of their condition. For many, finding that extra payment from a limited budget is a cause of great stress in their already challenging existence.

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A number of those living with muscle-wasting conditions rely on Motability vehicles so that they can live independently and have a quality of life beyond the confines of their home. However, the Government’s decision to replace the DLA’s 50-metre rule with a 20-metre rule under PIP means that those who do not meet the criteria will not access the enhanced mobility rate and could lose their mobility schemes. Although Motability has devised a scheme offering a lump sum to people who joined prior to PIP being rolled out, it is offering only three “free” weeks to accommodate the mandatory reconsideration and appeal. That means that people will have only a seven-week period to resolve the issue if they feel that they have been inappropriately reassessed, but the reality is that in most cases that will take a lot longer. I ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to support those people whose appeal takes longer than the allocated seven weeks.

Muscular Dystrophy UK has been given many examples showing an alarming lack of knowledge among those carrying out assessments for PIP. For example, one woman, who has a long-term and progressive neuromuscular condition, was told that she might “get better”. Sadly, the organisation has found numerous examples showing that people are being treated with a lack of dignity and respect.

The organisation has also found that there are issues with the provision of employment and support allowance. Those have already been outlined by hon. Members. There seems to be a significant lack of understanding of the nature of neuromuscular conditions when cases involve a refusal to award ESA due to the misconception that with physiotherapy and/or other treatments, the condition can improve; it simply cannot.

Most worrying to Muscular Dystrophy UK is the cut of £30 a week for new claimants in the ESA work-related activity group, as it takes away the support that people with progressive and disabling muscle-wasting conditions need in order to look for and secure work.

The total effect of the cuts will seriously affect the ability of disabled people to live independently and play a part in society. Moreover, the cuts will lead to more pressure on health and social care budgets as those with complex needs deteriorate more rapidly without the correct support. The concerns raised by Muscular Dystrophy UK are based on the real experiences of people with neuromuscular conditions, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark will not mind if I take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether he will meet some of those people and Muscular Dystrophy UK to discuss their concerns in person and in more detail.

10.26 am

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on bringing the debate to the House. As he said, it is timely not only because of the debate in the House of Lords later today, but because of yesterday’s developments regarding carer’s allowance. Indeed, as we have been sitting here in the debate this morning, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the bedroom tax is discriminatory. These things all stack up. They show that the Government’s approach to support, including financial support, for disabled people is completely wrong.

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Barbara Keeley: I had not heard the news that the hon. Lady has just announced, and I am delighted to hear it. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to exempt carers from the bedroom tax, but Government Members shamefully spoke against it.

Dr Whiteford: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. She has a very strong track record of standing up for carers.

Disabled people and those with long-term health problems have faced huge upheaval and uncertainty during the past few years as the austerity measures have kicked in. For many, the changes to social security have already left them significantly worse off and living in precarious and reduced circumstances.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to meet some of the disabled people who came to Parliament as part of the lobby organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium. I pay tribute to it and the other organisations that brief us on the real experiences of disabled people. We need to listen to them, because their experience should inform policy far more than it does at the moment.

As I mentioned, we are having this debate on the day when the Lords will vote on aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. There has been speculation that the Government may well face another defeat, on the cuts to employment and support allowance that were mentioned earlier. I moved amendments to the Bill on Report, which I am pleased to say were supported by Opposition parties, that would have removed those changes. They are deeply regressive and punitive on people whose disabilities are so severe that even under the very flawed work capability assessment, they have been found unfit for work.

I would be among the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of the work-related activity group classification. It has not been helpful or effective for anyone, and I echo the wider point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) about the ESA process. However, the key point in our debate today is that people placed in the WRAG are people who are not currently fit for work. There is a wealth of evidence that piling financial or moral pressure on people when they are recovering from illness or living with long-term health conditions does not motivate them to get better any faster; it actually makes them more ill. Living in poverty while too unwell to work simply compounds the challenges that sick and disabled people already face and slows their recovery.

We get to the heart of the matter when we look back at the original announcement. Last summer, during his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that ESA was supposed to end what he termed

“some of the perverse incentives in the old incapacity benefit, but instead it has introduced new ones.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 333.]

Quite seriously, that is what he said. He seems to think that ESA creates incentives for people to be disabled or sick. It is the Chancellor’s thinking that is perverse, because there is absolutely no incentive for any person to live with the limitations, the pain, the social insecurity and the material disadvantage of disability. If the Chancellor thinks that £102 a week of ESA creates an incentive, he must be wired to the moon.

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Research published by the Disability Benefits Consortium for an earlier stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill showed that 70% of the disabled people surveyed by the consortium believed that further cuts to ESA would cause their health to suffer. Other hon. Members have alluded to that. The word “further” is most telling, because we need to understand the context of the cut in the work-related activity component. As others have said, it comes on the back of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which allowed for the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, cutting the budget for support for disabled people by £1.5 billion a year and significantly raising the bar on who can receive support.

Let us not forget that the bedroom tax was also a direct assault on the incomes of disabled people. Even when the legislation was going through Parliament, the DWP’s impact assessment showed that two thirds of the households that would be affected were home to someone with a disability. In Scotland the impact was magnified, and eight of 10 households affected were home to a disabled person. I am glad that the courts have ruled that the policy is discriminatory, as has been said all along and as hon. Members stated repeatedly in the House at the time. When we talk about the latest cuts, we must remember that the people who are being sanctioned are disproportionately affected by disability. We really should not need courts to determine those things when we have the evidence before our eyes.

We must take cognisance of the fact that the new measures come at a time when disabled people are already struggling on reduced incomes—and they are really struggling. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) laid out in some detail just some of the practical ways in which that manifests itself. The Disability Benefits Consortium research revealed that 57% of respondents had found that the amount of ESA that they currently received did not cover the extra costs of living with disability, and, as a consequence, many experienced difficulties in paying for essentials like food, extra heating and the extra transport costs that they may incur.

I want to touch briefly on the parliamentary review, “Halving The Gap?” led by Lord Low, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson, which makes valuable recommendations. The report notes that some 500,000 people with physical or learning disabilities, mental health problems or autism are currently assessed as being unfit for work. I want to emphasise that that is the reality. People in the work-related activity group have been assessed as not fit for work, even under the stringent criteria of the work capability assessment, and slashing their incomes by £30 a week is only punitive. It cannot make them better more quickly. It will not incentivise them back to work. It will only make them poorer. For some, it will damage their health. The Government say that they want to halve the disability employment gap, but the policy is still without substance. We are still waiting for a strategy, and I hope that the Minister will bring forward more substantial proposals.

The barriers that disabled people face in accessing and sustaining employment are real, so concrete support through the social security system is vital. Often, it is financial support that people need. The difficulty is the Government’s track record; they have had to be dragged through legal processes to force them to make changes.

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Last time we debated the matter, I raised the High Court ruling that the DWP had unlawfully discriminated against disabled people on the issue of carers and the benefit cap, as the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) mentioned. Yesterday’s Government U-turn was not announced in a parliamentary statement; it was sneaked out on Twitter. That is an interesting way to do things.

It is sad that it has taken a legal challenge for the Tories to accept the damage that their obsession with austerity, and their willingness to put disabled people on the frontline of austerity cuts, is inflicting on disabled people. Disabled people should not have to fight through the courts for recognition of their rights, and we should not need a High Court judge or a Court of Appeal judge to determine that the benefit cap and the bedroom tax discriminate against those people. I am glad that the Government have been forced into retreat on the matter, but I hope that they will now take far more seriously the disproportionate impact that their cuts are having on disabled people, who are already disadvantaged.

The inquiry by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a real indictment of the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people. I reiterate the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made in opening the debate: the UK is the first country to be investigated by the UN in relation to the convention. The Prime Minister has tried to dismiss the investigation by saying that

“when you look at these investigations you find that they are not necessarily all they are originally cracked up to be.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 950, c. 600.]

It is completely and utterly shameful for the UK Government not to take the matter more seriously. The UK is being investigated on the world stage for

“grave and systematic violations of the Convention”,

and the Government need to learn some humility.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some devolved matters from a Northern Ireland perspective. In Scotland, we have made serious efforts to distance ourselves from the UK Government’s shameless and regressive approach. We have tried to insulate the most disadvantaged people from the worst aspects of austerity cuts by establishing the welfare fund and the Scottish independent living fund, and by mitigating the bedroom tax in full. No one is complacent about the impact that income cuts and sanctions are having on sick and disabled people, however, and there is a lot more that we all need to do.

The UK Government, first and foremost, need to start listening to disabled people and taking their views on board. They seem to want to bulldoze through cuts to ESA. I strongly urge them to learn from the High Court judgment, the Court of Appeal judgment and the UN, and to think again.

10.36 am

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): It is lovely to see you in the Chair again, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and making an excellent, comprehensive and thorough speech. I will recap some of the points that he made.

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Since 2010, 13 policy measures in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 have reduced financial support for 3.7 million people to the tune of £23.8 billion. I will not go through the list, but it is extensive, and it is there for people to read at their leisure. On top of that, as has been said, the closure of the independent living fund and the transfer of responsibility to local authorities have caused immense distress to many families of people with the most extreme disabilities. Because not all local authorities have chosen to ring-fence that funding, those people have experienced a cut of £1.2 billion.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): Does the hon. Lady agree that we are not just talking about dealing with stress? The cuts are also likely to exacerbate any mental health difficulties that disabled people may have, leading them to feel hopeless and depressed, and, in some cases, leading to self-harm and suicidality.

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Lady makes a good point. One of the woeful things about the measures has been the Government’s lack of assessment of their impact on poverty, on disability and on any other health conditions that disabled people experience. That is a real indictment of the Government.

I return to the cuts to social care. We know from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services that £3.6 billion has been cut from social care, and that figure is likely to increase to £4.3 billion by 2020. That has led to a reduction in the amount of state-funded support for older and disabled people. In 2014, 500,000 fewer people were able to access social care support, and 12% fewer older and disabled people were able to get essential home adaptations through the disabled facilities grant.

Mencap has identified a whole range of issues with health services provisions for people with learning disabilities. Only 49% of trusts have a full-time learning-disabled nurse. In addition to the cuts to social security and to health and social care, there have been cuts to access to justice, 42% cuts to the access to transport funding that enables people with mobility issues to get out and about, and cuts—described as a “ticking time bomb”—to funding for training teachers who provide mental health support to school pupils. It goes on and on. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cuts in the disabled students allowances. That is a looming threat.

Hon. Members have mentioned other cuts that are on the horizon, particularly as a result of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in the Lords. The cuts to the ESA WRAG were mentioned. In effect, there will be cuts of £30 a week for people in that group—people who have been found not fit for work, including 5,000 people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS, and people with cancer. A survey conducted by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support found that one in 10 cancer patients would struggle to pay their rent or mortgage if ESA were cut. The woeful impact assessment has not assessed the impact of poverty on disabled people and the effects on their health conditions, but we know that 0.5 million people will be affected by the cuts of £640 million in addition to the £23.8 billion I mentioned previously. Of 11 million disabled people, more than 5 million live in poverty. The cuts will exacerbate their plight, as 80% of people who live in poverty do so as a direct result of their disability.

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The ESA WRAG cut is just one of the cuts facing disabled people. There is also the freeze in social security support over the next four years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cut to universal credit, which will affect disabled people. Liverpool Economics estimates that it will cause an average loss of £2,000 a year to each disabled person.

Friday’s closure of the consultation on PIP has been mentioned. A result of that consultation will definitely be another cut, based on a review of 105 of the 611,121 current PIP claimants. That is all in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. I can only assume that the consultation is the result of the Government getting a little bit anxious that more people will qualify for PIP, because the 105 claimants included in the review were all awarded the daily living component as they would benefit from aids and appliances. I am reminded of a statement made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies just after the spending review:

“The OBR has significantly reduced its forecast of savings from disability benefit reforms—in particular the move from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. This is familiar. Year after year expected savings from this reform go down. In fact this change in forecast would have ensured that the welfare cap in 2020-21 would have been breached.”

That is on top of everything else.

A UN committee has been investigating the UK for breaches of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are a signatory. That is an indictment of our record. The Government’s mantra for disabled people of working age is that work holds the key, but we have heard about the lack of support that has been provided with the Work programme, Access to Work and Disability Confident.

My final remark is that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is absolutely right: this is down to Government choices. The Government have tried—and I say tried—to regenerate the economy on the back of the poor and disabled. Instead of denigrating social security, we should value it. Like our NHS, the social security system is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, ensuring all of us dignity in the basics of life should any one of us become ill or disabled, or fall on hard times. The Government need to remember that that is the case and stop their attacks on disabled people.

10.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for calling the debate. He is a formidable campaigner with a wealth of experience having been the head of policy at the National Centre for Independent Living, the director of policy at the Disability Alliance and the director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK. His speech demonstrated a genuine and wide-ranging knowledge. I am grateful for the huge range of issues that have been raised. I will do my very best, in a limited time, to cover as many of them as possible and I will keep going until I run out of time. I pay tribute to all the other speakers who contributed to what was mostly a proactive and constructive debate in which genuine concerns were raised and suggestions made about how we can continue to make improvements.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) once again demonstrated his huge wealth of experience, setting out practical solutions, particularly regarding apprenticeships. His point was timely as I am due to meet the relevant Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss that issue. I hope that my hon. Friend would be kind enough to join me in that meeting as I would like to push the subject.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) asked whether PIP recognises fluctuating health conditions. I feel that it does better than the DLA. The trained assessors are better at picking up on those conditions compared with the former DLA assessment. The main thrust of her speech concentrated on social care and attendance allowance. I understand that as I spent 10 years as an elected borough councillor, but I support the principle of localising the decisions. As a country, we have agreed that we will continue to devolve more responsibilities, particularly to Scotland, but I trust our English authorities to have the same responsibilities and opportunities. We have introduced the better care fund, the social care precept and the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015.

Barbara Keeley: There is a fear about variations and carers losing their eligibility because some councils are so cash-strapped. The difference is very unfair. Even the social care precept will be different, as authorities can raise different amounts. It is an unfair and varied field now.

Justin Tomlinson: I understand, and we introduced the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act to set those standards. To be fair, this issue could be a debate in itself and I am conscious that there were so many other points that I need to come to. I am happy to discuss the matter further.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the fact that more needs to be done. He is a vociferous speaker; I have never taken part in a debate in which he has not contributed. He is right to challenge and is always proactive in making suggestions, particularly regarding learning disabilities. The proportion of people with learning disabilities in paid employment is typically 6% to 8% regardless of whether the economy is on the up or the down. It is the one stubborn area with which Government after Government have struggled and wrestled to try to make genuine progress. I am interested to hear more about the scheme in Northern Ireland that the hon. Gentleman talked about, and I would be keen to meet him to discuss that further.

I have had a good meeting with the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) previously. I would be happy to meet with the group she described to discuss those issues further. We are taking action on the point she made about the time it takes for appeals to be considered. First, the mandatory reconsideration process comes in before the independent appeal and picks up the majority of those cases in which new information has come forward and a mistake has been made. We continue to work on how we can access better information because, more often than not, decisions are changed when new information comes to light. To try to get that earlier would be beneficial for all. On the point about accessible housing, the discretionary housing payment funds will be increased over this Parliament by £800 million. I think everyone would welcome that.

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To the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), to be fair, external groups, cross-party MPs, Lords, stakeholders and charities do get to influence policies. I spend a lot of my time meeting those groups. Her speech contained a lot of criticism. There are opportunities to make changes. We are reforming ESA through the Work and Health programme and the White Paper. Sometimes, it is good to suggest things that could work, rather than just saying which things are wrong. I reassure her that we do not announce things through Twitter. In the modern world, some people would welcome our doing so, but this week’s announcement about carers and the benefit cap was not made through Twitter. Lord Freud made the announcement in Parliament on Monday during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I hope that provides some reassurance.

I will address as many of the points that have been made as I can. First, on unemployment, we all welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge that we will halve the disability employment gap. Some 339,000 more people with disabilities have been in work over the past two years, which is a good start, but we still have a long way to go. There is a real-terms funding increase in spending to help people with health conditions and disabilities to return to and remain in work. There is support throughout the system, and we are multi-skilling our coaches to ensure that they are all aware how to support people with disabilities. There will be opportunities to make improvements through the White Paper.

The point about smaller, localised, flexible options is important. I get to make many good visits, and I have seen local solutions meeting market needs to create and train the skills where the jobs are. I made an enjoyable visit before Christmas to Foxes Academy, where I was corrected on my inability to cut carrots—it was the hotel featured on Channel 5. Early this week, I visited Ignition, a local brewery that employs people with learning disabilities, where it is socially acceptable to sample the goods at 11 am.

We have introduced the Fit for Work service particularly to focus on helping people remain in work. It is a lot easier to help people remain than to help them back into work. The current figure for Access to Work is 36,760, with four years of growth. It is a demand-led scheme, but a funding increase for an extra 25,000 places has been confirmed, which is significant. We are actively considering the best ways to do that. We have an open mind, and I welcome any suggestions, but obviously greater promotion is key, particularly to smaller businesses where the scheme would be particularly helpful in removing barriers. Specialist employment support has doubled the job outcomes of residential training colleges, which is good progress.

We constantly evaluate PIP, and we work with external stakeholders, charities and users to look at ways we can continue to improve PIP. The waiting time for assessments has reduced by more than three quarters since June 2014. We are now at five weeks for an assessment, and 11 weeks median end-to-end for the process. It is fair to say that the launch of PIP was not good. The reviews highlighted that, and my predecessors will have spent a lot of time in Westminster Hall and in the other Chamber discussing it, but PIP has been in a settled state for quite some time.

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Debbie Abrahams: Will the Minister confirm whether that will mean a cut to PIP for people?

Justin Tomlinson: Will the hon. Lady repeat that last bit?

Debbie Abrahams: After the consultation, will PIP be protected, or will people see a loss in their PIP allowance?

Justin Tomlinson: The consultation is just completing, and we will analyse what people have had to say. We were right to do that following the Paul Gray review. He highlighted the issue following court judgments. On an earlier point, rather than waiting for the courts to continue to drag it through, it is right and proper that we have a thorough look at it, but I do not want to pre-empt any consultation. We are continuing to look to improve the PIP process, and I look forward to reading the hon. Lady’s comments, assuming that she has fed into that consultation.

Only 16% of DLA claimants secured the highest rate, and the figure is now 22.5% under PIP. As a specific example of an area of disability where people have benefited from the changes, 22% of those with a mental health condition would get the highest rate of DLA, but now 68% of mental health claimants are on enhanced PIP.

Neil Coyle: But that is not someone getting more support but someone qualifying for exactly the same support that existed previously under DLA, a system that actually cost less to run.

Justin Tomlinson: My point is that only 22% of those with mental health conditions would have qualified, and now the figure is at 68%, so more people with a mental health condition are qualifying for the enhanced rate. That is one example, and there are others.

We are in the process of the full roll-out, taking the 1.7 million DLA claimants over to PIP, but please be assured that that is being done in a controlled, measured and timely manner that learns the lessons of the reviews. We are doing the roll-out in a manner that meets the available capacity so as not to repeat the mistakes of when PIP was first launched. The disabled facilities grant currently funds about 40,000 house adaptations a year, and I am delighted that funding is due to increase by 79% next year from £220 million to £394 million.

A number of Members talked about working across the Government, which is a big part of my role. I meet not only Ministers but Opposition Members and Lords stakeholders. I make lots of visits, which is a part of my role that I very much enjoy. My door is always open, and I have met a number of speakers here today.

Some 16,900 have transferred from the independent living fund, of whom 91% already had some form of their care provided by the local authority. The funding was transferred in full. The protection was underwritten by the Care Act 2014. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury are keeping a close eye on that as it progresses. I understand the importance of the issue, on which we have had many debates.

We must not forget that ESA WRAG was not a golden solution; it had been criticised by all parties for a long time. Only 1% of claimants a month were coming off that benefit into work. No Government ever invented

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could have spun that as anything other than failing the people it was meant to serve. Those already receiving ESA will see no cash loss. Anyone whose capacity to work is limited by severe work-limiting health conditions and disabilities will continue to remain in that support group. Existing claimants who undergo a work capability reassessment after April 2017 and are placed in, or remain in, the WRAG will continue to receive that additional rate.

The Government have invested an extra £1.25 billion in mental health support, and in our area we are doing a series of pilots on group work, telephone support, face to face, online and inside jobcentres to look seriously at how we can do that and scale it across the country to help people as quickly as possible, which is clearly the key. On the disabled students allowance, we recognise that progress has been made since the Equality Acts. Universities, like all public sector bodies, have a duty to meet the law. We should not be paying for things that they should be doing and are underwritten by law. I have had a number of meetings on that, and I will continue to keep a close eye on it.

Finally, on accessible information, the Royal National Institute of Blind People rightly challenged me because it felt that the Government were inconsistent in how they presented information. It is important that my Department leads on that, as well as pushing the rest of the Government, so I set up a taskforce that includes the RNIB and a number of organisations and people with a wealth of experience who will work through how we communicate our information. I understand that, when people are looking to use services and claim benefits, we need to make their journey as easy and as helpful as possible, and I am delighted that so many organisations are supporting that valuable work.

It is a pleasure to have responded to this helpful debate, which is a credit to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

10.57 am

Neil Coyle: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. The Minister seems to have left most of my questions unanswered, particularly on unemployment—there was just some indication there.

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I share the concern of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that, although we welcome the commitment to halve the gap, there is a reverse-Ronseal approach coming from the Government. The approach is not doing what it says on the tin. The number of people supported by Access to Work, for example, seems to be heading the wrong way.

On DSA and universities needing to do more, it goes back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Look at the court case today, the Government do not do what they are meant to do on impact assessing or following their own Equality Act obligations. That from the Department that is directly responsible for representing disabled people and much of central Government disability policy. The Government are not doing enough, and to try to pass responsibility on to universities when the Government are failing to uphold their own responsibilities is crude.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for her contribution. I completely share her concern about the Government’s risky, uncertain and late approach, and I thank her for all her work with Carers UK, which is based in my constituency. I consider her an honorary constituent simply because of the amount of time she spends with Carers UK.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned funding, but the Government still do not seem to co-ordinate a longer-term approach to planning. What happens when disabled people lose support and end up making increased demands on the NHS? He made lots of points about the extra costs of disability and then seemed to suggest, in some kind of sick joke, that disabled people in the work-related activity group of ESA should get JSA, which would be a considerable reduction in financial payment, because it might incentivise them into work sooner when we know they have health issues. That is a completely unacceptable approach, and sadly that is what we see time and again from a Government whose priorities are upside down—tax is not collected where it should be, and they keep coming back to disabled people for more.

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

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Business Transactions: Cash Retentions

11 am

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered cash retentions in business transactions.

As I lead off in this debate, I will say first that I know that some of my own party colleagues and others have indicated that they want to make some form of intervention. Time is limited, so I will try to keep my points to a minimum to allow as many people in as possible, Mr Crausby, if that is okay with you. If it is not possible, I hope that anyone who does not manage to get in will please accept my apologies.

Let me start with this point: cash retentions, specifically in the construction industry, are currently responsible for £30 million of moneys being held back from small firms. Normal guidelines state that cash retentions are calculated at around 5% of the amount certified as due to the contractor. I must add that this 5% is very often the firm’s profit margin.

By and large, the lead contractor will get paid in instalments throughout the term of a contract, as very often there is a large turnover on specific jobs. This has been normal practice for many years. However, we then must turn our focus to the issue of subcontractors and fair payment practices.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): This is a massive issue and it is good to see the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise in her place; I hope that she will give a very positive response to the debate. Just today, the news back home in Northern Ireland is that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has found Tesco guilty of holding back moneys and of delaying invoice processing as well. At long last, we have an adjudicator that has teeth. It is just a pity that the legislative power to impose fines was not used, because the inquiry into this case started before it existed. Does my hon. Friend agree that at long last the adjudicator can make companies pay?

David Simpson: Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have raised this issue of the Groceries Code Adjudicator in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee as well. It is good to see some power coming into this area, so that the larger companies can pay this money.

I mentioned subcontractors and fair payment practices. This area is where we begin to see major difficulties and cash-flow problems for companies. I can report in this debate today that £40 million worth of cash retentions were lost by small firms in 2015.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Was he as disappointed as I was last year when the Government failed to act on this issue and did not implement my amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which was specifically about cash retentions? And does he hope that the Minister and the Government will listen as the Enterprise Bill goes to the House, which is another opportunity for this issue to be addressed?

David Simpson: I agree that that was disappointing, and I will touch on it further in my remarks later. However, I think we have a listening ear from this Minister, but we will see when she responds to the debate.

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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned subcontractors. May I quote to him a subcontractor in my constituency—Steve Murray, the managing director of W T Jenkins? He told me:

“Cash retention is harming our sector and our company in particular. We have to wait far too long for the retentions, if we receive them at all. We have lost a lot of revenue over the last five years due to many companies going into administration and taking our monies with them.”

On Monday in his office, Mr Murray showed me a shelf full of files about firms that owe him money, in some cases for more than eight, nine or even 10 years.

David Simpson: Again, I agree with the hon. Member. I could do exactly the same thing in my constituency and I am sure that other Members could do the same in their constituencies. This situation is unacceptable and we will address it as we go through the debate.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP) rose—

David Simpson: I will give way to the hon. Lady; I will never be forgiven if I do not.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that although the Government are now undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of the retention system with the express aim of eliminating these retentions by 2025, there is a need for a statutory retention deposit scheme, which could be brought in through the Enterprise Bill and which would be similar to the tenancy deposit scheme as a means of protection?

David Simpson: I think the hon. Lady has seen my speech.

Jim Shannon: She wrote it. [Laughter.]

David Simpson: We will deal with that as well—great minds think alike.

The figure that is reported is some £40 million, which is horrendous. Small companies come to the stage where they are forced to write off money they are owed, because the cost of recouping it would be far greater than the sum itself and therefore it is futile for them to try to recoup it.

The Government have been very vocal in leading the business community to look forward and they have encouraged businesses on sustained growth and productivity, which is a good thing. I know that the Minister has done that; she is very pro-business. I have been approached by firms in my constituency, and I know that this is a UK-wide problem. The firms in my constituency say they are on their knees, largely due to the retention of moneys they cannot recover from larger contractors that have already been paid for the job they have done.

A firm in my constituency reported to me only last week that it has had to wait up to four years for retention money when contractual agreements state that 12 months is the limit. They have categorically stated that this situation hinders their plans for growth. In the majority of these cases, the contractor has already been paid but holds on to these moneys to counteract discounts.

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A significant employer in Northern Ireland forced a loss of £10 million to a large number of subcontractors and suppliers when it went into insolvency. While that big company faced the headlines, many of the small contractors were simply unable to sustain their business; they simply had to bow down and close their doors, which resulted in significant job losses.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; he has made some good points. On that point about cash flow, I am a civil engineer and have worked in the construction industry, so I am well aware of the effects that cash-flow problems can have on small firms.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Scottish Government are currently trialling in the area of public procurement the operation of project bank accounts, which are underpinned by legal trust status? The system allows payments to be made into a project bank account, where the money is legally protected for subcontractors, so they actually get their money quicker. Of course, that system can be used to manage retentions as well, completely eliminating the cash-flow problem. Does he agree that the Minister should perhaps consider that system and speak to the Scottish Government about that trial?

David Simpson: I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and his point certainly has validity; it is worth looking at, to see whether something could be done in that field to try to resolve this issue for small companies.

I know that the Government are pro-business; the Democratic Unionist party and other Northern Ireland parties have seen our economy in Northern Ireland grow. It is the role of Government, MPs and other politicians to create the circumstances for businesses to develop. I speak as a businessperson myself—my business interests are set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and it has taken my company 36 years to get to where it is today. Government have played their part in that, but this issue of cash retentions goes right to the core of small businesses.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. I know that he and the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) have been involved in the Patton Group issue. When the Patton Group became insolvent, almost £10 million in cash retention was lost. Does he agree that the reintroduction of the aggregate levy scheme and the exemptions within that scheme would enable and help cash flow?

David Simpson: I think so, yes. I will touch on that later. My hon. Friend mentioned a company that I referred to earlier, although not by name. It was a major blow for subcontractors in Northern Ireland. In 2012, poor payment practices were discussed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who was the then Minister of Finance and Personnel, was questioned on why Government should intervene. His answer was:

“The reason that it is so important is that the businesses at the receiving end of this unacceptable practice are, more often than not, small and medium-sized enterprises…on which we are depending to help rebuild our economy.”

That is not just the economy of Northern Ireland, but the economy of the whole United Kingdom.

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Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Does he agree with the points that SELECT, which is the Scottish electrical contractors association, raised with me? If companies are ending up propping up larger businesses, they have less money to invest in education, training and innovation within their own business.

David Simpson: That is right, and that is exactly the problem. The issue needs to be addressed. Speaking from Northern Ireland’s point of view, it has been a major obstacle to small and medium-sized companies moving forward. To add to that, those SMEs have no protection against cash retentions. Banks do not consider unprotected retentions as sufficient security for lending purposes, and that is a major problem for SMEs. Even though that money is on the books, the banks will not let them use it as security for overdraft facilities. In addition, and perhaps most alarming of all, public bodies and large companies are using millions of pounds of small firms’ retentions to boost working capital. That is happening with a lot of the major supermarket chains. They are using the money that they hold back to move their companies forward, to buy premises and to buy land. That has been the story for some considerable time. That is not just speculation; it is happening in today’s society while the Government are reviewing the matter but have not yet agreed to legislate, and we need to see that legislation.

My next comment is on a somewhat disappointing matter. In 2015, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, acknowledged the problem and said:

“issues with retentions go to the heart of the industry’s business models…low levels of capitalisation mean that the industry is heavily reliant on cash flow.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 March 2015; Vol. 760, c. 127-28.]

In addition, she said that the Government had no plans to legislate to tackle the issue. That point was raised earlier, and I again emphasise that the Government need to look at that.

While the sector is delighted that the Government recognise that there is a problem—they are to be supported in their efforts to eliminate cash retentions by 2025—and I very much welcome their long overdue review of the retentions system, we need to see some action.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is making a compelling case for the elimination of cash retentions. Would he agree with me that the situation, particularly in Northern Ireland, for those involved in the construction industry was compounded when the aggregates levy credit scheme was withdrawn? That was remedied in the European Commission and the European Court of Justice some months ago, but the British Aggregates Association is now taking a further case against the Commission ruling. That could plunge our industry into further peril and financial difficulties.

David Simpson: That is an excellent point, and we have been lobbied on that over the past days and weeks. That case could have a devastating impact on the construction industry in Northern Ireland, so it will be fought tooth and nail. We hope that the Government will support people in that.

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It is not enough for the Government to talk about removing retentions by 2025; we need to see some form of legislation to stop retentions. We cannot sit back and ignore a potential loss of £360 million over the next nine years, as calculated by the loss of £40 million in 2015, while the Government work towards elimination but have no plans to legislate. That is grossly unfair and frankly hugely debilitating to the construction sector and the UK economy.

There has been huge interest in the debate. I am sure that many Members, like me, have been briefed by the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group, which has been the voice for SMEs on this poor payment practice. Like many here today, I recognise that cash retentions work in theory. They were originally established as a protection against any defects that might have been left when a job was finished or left unfinished. These days, since all contractors have to go through a lengthy pre-qualification process to be able to take on any job, there should no longer be any need for retentions to be withheld. However—this is quite embarrassing for the UK—we still have not legislated to have retention moneys placed in safe keeping. France, Germany, America and Australia are already leading the way and have put in place effective processes to secure the money, should the larger contractors go into insolvency or adapt poor payment practices when releasing the finance to their subcontractors.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. Does he believe that there is a parallel with the legal industry, where a solicitor can exercise a lien over something of importance until the contract is concluded, whether that is deeds, money or cash? That is regulated by the Law Society. Lessons could be learned from the regularised and legislated procedure of a solicitor’s lien.

David Simpson: That question could only come from a barrister, but my hon. Friend is right. There is a role for that. As MPs, we all have companies that come to our offices or that we go and visit. Time and again, retentions are the issue that is raised, and some companies and subcontractors are begging us to try to resolve it.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said, and there is an option to look at that, but as the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said, we already have a suitable model in place under the Housing Act 2004 with the tenancy deposit schemes. Deposits paid in connection with shorthold tenancies must be placed in a Government-authorised deposit scheme. Similarly, retention moneys could be placed in a secure deposit account, as already happens in many other countries. That option is there, so perhaps the Government could look at that to try to ease the burden.

The Government and the Minister know that the construction industry in particular has gone through a devastating time. That is perhaps not so much the case in London and the big cities on the mainland—I think there was something like 12% or 13% growth last year in the City of London alone—but the regions of the United Kingdom have found it difficult to try to get the construction industry moving again. Money is being held back and banks will not take retentions as guarantees. The industry is struggling with cash flow.

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I will finish now because I am excited to hear what the Minister is going to say to us, but I must ask the Government why they would object to developing a model for the funds that would allow our SMEs, which I and other Members often champion in our constituencies, to be the backbone of our growing economy. We need protection against poor payment practices and the misuse of SME funds, because it is their money.

11.20 am

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) not only on securing the debate but on the powerful speech that he made. There have been many interventions, and powerful points and arguments have been made.

This has been a good debate, although it has not been a real debate, because we have not heard anybody who does not agree that there are strong and powerful arguments for taking action on the problem of cash retentions. Hon. Members are probably getting the drift of the fact that in some ways, they are banging at an open door with this Minister. I absolutely understand the arguments about the need for reform, including the powerful arguments this morning.

I want to mention someone who came to see me, Mr Simon Bingham, who is head of one of the small businesses that the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to. Mr Bingham’s business is just 100 metres over the constituency border in the seat next to mine, which is held by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), so strictly speaking he should have gone to her, but he came my way because I made an error, and we had a great conversation. He has a company called Caunton Engineering Ltd. He also chairs the contracts committee of the British Constructional Steelwork Association, and he gave me the real-life evidence that the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to, because he lives in the real world with the outdated way of doing things that we have heard about.

There are good reasons and arguments for having some sort of retention. I do not think any of us disagree with that. We know about snagging, and the faults that exist, and things that have not been done properly that come to light only six months after the completion of work on a contract, or even later. There needs to be provision so that such things can be rectified. As the hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) know, in major construction projects, such as the recent tram project in my constituency, problems occur and we need a device to make sure the job is properly done and finished.

Equally, we know from our experiences that in the case of large housing developments, bonds are put in place at the beginning of the process, before the first sod is turned, to ensure that if the developer or builder gets into difficulty, funds will be available to make sure that the roads are properly finished. I have an example in my constituency, which I will not bore hon. Members with, but bonds are specifically put in place at the insistence of local authorities so that roads are completed and all the other work is done, and so that money is available in the event of somebody going under or some other catastrophe happening.

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I cannot understand why a similar scheme cannot be operated in the construction industry. That sounds like good news, but I may be about to disappoint hon. Members. I fervently ask hon. Members not to seek to amend the Enterprise Bill, only because we have launched a review. I am grateful to Andrew Wolstenholme, the chief executive of Crossrail, who absolutely understands the problem and has agreed to oversee the review. It will be an extensive review that will take evidence and look at evidence, but its work will not be completed until the end of this year, when its recommendations will go out for further consultation. I accept that it could be said that that is an inordinate length of time, but I promise that I will look at the time that we have currently given to that review, because there is a growing feeling among all parties that we really need to get on and sort it out.

Debbie Abrahams: The review seems like good news. I am sure the SEC Group and others who, like me, have been campaigning on this issue for five years will see it as good news. However, promises have been made in the past, and there will be concerns that this will be seen as yet another prevarication to address the issue.

Anna Soubry: It could never be said that this Government would prevaricate in any way or seek to knock things into the long grass.

Jim Shannon: The Minister would never do that.

Anna Soubry: Never. I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I take the issue very seriously and know that we need to make progress. There are reasons why we would want some sort of retention, but not in a way that is onerous, particularly for small businesses. As I said earlier, Simon Bingham came to see me and gave me real-life examples of how some of the bigger companies effectively use retentions for their cash flow. The money can sit with them for year after year, and the small business takes a serious hit.

David Simpson: I accept what the Minister is saying, and it will be of some comfort to some companies. However, she will surely agree that large companies should not be allowed to hold on to money and use it to their own advantage to build their own businesses while small companies suffer.

Anna Soubry: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. What happened yesterday with the Groceries Code

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Adjudicator has already been mentioned. I am grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on that. It was a very important day to see the Groceries Code Adjudicator not holding back, not pulling any punches, and absolutely making it clear that Tesco had flagrantly breached the groceries code in a way that was completely unacceptable. That will have consequences for Tesco, although it will not be subject to a fine because the provisions have only just come in. I pay tribute to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Bigger companies have got to learn and understand that none of us will tolerate their not playing fairly and properly, especially in relation to smaller businesses.

Our definition of smaller businesses, which is accepted by everybody, is any company that employs fewer than 250 people, so they can be quite large small businesses, not just sole traders who might employ one or two people. My officials are keen for me to say that the Government tell various agencies that when they handle taxpayers’ money, they must follow guidance and not engage in poor practices. It is not mandatory, but we provide subtle hints and nudges. Apparently the Highways Agency does a good job, but not everybody does, so there is much more work to be done. I undertake to take the matter forward with my officials to see whether we can make progress.

Good points have been well made today. Such practices must be brought into 2016. We must make sure we do the best thing by our small businesses.

David Simpson: We can all sympathise with the companies in their difficulties with banks and so on, but sympathy does not get the job done. That is what the companies tell me when I meet them. I can go on to the next case or deal with another constituency issue, but they want action. I am grateful for what the Minister has said thus far, and I trust that the Government will deliver on it.

Anna Soubry: I could not have put it better. I will definitely see what progress we can make. I am happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and with the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth to try to sort this out once and for all and as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Syrian Refugees: Resettlement

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their attendance to discuss this subject, which seems particularly fitting on Holocaust Memorial Day.

I am told that Syrian refugees arriving in Britain are asking three questions in particular: when can I learn English; when can I work; and when can my child go to school? A family who arrived in Kent in December already has an answer to the third of those questions. Their six-year-old daughter has now been at school in Ashford for four days. She proudly says that she has made a friend and learned how to write “dog” and “cat”. Her parents only wish that her sister could be at school, too, but her sister died last year in a refugee camp of a lung infection.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am sorry to intervene so early in my hon. Friend’s speech, but she mentioned Ashford, so this is an appropriate time to ask her to join me in welcoming the courageous and correct initiative of Ashford Borough Council, which was so early in saying that it will provide accommodation for 250 Syrian families over the next five years, and its success in beginning to integrate them into British society.

Helen Whately: Ashford is one of several councils I have spoken to and the effort, commitment and even enthusiasm they are putting into welcoming refugees are inspiring. They are at the forefront of that effort.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): This is different, but I have a list of asylum seekers in receipt of section 95 support who have been in the country for longer than the Syrian refugees arriving now. As far as I can see, under the previous regime, Ashford provides a home to only one asylum seeker. Other boroughs in the country provide homes for more than 1,000. Why does the hon. Lady think that places such as Ashford and her own local authorities are stepping up to the plate now, but have not been prepared to do so in the past?

Helen Whately: I hope we can explore many questions in the debate, such as how well we are doing at resettling not only Syrian refugees now, but asylum seekers who are already in the country, many of whom are in Kent. I will come on to the question of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children already in Kent, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address his own point if he makes a speech.

I was speaking of the family who arrived in Ashford. Theirs is only one story. Throughout our history, Britain has offered a safe haven to vulnerable people, from the French Huguenots in the 18th century, to the Kindertransport or the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s and now to the 20,000 Syrians, but recently we have heard about asylum seekers being made to wear wristbands

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or their doors being painted red, which is a reminder that, however well-intentioned we may be, we do not always get things right. That is why I asked for the debate.

After all the focus, particularly last year, on the number of refugees whom we should accept—people are still calling for more—it is time to talk about the practicalities of resettling our 20,000 refugees, to ensure that we are doing a good job with them. Have those who have already arrived settled in well? Are the children in school? Are the adults learning English? Are they in decent accommodation? How have they been received by their host communities? Are we on track to take 20,000? Will we manage that, or might we overshoot?

I look forward to hearing answers from the Minister and to hearing from colleagues, especially as I am sure that several of you represent constituencies that are taking refugees. If your constituency is not taking many, you might be able to encourage them to step up and take some more.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. Whether my constituency does or does not, I am not taking part in the debate.

Helen Whately: Thank you for reminding me, Mr Gray. I will do my best to use the right language.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I accept that the debate today is about the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in the UK, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should also use our substantial Department for International Development influence and clout to get large multinational corporations establishing free zones to ensure that significant numbers of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have opportunities to work there, so that they may stay in the region, although that may well be for months and years, and then to return to Syria, rather than coming to Europe?

Helen Whately: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have visited a refugee camp in Turkey and one of the things that struck me was people’s frustration that they could not work, which was one of the reasons why they wanted to leave the camps. Exploring work opportunities for people in the region is important, yes.

Having visited that camp in Turkey, as well as the migrant camp in Calais some time ago, I felt that humanitarian instinct, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take in more refugees?” However, I feel strongly that there is no point bringing people away from the middle east, across Europe and far from their homes, their extended family and their friends, to a different culture and a very different climate in the UK unless we can offer them something better than the life they were leading in those countries in the region.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. On Thursday I, too, visited the jungle camp, with Secours Catholique who said that up to 300 people there in Calais probably have leave to remain in the UK but are trying to get here illegally because they do not know their legal rights. The Government are not providing enough access to lawyers or legal advice to get such people back into a country where they have leave to remain.

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Helen Whately: I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says and I have seen the desperation of the people in Calais. It is important that those who might have a right to live in the UK should be helped to explore the possibilities, but on the detail of the right way to do so, which is complicated, I will defer to the Minister.

Those whom we are bringing to this country through the resettlement scheme are among the most vulnerable—for example, they may have specialist medical needs or have suffered from religious or sexual persecution. We have a particular responsibility to get resettlement right for those vulnerable people. Only when we are confident that we are doing that should we have the conversation about whether to increase the number of refugees we are taking.

One thousand refugees were resettled in this country before Christmas, and we are due to take about 4,000 more this year. The Government, in my view rightly, has said that they will not impose refugees on any area, because that would be unlikely to result in a good experience for the refugees and possibly lead to resentment locally. The councils I have spoken to have welcomed the fact that it therefore feels as though it is their choice how many refugees they take. Those that have been quick to offer to house refugees feel proud to be at the forefront of the effort.

In the absence of centralised distribution, however, there is great uncertainty about where the refugees will go and how the 20,000 target will be met. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether enough local councils have come forward and offered enough places for the coming year. Is the accommodation secured? Is this a commitment or an aspiration to accommodate the refugees? Are there enough places in the pipeline for us to achieve the 20,000 over the five-year period?

My constituency covers two boroughs, Swale and Maidstone. Swale Borough Council has committed to take two families a year. It previously resettled two Afghan interpreters, learning in the process about the pitfalls of placing migrants in a small, rural village in Kent. Maidstone Borough Council plans over the five years to take six single men, because of its shortage of family accommodation.

Councils tell me the settlement of about £8,500 per person is reasonable, if not generous, but some have told me that they are worried about what happens should the refugees move, as they are free to do. The funding follows the refugees, but what if the council has commissioned services or taken out leases, so its incurred costs will continue? Also, the funding for subsequent years decreases. Refugees are likely to cost less as they settle in, get work—I hope—and are more independent, but the worry among some councils is that future funding might not be sufficient. Will the Minister clarify how councils can ensure the necessary funding?

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She makes some persuasive points about local councils. In my constituency and in the broader district of Bradford, under the previous gateway settlement programme, we housed many Syrian refugees who have made a positive contribution to the fabric of the district. On the cost to councils and the concerns that they have, many councils, including Bradford, are really suffering as a result of the

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Government’s cuts and they are rightly concerned because they are often left to pick up the tab. I ask the hon. Lady to reinforce that point, which perhaps the Minister can answer and give some clarification on as well.

Helen Whately: The wider question of Government funding for local councils is probably beyond the scope of the debate.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): It most certainly is.

Helen Whately: Thank you, Mr Gray. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the gateway scheme, which is highly spoken of both in this country and around the world as a good example of how to resettle refugees. We can use that experience to ensure that we do a good job with the Syrian refuges and this scheme.

On housing refugees, in the south-east, where my constituency is, the shortage of housing is a particular problem. Even though we are talking about small numbers of refugees—just a few families a year—many of my constituents wait years for social housing, private rents are high and only a limited stock of private rental housing can be paid for with housing benefit. However, the lesson from some councils is not to be deterred by those barriers. Councils should ask themselves and their communities not “Can we accommodate refugees?” but “How can we accommodate them?”

Kingston upon Thames is encouraging people who have empty properties, such as those who have elderly relatives in care, to rent them out to Syrian families, which has led to several homes becoming available. In Ashford and in Tunbridge Wells, some landlords and Churches have offered accommodation specifically for Syrian refugees. Those councils are finding properties that are not in the letting market rather than having Syrians compete for scarce market properties. In Faversham, in my constituency, Sir Bob Geldof has offered to put up three Syrian families in his home.

To secure a future in Britain, refugees need to work. In a refugee camp in Turkey, I saw for myself the frustration and demoralisation of refugees who are unable to work. It is therefore important that Syrian refugees are settled in areas where there are jobs so that they can work and there is no resentment that they are competing with British people for scarce jobs.

Mark Field: This is more of an issue for the Minister, but, given my hon. Friend’s experience on the ground, no doubt she will have a view. Given the acute crisis in the camps, which, I fear, are now a big recruiting base for extremism, is there any case for accelerating the process and having more migrants, provided that local authorities can cope, or is 20,000 over the next five years on a progressive basis the right way forward?

Helen Whately: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I, too, heard about connections between camps and people going back to Syria to fight to get an income. I would be keen to hear from the Minister about accelerating the scheme and whether we could front-load or bring more people more quickly, but that must be done in the context of making sure that we are doing a good job with those we are bringing here. To ensure that we do the job well, it is important that the scheme where councils volunteer to take people continues and that councils do not have numbers imposed on them.

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On jobs and qualifications, there are many examples over the years of people who have come here from places such as Afghanistan, where they were skilled professionals such as dentists, engineers, teachers and even doctors, but they find that their qualifications are not recognised in this country. They therefore find themselves doing other jobs and not making full use of those qualifications. I understand that it takes about two years to get a foreign qualification recognised in the UK, so will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us whether it is possible to expedite the process to get international and Syrian qualifications recognised in the UK? Obviously, there must be a requirement for appropriate language skills; it is clearly important that people speak English as well as having professional skills.

Some hon. Members are calling on the Government to take in around 3,000 more child refugees. That sounds like a wonderful thing to do. In Kent, however, already about 1,400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers are being looked after by the county council, so services in Kent are under immense strain and foster homes are completely full. We have limited school places.

In November, the Government called on other local authorities to volunteer to take in some of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; but unfortunately, few have done so. Offers have materialised for just 35 of the young people. Kent has therefore welcomed an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, to make it possible to compel local authorities to accept young asylum-seeking children. While it would be a good thing to take in more refugee children and it should be considered seriously, I ask Members who are urging the Government to do that to urge their local councils to ensure, if possible, that they to step up and take their fair share of the young asylum-seeking children and minors we have in the country at the moment. We have got to do a good job by the ones who are here before we start taking in more.

We must not overlook the challenges of integration. There are cultural barriers, but because integration is a two-way process, there is also an opportunity to harness the good will of the British people. We have seen an enormous upsurge in people who want to help, which was triggered particularly by the pictures of what is going on in Europe and the image of the child on the beach last summer.

Communities have seized on the arrival of refugees as an opportunity to do something practical. I heard about a teacher in Tunbridge Wells who has given up their time to teach English to a recently arrived refugee. In Ashford, council staff started their own fund for refugees and donated toys to be given to children. The challenge, however, can be in channelling such offers, and some charities and councils have struggled to co-ordinate enormous numbers of volunteers, so I wonder whether some businesses might be able to help with match-making technology and in other ways or whether the Government could facilitate that, given that this is a problem throughout the country.

Our experiences show that if councils and communities embrace the refugee programme, it could be an incredibly positive experience. People in places such as Ashford and Kingston, and not least their councils, feel a real sense of pride in what they are doing. It is easy to think

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of reasons not to take refugees and to think about the barriers, but it is much better to think of ways to overcome those barriers, especially when the numbers are so small. If each of the UK’s 391 local authorities took just 51 individuals over the five years—that is about 10 families each—we would achieve the 20,000 target, and some are already planning to take five times that number.

Councils should be bold and take this opportunity to do the right thing. Those who are reluctant and cautious may be surprised by the support that they would receive from voters.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is talking with some pride about the many people who want to be of assistance in this unprecedented crisis, but does she agree that while some countries in the middle east are inundated with migrants, some nation states have not done anything to help? If we could see some of those nation states helping, that would certainly help people in the UK feel that everyone was putting their shoulder to the wheel to try to address this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

Helen Whately: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We all—the whole of Europe and of the middle east—need to be seen to be doing our part. Some countries have been particularly criticised for not taking more refugees. I have heard, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s name come up. I am aware of countries that are taking refugees but not making such a noise about it. Some of this may be a question of communication, with countries taking refugees but not calling them refugees and giving them resident status. Those refugees are being integrated, and they have family members with them. In some areas, the process is just not so visible. There is no question but that the countries in the region around Syria are taking enormous numbers of refugees and putting a lot of resource into supporting them.

The Government should take on the role of facilitating the sharing of expertise on taking in refugees. We have lots of expertise, but some areas may be taking refugees for the first time and will be doing their very best but might not know what the risks are. I would like to see the Government ensuring that we do the best we can across the country and providing more ongoing transparency about how well the resettlement programme is going. Mistakes can and almost inevitably will be made. There is a risk that the generous funding—it is a substantial amount of money—might not be spent in the best possible way. Any mistakes should be quickly identified and addressed, to ensure they are not repeated elsewhere.

My final questions for the Minister are as follows. What is being done to help councils to access people or organisations with the expertise to help them with the resettlement programme? How are the Government enabling the sharing of that expertise and information on what is already known about how to resettle refugees effectively? How are the Government monitoring the resettlement programme to identify how well it is going, to pick up any problems as they emerge and to celebrate the successes?

I want to emphasise that final point: we should celebrate success. We should feel proud that Britain is the second largest donor to refugees in and around Syria, where the British pound goes much further than

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it does here in the UK. We should feel proud that we are giving thousands of the most vulnerable refugees a chance of a new life in Britain. Kofi Annan recently told “Newsnight” that Britain’s “effective and smooth” approach is the right one. We should celebrate the councils and communities that are stepping up to take refugees and the charities and the volunteers who are helping, while encouraging all those who are reluctant or sceptical to support this thoughtful strategy. Britain rightly has a reputation as a compassionate country of opportunity that welcomes people from around the world. Some have doubted us recently, but we should make that a reality for 20,000 Syrians.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, it is perhaps worth pointing out that a number of Members are trying to catch my eye. While I am not keen on formal time limits, I would have thought five minutes is about right for most speeches, out of courtesy to one another.

2.52 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). She made an excellent speech, and I can happily say that I agree with everything she said. She has brought this important and serious topic to the House not only because we should be proud of what Britain has done but also because there are problems ahead that we need to address. The people of Kent and her local council need to be congratulated on what they have done.

I want to do something pretty rare: get up and congratulate a Home Office Minister on his performance. This could be the end of his career, but I want to commend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), for the work he has done in this area and for overseeing the one immigration target that the Government have actually managed to reach—certainly in the eight years that I have been Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. That target was the Prime Minister’s pledge, made in a full and open way, to ensure we have 1,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Britain by Christmas. The Minister did it, and he should be commended for doing so. Because of that success, our Committee will be pressing him even harder to ensure he delivers on the rest of the Prime Minister’s pledge.

We need to be conscious that this is not a crisis on its own. It is part of the most difficult crisis the European Union faces: the migration crisis. It is not going to get easier; it is going to get much worse. As we saw at the meeting in Brussels yesterday of EU Home Affairs Ministers, the crisis is dividing Europe and showing the fault lines that exist. There is a challenge to ensure that the overall refugee crisis and the migration crisis affecting the EU are seen in a much wider context than just what is happening in Syria.